AWP 2012 –Creative Nonfiction and the Possibility of Post-Orientalist Travel Writing
March 2, 2012 § 6 Comments
By R.B. Moreno
R180: East and West: Creative Nonfiction and the Possibility of Post-Orientalist Travel Writing / Joshua Schriftman, Faith Adiele, Fred D’Aguiar, Elizabeth Kadetsky, Oona Patrick / Thursday, March 1, 2012 — 1:30-2:45 p.m.
“Travel writing is the beggar of literary forms: it borrows from the memoir, reportage and, most important, the novel. It is, however, pre-eminently a narrative told in the first person, authenticated by lived experience. It satisfies a need. A need for fiction answerable, somehow, to the world. Or perhaps I’ve got it wrong. Perhaps it’s a need for a world answerable to our fictions.”
This was the highlight, for me, of panel no. — oh, hold on. Sorry. I’ve transcribed the wrong notes. That’s Bill Buford. He’s introducing Granta 10: Travel Writing back in 1983, when AWP first took Chicago by storm. (Actually, that was 1986, but the 1983 conference in St. Louis didn’t have quite the same poetry. And with apologies to Rebecca Skloot, I’m not sure there was a storm that year.)
Anyway, the genre feels just about the same, right? Well, except for that part about the world being answerable to our imaginations. Consider this passage from Jonathan Raban’s “Sea-Room,” which Buford placed after Gabriel García Márquez but before fellow (white, middle-aged) wanderers Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin, Saul Bellow, and Paul Theroux, among others:
“On a sunny morning, you could easily believe that nothing essential had changed among these avenues of plane trees and tall, white stucco mansions. Even now, there were nannies to be seen — solemn Filipino women, who pushed their pramloads as if they were guarding a reliquary of holy bones in a religious procession.”
In fact, something essential has changed — is changing — about the genre: increasingly, it answers to Edward Said’s postcolonialism (e.g. Orientalism), rather than to Granta’s stable. Five travel writers said as much on March 1 in a Hilton Chicago banquet room whose electroliers and possibly-oriental carpet looked like something out of Raban’s mansions. That I was seated on this carpet in an overflow corridor with a dozen other (young, nonwestern) globetrotters is one measure of this change.
Let’s get through a few introductions. Joshua Schriftman, who organized this panel, turned heads in 2010 with “On Silence,” an essay for Ninth Letter whose columns and graphics look much like the essays we hope our grandchildren will write. Faith Adiele’s nonfiction can be found in The Best Women’s Travel Writing and books such as Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun (2004). Her challenge to those teaching the genre: get the Joseph Conrad out of your students. In other words (channeling Helen Gilbert and Anna Johnston): “traces of imperial endeavor haunt the very vocabulary, grammar, form, and subjectivities available to the Western traveler.”
Elizabeth Kadetsky went to India to study under B.K.S. Iyengar, a renowned yogi, and came home with First There Is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance (2004). In her remarks, Kadetsky admitted to not-ironically pinning quotations from the likes of Conrad on the wall of her office at Penn State (but also to protesting vigorously the subtitle that adorns her memoir). Then there was Fred D’Aguiar, a poet and novelist whose work focuses on Guyana, where he spent much of his childhood. D’Aguiar had two wishes for his audience: that we read widely (Aimé Cesaire’s “Essay on Colonialism,” Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia) and that, in an effort to bewilder passersby, we clap spontaneously and uproariously for 5 seconds. (The latter wish was immediately fulfilled.)
I’ve run out my word limit already, so I’ll leave you with Oona Patrick, the Cape Cod writer who left the most lasting impression on this writer. Patrick calls her work a “cautionary tale” about her native Provincetown, where her Portuguese ancestors stepped off a whaleship from the Azores some 150 years ago. “You have a lot of guts to be here,” Patrick was told more recently, when the local showed up at Provincetown’s storied colony of (mostly visiting) artists.
On Thursday, this soft-spoken woman in black delivered a biting critique of Cape Cod’s luminaries (Henry David Thoreau, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Normal Mailer, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Annie Dillard, the list goes on) and their descriptions of what is to many sacred ground. In concluding her remarks, Patrick singled out (perhaps unfairly) the following excerpt from Doty’s “Breakwater.”
“Here, curving out to the farthest reaches, / the breakwater’s a causeway of huge stones. / Hard to think these were placed, / these drowsy, inland boulders / awakened, all century, by the seawater’s / moon-driven alarm. Who piled them, / one atop the other, / into this enormous arc?”
“Who piled them?” Patrick repeated, incredulous. “They’re not crop circles!”
R.B. Moreno’s other work can be found at Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School, Phoebe, and NPR. He is nonfiction editor of South Dakota Review and a doctoral student of creative writing at the University of South Dakota.