Fiona Mozley, the author of Man Booker shortlisted and Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted Elmet, wrote her debut novel while travelling between Peckham, in South London, and her nine to six job in Central London. She missed the landscape of northern England, which is where she grew up and where Elmet is set. Jotting down notes on her smartphone and laptop, she attempted to evoke this landscape during her daily commute, allowing a temporary respite from the daily grind.
Though we seldom see people writing on trains, many commuters read or browse aimlessly on their smartphones. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer of The Millions, spoke of her subway writing habit in “Writing on Trains.” “With a combined total of six hours spent on a subway a week, it felt like extra time,” she says. Mandel sought out other writers who wrote on trains, including memoirist Julie Klam and novelist Joe Wallace. Klam appreciated the need to beat the clock and get down thoughts before her station, as opposed to the long hours she’d spend writing at home on her Mac.
Many authors cite smartphones and the Internet as hindrances to creative writing. When Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, he did nothing but write from nine am to 10.30 pm for four weeks, during which time he wouldn’t go near his phone or email. In his popular book On Writing, Stephen King suggested writers eliminate distraction; “There should be no telephone in your writing room,” he wrote, “certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with.”
Analogue writing setups of the past would offer fewer opportunities for distraction; the view from the open window and the kettle perhaps being the most enticing. Joyce Carol Oates, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan still write their first drafts longhand, while Cormac McCarthy still types his manuscripts on an Olivetti Lettera 32.
When used productively, modern day technology can be transformed from a creativity-killing distraction to a convenient tool to note down those epiphanies or observations that would otherwise be forgotten.
If Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World holds any truth, modern technologies will soon become more integrated into our daily life. “You could essentially in the not too distant future, tweet thoughts,” Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University tells Herzog. “So not type your little tweet, but think it, press a button, and all of your followers could potentially read it.” One day we might be able to transcribe words directly from our minds onto the page. The importance of writing, in the traditional sense, is evolving. Perhaps the romantic notion of putting a pen to paper might start to wane, as we see the value of being able to pluck ideas straight from the unconscious mind.
Unlike many in her field, Fiona Mozley embraced the convenience of technology. “When I started writing Elmet I used a Chromebook–one of those cheap laptops made by Google, which require the use of online apps,” she tells me. “That meant that the only word-processor available to me was Google Docs. That made it very easy to write on either my laptop or my phone as it was all the same document.”
“I find variety to be a real aid to writing,” she continues. “If I’m in a rut, I find the best remedy is moving to another location or altering my media. So if I’ve been writing for a while on my computer and I get stuck, I’ll go and pick up a pen and paper, or vice versa. The phone writing is really just tied to that overall process.”
The author wrote the first few paragraphs of her debut novel in spring 2013. She had just visited her parents for the weekend in West Yorkshire, a region previously known as Elmet, a Celtic Kingdom, between the fifth and seventh centuries. It was early on a Monday morning and she was returning to London by train. The importance of trains and train tracks in Elmet is emphasized even in the opening paragraphs:
I cast no shadow. Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count railroad ties and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid. I am unsure of the direction but in that initial choice I am pinned. I have passed through the turnstile and the gate is locked.
I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear the voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through wood. And the lick of flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste. I keep to the railways track. I hear an engine far off in the distance and duck behind a hawthorn.
“The novel is all about isolation and marginalization, and being invisible in plain sight,” explains Mozley, “so it’s important that there are the trains running from London to Edinburgh just meters away from the little house in the copse, but none of the people on those trains knows anything about the lives being led there.”
While writing the early sections of her first draft, Mozley was working for a travel company in Central London and would jot down ideas on her smartphone during her journeys to and from work. Mozley says:
the sentences and paragraphs I wrote on my phone during my commute were very useful for keeping up the momentum. Sometimes when you’re writing–particularly if you’re working full time–you can have periods of writing nothing at all. Even if I found myself unable to write full sections, jotting ideas down on my phone meant that I felt a constant sense of progression.
Later in the writing process, Mozley got a MacBook and started using the popular writing app Scrivener. “It’s designed specifically for long writing projects, whether they’re novels or PhDs,” she says, “I find it to be a useful way of organizing chapters, drafts and research. There is an accompanying app for phones called Scrivo, which I also have. However, I don’t write much on my phone anymore because I don’t have a daily commute.”
Despite its contemporary context, reading Elmet, one cannot fail but notice that otherworldly quality. Writing the novel was a means of escapism for Mozley, who was not particularly content living in London. She elaborates:
London is a wonderful city, but it is a very difficult place to live unless you have an incredibly high salary or you come from a rich background. I have friends from university who still live there, who will never be able to afford a flat or house that they don’t share with several others. When I lived in London, there were five of us sharing a house and we didn’t have a communal living area because we’d had to turn it into an extra bedroom. For a while I shared a bedroom with a friend to keep the costs down. This kind of thing is typical, and while you could say that it’s normal or acceptable when you’re straight out of university, this is the kind of situation that my friends will be in for the foreseeable future, into their forties or even beyond. These are people with degrees from the University of Cambridge, and people who have good jobs – they’re just not lawyers or bankers. I left London a few years ago and returned to Yorkshire, where I have a much better quality of life. It would be a shame for London, however, if all the writers and artists are forced out. With Elmet, I wanted to experiment with the idea of a rent strike. I wanted to toy with the idea of all renters getting together and refusing to pay their landlords. They all just decide to live in their houses for free.
As a university graduate with no formal qualification in creative writing, and without external incentives or a deadline, the writing of Elmet came from within. It was something to distract from Mozley’s daily commute and financial hardships. She initially wrote with no long-term goals of publication:
I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life, so I wrote Elmet in order to have something outside of myself to think about. I guess you could call it “writing as therapy,” but it ended up being much more public. The otherworldly quality was always deliberate. Although it’s a contemporary novel, some of its major concerns are the thrall of history, the weight of the past, and the ways in which those things inform contemporary ways of life.
That deliberate otherworldly quality is effective in that we can imagine what lies beyond the train tracks and the fields that once belonged to the Celtic Kingdom of Elmet; and we can for a moment feel what the narrator Daniel sees and feels. Flexibility regarding the process enabled the author to record her astute observations and ideas with whatever she had to hand, as she felt them. As a consequence, the fictional Elmet feels like a world fresh from the unconscious mind.
While Elmet was still a work in progress, Mozley took on a role at a literary agency, where she realized that books are written by people not too different from herself. “In a way, I think I had always felt so removed from the sorts of people who become professional writers that it almost seemed like a fantasy profession,” she explains, “like ‘sorcerer’ or ‘superhero,’ not something that people actually did.” After working at the agency, however, writing professionally seemed a more attainable, realistic goal. Now writing with readers in mind, Mozley thought about what she wanted to convey to readers with Elmet:
I like fiction that provokes a sensory response. I wanted to address a number of issues in Elmet, and I would like to make people think, but primarily I want to make people feel. I’m fascinated by the idea that you can write words on a page that someone else goes on to read, and then that person might laugh out loud, or sweat with anticipation, or their breathing might quicken. I love the idea that fiction can have a physical response.
Mozley’s taste in literature is eclectic, to say the least. Her favourite opening to a novel is found in A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, while one of her favorite endings is in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. “I also read a lot of medieval literature, which unfortunately a lot of people find to be quite inaccessible,” she says. “I suppose Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight might be a good place to start because there are lots of modern editions. It’s not my favorite, though. That would probably be a short Middle English narrative called Cheuelere Assigne, which contains bestiality, swan transformations, and family drama.”
Upon leaving the literary agency, Mozley returned to her hometown of York, where she combined working part-time in a book shop with a doctorate in Medieval Studies.
With this new found confidence, a willingness to write using everything she had at hand at every opportune moment, and the tone imparted to her by the historical documents she worked with during her PhD, Mozley brought us Elmet—a lyrical novel that speaks simultaneously of a country for which I have nostalgia as an expatriate, and a place that seems to belong to the realm of dreams. John, described as a giant, has built a house with his own hands in an isolated wood set in the rugged landscape of rural Yorkshire. He earns money through underground fights, which he seldom loses. He protects his children, the narrator Daniel and his elder sister Cathy, from the real world, which at times seems cruel and unjust. Together they roll cigarettes, hunt for their food—tend to the house as their father goes out for days on end. As readers, we come to realize that their ancient way of life is threatened by the land ownership laws of modernity. And all of this takes place beyond the rail tracks, across the fields, in a place to which you or I will unlikely ever venture.
Fiona Mozley is currently halfway through her second novel. “I’m not saying much,” she says, “but I will say that it is very different from Elmet!”
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers:
What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade?
We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds.
The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened — beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” — that rape was
the price one has to pay for staying on…they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid…about what human beings do to other human beings” — such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” — yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote:
Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it…A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel…I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion…The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life.
For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility.
Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre:
For the South African novelist…how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing?
Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: “[C]ontemporary political novels — the ones that sell, at least — are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through…is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.”
Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist — David Lurie is — her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal — are as relevant as they’ve ever been.
In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
That’s a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men — which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop — and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much.
Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described — the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck — all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.”
But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn’t be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life’s Work, although again it’s not fiction. But I don’t suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant — finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now.
I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn’t participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again…on and on, and I haven’t even gotten into international issues!
I don’t want politics to be a source of entertainment — there is too much at stake for that — and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don’t misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let’s keep them separate.
But maybe that isn’t possible.
Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel’s novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it’s whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn’t feel overtly political; it’s concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn’t shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth — with black slaves, for starters.
The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family’s history: for instance, one mother’s goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can’t have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming.
Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the “finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” It’s a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”)
Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain’t makin’ carpenters who know what nails are for.” And this year, crazy has gone national, though it’s New York, not Texas, to blame.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer’s wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There’s a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it’s the perfect Austin novel.
The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something’s gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there’s not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it’s happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump).
The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it’s a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y’all. Or at least we meant to.
One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics — with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall.
Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head.
I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about.
At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk.
Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable.
As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.”
As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world — to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman — feels like a slow death.
Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice — the most important political weapon there is.
Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
I can usually remember exactly where I was when I read any given book. Here’s what I mean: when I look to the shelf before me, The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, is the title that catches my eye. It’s a hardcover with a matte black jacket and gray print on the spine.
Where was I?
An image arrives instantly: a wheely chair in the adjunct faculty office at the community college. It was winter, my first in New Mexico. Besides teaching, I waitressed in a cocktail lounge until two or three in the morning. Exhausted and homesick, unable to afford health insurance, I often wondered whether I’d made a mistake in following my heart to Santa Fe.
Next on the shelf: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which I read in a college dorm room strewn with empty mugs and textbooks. Rain streamed down the windowpanes for weeks on end. It was finals, but I wasn’t writing my papers — those I stupidly saved until 24 hours before they were due. I was a frantic person then, always running late.
And as for Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, I read that on a pink couch in a Cambridge apartment in summer. My boyfriend and I had just broken up; he packed his bags and moved to Alaska, and I was simultaneously fraught with grief and elated with newfound freedom.
It’s an ability I suspect many of us possess: besides plying our minds for the story’s plot, the characters’ names, and the themes presented, we can send ourselves back to where we were when we read the books we loved. Lately, I’ve been trying to pay even more attention to my journey as the reading of the book is taking place. What mark did the book leave on me, and in turn, what imprint did I impart?
Books have always helped me to find meaning in the chaos of experience. As my eyes scan the shelf, I can picture angsty teenage afternoons, Cynthia Voigt beside me offering up Dicey’s Song like comfort food. I see an October of bad job interviews, red wine, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I see a quick succession of flings and subsequent breakups, Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates stroking my hair as I wept. I read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich when my grandmother died. Anita Shreve, Stephen King, and Isabel Allende saw me through romantic weekends, family get-togethers, and summer road trips. Because of the books I have read, I’m a teacher, a traveler, and a chef. I am a fighter and a laugher. I am a writer.
For one bewildering moment, I wonder who I’d be without this shelf.
When I was 22, I worked at a hotel in my hometown for six months and saved up enough money to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. While members of my graduating class were accepting real jobs and renting their first apartments, I moved back in with my mom and dad. It took some convincing to get my mom to agree to put me up while I prepared to see the world alone. “I just need to do this,” I told her many times, so many that finally I actually believed it. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and so traveling seemed the most logical path, because after 17 years as a student, I needed a break. I needed some culture, some eye-opening excitement. In the end, my mom pitched in for my rabies vaccine, and together we mapped out my route on the family globe.
A few days before Thanksgiving, my brother drove me to the Boston airport. I was bound for Hong Kong, and foolishly I had done very little planning and no preparatory reading. Like most other things, I had left my trip around the world until the last minute. My friends threw me a going-away party the night before, and I hadn’t slept at all. At the airport, my brother kissed me goodbye and tore off gleefully in my car — his for the next six months — and then I was alone, the morning still dark and very cold. I looked at the ticket in my hand. This wasn’t how I imagined it would be — already, a desperate loneliness, and I hadn’t even left the States.
In Hong Kong, I suffered from horrible jetlag. I woke every morning at three and tossed and turned until four, and then I sat out on the roof of my hostel and watched the city twinkle awake. I had never felt so lonesome. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t communicate, and I had terrible trouble reading my map. I didn’t know how to do the most basic things — eat at a café, find a book in the library, buy a train ticket — and I felt stupid and self-conscious trying. People looked at me strangely, and so I wandered the streets very early in the mornings when only schoolchildren were out walking. I wrote weepy emails home and wondered how I would survive six months of this.
Then I opened Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.
Of the book itself, I only vaguely remember the plot. The main themes stand out: a desperate childhood, extreme poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment. I remember McCourt’s Limerick in stills: a dirty gray street, a freezing Sunday mass, a sour pickled dinner, a Christmas with nothing.
I can remember well the book’s humor, though, and its hope. I remember an adolescent Frank who scrimped and saved, rose in the morning, passed out in bed at night, and watched men throw his mother around. Still, he survived. By the light of a waning headlamp, I finished the book and wept. I slept deeply that night and rose with the sun for the first time in a week.
When I think of Angela’s Ashes, what I remember most is the way Hong Kong sounded and smelled. The air was muggy, winey, and fishy by late afternoon. Salt blew off the sea. My hostel smelled like cigarette smoke and old newspapers, and the curtains were always closed so that the place sat in a simmering, crowded gloom. In the very early morning, the scent of lilies blew in through the single open window. The girl in the bed next to mine came in late and slept a restless, whimpering sleep. All of this I recall as if it happened very recently. I think of Angela’s Ashes and my senses remember Hong Kong.
The book kept me from giving up, I realize now. It kept me from getting on the next plane home, and it forced me out of the relative safety of my hostel. If Frank could survive, you can do this, I told myself, setting out. I took a ferry to Lantau Island and then rode a bus for hours through a tiny fishing village and a silver city built into cloud forest. On Lantau, standing beneath the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, I couldn’t believe where I was.
Thailand was my next stop. I made my slow way up and down the country, riding buses toward Burma and then back to Bangkok. In the daytime the buses were always crowded, four or five to a seat and people standing with animals and children in the aisles. There would invariably be a toddler on my lap. The heat would rise and the hours would lengthen, and yet there was always something so calm about those rides. The heat, the long light, and the good-natured Thais all made for easy traveling.
I read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith on one such journey. We were traveling down Thailand’s narrowest passage towards the Malaysian border, having left Bangkok early that morning. We were due in the city of Trang by midnight, and all the while I read. The sun was warm through the windows, and a gentle breeze blew. A little girl sat perched on my lap, her hair in braids, her hands folded across her body. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept against me. I read about a grassy Botswana savannah, a friendly community, and a no-nonsense lady detective called Hetty who sings to herself, “O, Botswana, my country, my place.”
I can still remember that line exactly. I was a continent away from home on a bus in Asia, and yet I also felt, however temporarily, to be in my place. The words somehow matched exactly the Thailand that stretched alongside me, yellow and green beneath an amber afternoon sky. There came an occasional glimpse of the sea. I was content, flung, and anonymous. I had never felt so free. We jostled along in the fading afternoon, the passengers’ heads lolling in sleep.
A man in a beach hut on the island of Ko Chang gave me his copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in exchange for a piece of cake wrapped in foil and two lukewarm Chang beers. Of that book, I remember round pebbles and a wandering boy, spare prose, a search for treasure, and a long journey home. But I cannot think of The Alchemist without also thinking of that man’s beach hut, his dreadlocks, the jam-packed ashtray by his bed, and his sandy kitchen floor. I remember a white-sand beach, creaking palms, shells lined up on the stairs, a jagged painting of birds and water. I can still hear the man’s deep, quiet voice. Our feet were bare. He was born on the beach, he told me. Without The Alchemist, I might not have remembered him at all.
I spent my last months in India, where I felt it my duty to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I expected to slog through the book, published three-quarters of a century ago, but in the end, I couldn’t put it down. Everything I saw matched the texture of the book: the sounds of the streets and markets, the smells of burnt sugar and sweat, and the rocking of the trains. I noticed caves the color of clay, and my train once passed through a desert strewn with bones. I saw the marshes of Goa and the Karnataka coast; I turned the pages.
Still, India shook me. It shakes most anyone, I imagine, especially if you’re used to orderly streets and personal space. The clamor was jolting. The trains were late and crammed, and people slept on cots in rows on the sidewalks. I saw sick people, hungry people, and dead people. I was overwhelmed and afraid, and people stared at me constantly.
In the end, it was, of course, a book that saved me. I distinctly remember sitting on a train in a busy aisle seat, deep into A Passage to India. Mrs. Moore was watching from the deck of a ship as India shrank away. She had had a bad go of it, and she was ready to go home to England. On a train pulling through neighborhoods of sprawling Mumbai slums, I read Forster’s description of Mrs. Moore’s departure:
…Presently the boat sailed and thousands of coconut palms appeared all around the anchorage and climbed the hills to wave her farewell. ‘So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar caves as final?’ they laughed. ‘What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgarh? Goodbye!
I put down the book, looked out into mad Mumbai, and laughed out loud.
I heard Forster’s coconut palms everywhere after that: So you thought one bad night was India? One bad meal? One crowded street? India is beautiful, you see. Give it time!
Their whispers strengthened me. In freezing Manali, I did what I could to stay warm, eat well, and exercise. By Haridwar, I had stopped noticing the stares. I learned to look instead for the beauty each place offered: In Rishikesh, I stayed for free in an ashram, practicing yoga in the mornings and walking by the glacially blue Ganges in the afternoons. Jaipur held an ancient fort, a raucous flea market, and an organic farm at the end of a dirt road where, for three weeks, I weeded vegetable gardens with a group of Israeli hippies. Rajasthan was a city of blue roofs, golden sunsets, and cream-colored walls, a color palette I will remember for the rest of my life.
Nowhere else, I suspect, could I have read so closely or loved so dearly A Passage to India.
That year, only the books in my hands knew where to find me. They were my guides, my teachers, and my friends. Thailand will always resemble Botswana in the afternoon light, and my Hong Kong is Lantau, silent mornings, and Frank McCourt as a rugged little boy, finding laughter in a gloomy room. For readers, I have discovered, there will always be two journeys, and if we forget one, we’re bound to lose both, for each sustains the narrative of our lives.
Photos by Katie Thebeau.
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.