In Conversation with Elizabeth Enslin

Welcome to the Conversations Series, a series of in-depth interviews with travel writers around the themes of quest, home, exile, identity, place, and craft. Elizabeth Enslin has spent a lifetime examining the relationships between people and places as well as cultures and landscapes. A trained anthropologist, she found herself in Nepal during her college years to work on a project, in love with a Nepali. She married, raised a family, and became a part of the community, an insider and outsider at the same time. But these relationships that bloomed in Nepal were planted much earlier, in Elizabeth's childhood, when she sought ways to become closer to the earthiness and intimacy of life through observation: one can almost picture her as a teenager, lying on the ground, listening for signs, watching the interplay of the natural world of animals and people as she found her place in it.

Her way of looking at the world is about exploring ways to live in relationship with the wild mess of life rather than trying to rise above it. In her travel memoir of her life in Nepal, While the Gods Were Sleepingshe shows her struggles of trying to follow this quest of looking for symbiosis, not just for herself, but for the people she comes to call family. Read on for a interview with Elizabeth that dives deep into what it means to not just be a traveler, researcher, or writer, but what it means to be human--as well as an intimate exploration of how we can define a place by the way we choose to experience, write, and read about it.
 

I wanted to take people on a journey that turned inward—not just into personal reflections, but also into the unexpected, non-touristy places: a family, a nondescript village, a women’s campaign for a meeting place. I wanted to meditate on something I think more and more about these days: how sometimes we learn the most my not by moving, but by staying put for awhile, trying to make our home in a particular place, and working through conflicts and discomforts.
— Elizabeth Enslin
                                      Photo: courtesy Elizabeth Enslin  

                                      Photo: courtesy Elizabeth Enslin
 

AGA: Before we even begin, I do want to address the devastating situation in Nepal. I feel like it's important as your book is about a place that has changed so much recently due to natural disaster. How do you feel about Nepal and what are your suggestions as to ways we can respond to it?

EE: I’m still trying to get my mind and heart around the overall devastation and loss. Chitwan District, where I lived in the plains, experienced little damage. Yet many Chitwan residents have relatives who live in Kathmandu Valley, Gorkha and other earthquake-stricken regions. And I suspect that Chitwan, like other districts in the plains, will see an influx of earthquake refugees.

Of course, as a writer, I’ve been pondering what my book and various essays on Nepal mean when people need tarps and tin roofs, rice and lentils, bandages, and helicopters to deliver them all. Without being on the ground in Nepal, it’s hard to write much that feels properly respectful and relevant right now.

It seems a good time for those of us from afar to listen, follow updates from trusted sources and do our best to understand all the complexities without rushing to judgment or fueling rumors.

Beyond donating money, I think one of the most important things people can do is to learn more about Nepal, to put some context around our emotions. Read about the rich histories and cultures that still live on there. Nepal has so many stories. Don’t let death and suffering in the earthquake become the only one.

AGA: Wise and encouraging words. Let's begin the interview at the beginning: you trained as an anthropologist. You have a strong interest in other cultures and societies. Was this was the case when you were young?

EE: I’ve always been fascinated by diversity, by beings different in time and place, biology and culture. In my childhood, I focused my interests on animals and their various habitats. What is it to be a sparrow? A snake? A lion? Even at a young age, I wanted to get beyond what humans project onto animals and truly understand the lived experience of prey or predator, reptile or bird. By college, my interests shifted to people and cultural diversity. On a community college trip to Kenya, I grew fascinated by the rich cultures and history there and decided to become an anthropologist to learn more.

AGA: I read that you were also writing from a very young age. Can you talk about those early writings in your youth, and how you discovered writing as a pleasure? When did you start calling yourself a writer to others, and what was it that moved you to name yourself as one?

EE: I remember writing and mimeographing a newsletter in grade school — an early sign perhaps of my interest in writing nonfiction. I’d check natural history books out of the library and then write up profiles on particular animals. I put a lot of work into each issue, trying to distill complicated science I barely understood into writing that would make my classmates care more about wildlife. I particularly remember an egg-laying mammal phase, where I featured the echidna and platypus. But in the brief life of my newsletter, I covered other animals too. I may also have included some tirades on the evils of littering, which probably alienated some of the few friends I had.

AGA: This is a sweet and unusual story—not so much the creating a little newsletter, but the topics. It shows your early concern for animals and also your deep empathy for the environment.

 Did you grow up in a family that traveled?

EE: I grew up in an adventurous family in Seattle. We did not have the money to go far, but our life revolved around weekend outings and vacations to snorkel, scuba dive, mushroom hunt, fish, hike and camp around the Cascade and Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound. From a young age, I learned to name critters I found underwater and identify mushrooms we found in the forest––skills I still hone and take great pleasure in.

AGA: That sounds almost picturesque! There is an earthy quality to your writing and how you see landscapes, and I wonder if it was borne out of these early experiences?

EE: It may have been. I was so shy as a child and found being around people awkward. But I did long for some way to connect, to not feel so alone. And I found that in both nature and language. Perhaps those childhood affinities intertwined and grew into some earthy writing.

AGA: What kinds of travels did you experience as child? As a teen?

EE: We did take a few road trips further afield: to Yellowstone, the Canadian Rockies, Kansas, California. But what made me most happy was when my parents bought a half acre on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. Throughout my teens, we spent summers and other extended vacations there. I’d often disappear for entire days, wandering undeveloped land that bordered ours. I’d sit on the a cliff above East Sound and watch mergansers and buffleheads with my binoculars or follow deer trails through brambles to search for bald eagle nests. For awhile, that small area seemed like all the world I’d ever need to explore. But as I matured, it also inspired me to consider bigger adventures ahead. Overall, my childhood gave me a rich sense of how much you can gain through travel and adventures close to home.

AGA: Tell me about a journey you remember.

EE: One of my most memorable trips took place just offshore from Orcas Island when I was 16 or so. A family friend took me and his daughters out in a small motorboat. We planned to snorkel around a tiny island inhabited only by nesting birds. It was a cloudless, windless summer day, The water was smooth as glass. After squeezing into our wetsuits and donning masks and fins, we all tumbled into the water and explored the reefs. Puget Sound waters can often be murky, partly because they’re so rich in organic matter, but we had at least 60 feet of visibility that day, maybe more. The water was cold, so we were back in the boat after 30 minutes, peeling off our wetsuits and warming up in the sun. As we chatted about the perfection of the day and all we’d spotted on the reef—the enormous anemones, the cod gliding along the rocks––we heard a watery snort. We looked up to see a gray whale breaching several hundred feet from us. We watched it roll, disappear, then breach again. And again. I still find it hard to top the pure joy I felt that day.

AGA: I have had a few experiences similar to that, but I didn’t have them until I was much older. Once I swam with Manatees and it was magical—it still it, when I recall that day! I love hearing your great love of the natural world in your story. It’s so obvious that this experience really set the stage for your life. Even your words are lit up. You're quite the wordsmith, and this makes me curious: what kinds of books did you read growing up? Who were the storytellers that you returned to, over and over?

EE: I loved books about human adventures among animals, particularly My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell), Never Cry Wolf (Farley Mowat), All Creatures Great and Small(James Herriot). At the time, I thought I was in it for the animals alone. Throughout my childhood, I was sure I’d grow up to be a zoologist. Looking back now though, I suspect I also loved the rich sense of place and character those books evoked.

AGA: I loved Farley Mowat and James Herriot! It’s interesting,-you’re the first writer I’ve interviewed who brought up these two writers, who, in my mind, were instrumental to many.  It’s interesting too, that you note you thought you were reading them for the animal stories alone, but now you see the narratives differently. I read them because I loved animals, but now I see it was for the storytelling. And what about books about people? Who were you reading?

EE:  I fell in love with European history, especially the more gruesome aspects: King Henry the Eighth’s court, the rise and fall of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Maybe the horrors I discovered there helped me view history, especially European history, with a more critical eye.

One summer in middle school, I set myself the task of reading all the Western classics, beginning with the Greeks. I didn’t understand much or get very far. But I loved discovering the humor in Aristophanes and once I jumped ahead to later classics, went through phases of reading everything I could by Alexander Dumas, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy.

I loved long, dense stories that carried me into different places and times. I was particularly drawn to pastoral landscapes, romances that crossed class lines, wrongs righted, adventure.

AGA: It sounds like you were a serious reader, thinker..I picture you as challenging your limits and considering ideas and cultural mores carefully. It doesn’t surprise me that you became an anthropologist!  How does being an anthropologist contribute to the way you tell a story?

EE: Being an anthropologist requires deep immersion in a culture or subculture and has instilled in me a mistrust of first impressions, including my own. Whenever I find myself trying to sum up a sense of place or people I barely know, I remind myself how often I’ve been wrong. I know I need to spend enough time somewhere to learn to see and hear and ask the questions that peel away the superficial layers. However, first impressions should be noted. They are wonderful fodder for self-reflective travel tales that move from naiveté toward deeper insight.

But I’ve also learned that second and third impressions can be misleading too. After I lived for a year in Nepal––giving birth, becoming a mother, working with women activists––I thought I understood the culture pretty well. Then I came back several years later and lived for two more long stretches and saw some problems in my initial conclusions.

So my theory is this: the longer you stay in a place, the more you realize how little you actually know and how much more there is to learn.

That’s when deeper understanding can begin. And it’s a lifelong effort if you truly want to know a place.

AGA: How does that help a travel writer?

EE: I think a lot of the travel writing I’ve read could be improved by either deeper immersion or at least some humility about the dangers of first impressions. Some of the best pieces I’ve read in the travel genre acknowledge the awkward misunderstandings of first encounters and the humble steps toward human connection.

AGA: This is a big issue in travel writing. I noticed when I started reading more travel writing, I was kind of surprised at the—I’m unsure what to call it—distance? between the travel writer and the places they go to. Do any travel writers you like address this with poise and perspective?

EE: Distancing. Yes, I suspect that may be what often frustrates me too in some travel writing. But distance can become interesting if you dig into it. Part of the trick, I suppose, is to be honest about those distances, wonder at them and refuse the temptation to leap to conclusions.

I love the travel writing of Alden Jones (The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia). She is so good at examining her position as a traveler with insight and humor, finding the richness in small details and everyday encounters, looking at the ethics of travel from various angles. I also admire travel narratives like “The Khan Men of Agra” by Pamela Michael (in The Gift of Travel: http://www.travelerstales.com/catalog/gift/). It brings us in close to show an intimate shift in perspective but also acknowledges distance and all that remains unknown.

I’m being drawn into reading more travel writing partly through your series. I’m intrigued by writers you feature who are breaking out of old models, bending their narratives in interesting ways. I look forward to exploring the genre more here. I’m interested in mixing genres, producing writing that breaks out of expectations about what travel writing, memoir or other kinds of writing can be and do.

AGA: I love Alden Jones, too. She's in the series this year, and I can't wait. And you're right: she breaks stereotypes and is a great role model for the direction travel writing needs to go! Are you drawn to the genre of travel writing as a reader?

EE: I haven't been drawn to travel writing per se. I’ve always looked broadly to any gorgeous writing that illuminates specific aspects about natural or cultural history or the blending of the two in a particular place. I’ve already mentioned Gerald Durrell as an early influence. I’ve also been inspired by anthropologists like Ruth Behar, Lila Abu-Lughod, Jean Briggs, Marjorie Shostak; writers like Amitav Ghosh who straddle anthropology, fiction and history (e.g., Notes from an Antique Land); and a creative nonfiction writer like Wendy Call who weaves so much about the global economy into her account of living and traveling in a region of Mexico. Recently, I’ve also been reading and admiring the nonfiction and short stories of Manjushree Thapa, who brings a critical literary perspective to Nepali history and contemporary politics.

AGA: Did any books in the travel genre influence the process and creation of your book?

EE: Three books stand out as inspiring various phases of writing While the Gods Were Sleeping. They’ve shown me what can be achieved by playing with travel tropes and layering cultural history, natural history, politics and personal reflections. Two of them probably wouldn’t be considered travel writing at all, even though they involve travel. I return to them again and again for ideas about how to dance between humor and poignancy, complexity and brevity: Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham, and Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea.

AGA: Andrew Pham! I adored that book- he's in the series this year too. That is one of the best books I've ever read. What about you: do you see yourself as a travel writer, or as a memoirist, or something else?

EE: Such a great question! I’ve been thinking about that a lot. My book is often classified as travel literature, and I suspect a number of readers come to it because they have traveled in Nepal or are planning travel there and are looking for insights. But, I don’t think of myself primarily as a travel writer.

AGA: You tempted me with this, and I have to ask: you have mentioned you want to write works which “breaks out of expectations about what travel writing is.” What are the expectations of what travel writing is? Why break those expectations?

EE: During the years of book writing, I fielded a lot of questions.

Did you climb Mount Everest? Did you become more spiritual? Will your book be like Eat, Pray, Love? Or will it be more like Three Cups of Tea? Even before my story became a book classified as a travel memoir, people were trying to fit it into the pleasure and inspiration they found in other travel tales.

So I began to internalize some sense of what people wanted from my story. And I knew I could not, in good conscience, meet many of those expectations. In fact, I needed to subvert them.

Now this book of mine is published and often shelved in the travel section. I’ve had many glowing reviews, but some of the critical ones circle around this sense that I have not met expectations for what a “travel” story should be: a lighthearted, cross-cultural romance; a feel-good, apolitical, ahistorical tale of helping women in another culture. I think we have to examine how travel and travel writing are tangled up with legacies of colonialism and global imbalances of wealth, power and narrative representation.

AGA: Yet your book frames you as a traveler—at least at the start…Can you explain this?

EE: While in Nepal, I saw myself as a person living between two cultures, not as a traveler. Yet in writing the story about those years in Nepal, I consciously played with travel writing tropes: the arrival of the bumbling foreigner, the shattering of confidence, a heroine’s journey from ignorance to some partial understanding. I subtitled the book “A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal” to prompt some associations with travel literature and to invite readers to consider a different kind of travel. Especially in Nepal where so much travel is about exoticism, poverty porn or extreme mountain adventures.

AGA: I want to address that last sentence for a moment. You’re saying that the way we see Nepal, as a place, is defined by these experiences: exoticism, poverty porn or extreme mountain adventures. I think this true, and I also think it’s a really important point that you are bringing in a different Nepal for people to see and experience.

EE: I wanted to take people on a journey that turned inward––not just into personal reflections, but also into unexpected, non-touristy places: a family, a nondescript village, a women’s campaign for a meeting place.

I wanted to meditate on something I think more and more about these days: how sometimes we learn the most not by moving, but by staying put for awhile, trying to make our home in a particular place, and working through conflicts and discomforts.

AGA: Let's talk about what brought you to Nepal in the first place. In the mid 1980s and 1990s, you traveled to Nepal to do anthropological research. What drew you there?

EE: Love. I fell in love with a graduate student from Nepal while preparing to do research in eastern or southern Africa. I had never considered working in Nepal before and had no particular interest in the region. After working there and becoming part of a family, I decided to return several more times to build on what I’d already learned and to explore some new topics.

AGA: Your book, When the Gods were Sleeping, came out of that time spent and the subsequent years there when you were a part of a community. Can you talk about the title and where it is derived from? What is the book about?

EE: The title comes from a four month period during the monsoon and harvest called Chaturmas. It’s a time when the gods are said to be sleeping. The imagery often focuses on sleeping Vishnu, a powerful icon in Hinduism. Chaturmas is kind of like lent in the Catholic tradition. People take up practices of penance, austerity, special spiritual studies. I began living in Nepal during Chaturmas when I was five months pregnant. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but now see it as a rich metaphor for many currents running through my story: my own physical sleepiness during pregnancy, my inability to see or understand much at first, the undercurrents of rebellion among women in Nepal which emerged more clearly in our village in 1988, the underground politics that would lead to a democratic revolution in Nepal in 1990.

At it’s most basic, the book is about the challenges of becoming a wife and mother in an unfamiliar place and culture and how that became a lens for understanding women’s lives there.

AGA: Why did you want to write it and how long did it take you to complete it? What was the process?

EE: Depending on how I count, the story took somewhere between seven and twenty years to write. I told some parts of the story in my dissertation and academic essays. For awhile, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do more than that. I moved on to other projects and interests. But the story kept haunting me. I felt I had to find a way to share it beyond academic circles before moving on to other stories I wanted to write. Once I left academia, memoir seemed like the best vehicle.

I also felt an obligation. Women in our village, especially my mother-in-law, had entrusted their stories to me with the understanding that I’d share them more widely so people in other parts of the world might know something about their lives.

The story took a long time to write because I needed to experiment with different structures and tones before I hit on a shape that felt right and true and respectful. It’s gone through too many revisions to count.

AGA: The book is a memoir of your life in Nepal, and you share intimate details about the family you marry into. Can you share the challenges of writing memoir about people close to you, and how you handled it?

EE: During my dissertation and postdoctoral fieldwork, I secured permission to share stories from those I formally interviewed. But everyone in the family and community knew I was working on research and publications. They knew I might write about them too and often urged me to do so. But that was long ago, and people’s understanding about how their stories might be used in research varied. Also, some stories and experiences came to me through channels that felt more personal (though that is true for many anthropologists who live their daily lives among others). So, I had to make careful decisions in the writing about which stories I felt okay sharing and which I did not. That slowed down the writing and revising.

I also agonized for years over how to write about the family. My husband and I divorced––amicably––many years ago, so I no longer belong in the same way I did before. I needed a lot of time and some distance to figure out how I wanted to tell the story of the years when I did belong. A trip back to Nepal in 2007 gave me a chance to renew friendships and check in with people about my plans.

I discovered that many people didn’t worry about appearing in a book; they wondered why I hadn’t yet written it and urged me to hurry up. That put my own hand-wringing into perspective.

I owe a huge debt to my ex-husband too. He has always urged me to write this story about his family and community as a way to shed light on Nepal’s cultural history. We’ve disagreed on some things over the years, but he has never wavered in his support for my work and my right to tell my version of this story about our time together. Other members of the family, including my son, have been equally encouraging and supportive.

AGA: How did you write a memoir that took place over such a long period of time?

EE: Ha! My original idea was to write one book that took place over a much longer period of time, but it became unwieldy. I had to shave off a huge chunk of time to tighten the focus of this first book (the shavings will go into a second book). Still, as I mentioned earlier, I had to leave out so much even within that shorter time frame. And to do that, I had to figure out the narrative arc and central themes and be disciplined about writing to them. I find it so easy to get lost in the promiscuity of metaphors and imagery and details. Those darlings can take me to so many wonderful places. I can get very attached to them. But they don’t always serve the story.

I struggled some with other aspects of time in the memoir, like where to begin and end, how to weave in backstory and cultural insights, how to jump over periods where nothing relevant or interesting happened. I went through so many revisions in some places just to smooth out time flows.

AGA: Earlier you said, "We learn the most by not moving.” I'd like to go back to this for a moment. This is quite wise, but at the same the opposite of what travel is traditionally defined as, which is moving. Perhaps slow motion, but movement. On the other hand “travel” is being redefined every day, and it feels as though is a more individually crafted experience than ever before. One doesn’t have to go anywhere to go very far—or one can go quite far. It’s about the seeing…which brings me to memoir, which is about seeing inside oneself. Are you a memoirist?

EE: I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with the memoir label either. Women’s memoirs in particular are often pegged as being inward to an extreme, almost narcissistic. I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment and often see male authors lauded, rather than criticized, for similar introspection. But I’m most interested in writing and reading memoirs where the personal becomes a lens into a larger cultural history.

AGA: What advice do you have for someone writing memoir and travel blended together? Where should they begin?

EE: Every writer has a different process. You have to find what works for you. For While the Gods Were Sleeping, I began with scenes and then spent many years filling them out and trying different ways of linking them. Just as you need time to understand a culture and place better, you also need time and hard work to understand your own story. Every revision took me deeper, sometimes into uncomfortable realizations about myself, sometimes into emotions I didn’t want to feel again. But that’s where the heart of the story might be, so you have to go there. You have to go deeper and deeper and look for metaphors you might have unconsciously hidden so well they’re hard even for you to see. Bringing those to the forefront might be the key to pulling the story together.

One challenge in blending memoir and travel is tacking back and forth between the inward and the outward. How much of each do you want to show? Who is your audience? Readers of travel and memoir may have different expectations. You may disappoint those who want more of one or the other. Yet while it’s good to keep the reader in mind, you have to think about what the story needs.

I try to identify what works in the stories I love best but also read outside my comfort zone. I explore memoir that isn’t about place and culture and also read travel tales that are not very memoir-ish. I also learn a lot from fiction. And if you are writing about travel to a particular place, immerse yourself in the history, anthropology and journalism of the region.

AGA: Your anthropological background gives your work a certain flavor, an attention to detail that any other writer might be hard pressed to express so succinctly. This paired with your lengthy stay in this area of the world, gives your book the impression of writing from the inside out. This quality is what makes your book special and golden.

EE: Thank you. I’m gratified that you see that.

AGA: Can you share an excerpt of a part of your book that gives detail and clarity, which was borne from your observing nature or time spent?

EE: Here’s one I like:

 "At least several times a week, women showed up at our house with sickles in hand and deep baskets strapped to their heads. Often arriving in the early afternoon, they set their sickles and empty baskets aside and told stories, asked me questions, had some tea and a snack, asked Aama for advice, complained about in-laws. Then around four or so, they hop up as though they’d forgotten and say: “Ghas katna paryo. Must cut grass.” They strap their baskets back on their head and make their way home, presumably cutting a basket full of grass on the way.

 I imagined the in-laws back home asking them. What took you so long? Why so little grass? And the women would complain about how little grass there was, how far they had to go.

 I started to watch how women mapped out their livestock-tending and grass-cutting expeditions. They usually included at least one social stop. Best choices: the open pasture by the school or chautari where they could hang out with friends. But of course, those were the first places overcoat and overgrazed. So then women would work the ditches and berms along a road or irrigation canal that would take them past the house of a friend.

 I learned to recognize in women’s faces and voices those grim days when they had to buckle down and cut grass more seriously. Those sad but determined frowns. The complains about exhaustion, aching muscles, filthy places, the hot sun…."

AGA: I’d like to talk about the role of belonging with you. This theme: belonging and home; not belonging and being foreign, on the outside, are concurrent in your book. Two rivers running at the same time, and sometimes clashing. Let’s talk about that in terms of the traveler and the travel writer, who are both always looking to belong, but at the same time, not. How does the role of belonging and having spot, a place, a destination, a comfort..play into the way you look at the world? Into the way you write about that world?

EE: The story is very much about finding a place and a sense of belonging, but I also try to show how provisional, fragile and tentative that can be. Where is home? That becomes a complicated question for those whose lives and families straddle different places and cultures. It also raises issues about those who are marginalized in their “homeland” because of ethnicity, gender, religion or class.

 Perhaps one of the things that drew me into anthropology was my own sense of not fitting in to my own culture. Despite a reasonably happy childhood, I had a sense that I belonged elsewhere. I fantasized about living in different places, different times, maybe even among different species.

One of the things I learned from being in Nepal was that my sense of not belonging had more to do with me than any particular place or culture.

As I grow older, I find myself more comfortable with being the kind of person who always feels slightly out of place. And yet, I also carry this strong sense of belonging in very deep ways to both Nepal and to my current home in Oregon. Those are themes I hope to explore more in another book.

AGA: The outsider coming in is very problematic as a theme in not just travel writing, but travel and aid work. I want to talk about this in relationship to travel writing, but let's first discuss the urge to "help" people. Many people I know have struggled with the Nepali crisis and have expressed a desire to "go and help" people there. Some of these are well-laid plans, and others, not so much. 

EE: I’m truly amazed at how some can land in a place like Nepal for a few weeks and then decide it is their mission to save people there. They begin fundraising campaigns or set-up non-profits. With commitment, hard work and a willingness to learn more, a few might go on to do some good. But many such efforts never root themselves in a place of deep understanding about the place and its history. They garner more popularity than deserved and deflect attention and funds from local organizations already working on similar problems. Such initiatives also reinforce this strange idea that foreigners need to sweep into a country like Nepal --or Uganda, Guatemala, etcetra--to set things right.

If we come to care about a particular place or issue during our travels, we should first take the time to learn more.

We should especially try to understand some historical and political context. Then we should find out what organizations are already involved and who the leaders are. Ask them what they need. And then, listen. Just listen for awhile. Not all organizations welcome volunteers--we need to respect that--but some do. Perhaps there is a need for stories written up in a particular language, for fundraising, or for help changing diapers or playing with orphans.

But often, if we want to help in a deeper way, we have to commit to long-term immersion. And that means involvement in work that is not so glorious: the daily grind of fundraising, staff management, conflict mediation, promotion, local travel logistics, paperwork, etc.

AGA: Social justice is another theme in your voice: there are strong waves of seeking the stories of both fairness and inequality. How can a travel writer be an instrument of social change? How can they illuminate human rights, politics, or grave circumstances? How can they give voice to people who may not have a loud voice in the world at large?

EE: Because of the dangers of first impressions, I think travel writers should begin with humility. If we really want to work for change in a particular place, we have to learn how to be allies, not saviors.

Those of us traveling briefly through an unfamiliar place may see mostly problems. They’re in every country, of course, but some popular travel destinations may not veil poverty, human trafficking, rape, malnutrition or other injustices as well as, say, the US. So we sometimes see the problems more starkly when we travel elsewhere, but we don’t always take the time to see or hear local activists who are already voicing opinions, organizing movements and solving problems there.

AGA: How can travel writing become a lens to a larger cultural history? Can we look at your book for examples of this, especially in light of the current catastrophe in Nepal?

EE: It’s about bearing witness, seeing a place and its history, culture and politics as more than a backdrop to your own personal dramas and noting how the process of witness can be transformative. I love what Aminatta Forna has to say about that in relation to writing and politics: http://lithub.com/where-are-the-wests-political-novelists/

I bore witness to what united people in the late 80s and early 90s in one village in Nepal: love of family and children, hospitality, neighborliness, social and political causes. I also saw entrenched inequalities that divided them, particularly in moments of crisis.

Since the earthquake, I see some of the social dynamics I wrote about decades ago reflected in relief and reconstruction efforts now. In the spirit of unity and neighborly service, volunteers have rallied to deliver supplies to remote regions, build transitional housing and more. It’s so inspiring, and I suspect we’ll see some long-lasting innovations and leadership grow out of these grassroots initiatives. At the same time, I’m not surprised to read accounts of how caste, gender and class and patronage systems are creating inequities in how aid is delivered and distributed. The good news, of course, is that such practices are being widely reported and criticized. That’s how change happens.

AGA: One of the strongest things--to me-about your book is that it is clearly the voice of a woman telling the story. Can you share some of that experience-of being a woman in an unfamiliar culture, and how you were seen? Did you gain "insider" status, or find it was easier to have intimate friendships and connections, as some women have stated in earlier interviews?

EE: I began living in Nepal when I was pregnant and then gave birth and became a mother, so I was often viewed primarily as a woman there. But I was also a foreigner and breadwinner in the family, which gave me a special status. That all worked to my advantage. I could hang out with women, and listen to their stories about childrearing, mothering, health. But at the same time, I could leverage my foreigner status to get some exemptions around being a woman. I could hang out with men too, drink whiskey with my brothers-in-law and nephews, drive a jeep and spend time alone reading books. 

AGA: In your personal experience, is there a difference between experiencing place/writing about place as a woman as compared to a man? How do you think things like class, ethnicity, caste, religion, and place tie into the narrative and the way one experiences place?

EE: In terms of experiencing place, I have often envied my male friends’ ease in moving through the world. In my early twenties, I tried to push myself out of shyness by traveling alone and opening myself up to conversations and activities with others along the way.

I wanted to be fearless, but I was so naïve. I met many wonderful men who respected my boundaries, but I also fell into some dangerous and violent situations that made me increasingly cautious. Eventually, I stopped traveling alone.

Then, I fell in love, married, became pregnant, started living in Nepal, and everything about travel changed. Now that I’m older I find myself more comfortable traveling alone again. Still, I evaluate trails, campgrounds and motels very carefully. I don’t walk alone at night unless a lot of other people are out and about.

The hard thing about traveling in the world as a woman --which you have written about too, AGA--is that tension between wanting to be open to adventure and learning and yet always needing to evaluate danger in any particular place or encounter. It’s exhausting, and of course, erring on the side of safety often puts up barriers to fully experiencing a place and the people there.

AGA: That tension is always there: you tell yourself you can do a,b,c..but at the same time, one is well aware that if you want to do anything remotely interesting [read: things a man could do without any hesitation, but women are taught not to do] there is risk. What about in the world of writing and publishing? What are some differences you see?

In my own experiences and observations on contemporary writing and publishing, I do see so many differences, but let me just point out a few. One of the most disturbing is how men’s writing is still so often seen as universal, whereas whatever women write is viewed as more particular, as appealing primarily to audiences of women.

Women’s writing is often qualified as “women’s literature,” while men’s writings gets to be “literature” without qualification.

The Op-Ed Project asks a great question: who narrates the world? Their research--along with the VIDA count for literary magazines and the Bechdel test for film--shows that it’s still mostly men. And, of course, we also need to consider disparities of class, ethnicity, sexual identity in writing and publishing.

 AGA: Who narrates the world, indeed. It seems like a good moment to bring your field of study into the conversation in more detail: let's talk a little about how an anthropologist frames place and tie in how a traveler/travel writer does the same.When an anthropologist is doing field work, there are certain protocols they follow. Can you describe these for the reader, so they can see how the anthropologist approaches a place?

EE: Fieldwork used to mean traveling to some distant locale, usually some outpost of empire-- but can now mean spending days in a corporate office, an urban hair salon or a high school classroom. We use a number of qualitative and quantitative research methods, but the heart of the work has always been participant-observation. We watch what is going on, listen in on conversations, attend to as many details as possible. We live our lives to whatever extent possible among the people we are trying to understand and join various currents of activity. Depending on our ability and what is allowed, we may also participate in rituals, dances, meetings, planting and harvesting, food preparation, etc. The work involves empathy, intuition and a constant mindfulness about larger contexts. We should also be both open-ended and strategically focused. All that helps us make sense of whatever information we might collect through other methods: structured interviews, surveys or kinship charts.

AGA: A travel writer—a good one—does many of these things too, although not generally for the same length of time or for the same purpose or context. Yet, it is different, because we aren’t collectors of the same kinds of things. But there are some vestiges that are a little similar..

EE: In some ways, participant-observation boils down to the art of hanging out. While all travelers use hanging out to some degree to gain impressions of a place, time and attention are essential to deepening that art. Even if you know the language pretty well, you need time to pick up on idioms, jokes, the layers of meaning people weave into conversations.

AGA: This process must take a long time, and is vastly different than a travel writer, who is trying to observe and collect information both externally and internally very quickly, in comparison..

EE: You need even more time to distinguish a straightforward interaction from one that involves some degree of posturing, hoodwinking, teasing, fawning or outright lying. Then you can begin to see patterns, understand broader contexts and explore the stakes involve in particular encounters. If we learn how to make sense of them, the fictions people tell sometimes reveal as much, or more, than the truths. But outsiders can’t decipher much without immersing themselves for some period of time, paying close attention to details and developing relationships with “locals.”

AGA: This is interesting: does the anthropologist consider themselves an outsider, as say, compared to a traveler? Do you strive to not get involved, or to get involved?

EE: In some sense, an anthropologist is trying to maintain the objectivity of an outsider while gaining the knowledge of an insider. But the lines often blur. Take, for instance, the recent earthquake in Nepal. The village where I worked is fine; it’s in the plains. My family and friends all came through unscathed, thank goodness. But I have colleagues who have been working in certain hill villages for decades. They have lifelong friends there and have watched children grow up and have children of their own.

Now the earthquake has decimated or buried some of those villages and killed many. Imagine. It’s hard to speak of inside or outside when you’re grieving such losses. I’m not surprised to see many anthropologists raising funds for donations, sending supplies and making long-term plans to help rebuild.

The ideal I learned in graduate school was to maintain some objectivity, not get too involved, not skew the research results with our interventions. There are differences of opinion about how attainable that is. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible while also realizing that all observation is subjective. Put your own biases aside as best you can but also know that they’ll creep in, and then be honest about them. Most anthropologists face some dilemma where their gender, ethnicity, political views or ethics get in the way of maintaining any kind of objectivity.

AGA: I think travel writers also have this problem with having judgments about the way things are done or not done, cultural constructs, and their own contributions towards them. It can be frustrating to visit a place and be treated a certain way or see things which feel uncomfortable. It is easy to make value judgments. How did you handle this, and what benefits did you find?

EE: For example, lessons about ritual impurity came to me in personal ways, like when I was shooed away from cooked rice during the last few months of pregnancy or nearly exiled from the kitchen right after I gave birth. I had never been treated as polluted before. If I had been observing such exclusions from a distance as a non-pregnant --and maybe non-female--anthropologist, I might have been able to stay neutral. I might have observed more details, taken better notes, asked lots of questions about reasons why.

I took daily lessons on gender discrimination personally. They hurt and made me angry. I couldn’t maintain my anthropological objectivity.

The anger and hurt feelings blocked me from inquiring more about Vedic spirituality, especially around notions of purity and life processes. I now regret not asking more questions at the time. But feelings about being treated as polluted did later open me up to learning more deeply about women’s lives.

AGA: Wise words. This interview has been a crash course in how to pay attention to the subtleties of place--I think anyone reading it will be a better writer, even if they only absorb a few of these nuggets you've offered up.

I always like to ask something personal: What is something you own, an object, from Nepal and that time, that helps you to write and to remember?

EE: I have a lot of things from Nepal: a Buddha, a marriage necklace given to me by my mother-in-law, earrings, a mortar and pestle, tablecloths, pillow cases. I love them all. But what sparks the best sensory memories is food. I cook dal-bhat almost every week. It has become my comfort food. I’m also an avid gardener and try to grow vegetables I learned to love in Nepal. It’s not easy in my three-four month growing season, but I’ve had some success with mustard greens, cauliflower, okra and bitter melon.

AGA: What’s next for you? Another book, I hope?

EE: On the writing front, I’m working on a sequel to While the Gods Were Sleeping, tentatively titled, Sacred Threads. Drawing on the symbol of a twist of cotton worn by Nepali high-caste boys at initiation, this second memoir will continue the story of what it means to be a mother to a bicultural son while straddling diverse places myself, particularly family roots in Oregon and my son’s father’s roots in the Himalayas. I want to explore how the ties that bind me to Nepal have also guided me through significant life passages over the last two decades: a father’s death, a failing marriage, a son’s coming of age, the discovery of new passions, a quest for ancestral connections in the Pacific Northwest, the power of forgiveness.

I still enjoy some travel, especially around the American West, and would like to return to Nepal at some point. My son has also become a globetrotter, so I suspect I may follow him around some too. But more and more, my adventures revolve around farming and animal husbandry and finishing a strawbale house on acreage I share with my guy in northeastern Oregon.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that it isn’t travel as such that I crave; it’s learning new things. Sometimes that involves travel, but more and more I find it doesn’t need to.

And the wonderful thing about a farm is that there is always something new to learn.

During my last year living in Nepal --a period that will be covered in Sacred Threads--I discovered a passion for growing food. Now, I finally have room enough to experiment. We raise garlic and weaner pigs for sale. Along with chickens and geese, we also have five yaks and are learning how to work with them. I raise a lot of vegetables in the summer but am particularly fascinated by seeing what I can grow without irrigation: potatoes, winter squash, melons, corn, dry beans. Research on dryland farming techniques, seed-saving, permaculture, yak and pig husbandry, garlic varieties, etc. allows me to mind-travel into various cultures and histories without leaving the farm, which is a good thing because a farm can be a hard thing to get away from.

As I grow older, I find myself wanting to explore ancestral connections and love for the landscapes and histories of the American West. And I feel fortunate to live in a place that gives me a rich window into that, a way to study the broader story by loving and focusing attention on a particular place.

AGA: This has been a fantastic interview, and one I think many people will return to many times for the succinct way you have addressed some of the challenges in travel writing today. It's been an honor and a learning experience. Thank you!

Readers, please leave a comment after Elizabeth's bio just below, and sharing is caring: click on the heart or the arrow below to share!

Elizabeth Enslin is the author of While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal (Seal Press, September 2014). She grew up in Seattle and earned her Ph.D in Anthropology from Stanford University in 1990. With funding from the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, she carried out research in the plains of Nepal. Her creative nonfiction and poetry appear in The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, The High Desert Journal,  and The Raven Chronicles, among others.  Recognition for her work an Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize, a Notable for Best American Essays and a Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship in Nonfiction to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. You can find her at her on Facebook and her website.

 

In Conversation With Arita Baaijens

Of course I wondered why I was risking my life on desert solo journeys, but if I had known the answer beforehand, then I wouldn’t have had to go find out, now would I? All I could do was answer the call to adventure. I didn’t understand what was happening to me until I heard Joseph Campbell talk about the journey of the hero.

”That is me!” I thought.
— Arita Baaijens

Welcome to the Conversations series: these are a series of long form, in depth interviews with writers of multiple genres about travel themes, including place, exile, belonging, home, habitat, quest, and craft. I started the series in 2015 with Tim Cahill, Patricia Schultz, James Dorsey and Raquel Cepeda. This year began with Jeff Greenwald , Harrison Solow, and Nayomi Munaweera. Next up, Dutch explorer and adventurer, Arita Baaijens.

Arita Baaijens is a Dutch adventurer and writer who has already completed over 25 desert expeditions on camel throughout Egypt and Sudan. She is the first woman to have crossed the Western Desert of Egypt solo by camel and the first Western woman to have travelled the Forty Days Road by camel twice. In Mauritania she photographed the last surviving female caravaneers. In 2013 she was the first to circumambulate the Altai Golden Mountains in the heart of Eurasia: 4 countries, 101 days, 1500 km on horseback. She's the author of several books, Desert Songs: A Woman Explorer In Egypt and Sudan, and the forthcoming Search for Paradise.

We are exploring many topics in our Conversation, including heeding your calling to travel and explore, dealing with harsh landscapes, traveling solo, writing about Nature and the sacred, overcoming writer's block, the craft of travel writing, and how to buy a camel! Read on...

                        Photo courtesy Arita Baaijens / Photo credit ©Maartje Geels 

                        Photo courtesy Arita Baaijens / Photo credit ©Maartje Geels 

AGA: What was your early life like?

AB: Cozy and unconcerned is how I remember my early childhood days. If I do possess a travel gene, it certainly wasn't part of the DNA I inherited.

AGA: That's interesting. I'm finding that many travel writers say much the same thing! Tell me about your daily life as child: paint me a picture.

AB: I grew up in a small rural town in the center of the Netherlands. Plenty of farmland, sheep, cows, endless woodlands and forests where my parents took me and my older brother on summer Sundays. The rest of the year Sundays were extremely boring. We grew up in the Bible belt and went to church in the early morning. The rest of the day we were not allowed to do anything that involved money or work. No ice cream, no swimming pool, no nothing, just an endless boring day and a father who was tired after a long week of hard work.

AGA: Did your family travel at all when you were young? Can you recall any adventures or journeys?

AB: During the week my mother would take us on small adventures. In autumn we'd go and pick berries and mushrooms in the pine forest. In spring, we'd pick flowers in meadows and catch frogspawn. After school hours, I would build huts and play with friends.

During the long summers my parents took us for two weeks to the sea, close to where my father had grown up.  Apart from one brother, all his siblings now lived elsewhere. That was the biggest trip I ever took in those days was to the Dutch sea side, a 200 km drive from our forests to the sea and a horizon that seemed to jealously guard what lay behind it: the great unknown.

Very different from the family of my mother, who all lived in the same provincial town of Ede. Every Saturday uncles, aunts, cousins and nieces would all flock to the house of my grandmother, who owned a house and a big plot of land. The parents worked in the vegetable gardens, each family had their own plot. On warm summer days a pump with a big iron swing offered deliciously cold and sweet water. I also remember the mysterious cellar under the huge kitchen floor, it was dark and a bit smelly down there, the shelves were stocked with glass jars filled with peas, string beans, mushrooms and all kinds of berries. A peat stove in the kitchen always kept a tea water on the boil. There was a cat, a dog, chickens and a rooster, a sow and once a year pink piglets.

AGA: This sounds idyllic, and hardly the start in life I expected you to share, since you have spent much of your adult alone crossing vast landscapes! Were there any adventurers in you family history? Any storytellers--or stories unspoken and waiting to be told?

AB: My father grew up in a poor family in a tiny village on an island. His father had been a successful trader but had lost his savings in shadowy transactions. He lost face and committed suicide, and the villagers had found his body dangling from a tree branch. As a result the five children were raised in poverty.

Just after the Second World War, my father was 18 years old, he and his brother fled the village. They trained as soldiers and volunteered to go fight a dirty war in Dutch occupied territories. After three years my father returned home, married my mother and settled down. After 20 years of marriage my father left us and immigrated to the United States to start a new life--just like his grandmother had done back in the 19th century. Her escapade was a well kept secret in the family and I had only heard about it when I was in my thirties or forties.

AGA: Tell me about this grandmother of yours: she sounds unusual for a woman of her time.

AB: My great grandmother ran away to the United States, leaving her only child--my grandfather to be--and her husband, to go after her Dutch lover, who was probably waiting for her on the other side of the ocean. This was in the late 1800s! A year later she came back, and I've always wondered why. I have so many questions! I can just not understand how she, a simple village girl who had to courage to run away, could find the money for an expensive ticket on an ocean steamer and manage all the logistics. I will never know the answers--but one thing I do know: I have inherited her rebellious spirit.     

AGA: What an extraordinary woman of mystery. And what about you? What were the dreams of your youth?

AB: My dreams as a young child mirror the small world I lived in. Like any other five year old girl I wanted to become a princess, later on a hair dresser and the ultimate dream was to become a school teacher.

I loved to go to school every morning and took books home from the school library.  All kinds of books, about all kinds of topics. I remember reading about Scott, the Arctic explorer, but I never ever dreamt about becoming an explorer myself. 

AGA: What writers did your family read? Were they big readers? Were you exposed to great literature or the writings of explorers?

AB: The most important book in our house was the Bible. After dinner my father or mother would read passages from the old fashioned translation and I can still hear the unusual, archaic, mysterious, incomprehensible words that served as dessert. From Genesis all the way up to Revelations.... it must have taken years to finish one reading. And after my parents turned the last page the whole thing would start all over again.

The words were pure magic, not of this world, the Bible provided me with a rich vocabulary. Miracles, battles, psalms, prophets, kings, soldiers and beggars. The most incredible, cruel and moving stories were dished up after dinner and as a child I believed them all.

AGA: The Bible certainly contains lots of stories about travelers. In a way, it's a big travelogue, with lots of stories from the desert and other places that pushed people to the edge. Any remembrances of these stories?

AB: My father had inherited an antique Statenbijbel, huge and leather bound, with locks made from copper. In it were etchings, as stark, dark and magical as the vocabulary. It is from this Bible that I first learned about Sinai, the desert peninsula in which the Israelites roamed for 40 years, or so the story goes. The image of those harsh granite mountains of Sinai stuck and must have stirred something deep inside, the image created a longing that must have been at the root of my career move, years later, when I became a desert explorer.

AGA: What other books do you remember reading?

AB: Despite the fact that I grew up in a working class family in the fifties and sixties and books were expensive--pure luxury--I cannot remember a time I was not reading. Once a week, we would take books from the library. 

My father also owned a few world literature classics: I recall Tolstoy's Ana Karenina and others, but I didn't read those until high school. In high school we had to read stacks books and poetry, from Camus and Sartre in French; to Goethe, Brecht and Boll in German; to Shakespeare, Wordsworth and William Golding in English. And of course, Dutch novels and poetry from all genres and periods...

AGA: Did you have a literary mentor or guide in your life at that time?

AB: I owe a lot to one specific teacher with red lipstick, red hair and a French surname. "La Soeur" had just moved from Amsterdam to our small town, for reasons that were beyond me. She not only spoke, dressed and walked differently, her teaching methods were also unconventional, a fresh breeze in airless room. This woman clearly had a mission, she didn't want her pupils to dutifully read novels and poems, she wanted us to be moved by it, to feel the power and music of language. Which brings me back to Genesis and the Bible: In the beginning there was the word....

AGA: I always am struck by that line, "in the beginning there was the word.." Powerful and evocative. Listening to you talk about words and their power, it's interesting to point out you did not choose literature as am early career path.

In your teen years, you decided to study environmental sciences, and this discipline shows itself in your knowledge and writing about the landscapes you visit. Why did choose this?

AB: During my high school years I loved both languages and the sciences, and as I came from a working class family, I felt obliged not to waste my talents, as it was a great privilege to go to university. As I watch my father studying in the evenings to catch up on the basic education he received as a child, I was careful to choose a study that offered good career prospects: biology. This was back in the 70's and 80's, when we were just realizing that natural resources were very limited, and  rivers, air and soil were all polluted. Pesticides, nuclear power plants, acid rain, visions of silent springs - I grew up in a time of protest, civil unrest, unemployment, dark thoughts about the future.

As a young student I did what seemed logical and right: to try and change the world that grown ups had messed up.

AGA: Yet despite this very practical side of you, there was also a wildly independent streak. I feel there is a fierceness and vulnerability under the stories you tell..did this arise from some event in your early years?

AB: My father had left us when I was only seventeen, a tremendous shock and something unheard of in our conservative Protestant community. Sometimes people by would stand still in front of our house and point to the house of the outcasts and sinners.

My mother felt humiliated, hurt, distressed, although she tried to hide these feelings. One morning, after coming down for breakfast, I heard her sob and mutter that she wished she was dead. My heart broke. I just stood there, as if struck by lightning. The state of total shock can't have lasted longer than a second, but the effect lasted a life time.

AGA: So you saved yourself from the same fate..or tried to?

AB: I could not help or save my mother, but I would save myself I decided then and there. No man would ever do to me what my mother had to go through. From now on I would be in control and pull the strings. And so I did. Until I reached my mid-thirties, I practiced divide and rule. I would always have more than one lover at the same time, if not in reality than at least in imagination. This method prevented me from falling in love with one person, there would always be someone else, and that nobody would have the exclusive privilege of winning my heart. 

AGA: Yet, I think this decision also left you free in some ways, to fall in love with other things, like landscapes and places. Perhaps not right not right away, but eventually. So you left that life and the small Dutch town of your youth--or did you? Is it still with you?

AB: Decades later I had to admit that I may have left Ede, but it hadn't leave me. My behavior and character were still shaped by what had happened during my teens. I am a fighter and prefer to strike before the enemy does. Not a bad strategy, I thought back then...

AGA: Has this attitude helped you on your journeys? You've spent years in some of the most difficult landscapes on Earth: the Sudan, Egypt, Siberia...

AB: My combative and fearless attitude helped me on many occasions, especially during my explorations on camel in the North African desert, this vastly beautiful expanse of sand, rocks and stars. Seductive beauty of a dangerous kind.

Only recently, having worn myself out  - knocking everybody down is a tiring business - did I find out that I only have one enemy and that she lives inside my own head: a frightened and angry little girl whom I locked up for many years and now wants to be released.

AGA: A lot of writers have an angry child inside, myself included. I think creative people often struggle with this duality, but at the same time, it is what brings them to their knees creatively, as well. Thank you for going deep and sharing that.

Let's talk about your early travels.

AB: I started traveling as a student.

When I was 22 years old I lived in Israel for a while, fell in love of course, and also traveled to Sinai. The desert was empty, beautiful, frightening, awesome and felt strangely familiar because of all the stories I had been fed in school, church and at the dinner table.

I could hardly take it in, steep granite mountains dipped their feet right into a crystal clear and blue sea. The land was rich in color, but apart from Acacia trees, clumps of date palms and hidden water wells the majestic mountains and narrow canyons were dry and unforgiving.

Underwater, though, was a magical world dressed in wild and jubilant colors. Corals competed with fish in exotic splendor. Sinai made my heart jump, explosions under my skull, my thirsty soul drank it all in and it still wasn't enough to quench my thirst. I stayed many months longer than I had planned, but finally went back.

AGA: I love that Sinai was your first major journey, considering the Biblical references from your childhood: it is so connected to your life and core. It sounds like it was an extraordinarily powerful experience. What destination followed?

AB: A few years later, in 1980, I traveled solo around Central America for nine months.

The journey was a revelation in many ways. To travel by myself in the age before internet and mobile phones, in a macho environment was quite a challenge. I felt lonely and miserable in the beginning, nobody to talk to for days, but I held on and then one day it all changed and I just wanted to keep on traveling. Those were the days dirty wars were fought in Guatemala and El Salvador. At night I would hear shots and the next morning find dead bodies or smell the smoke coming from burnt villages. On this journey I overcame my fear of traveling solo and lost my rather naïve faith in American politics.

I guess that meant I was growing up.

AGA: Travel does that, swiftly and without mercy.

Let's talk about the shift you experienced in going from a 9-5 job as a environmentalist and scientist to becoming a traveler, explorer, and adventurer of the most unusual kind.

AB: I enjoyed my career tremendously but also knew that one day I would leave that career behind for...something else. But what? I had no idea, I just had this nagging feeling. I was restless and when my situation didn't change I became severely depressed.

Was this all there was to life? To be a slave of the alarm clock? Rrrriiing. Get up. Shower. Go to work. Act important. It didn't seem right, at least not for me. Something inside was cooking and it seemed to be collecting courage for what was to follow. All I could do was prepare myself for the big jump.

When the call to adventure came I would be ready. Which meant: no mortgage, no marriage, no children, no strings, no ties.

AGA: That is big decision, to have no ties. Tell me how all this unfolded.

AB: After the journey I finished university, found myself a job as a consultant in environmental affairs and meanwhile I dreamt about working abroad. My journeys had taught me that traveling for the sake of traveling was not fulfilling. Beautiful places all start to look alike after a while, as do the travelers you meet on the road. I wanted to work and travel, that much I knew, but how to arrange that? How I longed to be an artist! But I was a biologist... so what to do?

I visited Sinaï briefly and fell in love again with the underwater world and the desert. For the next ten years I tried to find ways to stay in the desert and learn from the Bedouins how to survive and disappear. Although I came back every year and had many Sinai friends by then, I could not make it happen. I was too afraid to give up my job for ..... yes, for what exactly? I couldn't explain, but the longing was real enough.

AGA: Yes, that longing was what would carry you--but for what? That reminds me of the Rumi quote, "The longing you express is the return message." The longing is both the question and the answer.

AB: Back in Amsterdam I felt restless, frustrated, and powerless. Not for a month or even half a year but for years. The pressure was building up, how to find the valve which would release it? I made business plans, tried this idea and then another. Nothing worked.

In total desperation I finally succumbed and went to an astrologer a friend had recommended--the Dutch ministers of state are among her customers!

"My goodness", the lady astrologer said over a cup of tea, "such turmoil in your life. But something good will come up, something beyond your wildest dreams. You can't even picture it so don't try. All you must do now is keep calm and save your energy for the moment of change. Hold out for another two and a half years and all will be well."

And, I feel a little uneasy to say this, but it is exactly what happened.  

AGA: We all need to visit that astrologer! It makes sense to me that your journey would include a visit to an astrologer, actually, because you are so interested in what is unseen.

Did you have other influencers in your life that helped with that decision of leaving a career behind? Who and how did they influence you?

AB: Nobody in my family understood my restlessness, and I was told: "Be thankful to have a career going in times of economic crisis." My job came with an extra month salary every year, insurance, pension, career prospects, prestige. My colleagues at work didn't understand either. Only one of them, who became a friend, shared my lust for travel and the wish to live abroad.

What comforted me in those days was to be part of the tango community in Amsterdam. I danced all my prejudices about gender roles away, as a feminist who had defined ideas, I had never worn high heeled shoes before, let alone sexy dresses.

Tango taught me how to play. I could be a vamp, next day a bitch, or a mother or a scientist. The outfit didn't change who I am. And I found solace in the music, the melancholic melody of the accordion, which expressed the strange longing I felt for something that seemed beyond my reach.

Yes, I wanted to travel, but it was not about seeking thrills or showing off. I was and still am driven by an immense curiosity and about testing my limits, both physically and mentally. In those days I never dreamt of becoming an explorer, it just didn't occur to me that that was a possibility. Exploration was a male affair, something to do with guns and daggers, muscles and testosterone.

AGA: I think exploration is most definitely not a male affair! I am glad you changed your mind about that, and shared your gifts. But before this huge decision happened, were you writing at all?

AB: I wrote from a young age. But I never imagined a career as a writer. Authors were as far removed from my What-Would-You-Like-To-Be dreams as were explorers. I have always written stories, kept a diary, played with words, but it never occurred to me that I would want to be a writer. To be a writer you not only have got something to say, you must also want to share it. Writers were people from another planet, it was already unheard of that I went to university and all I aimed for was a meaningful job which paid well. Professionally I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers, no fiction, but informative articles that dealt with environmental issues. I had learned the basic facts of how to get a message across at university and these insights were very helpful when I started my writing career later on.

AGA: Were there other writers or influencers who attracted you to the idea of the desert? What about Egypt or Sudan, two of the countries you’ve spent significant time exploring desert regions in?

AB: No writers pointed to the desert.

Although... it is strange to say, and I write this tongue in cheek, it was God herself who pointed the way. She brainwashed me with desert scenes in the Bible and without any doubt this was the seed from which my later journeys.

Once I had embarked on my first solo journey, I was on the lookout for like- minded souls, which I found plenty of-- as my book shelves can testify. The first book I read was by Robyn Davidson, and the second was Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger.

These two books were followed by a tsunami of books about desert and desert travelers: Jane Digby, Alexandrine Tinne, Rosita Forbes, Theodor Monod, T.E. Lawrence, Pierre Loti, Bagnold, and Rohlfs, to name a few.

AGA: Eventually, you quit your job and went to the desert. Let’s talk about what you had to do to prepare for that.

AB: How to you prepare for the unknown? You can't and that is the beauty of it.

AGA: That is difficult to hear but it is also very true. Can you tell me about that first journey and how it came to be?

AB: I mentioned earlier that I first had a taste of the desert in Sinai in 1978, where I was struck by the Bedouin way of life and the ability of people to survive in such harsh conditions. After that, I kept dreaming of a long desert journey.

In 1988, an Egyptian photographer told me about Carlo Bergmann, a German who travelled in the Western Desert of Egypt with camels. He contacted the man for me in Cairo. Unfortunately we disliked each other instantly.  Carlo didn't even bother to ask me why I had wanted to meet him.

A month later, in Amsterdam, I was watching a beautiful sunset. Imagining the same sky without roofs and antennas, I thought and longed to be in the desert. I set aside my dislike for the German and visited him in Cologne to discuss a journey with him.  

It was then that Carlo mentioned that having sex with me in the desert was part of the deal.

When I told him that physical services were out of the question, "Okay. We'll do it your way, but then you’ll have to pay me extra for my services as your guide."  

I raised my eyebrows, but agreed.

"Bring condoms anyway," he wrote in a letter that arrived a week later.

I was furious and cancelled the trip.

AGA: I don't know whether to laugh, cheer you on, or get angry. These stories are all too common for women travelers! But you did end up going with him, right?

AB: The desert kept calling and just before Carlo went to Egypt I let him know I would be coming, bringing the money but no condoms. He waited for me in a small desert oasis and helped me buy my first camel.

We first made a short trip to check if things would go well between us. If not, I could always leave.  During that trip, I felt very much at home in the desert and was confident I could manage the situation with Carlo. When I told him I would continue the journey he didn't agree. My cold behavior had been such a terrible disappointment for him, he wanted me to pack my bags and leave.

So there I was, incredibly happy in my new environment, but having to leave Eden because the man I depended on was frustrated by my refusal to become intimate with him. Either I left or I agreed to have sex with him. Being a feminist the last possibility was against my principles. But extreme situations call for extreme responses and against all better instincts I agreed to pay the price.  Still, it wasn't going to be as simple as that. My cold and calculating behavior had made him impotent. My fault, he said.

To cut a long story short, we travelled together for three more weeks. The landscape was fascinating, but the man drove me crazy with his vitriolic moods. He considered himself to be the "King of the Desert" and expected me to behave according to his rules. After a month, I desperately wanted to leave and I told Carlo to bring me to an inhabited oasis. The night before my departure I watched the full moon appear from beneath the earth. The sand dunes glowed in the silver light of the moon and I could not bear the thought of leaving this magical place. I decided there and then I would continue the journey on my own--and this was pre-GPS times!

Carlo warned me that I would die if I missed the water wells en route. I nodded and asked for directions. He gave me a detailed description of the route, told me how to handle the camel I would take with me and waved goodbye.

AGA: While that sounds like a good choice for a lot of reasons, it was also a dangerous one. How did you manage?

AB: The solo journey sobered me up. It was much more difficult than I could have imagined. I nearly missed the first water well, I did miss the next one, my camel ran away and so on. But the desert was not my biggest enemy. My mind was.

Imagining romantic scenes, a fire at night and starry skies, I’d thought I would finally achieve the peace of mind I was longing for.  But the opposite was true. Not having someone to tell me where to go or what to do, I felt utterly lost. I realized that all my life I had been doing what my parents, schoolteachers, friends and bosses had expected me to do. Now that I was alone, I didn't know how to fill all the hours and minutes and I began to wonder who I was. With no people around me my identity was... lost.

I'd never realized that being alone meant that you stopped to be the person you thought you were because that person was the product of other people's images of you. In this social vacuum I had to rebuild my identity, but how?

AGA: That is the aspect of the desert and such landscapes that I think about most often: that with no one else there, who is one? Once, I walked across Spain, and for several days, managed to be entirely alone: no people, no animals, nothing. I had been looking forward to it, but once I was there, it was quite leveling. I had thought it would change me, but strangely, it did not. Did you find this to be true of your solo desert experiences?

AB: One thing that haunted me was the presumption that my stay in the desert would change my life. But things were still the same. After the trip I would go back to my job. Nothing had changed and I felt cheated, but didn't know who was to blame.

Being alone made me wonder how the German survived all the lonely winters in the desert. I tried to understand his way of thinking and slowly fell in love with his mind. I was sure the feeling would disappear as soon as I would see him again to hand over the camel I had taken for this journey, but it didn't and after my solo journey we travelled together for two more weeks.

We kept up the relationship and the next year went for another desert trip together, but he was unable to accept me as an equal desert partner and I could not accept being the second in command. So in the end I purchased my own caravan of camels and this time I was absolutely determined to make a long solo journey. Preparing for this journey I had convinced myself that if I succeeded--Carlo gave me a 30% chance to succeed--then from that moment on nothing would ever go wrong in my life. Although it was stupid and dangerous to think that way, there was some truth in my reasoning. Once you discover your true strength in the face of loneliness and panic in a hostile environment with nobody around to ask for help and guidance, what more is there to fear in later life?

AGA: That is staring courage in the face, Arita.

AB: The journey proved to be very, very difficult, and there were moments I should have returned to the inhabited world while I still could. One of the two camels was breaking down and I had lost the way, or rather my mind, and thought I was walking on Mars and would keep on walking forever, in solitude and without the camels who would surely die. When I reached the point of no return - with enough water to go back, but barely enough to reach my point of destination - I decided to continue. I'd rather have killed myself there than admit I was defeated.

 Well, I did succeed and lived to tell the story. What's more: fear didn't disappear, but when I look it straight in the eyes the monster disappears, there's only me and my scary thoughts.

AGA: Being alone in the desert sounds akin to being in another world. Can you share what it was like to be alone, and give a few excerpts from your book about exploring Egypt and Sudan solo?

AB: The desert is my home. It was love at first sight. Of course the desert kills if she can, but that is simply the way of it. I do not fight the desert, why should I? She gives herself to me, totally, and fills me with courage, vitality, lust for life. Face to face with danger I have no time to worry about futilities. Here and now, live or die, nothing else matters. To survive in this environment you must feel at ease and accept danger, yet, the minute you start to feel on top of your game, invariably something will happen to remind you who is in charge here.   

It is in the desert that Nature shows us its most uncompromising face. The magnificent play of the shadows, the comforting flood in light, and the gold glow of sand are there, of course, but only when the sun is low in the horizon. During the hours in-between, the sunlight is hard and unflattering, and it is then that the desert reveals its cruel side: equally beautiful, but disquieting.
— Arita Baaijens, Desert Songs

To be alone in the desert is pure bliss. To know that there is nobody around for hundreds and hundreds of miles, to dance under the stars, to sing and shout, to cry and laugh, to live or die without anybody ever knowing what happened is so refreshing. Our lives are ruled by fear, fear for the unknown, for not being good enough, for not being accepted, for not living up to expectations. The desert is a free zone. It is a void, filled with potential, up to you what to make of it, what to believe, which face to pull.  

As I put one foot in front of the other, I wondered whose voice I was hearing in my head. Who or what was determining my actions? Where were my thoughts coming from and where were they going? My sense of space and time altered. Sometimes minutes went by during which my head was totally empty of thought: I was one with the sun and the camels, and everything was a fine just the way it was, but as soon as a wisp of thought floated by, the clock started ticking again. .. I saw the world as a magic trick and my mind as a magician who could make things disappear and reappear at will.

AGA: Such a harsh place, and yet you write about it almost as though it is a lover, sometimes faithful, other times jilted. There is a element of completion... what about discomfort?

Heat, cold, thirst, discomfort and exhaustion didn’t bother me, and giving up my resistance to things I had no power to change had a beneficial effect on my spirit. My life now solely centered on my camels and finding water. The world simply did not exist. More and more often I thought about nothing at all and was happier than I ever thought possible.
— Arita Baaijens, Desert Songs

AB: I do not want to romanticize my life in the desert. It is a harsh existence with at least as many lows as highs. There is no enjoyment involved in battling sandstorms for days or even weeks at a time, discovering that the camels have run off, or listening to the plaintive bellowing of animals that are hungry or thirsty. 

I do not feel particularly brave standing on the edge of a cliff face that I know I must descend, even though I'm not sure how and the camels are rearing in terror and crapping all over everything. And yet, it is infinitely more satisfying to take on the elements than to join the frantic rat race to get ahead in your chosen profession.

AGA: Yes. This is an elemental truth that would change the world if people took the time to notice it! And so your draw into the desert is this quest, and you write about it being a sacred quest. Define this quest, this journey, in sacred terms.

AB: In my home country human lives are governed by the minute hand of the clock. When I grew up in the sixties and seventies the Dutch were very much taken care of from cradle to grave--has drastically changed.  The only way a young woman could test her strength and pass the threshold into adulthood was to give birth to a baby. An achievement of heroic proportion, but as I never wanted children this gateway into adulthood was closed to me. My society didn't provide any other rite of passage for a woman, so I created one for myself without realizing that this was the reason I took to the desert.

Of course I had wondered why I was risking my life on desert solo journeys, but if I had known the answer beforehand then I wouldn't have had to go and find out, or would I? All I knew is that I had this incredible longing to disappear in the desert, the longing was unexplained but nevertheless it was as real and solid as the sun, the moon and the stars. All I could do was to answer the call to adventure. That was the easy part.

AGA: Yet such journeys are not all light or fulfillment; they bring out the darkness in us as well.

AB: The more difficult part was presented in the desert, where masks go off and you are confronted with dark forces inside you: jealousy, hatred, fear and all those other demons you never knew lived inside you. Fascinating and also shocking. Because until then I pictured myself as a very civilized, reasonable and nice person.

Who could have imagined that I would see ghosts, lose my mind for a day or two, have fits of jealousy, fantasize about murder and experience hatred, as thick, black and poisonous as smoke produced by an erupting volcano. Unbelievable what the human mind is capable of once the reigns are let loose in a sterile environment, devoid of diversions, people or social structures.

 I didn't understand what was happening to me and why it was happening until I heard Joseph Campbell talk about the journey of the hero.

'That is me!'  I thought.

AGA: Indeed, it is you. I think you are still on that journey, the hero's journey.

Let's head a lighter direction and a practical one. I think one thing people will want to know is the how-to aspects of such a journey: the basic, on-the-ground necessities. Can we talk about camels? Your book, Desert Songs, is devoted to camels and they are an integral part of your trips--without them, you would not have survived.

How does one buy a caravan of camels? I’m so curious about this. I sense it’s a very complicated answer…and yet I want to know how it is done, because I feel will illuminate how determined you were to change your life and follow this call into the desert.

AB: Camels come in different shapes and sizes, but there’s not one that doesn't have a mind of his or her own. The problem is you only get to know their character after the purchase. I remember standing at the edge of a 300-metre-high limestone plateau with three camels I had just bought after a long search at the camel market in Cairo. A steep sand slide made it possible to descend, but the lead camel was afraid of heights and made a great show of sitting down. It was not until the others had reached the bottom that separation anxiety got the better of her fear of heights, and she slid down the slope.

This was not the first time I was caught unawares by the peculiarities of camels. One had a fear of climbing. Another refused to cross bridges. Sometimes my camels would take fright at a rock in the sand dunes, or bolt at the rustling of a bush. But there are spunky camels, too, born leaders with a cold-blooded streak. Unfortunately, it’s only after the deal is done that you find out whether the new acquisition is brave or timorous, energetic or lazy, or just plain full of mischief. One thing I can tell you though, if you travel solo please take female camels or nagas. They’re less strong than a male camel, but they’re friendly and don’t go around attacking people the way a dakkar does, plagued as he is by male hormones.

AGA: Do you have checklist for camel-buying? Just for fun? And for the serious camel enthusiast as well, who might be reading along?

AB: My checklist for how to buy a camel....

-Check foot soles: not too much damage from sores or previous repairs

-Check joints and back tendons, tendons should be tightly stretched when the camel sits on the ground. If not, this can be a sign of overloading

-Droppings: examine to see if camel eats sorghum or other dry food. If the camel eats grass only it has to learn to eat grain. Also, if droppings are slimy the camel is not healthy and you should treat it before going on a journey.

-Let the camel sit and stand up. If movements are not smooth, this may be a sign of injury.

-Breastbone must be intact. Look for deep indentations, they could indicate bone disease. Breastbone should not touch upper part of front legs when the camel is fully loaded.

-Mange is a contagious disease. With the loss of hair the camel lacks insulation and suffers from heat and cold. Mange can be treated with tar.

-Check the camels' back for saddle marks. You want one who is used to carry a saddle

-Notch in the nose means you are dealing with a riding camel

-Excessive spit can be a problem: spit plus wind equals spit in your face.

-Check eyes for signs of blindness--no blue hue.

- If the animal constantly turns towards the sun, it may suffer from a parasitic disease which breaks down red blood cells, Trypanosamiasis.

-Teeth should not be too worn

-Saddle must fit easily on hump

-Certain scars from branding indicate treatment for diseases

- The camel has to follow you and obey orders. Is she nervous? In that case you may have a future run away.

AGA: I can buy camels now--or at least walk around a camel market and pretend to know what I'm doing, even if I don't buy any. Any other camel tips?

AB:  Don’t forget to bring plenty of salt for your camel – a camel needs more salt than cows, it supports the metabolism and prevents mange.

AGA: Another thing I was interested in having you share was a list of important things which you took to the desert. I’m inspired by the great list-makers, who were often women that created lists as poems.

AB: Amulets, knife, ropes, water jerry cans, leather bucket, compasses, watch, maps, sorghum, salt, medicines and scalpel to treat camel diseases, small stove,  sleeping bag, thermo underwear, sunglasses, lots of sugar, turban, poems, notebooks, pens, pencils, spare saddle parts, presents, binoculars, torch, and solar panel.

AGA: Lots of sugar, poems, presents. I like this list!

After you finished this journey, you got your first book deal. How did that happen?

AB: After my first solo desert journeys I was invited by Mizzi van der Pluijm at Contact publishers to pass by for a chat.  Was I interested to write a book? I looked at the shelf behind her, filled with books from well-known writers. Why would she ask me, a beginner?

AGA: She asked you because you had good stories to tell! She saw the natural storyteller in you.

AB: She told me that writing is a craft, just like any other craft. A carpenter doesn't produce his masterpiece at the beginning of his career. It takes effort, training, discipline and of course talent. But talent is not the major ingredient for success.

She made it seem so simple.  Okay, I said, let me give you my travel diaries. If you still want to continue after reading my notes, I'll do it. She nodded. It was strange to let a stranger read uncensored notes which were extremely personal, if not outright embarrassing, because of the extreme things that had happened between me and my travel companion, the German desert explorer Carlo Bergmann. But I needed to know if I had what it took to become a writer. After she read them, Mizzi called within days: "Get started."

It was the beginning of a long process. I rewrote the manuscript several times and learned along the way. That is how I know the value of a mentor, someone who believes in you and sees your potential, even if you do not. A person who knows when to listen, when to push, when to cheer, when to kick you in the butt. I feel very privileged to have had such a great mentor and advice you to also find someone you trust, if you plan to write a book.

AGA: I agree with you. I think a good mentor is paramount to success. Someone who sees the virtue of your work and can help you refine your voice--not someone you pay, for this not a duty--but someone who destiny partners you with. It is a calling to be a mentor, and an important one. Actually, being the mentee is a calling as well.

I want to talk about how you ended up writing your current book [which comes out in August 2015] about Siberia. After you journeyed many times through the desert, you stopped going back, and chose, of all places on Earth, Siberia. What happened?

AB: After about fifteen years of desert exploration the desert was done with me: I have no other way to explain the sudden fatigue and irritation I felt on my last camel journey in the Sudanese desert. Problems I would have previously ignored or understood as a challenge now triggered anxiety and not again! sensations. It was just one nasty thing after another, until the very last day, when I had to sell my camels and was taken advantage off by the same people whom I had hired to protect me.

After the desert journey I stayed with a friend in Khartoum and slept for three full days, dead to the world, unable to face reality.

To make sure the desert had definitely turned its back on me I went from Sudan to Egypt, where I rented two camels and went for a solo journey. Every day was a trial. I did not enjoy one single moment. The love affair with the desert was definitely over and after I had returned to Amsterdam I just didn't know what to do with my life.

After three rather miserable years I decided to try my luck in Siberia.

AGA: That sounds painful. Why Siberia?

AB: Shambhala is an idea which for Buddhists is the equivalent of achieving a high state of spiritual development. And according to some, this mysterious realm is also a reality, to be found in a hidden valley surrounded by icy peaks somewhere north of the Himalayas. Insiders claim that the Altai, a pristine mountain range in southern Siberia, is high on the list of potential locations. When I heard about this, it made my heart race with joy. A search for an earthly paradise in a maze of mountain chasms and glaciers was exactly the challenge I was looking for.

Let me make something clear from the beginning. As a biologist and agnostic I do not believe in the existence of a mysterious realm where only the good prevails. My mission has a different purpose: to restore my purpose in life.

The past twenty years I wandered much of the year with camels through the deserts of North Africa. For this, I gave up a comfortable career, old age pension and love relationships. It was a price I willingly paid. Roaming between sand and rocks, I was happier than I ever thought possible, but a few years ago, the unthinkable happened: the spell was broken. The desert was done with me, the flame of inspiration was extinguished. It was a disaster for me personally, and for me as a writer. How in the name of heaven should I continue without this feeling of purpose and sacred fire. Should I be one more egg in a crate, or should I stand up because the alarm goes off?

If, during this period, I had been handed a potion that would have turned me into a stone or tree, I would have swallowed it without hesitation. After three somber years I only saw one way out and that was to find a new obsession. That is how I arrived in Siberia, where I first heard about that Shambhala might be found in the Altai Golden Mountains.

AGA: The flame of inspiration was gone--so you sought it elsewhere, in Siberia? 

AB: If the desert was my lover, Siberia was a strange uncle. It took me years to get familiar with its landscapes, it's people and their belief in sacred nature, Gods and spirits.

The desert had been my alpha and omega, my point of orientation, a refuge, a place where the mind expanded and could wander in all directions, a filled void which feeds the soul. The desert had fit me like a glove from day one. In Siberia--I none of that, at least not during the first years.

AGA: This sounds like such a difficult time for you. It must have affected your writing...

AB: What hurt most in the years after I had left the desert--or the desert had left me--was that nothing propelled me forward anymore. My drive, my raison d'être, the fire inside: totally gone.  As a result I could not write anymore. Articles, yes, but books were out of the question. Inside I was hollow, empty, raw skin with nothing underneath. The vivid adventurer and intrepid explorer was dead and gone. A miracle my hair didn't turn grey overnight, so big was the trauma of my sudden departure of the life I had known for so long.

AGA: Did Siberia cure your writer's block?   

AB: Some authors write books like others bake a delicious cake: just for the pleasure of it. Not so for me. I suffered from a writer's block for many years after I had left the desert.

The thought of having to produce 250 pages created nausea after several failed attempts to write about my experiences in Siberia, which I had visited ever since 2007 on a yearly basis to search for Shambhala.

On my journeys into the mountains I had met with prophets, visionaries, charlatans, herders, throat singers. I had visited shaman clinics, holy mountains and even a professor who operated a time machine.,,,but somehow my writing lacked urgency and an undercurrent..it was too anecdotal. I tried different styles and different genres. A travel journal, blogs, columns, free writing, scenes. Sadly nothing worked. No matter how hard I tried - and believe me I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages - the writing was not bad but missed sparkle, flavor, and heart.

One day I was doing the dishes,  and I decided to quit being a writer.Who needed books anyway?

The world was changing, multi-media was hot and I had plenty of visual material to tell stories without writing a single word. Surprise, surprise: visual stories need a script! As the Bible says so beautifully: In the beginning is the word. Writing a script tricked me into writing a book.

AGA: I love how that Biblical line keeps showing up just when you need it. Everything is full circle, and there you are, going back to your beginnings again, your childhood. And this when things began to come to life again for you?

AB: The real turn around happened after my solo journey in the summer of 2014. On horseback I crossed valleys, a steep mountain pass and several rivers to reach the barren and uninhabited Ukok plateau, a high land surrounded by white capped mountains, right on the border with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia.  I went to have an intimate conversation with the mountains, rivers and moors to try and understand the sacredness of nature, much in the way of the indigenous peoples of Altai. Until know I only had an inkling, and what I needed was time alone with nature. My guide was the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, or to be more exact: his heteronym Alberto Caeiro, who wrote that thinking is not a matter of logic but of the senses.

AGA: Your book, your experiences in Siberia, are a love letter to the Siberian landscape: an unflinching love-making...can you talk about how you write about Nature?

AB: Nature is my most important companion, apart from my horse or camel. I am attracted to vast landscapes where the climate is so extreme that people cannot live there, or if they can, then only as nomads who move their yaks, camels or reindeer from one grazing ground to another. In such an environment, Nature is no longer decoration for a nice outing, but a Force. It can kill and demands respect from the small and insignificant fly on the wall you are.

When I am in such powerful places, it doesn't take long to I find myself communicating with the Force, map and compass in hand. Sometimes I negotiate, sometimes I curse or babble nonsense like lovers do. At other times I feel so ecstatic that I want to dance, cry, and laugh, like I did last summer on the Ukok highland in southwest Siberia, a kingdom of snow- capped mountains, glaciers, rivers, peat, moss, grass. When I am alone with the Force and feel its power, I not only am aware of the razor blade in my stomach, but I also start to notice things I didn't notice before. Fear and awe create acute awareness for your surroundings.

AGA: I find fear and subsequent risk to be important elements of travel writing, because of the afterglow: once the risk has passed, and there is a meeting, a oneness. In your case this is you and the Force meeting, even if only briefly...

Who do you feel captures the Force well in their travel writing?

AB: Someone who writes in great detail about seemingly unimportant details in landscapes, details which escape most of us when hike in the woods, is Robert Macfarlane. Read his The Last Wilderness or The Old Ways and you enter a world of incredible beauty, not a Barbie-type of beauty, but something to do with battered and eroded cliffs, a swim in ice-cold water, dampness, old trees that whisper.

Macfarlane surrenders to the landscape: on his wandering he takes calculated risks to create more awareness plus he takes the time to listen to what nature has to say. Tim Robinson, cartographer and writer, wrote three books, each one as thick and solid as a Bible, about the landscape in the south west of Ireland, where he lives. Such a detailed way of describing different layers of landscape is called Deep Mapping. Every landscape is like an onion with many peels, to get to its core requires a lot of patience and dedication.

AGA: I am devoted fan of both Macfarlane and Robinson--in fact, The Old Ways has a favorite line of mine. “We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places - but we are far less good at saying what places make of us...”

AB: Reading poetry and books by giants like Robert Macfarlane, Tim Robinson, Barry Lopez, Jay Griffiths, and of course, John Muir helps me to find my own voice and to even dig deeper in my conversations with Nature. The writing flows naturally from observing and noticing structures and forms in the landscape, scents, color nuances, the feel and quality of the wind and legends connected with a certain tree, rock or place.

The better and in more detail one observes - drawing or sketching helps - the better the writing. Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton dedicated a chapter to ways of seeing in his book The Art of Travel. He quotes the 19th century painter John Ruskin, famous for his detailed paintings of natural objects and phenomena.

AGA: I'm so glad you brought up de Botton's Art of Travel, and the chapter on Ruskin is the one of the best: On Possessing Beauty. Ruskin believes that we have a innate desire to possess beauty, and asks two questions: do we really see what we are looking at--and how much do we see if we do? Two great quotes from Ruskin are “By attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.” (and) “Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.”

Writing is art and art is Nature.

AB: In the desert I developed the habit of tasting words on my tongue. This happened during grueling long marches of eight hours a day under a hot sun. Sometimes the desert landscape was so monotonous and uninviting, and my mind so empty of thought, that I felt desperate.

How to fill the hours ahead of me? That's when I started the habit of picking a color, or stone, or something else I would see in front of me and try to come up with the exact words to describe what I saw. Kept me going for hours!

Another habit I developed is to send a daily but imaginary telegram home, maximum word count twenty. The telegram describes my situation and the act of putting together a string of words not only fights panic, despair or boredom, but it also helped me to value and understand the power of a word, the impact of where you place a word in a sentence, the effect of a comma more or less.

AGA: Do you think the travel writer writes as an outsider? I’ve heard claim to both inside and outside. Does the travel writer belong?

AB: A travel writer is always an outsider, whatever we try, we can never completely abandon our roots. The more I travel, the more I immerse myself in other cultures, the more I understand the "Dutchness" in me. That is perfect, as long as I understand my position and am open to other views, other ways of seeing and explaining the world. Sometimes you cannot stay an outsider, to be able to understand rituals, healing practices, belief systems, you have to immerse yourself in those practices.

For example, I noticed I cannot write insightful about shamanism if I never tried to journey myself. To know what a shaman sees you cannot stay an outsider, you have to take the prescribed drugs or give yourself to the beat of the drums so you know from the inside what that is like.

When you come out of the experience and wish to write about it, you can do so as the outsider with the added knowledge of the insider. If you lose the outsider standpoint of view when writing, you may lose the connection with your audience, who probably won't understand what you are talking about. Also, it would be wrong to pretend that you, the initiated, can now speak for the tribe or culture you try to understand. We need to be careful and humble in this respect.

AGA: What are the advantages of being an outsider?

AB: A travel writer is exposed to different cultures, languages, rules and even laws. It doesn't take long to realize that cultures, including your own, are a construct. Every culture had to find its own solutions and answers to face the challenges the environment offered. Depending on where you grew up - islands in the Pacific, mountains in Central Asia, below sea-level in the Netherlands, a Peruvian jungle - the answers, stories and myths to help navigate its inhabitants through life differ. So basically, there is no right or wrong way to explain the world and our existence. All models are valid, albeit different. The realization that absolute truth does not exist may cause great confusion, but it can also create an enormous sense of wonder, of freedom even.

My goodness, the world is how we want to see it!  It is a stage, as Shakespeare already knew. Change your perspective and you change the world you live in. Meaning: Endless points of view, creation without limits, constant change; what more can a writer ask for? Yes, you are an outsider, fantastic!

To be a good observer you have to be an outsider. When you become too intimately involved with the culture,  you may no longer see what makes this culture so special. So the challenge is to immerse yourself in your new environment, but never lose the observant eye which helps you see the wonder, stay critical, and ask the right questions.

AGA: How does that theme of belonging or being on the outside translate into your relationship with the desert?

AB: The desert is me and I am the desert. No inside /outside, up until the point something goes wrong. Then, in a snap second, the desert turns from friend into enemy, albeit a very impersonal enemy.

The desert is just desert, she has been there for centuries and millennia, and will still be there long after I am gone. She doesn't care if I live or die, it is of no consequence to her, I am just a tiny speck which is there one minute and gone the next. Instantly my system goes into survival mode. I sense, smell and taste fear. My breathing goes faster, adrenaline rush, my vision changes, enormous focus, unreasonable actions. This is panic, I realize. If I want to survive I have to calm down first. Stop, unload the camels, drink water, accept the facts, and wait until my hands stop shaking. The soft shaped sand dunes are no longer beautiful...well, actually they are still beautiful, but now their edge has changed from a buttock or soft breast into a very sharp knife made of steel. Silent sand dunes and rocks for hundreds of miles around.

I just stare into the distance, a hobbit, lost in space, with no defense to speak of.

Just wit and will. I remember such moments of snap transition vividly, as if it happened yesterday.

AGA: How does one write in the desert or on these harsh journeys? It seems like it would be difficult given the practicalities.

AB:  I love pens & paper. The first thing I do upon arriving in a strange place is head for a stationary shop. On all my journey I bring notebooks of different sizes. A tiny one with a spiral on top, which fits in my breast pocket. I take it out many times a day to jot down my course, notes about the environment, thoughts. As I have to keep on walking or riding while I write, I only use keywords and write in short hand. Nobody can decipher my scribbled notes, not even me sometimes.

Every evening I sit down and write my diary, using the notes I took during the day. Free style writing: impressions, thoughts, descriptions, a list of geographical coordinates, flora and fauna. Details matter! So I never economize on that and describe my emotions, the landscape, the people I met and also my thoughts in great detail.

I also take lots of pictures and keep my iPhone charged and handy for that purpose. 

In the early days of my travels the smartphone didn't exist and to take a picture required me to stop the caravan, get the camera out of its protective suitcase, tie the camels down, and then take a shot. Which of course almost never happened... the caravan had to keep moving!

AGA: How about when you return home: how do these notes come to life?

AB: When I write an article or book and get stuck, I always go back to my notes. And it never stops to amaze me how fresh, vivid and spot on my descriptions are. When I write my travel journal after a long day in the field my inner censor is absent, I am just happy to sit down and let my pen to the work. No thinking is required, I write in free flow style, and some of it is better than anything I try to compose sitting behind my desk.

AGA: What kind of advice do you have for people who want to write a book?

AB: To write a book because you want to be published is not a good enough reason. Don't believe your dear ones if they say you should absolutely write a book because your stories are so interesting. Of course they like to listen to you, they love you! The point is: Do you have something important to say, something that matters, something you feel passionate about, something that has to see the light?

If so, get started right away. If not, keep a notebook or start blogging until the topic emerges.

Another great help was my mentor at my publishing house, who advised me to read a chapter in John Gardner's book The Art of Fiction. An eye-opener. Gardner describes the mistakes most beginners make and if you are an aspiring writer, you must read that chapter, it will save you a lot of trial and error.

As my publisher said: a writer needs talent, but writing is a craft like any other. To become good at what you do, you need to exercise that talent by reading other writers and improving your skills, you need to expand your repertoire, which you can do, for example, by copying styles of different writers. Immerse yourself in poetry, novels, non-fiction. Eat, breathe and jot down beautiful words. Taste them on your tongue. Try dialogue, different tenses, write a script for a movie to understand plot and the sequence of scenes. Never ever think your work is done, stay curious, play, there so much to learn. Writing is a lifelong process.

AGA: I always ask each interviewee this question: tell me three things you own which you have collected from your travels, and why they are significant to you.

AB: Sudanese amulets against scorpions and bullets, given to me by camel herding nomads. When traveling in the desert I always were these amulets, as they connect me to the land and the people whom I admire and love. My first flint tools/potsherds with graffiti. And strings of hairs from my favorite camels.

AGA: What is next for you?

AB: In August 2015 my book Search for Paradise will see the light: this is about my Siberian journeys.

AGA: Arita, thank you! This has been an amazing Conversation: it's a gift to have you in this series. I can't wait for your Siberia book to come out!

Readers, please leave a comment and share the interview, just after her bio below. Scroll on the arrow and choose where to share. Sharing is caring! Thank you. Her book is on Amazon and the link is both here and on the right hand column of the website! -AGA

Arita Baaijens is an explorer, biologist, author, photographer, and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Explorers Club, the Long Riders Guild, and WINGS Worldquest, who recently selected her for one of their distinguished awards.  Currently she travels and works in Siberia and Central Eurasia researching sacred landscapes and traditional cultures. In March of 2015 the Spanish Geographical Society honored her as Traveler of the Year. She has written numerous articles about her journeys and several books, including the award-winning Desert Songs: A Woman Explorer in Egypt and Sudan. Her upcoming book Search for Paradise will be out in August 2015. You can follow her on Twitter and her website.

In Conversation With Nayomi Munaweera

Welcome to the Conversations Series: these are a series of long form, in depth interviews with writers of multiple genres about travel themes. Some of those include place, exile, belonging, home, habitat, quest, and craft. I started the series in 2015 with Tim Cahill, Patricia Schultz, James Dorsey and Raquel Cepeda. This year began with Jeff Greenwald and Harrison Solow, and next up is the vibrant and thoughtful Nayomi Munaweera.

She wrote a gorgeous and devastating work of fiction called Island of A Thousand Mirrors. This story--a travel story--of exile, belonging, and migration--is one of the best books I've ever read. Read on below for an in depth conversation with this mega talented writer.
 

Photo credit: Sequoia Emmanuel  

Photo credit: Sequoia Emmanuel
 

AGA: I would like to start with talking about your own travels in your childhood. You’re from Sri Lanka, and you traveled with your family to Nigeria in 1976. Then in 1984, your family left Nigeria and came to the United States. Can you speak to the reasons why you family undertook such journeys: why leave Sri Lanka? Why leave Nigeria?

NM: I was born in Sri Lanka in 1973. When I was 3 years old my family immigrated to Nigeria, Africa. My parents left Sri Lanka because the island was going through some dark economic times and my father who was an engineer could not find a good job. There were huge South Asian communities all over Africa and we were part of that diaspora. Nigeria had just discovered oil and the country was hiring engineers to create a greater infrastructure. My father was one of those engineers. We lived in various parts of Nigeria, some of them quite rural, from 1976 until 1984.

While we were in Nigeria, in 1982, civil war broke out in Sri Lanka. This war between the Tamil Tigers (a terrorist group) and the Sri Lankan military went on for 26 years and only ended in 2009. My parents had only planned to be out of Sri Lanka for a few years, but the fact that there was a war back home meant that we couldn’t return. We planned to stay in Africa until the war was over.

In 1984 in Nigeria there were rumors of an impending military coup. The entire expatriate community that we were part of disbanded quickly and people left for all corners of the world. The fear was that we would be attacked as had happened to Asians in Uganda a few years prior under the dictatorship of Idi Amin.

We were really at a crossroads. We couldn’t go back to Sri Lanka as the war there was now raging. My parents worked tirelessly to try and get our family, now including my three year old sister to safety. Very luckily, an uncle who had lived in Los Angeles since the 1970’s agreed to sponsor us. We landed in Los Angeles in 1984.

AGA: Let’s talk to about that move to the United States. You arrived as an outsider, an experience you’d already been through once in Nigeria—and had learned to adapt. Now you had a yet another place to adapt to. What was this like?

NM: When we immigrated to Nigeria, I was only 3. At that age, nothing is strange so I think that going from Sri Lanka to Nigeria was relatively painless for me. I’m sure my parents had a hard time adapting to all kinds of things, but I don’t have early memories of that move. I do remember being sad that we were leaving my grandparents and my cousins. But we went back to Sri Lanka for a month every year so I was also very connected to my family there.

Arriving in America at the age of 12 was a much harder and stranger experience. In Nigeria we lived in small remote villages, but I had always gone to school with both Nigerian and other expatriate kids. I was used to a lot of diversity. Now, in America, almost all of the kids in my school were white. I was one of the very few Asians. I remember that they had the only Indian girl in the school show me around. I remember thinking, “I’m not Indian. Why did they choose this girl?” and then realizing she was the only one in the school who looked like me. She and I very quickly separated. Both of us were trying to fit in and neither wanted to be lumped in with the only other south Asian person at the school. There was this intense pressure to fit in. There were decisions to be made about what to wear, what music to listen to, how to do one’s hair. In Nigeria, I had always worn a uniform and regulation shoes. There was no freedom or choice, the idea of teenage expression did not exist. But in America being a teenager was very much about expressing individuality in a way I had never experienced before. It took years before I felt somewhat American.

AGA: That is interesting, the mention of individuality as part of the American experience. I often get confronted with this as a traveler—an American traveler—when I go to other countries that don’t have the same emphasis.  But returning to those two journeys—Sri Lanka to Nigeria, and Nigeria to the United States—how have they defined you as a traveler today?

NM: I grew up with the idea that travelling extensively and belonging to different places and cultures was very normal. I took my first flight at the age of 3. My parents had never met a black person before they went to Africa. My father had only been to India before this. My mother had never left the island. I say this to show you what a huge step immigrating was for them at that time. The decision to leave Sri Lanka was economic but it was also a very bold and brave thing. They left everything and everyone they knew and made a new life far away. However, in the pursuit of a better life for their young family, they were prepared to move continents.

When you grow up like this, between various cultures, there is a sense of displacement. But at the very same time, one also feels like a global citizen. I do have a sense--possibly a misguided sense--that I could land in many different places on the globe and make a life there if I needed to.

AGA: You say that your parents’ “sense of boldness has informed you.” Obviously that changed the way you saw the world at large and your role inside of it. Yet you also talk about displacement and almost intimate a transitory quality about what you see as “home.”

This leads me to want to dig deeper and ask you about the themes of belonging and exile. These are two strong currents in your life, in your writing, and in the travel genre itself. How do these two themes color your life and your work?

NM: As an immigrant, issues of [voluntary] exile and belonging inform my life. This is also true as a writer.

For example, in Sri Lanka I am seen as an American and my book is taught in classes like “Diaspora Writing.” Meanwhile in America, although I have lived here since 1984 and been a citizen since 1986, I’m not really regarded as an American, since American for the most part is still defined as white. My book is considered Asian Fiction. So there is always the sense of having my feet in two different and disparate cultures. There is always an attempt to try and stitch together the different parts of my existence. There is a Sri Lankan self and an American self and they are somewhat different. I do have to change and shape-shift depending on where I am. These changes have to do with things like language, dress, and gesture, but also occur on a deeper, quieter level. You simply are a different person in different settings.

I think grappling with these issues of non-belonging are very good for a writer. They force you to always be on the outside looking in, observing, and I think this is a very useful trait for a writer.

AGA: Watching for signs and signals is key to writing well, and keen observation means attention to detail, which is something you master in your writing. And I also am interested in how your book and voice are heard: I read your book, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, and to me, it was a travelogue. Fiction, yes. But a travelogue, a series of journeys…

Circling back to exile and belonging, has the way you have experienced these two things changed over time, or has your definition of what they are changed? Has writing been a catalyst for these changes?

NM: Over time I have become more comfortable with my in-between state. This has a lot to do with writing about it. In working out these conflicts in my journals and in my novels, I do think I have a better, more integrated sense of self around these issues.

Before my first novel was published. I had a great deal of doubt about whether I had the authority to write about the Sri Lankan civil war because I did not grow up in Sri Lanka during the war years. I had been far away and in safety in Nigeria and America while this war was being fought. My family always spent a month of every year in Sri Lanka, no matter where in the world we were living, and this is where a lot of the catalyst for writing about the conflict came from. But I wondered whether I had the right to tell this story, being as I am, privileged by the fact that I am Sinhala --the majority ethnicity in Sri Lanka--and an American citizen.

I started writing the novel in 2001. I finished in 2009 and tried to find an American publisher. Every publishing house said no so I put the book away and started writing another. In 2011 I was introduced to a Sri Lankan publisher who wanted the book. It was hugely validating to me that people in Sri Lanka, most of whom had experienced the war I had written about were willing to publish it. Even more significant was the fact that when the book was out in Sri Lanka, I started to hear from people there who said, yes this is how it was. Yes you got it right. This was despite the fact that the government at that time which controlled all media was publishing reviews extolling people not to read it.

In the same way, I’ve often felt strange about being some sort of cultural ambassador of Sri Lanka in the US. I’ll never consider myself an expert on Sri Lanka but I am accepting that my relationship with it is deep and intimate and from this place I can talk about it.

AGA: You’ve talked about how others see your work. How do you see it? How do you categorize it?

NM: I don’t really categorize it. This is the book that came to me. The characters in it are mostly Sri Lankans. Some of them are dealing with migration to the United States. Others are in the midst of the war in Northern Sri Lanka. Beyond this specificity, their feelings and emotional states, the joys and sorrows they have to confront are universal. Their experiences they could easily apply to people of any ethnicity and in any place.

AGA: You decided to write a book, a fictional book, based on that early experience you had/ the conflict itself/ and how it affected people in Sri Lanka. Let’s talk about the book title first: Island of a Thousand Mirrors. Can you give the meaning behind the title?

NM: Since the book is about a civil war I’m playing with the idea of mirrors, as in the enemy one is fighting is, the self. The Tamils and Sinhalese--the two warring ethnicities-- in Sri Lanka have a long and intimate history, sometimes fighting, sometimes marrying, so I wanted to invoke the sense that we are fighting intimate enemies, ourselves. There are also other explanations of the title tucked into the book. I like titles that have multiple meanings, so that as you read the book, you also discover these.

AGA: Secret meanings to be discovered: inventive! The book must have been controversial for you to write, and yet you felt called to do so. What was the calling, and why did you follow it?

NM: In my experience writers don’t choose books, books choose writers.

AGA: I think you are right; yet, some writers resist the call for a long time. You didn’t.

NM: I knew that this was touchy material, but when I was first writing, in 2001, it didn’t matter. This was the story that was inside me and the story that wanted to be told. I had a compulsion to write and a compulsion to write about these particular characters.

At that stage I wasn’t thinking about publication. That wasn’t the motivation. And since it wasn’t my motivation I could write about whatever I felt like. I didn’t think about it as particularly controversial--although it turned out to be--I was just writing to try and work out my own ideas of belonging and exile, my own relationship to the war happening in the country of my birth.

 I realize this makes it sound like the writing was easy. It wasn’t. But it was also deeply joyous. Some part of me really loved doing that work. It still does.

AGA: So you never thought about publishing it? It just was the process of writing the story that drew you in? That is, to me, the very best kind of writing: so free.

You are a self-taught writer. And that is very exciting to me, because I’m self-taught as well. Can you talk about the process of deciding to “be” a writer, and writing your book?

NM: In 2001, I was finishing a PhD in English Literature and had to write a dissertation. However, all that was coming to me was bits of this book. I tried to submit fiction, but they couldn’t accept it. So I left the program, dropped out, moved to Berkeley, got a job at a community college and started writing my novel.

I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t think it would ever be published. It’s not that I didn’t want it published. I just never imagined that publication--which is so insanely hard to achieve-- would happen to my book. I didn’t think anyone in America would care about this war happening to people far away.

For many years I didn’t show my work to anyone. Later I took a few workshops, VONA and Squaw Valley. But that was after the book was selected for publication in Sri Lanka.

AGA: So you did go to a few writing workshops, but only after it had been accepted, but you didn’t show the book to anyone while you were in the process of crafting it?

NM: I have a horror of showing my work too early as I think it can easily be shifted away from the author’s own vision.

AGA: I agree. I think you can lose your voice. It happened to me a few times and it was leveling. Better to work out the details on your own, I think—or just with a few very trusted mentors.

NM: The idea of work-shopping anything--and getting various views on what’s wrong with it-- scares the heck out of me. I think it’s healthy for young writers to struggle in solitude for many years and try to figure it out what they are saying for themselves. I don’t show work to my editor unless it’s as close to perfection as I can get it. As you said, I have a few trusted readers but they only see it very late in the game when I’m quite sure of my own voice. But these folks are precious and invaluable. Every writer needs them. They can be hugely influential.

AGA: Can you talk about the act of writing a book without formal training? What did you have to teach yourself, and where did that teaching of yourself begin? 

NM: I think my true education came from reading voraciously since childhood. I continued this all the way through my PhD.

AGA: What were some of these early books that were major influencers for you in your childhood?

NM: Gerrald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals; Enid Blyton, Folks of the Faraway Tree; Asterix and Obelix.

I don’t think any of these titles are familiar in America but anyone who grew up in the ex-colonies will recognize them. For American readers I’ll add, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and the Flowers in the Attic series. I was obsessed with these as a teenager.

AGA: And in adulthood?

NM: Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children; Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things; Anita Desai, Feasting, Fasting; Lional Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin; Toni Morrison, Beloved; Yann Martel, Life of Pi

AGA: There is the process of reading and absorption, and then there is organic talent that writers naturally have. Your foundation came from your reading, but what did the process of creating actually look like?

NM: I’ve journaled avidly since I was 13. Now looking back I can see that crafting my experience in this way keeps the writing muscle supple.

The idea that you can work through emotion, hardship or trauma by writing about it is very important to me. I keep seeing studies that point to the therapeutic effects of writing about one’s life. I was always doing this but didn’t realize it was an exercise that would serve me well until much later.

The everyday act of creating looks messy and chaotic. Some days it all flows beautifully and I think I’m a genius. The next day I’ll delete every word because I now am convinced it is all crap and that I’m an idiot. On the third day I’ll rewrite everything erased the previous day. My creative process consists of ping-ponging between grandiosity and self loathing on a daily basis. Now I realize this is just a normal part of being an artist. I call it an occupational hazard and I’m much better at letting the highs and lows just flow.

I see writing novels as marathons. There’s nothing fast or easy about it. It’s a long labor of love, patience and discipline.

AGA: Writing a novel as a marathon. That is a fascinating way to describe it: there is always the next section, endlessly. In your case, the marathon of the writing alone took eight years. That’s very long time.

Perhaps too, one thing about your book is that it is fiction, and the development of the characters and story took time to happen. Talking about fiction, there are people who don’t think that fiction fits into the travel genre; yet, obviously one quick look at your book belies that assumption. How do you think fiction fits into the travel genre?

NM: I think when a book transcends one setting and talks about what it means for a character to move between places, physically and psychologically, you can see it as a travel book.

AGA: Can you give a few examples of fictional books which you think cross with ease into the travel genre?

NM: I’m thinking of: The Life of Pi, The Poisonwood Bible, The Satanic Verses, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 

AGA: You are a person of color. How does this affect how you see the publishing industry and opportunities for yourself and other people of color? Your book was published first in Sri Lanka. Did this make the publishing experience easier here?

NM: I tried to publish in America for three to four years and was completely unsuccessful. My agent at the time tried to sell the book and then eventually stopped taking my phone calls probably because he probably got sick of giving me bad news.

I then found a publisher in Sri Lanka through a mutual friend. This first publisher printed 1000 books out of their tiny office. There was no advance. Then the book was picked up in India and nominated for some of the region’s biggest prizes. It ended up winning the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. This is when America called me. There was a mini bidding war and then the book came out in Sept 2014 in America.

I think it’s very difficult for writers of color. There are a few folks who are hugely and rightly successful like Jumpha and Junot but if you are an unknown POC writer in America, it’s tremendously difficult to get published. But the stories these writers are telling are really interesting and fresh and they need to be told.

I was at the Japiur Literary Festival in India in 2013 and they were talking about the new American voice and everyone they talked about was a POC writer. So the very definition of American writer as male and white is being rightly challenged. These are the most interesting voices to me: Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, Celeste Ng, No Violet Bulawayo, Sugi Ganeshanathan, Jessamy Ward, Chris Abani, Sandip Roy, to name a few.

AGA: Favorite travel book?

NM: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondatjee

AGA: Despite the fictional narrative of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, it feels very real. What is the basic story of the book?

NM: The novel is about two young women, one from either side of the Sri Lankan civil war telling their account of this 26 year long conflict. It’s about love, war, belonging and exile. At its heart, it’s the story of a nation struggling to find itself.

AGA: How did your own personal experiences come into play in the story?

NM: My family travelled back to Sri Lanka during summers so we were often there during some of the violence. The war was going on in the North and the East while we were safe in Colombo which is in the South. But there was always the possibility of a bus or bank in Colombo being blown up by the Tigers. I think being there at those times gave me a sense of what it must mean for my loved ones who were living there to grapple with the possibility of being hurt or killed at any time.

AGA: There is a dichotomy between war life and real life. Your thoughts on this imbalance and difference?

NM: When a war goes on for 26 years there has to be some escape. You can’t be embroiled in it all the time or you will lose your mind.

My cousin who lived in Colombo through the war talks about the fact that he, his wife and two daughters would not get on the same bus together during those years. They would always split up. This was in the case that the bus was bombed. By splitting up, at least some of them would survive. But the point is, they still got on the bus. They had to go to work, the kids had to go to school. On some level they had to carry on as if a war was not happening. So in Sri Lanka, both things were happening, a war went on for 26 years and people lived their normal everyday lives through it.

I think what’s interesting is that after the war, the period of 2009 to 2015, there was a real push towards amnesia and silence about what happened during the war years. The government that won the war--through brutal means which has them accused of war crimes--would imprison and disappear journalists or activists who dared talk about it or criticize them.

AGA: What has been your experience writing and publishing a story about something some people would like to not even be discussed?

NM: When my book first came out in Sri Lanka in 2012, the pro-government media--all media was controlled by the state--attacked it saying that the subject of the war was an obsolete one and that no one should be writing about it. That was a scary time because as I said, that government was imprisoning and disappearing journalists and activists. I was in Sri Lanka for the book launch and when the articles came out attacking the book and I was really afraid that there would be a banging on my door at night. I have know other people who have been taken away to be questioned and escaped through luck so it was a very scary time and there was a very real push towards silence.

This government was overthrown in a democratic election in January 2015. It remains to be seen how the new government will deal with the memory of that war, minority rights, and press freedoms.

AGA: Travel writing is often seen as pleasure writing. But your book describes war and conflict interlaced with lucid and beautiful details. Is writing about what is real and not what we wish to find part of the travel genre as you see it?

NM: Some of the characters in the novel I wrote were going through a war. So there was no way I couldn’t try to represent that. I think writing about what we see, writing about the truth, as experienced by characters is essential in any kind of writing.

AGA: Do you feel you have written about place that no longer exists? 

NM: The early part of my book is set in the pre-war Sri Lanka of my dad’s youth and that place with its very pristine nature and innocence doesn’t exist anymore. I was also writing about a war that ended in 2009 so the more horrific and active warfare is over. Sri Lanka is changing rapidly. I was there in 2012 and then in 2014 and the changes are astounding. But other things, like the food, the ocean, these never change.

AGA: Your book has a strong sense of place: this comes from your knowing it deeply, despite your distance from it. Your gift for description is really what struck me about how you reconstructed the Sri Lanka of your 12 year old imaginings and dealings. Can you share a passage that shows a strong sense of place?

NM: “In the months before the thunderous monsoon, the ocean tugs at his toes, wraps sinuous limbs about his own and pulls him into its embrace, out until it is deep enough to dive, head first, feet overhead, inverted and submerged. Eyes open against stinging salt, he sees coral like a crowded, crumbling city, busy with variously marked, spotted, dotted, striped, lit, pompous and playful sea creatures. Now and then, he encounters the curious, swiveling eye of a small red octopus emerging from secret passageways. Approached recklessly, the octopus blanches a pure white and with an inky ejaculation, torpedoes away. So he learns to approach slowly, in rhythm with the gently rolling water, until the creature coming to know this stick-limbed biped, is lulled enough to allow his quiet presence.

 Further out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a hundred mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.

 When he emerges dripping from the sea, it is to find this father, the village ayurvedic doctor, perched on an upturned catamaran, deep in conversation with the fisher-folk who squat on their heels before him.

The fishermen wear sarongs splotched with octopus ink. Their hands are leathered by handling rope, mending nets, wrestling sharks by their tails onto the beach. They are ruthless with the flesh of the creatures they catch, upturning gentle sea turtles in the sand to carve off chunks of the living flesh. The turtles bleed slowly, drip salt tears from the corners of their ancient eyes. In this way the meat stays fresh for days, the fishermen explain. For similar reasons the fishermen grasp just caught octopuses and turn them inside out, exposing delicate internals that flash through cycles of color. Decades later, in America, when my father sees Christmas lights for the first time, he will astound us with the observation that they look just like dying octopuses.”

AGA: How do the senses evoke a place to you?

NM: If you talk authentically about the smells, tastes, sights, feeling of a place, the reader should be able to connect. It’s always good to notice the details that no one else is paying attention to. As a visitor, you’re granted a fresh view of this place that the people living there probably no longer see. They might have a much better idea of how it all works, but you have the un-spoilt eyes of new experience. Capturing this can be really powerful.

AGA: That’s true. I think often writers are forgetful of this fresh view.

NM: I’ve had readers in Sri Lanka say, “You know I’ve seen that a million times, but I never noticed it until I read it in your book.” They say this about various things. One example, the way the sea salt scent and the fragrance of jasmine combine in parts of Colombo. If you’ve lived there all your life you might not notice anymore. But as an outsider I will notice, revel in it and write about it.

AGA: Give me an example from your writing that demonstrates this....

NM: “On the new nation’s flag is poised a stylized lion, all curving flank and ornate muscle, a long, cruel sword gripped in its front paw. It is the ancient symbol of the Sinhala who believe that they are descended from the lovemaking between an exiled Indian princess and a large jungle cat. A green stripe represents that small and much-tossed Muslim population. An orange stripe represents the larger Tamil minority.

But in the decades that are coming, race riots and discrimination will render the orange stripe inadequate. It will be replaced by a new flag. On its face, a snarling tiger, all bared fang and bristling whisker. If the idea of militancy is not conveyed strongly enough, dagger clawed paws burst forth while crossed rifles rear over the cat’s head.

A rifle toting tiger. A sword gripping lion. This is a war that will be waged between related beasts.”

This early passage in the book describes the flags of the two enemies who fought in the Sri Lankan war. I’ve had Sri Lankan readers tell me they never thought of their flags as militant until they read this passage.

My point is that when you live with something on a daily basis, you cease to really see it. This is just a condition of being human. The writer’s job is partly to point out the unseen in the everyday.

AGA: How does a writer show and not tell? This is so important in the travel genre, and yet many writers miss this fundamental rule. How do you show and not tell?

NM: I try to tell the story by capturing vignettes from a character’s life. If the character is real enough, authentic enough, and if as the writer, you have really done your work to tap into them, then you can show the reader that scenes from their lives, their thoughts and it will ring true. But the writer has to do the hard work first. Otherwise readers will sense that it is inauthentic.

AGA: Hmmm..how do you tap into someone? Give me an example of a character you’ve written about and how you got close enough to let them show you their story.

NM: The character whose life is furthest from mine is Saraswathie from my debut novel. She lives in a village in northern Sri Lanka.  That part of the country was closed off from the rest of the country for most of the war so I had never seen it until long after the book was published and the war was over.

When I was writing that book, I was reading everything I could find about life in the war zones and thinking about what it might be to be a young Tamil girl in the midst of the war. I had written a great deal from the perspective of the other main character when Sarawathie’s voice started popping up in my head. I really didn’t want to write her story as it’s quite emotionally difficult. But at some point I realized her point of view was extremely important. So I started reading everything I could find about people in her situation. At some point her voice got clearer to me. I felt like I could picture her and how she would respond to certain scenarios, to trauma and othering. Her experience was the furthest from my own but she is also my very favorite character so far. Writing her took me to some real depths since in order to render her emotionally real I had to imagine being in the terrible situations she finds herself in.

AGA: One reason I choose this book for the series and also you--- is that it is story of someone leaving where they belong, and going somewhere else, perhaps against their will. Is that a travel story? I think it is.

It’s different than the travel stories we hear, which are usually about leaving a place by choice and going somewhere one chooses. What are the differences and similarities between these narratives in your personal experience?

NM: Migration is, of course, different from travel for pleasure. But I wouldn’t say that my family was made to go anywhere against our wills. We found ourselves in various moments of history that necessitated movement but we were never forced to flee for our lives as so many refugees are around the world. In this we were quite privileged. My experience seems to fall somewhere between the trauma suffered by someone who is forced to flee and the ease of someone choosing to travel.

What we did find was that both of these migrations necessitated a remaking of the self.

We are not the same people we would have been if my parents never left Sri Lanka. We don’t know what our lives would have been if we stayed. There would have been different sadnesses and different joys in our lives.

 AGA: What other writers can you suggest that write stories of migration?

NM: Jhumpha Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Michael Ondatjee, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie all write beautifully about the experience of migration. 

AGA: I like to end each interview with something more intimate and personal. Tell me two things that you own that symbolize either your exile or your belonging, and why.

NM: My apartment is full of things from both Sri Lanka and parts of Africa. I have some pottery that my cousin’s 13 year old daughter made for me that are especially beloved. She’s very talented and she makes these pieces and sells them in Sri Lanka. When I was there in December 2014, I picked out a few vases and bowls and she carefully wrapped them up for my long journey across the world. I love seeing them in my American life because they connect me to people I love who live far away. The fact that I use this bowl on a daily basis feels like some kind of contact is being made.

For my 41st birthday, my partner bought me a mask from Mali. It consists of a woven wooden hat with a giant antelope carving strapped to the top of it. It’s hugely impractical and hugely beautiful. One giant curving horn on the antelope remains while the other is lost. I love this imperfection and on some level it reminds me of my years in Nigeria, even though that’s a country I haven’t seen since I was 12.

AGA: What are you working on now?

NM: I’m hard at work on a novel that will be released in 2016. It’s a dark look at maternity and migration. I’m right in the middle of editing and it’s a bit too early to say anything more than that!

AGA: I look forward to that new book. This one was perfection in so many ways. Thank you for giving me so much of your time for this interview, Nayomi.

A bit about the author: Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirror, about two families living through the 26 year long Sri Lankan civil war was originally published in South Asia and was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia and was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It was released in America by St Martin’s Press on Sept 2nd 2014 to critical acclaim including coverage on NPR and a  New York Times Book review which called the book, "luminous." Nayomi lives in Oakland, California and is currently at work on her second novel. More at www.nayomimunaweera.com Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Please leave a comment, a like, or share below. Sharing is caring. Thank you for joining in for the Conversation! AGA

In Conversation With Harrison Solow

I am taken with Wales because it isn’t always there and I don’t know where it goes. I am taken with it because the Welsh word for ‘never’ is the same as for the word ‘always.’ I am taken with it because it is taken with me, and that’s pretty much irresistible.
— Dr. Harrison Solow

Welcome to the Conversations Series: these are a series of long form, in depth interviews with writers of multiple genres about travel themes. Some of those include place, exile, belonging, home, habitat, quest, and craft. I started the series in 2015 with Tim Cahill, Patricia Schultz, James Dorsey and Raquel Cepeda. This year began with Jeff Greenwald, and today I'm talking with  Dr. Harrison Solow. Dr. Solow has been honored with a number of awards for literary fiction, nonfiction, cross-genre writing, poetry and professional writing, including a Pushcart Prize for Literature for her nonfiction work, Bendithion.

I discovered Dr. Solow through several of her published essays about Wales, and then found out that these same essays are part of her upcoming book. She writes in a such a way that she literally transports the reader through time and space to Wales itself, and she does this so delicately and yet swiftly that you don't realize you are in the story yourself. A magical wordsmith, she also writes about the spirit, academic writing, and outer space, among other things.

Dr. Solow and I are diving into the deep end with this interview and we hope you enjoy it. We'll be talking about her life and influences; her affection and connection to Wales; the context of quest and archetypes in relation to travel themes; as well a bit about spiritual writing,. science fiction, and writing about space...all within in the context of travel.

I'm doing something different for this interview: because her book is not out yet, I've asked Dr. Solow to share excerpts from her work to illustrate her answers to questions. This is more literary than interviews I've done thus far, but works very well for her voice.

And now, for Dr. Harrison Solow!
 

AGA: The goal of this series is to discuss themes that tie in with travel, such as place and identity--and even to widen what we consider to be “travel writing.”

 But before we even begin this journey of exploration together, I'd like to talk about you a little and your life. You’ve done so many things: you’ve been a Franciscan nun, the editor of a Hassidic Jewish magazine, a university professor of both literature and writing, a consultant to the SyFy Channel, and a multiple award winning author. You've fallen in love with Wales, and written about it extensively, in your both own work and as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Wales. You’ve written for everyone from celebrities to NASA, and you are a powerful voice in the literary world. You’ve accomplished and experienced so much, and somewhere along the line, you became a brilliant writer as well. How did this transition into writing happen? When did you know you were a writer?

 HS: Well, what a wonderful thing to say. I think “brilliant” is in the eyes of the beholder, but to answer your question about the writing part, or rather to not answer it: I don’t know. I can’t remember ever wanting to be a writer. I don’t consider myself a writer, as such, now.

AGA: But you have written about being a writer, and calling yourself one--or not. Can you share a bit of that here?

HS: Yes: “For me, and for me alone, calling myself a writer feels like calling myself a commuter. Yes, one commutes (I don't now, but I did) but that's just a way to get somewhere. It doesn't begin to describe where I am going, why, or from whence I came… "

AGA: That's very interesting, to say it is like calling oneself a commuter. I can see that: it does leave a great deal out, when explained that way.

HS: I just don't feel it is a badge of identification. All my fellow academics write and most of them write well, but if you asked them what they do, they would not call themselves writers. They'd identify as academics or professors. I'm certainly an author. That has a clear definition: Someone whose writing is published. I have no difficulty with that.

But my doctors and lawyers have written books and are also authors. My priest and rabbi friends have written books and they too are authors. My husband, the former head of three movie studios and a producer/director, and elder son, a designer/design professor, have written several very highly regarded books. But none of them would answer a question about who they are--or even what they do-- by responding, "I am a writer." Nor would I. I call myself a writer because it is practical to do so at times, but with regard to Wales, I’m a stenographer. I take dictation from a voice I cannot hear and I don’t know from where it comes. Or from whom. And so to return to your question, Gigi, “When did you know you were a writer?” I guess the answer to that has to be, “Not yet.”

AGA: So you don’t consider yourself a writer, “yet.” Do you consider yourself an adventurer? You seem to have an adventuress in you: your life has moved from one place to another, and some of those places have been quite extreme, taking you all over the world.

HS: Actually, I am a colossal wuss. I really don’t feel like an adventurer – at least not the intrepid kind like you – or most travel writers. I don't have external wanderlust - only the internal kind. And although I admire my sons, friends and colleagues who have stunning adventures in so many places on earth, I don’t feel the urge to emulate them. I don’t want to climb mountains or go to Machu Pichu or traipse through jungles or float down the Amazon. I only want to explore places that I can’t  – outer space, inner mind.

AGA: Well not all adventure is external. In fact I think the great adventures in life are internal, and sometimes—only sometimes—do these move outside of a person, into the larger world and seen. But the unseen or not readily seen is also important. Did this internal quest ever translate at some point into wanting to see the world?

 HS: I used to want to see the whole world but now I think that my purpose is still best explained by Blake’s--regrettably overused--lines:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
— Auguries of Innocence, William Blake

As I wrote from Wales once:

“What is difficult to explain is the magnitude of the invisible here. The portent in a smile. The small milestones on the road to trust, the breathlessness of achievement in intimacy, the secrets of the clan. Traversing the chasm between people - mapping the landscape of language, finally, being able to discard even the best of American attributes--efficiency, productivity, pro-action--even for a while, in order to experience purely, another mentality, a foreign heart, the right to claim inheritance from an ancient code. These are the journeys I undertake.”

On the other hand, I was at a party with Dan Goldin, the former Director of NASA, with whom I was working on a project some time before I went to Wales, and we were talking with astronaut and science fiction writer and actor friends about laypeople, so to speak, going out into space. He was calculating the number of years before it would be possible, and it was pretty far in the future. I remember telling him, “Well then, I would like to be the first old lady in space.” And I meant it. He said, “Deal.”

So you see, the microcosm or macrocosm is fine with me. I just don’t feel as much at home in the in-between.

AGA: I don’t care much for the in-between either. And I like the idea of you being in space—but more about space travel later. Going back to the travel you have done, you made a big move, from one world into another. You left Malibu – and what many people would consider an enviable life, in the entertainment industry-- to go to Wales. Why was that?

HS: Well, Wales is another planet. If you can’t go into outer space, you can always go to Wales. But I also left California for Nova Scotia, Canada many years ago, and Nova Scotia for Berkeley, Berkeley for Malibu, so there was some precedent. In fact, I have gone through many large transitions in my life – from the secular world into the convent, from the convent into the world--much harder--from single life into married life - from married life into single life and later back into marriage - from one country to another -  from one culture to another. All those times, I did not stay in one group or comfort zone, like some expats I have known going from one country or one marriage or one kind of work - to another, and yet all the while staying within a cultural bubble, which really isn't a real change at all.

AGA: I'm glad you bring that up, the way that some people travel and only "stay in their own cultural bubble." Sometimes I'm not sure that is traveling at all...but change is difficult and complex, especially when is moving from one life to another, or one place to another.

HS: For me, many of these changes came in complex and barely discernible packages - evil mixed with good - good which would harm someone dear - opportunities at the wrong time - burdens that might have been easier at twenty than at forty. What I learned out of all this is that somewhere inside there is a core that is you and if that you is not being fed and nourished and if it isn't healthy and happy and vibrant in the circumstances, marriage, ethics, profession, job, circle of people, religion, climate, culture, country or region of the county that you are in, then you must travel to where you can thrive – internally or externally.

AGA: Out of all of these things, what has been your biggest adventure?

HS: The adventure that I feel is most significant is that of the indomitable spirit - which, even when it seems barely alive--and at times that has been the case--has the power to grow strong and bright again. Overall, my life has been very happy - but it is the deep happiness that comes from conscious adherence to principle and not happy jolly easy effortless events that give momentary pleasure.

However, my greatest adventure has been raising my sons. Nothing, absolutely nothing, overshadows that.

AGA: Back to Wales, it does feel, from reading your writing about the country—which we will be discussing shortly—that it was calling you.

 HS: I went to Wales for two reasons: to read--or in American terms, to study--for a PhD and to teach. I had applied to several universities I had been offered a place at a very prestigious one, but when I was interviewed by the Trinity Saint David University in Wales, something inside said “This is your place” and so that is where we went. Because I had taught at UC Berkeley before I met my husband, Herb, and moved to Malibu, I was also offered a position at Trinity, teaching literature and writing and some theology.

As for the deeper why – I’d always wanted to earn a PhD and the British Research Doctorate was most appealing, but for many years after my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, the universe had other plans for me. It wasn’t feasible when my boys were young, and then after they grew up a great many unforeseeable transformations in my life took place and I had other things to do, but underneath it all, the call to that quest--if it can be called that--persisted. Finally a number of things converged to make it possible. And, as my husband is always ready for adventure, off we went.

No one in our social or professional circle thought we would do it – and they all thought we were crazy – we had a super life in a super place, but it just seemed like the right time to do this. We finished up what we were working on--an international film project with European investors and so many lawyers and translators that it took months and months just to have a conversation-- didn’t take on any others, sold the house and leapt into the unknown. If that is adventuresome, then I guess I am adventurous but not in the spider, snake, heat, flies, malaria, camping, drinking cow blood, mosquito sort of way. I’m not the Indiana Jones type.

AGA: I think leaving one’s life entirely behind, or at least choosing something new, without knowing what it is, in another culture, on the other side of the world, is adventure. Even if you aren’t drinking cow blood and battling insects. A lot of people never have the courage to do something like that, and yet, that is what a traveler does, at least once: they say yes to what is about to happen. Did you come from a family of adventurers or people that lived fully?

HS: Thank you. I hope I have developed a certain fortitude over the years, but I am clearly not physically brave. Certainly my great-grandparents were grand adventurers, given their willingness to leave everything they knew in Europe and Madeira at the turn of the 20th century to come to America. I think that to board a ship for an unknown future that would take an arduous six months--and also the health and sometimes the lives of their fellow passengers--to take up an entirely new life in a place they had never been, required an extraordinary adventurous spirit.

The next generation went through the depression and the Second World War and while I think it’s a bit flippant to call a war an adventure, there were certainly components of adventure within the terror and madness of a world war. The stories I heard in my childhood were absolutely incredible.

When it was done, though, I think my family had had enough adventure to suit them and spent their days creating stability and order and not in exploration.

AGA: My grandparents were much the same: they had grand adventures, although they were more economically motivated or simply looking for stability and possibility. Then they settled down and never shifted from that spot again. My generation seeks for different reasons, and I think yours did as well.

HS: Yes – so many young people backpacking through Europe and flitting off to Asian countries to meditate and study Eastern philosophy. I’m not sure that everyone went out of an adventurous spirit – there was a lot of conformity and bandwagon mentality among the nonconformists of the day. Some certainly did, of course. But not me. My idea of adventure was, even then, quite different. I entered a convent.

AGA: I want to address that, for I also wanted to be a nun for many years—although I did not become one, like yourself. I think this part of your life is very important, especially after reading some of your work. It makes me want to ask who were some of your early influencers, especially as a young adult?

HS: Well, when I was a very young adult, I was in the novitiate, so my influencers were limited to the works of theologians and philosophers for the first two years of our novitiate, a limitation I actually loved. Later, the range was extended to whatever literature we were assigned in various academic classes. And of course, one admires writers for different reasons – and one is inspired by writers--who may not be the same as those one admires-- for an even greater range of reasons. But for those two years, the writers I admired were: Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teilhard de Chardin, Cardinal Newman--his The Idea of a University remains one of my all time favorites even today. I loved Thomas Aquinas – read the entire Summa in English and almost all of it in Latin.

I admire Aquinas for his clean legal/logical prose and for the way he develops a thought. I admire him for the structure of his work, the form, the argument. I do not admire his--and other Doctors of the Church--horrible misogyny and peculiar scruples, but it is impossible not to respect their minds when focused on a clear line of thinking, however wacky the premise may be.  I admired Hildegard of Bingen. Jacques Maritain, Raissa Maritain’s beautiful work Les Grandes Amitiés [ Note:We Have Been Friends Together is the title in English.] I was not able to read it in French at that time – my French wasn’t good enough, but I did read it many years later in French and it was even more beautiful. Thomas A Kempis, Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine, Ignatius, all the classic theologians. I admired them for their depth and passion and discipline - and for their exploration of an unseen world and for their journeys. I did not always, quite often in fact, admire much of what they said. Those were the years we read prolifically, methodically, comprehensively. It would be impossible to recount all these works. If you Google the Catholic Classics Reading List at Loyola, they’re all there. When we resumed our academic work I found myself enamored of Kierkegaard, Homer, Chaucer, Dante and more…Chaucer in particular.

But if you mean people and not books, then Brother Joachim Grant, my soul-brother and a Franciscan friar with whom I have had the deepest and most loving spiritual connection since I was 14 years old was my greatest influencer then.

AGA: I was very inspired by Augustine’s journeys at young age, and am even today. He reminds me of some travel writers I read now, whose journeys I admire and envy, but whose summations of peoples and places I do not. What about after your novitiate, who influenced you then?

HS: In my later twenties, when I was no longer in the convent, and was under the tutelage of a special delegation of Cambridge professors at my university, I began a profound relationship with English literature that extends to this day, thanks to one of my greatest influencers, the truly brilliant Professor Christopher Terry. I couldn’t choose a few authors from that vast treasury. It is the history, the tapestry, the body of literature itself that is most inspiring. Dramatists, novelists, essayists, poets, sermonists, short story writers…The fact of them was - and remains - inspiring.

Of course prior to the “young adult period” and subsequent to it, my reading encompassed an enormous range of subjects, eras and genres, as it does today. As a very young adult, for example, I was in love with Walt Whitman, ee cummings, some of the dazzling poets of the day in San Francisco and the Bay Area, where I grew up. Also Virginia Woolf. And I was mesmerized by Shakespeare. But that was when I was 16 or 17 and that isn’t really a young adult. That’s an old kid. And having been deeply involved in the Jewish world for the past couple of decades, rabbis and Jewish writers have recently made a profound mark on my life.

AGA: There are many travelers among those writers of your teens, too. Many on quests and journeys, in exile and searching for home or having a need to discover and get lost. What was the first real journey you recall taking?

HS: The first trip that was real to me, I took when I was under two years old, In Hawaii. My mother had put me down for a nap and I wouldn’t sleep so she lay down with me on the bed. She fell asleep and I got down from the bed and decided to go see my grandmother whose house was across the railway tracks – about a half mile away. My mother found me when I was about halfway there, actually on the railway tracks, and snatched me up in panicked relief. My own feeling was outrage. I actually remember that. I was going somewhere – I had a plan and it was thwarted. I was furious, which my mother said was very clear.

 AGA: The thwarted journey! I love that story!

I want to talk about how I found your writing. How I came across you was by discovering your series of essays about Wales. You’ve written extensively about the country, and are entranced by it: its people, its literary traditions, its language and its culture. You even learned to speak Welsh! When I read your writing about Wales, I could not imagine you anywhere else: it seems as though you were always there. Why are you so taken with Wales?

HS: That’s a bit like asking, why you are so taken with your husband or wife or child. There really isn’t any sufficient explanation. I could say any number of things and other writers of other countries could say, “But Romania is like that” or “I experienced exactly the same in Japan!” And that might very well be true. But our definitions and our needs differ. One person might say, “My husband is so thoughtful – he always leaves me alone when I am down” and another would say, “My husband is so thoughtful – he never leaves me alone when I am down”.

I am taken with Wales because it isn’t always there and I don’t know where it goes. I am taken with it because the Welsh word for “never” is the same as the word for “always” [erioed]. I am taken with it because it is taken with me, and that’s pretty much irresistible.

I’m taken with it because, as I have written elsewhere, it is “Wales, where the leaves on the ground lift in response to a wind that isn’t there and uncover for a millisecond, small vibrant worlds.” Those worlds are there. Those worlds are real. Wordsworth saw them.  Welsh poets and writers see them. But you have to have the eyes for them. You have to have the ability to see, not just to look.

AGA: That's very intriguing: that "you have to have the eyes to see them."

HS: We talk about seeing things in 3-D but Wales is about 50-D with no end in sight and there is no greater journey for me as I see it – not even into space, which has been a passion of mine since childhood -  than the journey into the heart of Wales. I don’t know why. I don’t have strong affinities to other places. But I have the ability to see Wales and to write it…

“All I know is that in Wales, I have been standing right next to someone or other, when something in the culture leapt into fire and beauty, blown into sight by the lifting of such a wind, and it remained out of sight to them. I found my friends in Wales – or they found me, in these moments of wind and revelation, when, in a classroom or a crowd of a hundred, someone else's eyes widened or he suddenly jumped or she smiled with delight or there was a sharp intake of breath somewhere in the group. These are the kindred spirits (and I mean spirits) who, not "became" my friends, but were revealed as friends. Suddenly ancient lineages came into view, old connections, previously unknown. It was in those moments that I met those who saw and inhabited the same small worlds as I.”

AGA: I’m collecting my breath for a moment, because your wordsmith ways are so stunning and clear, they simply take me somewhere else and I have to think about the next question for a moment!

So, with Wales and you, I can see that there is a strong sense of belonging, and that is also something the traveler is always searching for. The traveler who finds it sometimes stops traveling altogether, and other times, they are simply connected to the place, forever, whether they stay or not. It seems people can fall in love with a place and feel that they always belonged to it. Do you long for it, as you would long for a person?

HS: People who live in Wales also long for Wales. This is called hiraeth and it lives in the heart of every Welsh-speaking Welsh-person. I share that. It makes no sense, except that it does, and the only reason I know that is that it exists is that I have heard and felt it. There is a song, only sung in Welsh, about the ‘old unblemished Wales’ which is the object of profound hiraeth. But you won’t find it anywhere in English. I put the phrase into Google, just to see what would happen and got 87,500,000 results and no results for the phrase in quotation marks. [Note: hiraeth sounds elusive, but to hear  hiraeth itself, you can listen if you have the Soundcloud app to Timothy Evans in this song that has been translated into Welsh.]

AGA: When you leave Wales, do you feel you’ve left a piece of yourself behind?

HS: No, I don’t feel that I’ve left a piece of myself behind. Friends in Wales say, in their inimitable way, that I am still entirely there. I feel that also, so rather than being divided, I feel fully present in both countries. And I don’t long for it as one would a person. I don’t, in general, feel for people the way I feel for larger entities. That is to say, I might miss a person, but I only actually long for things like knowledge and outer space and virtue. Clearly, that “in general” encompasses notable exceptions but my default position is that rather than anthropomorphize places, I tend to do the opposite: to eschew the anthrocentric perspective.

AGA: That’s interesting because I often anthropomorphize places that I visit, and in turn, write about. Sometimes I also write about places as beings, creatures, organisms. Can you explain a bit more what you mean by “eschewing the anthrocentric perspective”?

HS: I don’t think that humans are the pinnacle of creation. I think there are more compelling beings. I wouldn’t feel that comparing a place to a person is a compliment to that place. Maybe this passage from my correspondence will clarify what I mean:

“Earlier today, I saw Amy Tan on TED. She said that when she was in China last year, the elders sent a dozen men on ghost horses into the underworld to find the solution to a problem. I have been living in liminality so long that I have no trouble believing that. None at all. I did, after all, fall in love with Wales. I fell in love with Newman’s The Idea of A University, and with the significance of Timothy’s voice. These things are all, in a sense, fiction. They are all imaginary in some measure. But how true they are.

I genuinely fall in love with statues and dead people, lines of poetry, the shape of a wrist, a voice, a streak of light, an aberration of thought, the scent of watercress. I form meaningful relationships with stone and spirit, fragrance and bone, the quick revelations in a word or a glance. Not – I want to be clear – with the writer of the word, but the word itself and its original referent. Not the person who gives the glance, but the glance itself. Not the singer of the song, the teacher of the taught, the painter of the painting, but the sound, the pedagogy and painted. The disembodied entity – the voice, the interstice – the liminal – the non-time between the first stroke of 12 and the last. Not the name of Saturday but what that interval would be without a name.”

AGA: So, describe your love of Wales in other terms for me.

HS: It has more to do with the inexplicable and irrefutable connection among the land, the people and the language than it does with any component of that indivisible whole. The notable travel writer Jan Morris, who is Welsh,  describes it thus:

If you watch a man lifting a rock from the land in Wales, you’d be very hard put to distinguish between the land, the rock, and the man.
— Jan Morris, The Matter of Wales, 1984

This is true. I’ve seen it. I’ve had many moments of pleasure and meditative respite in and with the natural world – in almost all the places I have lived or visited. But my deepest experiences have been in Wales. Every blade of grass, every stone has a sound – a music that you can hear.  At times I’ve walked alone there, through the woods and meadows listening to that music and it brought tears to my eyes. But that is true of the people of Wales as well. They move me. There is great mystery here.

AGA: You’ve been nominated for 3 Pushcart Prizes, and you won one for your creative nonfiction essay, Bendithion, which is about Wales. What does Bendithion mean, and why did you choose that title?

HS: Bendithion is the plural of “bendith”, which means “blessing” in Welsh and thus means “blessings”.  I honestly chose it because I liked the sound of it, I liked the way Timothy sings it in one of his songs and when I learned what it meant, I thought it appropriate for the title of the piece. [ Note: You can read the full piece. here.] Wales has been, and remains, a blessing to/for me.

AGA: Bendithion is masterful at creating a sense of place almost from the first sentence. You use dialogue and descriptive language of gesture and landscape to describe both people and place. Can you share a few paragraphs that you feel capture a sense of Wales, of your Wales?

HS: Thank you, Gigi. I appreciate the kind words. Here is a piece from Bendithion [not the excerpt you refer to but from the original long piece within The Bendithion Chronicles] I divided it into sections so that it is easier to read:

“I don’t think I shall easily forget that afternoon at the top of Pencarreg. Cerys and I travelled up a long hedge-rowed, one-lane, rural road that I had never seen before (but she had always known was there) with an incremental sense of enclosure – as it drew in, closed in, shut out whatever was behind us, like a wormhole in a galaxy far far away. The deeper we went into the land, the more unreal seemed even the memory of the rest of the world. Even Llambed, geographically a part of this same land, faded away.

The parts of me that belong to Llambed also faded away – and what remained, very strangely, was my own past — not just Cerys’. Whatever was peeled away in that microcosmic journey left me, the essential person, approaching the age of reason – at five, at six, not yet corrupted by thought. And so, able to see the fairies and imps in the hawthorne, the history in the plum. Able too, to pick up the scent of Druidry, green and smoky, in the air around the oaks along the way. There may have been mistletoe. There was certainly a golden flash of sickle.

When the parish road ended and the earth and pebble track began, the sheep fled in terror at our approach. This flock from another century, isolated by time and contained only by hedge and cattle-grate, fenceless, defenseless — seemed never to have seen a car before. Indeed the car seemed to me out of place and just as I began to think of it as such, it turned into a pumpkin, so to speak – the engine grew quieter and we may have been in a carriage for all I could tell. Or a cloud.

The moss on the trees may have muffled the sound or the wild rush of the brook, drowned it out. But I heard songbirds. Or birdsong. Invisible chatter and whispers. Revels in the wood. Saw the red kites flying three feet off the ground, like predatory butterflies. Or maybe that was later, on the way back. Everything is one, in Wales. Even time.”

[ Note, for more, read here.]

AGA: Bendithion skillfully takes the reader to the same spot you are standing, looking through your eyes. You use your senses a lot when you are giving a sense of place to the reader. How do you capture those senses and put them on paper?

HS: I honestly don’t know. I’m a very literal person in some ways. I write what I see and I write what I hear. I have been called a “chronicler of the invisible” but it’s all very visible and audible to me. I don’t like to know about things. I like to know things. That is my passionate absorption. I never write about Wales. I just write it. There is a difference between describing a song and singing it. This is the singing.

AGA: I’d like to talk about how to write about a place or a people, which you do very well in The Bendithion Chronicles. So often, in travel literature, we read an account that tells us who someone is, more than actively shows us who they are. Can you give an example from your story that you think shows a person and loosely gives us an idea of Welsh-ness?

HS: I will give you two examples, which are also just examples from real life, as all my writing of Wales is. This is what actually happened and I just wrote it down.

"One day, a distinguished university colleague of mine came out the Post Office (which is the heart of the village and just across the street from the entrance to the university) just as I was going into it. I had spoken to him earlier in the day, so he knew that I was going in to see Alun [one of the two postmen there who are lifelong friends] to get a particular official form. He said to me, “If you’re looking for Alun, he isn’t there.” I said, “Oh that’s okay, I have to buy stamps anyway.” When I walked up to the counter, there was Alun. This is how the conversation went:

Me: “Oh, hi, Alun. You’re here.”

Timothy, butting in: “Well, of course he’s here. Where else would he be?”

Me to Timothy: “Well, John was here just a second ago and he didn’t see Alun.”

Timothy: “Not everyone does."

There is nothing more Welsh than that conversation.

Here is the second example:

With regard to the creative nonfiction essay, Bendithion, I was in the story that I wrote and that story was real life, which I simply described in that essay. It was reportage.  I couldn’t control the real story, since it was unfolding every day, so later, I turned it into fiction--or what looked like fiction--to see what would happen. It wasn’t really fiction, since everything in it actually happened, but I could play with time and metaphor. That “fictional” parallel story was a first prize winner in an international fiction competition. It starts like this:

“Storytellers usually say “Once upon a time” when they start to tell a story, which is a pretty good way to start. It tells you that there is a story coming and that it happened a long time ago. But how do you tell a story that keeps happening?”

AGA: Hmmm..how do you tell a story that keeps happening? That is a very good question, and one I'm sure will take more than this interview to answer, if at all. Let's segue to The Postmaster’s Song, another work of yours: I read it. To me, it was a travel story. Can you briefly describe what it is about?

HS: Yes. It is about immersion in another world and about the tender friendship between Timothy Evans, a world class tenor, who for some reason, simply preferred his life in the post office and never stepped on the world stage despite entreaties from all over the world to do so, his best friend Alun, who also worked at the post office, and me.

I imposed an omniscient narrator. I described the unseen. I made myself younger and unmarried in the story to emphasize the nature of this delicate relationship – to demonstrate that it would remain the same chivalrous mystical friendship whether I was young and single or older and married. I felt that the nature of this innocent bond would be thrown into greater relief when there were no social obstacles to any other sort of connection.

When the first draft was done I gave it to Alun to read and when he finished, he looked at me, puzzled.

 “What?” I said, responding to his look.

 “I thought you said it was fiction,” he answered.

Now, in that story, there is a magical boy, an allegorical pregnancy, light that carries sound and a host of other things that would prompt any reader to define it as “fiction”. But not in Wales, where “magical realism” is another word for daily life. If anything describes Wales, this does.

AGA: I’d like to move away from talking about a physical place for a moment, and talk about a spiritual one. You’ve done a great deal of spiritual writing, and I like to delve into that a little. That is another kind of travel. While some would say that it is not travel writing, I would argue that if science fiction can be considered travel writing, then spiritual journeys can be as well. Quest figures highly into travel writing, as the mythical creation of a way or a path. Talk to me about a spiritual quest you took, and how you wrote about it.

HS: I agree with you. Spiritual writing is travel writing in is most elemental form. The poetics of space do not end with physical boundaries. I’ve always thought that the final frontier is the human soul.

As for my quest, I have, in the past, described it thus: “I would find it impossible to describe my philosophy or belief system. I think everything is a metaphor for everything else. I think god/s exist/s.  I think it is entirely irrelevant whether there is a power or many powers at work.  I know that we don’t understand anything really, […] and having spent hours, days, months on end with astrophysicists, astronauts, astronomers, scientists of all kinds as well as science fiction writers […] I have come to think that it’s not our right or our place, stunted little earthlings as we are, to make cosmic decisions […] All we can do is to be ethical. To behave well. To heal, repair and improve the world we live in. I believe that form is content. Or rather that lifting a chalice or a Torah Scroll is as sacred and or profane as the lifter, the intent and the implied recipient. Irrespective of what is in it. Transubstantiation is our daily condition. All of us everywhere.”

 AGA: The spiritual journey is a quest. And the quest archetype is typically a journey where the hero or heroine must overcome their own faults and weaknesses and then reemerge as something new. How do you think travel does this?

HS: I don’t think it necessarily does. I’ve known people who have travelled the world and have remained as un-self-aware and as limited in scope as they were before they left. Of course it certainly can, and most often does, transform one. But you can go into the world or into a room and be changed or remain the same. It really does depend on what you take with you, as I believe Yoda once said.  ["What's in there?" "Only what you take with you."] I just think you have to be ready for the journey.

 Conversely, you can go nowhere and explore myriad worlds. My late and very much missed friend, Isaac Asimov, with whom I enjoyed a vigorous exchange of ideas, was afraid to fly and after his compulsory flights while in the army during WWII, never went anywhere in a plane again. He rarely went anywhere, period. Most of his life was spent writing in a closet in an apartment in New York. I’ve been in it. I say “closet” because his office, in the middle of that apartment was very small and had no windows.

 And look where he took us…

 AGA: Asimov took us farther than we ever had been, and that’s so interesting that he rarely went anywhere at all. At least physically…it does sound awful, though, no windows!

But moving back into the idea of place, let’s talk about the interplay of archetypal stories that also run through travel writing: for example the theme of paradise. What are some of the archetypal themes that run through your own work about Wales? Or other places?

HS: I write not as much to describe or explain the Wales I experienced as to document and illuminate the existence of it. It is pre-archetypal in that sense.

While I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Crecropia moth swept past from light to light over the posturings of the actors. ‘He doesn’t know,’ my friend whispered excitedly. ‘He’s passing through an alien universe brightly lit but it is invisible to him. He’s in another play; he doesn’t see us. He doesn’t know. Maybe it’s happening right now to us.
— Robert Lanza, 'A New Theory of the Universe'. The American Scholar. V 76, No 2. 2007

AGA: Maybe it is happening to us. Tell me about this experience of documenting and illuminating the existence of something, of a place.

HS: For over four years, I watched people walk by doors they could have opened, songs they could have heard, beauty they could have seen, credos they could have admired and people they could have loved – people who worked with them, for them, on behalf of them – people whose world they were inhabiting without so much as an invitation, and whose culture they were eroding, often without even realizing that it was there.

It seemed imperative, then, to shed some light on what danced unseen before their eyes. And if illuminating this ephemeral and largely invisible panorama seems like an inconsequential or ignoble task, it might be well to consider this: millions of people dedicate their lives to making the invisible visible: archaeologists, astronomers, quantum/particle physicists, artists, priests, nano-technologists, physicians, nuns, microbiologists, filmmakers, rabbis, oceanographers, astronauts, psychiatrists and writers --and, depending on viewpoint, some people in other professions--all in pursuit of truth, all on a pilgrimage to somewhere they haven’t been before.  I just happen to be on the same pilgrimage.” [From The Bendithion Chronicles]

AGA: When you think of archetypal themes in classic quest stories, what are a few titles that come to mind?

The first stories that came to mind are the Grail stories – Arthur, Percival, Gawain, Galahad. I loved  Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. And those same tales as represented in Welsh literature – in the Black Book of Carmarthen, The Mabinogion, and Culhwch ac Olwen. The Odyssey, of course. The Canterbury Tales. A Pilgrim’s Progress. Siddhartha. The Seven Storey Mountain. David Copperfield. So, so much spiritual literature – the 19th Century Russian classic of indeterminate authorship, The Way of a Pilgrim, comes to mind. Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, and some of his other works. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. Antonia White’s work as a whole…But almost at the same time I thought of The Little Prince, The Wizard of Oz, The Bourne Trilogy, Star Wars, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Red Balloon and so many more.

AGA: I'm sighing, because those are all books I love. A Pilgrim's Progress, The Cloister Walk, Siddhartha..these are all books with a permanent place on my bookshelf. I especially appreciate that you are bringing children's and young adult literature into the conversation about quests. I heard that you have just completed a children’s book in which the none year protagonist is on a quest? What sort of quest?

HS: He’s on a quest to the inside of his mind, to find out what he really knows.

AGA: How would you describe the nature of quest—or at least, the majority of them?

HS: I think the nature of most quests are similar: the search for place – one’s place in the world, one’s true home - whether that home is seen as heaven, or just a safe place in the world. Or a  homeland – a  neighborhood, a  culture, a  city, a level of society; a piece of land to call one’s own; a new planet where one might finally thrive. One’s own tribe. Home can also be interpreted as “feeling at home” in one’s own skin – the search for self knowledge or identity - a level of embodiment or understanding or enlightenment that allows that feeling. Something as simple as Jason Bourne’s journey to find his own name or as complex as Star Trek’s “New life and new civilizations” - navigating an alien landscape and culture. And of course “home” as/in another being, whether friend or lover or mate or pet - as a metaphor for love.

AGA: Can you share a bit of your writing to illuminate this? I know you have written about it.

HS: “Everyone finds his place or wanders discontent forever. This is the substance of religious sensibility and its pilgrimages, this is the quest of literature — the urge to reflect, to investigate, translate human journey — this is the impetus for and of science fiction — to arise from the tribe of earth or history, or myth and encounter another world: another set of commandments, another history, another set of perceptions and parents and sights and smells and thoughts and environments which will confront us with their legitimate claim to existence, their right to their visions of truth. Or relative truth. And then what? Then we find our place, wherever it may be. What is valued is retained. What is inclusive is shared. What now longer holds meaning is respectfully discarded. And then, and only then, can we do the work that is ours to do.” [Excerpt from a letter written to a friend. Wales, 2009]

AGA: Saving the best for last… I’m dying to talk to you about the greatest quest of all, the greatest journey, to outer space. You’ve written for NASA and other agencies/institutions and you’ve described the experience of space and time. I know you can’t talk much about it for copyright and legal reasons, but at least tell me: what is it like to write about a place so intangible?

HS: It is exhilarating. There is no other word for it. I’m always fascinated with the conjunction or juxtaposition of disparate worlds, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to write both fact and speculation about the unknown. This is where science and science fiction meet and it’s a tremendously exciting place. As for how to write about a place you’ve never been – this is a little like raising children for a world that will no longer exist when they are adults. You do your best with the tools you have at hand --current information, reasonable prediction, imagination, and love-- and rely on the best knowledge and wisdom of the time. You’ll probably still be wrong about the future --all you have to do is read an etiquette book or dating advice from the 60s, 70s, 80s to see how wrong!-- but you deal with what you have.

I’ve written about space for many different purposes and for disparate institutions, and for my own books and articles. For institutions like NASA or JPL, at times the information is provided and my task would be to translate it from particular kind of tech-speak to the kind of English that government, politicians and the general public would understand. At other times, I’ve been given a free reign to inculcate the feeling of being “out there” – in the hearts of those who read it. To make that siren call audible. The only way to do this is through science fiction.

AGA: Hmmm "to make that siren call audible." That's very powerful. Share something which shows this skill of writing about space, that talent to be able to touch a place you've never been..that makes the siren call heard, to you.

HS: From my first book:

“There is a sense in which time is always present as space. Quantum physicists and astronomers describe the time/space differential as the result of space travel at --or near-- light speed. And yet the point at which space becomes time (and the reverse) exists as a constant in everyday life as the verb "to be". 

"Where are you?" carries within it the word, "now."

"What time is it?" implies both "now" and "here, in this space."

Among the many unanswerable questions I have pondered over the years was one posed by my son when he was about six years old:

When asked: "What time is it?" he replied, "What time is what?"

 This is the very heart of the spiraled and unending quest of both science and science fiction:  "What does it mean to be ? In this time, in this space, who are we?"

Our struggle to answer those questions is a tale of time slippage and alternate space; a delicate and determined unraveling of current quantum theory -  physics to metaphysics and back again. 

Quantum theory gives rise to the postulation that the universe consists of several linear, simultaneously active dimensions which coexist as interweaving patterns of timespace that are not relative to each other except at "weak points" where they meet. It indicates that several worlds may cohabit the same space at the same time, and remain unperceived because the "fabric" of one dimension is atomically dissimilar to the pattern of another.

Only at random points of exceedingly low probability, could the non time non space between these dimensions ever be traversed. Our quest is to somehow leap over that chasm called "between" -  to discover the random, the serendipitous, the luminous light shining through the tight woven cloth of our timespace reality; to break through, as it were, and leave our swaddling clothes behind.”

AGA: Let's return to your favorite planet, Planet Wales, as you called it earlier. You do write about that planet with a fine hand, and it seems rich and vast: a lifetime of exploration would not be enough to discover it. Let's end this interview with a visit to that special place through your words.

HS: To bring both those worlds together for a moment, here is some connective tissue from The Bendithion Chronicles:

“The place I am writing about doesn’t exist.  That is, it doesn’t exist for you. You’ll never see this place or these people. You’ll never hear them say the things that I have heard them say, sing the songs they sang to me, carry the scent of lanolin on your skin – or hear the hum of small cities in the loam beneath the oaks.

If you had gone into the post office, the heart of my village in those days, in that captured time, you might have caught a glimpse of a boy – a lost and beautiful elfin boy, as fleet of foot as he was, as they all were. But probably not. He would have disappeared from view, as he usually did, as befits an Adept in the ways of a world that disappears regularly, but is not gone yet. Not yet.

It lives still, safe in a language, so if you come to Wales from Thailand, Somalia, England or Brazil, from any foreign country, and you don’t speak Welsh, you’ll see something. But you won’t see Something Else. You won’t see Cymru [Wales].

The language..gives the Cymro Cymraeg, the Welsh-speaking Welshmen, a membership of freemasonry..His is like a secret world, within the half private world that is Wales as a whole. Even Welshmen, if they speak no Welsh, know little of this underground. A stranger without Welsh could live next door to a man for years, without realizing he was a celebrity in the culture of the Cymry Cymraeg: to the traveler who knows the language, another country altogether opens up before him as he wanders through Wales, like the country of the Tylwyth Teg themselves, rich in a pride and energy denied to mortal eyes.
— Jan Morris, the Matter of Wales, 1984

I have read --and written--enough science fiction to know that there are ways for spaceships, worlds and men to vanish – to refract light, warp space, bend time, elude vision. I’ve read enough science to know that too. But the science fiction writers and the Welsh knew it first. Besides, I have seen it happen.”

If that’s not travel literature – and science fiction - I don’t know what is.

AGA: I always like to ask something personal at the end of an interview. What is one thing that you own that symbolizes your own personal quest?

 HS: I have only one thing that symbolizes my quest and that is a ring I wear every day with four initials on it. Those initials stand for a phrase in Latin that is both impetus and emblem.

AGA: What are you working on now? What is next for Harrison Solow?

HS: Just two days ago, I sent off the children’s book manuscript I mentioned above to my agent, Laura Strachan. She is also currently shopping a North American edition of my latest book Felicity & Barbara Pym- published in the UK -  to relevant publishing houses.

I’ve begun a book of short stories and a book of odd sermons, and of course, I continue to do my usual highly confidential work for private clients, most of them under non-disclosure agreements so I can’t talk about these either, but I travel daily through a lot of different worlds – each with its own private culture, language [jargon/terminology] values, mission and members. And that is an ongoing adventure.

And thank you, Gigi, for this interview, speaking of adventure. These were very challenging questions, and I had to take a few trips into the past and the future to answer them.  I appreciate the invitation to be part of your fascinating series.

AGA: Thank you for spending this time with me and sharing so much of your work. It's been an extraordinary conversation. I look forward to the book!

Readers, there is a place for comments and likes and shares, just below the bio and links. Sharing is caring!

You can read her award winning story, Bendithion, on the Agni website, here.  

You can read her award winning story, Bendithion, on the Agni website, here.
 

You can read an abstract of The Bendithion Chronicles on Dr. Solow's Medium page, here.  

You can read an abstract of The Bendithion Chronicles on Dr. Solow's Medium page, here.
 

A bit about Dr. Harrison Solow: an author, university lecturer, creative and strategic writer/consultant to a wide variety of institutions, she has to date written/edited/executed over 500 publications and projects. I mention her Pushcart award and nominations above, but her most recent award is First Prize, Short Fiction in the Carpe Articulum Literary Review International Competition, and her most recent distinction is the acceptance of her PhD Dissertation, The Bendithion Chronicles, "As Written: No Changes" in 2011.

Her latest book, Felicity & Barbara Pym (about literature, reading, literary criticism, education and incidentally, Barbara Pym), hailed as "the treasures of a cultured mind" and "a work of art about art" was launched in London in September, 2010 and has enjoyed considerable success in both the UK and North America. She was a faculty member at the University of Wales--as well as a Writer-in-Residence, and much of her work is focused on Wales, including her forthcoming book.

You can read more of her work on her Medium page, or follow her on Twitter.
 

In Conversation With Jeff Greenwald

I always come back to that wonderful line from Durrell: “A town becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.” I think it is important to fall in love with a place as soon as possible—with a friend, a café, a riverside bench, a ritual, a landscape.
— Jeff Greenwald

Welcome to the Conversations Series for 2015. This is a series unlike any other: last year I was looking for interviews with writers about travel themes, and I couldn't find anything both diverse and deep. So I had the idea of creating a series that did, and Conversations was born. It began in 2014 with Tim Cahill, Patricia SchultzJames Dorsey, and Raquel Cepeda.

This year the series will offer more than thirty interviews with writers from multiple genres talking about travel, place, home, habitat, exile, belonging, and craft, combined with a wider focus of defining what travel literature is as spoken by diverse voices and perspectives.

We're starting off with the phenomenal Jeff Greenwald, who not only is a master of the genre,  he is also a true Renaissance man: he seems to have his fingers in every creative pot. The author of such literary travel classics as Shopping for Buddhas and The Size of the World, he's also an accomplished photographer, journalist, humanitarian, monologist, and Executive Director of Ethical Traveler.

He's a writer who embodies both compassion and the ability to fall in love, over and over, with the places and peoples he writes about. Read on for an interview that is truly golden, with wordsmith and world traveler Jeff Greenwald.
 

AGA: When I think of travel writing, you immediately come to mind: Your work and life are intertwined with the genre, which is a powerful statement about your contributions thus far.

How do you see travel writing as a genre?

JG: Travel writing as a genre seems archaic to me. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. Classic travel writing often has the elements of an archetypal quest, a story about a “hero”--even an initially clueless one, like myself--embarking on a voyage of discovery, with tribulations, setbacks, wisdom and redemption along the way. As I point out in the introduction to my stage show, Strange Travel Suggestions, it’s an arc closely related to the Fool’s journey in the Tarot: a cyclical path that leads us back into a deeper self-understanding.

I love that genre, and I’ve written and performed in it with great enjoyment. But it’s become the form, and the cliché. For me, at least, it’s become a sideshow rather than my actual motivation. The great improv teacher Keith Johnstone talked about the need to “interrupt the routine”: because stories, including travel stories, become so predictable that they themselves are like routines.

AGA: “A sideshow” rather than your actual motivation….I know what you mean about the predictability factor, but to me there seems a shift, as well: isn’t there a re-frame happening? 

JG: There is. Let me see if I can put this into words that make sense.

The basic equation of the travel writing I value has changed for me over the years. It’s no longer about what is important for us to discover about ourselves; it’s about what is important for us to know about the lives of the people we visit. Not what I think we need to know, but what they think we need to know.

There have been many, many books that fulfill this aspiration—from Joe Kane’s Savages to Katherine Boo’s Beyond the Beautiful Forevers; from Tarquin Hall’s To the Elephant Graveyard to Alex Pham’s Catfish and Mandala.

And because the Fool’s cyclically journey is not easily dismissed, this form of narrative is also a form of self-discovery. It’s just not directly framed as such.

AGA: How do you think your body of work contributes to both this reframing and the travel genre in general?

JG: As for my own small contribution to the genre, I’d say that most of my books follow the archetypal route. But I also think that—in Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World and especially Snake Lake—I’ve given voice to the people I’m visiting, and tried to express elusive elements of their culture and political evolution. In Shopping for Buddhas, I veered away from my often playful narrative to take on human rights, corruption and art smuggling issues. [Note: The book was banned in Nepal for many years as a result.] In Snake Lake, certainly, the priorities of pre-revolution Nepal—and the pull of Tibetan Buddhism—are more central to the story than my own haphazard quest. The Size of the World was a personal journey as well, and probably the most archetypal of my books, but I think it’s also a good snapshot of the planet Earth at the dawn of the digital era.

AGA: I’ve read all of your books, of course! I just finished Snake Lake and it’s my favorite book of yours: I like how much of the book is the voice of the place itself, I like the story of your family life and brother taking central stage at times... it’s masterful. It made me curious about what writers you read growing up, who influenced your style and voice?

JG: One of my great early influences—who became a dear friend—was the futurist Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and “inventor” of the communications satellite. Clarke also wrote books about his adopted home of Sri Lanka, which got me very interested in the sea and scuba diving.

Other early writing influences included Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Hemingway, Atwood, Norman Mailer--with whom I had a memorable encounter in 1972, Ursula Le Guinn and of course, Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey, Hunter Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Some equally big early influences were artists and musicians: Calder, Ansel Adams, Ravi Shankar, Isamu Noguchi, Diane Arbus, Brancusi, Van Gogh, Joni Mitchell, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leonard Cohen, and Picasso.

AGA: Wait! Memorable encounter with Norman Mailer? You’ve left a thread dangling and I have to pull it. Do tell.

JG: I profiled him for my college newspaper, and we spent many hours talking. This was before I’d actually read any of his books, unfortunately. He also said a few things during his public lecture that I’ll never forget—even quite drunk, he deftly and savagely manipulated the audience. He was sort of a genius of belligerence.

AGA: Were there any other books which inspired you to go out and see the world?

JG: I used to absolutely lose myself in those old Time-Life Science Library and Sierra Club picture books. And some movies. Books like Navajo Wildlands, along with the film Lawrence of Arabia --which I saw 43 times while working as an usher at the Plainview Theater--had an enormous impact on me. I mean hey, I just spent New Year’s in the Mojave Desert!

AGA: I’d like to talk about your first book, Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood, which is about Nepal. It was published in 1985, and I imagine you have a great deal to say about the writing of that book, and the experience of writing a travel book at that time.

JG: That book was an anomaly. Before leaving for Nepal on an 18-month Rotary Journalism Fellowship in 1983 and 1984, I’d been working as a sculptor and visual artist. I had a strong affinity for Asian mythology and culture, inspired by my very first trip to Asia in 1979. After my return to Kathmandu in 1983, I woke up every morning, smoked some hash, and wrote very detailed letters to my artist and writer friends – pounding away on the manual Smith-Corona I‘d lugged to Nepal, correcting mistakes with Wite-Out correction fluid, using carbon paper to make copies. During my absence some of the best letters were published in a small literary journal, and after I returned to the US a selection of them were collected into a modest and experimental book. The writing is raw, spontaneous, and very anti-literary. I was reporting mainly as a visual artist, expressing my observations, experiences and frustrations. Few people think it’s my best book, but many people say it’s their personal favorite.

AGA: How has the experience of writing travel literature changed for you since that book came out in 1985?

JG: My writing has evolved since then, and the demands of the profession have changed my style quite a lot. It’s far more narrative and researched. But that’s not the main thing. Though I still write in the first person, my articles and books aren’t directed to such a clear, surgically defined audience. I mean, every one of those letters was a direct personal communication to a specific close friend, someone I’d been seeing almost every day in our shared studios.

AGA: Something that sets you apart from other travel writers—and really, a great number of human beings—is that you forge very deep experiences on your travels on purpose.

You’ve done some amazing volunteer work and humanitarian work on your travels, and you’ve written about some of these things. Can you talk about some of these contributions you have made and how they affected the way you see place?

JG: With pleasure! My first experience with volunteering was in November 1979, during the Cambodian Civil War. Pol Pot had just come to power, and Cambodians were fleeing for their lives into Thailand. I arrived at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai/Cambodian border as a UN volunteer, and despite my very limited experience designing fountains, I was appointed chief water engineer. Mind you I was 25, and had never done anything remotely like this before. I was given a bunch of local volunteers and a load of bulldozers and water tanks, and directed to help build water distribution centers for the estimated 150,000 refugees who would be arriving within the week. My experiences there became my first published story: a raw tale called Very Alive, which appears in my anthology, Scratching the Surface.

AGA: That is one of the first stories I read by you. It’s leveling, humbling, and very real. It was one of the first times I saw that travel writing can—and should—incorporate all of the human experience. I could tell when I read it that the experience changed you, dramatically.

JG: That experience started me out by putting a very realistic face on what, for many people, is an abstract tide of human suffering. The people fleeing to Khao-I-Dang were not guerillas or nomads or impoverished grass hut-dwellers; they were accountants and secretaries, farmers and teachers, schoolchildren and nurses. An entire population had been uprooted. So it was sort of like what our grandparents discovered in World War Two – that all of us, even those of us lucky enough to be in the middle class, can be blindsided by tyranny. It gave me an early understanding of genocide, and a deep affinity for human rights issues.

AGA: A redefining of transformational travel—and really, being human... and more recently? What experiences have you had that combined these different shades of being in a place: humanitarian, writer, and traveler?

JG: More recently—exactly 10 years ago, in fact—I was hired by Portland-based Mercy Corps as their Communications Director in Sri Lanka after the Indian Ocean tsunami. I was not a volunteer; I was paid for my work. Joined by my great friend Dwayne Newton—a world- class photographer, now a lieutenant in the SFFD—we traveled all over the devastated island’s coast, documenting the terrors and tragedies of that event as well as the imaginative strategies that  local people—Tamils and Sinhalese alike—were using get back onto their feet.  It was transformational, eye-opening. My dispatches from that two-month mission appeared on Salon.com, and are documented on the Ethical Traveler website. [Note: You can read them here: http://www.ethicaltraveler.org/dispatches/  (scroll to the bottom of the page.)]

Finally I want to point to my most recently published book, Snake Lake. Among other plot lines, that tale includes my experiences in Nepal in 1989 and 1990, when I served as a stringer for the San Francisco Examiner –back then a relatively credible paper-- during Nepal’s Democracy uprising and revolution. I reported on human rights abuses, corruption, and may other subjects that had first caught my attention in 1987, while writing Shopping for Buddhas. Being in the middle of a pro-freedom revolution is an astonishing thing, and it transforms one’s sense of what is possible in this world. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I felt that writing Snake Lake was a form of humanitarian work.

AGA: I agree with that sentiment. The book was look inside an experience that few get to witness or take part in; yet as a reader, I felt I was there, alongside you, as you documented both the suffering and the joys.

JG: With its first-hand observations about revolution, suicide and Buddhism, it brings together a fair amount of what I’ve learned about human nature, globalization and liberation. And for what I earned from the book, it might as well have been a volunteer project!

AGA: Snake Lake is unusual in that it skirts the line between non-fictional memoir and fiction. This has become a very controversial issue. How did you handle it in your book, and how do you justify the approach you took in that narrative?

JG: On the book’s copyright page is a barely legible disclaimer. It explains that, as a number of the most important friends and lovers in the book did not wish to appear in the memoir, I had to conceal their identities and recast their roles in the story. I also combined a few other people I knew into single characters. This amounts, in a number of cases, to fictionalization.

An obvious question comes up: why didn’t I just write and present Snake Lake as a novel?

AGA: That is precisely what I wondering! Why didn’t you? It seems like that is the common tactic these days…

JG: The reason was that I wanted people to understand that everything else in the book—Nepal’s rebellion and revolution, my role in reporting that crisis, my relationship with the high Tibetan lamas and education in Buddhism, and everything about my brother Jordan and his descent into depression—was true. Once something is presented as a novel, every aspect may be or contain invention. I hoped to create a situation where I could have it both ways, even if it meant writing in a new--and not necessarily welcome--genre. Now, it seems, more and more writers are comfortable taking such liberties in their memoirs. But in 2010, when Snake Lake came out, no one knew quite where to classify the book, and some of the reactions from reviewers were less than kind.

AGA: It’s a stunning book, and I think you are right: what people are writing now as memoir is more fluid, and Snake Lake certainly deserves its place in that shift.

The book captures a certain mindfulness: the perspective is intimate and vast at the same time, and I think this because you have this way of curating your experiences when you travel into this very “real” on-the-ground, personal relationship with place.

How can a traveler keep that mindfulness when they travel?

JG: I always come back to that wonderful line from Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet: “A town becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.” I think it’s important to fall in love with a place as soon as possible – with a friend, a café, a riverside bench, a ritual, a landscape.

AGA: I love that so much: fall in love with a place as soon as possible. That’s simply wonderful. How does one do that, though?

JG: I’m not sure this is mindfulness so much as lose-your-mindfulness. It’s a process of surrender.

AGA: Give me an example of losing-your-mindfulness…

JG: I remember when, in the late 1980s, Islands sent me to the Solomon Islands. I knew nothing of the place, no one. But I soon learned about the idea of wontok: pidgin for “one talk.” Your community consists of the people who literally talk like you. With this in mind I made contact with the local Peace Corps volunteers, and after a few days of drinks and hikes had fallen madly in love with them--with one of them, very literally. They served as my conduits for a journey into the island’s culture and traditions, a window I’d have never been able to open on my own.

AGA: A window doesn’t open by itself. I like this image of conduits and connections creating the journey.

What do you suggest for the traveler who may only be somewhere for a short time and yet needs to capture the real place and establish a real relationship?

JG: The non-profit I created in 2003 – Ethical Traveler – offers “13 Tips for the Accidental Ambassador” on our website. These are suggestions about how to stay mindful during our travels. And I think that being mindful always leads to a more intimate and authentic presence, wherever we are. Simple skills—like learning a few words of the local language, being able to ask for help and knowing when to keep our mouths shut and just listen—can be enormously valuable.

AGA: So that moves the conversation towards general ethical travel practices. Can you talk about your organization and what it does?

JG: The idea for Ethical Traveler first took shape in 1996, when Aung San Suu Kyi asked that tourists not visit Burma while her country was under military siege. I wrote an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Post that year, suggesting that travelers heed her suggestion and begin to “vote with our wings,” using our economic clout to send a strong message to the junta. Six years later—in late 2002, while I was on tour with my book Scratching the Surface—I mentioned this idea to a Berkeley audience, and wondered aloud if an organization could be built around such principles. The result, after much discussion, was Ethical Traveler.

We’re now in our 12th year, and things are going incredibly well. We feature great “Actionable News” bulletins, useful resources for travelers, and offer some wonderful trips – every April, for example, I lead an Artists’ Delegation to Cuba. It’s really fantastic. This year’s in particular is going to be pretty amazing, given the changing relations between the Washington and Havana.

Our biggest and most visible project is our “World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations” event. Starting in September, a team of more than 20 researchers will begin poring over the world’s developing nations. We ultimately select the ten that are making the most impressive progress on human rights, environmental protection and social welfare. It’s become a pretty exciting project.

 [Note: Read the report of who made the 2015 list of the best ethical destinations, here.] 

AGA: The Ethical Traveler website talks a lot about “ambassadorial potential of travel.” What does that term mean to you, and what are a few examples of that in action in your own personal work?

JG: All travelers are de facto ambassadors, whether we intend to be or not. The way we interact with people during our travels, whether in New Orleans or Teheran, has a lasting impact on the state of the world. In 1999, while traveling through Iran, I was approached by countless people—men, women and children—who wanted to know “why America hates us.” It occurred to me then that, for people all over the developing world, having the ear of an American is like having the ear of America. My assurance that I, as an American, did not hate them—had a visible, visceral impact.

On the other side of the coin, the stories I’ve told as a writer and performer about other parts of the world—Sri Lanka, Israel, Senegal, Ecuador, Tibet—have affected the way people here see those places and those people. The fact is that there’s no “out there” out there, it’s all an increasingly interconnected whole. Travelers, and especially writers who travel, can subvert bad government juju and tear down the media curtain by bringing back news of our person-to-person encounters.

AGA: I’d like to talk about the story behind one of your books, Shopping for Buddhas, which was just re-released in a 25th Anniversary Edition by Travelers’ Tales. What it is about this book that makes it stand out on the travel writing bookshelf? Why are so many people drawn to this book?

 JG: I don’t know. Maybe it’s the title!

In all seriousness, it’s probably because Nepal and Kathmandu are iconic destinations, and lots of people have had the personal experience of being there – and literally shopping for buddhas themselves. When it was first released, in 1990, the book was a bit unusual in that it was both a lighthearted romp and an investigation into some deeper issues—like art smuggling, human rights abuses, poverty, spiritual materialism and Buddhist philosophy. These issues and ideas were just becoming important to even casual backpackers.

Another reason people are drawn to Shopping is because it’s a pretty basic and accessible primer on Hinduism and Buddhism. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously—a quality which has won it a few hardcore fans in the Buddhist community (e.g., Robert Thurman) as well as some very contemptuous detractors.

AGA: Let’s talk about your writing style. Your sentences and gift for description are phenomenal. How do you create these detailed vistas of words? How do you see all of that when you are somewhere?

JG: Well, err, thank you! Like most writers I do try to create a sense of place, a sense of scene in my work. Whether I’m telling a story from a stage or on the page, my first responsibility is to visually take my audience with me. Once they've entered a scene viscerally, it’s much easier for a story to unfold with all its nuance and humor. Small details are important, and can convey a lot of ambient information. A trapped honeybee beating against the closed window of a small Italian restaurant; a cow grazing the rice offerings from the lap of a stone Buddha in a Kathmandu square; the sidewalk of a tree-lined street, dappled with tiny crescent suns during a solar eclipse. It’s just the way writers pay attention—which elements of a scene catch our eye and appeal to our memory.

AGA: Small details are so important, I agree. And then there is the moment where one halts and leaves it to the reader to imagine…

JG: Part of the process, as in painting or sculpture, is knowing when to stop. That’s the real mystery to me. How do we know, intuitively, when we've provided just enough description to impart a scene, but not overwhelm the reader without our own experience? How did Rodin know, for example, when he’d “finished” his marble sculpture of Victor Hugo? Everyone should check it out—it’s in San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor…

This is really a question about voice, a subject I find inexplicable. Trying to define yourself, as the saying goes, is like trying to bite your own teeth. But believe me, I ask the same questions myself, of other authors. How did Katherine Boo suck me into Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the very first paragraph? How did Hemingway and Vonnegut create intricate reality out of such simple sentences? How do authors as diverse as Don DeLillo (White Noise) and Anne Pachette (State of Wonder) suggest the hidden motivations of their characters? Voice is the secret sauce, but I’m not sure even the chefs know the recipe.

 AGA: Can you offer up a favorite paragraph from one of your books that illustrates your gift for description and the hugeness of your prose style?

JG: Here is one of my favorite small sections from The Size of the World, describing part of the three-day drive from Kathmandu to Lhasa, Tibet:

“Not a single aspect of the world around us seemed futile or weak. Nothing was for show. Every crag, every stone and sword-cut valley lay exactly in place, inhabiting its own eternal kingdom. Protean clouds pulsed across the sky like dynamos, illuminated from within by electrical storms. Columns of rain danced between them, never touching the ground. When sunlight hit the suspended downpours the drops of rain blazed like opals. I rolled down my window, smelling ozone and ice.

In just four hours of slow driving, from the Nepal border to this region just beyond Nyalam, we’d entered the rain shadow of the Himalaya. We had left the Kathmandu Valley -- with its lush mythology, saturated rice terraces and snake gods -- and ascended into the spare, luminous wilderness of the plateau. Gone were the dairy cows and mangoes; gone the balmy nights and ice-cream socials. The approachable gods of the Hindu pantheon had stepped aside, abandoning the stage to the mercurial earth-spirits of a far less forgiving terrain. The Himalayan landscape is so vast and powerful that you know it’s alive: Water, air and lightning gods have inhabited these hills for eons, and the arrival of Buddhism did not displace those deities as much as make them reconsider their loyalties.

The road flattened. We pulled into a small encampment, pulled on our hats, and staggered breathlessly into a ramshackle lodge. There was a fire in the hearth, and a carpeted bench to rest on. Our driver signaled to the aama, and she poured us cups of savory po cha.

The thick, broth-like aroma of black tea and rancid butter rose to the back of my nostrils, and as I put the cup gratefully to my lips I knew just what it meant. I’d crossed over, once again. This was Tibet.”

[Note: click here to see a photograph of the place described]

 AGA: I think I just stopped breathing! That was divine… how do you record what you see and experience in such a place? Do you take notes, journal, use a tape recorder? What is your story collecting process on the road?

JG: I carry around a small shirt-pocket notebook and jot down bare elements—sometimes just a few words—of salient scenes or dialogue. The inspiration for this shorthand was a book about the painter Andrew Wyeth; though he painted in almost photographic detail and color, his sketches were often just a few black charcoal marks on paper. It’s amazing how even a tiny cue can unlock our memory of a scene.

 When I’m back on my own, in a café or my room--or on a long bus ride!--I write up my notes. Usually twice a day. I try to write my impressions spontaneously, in narrative form, without a lot of editing. I use a rather antique device called an AlphaSmart NEO—a simple, lightweight and bulletproof electronic notebook. It runs for two years on three AA batteries and can store 1,000 pages of text —but shows only six lines on its gray scale screen. So the tendency is to move forward, not stew over what I’ve just written!

When I’m on assignment doing interviews I use a tiny Olympus digital recorder, and hire a transcriber. It’s easier that way. Believe it or not, I don’t know how to type. I’ve written six books using the two-finger method.

AGA: Your lack of typing skills hasn’t seemed to affect your prodigious output. What about when you come back: how do the notes become story, as you type away with two fingers?

JG: I’ll go through my journals and lift out sections that work, then massage them together with more detail, information, dialogue, and transitions. Usually the structure will be intrinsic, already in my head. As with the stories I tell on stage, I like to go in knowing my opening scene and ending line.

AGA: Your words are deeply poetic: you strike me as a poet. Do you read poetry and if you do, who are your influences?

JG: My writing career began with poetry, which I studied at UC Santa Cruz under Bill Everson and many others. That was a side interest; I was actually trained as a clinical therapist!

I taught a class at Santa Cruz called The Performance of Poetry, and was deeply involved with the legendary Santa Cruz Poetry Center. Through that world I got to work and read with some great wordsmiths, such as Ellen Bass, Ken Kesey, Philip Levine, Claire Braz-Valentine, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, Flora Durham and the late Greg Keith. I even got to drive Allen Ginsburg to SFO from Los Gatos one night. He spent the whole ride talking about Bob Dylan and singing “Idiot Wind.”

AGA: Sounds like a great travel story! And what about your poetry? Tell me about your poems.

JG: Unfortunately my poetry was pretty sucky, and though I had quite a few pieces anthologized they rarely come back to haunt me. However…. LitQuake and Penguin published a book last year called Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors. Two of my poems are in there. Give them a miss.

But hey… You were complimenting me. Which goes to show that poetry, for some writers--like myself--is a good foundation but a bad destination. As far as who I’m interested in now, the poets on my radar include Lisa Mueller, Jack Gilbert, Marie Howe, Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver and lots of great haiku poets!

AGA: I’ll be honest and tell you I’m glad you weren’t a stellar poet, because it meant the travel writing world got ahold of you instead!

Going back to travel writing, lately I have been reading a lot of travel writing that is maybe not so stellar. Is this on writers or publishers? How do you deal with the difficulty of writing about what is as compared to what is expected, particularly for travel writers who feel pressured to make things look better or more on the surface? How can a travel writer go deep and yet meet the expectations of publishers?

 JG: This hasn’t really been difficult for me, because a lot of the humor in my writing--which people expect--is based on mishaps, misunderstandings and near-disasters. But I’ve rarely found a place, with the possible exception of Mauritania, which I consider the world’s largest cat litter box, which lacks redeeming qualities. But almost every city or country I’ve visited has profound and transformational aspects, and points of pure fascination.

AGA: I can’t leave that alone. What do you mean, Mauritania “is the world’s largest cat litter box?”  When were you there and what were led you to arrive to this somewhat colorful and aromatic description?

JG: The place was nasty, the people were mean and food was terrible. People kept slaves in Mauritania—legally—until 1981. Enough said!

AGA: But how can a travel writer go deep? Do you think publishers want deep thoughtful writing or quick turnout that is scripted?

 JG: I think the hope of publishers and editors is that writers do go deep, but that we do it with an economy of words and observations. Even in a guidebook or a service piece, the writer can point the reader to places that are authentic. Via magazine, for example, recently ran a very short feature on what to see when visiting Point Reyes. I’ve been in love with the National Seashore for 40 years, but writer Deborah Franklin focused on the places that most inspired her – and revealed three new highlights I’d never even heard of.

AGA: When we met last, I asked you what your advice would be for my travel writing career, and you said, don’t write for free. We talked about different ways around this issue and I’d like to talk it about again. Why do you think writers shouldn’t work for free? How do you think that impacts the travel writer, or writers in general?

 JG: It does impact the travel writer. Working for free devalues all writers, and —along with similar abuses like “content farms”—is destroying the craft of writing by lowering readers’ expectations of what good writing looks like.

This is a passionate subject, and I don’t want to sound bitter, because I’ve had pretty good luck and do command a fair price for most of my work. But even for a relatively successful writer, the culture of the industry is oppressive. Imagine hiring a respected painter to work on your house. They arrive, bringing all their skill and supplies, and finish the job in about two weeks. Afterwards you look at the painting, and decide it’s not quite what you wanted. Not only don’t you pay the painter for their work—you don’t even bother to contact them again.

My point is, we wouldn’t accept such terms in any other profession but freelance writing. Freelancers have no credible union, no benefits, and no clout. Any talk-back to an editor is tantamount to bridge-burning. That’s partially because there will always be a dozen other writers willing to come in and work for less – or for nothing.

There are boundless examples. Many travel magazines that I wrote for in the 1980s are paying exactly what they paid 30 years ago, or less. Take it or leave it. Others—and you don’t have to look far—are infamous for telling writers to develop complex pitches. They then take the information, discard the freelancer, and write the story in-house.

What’s the solution? I wish I knew. Many writers are desperate to get published, on any terms, and most don’t rely on writing for their livelihood. But it serves no one to devalue writing, and relegates our beloved profession to a very low rung of the entertainment industry.

AGA: For new travel writers, what are three things you suggest to get started?

JG: I always suggest that aspiring travel writers—even if they have enjoyed success in similar fields—attend the annual Travel Writing and Photography Conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera. It’s a very good place to meet like-minded people and get some face time with excellent editors, authors and agents.

Then get yourself a notebook, and a ticket.

AGA: Of course that is where we met for the first time, and as you are aware, it really changed my life. It turned it upside down, and it is a good place to meet connections and learn about the craft from the best. I don’t think there is any other travel writing conference like it in the world. Wise suggestion.

Leaping to something else, one thing I’m trying to do with these interviews is talk about the craft and the rich literary tradition that it holds: I want to encourage people to read more travel writing and to widen the definition of what it is. What travel classics would you suggest reading?

JG: Okay, this is where I make the embarrassing confession that I rarely read travel writing per se. I read a lot of books where the author is far from their home base, but I don’t necessarily consider that travel writing. I actually read a lot of science fiction, which I consider travel writing in the most extreme sense. There’s so much fantastic science fiction these days—I highly recommend Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, which is set in ancient Persia, Ian MacLeod and Vandana Singh, who often write tales set in South Asia, and Paolo Bacigalupi, whose stunning The Wind-Up Girl is set in a not-too-far future Thailand.

AGA: Oh, I definitely think of science fiction as travel writing…

JG: And once again, now that I’ve subverted the question, I’ll answer it. Here are ten “classic” travel books, a sort of random fiction and non-fiction selection from the scores that have had an especially strong impact on me: The Saddest Pleasure, by Moritz Thomsen; Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams; Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel, Swimming to Cambodia, by Spalding Gray; Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey; A Spider’s House, by Paul Bowles; West With the Night by Beryl Markham, To the Elephant Graveyard by Tarquin Hall, The Year of Living Dangerously, by C. J. Koch and Dispatches by Michael Herr.

And the books I’m reading right now: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo; Descent, a novel by Tim Johnston; Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems; Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Oakland’s own Nayomi Munaweera, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois.

AGA: What books, at this point, would you like to be remembered for most?

JG: As far as the books I’d like to be remembered for – as if we have a choice – I’d put The Size of the World at the top of the list, and right below it Snake Lake, though that odd and difficult book will always be a source of great consternation to me.

 AGA: I like to ask something quirky and personal in every interview. Tell me about three objects you have brought back from your travels and the story of how you came to possess them.

JG: Of course there’s my Buddha, but I wrote a whole book about that rather fraught acquisition.

I wear a strange and ancient ring made of what the Tibetans call thokcha, or “sky metal.” Legend has it that this strange metal, origin unknown, fell from the celestial sphere—either in meteorites, or during a war between the gods and demigods of the Himalayan pantheon. Many centuries ago, the ring was in the form of a dorje, a Tibetan thunderbolt symbolizing impenetrable clarity:

These days, ironically, the dorje is so worn down that its shape is not at all clear. Some people think it looks like a butt.

During my around-the-world overland trip in 1993-94, a Moorish Mauritanian slave trader gave me his cigarette holder and tobacco pouch. Though it’s not my proudest possession, it serves as a reminder of my visit to a strange and difficult country. It was the one and place on Earth that I have seen African slaves working in conditions that recalled America’s pre-Civil War days.

When I was in Iran for the total eclipse of the sun in 1999, the civil workers in Esfahan were hanging huge, colorful cloth banners from all the streetlamps lining the main avenue. The banners were in Farsi, and showed an image of the sun being eclipsed by the gorgeous dome of the so-called Womens’ Mosque. I stood there and admiringly watched the workers put up the banners. After a few moments one of the men came down from his ladder, carefully folded one of the banners, and presented it to me as a gift.

Finally, for my third object, I’m going to take a chance and send our readers off-site to a tale --about another ring--that I recorded for the NPR radio show Snap Judgment.  It’s about one of my oddest and most prized possessions. Now listen, y’all, don’t navigate away to this story until you’ve reached the end of this interview!  http://snapjudgment.org/gold-ring

AGA: I hope they do follow that link! A few more  questions first, though:

What are you working on right now? I see you as a kind of Renaissance man, doing a lot different things, so I hope we get a glimpse of that in your answer....

JG: Yes, there are many irons in the fire. Such is the life of a freelancer!

Here’s a glimpse, which I will limit to half a dozen hare-brained schemes for 2015. First, I’ll soon published a wonderful story with the BBC about my cross-country flight in a powerful open-cockpit airplane no bigger than a kayak. Next, I hope to start working on a series of travel stories that will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Size of the World. I’m also the senior writer for a consulting firm called Now Labs, helping visionary companies develop and launch new products that challenge our thoughts about technology and design. I’m building a scale model of the Batmobile as part of an article for Todd Oppenheimer’s newly launched Craftsmanship Magazine.

AGA: You truly are a whirlwind, with a Batmobile to boot! What about Ethical Traveler? Are you leading any groups or taking any trips in 2015?

JG: In April I’ll lead my fifth annual Artists’ Delegation to Cuba—Lithuania and Chile are also on the books.

Finally, I really hope that 2015 will be the year I tuck into my next book project. I won’t say much about it, except that it’s a sort of potlatch—and will provide a way for you and our readers to take possession of those objects I mentioned in my answers to the last question!

AGA: I can’t wait to read your next book and be transported to someplace new. Thank you so much for this time creating a conversation about all the things I love. It’s been a tremendous pleasure.

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About the author, Jeff Greenwald:

Journalist, photographer, and Renaissance man Jeff Greenwald is the author of many books, including Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, The Size of the World, Scratching the Surface: Impressions of Planet Earth from Hollywood to Shiraza, and Snake Lake. He is in numerous literary anthologies and has received accolades and awards such as the Lowell Thomas Gold Award for best book in 1996. His early experiences working in humanitarian work shaped his ideas of what travel is and can be. He might be anywhere right now, but you can find him in cyberspace on his website and on Twitter.

In conversation with Raquel Cepeda

My desire to discover the world around me was really organic. I think it’s part of my DNA, my ancestral memory, to want to journey, to become a #wanderwoman.
— Raquel Cepeda

Welcome to the Conversations series here on my website. It's a series of informal conversations with diverse writers from multiple genres, who write about place and travel. In trying to keep the perspectives wide open, each conversation has been very different than the ones that proceeded it, covering topics from home, habitat, the power of the journey, exile, and craft. The series started with Tim Cahill, Patricia Schultz, and James Dorsey, and now I'm honored to share a very special conversation with Raquel Cepeda.

I discovered Raquel Cepeda's work in August in a travel story she wrote for the New York Times. I immediately read her book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, and fell in love with her prose style and voice. Her accomplishments include everything under the sun: award-winning journalist, cultural activist, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, novelist, among other talents. Last month she was awarded for her commitment to denouncing violence against women, and her work in helping young women's empowerment by the United Nations. But besides all of this, she writes a wonderful travel story.

Read on as I talk with Raquel Cepeda about writing against the current, the importance of mythos in her work, why travel is in her genes, her experiences of being a woman of color who travels, and much more. AGA
 

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Raquel Cepeda/ Photographer: Heather Weston  

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Raquel Cepeda/ Photographer: Heather Weston
 

AGA: First off, from what I’ve read, you were always a traveler, even as a child. Can you talk about those early travels?

RC: Yes, it's true. I've been traveling since before I could remember anything more than vignettes: my mother's abysmally sad eyes; my aunt's infectious chortle; playing with the coil's of my schizophrenic poodle Oliver's gray fur. I officially started traveling when I was six months old, give or take. My birth mother, a spanking new arrival from the Dominican Republic, was still in her teens when she had me. My father was too busy taking advantage of her naiveté and messing around with scores of women, and either had the social capital or familial support. So my mother's parents stepped in and my grandmother flew to New York City and brought me back to Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, to live in a pretty fly 'hood there called Paradise. Thus began my not-so-glamourous life an a jet-setter.

AGA: A difficult start to the traveling life, but one that gave birth to a true traveler.

RC: I went back and forth regularly until I came back to live with my father and stepmother in the early 1980s.

AGA: I'm curious as to how you think this duality of being in multiple places informed your world view.

RC: Being born to Dominican parents gave me an awareness, from jump, that a world outside New York City and North America, existed. I was aware of other languages, foods, customs, etc. from an early age, and being transcultural inherently made me an internationalist, a member of my global community. The other advantage of traveling at such a young age is that it sometimes piques your interest in wanting to know more, see more, experience more.

AGA: Is there an example, a memory, you can share?

RC: I remember, and I write about this in my book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, that when I was a little girl in Santo Domingo snooping around in my grandfather's study, I was totally captivated by the globe on his desk. I wondered how one could contain the entire world in a relatively small ball atop of someone's desk. And I vividly remember climbing on top of my grandfather's desk and spinning the globe, thinking I belonged to it, to whatever landmass or ocean it stopped on. I remember thinking I belonged to the world and not my parents: maybe that's why I never really got to know them in those formative years: I was always moving, never settled.

AGA: And your family were travelers, too. Can you talk about them in the context of travel?

RC: Well, my grandparents travelled back and forth to pick me up and drop me off from the Dominican Republic to New York City. My mother was in her teens when she met my father. My father was a world traveler. When he was still a small boy, his father moved their immediate family and a few extended members to Aruba. My father eventually went back to the Dominican Republic and then to live with his father and wicked stepmother in New York City, where he suffered greatly as a pre-teen before finding himself performing in Latino nightclubs around the city, first as a dancer and then a singer. He had street cred, if you will, as a nightclub performer of boleros, or emotional Spanish-language music. He regularly performed all over New York City and traveled throughout South America. It was during a trip to the Dominican Republic, where he was slated to perform on a local TV show, that is how he met my mother.

AGA: That right there is a wonderful travel story in itself! Hearing about your early life has me wondering about the books you read when you were a girl. Did you read books that inspired you to find, seek, and travel?

RC: I didn't, no. I was a mostly disengaged, bored student. In fact, I resented all the bullshit I learned in parochial grammar and high school about how God loving missionaries came to the New World in order to spread the gospel of brotherly love, freedom and a really freaking cool and blissful afterlife. I didn't buy that they civilized the so-called Indigenous savages they encountered and the West Africans that miraculously appeared on the shores of the Caribbean. I didn't appreciate that so many of the kids of color in my school began to resent the characteristics in their faces that looked Indigenous and/or African, and began doing all they could to erase those markings. Something about the whole thing, before I could even articulate it, just turned me off. It makes me sick that this propaganda continues to be perpetrated today, but that's another story.

AGA: Hmmm..you decided to make your own stories....I like that about you.

RC: My desire to discover the world around me was really organic. I think it's part of my DNA, my ancestral memory, to want to journey, to become a #wanderwoman.

AGA: I'm always a little voyeuristic in these interviews, and I'm wondering where this #wanderwoman writes.

RC: Remember when Virginia Wolf wrote about having "A Room of One's Own"? I don't know what that's like. I have a seventeen year-old daughter and a two year-old son. And a crazy-busy husband who's also a writer, graffiti historian, and partner at a creative agency. I have a membership to a writers room close to our apartment I try to sneak off to as much as I can. I also try to write very early before everyone wakes up, sometimes at night when everyone is asleep, and when I'm on deadline, I just disappear into the bathroom. I write in longhand on the train, anywhere and everywhere: whatever it takes.

AGA: Since happily coming upon your work, I’ve come to discover that you are many women in one woman. You are a journalist, a filmmaker, an author, an amateur boxer, and so much more. An example of a person doing many things well. But all of these are tied together by some silken thread. What is that thread, to you?

RC: I am still discovering what the thread is but someone once told me that he saw an expression, or rather, a venting of rage in my work. Maybe he's right. I'm not sure but I'm open to it. More than anything I recognize an intense desire to connect to the world at large, to my/our global community.

AGA: Can you give a few examples of how this desire to connect with the world translates into reality and what you create?

RC: For example, my documentary Bling: A Planet Rock, is about how American hip-hop's obsession with the hyper-materialistic social trappings of hip-hop intersected itself into the decade-long conflict in Sierra Leone, West Africa.

AGA: That is fascinating.

RC: When magazines were a thing, I used to be the editor in chief of an urban bi-monthly glossy called Russell Simmons' Oneworld. When I re-launched it, my vision to make it more transcultural and global in scope was realized in most of its pages.

There are also global/travel threads in my book, Bird of Paradise. While the first part of my book is a coming-of-age story set in the Dominican Republic, New York City and a jaunt in San Francisco, the second part of the book focuses on ancestral DNA testing as a tool for self-discovery. By using science, I travel back in recent history to or reveal where my ancestors came from before they came to be known as Latino/a. I also physically travel as part of my journey.

And finally, I'm in production on my current documentary, Some Girls, which is an extension of the book in some ways. In the film, we use mitochondrial DNA testing for the same reasons I did in my book, and I there's an international component to it.

AGA:  I love the way you take what moves you and turn it into real, tangible things: it is very creative and original, and it's one thing that pulls me into every piece I read that you have written. I think of you as almost an inventor. A person who, when something cannot be found, makes it herself. There is a constant moving in your life, in your writing, and in your work. Can you talk about how this formed your writing style (or) what you think your writing style is?

RC: [Laughing] Yeah, that's why it's so hard for me to find patrons to support my inventions! Sometimes I think I should just give up and produce shows pitting women against each other, or shows counting down who had the best ass-shots in 2014 and get paid! People would pay for that! But then something happens—a conversation with my daughter, meeting someone who left an abusive relationship or found something in my work that empowered them, or a sign from the universe that only makes sense to me—that reminds me that swimming against the current is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. By the way, did I mention that I can't swim!?! It's fucking hard out here.

AGA:  Signs. Powerful signs. I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one in the room, and then someone tells me that something I wrote moved or changed them, and that infusion is enough to keep me going. I think many writers face this, especially those who are going against the current, as you say.

Your writing style goes against the current in certain ways, too. How would you describe your writing style?

RC: My writing style is a direct reflection of the way I speak, and my dry, often dark sense of humor. A female writer once told me she felt my writing was sort of masculine, aggressive. My husband Sacha -also a writer, among other things-and I often joke that had I used a male pseudonym or had been an actual man, I'd be seen as being all those things associated with male writers to are even slightly forthcoming: searingly honest, vulnerable, reinventing the English language, free-wheeling, blah, blah, blah....But alas, nope, I'm "preachy" and "prickly." Thank the gods that I don't really, at the bottom of my heart, care what reviewers, who incidentally super-rarely review books by Latina-American authors, think, as much as I do the men and women who've actually read more than a section. *Sheds a single tear.

AGA: But this is where your inventiveness comes crashing in: you combine everything and write about the places in-between, yet your writing is accessible and daring.

RC: My writing style exists in a liminal space, that gray area between the streets and the ivory-tower. It's a total contradiction, I know. I said before that I've always been a disengaged student. I feel like many academics, with exceptions of course, recycle the same old tired theories their predecessors have preached not to ruffle any feathers and, sometimes—fuck it, too many times—don't even bother to venture out and get to know the communities they are writing about.The only folks who would find that statement offensive are the ones who are guilty of committing this pseudo-intellectual crime. But what's worse is when the brilliant thinkers in academia, and there are a handful out there, are not accessible to the people that would benefit most from the jewels they have to offer due to a number of things, ranging from a lack of resources to a lack of access too many Americans have to higher education-especially in communities of color-and also the dry and insular manner in which the information is presented.

AGA: Personally, I'm turned off by writing that makes the story inaccessible to all but a golden few. I like the way you write, because it resonates immediately and viscerally. One feels that you actually speaking when reading your work.

RC:  In my own life—in and out of academia and mostly as a student of the world and researcher of counterculture, race, and true American history, and as a product of 1980s hip-hop—I've felt compelled to translate what I've learned and/or discovered in a manner that's palatable to folks, whether they're sitting in an Ivy league classroom or idling away in front of a corner store or working behind the counter in that same corner store.

AGA: How I came to read your writing, and discover your work in a larger way, was through a piece you wrote for the New York Times about your journey to Aruba, by way of the Dominican Republic to rediscover your roots. Did set out to write a travel memoir, or did that happen after the journey ended?

RC: Oh, yes, that New York Times travel story was a postscript, if you will, to Bird of Paradise. I was curious to find out more about my father's side of the family now that he and I were working on maintaining a peace accord of sorts. I didn't set out to write a travel memoir in the literal sense but in a more Vonnegut-esque kind of way: that is, being unstuck in time but in a braided nonfiction narrative.

AGA: Did you go on that journey as a storyteller, as a listener, a collector, a detective?

RC: I wore many hats during the writing of my memoir, the first by a Dominican-American author to be released in the popular market. I was, above all else, a collector of saliva (DNA), a researcher/detective trying to unearth my history, a listener, and a storyteller. I think most nonfiction writers are all the aforementioned. Maybe that's why so many of us spend lots of time in our heads. While I literally travelled to a couple of destinations for research purposes and to try and retrace the footsteps, to imagine what it was like for a known ancestor of mine to survive, albeit in fragments, for me to exist today, I didn't set out to do that in the very beginning. The results of my ancestral DNA tests dictated where I would go, if anywhere.

AGA: Is the journey now complete? Is it over?

RC: Today I think that the journey that began before I seeded the idea for Bird of Paradise has no end, it's continuous. It's like identity: it's never settled. The idea of settling bores the shit out of me.

AGA: I see another book on that theme...

RC: I would love to write a straight-up travel memoir in the future, from my perspective as a woman of color who blends in almost everywhere she's traveled, to experience the world in a way many Americans cannot. Most Americans in general don't travel and of those who do, a small fraction are people of color. I'd like to make the world an inviting place for more people of color to travel, to find themselves in the selves of others, as a tool of empowerment. But that's an uphill battle because the publishing industry, like academia, places our experiences into more confining boxes than the census does! With that said, I can't say I'm terribly surprised that the industry is imploding on itself, committing literary suicide by sticking to one-note narratives by writers of color, with one or two exceptions per year, rather than cultivating New American classics. So it goes.

AGA: I think, personally, that writers need to help one another. It's not just editors, perhaps, but the insular quality of  people: they stay within certain constraints. I like to think that I am mixing it up a little, and I think that writers have that responsibility to the craft itself: to include more voices and encourage people to read them. 

I'm fond of mixing it up in travel writing, too-as far as style and story and content. I do not like travel writing that is just about a place: I want it to have some soul, preferably of the narrator. Your book goes beyond soulfulness, it is, in some ways a manifesto, a guide, a set of links. It’s raw and real and running deep. Authentic. Does that authentic voice come easily for you, or is it something you have to draw out of yourself?

RC: My book is certainly a reflection, a direct reflection, of myself for better and worse. It's my voice. However, I was able to preserve my voice mainly because of two people: my literary agent and my editor. They were both fiercely protective of keeping it intact. I wish my editor was still in the publishing industry: she got it, overstood, in fact, the world outside her office.

AGA: That is wonderful to hear, I often hear the opposite!  Let's talk about the way your book is set up. I'm spending a lot of time talking about your book rather than craft, because I think your book sets a new standard and pulls off something that quite difficult, a multiplicity of stories, that are linked.

The book is set up in a very interesting way: it is linked by two journeys. Let’s talk about the first half. You decide to return to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with family and history. In the book, there is this duality of you: the you who is belonging to the place you are returning to, and the you that is seeking belonging in your own life story. That’s a very interesting theme for a travel memoir, because so many are written from the point of view of an outsider going inside of a new place and writing about. You, on the other hand, are inside two places at once: The United States and the Dominican Republic. Can you talk a bit about the difference of belonging to the place you write about, and visiting it as an outsider?

RC: Your question of belonging is directly linked to the formation of my identity as a hyphenated-American, at once Latina and American, or rather a dominiyorkian: a New York City born woman of Dominican parentage. I'm comfortable in both places because, over time, I've come to understand that I'm not hard-wired to sit quietly in anyone's box. I have chosen to, as a sociologist might say, selectively acculturate. I've taken what I love about my Dominican heritage and what I like about being American and making it work for me. To me, the hyphen in between my selves serves as a bridge I can walk across or stand in the center of whenever I choose. I would say that Bird of Paradise is more a memoir about identity than it is about travel in a traditional sense although traveling in the ways I've already mentioned have been the very thing, aside from hip-hop culture, that have informed who I am today.

AGA: How do you think you have captured the voice of place, and what makes that voice different?

RC: There are certainly more pros than cons to belonging to the place you write about. When you write from an insider's perspective you can avoid all those clichés fetishizing what many "outsiders" find exotic in a land and its people. Sometimes when I read articles, particularly set the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and the Boogie Down Bronx, I'm reminded of those romance novels featuring Fabio on their covers because the writing is so saccharine and nondescript. There are layers of subtext I can read through when I'm, say, in the Dominican Republic. However, because of my ties and ambicultural footing, I find that I can read a lot of that subtext in many different countries. Plus, when I travel I'm usually mistaken for belonging to the majority or minority of that country—for example: a local in Bahia, Brazil; Turkish in Austria; mixed-race in West Africa; a local in Morocco—and in a way, if you read my book, you may find that they are all right! So, for better and for worse, I often get to experience a place because I fit in. [Readers: to read a collection of essays and stories by travel writers who write from the point of view of belonging to where they write about, read this New York Times series, which also includes Raquel Cepeda, My Caribbean, Five Vignettes.]

AGA: The second half of the book is a different kind of journey, but still a travel journey: you decide to trace your ancestral DNA, and you take the reader alongside you on scientific route of discovering who you are. Why did you decide to include this in your book, and how do you think including deepens the experience for the reader?

RC: At the time I was writing the proposal there was a spike in hate crimes against Latinos across America. Our immigration policies were and continue to paint Latinos/Hispanics as public enemies, criminals, and terrorists although dozens of North American territories belonged to Mexico before the first wave of illegal English, Dutch, and other European immigrants bumrushed the U.S. It was clear that people didn't know what Latinos were/are. I've writing about the topic and had seen others use ancestral DNA to reveal their own roots. So I decided that I would use myself as ONE example of what, or who, we are. Ancestral DNA testing, embarking on this journey, was the skeleton of the book, its foundation. It definitely deepened the experience, not only for me, but for other Latinos, adoptees, and Americans of all races who I've met at book events and have written me online.

AGA: How did the science of who you are fit with your sense of knowing where you belong?

RC: For me, the results were affirming, both literally spiritually. While mainstream America paints Latino/Hispanic-Americans as being "illegal," I found that we are the physical embodiment, the genetic circumstance of the events that begat what we refer to as the Americas, the New World. The Dominican Republic, the eastern side of the island we share with our Haitian brothers and sisters, is home to the first established European city in the Americas: it was where the Indigenous slave trade began, where the Transatlantic slave trade began. It was an international port where the world converge to trade goods, people, disease, and try out this ism we're obsessed with—capitalism.

 So, with that stated, I went into it with an open mind and the results not only confirmed my suspicions but illuminated a path back to my recent ancestors, making my world smaller by revealing where my people came from before they were shoved into the big brown Latino box. I'm still on that journey today!

AGA: A big theme for you seems to be mystical, the mythos of self.

RC: Honestly, the mythos, a relationship with that aspect of our world, has been something that's been a part of my life since I could remember. I don't necessarily go out on a mission to find something: it finds me. It's hard to articulate because I'm the most non-new-agey person you will meet. I don't think it's particularly special to connect to something spiritual or preternatural. You don't have to speak in a soothing public radio voice, wear Indian tunics, ethnic bangles, or buy stock in sage to connect to something divine. You just have to be open and listen to your intuition, to those messages the universe sends us periodically that we miss because we're too busy posting anonymous hate-mail online or trying to convince our Facebook and Instagram "friends" that we're happy-go-lucky spiritual gurus. Seriously. We are way too distracted.

AGA: Ahem. There are a few of us who love social media and don't get distracted by it [laughing]. But yes, I agree, the authenticity is missing for many, as are the opportunities to listen to one's intuition.

Let's go back to your book for a moment-there is a dichotomy of science, logos, and mysticism, mythos, running through the book. How do you weave these two together to tell the story?

RC: By utilizing the science of ancestral DNA testing in Bird of Paradise, I used rationality or logos, as a portal to the past. By employing mythos, or what some people call magic realism—to me it's tangible, a part of my life, how I express myself spiritually—I traveled back and forth through time and space.  On a personal level and in my work, there has to be a balance of both mythos and logos because it's part of my identity.

AGA: One can’t help but think about Paradise and Redemption as themes in your overall work.

RC: I'm not sure that redemption is an overall theme in my work but maybe that's something I should give more thought to.

AGA: But obviously, Paradise....

RC: Yes, I like exploring the ideal of paradise and what that means. Someone once told me that no matter how far you run, you will always meet yourself in the mirror. I couldn't agree more. If you don't do the work to fix all the faulty wiring inside of you, you will never find peace or be in a state where you can be open to actually experience your surroundings which, naturally, results in the same ole' nondescript travel stories. Paradise for me, as it relates to writing about travel, is when someone can tell I wrote the piece without even having to read my byline. It's being able to experience a new environment with an open mind, leaving my western gaze at JFK International, and with as little judgment as possible. I think my Latina-American background, my hyphenated identity, has served me well in that way. *Pours a swig of Presidente beer on the ground for the ancestors.

AGA: Tell me a few more examples of Paradise found.

RC: In the flavor of chicken tagine atop the Atlas mountains; in a Saharan sunrise *pours another swig; in a helicopter flying upcountry from Freetown, Sierra Leone; peering out the narrow door of no return at Elmina slave castle in Ghana *and yet another swig; in serendipitously meeting a relative I never knew existed, by chance, in a Botanica during a blackout in Santo Domingo...*and there goes that 40 ounce, on libations. I could go on and on.

AGA: The theme of being on a quest is huge in your writing and in your life. If you were asked to define that quest and what moves it forward, what would you say?

RC: I would say it's ego driven. A homie in Morocco once told me that when God created the world, he made 40 versions of the same person and scattered them around the world. That notion drives me. I can't get enough of myself, really. Seriously, I'll always be on a quest to get to know the members of my global community because I can learn from them. I hope I never lose sight of that: learning, from the saints and the sinners, about humanity and our world.

I hope I can instill that desire in my kids. When you expose children to travel you're giving them the best education in the world. Often, they will become more empathetic, curious, worldly, empowered, open-minded, vested in not blowing shit up in the name of the 1% but preserving the beauty around them. Maybe I'm being idealistic but I'm happy to report that it seems to be working so far.

AGA: Do you think when one is on a quest, that it is a failure if the quest is not met?

RC: By definition-at least according the dictionary that came with my Mac-a quest means "a long or arduous search for something." I think that there's nothing that's easily attained or given to us is worth having except a trust fund or white privilege: I'd welcome either of those. It would make selling a book so much easier. But seriously, it depends on how you define quest. I am not on a quest for any one particular thing: sometimes, it will present itself organically when you're writing or researching or in the act of traveling. If I set out on a quest, I would hope I'd fail at least several times so that the flame I have lit inside me to find whatever it is, doesn't go out. I'd like to have a reason to continue on my path. Failure, obstacles, setbacks, are all good reasons to push forward.

AGA: How have you adjusted your quest in your stories when you circumstances prevented you from finishing it?

RC: As it relates to a travel story: I can think of two recent setbacks. I had been developing pieces set in the Caribbean and West Africa. I had to put the Caribbean piece on hold indefinitely because of the Chikungunya virus and because I was committed to bring my two-year-old son along. I couldn't risk him getting sick. I had been close to officially starting the piece about West Africa—the subject matter has been on my bucket-list to write about for years—but weeks before I could officially start-that is, get an assignment number from my editor-the Ebola virus broke out something awful, and so that piece is on hold. I don't see either as failures, though. They will happen in divine time. I just hope the people, friends and strangers alike, are okay in both regions.

AGA: I think all  writers face these kinds of adjustments to what they write, but travel writers always have complicated and obviously geographical reasons why stories get put on hold or changed entirely. I like how you say that the stories will happen in divine time.

I'd like to turn the subject back to identity, particularly after some of the things you've said. One thing travel can do is construct--or deconstruct---one’s identity. As a Latina writer and traveler, how does this translate into the wider, broader experience of how you identity as a Latina?

RC: I'm American, first and foremost. Let me correct that: I'm a native of the greatest republic on earth, New York City. My city isn't perfect and to my lament it's looking and sounding more and more like the midwest but it's the city that reared and nurtured me. It's everything. I'm also Dominican/Latina, and that informs me. When I travel it's less about how I see myself and more about how the world receives me. I just roll with it.

AGA: How does the world receive you?

RC: For example, I once spent hours arguing with airport authorities in a Brazilian airport about the validity of my and my daughter's passports: they suspected we were locals trying to sneak out of the country. I've realized early on that race is in the eye of the beholder and once you travel out of the country, even out of New York City, the lens shift. The challenge is to go with the flow and see where it takes you: I'm still holding out for it take me to a place where Pinky and I can comfortably plan world domination and achieve the perfect suntan.

AGA: How was your book received by those who control the market? There were issues, right?

RC: The reason why you didn't find the book in the only major chain, Barnes N Noble, is because they cancelled every order nationwide weeks before my book was release because of their then-beef with Simon & Schuster. They wouldn't carry the paperback, released earlier this year, because they didn't carry the hardcover. And regardless of how independent bookstores like to claim, well, independence, they  mostly but not always, follow the big boys. My book never had a chance. What a crime against lovers of books! [Readers: Amazon sells her book, see link below.]

AGA: That must have really hurt, since they are the main bookseller in America. How do you see the future of travel writing for people of color and their narratives? How does the world of travel writing and those who influence it receive travel writers of color?

RC: I would like to think there will be more of us out there writing about our experiences traveling but the jury is still out on that front. But if we're to judge how juries treat people of color in our society, or most acquiring editors at publishing companies and magazines/papers, the future isn't looking so bright.

AGA: I would like to think that you are one of the people changing that, and that conversations like these are effecting change as well. That is my hope. One last question: what are you working on now? Give us some inspiration, Raquel-Cepeda style.

RC: I'm writing about travel for The New York Times, Travel. I've been working on a proposal for my next book, which has to be perfect since I'm not a white dude. If I were, I likely would have been in contract for at least two books as of this writing; I'm in the latter stages of production on my documentary Some Girls; and I'm super excited about a podcast project I can't talk about this second but will shout from atop Mount Rushmore once the deal is done.

AGA: So many wonderful things happening! I look forward to your next book, Raquel! Interviewing you has been illuminating, and I deeply appreciate your time. Thank you!

 

Readers, if you'd like to share this interview or comment, simply scroll down and click on comment. To share, copy the link in your browser. Sharing is caring. And if you'd like to leave a comment, those are also just below. And there are links to buy her book instantly from Amazon right here, or on the sidebar of the website. And don't forget to SUBSCRIBE.

More about the author: Raquel Cepeda is a New York City born and bred journalist, documentary filmmaker and author born of Dominican parentage. She lives in her beloved city with her husband and their two kids despite Taylor Swift's appointment as New York City's Global Welcome Ambassador. Please visit her website. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Next up in the series: Jeff Greenwald, Harrison Solow, and Nayomi Munaweera.

In Conversation With James Dorsey

Honestly, it has only been the last couple of years that I have felt confident in my work and found real joy in the process. Now writing occupies my every spare moment. If I have become a decent writer it is a gift, and it brings to mind a quote from Picasso, “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
— James Dorsey

Welcome to Conversations, a series of interviews with multi-genre writers about travel, place, home, habitat, and exile in their writing and in their lives. The idea of the series is to look at travel and writing about place in a diverse context: a conversation with the traditionalists as well as the experimentalists. The series began in October with the masterful Tim Cahill, followed by the dream-maker Patricia Schultz. You can find past interviews in the Archives.

Next up is James Dorsey, the picture of a self-made writer and explorer.  Trained as painter, he decided to dive into the literary world at age fifty, and writes with astonishing clarity about some of the most remote peoples on the planet. He's written about everything from wildlife in their habitat to getting an exorcism to removing live land mines. His writing has a certain earthiness to it, and this combined with skill and an open mind makes him one of the best storytellers I've read. He is a travel consultant to the prestigious Brown & Hudson of London, and has just published his second book. Read on for a conversation about the meaning of exploration, what it takes to write a good travel story, and his journey as a self-taught writer.

 

AGA: I’ve heard you called an “explorer of a bygone age.” Reading your enormous number of travelogues over the last few months, it’s clear that you’ve earned the title of explorer. I’m interested in a few things: how do you define an explorer as compared to a traveler?

JD: Let me begin by saying it is an honor to be included in such an accomplished lineup of writers.

I truly believe there is a difference between tourists, travelers, and explorers in that tourists go someplace as a respite from a repetitive life while travelers go to learn, and explorers seek what no one else has yet found.   The simple act of going somewhere is not traveling unless you get something significant out of it. This is not to say that one way is superior to the other, only that they are different.  I was a tourist for many years and gradually become a traveler.  Sometimes I travel and other times I explore.

AGA: Do you see this age of exploration is something of the past, as others have stated?

JD: Only a month ago a jungle tribe in South America made outside contact for the first time.  While the entire earth has known the tread of boots or has been photographed from above, there are areas and people we still know little or nothing about. Exploration is looking for that lost tribe, while travel is sitting with them to learn their cosmology.  The tourists want to take their photo and go back to the hotel.

AGA: You go lots of places that other people don’t, and I want to really delve into the cultural and historical implications of such journeys, but first I’d like to know: was this something that always attracted you? Did exploration find you, or did you find the explorer in yourself?

JD: I came to remote exploration gradually. The more I saw the more I wanted to see but I don’t care much for crowds or places similar to where I live. For me, it’s about learning the differences so I went farther off the beaten path each time as it gradually became a passion. Along the way I was made a member of the Explorers Club and the Adventurers Club.

AGA: It must have been a revelatory experience to meet others who had the same passion that you did…I often have felt a mix of joy and belonging when in a room of travel writers. It must have quite similar for you to meet groups of explorers.

JD: It was a revelation to know there were other people who did the things I did and my friends that thought I was crazy were wrong.  I now have a world-wide network of kindred spirits to provide my entre into remote places.  Also right from the beginning, my wife, Irene, has been curious, ready, and willing.  Whenever possible she has been with me on my journeys which we both believe are more important than the destinations.  She co-founded the Society of Women Adventurers that thrived for almost a decade but unfortunately is now defunct.

AGA: Did you have literary mentors or travel/explorer mentors growing up?

JD: I read travelogues as a child but preferred watching travel shows to reading; shows like 7 League Boots, and Wild Kingdom. I remember watching an episode of This is Your Life that featured the great explorer John Goddard.  It was right after he had paddled his kayak 4,000 miles down the Nile River and I was thinking how could anyone do such things?

AGA: And Goddard ended up being a mentor and co-explorer with you as well…did meeting people like Goddard bring out the writer in you?

JD: Yes, four decades later John became a close friend and mentor.  Through John and the two clubs, I was able to meet explorers all over the world who inspired me.  Now, to many, exploration is a pursuit of the past: this is what really started me writing. I personally know many people who are explorers in the old world classic sense but our current age of technology has overshadowed such feats. I was seeing so many fascinating places and people that I felt compelled to share it as much as I could.  Fortunately, merging the two has become a way of life for me.

AGA: Can we talk about the role of exploration for women as compared to men? You knew I was going to ask you this! I’m really about empowering women to see places and having the conversations about the inclusion of more diversity within travel writing itself, so I think talking about the role of women in exploration is important. I took note that the Adventurers’ Club decided not to include women in a recent vote, although the Explorer’s Club is co-ed and there is the exclusive women-only club for exploration, WINGS. What are your thoughts?

JD: It’s a bit ironic to get this question right now just after the Adventurers’ Club voted on whether or not to admit women for the first time in its 93 year history… and they voted a resounding no. As a member I see both sides of that vote but for me women have always been equal explorers.  It is our society that has not acknowledged them properly.

AGA: Any women explorers that inspire you personally?

JD: Offhand, I can go back to 1804 when Sacajawea trekked with Lewis and Clark, or about 1890 when Isabella Bird was the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographic society.  Then there are Amelia Earhart, Gertrude Bell, Freya Stark, Beryl Markham, and Sally Ride to name but a few. A close personal friend was the first woman to dive on the Titanic; in addition, she was the first to sign up for both Virgin Galactic and I believe, Space X.  Unfortunately, she has passed on but she defined the word exploration.  I have met many more single women traveling in remote places than I have men, and I hope that the women of the millennium generation are not being taught to limit themselves the way many of the women of earlier generations were. Fortunately, writing is an art form that knows no gender.

AGA: I love that you say writing is an art that knows no gender. As for travel, it is expanding all the time, and I read recently that more women travel than men. Time changes everything. You grew up at time when many amazing discoveries were being made all over the world. Can you recall what some of these were and what it was like to be that climate of the world opening up? Did these affect your desire to travel?

JD: I was a child of the 60’s, hippies, drugs, the Beatles, Vietnam War, space exploration, walking on the moon!  The boredom of the Eisenhower years was blown away by the experiments of the Beatles, Jack Kerouac, and Bob Dylan who made an entire young generation open their minds to new possibilities.  The 60’s were a mini- renaissance.

AGA: But your parents were from the Great Depression era. Did you travel much as a family when you were a boy?

JD: Both dropped out of school early on to keep their families afloat. We never lacked for necessities but there was no money for travel and my parents only read magazines.  It was a loving family and we never missed what we did not have.

AGA: I’ve heard similar stories from other people who grew up in that time, and I recall my grandparents’ collection of Reader’s Digest on their bookshelves. What was the first book you read that you remember, that made you seek out more literary reading material?

JD: I was 20 when I read the first book I was not required to read.  It was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood-- I had no idea why it was so groundbreaking at the time, but it excited me and made me start reading.  Reading got me through three boring years in the army.

AGA: Three years in the army. That must have been difficult. Tell me about your travels just after that.

JD: I first went abroad when I was 27, and already married for five years.  My wife Irene and I wandered around Europe for three months in a two person tent.

AGA: It sounds marvelous.

JD: Money, jobs, future, nothing mattered in those days, just the moment.

AGA:  Let’s talk a bit about writing and your work. Do you define yourself as a travel writer or as a writer? Or both? Do you write in other genres: poetry, fiction, biography, memoir?

JD:  I think of myself as a storyteller due to lack of formal writing credentials.  I never had any training, never went to college, and barely passed high school English.  I have always written from within about my own travels and occasionally wander off into philosophical essays, but that alone has given me a vast canvas.  I have published a couple hundred articles ranging from how an elephants’ trunk functions to what it’s like to undergo an exorcism.  I guess that makes me a travel writer as everything I have done has come out of that.

AGA: That is so inspiring to me, as someone who also has no formal training whatsoever, scarcely managed to graduate from high school, and never went to a four year college. Some people seem to have a natural voice, or can be self-taught. How did you start writing?

JD: I was a successful painter and feeling burnt out after a big show at the Los Angeles County Art Museum.  I decided to take a year to write just because I wanted to see if I could.  A year later the art world had forsaken me but my articles were selling.

AGA: That’s amazing and I think will encourage many people who are considering a change in their life. It’s so gratifying to hear that following your passions can work out. What was the first piece you wrote that you sold?

JD: My first one was about a close encounter with a wild Orca that approached my kayak in British Columbia.  I sold it to the California Academy of Sciences magazine, now defunct. I was 50 years old.

AGA: That gives me chills of the very best kind. So then you were on the travel writing track, boom! Tell me about what this experience was like.

JD: With no training, it took me a long time to realize the true power and beauty of words and how to use them, even though I was selling to places like Colliers, Christian Science Monitor, Natural History, the BBC, and numerous international airlines and newspapers.  When Colliers published their first edition in five decades, they asked me for a travel essay and that remains a very high honor.

AGA: Were you able to apply lessons learned from being a creative in another discipline? Did you do anything to self-educate?

JD: I saw great similarities between painting and writing and used already developed techniques to segue from one to the other. My only training, such as it is, involved reading books by five writers whose work spoke to me, and breaking them down page by page, paragraph by paragraph…and even sentence by sentence until I understood what worked, what did not, and what I liked or did not like.  Those five are Lawrence Millman, Barry Lopez, Beryl Markham, Anthony Bourdain, and Tim Cahill.  To me, they are artists who paint with words and I strive for that. I still read everything they write and learn from every word.

AGA: In my world, you are a great writer, and I have learned a great deal reading your work. How do you see yourself as writer now?

JD: Honestly, it has only been the last couple of years that I have felt confident in my work and found real joy in the process. Now writing occupies my every spare moment.  Only in that recent time have I thought of myself as trying to produce something literary rather than just writing informative articles.  If I have become a decent writer it is a gift, and it brings to mind a quote from Picasso, “The meaning of life is to find your gift.  The purpose of life is to give it away.”

AGA: I love your devotion to the craft. Tell me about your process.

JD: I don’t have a real process.  I try to write every day, even if it’s one sentence.  I have notepads all over the house and in my truck that are full of two and three word ideas.  Sometimes, finished sentences come to me in bed so Irene is used to my turning the lights on in the middle of the night to scribble notes.  Once I find the zone I can write for hours, and forget to eat.  Usually my dog will head butt me to take her for a walk when I get too lost.  I never write more than quick notes while on the road.  It all happens back at home later.  I take hundreds of images for my stories and many times the image will kick start a new story later.

AGA: One thing that fascinates be about your work is that you intentionally choose to visit cultures which are rare, closed, and sometimes dying off. In your stories you bring their voices into the narrative beautifully, letting them tell their story. I’ve read many travelogues that don’t do this, and I think one thing I really admire about you is that you have cultivated a sincerity and respect for the people you write about. And you seem to also garner the respect of the people you visit, too.

JD: I have always felt empathy for the cultures I visit because I have always been aware that I could just as easily have been born in a mud hut or homeless on the streets.  This awareness has made me appreciate my own life and respect others.  When I visit a remote people, I live in their village, eat their food, and join in their ceremonies.  I enjoy immersion in cultures I have no knowledge of. Most of them are honored to have an outsider so interested. Being older also gives me a great advantage in remote places.  I am usually the oldest person there as tribal societies have low life expectancies.  In Africa and Asia, age commands respect, much more than here in America where we tend to warehouse our elderly and worship youth.  The older the person, the more knowledge they possess, and they get that in those places.  There is an old saying, “When an African dies, it is like a library burning.”  White hair has opened a lot of doors and provided me with many stories.

AGA: I have to ask you—because you have been to so many very remote places among peoples few have seen or spent time with—are there any places you’ve been forbidden to visit? There are places that don’t want outsiders, understandably so. Indigenous cultures are speaking up and setting limits with how they are portrayed, as well as limiting access so that their culture is kept intact.

JD: The only place that has not allowed me to enter was an Inupiak village in Alaska. They told me that they did not like white people.

AGA: I get their point of view. I lived with the Ngabe people of Panama for quite some time, and while I was allowed to visit the small communities near my village, the more remote ones I was not allowed to go to. I respected that. Can you tell me about a place you’ve been where you were warmly welcomed?

JD: Riding across the Sahara Desert of Mali with Tuareg nomads was a highlight that I have returned to many times in my stories. These Muslim desert warriors accepted me as one of their own.   There are not sufficient words to describe what it is like to be initiated into a remote clan as a brother.

AGA: What place have you been recently which has pushed your storytelling to new heights?

 JD: Most recently, the spirituality I found in the people of Myanmar has impacted me greatly and I am producing a story about that right now.  It is about an aged lady of a remote hill tribe and her interaction with me and my camera to produce a series of incredible photos. This may be one of the best stories I have written to date.

AGA: One of the travel stories I read by you--which is quite well known--is your narrative of being in Cambodia, at the Self-Help De-Mining Operation. Can you talk about this experience of working to remove mines?

JD: I was invited to the minefields of Cambodia by friends who work there. Aki Ra was captured by the Khmer Rouge and made a child soldier, taught to lay landmines.  As an adult he devoted himself to their removal and became a CNN Hero and has won the Manhae Peace Prize from South Korea.  Bill Morse left his plush life in Palm Springs and moved to Cambodia to help Aki Ra blow up landmines.  I followed them into the jungle carefully placing my feet in their footsteps, moving slowly as a glacier, and knelt next to them as they used a knife to expose a detected mine.  Being inches from a device that can reduce a body to pink mist is terrifying and exhilarating at once.  Imminent death clarifies the mind and heightens the senses to a degree most will never experience. Being in a mine field is combat without the shooting.  There is no more intense service to mankind and any risk was worth the story. These men are the noblest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

AGA: Incredible. That’s one of my favorite stories by you. I think you are noble as well, for taking on such a task and for writing about it.

AGA: Changing topics, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is that there is a tremendous amount of discussion going ‘round right now about what it means to be a traveler and to have a responsibility in regards to where we go. There are many people who think that we shouldn’t visit remote groups, and then there are those who believe that we should, but with care. Obviously, you fall into the second school of thought.

JD: I am always conflicted about visiting a pristine environment because my very presence has impact no matter how small.  Obviously, in the end, I do it because that is how I have chosen to make a living and I feel the need to let the outside world know this is how the majority really live.  Entire cultures come and go with little of the world knowing they ever existed.  A century ago there were over 30,000 languages spoken and now there are less than 6,000 by my reckoning, with few of these being taught in schools or at home.  We probably lose a language every week.  When that happens it is a global loss that leaves a gaping hole in the collective consciousness of mankind.

AGA: Yes, I’ve read about that, the loss of language. We kill off our own cultures and peoples, too.

JD: We deliberately destroy our own cultures. What is the value of someone accepting your beliefs if they did so with a gun to their head? The Bagavad Gita has a passage that says, “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Robert Oppenheimer quoted this after detonating the first atomic bomb and that seems to describe much of mankind today.  I try to give some of these vanishing people a voice, to say “We exist!”  So, yes, even though I impact a remote society by visiting it I try to minimize my presence.  I also never bring gifts of any kind from the outer world as my experience has proven it alters the fragile balance within tribes.

AGA: It’s a heady responsibility to be a traveler today and do it with sensitivity and thoughtfulness. It’s been said that you travel and explore more as a participant than an observer. This is quite difficult, especially when one is writing. What are some of the differences between observer and participant, and how can a travel writer cultivate the power of participation?

JD: To travel as participant rather than observer requires an open mind, patience, and the ability to accept the unknown.  If I have to sleep in a goat pen and eat termites to get the story I am fine with that because that is how the local people live. If local standards of living are not equal to my own the discomfort is only temporary and compensated by the amazing things I am learning.

AGA: That’s a learned skill, for most Westerners—one that some travelers miss entirely.

JD: The trick is to realize that our way of life is no better or worse than anyone else’s. A word I hate in the West is the word “primitive.”  I have yet to meet the poorest tribal person who would trade places with me because we all love our home and our families and are comfortable with what we know.  If you suspend all expectations, the experience is usually worth the effort.

AGA: You seem almost driven to leave your comfort zone: your work is based on a series of quests, of missions, of losing yourself and finding yourself again...over and over.

JD: I am compelled to leave my comfort zone in pursuit of what many would call spiritual quests.  The old saying that “youth is wasted on the young” was true in my case.  I was a total slacker until middle age.  Any success I have has come later in life and with it, a strong appreciation of what I have strived for and earned.  Mostly I look for otherworldly answers from religious leaders, shamans, witch doctors, healers, you name it: people far more spiritually advanced than I am. I also admit to an in-bred drive to accomplish things because I finally realized that life is a gift not to be wasted.

AGA: I relate to this deeply, this inner urge to seek otherworldly answers and to not waste time. I find that that inner drive is something to cherish.

JD: The clock is ticking and I only have so many seconds.

AGA: I know from getting to know you over the past year that you are big collector of objects and gifts from the places and peoples you have written about. I’m terribly curious to hear about this collection of yours. It must be fuel for your stories.

JD: It’s true that I am a collector. My friends say we live in a museum. I have treasures and trash, but every item has a story and its own worth.  I have a Maasai spear given to me after a lion hunt and a Nabataean oil lamp from Petra. I have a 700 year old manuscript page from the libraries of Timbuktu and a fire starter from African Bushmen. I have masks and pipes from around the word and indigenous clothing and the list goes on.  I also have over 60,000 digital images as memories. On my desk I have a tiny statue of a Hopi storyteller that inspires me each morning. Each piece brings back its own story as I look at it and returns me to the moment.  New story ideas often come to me when I am just browsing my shelves.

AGA: Your book just came out this year, a collection of stories from your travels. Since we met, you’ve been traveling a great deal, to Myanmar and few other places. Where you going next and what are you working on?

JD: My new book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, wanders through three decades of my travels.  I am currently writing several pieces about my latest journey through Burma/Myanmar and looking for the next place to go.  I still want to see Laos and am thinking of the Inuit people of Greenland--I would love to go out on the ice with them.  Mars would be nice, but I think I will be a memory before we get there.  And book number three is forming in my mind.

AGA: It's been such a gift to talk to you. Your passion and devotion to exploration is very inspiring, and I love the way you recreated your life at fifty to become a writer and traveler. I can't wait for your next book. Thanks, James. Readers, Please scroll down and leave a comment for myself or James Dorsey below, and don't forget to "like", to share, and to love.

 

James Dorsey has a new book out, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails: a collection of short stories of his adventures around the world. There is a link to the book and Amazon on the right sidebar of the website. I loved this book!

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, photographer, and lecturer, who has traveled extensively in 45 countries. He has written for such publications as Colliers, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, BBC Wildlife, United Airlines, Natural History, Perceptive Travel, Vagabundo, Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, plus numerous African magazines. He is the author of two books. His work has appeared in seven travel anthologies and is featured in Best Travel Writing of 2014, published by Travelers’ Tales.  He is a correspondent for Camerapix International, is represented by Shutterstock, and his photos have been featured by the National Wildlife Federation, the International Whaling Commission, Kodak International, and Smithsonian Magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a former director of the Los Angeles Adventurer’s Club. Follow him on twitter @agingexplorer 

Next up in December: Raquel Cepeda and Jeff Greenwald. Don't forget to subscribe!

 

In Conversation With Patricia Schultz

A mentor told me, “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.” I think the very heft of the book impacts people immediately, reminding them that the world is huge and its wonders are countless. In between the two covers there exists this exciting mix of places well known or not, of every shape and color—from those that are far flung, to those in our backyard, from the grand to the quirky and humble.
— Patricia Schultz

Welcome to Conversations, a series of interviews with multi-genre writers about travel, place, home, habitat, and exile in their writing and in their lives. The series began in October with the masterful Tim Cahill. (You can read that interview here.) Next up is an author of such prolific and joyful activity that it was hard to catch up with her: Patricia Schultz, the author and creator of the 1000 Places to See Before You Die series. More than a book, this tome has inspired thousands of people to go out and see the world.

I recall seeing a 1000 Places calendar on the wall of tiny lean-to hut in a remote village in India a few years ago. I asked my host if he wanted to go to those places in the pictures, and he replied, "Every night I choose a different picture and I go there in my dreams. I am a traveler. I may not leave my bed, but I've been all over the world."

Patricia's book is the stuff of dreams. She's a dream-maker. Read on.

 

AGA: Your name has become ubiquitous with your book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. I'd like to talk to you about the book and the life that you now have because of it's success, but first let's talk about life before the book. In particular, I'm interested in your writing life. Did you want to be a writer growing up, or did you study the craft in college?

PS: No. I am the poster child for Late Bloomers. I worked many random jobs after finishing college while attempting to make sense of my adult life, and where it might lead me. Different interests pulled me in all directions – but the one constant impulse was travel. I had lived in Florence after graduation and when I returned to NY, my knowledge of the Italian language landed me a job with a newly arrived designer whose name was Giorgio Armani. That was an interesting time that taught me a lot about Milan, the design world, European aesthetics, and contact with lots of high-profile types – but it was an environment with way too much pretense and attitude.

AGA: What was the first thing that you recall writing that you viewed as significant to identifying yourself as a writer?

PS: The experience with Armani lead me to freelance gigs as a stylist--I wasn’t very good – including one for Italian Vogue Men in Key West. The editor needed to rush back to Milan without time to do a scheduled interview with Mel Fisher, a local personality – and handed it over to me. I had never written a thing in my life, but I had learned to never say no to anything. I did the interview---probably not very well--and it got published, although once translated into Italian it never really seemed like my own. But it came with an epiphany: I thought, I can make a job out of this! It was beginner’s luck of course, but the first tiny step - one that fell into my lap by sheer chance – toward creating a life of travel writing.

AGA: But back to your youth: I’ve heard that you went through different phases growing up. You wanted to be a teacher and a nun, among other things.

PS: Wanting to be a nun lasted for about 5 minutes. And considering a life as a teacher was a no-brainer – growing up in the 50s-60s that’s all that was really presented to us, as well as nurse and secretary.

AGA:  But it's clear that the thing you were attracted to most was travel. What initially attracted you to the idea of travel as a job or as a significant part of your life?

PS: What had me sit up and take note was a trip I made to Santo Domingo in the DR when I was 15. It was my first passport and first stamp. I stayed with the family of a Dominican friend for 2 weeks – it was total immersion in a different universe and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That trip pried open the door just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the world outside, and I knew there was no looking back.

AGA: This point of view was significantly different than many in your generation and the expectations of women, in particular...

PS: Travel represented my independence yes, and escape. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do: to sleepwalk through life like those I would leave behind at college graduation who had their futures neatly lined up in corporate worlds – the very idea gave me the heebie jeebies.

AGA: Did you travel often with your family and where did you go? 

PS: My family traveled very little – except to visit relatives in the immediate area of New York’s Hudson Valley where we lived. And for our annual pilgrimage in August to the Jersey Shore.

AGA: Can you share any early travel memories from your childhood?

PS: My earliest memory ever was me sitting in the back seat of our dilapidated station wagon - I think I must have been packed a week ahead of time.  I remember the cracked upholstery pinching my legs, the soggy tuna sandwiches and the wind in my hair. The shore to me was all sun and sand and the excitement of the Board Walk.

A favorite family story that still gets told was about the time I wandered off the family beach blanket and was delivered back to an apoplectic mother by a bunch of life guards. I was four. Apparently I was not interested in being tethered even at an early age! I remember very vividly how the feeling of adventure grew the farther I wandered away from that towel. It was very intoxicating!

AGA: Let's talk about the start of your travel writing career. For some reason, I have an image of you in my head as being this fabulously well dressed young woman, hopping on places and traveling glamorously to upscale destinations around the world. But I know that this isn’t true.

PS: If I was a 20-something traveler today, I wonder if I would get on an airplane looking like I was going to mow someone’s lawn-- I think that is a quote from David Sedaris when describing American travelers abroad. I may not have been the picture of glamour as you imagined--but thank you anyway!--although I was in my head. Travel was such a privilege and act of independence that it made me feel very adult and worldly, and I always showed up trying to look the part – though it never did help with an upgrade.

AGA: Have you had any close calls or gritty experiences during your travels?

PS: I remember flying to my friend’s wedding in Abu Dhabi years ago. I was oblivious to that fact that when flying alone as an unaccompanied female--which I very often did-- problems could arise, and I was held at the airport for what felt like forever. By chance another wedding attendee was arriving from Cairo a few hours later and he came to fetch me – as if some piece of unattended luggage.

Traveling sola in those days called for a certain resolve: while walking back to my pension in Florence one evening, a car full of young and cocky fiorentini drove by yelling unintelligible things and threw tomatoes at me. It all felt like a bad 70s Italian movie.

But real danger? I only faced real danger once in my life when held-up at knife point: it was on Park Ave in NYC just a few blocks from my home. Nothing happened, but he did get my bag which I really liked. Sticking close to home, I realized, brought no guarantee of safety and it wasn’t where I wanted to linger.

AGA: You've put in your time in this profession. You were a travel writer for 25 years before 1000 Places came out in 2003. What were those years like, particularly the early ones?

PS: Following that stroke of beginner’s luck with the interview for Italian Men’s Vogue, the road ahead of me was an uneven but interesting one – lots of hard work that resulted in a mix of various articles for negligible fees – often on spec and frequently for free. You know, building a portfolio.  I had never studied writing or journalism, knew next-to-nothing about how one created a network or got published, and spent many an hour sitting on the floor of my neighborhood Barnes & Noble’s Self-Help section pouring over How to Get Published books.

AGA: At some point, you began to write guidebooks. How did you get into the world of guidebook-writing, and what was it like?

PS: My portfolio was still a slim one when a friend of a friend tracked me down during one of my stints in Florence. A guidebook series called Birnbaum’s was doing a new book on Italy, and they had a chapter on Tuscany that was unusable: they could pay pretty much nothing and needed it yesterday – was I up for it? That was 1985 and the beginning of a long stretch of guidebook writing for Birnbaum, then Access and Berlitz and American Express. I began writing for Frommer’s in the late 1990s - they were the most reliable and stable. The money wasn’t good – no one gets rich writing guidebooks – but I learned a tremendous amount and was able to parlay it into other projects and assignments and created a (very) modest reputation for myself as the go-to person for All Things Italian.

AGA: Do you think writing guidebooks led you to write 1000 Places?

PS: In retrospect I can now connect all the dots – one of the larger ones being a book called Made In Italy that I coauthored in 1988 while writing guidebooks on the side. The publisher was Workman, and it was Peter Workman who would bring me back into the fold 7 years later when he gave me the contract for 1000 Places. Until then every assignment I accepted and every word I wrote was all part of the learning process that led me to 1995 and the 1000 Places project that turned my life – and my career, which are the same thing - around.

AGA: Let's talk about how you write and how you see yourself as a writer. Are you a travel writer? A writer? A journalist? Or all or some of those things?

PS: I see myself as a traveler who writes versus a writer who travels. First and foremost is my love for travel – an itch that will forever demand my attention – and which every time brings me the same thrill as that first trip outside America to Santo Domingo. And then there’s the writing part where I struggle to capture it and put it all down on paper. The traveling comes easy to me – I can’t get on a plane often enough.

The writing? Not so much. I am not falsely modest – I must have had some dormant semblance of talent.

AGA: "I must have had some dormant sense of talent." Quite humble!

PS: The quality of my writing in those early years was passable at best - I like to think it has improved over time! Writing thousand-page books gives one a lot of practice! And I was blessed with great--and very patient--editors.

AGA: So, how do you keep track of all the places you go? Do you keep a travel journal or tape record your journal? What is your process?

PS: I never write when I am on the road – days are too long and tiring to do anything other than fully absorb the place where I am and experience and enjoy it to the max. I don’t keep a journal per se or record my travels. I make the effort to observe and remember, and take notes and photos along the way and collect brochures, business cards, clippings and mementos. I generally percolate for a while--it’s called procrastination--and continue the research I began before leaving – it all makes much more sense after I’ve returned. Once I finally put my mind to it, and if I’m lucky, I pray that the article will write itself.

AGA: If you're like most travel writers, you read voraciously about the places you go--and the places you haven't been yet. What books have been inspirations for your travels and your writing?

PS: Who I read and when is something of a blur - I tried to always find some book intrinsically linked to a place I'd be visiting. Some of the choices are predictable and maybe uninspired, but they offered a great insight to the place and people - Out of Africa for my first trip to Kenya--and a somewhat surreal visit to Karen Dixon's farm; Lawrence Durrell when visiting Alexandria; Pablo Neruda for Chile--and a visit to his home as well in Valparaiso; Anne of Green Gables for Prince Edward Island; Eudora Welty for Jackson; Hemingway for my first trip to Andalucía - and Havana.

These days my reading material has taken over my apartment - but it consists of guidebooks, as it is not uncommon for me to buy 4 or 5  on one destination, clippings, mountains of magazines, and what not - and then there is the online research that takes over my days.

I regret not having the luxury of time to read the historical novels that once were a favorite way for me to learn about - for ex. - life in the time of the Medici, or the Ming Dynasty, or Tudor England. They created worlds for me that years of university never managed to do.

AGA: Your perfect writing day would be....

PS: If I have an article assignment that is due, the perfect writing day--which doesn’t exist--would be one in my NYC apartment where I have managed to clear a full day free of appointments or distractions.

AGA: 1000 Places is made up of short vignettes about places. How do you write such condensed pieces about each place? How do you self-edit this kind of work? What are some of the tools you use to help you create these portraits of places?

PS: I am very wordy and always need to reign it back – a word-count ceiling helps enormously. When you’re writing about a thousand places, you quickly slip into a style groove in terms of length and content. I wanted 1000 Places to be both inspiring and informative – ideally this means I need to weave the spirit of the place with its historical and cultural importance. The father of a friend, the author of The Secret Life of Plants – the first real author I had ever met or had a conversation with-- gave me these simple pearls that in my early days and lack of experience were a revelation to me: evoke the sight, sound and smell of the place.

I am aware that the book’s reader represents a vast demographic from the young adventurer to travel-challenged retirees – and so in the end, I decided to write the kind of text that I would enjoy reading myself. It was that simple, and it seems to have worked.

AGA: Do you read reviews of your books?

PS: Complaints on Amazon are across the board – too much info, not enough info – but they are far outweighed by the positive ones. And yes, I read all the reviews regularly, though not every 5 minutes as I did in the beginning!

AGA: While preparing to interview you, I read a story that you wrote for Travel Weekly about your trip to Antarctica. That was a beautiful and lyrical  yet informative piece. Can you share a favorite paragraph from it that can give me a sense of the place as you saw it?

 PS:That was not an easy piece to write because Antarctica was so unlike any place I had ever been before. It was not unlike a religious experience. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“This land” wrote Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911, “looks like a fairytale.” More than a hundred years later I shared his dream and visited Antarctica – in admittedly cushier conditions – to find its grandeur and mystery to be astonishingly intact. For those today who think there is nothing left to see or nothing left untrammeled, the White Continent at the bottom of the world awaits – serene, magnificent, empty, surreal, and beautiful beyond words. "

AGA: Of course, I really want to talk about 1000 Places!  How did you end up writing this book? Was it an idea you had or that the publisher had? How long did it take for the idea to become a reality?

The writing I did for guidebooks was always country- or region-oriented. After awhile it began to feel very confining and restrictive. My travels and aspirations were much more global and far reaching and I kept a growing list of favorite places in my head culled from my world travels. My publisher and I were both on the same page during the initial discussion of the book, though the working title they gave it was 100 Drop Dead Places. They soon added a zero because they said it looked better--and thankfully tweaked the rest of the title.

AGA: It's an astonishing task to take on, writing of something like this. How long did it take for the idea to become a reality?

PS: They asked if I could do it in one year, then said I could take two. I worked on it every single day for 8 years. With such a paltry advance--and no expense account - as many think--my time was eaten up by countless other projects I took on to pay the rent. I also took time for personal priorities such as caring for my parents and etc. I was blessed with an extremely understanding publisher who saw the manuscript I submitted in dribs and drabs. Not a day went by that their confidence and trust didn't encourage me onward. I was pretty much given carte blanche to write the book of my choice - it was a lonely but extremely fulfilling endeavor.

AGA: The first edition of the book was published in 2003, and immediately people loved it. You’ve added more editions with more places over the years. The book has become a book people use to craft trips of a lifetime...and well as to daydream. What do you think it is about this book that inspires people to travel?

PS: I had never seen my father read anything in his life other than the local newspaper. He was 90 when I ran home with the first copy of the book in 2003 to give to him. He held it for a moment and said, “That’s a big book.” I think the very heft of the book impacts people immediately, reminding them that the world is huge and its wonders are countless. Between the two covers there exists this exciting mix of places well known and not, of every shape and color – from the far flung to those in our backyard, and from the grand to the quirky and humble. In addition to reminding us about the romance of travel and how it transforms us, there is also the brass-tacks info to get you there and make it happen. As a travel writer I had never seen such a comprehensive list and had a mentor who told me “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.”

AGA: I love that advice. That's very true. But to envision a book of one thousand places--that's huge vision! It must be hard to see so many places so quickly. Right now, there are a lot conversations about the worth of bucket lists. I am of the view that bucket lists are wonderful things, as long as they are thoughtfully created. How do you manage to experience a place--and write about it--when you are there for only a short time?

PS: I hit the ground running and see more in a day than many might see in a week. I don’t have the luxury of Slow Travel, although I recognize its worth. I talk to others when there, both locals and visitors to see how their impressions compliment or differ from my own. And I research a lot before I go and after – I get lost in the research sometimes and forget to come up for air.

First impressions are important to me, though the evolution of that impression can bring you down another road entirely as you meet people along the way and let the experience unfold.

It is not uncommon that people will tell me their experience in a city place or city included in the book was very different from my own, but that is the beauty of travel. It is an intensely private affair.

AGA: Travel is a personal journey, yes. We all experience place differently. And places themselves also change dramatically. It's interesting to think about tourism and places which have had recent political strife, for example. The original version of the book didn't have many areas of the world that had had recent political strife: but the newer version does. What place have you been that surprised you and that belied your expectations, despite it's recent history of war or violence?

PS: I just returned from Sri Lanka, where the troubles were resolved some years ago yet the memo never reached these shores. There is little to no American tourism to speak of. Not hard to believe considering the distance. But I found an exceptionally welcoming country – certainly the people are some of the most gracious anywhere – with lush landscapes, UNESCO antiquities, coconut and ginger ice cream to die for, and surprisingly sophisticated boutique hotels and waterfront resorts….all created with this conviction that if they built them, the tourists would come. And I believe they will – it feels like they are on the brink of something great, as word of mouth spreads. In the meantime, it is always a thrill to experience a place well before the secret is out. Bragging rights, I suppose, but also because of the unique opportunity to see it in its purest and most authentic moment, before the hordes descent and cruise ships arrive.

AGA: Obviously, it would take a lifetime for you to go to every place in your books, although you’ve been to most of them. Since we've become friends, you are always on the move, and I think you might actually get to all these places someday! Any favorites?

PS: Well, the list is pages long. You can imagine that the favorite-place question is the one I am asked the most frequently. And my answer is that I have 1000 of them. There is something or someone that captures your heart and soul in each of them – Italy for its mind-blowing diversity of world-class art and architecture, Iceland for its lunar landscape, Spain’s Andalucía for the influence of the Moors that is still ubiquitous after a thousand years, Antarctica for its unique penguin colonies that stretch as far as the eye can see, NYC because there is no other city on the planet quite like it, and so forth.

There are places I may not want to return to, but there is no place I have ever regretted visiting. Each place leaves you with a gift – a lesson, a memory, an insight, a friendship.

AGA: Since we starting talking about doing this interview, you’ve been on the road much of the time, from Andalusian Spain to Kazakhstan to where you are right now, in the Artic. Your writing life includes more than just writing. You have a television series, tours, speaking engagements, and lead small groups to places around the world. You have new 1000 Places materials coming out all the time, and you manage your social media and very public life. I have to ask you: what was this transition into this public life like? What aspects have you enjoyed?

PS: My writer-to-public-speaker transition was orchestrated by my publisher who understandably wanted me to be the mouthpiece for the book and what would become the 1000 Places brand. With me so immersed in the completion of the book, I had never given post- publication much thought. Nor did I realize it was something - this so-called public life - that I had signed up for.

As a travel writer the only thing I wanted in front of me was a sweeping panorama or my computer screen - not a microphone and an audience.

The first time I was asked to speak - it was at a bookstore, I had a knot in my stomach the size of a baseball. The first time on live television--CNN! Couldn't we have started with the local news?--that knot was the size of a watermelon. As with my writing, the more I did it, the more it improved - and these speaking events are now something I enjoy tremendously.

At the signings that follow, I have people share the importance of travel in their lives - I hear some pretty moving stories! Something more recent are the small groups I host to places around the world.

AGA: When this interview comes out, you'll be in Churchill, Manitoba with the polar bears, and hopefully get a glimpse of the Northern Lights! It sounds like a perfect life. But you work constantly, and you've been huge inspiration to me personally in regards to following your calling in life, no matter how hard you must work. I know you have several projects going on now...what's next?

PS: The complete rewrite and revision of 1000 Places is already 3 years behind me, so it is time for a thorough up-date. For something like this, my publisher and I work with a team. The German in me--and not the Italian, which is the less detail-oriented half of me--relishes this kind of project.

And then there are my travels. I have my own bucket list - I would love for Iran to happen in 2015. Some of the first friends I ever met at university were Persian, and I have wanted to visit ever since. Chance encounters can do that.

AGA: This was fantastic, talking with you. I think there are so many encouraging lessons in your story that will inspire and lift many other writers--and travelers. It was a pleasure. I look forward to hearing about your next adventures, Patricia!


Patricia Schultz is the author of the #1 New York Times bestsellers 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and 1,000 Places to See in the United States and Canada Before You Die. A veteran travel journalist with 25 years of experience, she has written for guides such as Frommer’s and Berlitz and periodicals including The Wall Street Journal and Travel Weekly. She also executive-produced a Travel Channel television show based on 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Her home base is New York City. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter

In Conversation With Tim Cahill

Somehow, I’d become convinced that being a writer was what I wanted to do. This was in high school. My unspoken fantasy was that I’d live in a small town and travel to faraway places and write about them like Hemingway or Conrad.
— Tim Cahill

Welcome to the first in the Conversations Series: interviews with diverse writers of all genres about travel, place, home, habitat, and exile. When I thought about creating this series I knew I had to start with one man in particular. Although he needs no introduction, here are the basics: the author of numerous literary adventure travelogues, including Jaguars Ripped my Flesh, Pass the Butterworms, Road Fever, and Hold the Enlightenment, Tim Cahill is without question one of the best travel writers in the world.  He's also one the kindest people you'll ever meet, full of stories and advice paired with humility and a wry sense of humor.

 

AGA: Let's start off talking about  travel writing and writing in general. Do you see yourself as travel writer, or do you see yourself as simply a writer of places, a memoirist?

TC: I am a writer.  I like to think of myself as a story teller. 

AGA: Was literary travel writing a passion you had from the beginning of your career or was it a genre you eased into?

 TC: I fell into it. 

 AGA: Have you ever written in other genres?

 TC: Yes.  I wrote a mercifully unpublished novel when I was 25.  In those days, I wanted to be a novelist.  At the time I was living in San Francisco and most of my friends were artists or photographers or poets.  One artist —— James Gorman - painted birds.  He said, I cant get these paintings published anywhere without some writing.  I agreed to write about birds so my friend could publish his lithos..                          

Unfortunately, I suffer from ornithological dyslexia.  But I did know turkey vultures.  I used to hike up on Mt. Tam and lie on my back in a clearing and watch the vultures circle above wondering if I was dead enough to eat.  So I researched vultures and wrote a piece about them which I sold to the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Examiner.  Thats the way I broke into non-fiction: as a vulture writer.

The editor liked my work.  I did several more pieces which all stood out because I knew nothing about journalism.  I had my MFA from San Francisco State and knew about the techniques of fiction.  As it happened, that was the very definition of what was the hot new thing, New Journalism: telling a non-fiction story using the techniques of fiction.  My Sunday magazine stories came to the attention of a small magazine start up in San Francisco called Rolling Stone.  I was hired there and wrote rock and roll, as well as profiles of movie stars and politicians.  I did some investigative work.  I was on the ground in Jonestown a day after that happened.

My first book, Buried Dreams, a national best seller, was about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy.  

So yes, I have worked in a lot of different non-fiction genres.

AGA: What about travel writing do you love? What draws you towards it and keeps you there?

TC: Im good at it.  I think thats because Im curious about other cultures.  Because the field is inexhaustible.  Because I can see stories everywhere.  Because - lets face it - I get paid to travel.  Is there any better job in American journalism?

And I think I have this thing in me that Germans call the school teacher mentality.  When I learn something interesting I have an urge to explain it to other people.  I have to remember to keep that tendency buried in the context of the story.  Otherwise, as some of my best editors have told me, I can get encyclopedic.  

AGA: I'm curious about your childhood. Growing up, what books did you read and how did these affect your desire to become a writer? Did you have heroes or heroines who were writers?

TC: Frankly, I was slow to read.  I think I got the bug about 12 or 13.  From that point on, I read voraciously; one of those kids who read under the cover with a flashlight every night.  Im pretty sure that that is how I developed my lifelong case of large economy sized insomnia.

In those days, I fear my passion was science fiction.  It was interesting because there was pulp science fiction and there were fine literary science fiction writers.  At 13, I was beginning to see the difference.  It was pretty clear.  I also liked H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. All that dense adjectival prose.  Which stays with me to this day.  I can sometimes feel myself lapsing into purple.

Later, my tastes became more ambitious.  My favorite writers were a mixed bag.  The poet William Blake, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway. 

And somehow, Id become convinced that being a writer was what I wanted to do.  This was in high school.  My unspoken fantasy was that Id live in a small town and travel to faraway places and write about them like Hemingway and Conrad.  But I never told anyone about that ambition.  I lived in Waukesha, Wisconsin and there was no one there who made a living at a writer.  It seemed to me, as a person who loved to read, that writers must be gods.  And to admit to that ambition would surely be an act of hubris.  I kept that shit to myself.

Now, I have many friends who are writers and am aware that neither they nor I are in any way god-like.

AGA: What about your parents? Did they read? Do recall what they read? Did you come from a writing and reading home?

 TC:  My parents did not read much.  In our house, we had Readers Digest condensed books and Time magazine.  Also the World Book Encyclopedia.

AGA: So much of your writing is about being outdoors, being in nature. As a boy , were you like Huck Finn, always off on adventures? What were your early outside experiences like?

 TC: I wasnt an outdoorsy kid.  I loved sports.  I played high school football and swam.  I was the Wisconsin State high school Champion in freestyle sprints and earned a swimming scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.  That took up a lot of my time.

AGA: Let's talk about how you craft a story. Do you have common themes running through your work?

TC: My early travel/outdoor work was largely concerned with risk.  Skydiving, cave diving, rock climbing, mountaineering, hard core caving, kayaking.  I was interested in how I dealt with fear.  And I observed others in the same situations.  Now, as I look back, I see that a lot of that was a mental flirtation with mortality.  I think that somehow that obsession may have lent a certain élan and even sophistication to stories that otherwise may have been simple a daring do.  And that has been a theme, I guess.  Mortality.

But frankly I dont think in terms of theme.  I just want to tell a story.  I want to make you laugh.  I want to make you cry.  I think story is like a lens that allows us to see the world more clearly.

AGA: One thing that is special to me about your writing is your sentences seem so well crafted, but you don't seem like you're trying too hard. Do you have an example you could give me of a perfect sentence or several perfect sentences?

TC: How about a couple of sentences?  In a lede?

Here goes:

The air was filled with a light snow that didn't precisely fall but seemed to drift aimlessly under a pearly, opalescent sky.  Everything else under that crystal dome was flat, an endless prairie of sea ice, white with the newly fallen snow, and I could see the curve of the earth in far distance of my vision in any direction I cared to look.  That direction was south.

AGA: You are a writer who has a deep relationship with place, especially with the outdoors. What draws you into a landscape?

TC: Let me tell you a story.  It took me three years to write the serial killer book which was sub-titled Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer.  I think I was successful in my goal of putting myself into the sewer to that mans mind.  And it was not psychologically healthy for me.

Meanwhile, every once in a while, Id take a break and do a story for Outside magazine.  It didnt matter if I was in the walking the Congo or diving in Tonga or riding horses in Mongolia: it was an opportunity to scrub my mind clean of the filth I dealt with daily.  And I saw quite clearly that wilderness - just about any kind of wilderness - is an antidote to the distress of civilization and to certain forms of manifest evil.  Wilderness was something I needed to be sane.

After the success of my serial killer book, I was asked to write about every new whack job that came down the pike. Jeffrey Dahmer.  Those kinds of guys.  But Id exhausted my curiosity about serial killers.  I chose simple sanity of the outdoors.    

AGA: I'd choose the outdoors over serial killers, too. What are some of the landscapes youve written about that have made a lasting and intimate impression you?

TC: I have spent time in the Amazon basin and in the Congo and they were priceless experiences but Ive found I prefer deserts, plains and semi-arid mountains.  While I can make myself comfortable enough in deep forests, I feel a bit claustrophobic.  I like vast vistas.

Which is why I live in Montana, on the drier eastern side of the Rockies.  One of my favorite places is Patagonia where there are area that look like a southern hemisphere mirror image of my home. Big mountains with glaciers on their shoulders, rivers full of big dumb trout, men on horseback driving cattle.  And the Bizzaro aspect: penguins underfoot.  Ostrich-like creatures called rhea trotting along the fence lines.

AGA: Its rare for you for write about an urban landscape. What urban places have you written about that still have a hold on you?

TC:  I cant recall any story Ive written in which the urban landscape was a character.  I once spent ten days on a crowded Congo barge.  We were packed so tightly that no one could move with jostling someone else.  But it was fascinating, in its way.  The barge had its own culture and social strata.  I occupied myself learning about that and thus survived what otherwise might have been a nightmare trip.

AGA: In your stories about the outdoors, there are often the themes of man against nature, or man blending with nature.

TC:  I would hope its never man against nature.  You dont fight the river. 

AGA: You're right, you don't.

TC: In my outdoor work, I have a secret agenda: I want the reader to love the place as much as I do.  I hope they go there and experience it for themselves.  Sometimes people accuse me of spoiling a secret spot but, really, there is no place on earth that petrochemical companies, lumbering concerns, and real estate developers do not have in their sights.  As my friend Richard Bangs says, the major vector for the conservation of these areas is the amount of people who are personally invested in the place: the folks who have walked the trail or descended the river or climbed the mountain.  Those people are a readymade constituency willing to stand up and passionately defend the area.

 Why do I need to save those places?  Ive learned they help me scrub my mind clean.

AGA: Scrub your mind clean. I know what you mean. Do you seek this same synchronicity in your writings about urban places?

TC: I seldom write about urban places.  There isnt the same sense of urgency that I have about various threatened landscapes.  I did have some fun writing about Dublin when I walked the Dublin Marathon a few years ago.  Since I arrived a week before and wanted to do well in the marathon, it was a story about Dublin without pubs, which I submit, was a unique approach.

AGA: When I read your writing, it always hits me quite quickly that you are a man on a quest. Why is quest important when you travel?

TC: A quest, even the simplest quest, forces me to talk with people, to get something done, to understand how one gets something done in that place.  Without a quest, I could easily find myself in the guide book suggestions for the best bar and end up speaking English with other travelers.

AGA: What defines a successful quest within a travel story? Can you give an example from your work and tell a bit of that story?

TC: Any quest is good.  Really.  It doesnt have to be sexy on the face of it. 

But OK, I went to the Lost World in Venezuela.  I was looking for vampire bat caves.  But they basically they were not interesting.  So I went to Mt. Roraima, the mountain it is said Author Conan Doyle wrote his professor Challenger adventure about, using the reports of English climbers of the day.  I climbed the mountain.  Didnt find dinosaurs, as Professor Challenger did, but it was a good story.

 A quest, well written, is always a win.  Failure, well written, is as good a story as success.

AGA: Its hard to imagine you at home, mowing your front lawn and grilling some burgers on a Sunday afternoon. Your image is so strong from your enormous body of work, that I picture you always off on adventures. Yet I know this isn't true. Whats your life like when you aren't going places? Does nature call out to you?

TC: Well, I live in Montana.  There are rivers and mountains and all kinds of wildlife out my front door.

 AGA: Youve said before that your writing process starts while you are traveling--and even beforehand. Can you tell me what that means? Do you begin forming the story and writing it as it happens on the journey?

TC: I say: know as much as you can about the place before you go.  Know what the very best writers have said about it.  Because you are not going there to repeat what others have said.

Take voluminous notes on the road.  Copious notes.  Note taking is an art in and of itself.  It may be the travel writers most important talent.

AGA: Once you return home and begin to put the story pieces together, whats your process? How often do you write and for how long?

TC: Lets pretend I do what I know I have to do: Up whenever I feel like it but at the desk and working within 30 minutes.  No excuses.  Write in the morning.  Do blank page writing then.  If all goes well, I will drift into some nebulous zone where I write along and things I never knew connected begin to tie themselves up into neat little knots.

AGA: Do you have private space for writing, a Tim-habitat, if you will?

TC: Sure.  I have an office.  On the wall above my desk are all sorts of awards Ive won.  A friend did that for me when I was traveling.  I used to have an old Remington Rifle poster up there.  It showed an old trapper sitting by a fire in the snow in the evening.  In the surrounding woods were gleaming eyes and the shadows of wolves.  The trapper holds a Remington rife. The poster said, Big Enough and Strong Enough.  Thats how I liked to see myself vis a vis the various publishers and editors I for whom I worked.  And yes, I support wolves, dont see them as threatening campers and dont like the idea of shooting them.  Its a metaphor.

AGA: What are the things that make up that habitat? What about it makes it comfortable for you to write in? What are some of the objects in it?

TC: I can write anywhere.  Ive done it on ships at sea or in mud huts.  What makes me comfortable and helps me is the fact that I have friends, many of them.  I have friends here where I live in Montana and in New York and Chicago.  I have friends Ive met all over the world.  So objects that make me comfortable?  Theyre human.

AGA: Whats next? What are you working on? Whats your next project or book?

TC: Nothing is screaming at me.  A memoir might be next.  Maybe. 

AGAA memoir. I can't wait. Thank you for starting off my Conversations series, Tim. I know everyone will love this. This was perfect.


Readers: Please leave a comment, a "like", or share below. I love it when you do that.

 

AGA