Writing, Traveling, and the Creative Act
Suzanne Joinson: Dispatches from Israel, Azerbaijan, and a Deer Park in Beijing
For me, writing and traveling belong together. “While I’m writing, I’m far away; and when I come back, I’ve gone,” said Pablo Neruda, capturing the journey-element of the mysterious process. To write, I need to put myself in a room. Sometimes this room is close to my home; other times it’s in a hotel far, far away. When you sit at a desk for hours each day, a change of view from the window is useful. I’ve been traveling like this for years, but recently, travel feels edgy. I can’t work out if the world is getting scarier or if I am simply getting older and more cautious, with more to lose (kids, dog, house, etc). The outside world has changed so much: the Mediterranean is an active war zone and site of terrible refugee suffering and displacement. France, a mere 21 miles across the Channel from where I live on the south coast of England is “at war” and “under attack.” Britain is too, some will claim, so why not stay at home to work, where the illusion of safety is at least always there?
Why do I need to travel to write? I like to follow Jan Morris’s line and think of myself not as a “travel writer,” but rather a writer who travels. It’s a compulsion, like a tic, like a bad habit. Stories of human nature are linked with pathologies of places. Stories involve movement of one sort or another: a linking of memory, a series of events, a chain of internal shifts, and a negotiation between faraway and home. It’s integrated into my life now, born of feeling like an outsider and having an itchy soul, but when I think honestly of my last few trips (to Azerbaijan, China and Burma), there was a point on each of those journeys when I was absolutely terrified. What am I doing here? Will I die? There were moments when I was homesick, or lonely, and arriving home after those adventures, strung out and jet-lagged and guilty about leaving kids and domestic responsibilities, I seriously considered quitting travel for a while. In the last couple of years I have been through inexplicable delays at scary airports, trapped in hotel lock-downs due to “security issues,” had my lap-top and camera confiscated at borders, been asked by authorities to leave the country and have been accused of being a spy. True, I’ve also had wonderful, unforgettable and magical moments, but when you’re in transit a long way from home and things go wrong—and they can turn and spiral downwards very quickly—there is no stress quite like it. The good stuff fades, and all that is left is discomfort and fear. And I’ve had enough of fear.
* * * *
Writing my novel The Photographer’s Wife took me to Jerusalem several times for research and city-absorption purposes. I knew that it was going to be heavy. It is impossible to get a city more weighed down and troubled by centuries of imposed symbolism and the sense of history crushing down on its weary old bones. A friend told me there is such a thing as “Jerusalem sadness,” and I certainly felt it when I was there. I was overwhelmed by a melancholy that seemed to come from deep inside the Jerusalem limestone, as if the shedding of a million tears and tidal-waves of religious and cultural conflict, historical and contemporary, has seeped into matter of the place. Famously, Flaubert traveling to Jerusalem in 1850 described the city as, “a charnel house surrounded by walls, the old religions rotting in the sun.” I didn’t quite feel that, but I found it difficult to relax. As if a simmering violence was always on the verge of exploding.
My room was in a dilapidated old Ottoman Palace on Mount of Olives Road, a place that offers beds for scholars and researchers at a cheap rate. Most people staying there were archaeologists, a very intense and personally driven bunch I discovered who live in an imaginary universe of hundreds of years ago and prefer not to engage with the contemporary world. I was given a dormitory with six beds, though I was the only person using it. In the daytime I was busy, visiting archives and universities, looking at maps, interviewing people, traveling into the countryside to look at old villages, taking photographs and notes, but in the evenings I was alone. I quickly figured out that eating solo in a restaurant was not feasible, so I subsisted on the rope-shaped bread I could buy in the street and orange juice cartons bought in the nearest shop. Occasionally I bumped into an archaeologist in the shared kitchen, scooping out water melon or standing up eating cereal from a bowl as their main meal. Every night I had a sense of the city shutting itself up, as if closing a trapdoor over its head with the nightfall. I spent the long hours until dawn missing my children and feeling nervous about scrabbling noises in the walls.
The writer Olivia Manning had a difficult time in Jerusalem. She fell pregnant there, but the baby did not survive. A writer for whom journeys, chosen or imposed, are central to her work, she was a refugee with war at her heels in that city. Her writing from that time pushed at the confines of writing “as a woman,” her themes crossing over into supposed masculine realms of war, soldiers. She wrote in graphic detail of military casualties and “the practical business of transporting corpses in the desert heat,” and while there is a certain amount of exoticization of the region, she was ahead of her time when looking at the British imperial war-time project and finding it lacking.
I have long had an affinity for Olivia Manning. Perhaps because she came from a small English provincial town, not far from where I live now, and spent her life running around the world, haunted that she would end up back where she began. She had a knack of capturing a place through description, even if Ivy Compton-Burnett sneeringly declared to Barbara Pym of her work, “A great many novels nowadays are just travel books.”
* * * *
In Azerbaijan I was staying with a friend in Baku. It was Nowruz, the New Year celebrations celebrated across the Iranian-Caucasian-Balkan and some Middle Eastern areas, and we decided to drive up to a village high in the Caucasian mountains for the holiday. Our car traveled along steep mountain roads through clouds of rain. We reached a log-cabin hotel, surrounded by snow, and watched children shoot fireworks horizontally and lethally towards each other in the street. The night was a cacophony of crackling noises, guns and fireworks. I was jumpy in my skin, nervous that we were the only women I could see in the streets of this cobbled, ancient-looking village. Presumably all the females wisely stayed inside on this night of loud bangs. My fearless friend said she was planning a trip to the southern-most tip of Azerbaijan, Lankaran, which borders Iran, and was applying for a permit to cross into Iran to explore.
“You could come, to write about it?” She said.
Would I like to go to Iran? In 2006, Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, edited an anthology exploring countries labeled as the “Axis of Evil.” I have been to two of them (Saudi Arabia and Burma), and they were certainly challenging and complex places to visit, but I’m unsure about attributing words like “bad” or “evil” to entire countries, although I can see what he was trying to do. Things are changing in Iran, I hear. Sanctions lifting, shifting allegiances in the unfathomable web of global politics, but even so, I decided that I did not want to travel to Iran at exactly this moment. Hopefully one day I will, when my life invites it to happen, but I didn’t want to go to a place just to tick it off, just for the thrill of looking at it.
Many classic travel writing texts have a whiff of colonialism which is hard to stomach, and often writing that draws heavily on travel, or journeys to and back from other places, is depicted as being polarized by gender: men, visiting landscapes, use either the trope of “nature” or “adventure” as a narrative way-in. Women, visiting landscapes, explore internal psycho-dramas against the backdrop of an exotic landscape, “finding the self” or at the very least, undergoing an internal change as a consequence of the journey. I prefer to read writing by writers who happen to be traveling, or writers who have incorporated geographical movement organically into their lives. A blurry hinterland. The place where memory, landscape, fiction, memoir and story come together.
South African writer, Damon Galgut, writing in the The Paris Review about his genre-crossing novel In a Strange Room explains that what looks like “travel” is in fact memory:
Think about the voice of the book. Is it speaking with the authority of memoir or travelogue? No, this is a voice that switches continually between first and third and second person, doubling back to correct itself, musing about how unsure it is of this or that detail. It’s the voice of memory, in short, which is also the voice of fiction. What do I mean by that? Well, firstly, there is the obvious point that none of us remember the same events in the same way. You only have to listen to witnesses speaking in a courtroom to be sure of that. But also, maybe less obviously, I believe that we construct our memories in the same way that a story-writer constructs a fiction. The memory of any moment or event is made up of a disparate jumble of impressions and perceptions, out of which we pick in retrospect what we think of as the “central” or “meaningful” ones. And we do this far more keenly when we link events into a narrative, which a journey or a relationship inevitably is. One thing leads to a second thing, which leads to a third … but the links are a form of meaning we bring after the fact. We raise certain memories into prominence and drop others out of sight to serve this purpose. All of us do it, all the time, making up the stories of our lives as we go along. How is this different to the fiction writer creating meaning?
* * * *
I was invited to be a writer-in-residence in Beijing. I was given a plush room and my task was to write a short story inspired by my stay. When I arrived Beijing was cold and grainy; the famous smog had lowered and everyone was wearing masks. It was barely light for most of the day. I had senseless dreams in the biggest bed in the world, and at 4 am every morning enormous tanks rolled along the road outside, waking me up. I have no idea why.
Beijing is a city which for various reasons I keep ending up in. Each time I arrive I think the same thing: you would have to live here for an eternity to get a handle on this place. I had decided to write a short story about looking for deer in a park on the outskirts of the city, Nanhaizi Milu Park. I was interested in the fact that deer from this park, known as Père David Deer, were smuggled into England, centuries ago and now, nearly extinct in China, have been brought back. I liked the anchoring connection with my home and the idea of looking for ghosts in what was once the “Imperial Hunting Grounds.”
It was a long journey from downtown Beijing to the edge of the Southern Daxing district. It was sleety, not quite snow and near the temple-shaped entrance to the park a lone person wrapped up like an Eskimo was flying a kite. Other than that, the entire place was deserted. I walked all day in the mist and rain and didn’t see a single deer. The story I wrote, about the hunt for these strange animals, known in Chinese as sibuxiang, was a fantasy that had nothing to do with the grey Beijing sky I stood under.
It was 6 am and I was packing to leave Beijing when my brother texted me. Have you seen the news about Paris? I turned on CNN. My husband, I knew, was driving to Paris (he’d been given free tickets to go to Disneyland and was taking our kids, aged seven and five), and at this exact time was 20 km away from where attackers in Paris were firing at the Bataclan Theatre and restaurants and cafes. It was still an “active situation”—it was still happening.
I had a stomach ache the entire journey home. I moved like an automaton through Beijing security, stopping off in Helsinki, watching Paris-news on the TV in the lounge area, constantly googling whenever I wasn’t in airspace to see if terrorists had targeted Disneyland. My husband and kids were told to stay in there, listening to piped Christmas music, staring at Minnie Mouse posters, eating baguette sandwiches from the hypermarket. When we were finally all back together my son said, “I saw a policeman with a sniper!” and I asked myself: do I really want to travel again?
* * * *
In an interview, Colm Tóibín, a person who appears to write and talk his way across the globe with sublime ease, said:
The best thing about traveling is coming home, bathing in the familiar. I suppose any writer is an outsider; you’re always watching and plotting, rather than participating. I spend a lot of time alone, whether in Ireland or elsewhere. More and more, I like having stability, having the day to myself. Even if I’m traveling, I like the idea that I have two rooms to work in during the day, and maybe spend most of the day, four or five days of the week, alone. You can hardly call that traveling.
Maybe I compulsively travel so that I can re-live, again and again, the sense of coming home? It’s possible, but perhaps it is more akin to Elizabeth Bishop’s admission that, like the little sandpiper, in her poem of that title, she is “looking for something, something, something.”
It is important to find the right place to work. At a certain point in the draft of a manuscript, I work in my bedroom, mostly in bed. Later on, I go to a hotel room in my own town. Cheap, shabby, overlooking the grey sea, and I know I can be back with my children within ten minutes if I need to. And despite recent fears and a prevailing sense of danger out there, compulsively I will carry on going to places far away. This year my plans include Patagonia and Indonesia because going there feels essential to me. A split occurs in my head: I am pottering in the garden, tending to small children, and yet I am going through the convoluted processes of arranging trips to difficult places, often requiring visas, weeks of planning, applying for things, corresponding, because you don’t just casually rock up to countries like those.
Writing is pushing away and then pulling back. Like a swallow, moving back and forth, abandoning landscapes and going with the weather. I’ve realized that writing and traveling ultimately come down to a negotiation with interiors that can be borne long enough to either write about or temporarily exist in, or both. Tunnelling inside, finding a way into my own nerves and back out again; a journey that is never over. On some days it can be taken in the coffee shop in my local town, on others, it is only possible in Kathmandu.
As the poet Charlotte Mew said:
I remember rooms that have had their part
In the steady slowing down of the heart,
The room in Paris, the room at Geneva,
The little damp room with the seaweed smell,
And that ceaseless maddening sound of the tide –
Rooms where for good or ill – things died.
If I’m restless, then so be it, and maybe one day I’ll be still. The world is there to be inhabited and explored, and home, I hope, is always waiting.
Suzanne Joinson’s The Photographer’s Wife is available now from Bloomsbury.