I first came to Stockholm as a bright-eyed, nineteen-year-old New Yorker with my Swedish boyfriend. We married nine years later and I’ve lived here since 1997, minus a 5-year spell when we were back in the US for my husband’s job. Living this expat life has been exciting, interesting, and inspiring–as well as frustrating, confusing, and conflicting. However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else and am so grateful my husband coaxed me out of my comfort zone. As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, I’m familiar with the challenges of combining two different cultures and have built up a strong reservoir of resilience and adaptability. I choose to focus on the positives and the potential for growth in every situation. That’s not to say I don’t have issues; my husband and kids can certainly attest to my Swedish pet peeves and #shakingmyhead moments!
Nevertheless, I’ve been reluctant to explore the expat experience in my own fiction. I think this stems from my preferred strategy of staying positive, both as a coping mechanism and an awareness my life as a foreigner in Sweden is removed from a great deal of the stresses and stigmas many newcomers face. However, I can still relate. Half a century ago, my Haitian parents endured prejudice in America and my upbringing was tainted by racist incidents and the burden of constantly having to prove myself. Thanks to their hard work and sacrifices, I came to Sweden with an American passport, a college degree, and the facility for learning a new language. My Swedish fiancé had already paved the road and my arrival was greeted with acceptance, not suspicion.
I feel a sense of loyalty towards Sweden out of love for my husband, respect for the country where he was born and raised, and an obligation to the place where we have chosen to bring up our dual-nationality, bi-racial, multi-cultural kids. Stockholm has been too close to home, both physically and psychologically. But I’ve come to wonder if this approach prevents critical thinking and objectivity? Sweden–like a character in any book–should be multi-dimensional, imbued with virtues and flaws. A blemished character is much more complex and realistic than a spotless one. Denying that complexity is disingenuous and minimizes the impact. Many Swedish friends have urged me to write about my observations and interactions. However, I’ve always feared borrowing too heavily from real-life would be predictable and might unintentionally offend. A roman à clef has never been my style and I doubt I can write one as skillfully–and scandalously–as Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada or Truman Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers.
My daughter will start college in the US this fall and I’ve been thinking back to my journey from New York to Stockholm. Those first few years were tough: the long, dark winters; short, dicey summers; sporadic loneliness; professional malaise; homesickness… Yet, I persevered and built a supportive network of close friends. I’ve also tried to raise my kids with the American, Haitian, and Swedish values I hold dear. Through it, my husband’s love and encouragement have been steadfast. He backed my desire to write whole-heartedly and is my biggest cheerleader.
Being an expat has occasionally forced me to turn inwards as a strategy to handle bouts of alienation and reboot after adversity. I was uncomfortable revisiting those struggles in my writing. But after 20+ years, I’ve finally gained a hard-earned perspective and inner strength; I feel ready to make Sweden the backdrop for my next book. I’m hoping to weave the expat framework in an intriguing way while still touching on the intersectionality of being an American woman-of-color in a European country. I read Nella Larsen’s Quicksand in college and connected with the novel’s cross-cultural and interracial themes, along with Larsen’s courage for writing so close to her own life as the offspring of a Danish mother and African-American father. My next book is NOT semi-autobiographical, but contemplating the characters and scenes has triggered many memories.
Spring has finally arrived in Stockholm; city parks and streets are abloom with cherry blossoms and magnolias. Restaurants and cafés are full of outdoor patrons enjoying the season’s first glass of rosé. The sun shines high in the sky as the hours edge towards Midsummer when it will never fully set. Stockholm is buzzing and the drawn-out, gloomy winter has become a distant memory. I think that’s the secret to living in Sweden: the possibility of a bright day makes up for all the gray ones.