Interview with Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore, Author of “This Messy Mobile Life”

Interview with Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore, Author of "This Messy Mobile Life" | Multicultural Kid Blogs

I met Mariam through her blog, And Then We Moved To, but we only met in person in 2018, when we both attended the Families in Global Transitions Conference, which just so happened to take place in The Hague, where I live. We would later meet a second time when she visited The Netherlands to promote her book, “This Messy Mobile Life. How a MOLA can help globally mobile families create a life by design.” I was immediately smitten with the thoughtful and unique way Mariam handled the very complex topic of being an expat, raising multicultural and multilingual children, and her own experience growing up in the US and Pakistan.

This is why it’s my biggest pleasure to interview Mariam for MKB’s author interview series.

Mariam’s Journey to Authorship

O.M. You started your writing career as a blogger (on And Then We Moved To), and then started contributing to various magazines, until you wrote your own book. How was that transition from blogger to writer to author for you?

M.N.O.That’s correct. In many ways, it felt like a natural progression to first build up a readership and establish your brand, then pitch to other magazines and websites to start writing for them and eventually author your first book and establish your own voice as an authority. This journey from blog to brand to book was not without its challenges of course. Often it meant learning on the go through trial and error and making mistakes along the way. It required constantly being outside of your comfort zone and acknowledging this is where the growth happens and giving yourself permission to figure things out along the way. 

Multicultural Life

O.M. How does being multilingual and multicultural affect your writing?

M.N.O. Both are definitely a big influence in my writing. For as long as I can remember, I have straddled my multiculturalism by having one foot in the East and the other in the West. By growing up bilingually in both the US and in Pakistan, I was fascinated at how the same news was reported differently in Urdu and in English. Initially this would feel like opposing forces pulling me in different directions and I would feel like the perfect chameleon, changing my colors depending on which part of the world I’m in.

In the East, I would start my mornings with a strong cup of chai and breakfast on spicy omelettes and parathas. I would sit cross-legged on the floor, eat with my hands, and instinctively cover my head with a dupatta when I heard the call to prayer ring out through the neighborhood mosque.

In the West, I was more attuned to my own needs. I would start my mornings with a cafe latte or an espresso, breakfast on granola and yoghurt, walk to work and relish my alone time. In my head, I would feel perfectly at home in both, but when I was in one or the other for extended periods of time, the cracks soon began to appear on the surface. The questions would start again in my head and I would wonder: “Am I belonging in one, while erasing the other?”

But it took the beginning of my multicultural marriage (my husband is half German, half Italian) and the arrival of motherhood (my three kids are born in Singapore, Dubai, and Lisbon)  to allow me to truly embrace my multicultural and multilingual background and to realize I didn’t need to fight one or embrace the other: the East and West both live inside of me and in our family, so expressing that plurality of identity through my writing has definitely helped in showing others how it is possible to belong to many cultures and languages at the same time. 

Being a Multicultural Author

O.M. Does being an expat influence your writing? 

M.N.O. It does. I have spent my forty years living in ten countries and four continents and each experience has added an extra lens through which I view the world. Primarily, it is this paradox of being an outsider and an insider and assessing any culture from both perspectives. Of belonging a little bit to many places but not completely to any one place. Of writing about all the wonderful things we gain when we move to a new country, but not forgetting to write about all the things we also lose when we leave a place behind. It has led me to become passionate about writing multidimensional characters and of switching points of view inside one character itself. You’ll find more of this in my new fiction novel-in-the-works which features the voices of three strong expat women.  

“Expats” and “Migrants”

O.M. Your perspective on expat matters is so unique. For example, in one of your articles you featured “The other expat,” the ones we don’t talk about much. Can you tell us more about this? What drew you to writing this story?

M.N.O. Thank you so much. As someone who straddles many cultures, I was frustrated at seeing expat magazines and reading expat websites because it seemed the word “expat” only referred to the wealthy, well-off, Western, white experience of moving abroad. But they didn’t feature nearly enough the brown, black and other voices. At the time, I was living in Dubai and nowhere was this disparity in terms of language used to describe mobility more apparent than in the UAE. In Dubai, an “expat” always meant a wealthy British executive working for a multinational but never a Pakistani gardener, an Indian construction worker, a Bangladeshi taxi driver or a Filipino maid. So I became interested in the lives of these “other expats” who had also moved for work and for better economic opportunities. They were called “migrants” and I was called an “expat”, but if you scratched underneath the surface of our socio-economic disparity, we actually faced many similar experiences whether it was culture shock, transition, learning a new language, or living away from our families etc. 

I was determined to bring the voices of these “other” expats to the global stage and did so by presenting their stories (told in their own voices) at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in The Hague, Netherlands in 2018. My writing on the topic garnered interest from many corners of the expat world and I was pleased that we were finally broadening the umbrella of global mobility by including the “other” expats as well and trying to find commonalities in our experiences. My wish is that the same happens with the refugee experience as well in 2023 and beyond. 

This Messy Mobile Life

O.M. How was the book writing process for you?

M.N.O. Writing non-fiction definitely felt like my natural forte due to my academic and research background. I actually really enjoyed the methodical way in which I wrote “This Messy Mobile Life”. The only stressful part in the book writing process was dealing with the unpredictability of expat life. As it turned out, halfway through writing the book, I made another international move with my family as we left Dubai and moved to Accra, Ghana.

Initially I was worried that this would set me behind in my writing deadlines, but in reality, living a messy mobile life while writing about a messy mobile life was probably the best thing that could have happened in the book writing process. Because it meant that as I was writing about the mess, I was also living through it too. The writing in chapter 5 became raw as I described my first impressions of living in this beautiful corner of West Africa. It still gives me goosebumps because the culture shock was immense and my readers get to read it through my unfiltered newcomers perspective and feel all those emotions with me. 

Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore, Author of "This Messy Mobile Life" | MKB
Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore

The Modern Expat Family

O.M. Your book connects multilingualism, multimobility, and multiculturalism in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else. How did you come up with this idea?

M.N.O. To be honest, I was tired of reading about expatriation through only one simplistic perspective. 

Where two people from the same (usually Western) country move abroad and then repatriate after many years. The modern expat family was more complex; it was multicultural as partners were often from different parts of the world, it was multilingual as there were often two to three languages spoken at home and in their communities and it was multimobile where children in the same family were born in different countries and were growing up in several other countries. 

So where were all the books on the new generation we were raising who belong to multiple cultures, speak multiple languages and have multiple identities? When I couldn’t find it, I decided to write about it myself. This Messy Mobile Life is definitely a celebration of our multicultural selves as it allows us to show the layers of our complex life design to those around us. 

O.M. Is there anything you’d like to add?

M.N.O. I’d just like to thank the Multicultural Kid Blogs (MKB) community for being such a valuable and supportive part of my writing community. I was an editor on the MKB editorial team which helped me learn a lot in the early days. And of course, several MKB writers shared their multicultural stories in my book and have been generous in their support of it. There is immense power in sharing our stories and I am grateful for this space that allows us to show up as our authentic selves.

See “This Messy Mobile Life” on Amazon

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MKB Interviews Aditi Wardhan Singh, Author of “Within”

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Olga Mecking

Olga Mecking is a writer, journalist and translator. Her articles have been published in The BBC, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and many others. Olga is also the author of Niksen. Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing When not writing or thinking about writing, Olga can be found reading, drinking tea, and reading some more.
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