Any wannabe expat/travel writer would do well to consult with Kristin Bair O’Keeffe, herself a novelist and former expat, before beginning their Great Works. Kristin offers a wealth of writing tips on Writerhead, a blog that she launched on April 1 of this year (which, coincidentally, was the same day we launched The Displaced Nation).
Of the helpful hints Kristin has offered thus far, I have many favorites, but if I had to pick one, it would be her post entitled “Write Wee.” In her breathlessly inimitable style, Kristin assures us that producing a multi-volume series on one’s overseas adventures is not the way to go:
Instead find a nugget. A moment. A single object. One exchange. One epiphany. One cultural revelation.
Find one story and tell it.
The only thing I would add is that in general, women are better at extracting such nuggets than men.
Actually, what got me started in thinking about the difference in travel writing styles of the sexes was a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on Edwardian novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, who penned the much-loved work, The Enchanted April, about four women who escape to a medieval castle in Italy for a much-needed break from their routines.
For me, von Arnim typifies one of characteristics that makes women’s travel writing so special (no doubt there are many more!). As she wandered far and wide across Europe and America, she paid extremely careful attention to the details of her surroundings.
A forerunner of what today we’d call a nature freak, she could get lost in telling the story of watching a “nightingale on a hornbeam, in loud raptures at the coming of the sun…” — I quote from her largely autobiographical novel The Solitary Summer, about a woman, also called Elizabeth, who is anything but solitary. She has a husband, to whom she refers as the Man of Wrath, small child and household to care for.
Perhaps such descriptive powers are born of necessity. Women have little choice but to make the most of spinning tales out of the moments they snatch from lives that are otherwise spent ministering to the needs of others — even when they’re technically on vacation.
Having combed through the pages of The Virago Book of Women Travellers (ed. Mary Morris with Larry O’Connor), I think I may be on to something. I discovered any number of women travel writers with the power to enchant their readers by capturing in their works the moments, exchanges, and personal ephiphanies their wanderings have yielded.
Here are six whose “nuggets” continue to gleam for us modern-day nomads:
Frances Trollope (1780-1863)
Who was she? Mother of Anthony and like her son, a prolific writer of novels (34 in total!).
Key work: Domestic Manners of the Americans, a travel book that made her name, about the four years she spent pursuing opportunities in the United States after her family suffered financial setbacks.
from DOMESTIC MANNERS OF THE AMERICANS
At length my wish of obtaining a house in the country was gratified….But even this was not enough to satisfy us when we first escaped from the city, and we determined upon having a day’s enjoyment of the wildest forest scenery we could find. So we packed up books, albums, pencils, and sandwiches, and, despite a burning sun, dragged up a hill so steep that we sometimes fancied we could rest ourselves against it by only leaning forward a little. In panting and in groaning we reached the top, hoping to be refreshed by the purest breath of heaven; but to have tasted the breath of heaven we must have climbed yet farther, even to the tops of the trees themselves, for we soon found that the air beneath them stirred not, nor ever had stirred, as it seemed to us, since first it settled there, so heavily did it weigh upon our lungs.
Still we were determined to enjoy ourselves, and forward we went, crunching knee deep through aboriginal leaves, hoping to reach some spot less perfectly air-tight than our landing place. Wearied with the fruitless search, we decided on reposing awhile on the trunk of a fallen tree; being all comfortably exhausted, the idea of sitting down on this tempting log was conceived and executed simultaneously by the whole party, and the whole party sunk together through its treacherous surface into a mass of rotten rubbish that had formed part of the pith and marrow of the eternal forest a hundred years before.
We were by no means the only sufferers from the accident; frogs, lizards, locusts, katydids, beetles, and hornets, had the whole of their various tenements disturbed, and testified their displeasure very naturally by annoying us as much as possible in return; we were bit, we were stung, we were scratched; and when, at last, we succeeded in raining ourselves from the venerable ruin, we presented as woeful a spectacle as can well be imagined. We shook our (not ambrosial) garments, and panting with heat, stings, and vexation, moved a few paces from the scene of our misfortune, and again sat down; but this time it was upon the solid earth.
We had no sooner begun to “chew the cud” of the bitter fancy that had beguiled us to these mountain solitudes than a new annoyance assailed us. A cloud of mosquitoes gathered round, and while each sharp proboscis sucked our blood, they teased us with their humming chorus, till we lost all patience, and started again on our feet, pretty firmly resolved never to try the al fresco joys of an American forest again.
Flora Tristan (1803-1844)
Who was she? French reformer who campaigned for workers’ and women’s rights; grandmother to artist Paul Gauguin.
Key work: Peregrinations of a Pariah, about a trip she made alone to Peru to stake her claim to her family’s fortune.
from PEREGRINATIONS OF A PARIAH
Mr. Smith took me to the house of his correspondents, and here once more I found all of the luxury and comfort characteristic of the English. The servants were English, and like their masters they were dressed just as they would have been in England. The house had a verandah, as do all the houses in Lima, and this is very convenient in hot countries, as it gives shelter from the sun and enables one to walk all round the house to take the air. This particular verandah was embellished with pretty English blinds. I stayed there for some time and could survey in comfort the only long wide street which constitutes the whole of Callao. It was a Sunday, and sailors in holiday attire were strolling about; I saw groups of Englishmen, Americans, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Germans — in short, a mixture from nearly every nation — and I heard snatches from every tongue. As I listened to these sailors, I began to understand the charm they find in their adventurous life… When I tired of looking at the street I cast a glance into the large drawing-room whose windows overlooked the verandah, where five or six immaculately dressed Englishmen, their handsome faces calm and impassive, were drinking grog and smoking excellent Havana cigars as they swung gently to and fro from hammocks from Guayaquil suspended from the ceiling.
Mary Anne Barker (1831 – 1911)
Who was she? Jamaica-born, England-educated author and journalist who with her second husband tried to run a sheep station in New Zealand (they later traveled to Mauritius, Western Australia, Barbados and Trinidad for his colonial appointments).
Key works: Station Life in New Zealand (1870); First Lessons in the Principles of Cooking (1874); A Year’s Housekeeping in South Africa (1880).
from STATION LIFE IN NEW ZEALAND
All this beauty would have been almost too oppressive, it was on such a large scale and the solitude was so intense, if it had not been for the pretty little touch of life and movement afforded by the hut belonging to the station we were bound for. It was only a rough building, made of slabs of wood with cob between; but there was a bit of fence and the corner of a garden and an English grass paddock, which looked about as big as a pocket-handkerchief from where we stood. A horse or two and a couple of cows were tethered near, and we could hear the bark of a dog. A more complete hermitage could not have been desired by Diogenes himself, and for the first time we felt ashamed of invading the recluse in such a formidable body, but ungrudging, open-handed hospitality is so universal in New Zealand that we took courage and began our descent. … We put the least scratched and most respectable-looking member of the party in the van, and followed him, amid much barking of dogs, to the low porch; and after hearing a cheery “Come in,” answering our modest tap at the door, we trooped in one after the other till the little room was quite full. I never saw such astonishment on any human face as on that of the poor master of the house, who could not stir from his chair by the fire, on account of a bad wound in his leg from an axe. There he sat quite helpless, a moment ago so solitary, and now finding himself the centre of a large, odd-looking crowd of strangers. He was a middle-aged Scotchman, probably of not a very elevated position in life, and had passed many years in this lonely spot, and yet he showed himself quite equal to the occasion.
After that first uncontrollable look of amazement he did the honours of his poor hut with the utmost courtesy… His only apology was for being unable to rise form his arm-chair (made out of half a barrel and an old flour-sack by the way); he made us perfectly welcome, took it for granted we were hungry — hunger is a very mild world to express my appetite, for one… I never felt more awkward in my life than when I stooped to enter that low doorway, and yet in a minute I was quite at my ease again; but of the whole party I was naturally the one who puzzled him the most. In the first place, I strongly suspect that he had doubts as to my being anything but a boy in a rather long kilt; and when this point was explained, he could not understand what a “female,” as he also called me, was doing on a rough hunting expedition. He particularly inquired more than once if I had come of my own free will, and could not understand what pleasure I found in walking so far.
Vivienne de Watteville (1900 – 1957)
Who was she? British writer and adventurer who accompanied her father on a safari in Kenya. After he was killed by a lion, she finished the trip on her own.
Key works: Out in the Blue (1927); Speak to the Earth: Wanderings and Reflections among Elephants and Mountains (1937).
from SPEAK TO THE EARTH
Finally, it was the boys themselves who pointed to the summit and said it was not very far.
Enviously, I admired the way they could climb. As for me, … I was badly spent; my knees trembled as I panted up through the reeling boulders. …
At last I climbed above the forest zone, passing beneath the last outposts — stunted trees ragged with beard-moss in whose chequered shade lay a carpet of tiny peas … whose blossoms were a lovely transparent blue. Above them flitted miniature butterflies, as though the petals themselves had taken wing. …
The top, when I at last reached it, was, after all, not really the top, and beyond a dipping saddle another granite head still frowned down upon me.
But meanwhile, below me the south side disclosed a grassing depression girt about by the two summits and bare granite screes; and amid that desolation the grass stretched so green and rural that you had looked there for shepherds with their flocks. Instead of which, on the far side of a quaking bog, I saw — grey among the grey slabs — two rhino.
… I drew to within forty yards of the rhino, yet they still looked like a couple of grey boulders as they browsed off an isolated patch of sere grass. …
The wind had risen to a tearing gale, and nosing straight into it I approached the rhino somewhat downhill. There was no chance of this steady blow jumping around to betray me, and it was strong enough to carry away any sound of my footsteps. Precaution was therefore unnecessary, and I walked boldly up to them. Just how close I was, it is hard to say; but I felt that I could have flipped a pebble at them, and I noted subconsciously that the eye of the one nearest me was not dark brown as I had imagined it, but the colour of sherry.
… he now came deliberately towards me nose to the ground, and horn foremost, full of suspicion. … In the finder [of my small cinema camera] I saw his tail go up, and knew that he was on the point of charging. Though it was the impression of a fraction of a second, it was unforgettable. …
… I read the danger signal, yet in a kind of trance of excitement I still held the camera against my forehead. Then Mohamed fired a shot over the rhino’s head to scare him, and I turned and fled for my very life.
M. F. K. Fisher (1908 – 1992)
Who was she? A preeminent American food writer, whose books are an amalgam of food literature, travel and memoir.
Key works: How to Cook a Wolf (1942); Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence (1964); Dubious Honors (1988); Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon (1991).
from LONG AGO IN FRANCE
Monsieur Venot was a town character and was supposed to be the stingiest and most disagreeable man in Dijon, if not in the whole of France. But I did not know this, and I assumed that it was all right to treat him as if he were a polite and even generous person. I never bought much from him but textbooks, because I had no extra money, but I often spent hours in his cluttered shop, looking at books and asking him things, and sniffing the fine papers there, and even sitting copying things from books he would suggest I use at his worktable, with his compliments and his ink and often his paper. In other words, he was polite and generous to me, and I liked him. …
In Monsieur Venot’s shop I learned to like French books better than any others. They bent to the hand and had to be cut, page by page. I liked that; having to work to earn the reward, cutting impatiently through the cheap paper of a “train novel,” the kind bought in railroad stations to be thrown away and then as often kept for many years, precious for one reason or another. I liked the way the paper crumbled a little into my lap or my blanket or my plate, along the edges of each page.
Mary Lee Settle (1918 – 2005)
Who was she? American writer, novelist and expat, one of the founders of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Key works: “Beulah Quintet” novel series (1956-1982), about the history of her native West Virginia (and hence of America); Turkish Reflections: A Biography of Place (1991).
from TURKISH REFLECTIONS
I hadn’t heard anything move, yet he stood there in front of me, smiling, quite silent, a large strong Turkish man, holding in his hand a small bunch of sweet wild thyme. He held it toward me, saying nothing, still smiling. There was something so gentle about him that I could not be afraid. I took the wild thyme, and I thanked him, in Turkish. He smiled again and touched his mouth and his ear. He was deaf and dumb. I still have the wild thyme, pressed and dried, kept like a Victorian lady’s souvenir of the Holy Land.
Dumb was the wrong word for him. There was no need for speech. He was an actor, an eloquent mime. I pointed to the atrium below and held my hands apart to show I didn’t know how to get down into it. He took my arm, and carefully, slowly, led me down a steep pile of rubble.
He mimed the opening of a nonexistent door and ushered me through it. He showed me roofless room after roofless room after roofless room as if he had discovered them. …
I think he had scared people before, and he was happy that there was someone who would let him show his house, for it was his house. Maybe he didn’t sleep there. I don’t know. I only know that he treated me as a guest in a ruin ten feet below the levee of the ground, and that he took me from room to room where once there had been marble walls and now there was only stone, where he was host and owner for a little while.
He showed me a small pool, held out his hand the height of a small child, and then swam across the air. All the time he smiled. He took me to a larger pool and swam again. Then he grabbed my arm and led me through a dark corridor toward what I thought was at first a cave. It was not. He sat down in an niche in the corridor, and strained until his face was pink, to show me it was the toilet. Then he took me into the kitchen where there were two ovens. …
For the first one he rolled dough for bread, kneaded it in air, slapped it, and put it in the oven. Then he took it out, broke it, and shared it with me. I ate the air with him. …
When I gave my friend, my arkadaş, some money, he kissed my hand and held it to his forehead, and then, pleased with the sun and me, and the fact that someone had not run away from him who lived like Caliban in a ruin, he put his arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. Then I went down the hill to Ephesus. When I looked back to wave he had disappeared.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a tell-all from Kate Allison on what inspired her to create her fictional expat heroine, Libby.
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First, thanks so much for the very generous nod! I love working with expat/nomad/travel writers all over the world. Nothing better.
Second, this is such a terrific post. As always, it is so well researched and beautifully thought out. I’m familiar with a couple of these women, but am now going to check them all out.
Thank YOU, Kristin, for being so generous to the rest of us with all the writing inspiration and tips.
One thing about these women I perhaps should have mentioned (but didn’t because I thought it obvious) is that they were all well off. You couldn’t engage in international travel back then unless you had money.
Of course I could have chosen more famous women for the list — Mary Wollstonecraft (mother of Mary Shelley), Isabella Bird, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Vita Sackville-West, Isak Dinesen, Rebecca West, Emily Car, Rose Macaulay… But I wanted to pick examples of women who had that eye for the single detail or incident that would make a good story — who could “write wee”!
By the time I got to the end of Frances Trollope’s account of her botched picnic expedition, I was covered in bites; I was right there on the verandah with Gaugin’s grandmother, Flora Tristan, surveying the little Peruvian town; I had entered the cramped New Zealand hill station alongside Mary Anne Barker and was wondering what its salty old occupant might think of me; I was peering right into the rhino’s sherry-colored eye with Vivienne de Watteville; I was slicing the pages of French train novels with M.F.K. Fisher; and I was right there with Mary Lee Settle in the Turkish ruins, eating the air courtesy of her rather unusual tour guide.
They all would have made terrific travel bloggers, don’t you think? Except Flora and Frances would have to shorten their paragraphs. I personally rather enjoy reading paragraphs that go on for three pages — but not on a computer screen!
Forgot to say that since doing this post, I’ve been thinking about how the Europeans tended to be drawn to the New World (North & South America) — and Africa. Whereas the Yanks were mostly drawn to Europe.
In the American group, which right now consists of M.F.K. Fisher and Mary Lee Settle, I also toyed with including Mary McCarthy (she knew Florence inside out) and Mary Morris — her description of Leningrad, the “city of madmen and poets,” and how it holds her in its “visceral” grip (from Wall-to-Wall).
Morris btw is still very much alive — The Displaced Nation is following her on Twitter!
And just one more point — a surprising number of these women travel writers have “Mary” as their first names. Is it mere coincidence, or has Mary been a common girl’s name forever on end? (It was even fairly common when I was growing up, hence my decision to use my middle name, and now my initials…!)