Allison's Book Bag

A Story Set in Pakistan

Posted on: January 27, 2015

Sixteen-year-old Emma’s happy life in the Philippines as a diplomat’s daughter ends abruptly when her father leaves the family and she is forced to move to a diplomatic compound in Pakistan. Upset at her father’s betrayal, her mother’s prolonged absences for work, and the confines of her new life, Emma struggles to find her place in yet another new country.

The above description comes from the inside jacket flap of Infidel in Paradise by S. J. Laidlaw. The book has won critical acclaim. Having lived most of her life overseas, Laidlaw draws on her own experiences to write an authentic tale of fiction. My review of Infidel in Paradise will appear tomorrow. Save the date: January 28!


Born in Pennsylvania, while her father was studying to be a psychiatrist at Friends Hospital, Laidlaw is the third of four siblings. She’s also the only one born in the States, which inspired her older brother to concoct fantasies about her tenuous right to live in Canada and the likelihood that someday she’d be deported. Despite his predictions, the family moved to Toronto when Laidlaw was three and she hasn’t been deported yet.

Laidlaw attended a small school. The class sizes were tiny and everyone in the whole school knew each other. Her mother was her first classroom teacher and for many years said it was that experience which convinced to give up being a teacher. Apparently, Laidlaw has a handful in the classroom. She also had a reading disability. From third grade on, all of her teachers not only tried to help her learn to read but they also insisted she was destined to be writer. Whether they saw a struggling student who needed extra encouragement or really believed in her talent Laidlaw doesn’t know, but says she hopes some of them read her books “because I’d like them to know whatever their plan was, it worked!”

SJLaidlawIn university, Laidlaw started out by studying journalism. When she realized that fiction was her passion, she switched instead to a degree in English. She also obtained an ESL certificate with the idea of going overseas to teach and write. Her first teaching job was in a girls’ school in Northern Nigeria, where she also met her husband. She fell in love with him, when he gave her a book by her favorite poet. When Laidlaw discovered she preferred talking to kids and helping them with their problems, she returned to Canada to do a Masters in Clinical Social Work.

Ever since, Laidlaw has been an adolescent counselor. Her next adventure was in Sweden, where she had her first son. When the government decided to cut the couple’s post in Sweden short, they found themselves next being sent to Russia.  There, Laidlaw did a lot of volunteer work with orphans and seniors, an experience she calls both rewarding and heartbreaking. After a short break, the couple eventually found themselves in Pakistan, the setting for Infidel in Paradise.

Through all these moves, Laidlaw continued to write. When working at a counseling center in Taiwan and writing articles on parenting, a colleague approached her and invited her to join a SCBWI critique group. Laidlaw wrote the first chapter of Infidel in Paradise in preparation for that group. A recurring theme in many of her stories is kids living in and adjusting to other cultures.


Despite the demonstrations and bombs in Infidel in Paradise, Laidlaw says she chose the setting because she honestly loved living in Pakistan. It was one of her favorite countries. At that time she resided there, around ten years ago, the danger was mainly from a small militant faction who would foment discontent among the poor. The vast majority of Pakistanis went out of their way to make the family feel welcome.

According to Laidlaw, the majority of Infidel in Paradise is true in one way or another. Laidlaw doesn’t view herself as an imaginative person. The main character of Emma is based on youth whom she has worked with over the years. Even some of the conversations Emma had in the story were based on ones Laidlaw had myself with Pakistani friends. Laidlaw also lived on the Canadian Compound, just like Emma. The compound was much as she described it, right up to the cobras in the yard that the guards really did shoot. Children also did pick through garbage behind their compound. In addition, the bombings and evacuations in the story happened while Laidlaw lived there. The frequent demonstrations and the way they were dealt with at the school is also factual. Basically, Laidlaw changed the timeline but not the details.

Laidlaw decided to have her main character be a child of a diplomat, because of her familiarity with them. For example, her eldest son was born in Sweden and has lived in Russia, Pakistan, Philippines, and Taiwan, before returning to Canada for college. She notes that while diplomat families face the same challenges as the average person, they also experience unique challenges too. Often they feel a profound sense of loss and alienation due to the constant moving. It’s hard for them to form deep attachments, when they know they’ll soon be moving on, or the object of their affection will be moving on. They rarely feel completely at home in the foreign country they’re living in, yet they don’t feel at home when they return to their country of origin either.

The second reason she wanted to have her main character be a child of a diplomat is that she believes that perspective is rarely reflected in literature. For example, her eldest son will say he’s Asian because his formative years were spent there, despite the fact he’s a blonde, green-eyed young person, with a Canadian passport.

Infidel in Paradise also touches on issues such as culture shock, divorce, danger, politics, and romance. Laidlaw recognizes that one challenge was explaining culture shock in a way that was both accessible and sympathetic to kids who haven’t experienced moving around. It was important for me to get this right, because so often the young people whom she works with feels that everyone thinks their nomadic lifestyle is glamorous, without realizing the grief that comes with having to pack up their entire lives every few years.

Another thing that was important to Laidlaw was to present a balanced perspective on Islam and cultural practices, like arranged marriage. Because Infidel in Paradise was a book for young adults, Laidlaw approached these issues from a teen perspective. For example, the main character of Emma falls for a boy who’s been promised in marriage to someone else.

Laidlaw says that most challenging balancing act was explaining the political dangers, from demonstrations to bombings, while at the same time showing the kindness and generosity of most Pakistanis. For that reason, has both terrifying experiences at the hands of fundamentalists and uplifting experiences from people who demonstrate kinship of the human spirit.


My notes about Laidlaw’s personal background come from her own website and a page called: biography.

My notes about the cultural background of An Infidel in Paradise come from three different sources:

To read first-hand accounts of the challenges of being a third-culture kid, check out the below sites:

Another excellent resource is TC Kids. This site is defines third-culture kids, shares news about them, and points out additional reading sources.

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