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“Being a foreigner is pretty good training for a writer”

Brittani Sonnenberg's been in Berlin for six years now… and that’s a record in the biography of the 33-year-old chronic expat. The Third Culture Kid and author of "Home Leave" can be seen at the Lit Fest on Wed, Sep 17 at Berliner Festspiele.

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Photo by Alex Trebus

Catch Author Brittani Sonnenberg at the International Literature Festival at Haus der Berliner Festspiele on Wednesday, September 17 at 6pm.

Brittani Sonnenberg’s been in Berlin for six years now… and that’s a record in the biography of the 33-year-old chronic expat. Born in Hamburg with American parents, she was raised across three continents and worked as a journalist in Germany, China and Cambodia. Her debut novel Home Leave is based on her own experiences of growing up as a “Third Culture Kid” (TCK), a child raised moving around different cultures outside her parents’ own. A topic cut out for Exberliner – read our chat with the author, and don’t miss her Literature Festival talk “What is home?” on Wednesday, September 17 at 6pm.

Why did you want to tell this story?

The material had been working its way up in my consciousness for a long time. I’ve been writing mostly short stories before, and they were fairly far away from my own experience of living overseas, in Singapore and Shanghai, and the loss of my sister during that time. I felt that I kept returning to these themes, so I started off writing a memoir, that felt a little flat… I wasn’t so convinced of it. Then I tried again in the novel form, and it felt a lot more dynamic and challenging.

This book is obviously autobiographical  how closely did you stick to your own life/experience?

Well… a lot of the basic facts are true, but I will say that my mother never had an affair with a British guy in Thailand, I totally made that up! [Laughs] Strangely enough there are times now where I think back on my life and I have this experience of sentences coming from the book, and I can’t remember if they’re actually memories or if they’re just memories or scenes I created. And that’s strange, not to know myself.

You describe how much class privilege changes with location. In America the kids wore Walmart clothes because their father didn’t work, whereas in Singapore they all of a sudden had a maid. What is your own experience of this?

I didn’t phrase it to myself as a 13-year-old, obviously, but there was a weird compensation when we moved to Shanghai, they called it something like “hardship leave”, a vacation where you just go to beautiful places four times a year, in exchange for having to live in Shanghai. It’s a strange kind of currency, to be like “well we feel alienated and miss home, but man, these business-class airplane seats feel comfortable!” I think there were things I really enjoyed when they were happening and then I felt guilty about them. It felt like our family had managed to float above things in those countries. There’s a really large gap between the money most Chinese had compared to what expats had.

How does it feel to live in a gated community?

I felt we weren’t deserving it and also that we didn’t really live there, we were sort of hovering above the ocean in between China and Singapore and the US, but I also felt ambivalent as to what to do about it. There is a scene in the book when Leah calls her parents “neocolonial alcoholics”, but she’s drinking at the same time… It wasn’t like I went: “from now on we’re never going to a fancy restaurant again, we’re eating in noodle stalls!” I was sort of lecturing my parents about it but still enjoying the benefits. I wasn’t apolitical but also not involved in political movements. But I’ve always felt like questioning nation states and what it means to belong to a culture.

Foreignness is a central theme in Home Leave. Somehow it becomes an identity: When third culture kids return to the States, they feel lost, but they also miss being foreign.

Yes, when I lived in the States again, I strangely didn’t have the savvy that I had as a foreigner. Even though I looked like and spoke like I should know plenty, I still felt at a loss. For example, we were totally missing out on pop culture references as kids when we went back in the summer. And I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 28 or so. All my friends in the States learned that when they were 15, but I couldn’t drive in Singapore or Shanghai. There was a point where I wanted to be different, I wanted to be someone who didn’t drive… and I think that can be dangerous sometimes, to praise the differentness or specialness, because I think it can be a crutch to lean on instead of maybe making connections with people, or trying hard in a new place.

Don’t you think any typical 15-year old would sometimes feel loneliness and lack of belonging…

Yes, even now sometimes I think I may be quick to jump on that, like “If I would have grown up in one place I would be more stable, I wouldn’t have these questions…”

What challenges do TCKs typically face?

Settling and finding belonging, and also accepting that you’re going to have that feeling everywhere, of not being complete in any one place. That can be quite painful, it still can be for me. That Sehnsucht or Heimweh – I think you have to learn how to have a dialogue with it, instead of letting it drive you impulsively the whole time. Writing helps…

What are some benefits you have gained from your TCK experience?

It can feel quite adventurous. I love the feeling of anonymity, the exploration, and just watching everything around me. I think that being a foreigner is pretty good training for a writer.

When Leah ends up in Berlin, she notes that the city’s “schizophrenic struggle was familiar”… Was it like this for you: some places feel spontaneously closer, more familiar than others?

I think having the experience of the loss of someone so close to me as a teenager, I did feel there were certain cultures that I lived in, like in China or in Cambodia, or Germany, that had gone through deeply traumatic national experiences, that involved guilt, grief, conflict, confusion and depression.. I felt a lot of reckoning of all those things, whereas America sometimes felt really glossed over to me. I didn’t feel that I could access that kind of things there.