Author Jill Alexander Essbaum talks about expat wives miles from home
The thought of expat life can leave some feeling greatly excited about life in a new place coupled with a desire to discover a new country and culture. But for others, the reality of it is far from dream-like. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel Hausfrau chronicles the unravelling of Anna Benz, an American living in Zurich with her husband and small children. Anna is a stranger in an isolated Swiss world and nothing – not language classes or the love of her children – makes her feel whole. We sit down with the author to speak about her work and how her feelings of loneliness and displacement abroad inspired her bestselling novel.
You were an expat in Switzerland, just like Anna. Is the book autobiographical? We share distinct similarities. We were both displaced and alienated. Like Anna, I took long walks, rode trains and cried a lot. We both had no purpose. Unlike Anna, my feelings of isolation inspired me creatively rather than inducing me to act out. Anna got caught in a downward spiral. Our stories end differently because I leave the country, but she doesn’t.
What’s the background to your Swiss adventure? I moved from the US to Switzerland, where my then-husband was studying, nine years ago. I went into the adventure with great expectations. I wanted to meet local people and learn the language. But I quickly became disillusioned. Switzerland is a phenomenally beautiful country and the Swiss are lovely, but very reserved, people and it’s hard to get to know them. But it’s not because they are unfriendly. The language is just so difficult to learn. And when you don’t know it, you can only get so far. There are only so many things you can point at, right? Swiss-German is a mysterious tongue; it’s not a dialect. And Switzerland doesn’t belong to the EU, it doesn’t use the euro and it’s surrounded by the Alps. There is a very distinct sense of isolation there and I was very aware of my foreignness.
How did you begin writing this novel? Once I returned to the States, I spent months mulling over the story. I’m a poet, but this was a huge task. I began writing it in the first person, but it wasn’t working because I’m not Anna. Once I switched to the third person and the character was more distant, I could put her into situations that would see her engage in risky behaviour. This is an extremely lonely woman living in an extreme environment acting out in extreme ways – like a rubber band being stretched. At some point, she’d be bound to break. This became the plot and the climax of the story. The other bits formed around it.
Do you miss life abroad? It may sound cliché, but I left parts of myself in Switzerland. I think all expats leave a part of themselves in their guest country. My life is now entirely different. I’m no longer married to the same man. I’m happy, but there must be some reason that I have nine framed photos of Dietlikon, Switzerland on my office’s walls… Dhs65. Book World by Kinokuniya, The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai, www.kinokuniya.com (04 434 0111).
Three expat social groups to join in Dubai
Expat Woman Visit the website, which has plenty of information for women who are new to the UAE and other popular destinations. It offers information on all areas of expat life and the group hosts regular events including coffee morning meet-ups and mum and baby get-togethers. www.expatwoman.com/dubai
The Expats Club – Dubai 35 Plus This Meetup group is open to expats of all nationalities. The group holds regular networking and social events for over 35s. Events are kept small so people can mingle. Join the group by filling in their online questionnaire. www.meetup.com/The-Dubai-35plus-socialising-club
InterNations This network acts as a guide for expats, offering information and forums on the day-to-day aspects of life abroad, such as the cost of living. They also organise events where expats from the same country can meet, as well as mixed international events. www.internations.org/dubai-expats/guide