Narrative Magazine: At the heart of Lynn Freed’s essay “The Romance of Elsewhere” lies her lifelong struggle with feeling like a stranger in her own life, from growing up in racially divided South Africa to seeking a writing career while being a wife and mother in America. Freed’s self-revelations are moving, especially when she shows how a brief interaction with Gail Godwin shook Freed’s confidence and inspired her to search deeper within herself for a writing voice. The author of numerous stories and six novels, Freed has received high praise and honors for her work.
The Romance of Elsewhere
by Lynn Freed
FROM A VERY EARLY AGE I have suffered a version of Baudelaire’s horreur du domicile (horror of the domestic), an aversion that seems to coexist nicely with a strong attachment to the comfort, the privacy, the intimacy, and the pride of home. I’m not sure how this happened, this pull of the strange against the familiar and back again, but I do know that the rhythm of leaving and returning has kept me nicely unsettled for over forty-five years. And that without it, I would have drowned any desire to write in restlessness and regret.
Dreams of displacement began for me in childhood. Generally, they centered around something like a steamship, me at the rail, waving at those left behind, or me moving steadily into the distance, with the deck chairs and dancing and dressing for dinner, and time stretching out luxuriously to journey’s end. Perhaps the seed for this longing came from my grandmother, who, every year, would take off for England on the Union–Castle with her trunks and hatboxes, and then go on to America, seeking a cure for her deafness.
Waving her good-bye from the dock, I longed fiercely to be deaf myself, whatever it would take to be the one sailing out of that bay. As I grew older, I would have given much, and still would, to be able to travel as Somerset Maugham did, or Graham Greene, or Lawrence Durrell, or Robert Graves, or D. H. Lawrence—all those Englishmen fleeing their island for somewhere else, somewhere warm, somewhere foreign.
“The moat in Mandalay is one of the minor beauties of the world,” wrote Maugham in his notebook. “It has not the sublimity of Kilauea, nor the spectacular picturesque of the Lake of Como, it has not the swooning loveliness of the coastline of a South Pacific island, nor the austere grandeur of parts of the Peloponnese, but it has a beauty which you can take hold of and enjoy and make your own.”
“Were the South Seas really like that?” asked Alec Waugh after reading a few of Maugham’s novels. “I had to find out for myself. I bought a round the world ticket that included Tahiti. . . . I have been on the move ever since.”
Before television, before television documentaries, it was largely travel books that opened the door to the world for those left at home. To see that world, and to make money doing so, writers would find themselves a sponsor, then take off for months here, months there, fueled by fierce competition as to who would write first or best about where. One of the chief reasons, for instance, that Rebecca West wrote Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was that Yugoslavia had not yet been written up by the competition. With the Nazi threat making itself clear, she had the foresight to grab it before it was overrun either by Hitler or Stalin.
“IS THERE NO ONE WRITING AT ALL IN ENGLAND NOW?” wrote Lawrence Durrell from Corfu in 1936. Well, no, most of them were not, certainly not until the Second World War introduced severe restrictions to travel, including passports. Even Evelyn Waugh, who had been rather sour on travel and much else, had been on the hoof for years, writing, among others, six books on travel. One of them, Labels, resulted from his literary agent’s arranging a free cruise around the Mediterranean for Waugh and his wife (also called Evelyn, or She-Evelyn, as Waugh referred to her), in return for some praise, duly delivered. (Which puts me in mind of Bulgari paying the British novelist Fay Weldon to mention its product at least a dozen times in one of her novels. And she did. And the novel rather fizzled. Yay.)
MY FIRST CHANCE to be lifted out of South Africa and into what was fondly considered “the real world” came to me at the age of eighteen in the form of an American Field Service exchange scholarship. Overseas travel then was ruinously expensive for South Africans. Even my parents, who had spent years in England as students, hadn’t left South Africa again since their marriage thirty-odd years before. And so, when the chance came for me, however miscast I knew myself to be for the role of emissary, I grabbed it.
If there’s any rule that applies to travel, it seems to be that it was so much better a generation or two before. Certainly, I was a few generations too late for the sort of thrilling journey that had Beryl Markham, for instance, making her way up Africa in a single-engine plane, trying to reach Cairo without plunging into the Sudd. By the time I flew to Cairo—and then to Frankfurt, and then to Shannon, and then, at last, to New York—it was in what was then a modern four-engine prop, with about eighty other foreign exchange students, all of us hitting the airport tourist shops along the way. (I still have the small leather camel I bought at the Cairo airport, far more charming than the real camels I would encounter twenty-odd years later, when I returned to Egypt. There it is, in the back of a cupboard, an aide-mémoire for that first long journey out.)
Already, on the plane, I had begun what would become a monstrous accumulation of aide-mémoire—letters home to my parents, which, over the year and the years that followed, constituted what amounted to a performance of my life for their audience. At first the letters assumed the voice of a heroic reporter from the front—or, rather, from some uncharted frontier—providing observations and commentary for those unlucky enough to have been left behind. The farther away I got, the more romantic seemed the distance between us. I even envied the students being sent on to California, not because I knew enough about California to want to go there, but because it was farther still than New York, where I was to remain.
If this is madness, I wasn’t alone in it. There has always been romance in distance—a shallow romance, certainly. But it has its corollary in the fact that home is so very unromantic. There, among the clatter of knives and forks, the phone going, the laundry piling up, the heart tends to stay still, at least for me. And a still heart doesn’t do much for the imagination. Which is not to say there are not wonderful writers who seldom venture far from home—of course there are. One doesn’t hear of William Faulkner hopping a freighter to Tahiti, or Robert Frost striking out for Kashmir. Perhaps the delight in placing oneself as a stranger in a strange place is a form of derangement, from which they and others like them are and were happily spared.
Whatever the case, there I was, half deranged with delight at the thought of being in New York, half a world away from home. We were staying in dormitories at the AFS headquarters, down near the UN, and, as soon as I could escape the endless orientations, I plunged out into the stifling throb and swirl of the city.
At the bottom of Forty-second Street, I joined a crowd climbing onto a bus. “Does this bus go uptown or downtown?” I asked the driver. I’d acquired the terms from a guidebook I’d picked up at AFS headquarters. They meant nothing to me, uptown or downtown or anywhere else, but it was lovely to be able to try them out on a native.
The bus driver banged the palm of his hand violently on the steering wheel. “Shut up,” he said, “get on, don’t ask questions.”
And I couldn’t have been more delighted had I been Cortés encountering Montezuma for the first time.
Perhaps it was at that moment that my love affair with New York really began. And it remains for me the only city in the world in which I feel completely at home. I put this down in no small part to the fact that it is full of people as mad as that bus driver, but also because it is a city for the displaced, a virtual celebration of displacement, with little sense, except in certain shops or restaurants or clubs, that one has entered a sort of Whartonesque world, in which one is not qualified for membership. Joining the throng, I still feel marvelously foreign, gloriously myself, wonderfully free.
Henry James, writing of London in 1881, could have been describing just such a New York in the early sixties. “It is not a pleasant place,” he wrote. “It is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent. You can draw up a tremendous list of reasons why it should be insupportable. The fogs, the smoke, the dirt, the darkness, the wet, the distances, the ugliness, the brutal size of the place, the horrible numerosity of society, the manner in which this senseless bigness is fatal to amenity, to convenience, to conversation, to good manners. . . . You may call it dreary, heavy, stupid, dull, inhuman, vulgar at heart and tiresome in form. . . . [But it] is on the whole the most possible form of life.”
I should add here that, when I returned to New York from South Africa four years later, married and a graduate student, I didn’t feel the least bit free. I felt stuck, I was stuck. And I found myself missing grass to walk on and an unimpeded view of the sky. I was sick unto death of the perpetual traffic noise, the air brakes of the trucks shuddering to a halt outside my bedroom window, and of the dirt, and of the madwoman on the bench in the middle of 113th Street, screaming at me daily to wash what I understood, at first, to be my cat.
During my exchange-student stay, though, which was largely spent in Greenwich, Connecticut, I longed with a great passion to be in the city. Because of the reversal of the seasons, many of the southern hemisphere foreign students had already finished high school, and most of us had begun at the university. But even if I hadn’t—even if I’d been a bona fide high school student, fifteen or sixteen years old, I’d have longed to spring myself from school.
I’ve never been able to warm to an institution—not school, and not marriage, either, once I got there. I might have known this then. I did know it. I knew too that I was miscast in the role of “daughter” in a family of strangers. But, longing so fiercely to be lifted away from home, I’d set all this knowledge aside and taken part, together with my parents, in the fiction that the trip was to be heroic in its proportions.
To this end, my mother, against all suggestions to the contrary by the American Field Service—lists of clothing appropriate for school, for the weather, for America itself—had togged me out as if for a grand European tour. And so, climbing down the steps of the plane at Idlewild in coat and hat and gloves—looking and feeling, at eighteen, more like a woman of thirty—I’d been in no sense ready for the year of hail-fellow and high school and hootenanny that lay ahead.
But what to do about it, now that I was there? How to spring myself, ensconced as I was in a high school, where I was subject to bizarre rules requiring a permission slip just to leave class and go to the lavatory, let alone leave the premises to jaunt into New York? I may as well have been in Idaho for all the fact that New York was so out of reach, and the weeks passing into months, and all I’d go home with would be a diploma I didn’t need and the fictions I kept writing to my parents in the form of letters.
Every day, I wrote an aerogram, laboring now for the spirited, heroic tone of those first letters from New York. Each letter, I knew, would be read and reread before being flourished around at the family on a Friday night. How could I let my parents down in the face of this? How could I let myself down, either?
And so, on I clacked, day after day, on the Olivetti—I was taking typing at the high school, something I’d never have learned in South Africa—jaunty, jocular letters that never mentioned the crippling homesickness that afflicted me from time to time, or the weight I was putting on, diving into the fridge for the exotica I’d discovered there—Sara Lee cherry cheesecakes, Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers, and so forth.
Recently, while cleaning out my garage, I came across boxes of these letters and settled in to read them. But after a few pages, I found them unbearable, myself as well—all that noise, all those lies, all that sadness unrevealed. And the odd thing is that my mother, a reader with almost perfect pitch, did not question me. I take this as testament to her fierce desire to show off. Or, perhaps, for once, she just didn’t notice. Or didn’t want to. Or did, but was fearful I’d throw it all up and come home and disgrace them all. Which I might well have done were I not as averse as I am to abandoning a failure.
And good thing that I didn’t, because, all at once, some months in, things began to look up. It happened this way: one morning, in a wild surge of inspiration, I sauntered into the school administrator’s office and told him I was needed at the UN for a few days, and could he please sign me a slip? Had I rehearsed these lines—had I even mulled over the possibilities of how to set myself free—I’d probably have failed hopelessly. But, as it was, I stood before him, almost convinced myself of the truth of my petition. And when he signed me the slip, I wasn’t surprised then either.
And so began my real adventure with America. For the rest of the year, whenever I could get away from school—a day here, a few days there—I’d take the one-hour train trip to Grand Central. My host family didn’t seem to mind at all, and I’m still not sure they had any idea that I wasn’t needed at the UN. No one ever questioned me except a UN guard, when I went there to watch a debate that was taking place on South Africa, and he was having none of it.
For $3 a night I would stay in the dormitory at AFS headquarters, and no one there seemed to wonder why I kept turning up, either. For another $3, I would buy a standing-room ticket at the old Met, and join the claque at stage left, taking in most of the season that way. Otherwise, I roamed the city, deliriously solitary in the thronging crowd, looking in at the shops, trotting into a museum, a concert, a symphony, happily racking things up to report home—for them, and for me, both. And then back I’d go to Connecticut, to fulfill at least some of the bargain I’d signed up for.
Part of the job of an exchange student, made clear to us from the start, was to foster international understanding. To this end, the four foreign students in the school would be carted off from time to time, either individually or as a group, to address another school, or a club—Rotary, Kiwanis, Elks, and so forth.
Before we left South Africa, AFS there had supplied us with all sorts of information for this purpose. In a mad show of zeal, they even arranged for us to be dropped a mile down a gold mine, and at such a rapid rate that our ears were in agony.
But, what I found, once I was on the circuit, was that talking about South Africa in the recommended way—its history and geography, a typical day in my schoolgirl life—only seemed to foster international boredom. As soon as question time came around, someone in the audience would ask, But aren’t there lions where you live? Elephants? Tigers?
One day, a few months into this, the local AFS representative phoned to give me details for that night’s event. It was to include the three other foreign students. “And, by the way,” she added, “it’s national dress.”
National dress? I phoned the Dutch girl immediately. “What on earth are you going to wear?” I asked her.
She sighed. She had greater things on her mind. She’d come to America on an international Christian youth exchange program and had just discovered that she’d lost her faith. “I suppose,” she said, “dat I ver dos vooden shoes, dat pointed hat, you know.”
The enormous New Zealand girl had a sort of beaded grass skirt she was going to wear, and the Brazilian boy refused to consider anything beyond a panama. But where did that leave me, a Jewish girl from a large South African city?
In desperation I asked my host mother for help. She was a woman completely at home in her own version of national dress—the lime greens and shocking pinks of Greenwich, Connecticut. She thought for a bit. Then she looked up. “I know!” she said, leading me to a closet and pulling out a length of material vaguely resembling zebra. “Why don’t you go as a Zulu?”
We were then at least a generation away from the first signs of political correctness, but even if we hadn’t been, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have leaped gladly at her suggestion. What was the alternative? To put a scarf over my head and go as Yentl of the South?
In the event, I arrived that evening barefoot and swathed in a sort of striped toga. I had my head in a turban, curtain rings hanging from my ears, and around my neck and wrists every piece of Zulu beadwork I’d brought to America to give away as presents.
I began my talk with elephants. We rode them to school every day, I said, and had to paint them different colors so that we could tell them apart. At school, we tied them up to parking meters, which they tended to pull up regardless, and, when school was over, we had to run around, finding them to ride home again, which happened to be up in the trees.
The Dutch girl was next. Every day, on her way to school, she said, she put her finger in the dike. The New Zealand girl didn’t go to school at all; she tended sheep and danced with Maori. And the Brazilian boated down the Amazon to work on his father’s coffee plantation. The evening was a wild success, and from then on we were in constant demand. We began to include singing, dancing, anything we could think of to spin the show as far from history and geography as we could get.
At my mother’s suggestion, I wrote it all up for a South African newspaper, laboring hard over the timing, the details—which to include, which to leave out—condensing, altering, reshaping. It was an early exercise in transmuting life into life-on-the-page, and it hasn’t got much easier since.
IT IS OFTEN supposed that the writer wed to travel is a writer in search of the self. But the opposite is, perhaps, more true: the traveling writer is someone seeking anonymity. Or even a sort of nonexistence, the quest for which can lead, paradoxically, to the discovery of the self set free from the bafflement of context. “When are we more ourselves than when traveling?” asks Diane Johnson in Natural Opium. “The action of travel is all on the traveler—unless we happen to be carrying measles to the Amazon, or hard currency.”
By extension, leaving home to live on the other side of the world can be a way of preserving home, as if in aspic, for our return. “A house is a good thing,” an aborigine once said. “You can lock it up and go and live anywhere you please.”
Once my AFS year was over and I’d returned home, I found myself both relieved and unsettled among all my beloved familiars. I certainly did not want to retrieve the year just over, but what I did begin to long for, in the mode of the newly liberated, was some sign that I’d be able to leave again when I was ready to do so. And then—life tending to deliver the solution to which one is equal—I met a South African who was soon to leave for America, and who, once he was set up there, sent a breezy note to the effect that he had tickets for the Boston Symphony, and did I want to join him?
It’s never a good idea for someone with captivity phobia to marry, or, at least, to marry young, to marry conventionally, and to do so largely, it seems to me now, as a gift to anxious parents. Still, this is what I did, charmed by the breeziness of that note into imagining a life conducted with just such a light touch.
But first I balked a bit. After a few weeks in Boston—a city I’ve never been able to warm to since—I found the lightness replaced by the sober prospect of the bargain I was about to make. So I phoned home.
“I’m having doubts,” I said pathetically.
“What doubts?” My parents were worried themselves, I knew. They didn’t want me returning to the man I’d left behind in South Africa, someone they considered altogether unsuitable, and who, not incidentally, wouldn’t have dreamed of springing himself or anyone else from there and into the real world.
“I don’t want to be stuck,” I said, “and I want to travel.”
My mother laughed. “For God’s sake!” she boomed across the airwaves. “When are you going to come to grips with your itchy feet?”
As mixed metaphors go, this one had power, carrying, as it did, both the horror of life as a bag lady and the seduction of serious intentions—a husband, a child, a house, and all sorts of weighty things to put into that house. But, even so, I was miserable at the prospect. What I still wanted—what I had wanted since ever I could remember—was the vague delight, climbing onto that bus on Forty-second Street, of being a stranger in a strange place. Someone just arrived, just about to leave, and always with somewhere to go home to.
Had I thought of myself then as a writer, I might have been able to justify this restlessness, taken heart when James Salter said that travel is a writer’s true occupation, that “a writer is an exile . . . and it is part of his life to keep on the move.”
But he hadn’t said that yet, and, even if he had, I wouldn’t have felt justified in applying it to myself. Certainly, I’d been writing more or less since childhood—poems, stories, plays—but in the world I came from, such efforts were considered practicing, like scales on the piano, and were not to be taken seriously. Even in graduate school, once I got there, I found that the ambition to be a writer was considered presumptuous, at least in English departments.
So I continued to write as I’d always written, privately, and in my spare time. Looking back on this now, I think such an apprenticeship by no means a bad thing. All those hours and years of struggle, conducted in solitude and without an audience, allowed me to build up a bit of muscle on the page before subjecting others to what I’d produced. At the very least, I was spared any number of rejections for work not ready to be published. And at worst, I had to engender my own hope.
Hope is, perhaps, more essential to a writer than luck. And yet, paradoxically, so is hopelessness. “One of the things I’ve discovered about writing,” says E. L. Doctorow, “is that you have to sink way down to a level of hopelessness and desperation to find the book that you can write.” So be it. But then, once you have found that book, if you have, you must rise again to some level of hope in order to be able to get on with it. And even then, there are lapses into doubt and despair. Whoever said that writing was a cheery business?
“No matter what I say,” writes Marguerite Duras, “I will never discover why one writes and how one doesn’t write. . . . To be without the slightest idea for a book is to find yourself, once again, before . . . [a] vast emptiness . . . something terrible, terrible to overcome.”
Six years into marriage, my degrees behind me, and with a child and a teaching job introducing a class of restless Vietnam vets to Shakespeare and Jane Austen, I was in a state of what I now recognize to be a sort of walking despair. I was stuck, as stuck as I had ever been—more stuck, of course, because what was there now even to hope for that wouldn’t undermine someone else’s life?
It is no coincidence that, with rare exceptions—Gertrude Stein, for instance, Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys, Rebecca West—most traveling writers were men. I don’t mean to jump onto a soapbox here, but this is simply the case. Consider Bruce Chatwin, traveling writer extraordinaire. Here was a man wed to the idea of human restlessness and able to act upon it without a backward glance. “Why do men wander rather than sit still?” he wanted to know, and then chased off for an answer to Patagonia, or to the deserts of Australia. Once home, he’d settle into some friend’s comfortable house to write. “Being away from his own address—wherever that might be—came to be a condition of his writing,” writes Susannah Clapp in The New Yorker. “He produced much of his third book . . . in Wales, but had a breakthrough only when he went to Yaddo.”
Where, of course, he was wonderfully looked after.
And bully for him, I say. Envy is not a sin from which I normally suffer. But show me someone free to go here or there, and I find myself singed by its fires. Still, at that point I didn’t know much of Chatwin, and had no idea of Yaddo, either. I was in a veritable spider’s web of looked- and looking-after—not only husband and child, but also the streams of South Africans, including parents and parents-in-law, who would come and stay for days or weeks, or even months. Pathologically restless, I found myself swooning with desire to move on once they had finally left. Even a short trip down the Amazon would have stilled that longing. At least for a while.
But the husband, who, before I’d met him, had sailed down the Congo himself, flown with his father around southern Africa in a single-engine plane, now began to embrace phrases like “discretionary income” and “fiscal responsibility.” His idea of travel, I discovered, was two weeks at a family camp in some mountains near the Bay Area. It was a place run by the university he worked for, and there we went.
We were accommodated in a cabin with a sort of tentlike roof, and took our meals, kibbutz-style, at long tables—some for adults, some for children. Every day the children were herded into groups and led away to acquaint themselves with the wonders of nature. The adults could choose their own groups. There was sailing or hiking or volleyball or pottery or macramé.
I’ve never been much good at Group, so I tried Sitting on Steps of Cabin with Book. This, however, also had its drawbacks. I found it hard to breathe, for instance. However much I tried, the air wouldn’t go deeper than my shoulders. The camp was dusty. Dust billowed as you walked. It lodged in your clothing, up your nostrils, between your teeth.
The camp doctor looked and listened. Then he let his stethoscope drop. “It has nothing to do with the dust,” he said. “You’re suffering from unhappiness. I suggest you go home.”
It was at about this point that I asked myself a question I’d been asking most of my adult life: Is this what you want? Is this what you really want? Well, no, of course it wasn’t, that much I’d known from the start. But not until now had I been able to come up with a real answer: what I wanted, what I had always wanted, was to write and to travel, as simple as that. And suddenly, now I knew how I would accomplish this.
As soon as the quarter was over, I resigned from my teaching job (nothing heroic here: I was simply filling in for a professor enjoying a nervous breakdown). At home there was a struggle, of course—accusations and counter-accusations, doors slammed, terrible sulking by the Family Vacationer. Having grown up with a mother prone to much more inspired sulking, however, I was inured to its manipulations. And, anyway, I quite understood his point of view. Who, in a marriage, would want to see the other act out a dream of freedom that doesn’t include himself? Certainly not he, and not I either, had the tables been turned. But they weren’t, and, for the first time in years, I was full of hope.
What I did was to become a travel agent. I learned how to write a ticket from Kalispell to Nairobi—computers were not yet running things then—and to work out minimum connecting times between the airports in Milan, and where to find a walking tour of Patagonia. It helped that I could work part-time, mostly from home, 8:00 to 10:00 a.m., after which I’d switch off the phone and go into what used to be the laundry but was now my studio. It was, for the time being, as far away as I could get.
Still, it was far enough to deaden the deafening cacophony of the house: Wash me! Fold me! Answer me! Tidy me! Fix me! Prepare me! Answer me! Cook me! Answer me! Now! As often as not, of course, I was to blame for listening. But, wed to order, I’d find myself thinking, “I’ll just fix this, do that, and that, and maybe the other thing, and then it’ll be done and I’ll be free to work.” Lives can pass this way—certainly unwritten books do.
But even with people to help—a servant, a devoted husband—Virginia Woolf exulted in their absence. “I have three entire days alone,” she wrote, “three pure rounded pearls.”
In her memoir, Pen to Paper, Pamela Frankau describes the enviable success of a fellow writer whose pipe dream had materialized when a windfall allowed him to buy a house. And he would live there, he said, “like a monk in a cell.” “It is by all accounts a beautiful cell,” writes Frankau. “Those who visit him return in envious raptures. They describe his study; they describe his garden; they talk of the lake and the trees and the silence. They tell me he has the perfect housekeeper and the kind of effortlessly wonderful secretary you read about in novels. But the last time I heard of him he was building himself a cottage at the end of the garden to get away from the house.”
For me, those two doors between the laundry and the kitchen provided sufficient remove to write three novels and a number of short stories over a period of about five years. Interspersed with this—integral to it, I think—was the hope, the jazz, the lift that came with the travel I’d begun in earnest. I didn’t ask myself why I had not granted myself this sort of permission before. “Granting oneself permission” to act out one’s selfish desires is an invention of the psychological arts. One grabs, one doesn’t grant, although if it makes one feel better to play both granter and grantee, so be it. It is interesting to know, perhaps, that the word leisure itself comes into English from the Old French leisir, “to permit.”
This is not to say that the writing leaped easily and truly onto the page. On the contrary, I labored over any number of mediocre stories and two teething novels before finding, by chance, the way into my own subject. But, long before that, before even beginning my first novel—before the laundry, before the travel—I’d been sending out stories, and when they came back with their “having-given-your-material-careful-considerations” and “doesn’t-quite-fit-our-editorial-needs,” I hadn’t allowed myself to despair for long; I had just sent them out again. As long as I was sending them out, there was something to hope for, like a win at the lottery. And still it was an exhausting game to play.
But then one day, in came an acceptance note from a magazine called Our Little Friend. They had accepted a children’s story I’d written about a girl who longs for a guinea pig, is given a guinea pig, loses the guinea pig, and then finds the guinea pig again. (Reduce any children’s story to its plot and it could land up sounding almost as idiotic.)
Nine months later, my two free copies arrived, together with a check for $10. For a while I just stared at the cover in wonder, savoring the sight of my name in print. But then I sat down to read the story, trying to pretend I was coming upon it for the first time. And just as I was thinking, Everything sounds better in print, even my children’s story, there was Jesus. In an invasive editorial flourish, someone had inserted Him into the story, with the girl on her knees imploring Him to care for her lost guinea pig. And then there He was again in the closing sentence, once the guinea pig was restored, the story wrapped up neatly with a little lesson: “And she was certain that Jesus heard a little girl’s evening prayer.”
In outrage, I wrote to the editor, and, in due course, back came his weary reply. Our Little Friend, he informed me, reserved the right to edit manuscripts with a religious slant, which I might have known for myself if I’d bothered to read their “Suggestions for Contributors.” What’s more, the press had been publishing Our Little Friend since 1890 and weren’t about to change their policies for me. Investigating further, I discovered that Our Little Friend is published for use in the Sabbath schools of Seventh-Day Adventists. So that was that.
IT WAS TWO years after my Our Little Friend experience that I went off to Bread Loaf, my first and last writing conference, urged on by the fact that my first novel had been accepted for publication. I was now fairly desperate for the acquaintance of other writers. More than this, I wanted to know what it would be like to be part of the writing world. The novel had been sold by an agent, someone sufficiently new at the game to take on a writer with only Our Little Friend to her name.
The novel was a sort of upbeat, feminist story, quite common in the early eighties when women were liberating themselves all over the place. (As it turned out—did the curse carry over?—the publishers changed my title without permission and produced a paperback original that looked completely unlike its contents. It was a sort of coy Harlequin romance with the following printed across the chest of the beauty on the cover: “The probing, moving novel that asks the question: How much is too much for a woman to want?”)
But fortunately for me the novel wasn’t yet published when I arrived at Bread Loaf, where, over dinner one evening, Gail Godwin asked me, casually, what my novel was about. When I told her, her face fell. Why? she wanted to know. Why on earth was I concerning myself with American middle-class marital arrangements when I had a whole world of my own to write about?
When it comes to writing, I have always found questions more useful than comments. And, really, I had no answer for her except to say that I had tried to write about my world, tried and failed because it was the same thing, really—I’d been trying to write what everyone else was writing, subject and portent, and what had emerged was standard stuff, coming from no deeply felt or known experience of my own. More than this, I’d had no idea how to do it any other way, not until that very year when I’d found my way into a short story, just completed. And even then I hadn’t seen how close I’d come to my own subject before she’d actually asked me that question.
If, as Pasteur said, “chance favors the prepared mind,” my mind, without my even knowing it, had been preparing for her question for years. In fact, versions of it had been asked of me many times before, but I had shrugged them off; I wasn’t ready to find the answer. And so I’d turned to subjects that seemed more accessible—the America I knew (which, as it turns out, didn’t go that deep, either).
Someone once gave me what turned out to be a very good piece of advice: if you want to know what to write, ask yourself what obsesses you. Assuming one is lucky enough to have an obsession, there is first the question of recognizing it. Obsessions tend to live with us so naturally, there in the bloodstream, that even if we do recognize them, they can be too familiar to seem worth bringing out into the light. Whatever the case, Gail Godwin’s question awoke in me an awareness of what might otherwise have taken me more years, and, if I was lucky, another book, to come to, if ever—my subject, my voice, my story. And I owe almost everything I have written since to that moment.
A theory seems to have resurfaced recently that to become a success at anything, one needs to devote about ten thousand hours to the practice of it. That is to say that if you write four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, you’d take about seven years to reach a professional level of efficiency. So be it, no surprise in this. Seven, fourteen, twenty-one years are going to go by whether or not one writes.
But what about chance? Where does chance feature in all this? Consider the understudy waiting in the wings, ready after her years and years of practice for the diva to come down with a sore throat on opening night. Again and again this is the way singers and actors make it into the light. In the writing world, there are other ways. One may not know, for instance, what face or force or direction, if any, will be put to a purpose such as mine was in going to that conference. And yet, as it turned out—and even though I lasted only forty-five minutes in the workshop itself—attending the conference itself was one of the luckiest things I’ve ever done in my writing life. Certainly, I came away with what I’d gone for in the first place—a literary acquaintance, a sense of legitimacy. But nothing I had anticipated could have led me to imagine the chance of that dinner, that conversation, that question asked that sent me home to myself.
As soon as I returned, I began my third novel, setting it aside now and then to hit the road. If a chance came up to bolt—a week in Egypt or a trip to Peru—I’d start my song and dance at home. The task was to invent a reason for leaving that would have my Family Vacationer feeling less left behind. He felt that, anyway, of course—he wasn’t stupid—but, somehow, the song and dance seemed necessary nevertheless. In a sense, I suppose, we were both required to take part in the fiction that there was a weightier purpose to the travel than the travel itself. So I came up with all sorts of incredible reasons for spending a night on top of Machu Picchu, or floating down the Nile on a felucca, or spending three days at the Copacabana Palace in Rio.
None of this travel was particularly daring, much of it shallow and predictable tourist stuff. But for me it was as if I had taken to opium. Best of all, perhaps, were the cruises. They weren’t on the old steamships, alas, but still, there was the sea, the sight and the smell and the sound of it, the coastline out of reach, and the peace of the cabin to write in, no buses, no airports, no taxis, and almost no one, I found, to whom I’d want to talk.
A cruise to anywhere would do. And often I took the same route several times. I’ve recently discovered that I’m not alone in this. Mention a cruise, and the chances are that some writer in the company will admit, rather sheepishly, to the addiction himself. I can think, offhand, of three of the least likely writers one would imagine, who routinely take cruises.
And then there are the train people. I happened to spend much of my youth on trains, making the seventeen-hour journey from Durban to Johannesburg, where I was at the university, and then back again. These were the old-fashioned, wood-paneled trains, with green leather seats that, at least in second class, turned into six bunks. There were usually five or six of us students in a compartment, dinners in the dining car, tablecloths and silver and conductors flirting if they could get away with it. And then there were the parents left behind on the platform, the parents waiting there again when we came home for the holidays. A rehearsal, in my case, for the future.
A few years ago, I took one of those trains across South Africa, but now it had been tarted up for tourists by an entrepreneur, each compartment done out magnificently, with a proper bed, and a bathroom en suite, world-class dining, and, when I was on it, a jolly group of apple growers from Washington State. Had I been a train person, I might have felt more keenly the loss of the real thing. But, unlike cruise ships—every bit as far from the romantic utility of the old steamships as this train was from the ones I’d taken as a girl—it produced no lift now to the heart, no enchantment to the distance between here and there as it crawled across the country.
As to the writing, it took place between trips, and, very occasionally, during. And yet, somehow, the marriage of travel and writing worked well, although each seemed to have little to do with the other beyond that familiar balance between the liberation of departure and the writing to come home to.
I did discover a few things on the road that might have opened my eyes to the impulse behind my fiction. But they didn’t. One was that, wherever I was, I tended to rearrange the furniture. Had the beds and chairs in the train compartment not been nailed down, I’d have moved them about there too. Certainly I did that in hotels, and even an airline seat offers a few possibilities, particularly in first class, which is how I traveled when I worked as a travel agent, at a fraction of the price, of course.
Days or weeks before a trip, I’d start the preparations at home, shutting down the writing at a point at which I could take it up again, and then cooking and freezing and labeling, drawing up flowcharts in several colors, tripling my share of carpool and child swap. I’ve always prided myself on being low on guilt, but when I consider those years now, I see that this is a vanity.
Whatever the case, every time I left, I’d be assaulted afresh by the illegitimacy of the trip itself. Driving away from the house, I’d suffer a loss of breath, a clutch at the heart as I caught a last glimpse of the small face at the window. And I’d want to turn back right then, to give up, to give in.
But I never did. Often, if I was going to South Africa, I’d take her with me, however loudly my Family Vacationer pointed out that home now was where we lived, here, in America. But in this he was dead wrong. Home for me was—and remains, even now that it no longer exists—what I had left behind. And then found again in my third novel, the one I wrote after Gail Godwin’s question. Home, I knew, was the place and the people, my parents waiting at the fence as I climbed down from the plane. And if the heroics of return have, at last, ceased, it is largely because they are no longer there to take part in them.
It occurs to me now that, had I not had America to return to, I’d have found somewhere else. How, otherwise, was I to achieve the rhythm, the paradoxical balance, to my life that I had always longed for? And that I now counted on to engender the necessary hope? Here and yet there. Paired and yet single. Home and yet exiled.
As to home, it seemed only to expand with the trips I took there. I discovered the bush, for instance. Never, my AFS caper notwithstanding, had I actually seen wild animals in their natural habitat before. My parents, who used to go regularly to the bush themselves, and then on to Lorenzo Marques for a bit of nightlife, would leave my sisters and me behind. We would only fight in the car, they said, and spoil it for everyone.
So, on one of my early trips home, I went off to the bush myself. And fell instantly in love. However far the experience from that of Hemingway or Markham, still, it was Africa as I’d never known it as a girl. Once my marriage was over—because, of course, it did end—and I was now working as a freelance writer, I’d solicit as many articles as I could to take me back to South Africa, and, if possible, into the bush. It was, I discovered, where I’d be most likely to find the sort of moment, impossible to create, in which, suddenly, one feels old in a place, as if one has been there always. I have felt this at the Dead Sea, and at the Victoria Falls, and on Machu Picchu, and on ships, often on ships. They are the moments straight out of childhood, the past undivided from the present—harmonious, powerful, potent.
“To see in order to know,” writes Astolphe de Custine, the nineteenth-century French aristocrat, in the introduction to his splendid book Letters from Russia, “Such is the motto of the traveler. . . . But if curiosity causes me to wander, an attachment which partakes of the nature of a domestic affection brings me back.”
In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter how cheap the trick that achieves the first escape. What does matter is the illusion of freedom that the escape brings—because, of course, it is an illusion, as much of an illusion as the freedom of the animals to roam beyond the borders of their reserves without being shot for trophies or aphrodisiacs. Even for a child such as I had been, rehearsing for the future by wandering off into the servants’ quarters as to the outer reaches of Siberia, there was a sense of adventure, a loosening from the known that brought with it that paradoxical longing for what had been left behind.
“To become a writer,” says V. S. Naipaul, “that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave. Actually . . . it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge.”
For the traveling writer—for me, sitting on the deck of a ship, or on a veranda in Zambia, forcing myself to sample a ghastly plate of crocodile in rosemary cream sauce because there it is, asking to be experienced—there is an unquestioned affinity between travel and adventure, travel and reverie, travel and self-knowledge. Playing stranger in strange places has certainly given me the perspective of other worlds from which to examine my own. But, more than this, estrangement itself has become a necessary ingredient of my life, and of my work.
If, as Kierkegaard claimed, travel is the best way to avoid despair, then perhaps that’s what this has been all about, this lifelong quest. So that now, with the restlessness calming down a bit as old age approaches, I can rejoice in feeling more or less strange everywhere. And also more or less at home. Homesick for nowhere. Permanently displaced. Free to come and go at last.
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