(Ten unfinished answers to the question: Why do writers travel?)
I would like to take this occasion to pose one seemingly simple question “Why do writers travel?”. We might try to offer some possible answers, though we might find right away counter-arguments for each of them, or at least diagnose some of their Achilles’ heel.
1. Writers travel to see and experience something New
As a traveler, the writer gets to see things which can stimulate his imagination. „The observer is a prince enjoying his incognito wherever he goes“ – says Charles Baudelaire, who states in the final verse of his famous poem „The Voyage“ that the key motif of his concept of traveling is to jump deep in the Unknown seeking something new!
Yet, whether today in this digital age ruled by the screen culture of perception which enables us to watch images/photos/shots from every possible spot on the face of this Earth, we have to ask ourselves whether Baudelaire’s dream of “something new” is still valid?
One possible lucid response is given by Italo Calvino who, even before the expansion of the internet, agreed that yes, we have at our fingertips pictures from everywhere in this world, but not its tastes and fragrances!
*** A cynical counter to this thesis that traveling is a search for something New might be given with the old proverb that “There’s nothing new under the Sun”.
2. Writers travel because they want to write something New after their travels end
Starting from the ancient epics up until today’s travelogues, the art of the written word has manifested its profound and almost unbreakable bond with the subject of traveling. Talking about this underlying connection between literature and the topos of traveling, Heinrich Heine comes to the conclusion that “travelogue is the most original and most natural form of the novel”.
As proponents of the old maxim that “you haven’t truly lived if you haven’t travelled”, some writers (from Voltaire and Byron to London and Yourcenare) consider traveling to be one of the main pre-conditions for their literary work, while others (from Wang Wei and Basho to Kerouac and White) have written their best works on the road. Riding in the Paris subway, Georges Perec wrote poems, while some writers have written whole volumes flying on an airplane.
*** There’s no doubt that some writers have described what they have previously experienced on their adventures and travels (from Herodotus and Marco Polo to Ibn Batura and Flaubert), yet we mustn’t overlook the fact that a great number of writers (from Hőlderlin and Swift to Verne and Huysmans) have shown that a person doesn’t necessarily have to live his study room “to go on a journey”. Literature gives you the opportunity to go on imaginary travels, too.
3. Writers travel to meet different cultures and literary traditions
Staying in a different country presents an opportunity to see natural beauties, learn about the sensibilities and mentality of the people from that country. Encountering different cultures through travel can be a stimulating experience and result in the description of it in works of literature. In the last collection of poems by Petre M. Andreevski entitled Lacrimarium (1999), the poet depicts in a number of travel poems the almost epiphanic experience he had when discovering the cultural legacy of the ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures. In his poem “Lee T’ai Po”, for example, the lyrical subject opens a poetic dialogue with his counterpart from the 8th century, inspired by the place where this wandering poet ended his life. In most of the poems, he pronounces his fascination with the ritual of drinking green tea or the elegance of the movements and breathing of Tai Chi Chuan, which he calls the “slow Chinese gymnastics”…
*** This thesis that traveling is necessary to meet different cultures can be countered by the following simple argument: today, in parks on all continents we can see people practicing Tai Chi Chuan. As a result of globalization and migration, various cultural values, one of which is the tea ceremony, are present worldwide. Yet, the tea probably does not taste of Zen everywhere.
4. Writers have a chance, when traveling, to see both cultural differences and similarities
It’s always exciting to see something different when traveling. However, some writers find excitement in coming across something that is already familiar from their own culture. In his short prose note “Similarities”, published in the Diary after many years (1988), Blaže Koneski tells how when going to distant lands, he would get most thrilled when he would recognize things that are familiar to him from back home:
„I had the same sensation in India, too. I was thrilled when I would look at the knockers on the doors, the sitting stones in front of them, the cow dung drying on the walls, because this helped me see where these cultural features have come from to us. In Iraq, I was excited to see that people ride donkey sideways on the saddle. In Brazil, I was astonished to see that people drink coffee from the same ridged cups that we used to have in my home in Nebregovo”.
*** Even though it may sound paradoxical, but traveling in distant countries may help make the World one big Home for the writer.
5. Writers travel to meet other writers
Writers travel to meet their peers, to meet authors that they have read or whom they shall read after they come to know them.
*** It goes without saying that personal contacts are indispensible, but the new forms of communication makes it easier for writers to have fast and constant contacts. Writers also have the chance to get to know other poetics whenever they enter a bookstore or a library.
6. Writers travel to challenge their own Poetics
Sometimes writers travel to read what they have written to people they have never met. For many writers, it’s a great challenge to represent themselves before an audience which can give a neutral assessment of his or hers work. The response from an unknown/foreign literary scene can provide an opportunity to re-examine one owns poetics.
*** As a counter-argument, we can recall the saying „It’s always hardest to be a prophet in your own town “.
7. Poets also travel to love
When traveling, poets establish emotional bonds with countries, cities, cultures and people. Along these lines, a good illustration of this can be found in the poem “Love, love, when in Ljubljana” (“Ljubi, ljubi koga si vo Ljubljana”) from the poem collection Tinysteps (2012) by Risto Lazarov:
when in ljubljana
even if you grow tired
you’ll want to love again tomorrow
when in ljubljana
and have in mind that no one knows
what the next day brings
and if it’ll be a new day for a new love
*** This thesis might sound too romantic to some ears
8. Writers also travel to be loved (or published)
When they travel, writers bring very often a copy or two of their books, and it is not uncommon to gift it to a potential new reader, who from time to time, by chance or not, may also be a potential translator or publisher.
*** This thesis may sound too pragmatic to some.
9. Some writers traveled (or still travel) because they have no other choice
Let’s not forget about writers who have traveled and still travel around the world because they are not welcomed back in their homeland. Exiled, they travel in search of a new home.
*** Writers, if nothing else, have a say when choosing every new word in their literary works. Certainly, they also have a say where their new home shall be.
10. Writers may also travel so they can take their readers on a journey, too
The poetess Sonja Manojlović says: “The poet is traveler who leads others to travel, too”. If we agree on the fact that traveling is always a different and unpredictable experience, just like the experience of writing and reading, then we shouldn’t be surprised that many poets have poems under the rubric “Invitation to travel” in their poetic opus.
*** Beside writers, aren’t we also invited to travel by tourist agencies, too?
Translation: Milan Damjanoski