To Touch the Earth

(In this time of pandemic, when travel seems a distant memory, I thought I’d share this piece (edited for length) I wrote last year for Freelance, a Publication of Saskatchewan Writers Guild)

Once upon a time, in a far-away land I knew nothing about….

Many of us write stories and poems set in unfamiliar cities or cultures, geographies, or climates. And many of these we can successfully imagine or research from the comfort of our home and computer. But if a writer’s work is set in a place truly foreign to them, travel might be considered an essential act of research.

The beauty of Prambanan Temple

It took a while to fully appreciate the impact of my trip to Java, Indonesia for the novel I recently finished. Loosely based on my dad’s time with Dutch forces in the East Indies at the end of the Second World War, the story explores the journey of a young man finally released from Nazi occupation only to be drafted and sent to reclaim the colony from an Indonesian Independence movement begun under Japanese occupation. Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s taken months, or shall I admit, years, of research. And some enlightening travel.

With gratitude for Saskatchewan Arts Board funding, I embarked on a month-long wander of Java in the summer of 2016. I’d thought the novel was about two-thirds finished—how wrong I was.  Trip notes and photographs became reference points and memory aids. Add a few strokes of the colourful Bahasa Indonesia I’d learned, and the story came alive, burgeoning with the sights and sounds of cities drenched in history and heat, the dense smells of the jungle, the sing-song of Javanese voices, and the cultural nuances of a place imbued with river myth and temple story. Setting and characters, themes and plot—the impacts were enormous.

A fish market in Surabaya

Up until the trip, I’d thought myself a bit of a fraud trying to write the story without having set foot in the country. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with sensory and cultural information. How to use it? How to keep it from overwhelming the story? The joy at having a foreign world opened up to me, became the challenge of deciphering the copious notes I’d taken, choosing which experiences were relevant to the story, and capturing it all in words. Turns out, the challenge was not unique to me.

When Man Booker-nominated author, Alison Pick, started research for her novel, Strangers with the Same Dream, she started where we all do. “I’m a big believer in the internet,” she says. “But it doesn’t give you the colour of the light, the landscape, and geography. It doesn’t allow you to feel the setting of one hundred years ago. I was given a sense of context to be physically in the setting and to have a visceral reaction to it.”

For her book about Jewish pioneers trying to create a utopian kibbutz , a communal settlement in what would later become Israel, Pick explored letters and diaries found in the archives at Kibbutz Ein Harod in Israel where she traveled several times over two and a half years, on a Chalmers Arts Fellowship.

“I was less the stereotype of an artist who is inspired by the place. My trip was more clinical and fact-finding,” she says. Pick spent the bulk of her time with a translator who helped her to sort through mostly unpublished documents. “I came away with a sense of the emotional tenor, the atmosphere of the time and place… I was able to inform the fictional characters with real events and people.”

Yes, yes, and yes; my experience too. But unlike me, Pick went to Israel early in the project. She believes the ideal time for travel research depends on what the book is and what the writer is looking for, but going earlier is likely better.

I’m of two minds on that one. Because I’d written so much of the book I knew exactly what I needed/wanted to see when I went to Indonesia, and planned accordingly, visiting cities important to the history I was trying to portray—a colonial-style coffee plantation, the jungle. But had I gone earlier, perhaps I’d have been more open to experiences I hadn’t anticipated or wasn’t looking for that might have impacted the plot itself.  Hindsight, gift, or curse?

Because poets do things differently, I thought I’d asked Saskatchewan’s own Tracy Hamon for her thoughts on travel research. Her 2014 book of poems, Red Curls, follows the life and work of Austrian artist Egon Schiele and his relationship with mistress/model Valerie Neuzil. A little more than a third into the writing, she traveled to Austria and the Czech Republic to see what inspired Schiele’s work.

Hamon explored museums, galleries, and art centers. In Vienna and Czesky Krumlov she walked past the exact scenes recorded in Schiele’s paintings, wandered Tulln where he grew up and his father worked the trains, retraced the artist’s steps to where he’d watched his orphan muses or enjoyed the gardens.

“It wasn’t just about the artwork and responding to it. I grew weary of that and started responding to the places he lived and the sights he’d painted, their texture and atmosphere,” she says. “I don’t think I could have finished that book and given it what it needed if I hadn’t gone there. I didn’t have the vision of the book and that trip helped me to shape the manuscript into what it became.”

The EloProgo River near Borobudur

While I didn’t have access to much Indonesian archival material, I could imagine the historical drama by paying attention to the Javanese people, how they reacted to the Belanda,who’d come to visit (I am a Canadian child of Dutch immigrants) and by asking myself questions about my own biases and assumptions. I vividly recall watching a toddler sit in the shade of bamboo and teak, looking out over a tumbling river as he gummed the banana his mother gave him. And I wondered at the impact of the jungle on his future world view. How different from my novel’s protagonist, raised by the streetcar’s bell and tick of a clock. Why, at first, was the muezzin’s 5:00 a.m. call to prayer annoying, and then hauntingly beautiful only after I’d met those who rose at dawn to pray? Why did I initially assume my host uneducated or the batik seller poor, neither of which were true?

These are hard questions – sometimes mortifying – but necessary questions. As Alain De Botton writes in The Art of Travel, “A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

In order to build a plausible plot and believable characters, a writer needs to know as much about the angle from which their writing comes as what they are writing about. And that, perhaps, was the biggest lesson of my travel; to see things as they were, not how I imagined them to be. That, and just how god-like and angry a rumbling volcano can sound when one is perched at its lip looking down into its cavernous sulfur-belching mouth. But I digress.

And there’s another tip. Not everything you see or experience will be useful to your writing. It can’t be. “Your main allegiance is to the book,” says Pick. “So that may mean not including every person or place or event from your travels. You might think you have to tell it exactly as it was. But you should be more pre-occupied with how the material serves the story.”

So important; serve the story. My volcano experience was astounding, but, try as I might, I couldn’t find a place for it in the novel. Another darling killed.

Despite different intentions, different approaches, different outcomes, all three writers  agree we could not have written the same book, captured the places and people, imagined the stories and poems without having touched the earth where our characters walked. Well-planned travel, approached with an open mind and attention to the needs of the story, is truly a gift to yourself and your work as a writer.  

How else could I have found words to describe the doors of warehouses yawning open over the sewage filled canals in the port of Surabaya. Or pillars of sky-blue barrels and bamboo baskets waiting to be filled with fish for the market. Or the intelligent eyes of a woman crouched in a narrow street shaving coconut into a basket and surrounded by stalks of pungent lemongrass and brightly colored peppers. I don’t feel like a fraud anymore, my words given a little authenticity because I was there too.

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