There have been a number of authors whose travels through Southeast Asia have
enriched their fiction and non-fiction. From the previous generation of English
writers such as Conrad, Maugham, Orwell and Burgess to the current generation of
Paul Theroux and Pico Iver, these writers have been mobile. These writers were
not the kind to stay at home worrying about how best to promote their books,
experiencing anxiety attacks over their writing career, obsessed at their Amazon
rankings or who received what award. None of that truly matters and at the end
of the day only gets in the way of writing. The heart of fiction is connected,
at least in part for these writers, with their wide-ranging travel experiences
gathered along the back streets of the big cities and dusty roads of rural Asia.
Writers often talk and write about the writing or publishing experience.
But there is far less about the experiences that a writer draws upon to fuel his
or her imagination. Like fossil fuel experiences can run out. New, fresh
experiences are the basis for feeding the imagination. Or one can recycle from
information in newspapers, TV, the Internet on the basis that the writer can
bring a new angle to old information. Sometimes that works. Travel is proactive.
Youíre not reading about someone else having an adventure. It is happening to
you; it is in your face, not on screen. You must deal with it.
I donít mean modern tourism. A packaged group experience is not the kind of
travel that is likely to provide insight in the life of people living in another
culture. Such travel is designed to shield the tourist from the locals. The
writers mentioned above mingled with the people they wrote about. Talk with
them, had lunch and dinner with them, drank and laughed and cried with them.
They entered inside their world and found a way to take these new experience,
ideas and ways of living as a basis for constructing a novel in which these
people came alive for the reader.
I am about to leave for Yunnan
Province. I will be on the road for a couple of weeks. I leave without a
preconception as to what I will find: the people and experiences that lay ahead
of me. One of the continuing characters in the Vincent Calvino series is
Thai-Chinese, and I have the feeling that somewhere along the way, a temple, a
house, a shop, a restaurant or on the street, I will meet people who will teach
me ways of thinking and living that will enrich my life and the characters I
write about in the series.
Writing about others and their culture
requires a large amount of humility. How close to the essence of any life can we
really know? If all we see are the shadows, then we must look deeper. Somewhere
along the road to Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang, I will enter another world. One that is strange to
meet. One that I wish to embrace. When I come out the other end, something will
have changed in me. The way I think about China, its history, people, and
culture. Two weeks is a very short time. When I think of how much someone coming
to Thailand for two-weeks would discover without speaking the language or
knowing the culture and history, I know that I shouldnít expect to go away with
profound insights. But if there is one person, in one place that opens the
window to another world, one that I would otherwise have missed, then that will
have been enough.
I am back in mid-May. I have a book to finish and a
new one to start. Iíll let you know what crossed my path in Yunnan and whether
at the end of my exploration I came to know the place where I started.