I first encountered Isabel Huggan at a writing week in Kingston, Ontario, and met her again some weeks later in Gigiri, Nairobi, whereupon this generous woman kindly invited me into a friendship that has lasted 34 years. With admiration, I later read her stories set in Kenya, included in her second collection, You Never Know (Viking Penguin 1993). The work of Huggan’s partner took them from Kenya to the Philippines, and eventually they settled in France, a home she has written about in Belonging (Knopf 2003). While in France, she wrote several pieces for Canadian Writers Abroad (links below). She now lives in Canada.
CWA: Where were you ten years ago?
Huggan: In the winter of 2012, a year after my husband of 40 years had died of myeloma, I travelled from France to Kenya where I scattered some of his ashes in a cemetery with a view of Mount Kenya. Bob had had a long association with that country dating back to his National Service days, and we had lived there together with our daughter from 1987 to 1990. At that point (2012), we had been living in France since 1998, but Bob had continued to work in Nairobi as a consultant from time to time and we still had good friends there. Our years in East Africa were important to us for many reasons – for me, it was the first venturing out from the comfortable confines of Ottawa, and it opened my head and heart in ways that changed me forever. Two stories I wrote during those years – slightly cynical about the expatriate life – are still among my favourites: “Skin the Colour of Money” and “Losing Face” (in my second collection, You Never Know).
I should add that those three years resulted in friendships that have endured ever since, several Kenyan, English and Canadian women with whom I maintain close ties – Debra Martens being a chief example!
CWA: Do you have a tip for a writer contemplating a move abroad?
Huggan: I have no specific tips about living abroad because each situation is so different, depending not only on the country to which one moves but also the reason for going and the length of stay, the type of work, whether learning another language is essential, whether one is alone or with a partner, and of course whether there are children along. Add to this the particular temperament of each expat individual and you can see why I hesitate to make specific suggestions.
I guess I could say the following: if you expect to return to your home country/province/city, you can make your re-entry much easier by doing whatever you can to maintain relationships you value with friends and family as well as with work colleagues and medical and dental professionals. Email and WhatsApp make it easy nowadays to keep your connections in place for the future. You need to acknowledge that for people back home, you are now “out of sight/out of mind” so put extra effort into remembering birthdays or anniversaries to keep the fire of friendship lit.
One more thing: don’t assume people back home will be interested in the cultural or geographic experience you are having abroad; and if you are in a warm climate, do not mention weather during the winter. On the other hand, never complain about where you are: you will be thought of as “lucky” no matter what your situation abroad, and any moaning will be regarded as bad form.
CWA: How has living abroad affected your career?
Huggan: Interesting question. Without a doubt, agreeing to accompany my husband when he was sent to Kenya (and then to France and after that to the Philippines, before settling in France) has had enormous impact on my writing career, for both good and bad. First of all, as the years passed abroad, we increasingly saw ourselves as “international Canadians” – that is, representative of our country’s values but part of a community larger than one nation. As I’ve said in other essays, having constantly to say where I was “from” – not American, Belgian or Welsh – I believe I was more aware of my Ontario roots than I would have been had I stayed home. And so that definitely informed my writing – point of view, choice of material, etc. My outlook was broadened, my understanding of human nature was deepened, and my sense of where I am from was enhanced – all good. And I never would have written Belonging: Home Away from Home if we hadn’t bought the old stone house in the foothills of the Cévennes.
On the other hand, not being available to participate in writerly activities back home – not visiting schools, reading for bookclubs, taking part in local writing groups or in literary festivals, or acting as a prize juror. Slowly, over the years, given my age and stage and diminished output (due to a number of factors), my name as a writer is less known now than if I’d been “home” and continued to be involved. Although I worked as a mentor for the Humber School for Writers for 20 years, those days are over. I’m an older woman who has been AWAY and I accept the consequences with grateful good humour. Being forgotten does not mean I do not write: but my expectations for publishing have changed a good deal since I left the country. There is a new wind blowing strong across the literary landscape.
- “Writing Spaces: Isabel Huggan” (on her writing space in France), in The New Quarterly .
- Huggan, “Curiosity,” in Brick (83, June 2009), on visiting a nun.
- Huggan reviews And Then There Were Nuns by Jane Christmas in “Get Thee to a Nunnery.”
- “Within These Walls.” Huggan reviews Strangers in the House by Candace Savage in the Literary Review of Canada (April 2020).
- Huggan writing for Canadian Writers Abroad: London 1966 (2014), Interview at Le Mas Blanc (2012) and her poem, “Sunflowers” (2016).
- Debra Martens reviews books by Isabel Huggan, “Making Home.”
- “The Long Route to Le Mas Blanc: A Writing Retreat in the South of France,” by Lindy Mechefske in The New Quarterly (Spring 2013).
- Ten Years Ago on Canadian Writers Abroad: Sara Jeanette Duncan Parts One and Two.
Author photo by Eric Bennett.
Winter header photo is of skating rinks on Bass Lake near Orillia; it and photos of trilliums taken by Isabel Huggan.