Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers

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“It embarrasses me to realise how surprised I was to learn that this man, that most beggars, didn’t see themselves as objects of pity.  Pity was just the business they were in.  They lived complex lives, like all of us. I realised, I suppose, just how ignorant I was.  Having seen that, I hoped that I could begin to undo it, though I now see that learning is just a gradual revelation of how deep our ignorance really is.  To give up to not knowing, to be uncertain of the name of things: that space is the place where possibility lives and in my mind it shimmers bright as a blue summer sky.”

This is an anthology of short travel stories compiled by Lonely Planet, and written by several very good fiction authors, like Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende, Steven Hall, and some very good, well-known travel writers, like Jan Morris and Pico Iyer.  I find a lot of travel writing focuses on the exoticness of the place rather than the quality of the writing, so this book was a pleasant surprise at how good the writing was on top of the place or the scene – I suppose that would happen, coming from well-established fiction authors!

Reading this collection was a sort of education to myself – the genre of writing I am most drawn to for my own writing is travel writing, and reading this is a good example of what one should do with their short travel stories.  I leave for a six month solo trip to South America in August 2016.  And so, I hope, I can continue to find stories that inspire me to write about my travels better.  I have always looked up to Bill Bryson, largely for his honest and humorous approach to travel, but, try as I might, not everything is humorous, and sometimes more serious stories have to be told.  I particularly enjoyed Sophie Cunningham’s story “Kind of Blue” (which I quoted at the beginning), which was about the colours of India – both visually in art and architecture, and in the people, specifically the beggars.  Though reading that, it made me think about how we stereotype places and people tend to write similar things about each place – India is colourful, mountains are jagged, Spain is sexy.  So, though Cunningham’s story was beautiful, it has made me think about searching for the unique features of a place, of using my own observations rather than the pre-conceived notions that everyone knows about a place before they get there.  Rather – what is it they don’t know, and make that my task to find out.

Books read: 20

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