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 Sleeping, she 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.
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!
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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.