AWW Feature: Christine Darcas, Muddled and American Down Under

Welcome Christine Darcas!

Today I am pleased to welcome Christine Darcas, who chooses to call Australia home despite being born in the US, to Book’d Out as part of my Australian Women Writers feature. Christine’s educational and professional background include a BA in Political Science and African Studies from Wesleyan University (US), famine relief work in Chad, a MBA from Cornell University (US), several years working in product management in New York City and a diploma in Creative Writing and Editing at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. She has raised her two children through her husband’s career moves from the US to Hong Kong, to France and finally to Melbourne, Australia where she now lives. Christine is also passionate about Ballroom and Latin American dancing after discovering it in her early 40s. She has been a Dancesport competitor, reaching the Latin American Masters I semi-finals of the Australian Dancesport Championships in 2007.

Christine Darcas has been published in Australia and overseas, her two novels, Dancing Backwards in High Heels (2008) and Spinning Out (2010) are both published by Hachette Australia.

Dancing Backwards in High Heels is the story of 42 year old Madeleine Hutchinson, newly arrived in Australia from America, struggling to cope with 2 children, a flagging marriage and an overwhelming sense of invisibility. Joining a Latin American dance class on a whim encourages Maddy to reclaim her identity but offers temptations that could see her lose everything. You can read my review, posted earlier today, HERE

In this guest post,  Christine explores the expatriate theme that is at the heart of both of her novels, read on …

Muddled and American Down Under

Us yanks can get a bit muddled in Australia. Mind you, it’s often our own fault. As Bill Bryson writes, ‘We [Americans] pay shamefully scant attention to our cousins Down Under.’ Whenever I’m Stateside and mention that I live in Australia, I hear a plethora of limited, albeit enthusiastic, perceptions that include marsupials, stunning coastlines, barbecues, beer, hunky men (a special nod to Hugh Jackman) and warm climates. Yet, these misperceptions are not one-sided. As not just an expatriate but as an American expatriate, I have found myself on the receiving end of some startling misperceptions as well. By the time I began writing Dancing Backwards in High Heels, I had the sensation of constantly thwarting American misperceptions of Australia and Australian misperceptions of America. Amused, and sometimes shocked, by some of the persistent generalisations I encountered, I wanted to create a mirror that reflected a more balanced reality while injecting some humour in the process.

The challenges of being an expatriate play a major role in Dancing Backwards in High Heels. It’s one of several themes that I address. Looking back, I wonder if my mid-40s was some sort of life stage when I needed to express the numerous ways in which I had found that reality differs from perception. By then, I had experienced a variety of different roles ranging from childless corporate executive, to executive mother, to stay-at-home mum, to expatriate stay-at-home-mum. By then, I also felt as though I had been fed a crock of myths. In fact, love is inescapably tough. Motherhood is a gift that is much harder than imagined. Financial security is a terrifying lifelong quest, and Happily Ever After is a matter of opinion. I realised that I had misperceived the demands of each role and that others misperceived them as well. In my writing, I wanted to toss out the crock and cook up a new one with a more genuine recipe.

So I created Madeleine, the book’s protagonist, as an American woman in her early 40s who abandoned her career to become a stay-at-home mum. By the time she follows her husband’s career transfer to Melbourne, she has already started to feel unexceptional. But the absence of familiarity and support that comes with living in a foreign country – even one that shares the language (well, mostly) and some cultural similarities with America – unmoors her.  She’s grasping to rediscover her individuality and understand what’s most important to her. Latin American dancing plays a major role in that self-discovery.

Does the book have autobiographical elements? Yes. Is it an autobiography? No. My life is hardly exciting enough to warrant an autobiography. I have taken issues that I have experienced or observed – and that I realised are shared by other women – and injected them with a good dose of fiction to make them more compelling and relevant.

But back to the expatriate theme.

Maddy often finds that the initial impression she makes depends on her American background rather than on who she is as an individual. Personally, I have often found this to be the case and it’s interesting how that phenomenon has varied according to American presidencies. I expect that I’ll make some Americans grumpy by saying that it was a challenge to be an American expat during the George W. years, but it was. Over 59 million Americans – nearly three times Australia’s population – did not vote for George W. in 2004 (myself amongst them). Still, the fact that Bush won the election coloured all of us. Repeatedly, I encountered the presumption that, as an American, I must surely embody the Bush Administration’s values. Given the international antagonism towards America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, this presumption could be unpleasant. Of the nearly 20 years that I’ve been an American expatriate, the Bush years were the period when I would respond to the question, ‘Are you American?’ by saying, ‘Yes. Please be nice.’

Up until a few years ago, I found that the perception of the expatriate American housewife carried its particular baggage as well. This tended to include the perception of being wealthy, demanding, indignant and shrill. Yet, like everyone else in the world, Americans and American expatriate housewives are individuals. Each one possesses their own values, hopes, dreams, weaknesses and strengths and their veneer may well mask the reality of the challenges they face.

Dancing Backwards in High Heels endeavours to show some of that individuality. But as much as I wanted the novel to provide more dimensions to the American expat, I wanted it to reveal some of Melbourne’s, and Australia’s, underestimated characteristics as well. As my awareness of Australia’s cultural depth and diversity has grown, so has my frustration that they aren’t more appreciated internationally. For example, I encounter few people outside of Australia who are aware of its extraordinary multiculturalism. Upon hearing about the extent of Australia’s participation, and sacrifice, in the international military theatre, people are often surprised. Indeed, I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that when confronted by an American, Australian, or any nationality for that matter, we should be suspicious of stereotypes and generalisations, and mindful of the possibility of our own ignorance.

With its emphasis on American and Australian contrasts, Dancing Backwards in High Heels is a product of my love for both countries. One is my cultural heritage. The other is my home.

Thank you Christine for your participation in this feature and your support of the AWW Challenge.

You can learn more about Christine Darcas via

Website I Facebook

Dancing Backwards In High Heels is available to purchase

via Booko

E-book @Amazon (Kindle) I @Kobo I @iBooks

Also Available

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