On Travel Writing: Kevin Oderman and the “Trance of Culture”
September 14, 2015 § 3 Comments
Kevin Oderman’s book of literary travel essays, Cannot Stay: Essays on Travel, is a lyrical and meditative examination of place, culture, individuality, and community. Brevity Managing Editor Kelly Sundberg sat down with Oderman to talk about his travel essays, life abroad, and how travel both expands and contains his world.
Kelly Sundberg: You’re an essayist, but you’ve also published novels, as well as literary criticism. I’m always curious about people who switch back and forth between genres. I wonder if your writing in other genres informs or influences your literary essays?
Kevin Oderman: I don’t think so, not much, anyway. If anything, the influence has been in the other direction. I haven’t written literary criticism recently, but the criticism I wrote back then was already leaning towards the essay. I gave up on criticism not from lack of interest but because I found the language of criticism literally nauseating. I couldn’t read it, I didn’t want to write it. I began to grind my teeth. One day I realized I was done.
That said, most of my criticism addressed modern and objectivist poetry, and my interest in poetry profoundly influenced my practice in the essay. It trained my ear. It schooled me in structural strategies. And, in Cannot Stay, you’ll notice modern poets get a few quotations and allusions.
KS: What about your novels White Vespa and Going, which, like Cannot Stay, are about life abroad?
KO: Living abroad, traveling, both experiences simplify our lives. At home, the web of our social life, work life, of our responsibilities, even our amusements and pleasures, all conspire to complicate our experience. However good the life, it distracts us. Traveling we (can) leave much of that distraction behind. In the simpler world of traveling, experiences come to us one at a time. So they register more clearly. And there is more time to mull, to consider the kind of surprising connections that, for me at least, often lead to an essay or a story. Occasionally even to a poem. I get back to first questions, questions about how meaning is made and sustained.
Oddly enough, perhaps, something similar happens in writing about travel or the expat life. Much of the clutter of living disappears; it’s easier for me to arrive at clarity and, I probably shouldn’t say, to approach mystery.
KS: Many of these essays take place in non-Western countries. I’m always nervous to represent countries outside of my own experience. As an American writer, I worry about perceiving other cultures through an Imperialist lens, but you skillfully avoid that pitfall. How do you manage the balance between observer and participant?
KO: Well, not going to be possible for me, or you, to avoid being an American traveler, and traveling I’m reminded that I am American far more than at home, when it often slips my mind. But I don’t travel to judge other cultures; I’m there to learn, always to learn. And, frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine feeling superior about being American. Our culture, our popular culture at least, seems to have just floated away from the actual experience of living. I often think of what James Agee called, in his “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” “the mean goodness” of our living, as an expression of the very things we’re in danger of forgetting. It’s easier for me to recall such things traveling in cultures richer in “mean goodness” than our own.
KS: How would you define the word travel? What do you want your readers to take away from this book in regards to how they view travel?
KO: Travel can mean many things, many of them good, admirable. I hope in writing about how I travel I haven’t denigrated any of those good ways, anyone else’s good reason for going. Which acknowledges, I guess, that not everyone travels for an admirable reason, as anyone knows who has seen a Western man, often an old man like me, with a local girl on his arm.
That said, I don’t think of travel as vacation. I feel vacant enough without taking a vacation. I travel hoping to get further in, to find in the world and myself a common humanity. I travel to awaken from the trance of our culture, the trance that leads us to assume that our ways are the ways. To travel is to know, to feel, that our ways are our ways and that’s all. I consider it a good trip if I suffer as much “culture shock” coming home as going.
And I travel for beauty, to be undone by beauty. Just for the oh of it. To be always alert would be to see beauty everywhere, I suppose, but, fallen as we are, the beauty that is always there is just more available traveling. And I want it.
What do I hope readers will take away from Cannot Stay? Encouragement.
KS: As much as Cannot Stay is a book about travel, it is also a book about home, and even on a more micro level, about the body as a kind of home that we carry with us at all times. I love the lines,
“And I like to think that it’s as a metaphor for our life together that a field of fireflies appeals to us, a starry night, the twinkling of city lights out the window on a long flight home. What we feel then, I think, is nostalgia, not for a home lost, but for a living world.”
You’re also a solo traveler in many of these essays, yet there is always a sense of community, and of a search for community. I’m having a difficult time formulating an actual question here, but I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on these subjects.
KO: Often, most often, my wife declines to travel. We have had good trips together but she generally prefers home to what for her is the anxiety of traveling, and if she’s not going, I prefer to travel alone. Traveling with a partner or a friend, though it’s counterintuitive, is often isolating. To attend to your companion you attend less to the world you’re traveling through, to the people you meet, and, just by being there, your companion fulfills social needs that would otherwise push you to make contact in what is to you a strange world, to find if not community what you have in common with people who might seem, at first, very different from the people you left behind at home. We all thrive and suffer. Easy to know this intellectually, but good to feel it down to the bone.
KS: What’s next? Writing project? Life? Travel?
KO: Although I’m still traveling, I don’t seem to be writing about it. Perhaps I’m only on hiatus and will one day return to travel writing, but recently, and slowly, I’ve been finding my way into what for me is a new kind of essay, meditative, quietly lyric, incorporating images (for instance, “Not Sleeping, Yet” in Green Mountains Review. And for years I’ve felt a swelling in my imagination that I hope will prove to be a novel and not an aneurysm. Do we ever really know where life is taking us?
Kevin Oderman‘s first literary book was a collection of essays, How Things Fit Together (winner of a Bakeless Prize in nonfiction). Subsequently, he published an expatriate novel, Going, set in Granada, and a second expatriate novel, White Vespa, set on the Greek island of Symi. Twice he has lived abroad as a Fulbright Fellow. He taught Modern American Poetry as a Senior Lecturer at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, and then American literature to M.A. students at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a Professor of English at West Virginia University. Cannot Stay collects essays on travel written over the last fifteen years.
Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is included in Best American Essays 2015, and she had a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2013. Sundberg is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, a solo mom, the Managing Editor of Brevity, and she divides her time between Athens, Ohio and living off the grid in backcountry Idaho.