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. You’re 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.
By travel I don’t 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 shouldn’t 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. I’ll 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.