Why I Travel
Ru Freeman | May 2014
I am a reluctant immigrant, someone who, like thousands of others, only came to the United States for a specific purpose—in my case, a college degree—and who, for a multitude of reasons that are wholly personal, ended up never being able to go home. The question that plays on my mind most of the time is: why am I so far away from home? But perhaps that is also the answer to the question of travel, that it is a search for a home for our heart of hearts, which, after all, is what all stories are about.
A few years back, Alexandra Enders wrote a feature for Poets and Writers, titled “The Importance of Place: Where Writers Write and Why”. Enders details the space preferences of writers ranging from Conrad Aiken to William Maxwell, from Katherine Ann Porter to Rachel Cline, and from the writers who needed certain objects in their specific room (Robert Graves) to those who craved the noise of cafes (Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir), to those who loved libraries (Melville, Cather, Woolf, Eliot, and Shaw). Mixed in with those kinds of writers are the ones who can write in the middle of things; writers like Jane Austen, Isabelle Allende, Richard Bausch, and Eudora Welty, who have all written without the need for sacred spaces, for imposed silences.
Many writers enjoy their solitude, their quiet retirement into cabins and homes of their making. I do, too, when it is time to write earnestly and at length, but it is not something I require on a daily basis. It is travel that stimulates my writing, travel that results in the engagement I crave with the world in which I live so that I may write something worthy of its attention.
It has been rare to find those writers for whom, travel is - as it is for me - a critical element to their writing lives; Enders mentions the poet Tom Sleigh, among a scant few others. I’m therefore doubly intrigued by the intense initial interest in the Amtrak Writing Residency, which speaks to a yearning that many more writers seem to have for writing on-the-run. The train, with its endless taking on and emptying of passengers, its many small dramas (the best take place in the Quiet Car where umbrage-ready individuals abound), and its constantly changing views—not to mention its extremely spotty WiFi connections—offers those so inclined, many opportunities to write. I once rode the Amtrak sleeper-car between Philadelphia and Chicago and can attest that very few trips that I have taken compare to that in terms of the stories I collected along the way from observing and then talking with strangers stranded across from me in the dining car.
Any kind of travel can lead to those discoveries that fuel my writing, even the sometimes-arduous book tour. In the streets of Milwaukee I heard the story of his late and second romance from a writer I’d not seen in years. I keep returning to that moment now, in the way we writers poke around a small evidence of truth that could be converted to bolster fiction; I think of the way he spoke, the fear and joy apparent, and I imagine his new love, his grown son, these people I do not know. That same writer introduced me to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Burke Brise Soleil, the 217-foot long “wings” that open and close over the building. It is a spectacle that I know will surface in a story if not as itself, then as an echo. In Atlanta, Georgia, in between the flights book-ending my twenty-four-hour visit, I went over to the Ebenezer Baptist Church and found myself in the middle of a Men’s Day where I heard the hall reverberating with the voice of John Hope Bryant, holding up the importance of action over pontification, and declaring that PhDs don’t have anything on PhDos! I gathered story seedlings all morning long, offered up in the warm smiles and handshakes, in the averted glance and bent heads, in the light reflecting off the blue infinity pool at the King Center. In Seattle I lost the blight of my East Coast myopia and thereby discovered a whole new American city that I had not known existed. A city where on any given day multiple venues fill up with audiences for readings, where some of my favorite artists first performed, and where sits the best bookstore in the whole country.
This wunderthirst that I experience is not limited to travel within the US. I have, when asked and, more importantly, funded, agreed to go to other countries. Canada may not count as “real” travel, but it is an entirely different feeling beyond that well-managed border beginning, in one case, with the signs in French when crossing into Quebec. India (Sri Lanka’s “Canada” in terms of proximity) was a place I’d only ever flown over, a land associated with invasion and geopolitical dominance, until I went to Rajasthan for the Jaipur Literary Festival. There, between glittering palaces and scooter-taxi rides through slums, between listening to Jhumpa Lahiri and Xialu Goa discussing the global novel, and acres of poverty so harsh that I had to shut my eyes on the train in which I was traveling, I learned of booksellers and translators and young schoolboys who ride hundreds of miles and sleep at the railway station just so they could be at this same festival. I signed a blank notebook for a young volunteer, a stunningly beautiful girl I’d noticed every time I came and went from the hotel, who gave it to me saying, “write anything for me.” This, after she had just told me about her approaching the end of her days at the university there, about the marriage arranged for her, the one she would agree to because it was not right to cause grief to one’s parents. These are not sources of inspiration that can be generated at my desk, they are wells that must be dug by going out on location.
This year, at AWP in Seattle, I listened to the poet Nathalie Handal—whose voice, Yusef Komunyakaa once wrote, “luxuriates in crossing necessary borders”—speak of her writing and how it has been influenced by the many places in which she has traveled and lived, as well as the languages she speaks. Affecting a French accent, her cadence lifted a little tightly and off the ground, switching to the rolling ‘r’s of Spanish she turned earthy and lush, and in Arabic she was full of heart and fire. This is what travel does: it permeates the stories we have to tell, and informs our truths, giving them both context and the freedom to roam. This October and November, if the stars align the way they ought to, I will have the chance to go to Morocco and Sharjah, both for festivals, and I will go gladly, precisely because it will take me away from the familiarity of my surroundings. There, I will gather all the ingredients that I reach for when I write: threads and colours, spices and aromas, sorrows and delights, landscapes and architecture, the voices of old women and young men, the laughter and tears of children, the sound of crows and songbirds.
Ru Freeman’s creative/political writing appears internationally, and her novels, A Disobedient Girl and On Sal Mal Lane are published in English and in translation. She blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics, is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review, and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. You can find her at www.rufreeman.com.