Read This: The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One of the best things about reading memoir is the opportunity to discover and learn from life stories. How would we act in a similar situation? What can we take away when learning from these lives? 

Such is the case with an extraordinary new memoir by author Jill Kandel (whom our wandering educators will remember from our interview with her about her book So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village).

The Clean Daughter is a deeply interesting, intercultural, extremely thoughtful dive into a cross-cultural marriage and family, and how tangled cultures can be when juxtaposed. Any marriage is complicated, but one where two people grew up speaking different languages and abiding by different cultural codes presents unique challenges. Insert a demanding father-in-law – a healthy man who inexplicably decides to end his life by means of legalized euthanasia – and all the divergent, customs, laws, and rules seem insurmountable.

Read This: The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir

The unflinching honesty of Kandel’s masterly writing is the star here. Rarely do we get a glimpse into decades of intercultural living—and differences. And yet, after an incomprehensible decision, she seeks answers for herself, surrounding these (and other) big questions:

Did life have value in and of itself? Is anything sacred?
Are there any limits? Should there be? 

From family history to the choices we make when pursuing an intercultural life, Kandel’s search for truth grows into “valuing mercy, extending grace,”which she extends to her father-in-law…and herself. It’s an impressive look at intercultural and personal relationships, and encourages us all to learn, be aware, and practice both grace and mercy. 

The Clean Daughter is a story about building family across cultural, linguistic, and geographical divides. The complicated ways families both destroy and heal one another underpin Kandel’s story of a family held together by tenacity, curiosity, and courage.

Highly, highly recommended. 

Memoirist Jill Kandel began writing at the age of forty, winning both the Autumn House Nonfiction Prize and the Sarton Women’s Literary Award for her first book So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village. Writing is her way of making sense of a life lived on four continents and a cross-cultural marriage that has lasted over forty years.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Kandel, and ask about her new book, inspiration, and more. Here’s what she had to say…

Author Jill Kandel. From Read This: The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir
Please tell us about your new book, The Clean Daughter...
The Clean Daughter is the story of two people who grow up speaking different languages, thousands of miles apart, and decide at the age of twenty-five that marrying and living abroad would be just grand! I’d grown up in North Dakota. Johan, in the Netherlands. How hard could it be? We loved each other.

While the book follows Johan and I from the Netherlands to a tiny village on the edge of the Kalahari in Zambia, and from the U.K. to working with coffee farmers in the remote mountains of Sumatra, Indonesia, it circles around my relationship with my father-in-law, Izaak. Johan adored his father; I didn’t understand him at all. He was a pastor with a fondness for prestige, protocol, and punctuality. How do you build family across linguistic, cultural, and geographical divides when a taciturn father-in-law seems to disagree with all of your actions?

What inspired you to write this book?
In 2008, my father-in-law’s decision to end his life by legalized euthanasia in the Netherlands absolutely floored me. Izaak didn’t have a terminal diagnosis. He wasn’t in pain. He drove, preached, went to concerts, lived on his own. We didn’t think he’d get permission. But he did. 

After Izaak died, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. When I started having nightmares about him, I knew we had unfinished business. If I were ever to come to terms with my father-in-law and who we had been, I’d have to go back and write about it. Flannery O’Connor famously said, “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.” That’s about how it is with me. 

I spent the next five years studying, reading, going back to the Netherlands to do research. I was following my own questions. Who had my father-in-law been? What did it mean to be a daughter-in-law? How do you build a family across cultures and continents? I wrote searching for my own answers. For peace and for understanding. 

When I wrote an essay about my cross-cultural marriage and my relationship with Izaak. It was published in The Missouri Review, and I thought I was done with the writing. As the months passed, I still couldn’t stop thinking and circling around the complexities of travel, language, euthanasia, WWII, and my Dutch family. I continued writing and that essay became the backbone of The Clean Daughter.

One of the things that most resonated with me in your book is the utter complexity of intercultural living. What are the joys and challenges of writing about your intercultural family and life?
This is the first time I’ve written about living in Pondok Gajah on the island of Sumatra. It was a joy to go back and remember those three years, the colorful markets full of exotic fruits, spices, vegetables, sweets, and so many things that were new to me. Just thinking about that Sumatran food made me hungry! Writing about those years brought back friends and neighbors in a tangible way. I could almost feel the warm monsoon rains and hear the distant calls of the mosques. Memory in itself can bring happiness. Writing about happy memories brings a deep joy.

The challenge in writing so many cultures—or the fear—is in getting it wrong. This is particularly difficult when memory mixes with languages which aren’t your mother tongue. I didn’t want to misrepresent the various countries and peoples that had been a part of my life. 

Writing about family often confronts my own perceptions. My husband remembers something differently than I do. My sister-in-law has a different take than my brother-in-law. Memoir always boils down to the viewpoint of the writer. I want to write with generosity and kindness. I try not to be didactic. Honesty, in memoir, can be hurtful. There’s always a person who will see things differently. This is the nature of memoir. It makes it both gloriously personal and a landmine of “that didn’t happen that way!”.  

I particularly thankful for my sister-in-law, Andrea. She and I walked a lot of miles together, both trying to understand our relationships with her father. It was invaluable to have her read my manuscript and talk to hear about all things Dutch. Through the writing, reading and discussions, we became very good friends. I’m grateful for that. 

What do you hope readers take away from your memoir?
I can’t think of a better outcome then that a book makes people think, question, and talk. I’d love readers to take new interest in their communities—people from other countries or backgrounds— and begin to appreciate what an enriching, wonderful thing it is to live with varied languages, foods, and ideas. To see people’s different backgrounds as a vibrancy to explore, not something to shy away from. 

I’d like people to fall into the The Clean Daughter and let it move them. Story allows us to put aside our tightly held beliefs and enter into another life. To see an idea from a different viewpoint. I hope my writing gives people pause to consider how another person might think or act in a differing way. I hope it will generate discussion on some universal subjects such as relating to in-laws, being ‘different’, being ‘other’, being misunderstood, being an immigrant, being an expatriate, finding home. I hope this book will generate many good conversations and open doors between people. 

What's up next for you?
Much of my time and energy is still focused on The Clean Daughter. If nobody hears about the book nobody will read it! When you publish with a small or university press, there isn’t staffing or money to do much promo. A lot of that work is up to the author. I’ve put five years into writing this book, so the next step is to put about a good amount of time into doing readings, interviews, podcasts. 

Besides this, what I’m most interested to explore next is my Danish roots. My father was one hundred percent Danish. My grandparents left their home culture, language, lifestyle, and family. I’m curious how that affected my father. I know very little about Danish culture. Nothing of the language, music, politics, or food. Yet, these are my people. It is intriguing to me how so many families left their cultures behind when they immigrated to the US in the late 1800s. What does that do to a people? Who are you when you turn your back on your past and start a new life? Who do you become when your family foundation shifts? 

Where can people find your work?
You can find me at I blog – old school, I know! – about writing, life, intercultural living. You can watch the book trailers there or buy signed copies of my books. I’m on Instagram: jill_kandel and on Facebook: Jill Kandel

I’d like to add a personal request for people who love books. Write that Goodreads review! Write that Amazon review! Post a photo. Tell people on FB what you are reading, and tag the author. Share with a friend. All these little things change the way a book launches into this big, beautiful world and make a huge difference in the life of a book.  

Is there anything else you'd like to share?
The most frequent question I’m asked is about the title of the book. Why is it called The Clean Daughter? I’d like to end with a small section from the book that explains the title. 

The Clean Daughter, page 14 – 15.
“I’m new to the Dutch language, but I do know a few words. Schoon is the Dutch word for clean. Vader is the Dutch word for father. With my limited knowledge of Dutch, I take the word schoonvader and transpose it in my mind to its literal meaning, clean father. I find it slightly disconcerting. As if my own father were somehow not clean. To distinguish between these two men, will my father now be the dirty father, in the old-fashioned sense of dirty, as involved in my conception? If so, then Izaak is the clean father, a father, albeit, without the intimacy of procreation. Or perhaps it is clean as in new. He’s the new father, the starting-over-father, the one who offers us both a new beginning. 

I continue this same line of thought, transposing daughter-in-law, schoondochter, to clean daughter. I think it’s funny in and of itself. I’m not exactly known to be fastidious. 
Years later, when I’m studying the Dutch language, I read that the word schoon not only means clean, it also means beautiful. Dutch is the only language in the world where clean and beautiful are the exact same word. It makes perfect sense that those overly cleanly and artistic Dutch would make this linguistic connection. Perhaps, I’m not the clean daughter, but the beautiful daughter. 

And then, even later still, after decades of marriage, I say something off-handedly to Johan about being a clean daughter. 

“What are you talking about?” he asks me. 

“Clean daughter,” I say. “Daughter-in-law. You know. Schoondochter. 

Johan gets the strangest look on his face. He’s trying to understand. Then slowly it dawns on him. 

“That’s really funny, Jill!” he replies. 


“No Dutch person would ever put those words together. It’s a literal translation, but we wouldn’t think of it that way. It’s just daughter-in-law.” 

I’m incredulous, but his sister has the same reaction when I talk with her. She laughs and says, “That’s kind of cute.” 

I’ve thought of myself as a clean daughter for over twenty years and am being told the image is of my own making, a figment of my imagination. I think about this for weeks, baffled at first, and then a strange thing happens. A friend gets new cupboards. 

“Cool,” I say, and ask what color and what kind of wood. I don’t think of the words separately. I don’t think of cup. I don’t think of board. I only think of a cupboard, an entity in and of itself. Compound words are common in the English language. Honeymoon. Sweetheart. Thunderstorm. Lifetime. Bedroom.

As I think about them, I begin to understand, in a new way, that I’m not a clean daughter. I never was. Nor am I a beautiful daughter. And yet, I built a part of my identity upon these figments. What else in this, my cross-cultural and international life and marriage, have I built upon misconception when even the common words I use are so fraught with misunderstanding?” 

Read This: The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir