Can travel writing be experimental?
It not only can, but should, in form, in content, in texture and in every other way. To me, it’s very hard to make fresh and novel an account of Venice, or the Great Trunk Road, or the Grand Canyon, after all these centuries of (often more learned and more accomplished) travellers describing the same sights. So a writer today has to justify their existence by offering something unexpected, different and of the moment.
In my case, when I go to Varanasi or Kyoto, say, I try to look at what is new, foreign, current, as well as the old temples and pilgrims, and to see how the two play off one another. I have written long pieces on Los Angeles Airport and even jet lag, treating them as foreign countries, and sometimes I will go into a foreign McDonald’s or convenience-store, on the assumption that a McDonald’s in Nara will tell you as much about Japan as one in Kansas City does.
And especially in an age when multi-media presentations and video cameras can give us so much of the visual and audio aspects of a place with such power and immediacy, writing has to burrow ever deeper into those inward, subtler and more reflective domains that no other medium can match.
Travel writing has to be experimental to survive, whether that’s by trying to say the unsayable, hazarding a very different kind of first-person narrator or seeing (as Thoreau and Xavier de Maistre did) that even a journey around one’s room, or one’s garden, can be worthy of a book.
What risks do you take with your journeys and stories?
I will often try to write about places that are not inherently interesting or even viewable – North Korea, say, or my tiny neighbourhood in Japan. In aspiring to surprise myself and not fall too much into the same old habits that are of little interest to me, let alone any reader, I try to write in different selves – and moods and moments – with different pieces and to stop myself if I hear myself repeating myself.
When asked once to write on a ‘Sacred Space’, I refrained from going into Ethiopia or Jerusalem or Tibet, and wrote about my desk and, when asked to send a second entry, about memory itself.
I feel travel writing has to be imaginative in conception as well as execution. There are certain writers, such as Colin Thubron, who can write a classic travel narrative with such mastery, depth, erudition and modesty that their books instantly become classics. There are others, such as Jan Morris, who are such brilliant and penetrating portrait painters and impressionists that they can catch a city, intuitively, as almost none of the rest of us can.
But for those of us not endowed with such skills, the challenge comes in going to difficult places (I regularly travel to those covered by the American government’s Trading with the Enemy Act, such as Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and all those other lands of which we hear too much and know too little) and in going on exactly the adventures I would usually shy away from. As a very urban creature, I took myself and my wife to Alaska in minus-40 degree midwinter last year, so as to be shaken out of my comfort zone.
Risk – spiritual, physical, moral and intellectual – is all that makes any journey worthwhile. I go to a place whose values seem the opposite of my own (Pyongyang, for example) to see how my own assumptions can be refined or overturned.
Can you give two practical tips for finding oneself as a writer?
At first I read this question as addressing the issue of ‘funding oneself as a writer’, which often seems the main challenge these days!
To find yourself as a writer you have to find what is almost unique in your background, your passions and your experiences that will open a door that for most of the rest of us is closed. This often requires a lot of work, but there will always be something that you can see that most others wouldn’t.
If, say, you’re writing about the temples of Kyoto, draw on your special expertise when it comes to plants – or to silences, or to buildings, or to Buddhism, or to crowds – to offer something very few others could. Be as focused and precise as possible, and read everything that has been written on your subject so you know what doesn’t need to be said again.
Your voice is, really, your perspective, and your perspective is the mix of experiences and interests that gives you an angle on everything you see different from that of most visitors.
What can travel writing tell us about other societies and cultures?
Everything. The best travel writing is the kind that shouldn’t even be called ‘travel writing’, because it’s animated and driven by something far deeper. Travel is only the pretext for a much more intense and intimate conversation, and a destination is never so important as what you bring to it.
When I think of the great travel writers… I see Jan Morris as essentially a classical historian choosing to chart the modern urban world and the end of Empire. Orhan Pamuk is a master novelist who gives us his Istanbul as only a passionate local writer of fictions could see it. Peter Matthiessen brought to the Himayalas the perspective of not just a man who would become a Buddhist priest, but of a grief-stricken husband who’d recently lost his young wife to cancer, a wife whose surname happened to be ‘Love’. Kapuściński brought to the world the particular eyes of a man from an oppressed society hoping to explain his homeland under cover of looking at other dictatorships. Naipaul roamed the world trying to sort out the Britain and India in himself.
Thus writing centred on place – which is really a better word than ‘travel writing’ – offers as much about the self and the world, and the defining relationship between them, as any work of fiction or essay. It simply uses place as portal for an enquiry into who one is, how different other cultures are, and how we make our home and self when surrounded by the Other.
Pico Iyer is one of the world’s most distinguished travel writers. He is the author of two novels and 13 works of non-fiction, including such works as Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, The Global Soul and The Art of Stillness. His three recent talks for the TED online community have received more than eight million views so far.
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