Fact or Fiction? Travel Literature – Armchair Travel Versus Native Fiction — Which is Best for You?

November 6th, 2009

I read with great interest the recent blog post by Antonia Malchik of PerceptiveTravel.com, spotlighting our most recent Traveler’s Literary Companion, South Africa. She offers a thoughtful assessment of whether this type of collection was the best book to take on a visit to South Africa.

Malchik maintains that “novelists are often better writers of ‘place’ than travel writers are” but what our collection brought to the fore for Malchik was that “travel writers can give a deeper sense of context than a native essayist or novelist. Context is so often what the traveler needs.”

I second Malchik’s praise of the travel writer’s perspective. Travelers who have broad knowledge of culture and history, who can capture a strong sense of place, and who are talented writers—Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, to name a few—can significantly broaden our vision of a place, even when we are not physically traveling there. In fact, the perspective of the foreigner can often offer great insight even to native readers (Americans’ longstanding appreciation of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America being a prime example).

Our books are mostly short stories (plus a few excerpts from novels), and they are arranged geographically, much like travel guides. And while there is a brief author bio at the beginning of each story (earlier titles had that info at the back of the book) that may provide some context of the piece in terms of the writer’s life or the country’s literary landscape, our editors do not go into detail to explain how a story points to cultural trends or highlights historical events. There is no hand-holding to ensure that readers take home a predefined knowledge of the place. We specifically decided against such guidance, allowing readers to explore and discover on their own. Add to that the complicating layer of a translation (our Ireland and Australia books being exceptions of course, although Australia does have a glossary), and readers may find the literary terrain to be even more rugged.

We find that our most enthusiastic readers are in primarily two camps: those who are excited about going to a place for the first time and immerse themselves in our book before they travel there, and those who have returned from a place and want to extend and add depth to the experience of traveling. These latter often think of themselves as more than just tourists.

After reading the Traveler’s Literary Companion to South Africa, Malchik compared it to travel writing: “I didn’t feel . . . that I was breathing the place as I read the fiction.” Obviously only Malchik can accurately describe her own experience, but I wonder if by “breathing” she means something a bit more cerebral. I believe that when you read stories about a place written by its natives, you actually come closer to “breathing the place” than when you read stories written by foreigners. At first reading, you may not fully understand or appreciate the complexities of the world you’ve entered—that may come later—but I find that these stories stick with me, and resonate more fully as I get to know the place better.

Malchik also wrote: “to really know a country you need to read its literature; but … travel writing is [necessary] for understanding.” I think this difference between “knowing” and “understanding” is key. One is not superior to the other, but complementary.

So, where does that leave us? To truly navigate, understand, and know South Africa, you may want all three of these books in your carry-on bag: Rough Guide to South Africa (to navigate), Dervla Murphy’s South from the Limpopo (to understand), and South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (to really know).

What do you take to read when you travel?

Check out Perspective Travel: www.perceptivetravel.com for wonderful travel writing from great writers!

Dogs, People, and Apartheid in Mphahlele’s “Mrs. Plum”

October 19th, 2009

My Madam’s name was Mrs. Plum. She loved dogs and Africans and said that everyone must follow the law even if it hurt. These were three big things in Madam’s life.

The “three big things” listed by Karabo, the young African woman who narrates Es’kia Mphahlele’s short story “Mrs. Plum,” have a distinct order to them. Mrs. Plum treats her dogs better than her black African servants. The dogs, Monty and Malan, sleep on pink linen sheets in Mrs. Plum’s bedroom and are pampered with brushings and meals. Mrs. Plum tries to be a mindful, politically progressive employer of Africans, and, as we will discover in this tale, she has more respect for her African help than she does for the law.

The magic of a short story is that the author can show us, through a portrait of ordinary days and lives, the values and conflicts that fracture lives and even whole cultures. In this seemingly simple tale of employers, servants, and dogs, we can see, in close-up, the world of Apartheid and its stratifications that even now divide South African society. As readers, we can notice that the seemingly nonchalant opening of a short story can, in the order of a list, speak volumes about character and what lies ahead.

“They make me fed up when I see them in their baskets, looking fat, and as if they knew all that was going on everywhere,” says the young servant Karabo of the dogs. The exalted position of the dogs over the servants poignantly illustrates the everyday inequalities integral to domestic life during Apartheid. Perhaps for this reason, much of “Mrs. Plum” centers around dogs. Monty and Malan, spoiled as they are, are not the only specimens of their type in Greenside:

In winter so many families went away that the dogs remained the masters and the madams. You could see them walk like white people in the streets. Silent but with plenty of power. And when you saw them you knew that they were full of more nonsense and fancies in the house.

Regardless of Mrs. Plum’s good intentions on the subject of race relations, she distrusts the gardener whose job it is to care for her dogs. This gardener’s name is Dick, and his fear of white people makes his manner uncertain. His relationship with the dogs and with the dogs’ owner is strained.

Although he had a long heart, Madam was still not sure of him. She often went to the dogs after a meal or after a cleaning and said to them, did Dick give you food sweethearts? Or did Dick wash you sweethearts? Let me see. And I could see that Dick was blowing up like a balloon with anger. These things called white people! he said to me. Talking to dogs!

Karabo, Dick, and other black servants find themselves keeping secrets from their white employers. Dick must keep his resentment of the dogs in check, Karabo attends lectures and lessons at the near-revolutionary Black Crow Club without revealing their true subject matter to Mrs. Plum, and Karabo’s friend Chimane gets an abortion in secret to keep her job and preserve her reputation.

Mrs. Plum, however, does have good intentions. She makes Karabo eat at the table with her and her daughter Kate, holds dinner parties with black guests, and belongs to a group of women who protest interracial violence in front of government buildings. Even Dick is occasionally a beneficiary of her half-hearted crusade for Africans’ rights: when the police, searching for loafers, begin berating him in the back yard, Mrs. Plum soaks them with the garden hose, landing herself fourteen days in jail. She refuses to pay the bail, despite the small sum, and stays out her time to prove her point and stay true to her political ideals, proving at the same time that her own injunction to “follow the law even if it hurt” is less important to her than her “love” of Africans.

It is to Mphahlele’s credit that he could write such a believable account of a respectable housewife turning a hose on the police. In this portrait of a strictly hierarchical society, the characters are sympathetic and believable, and the most outrageous of social norms are deftly illustrated in incidents and details. In Apartheid South Africa, the almost comic image of Mrs. Plum soaking a couple of sputtering policemen represents something far more nefarious and far-reaching than a backyard dispute over a servant’s rights.

South Africa: A Traveler's Literary Companion

South Africa: A Traveler's Literary Companion

You’ll find the story “Mrs. Plum” in our collection, South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Isabel Balseiro and Tobias Hecht.

Bloomsday: A Celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses

June 15th, 2009

Bloomsday is nearly upon us:  June 16, that is, the anniversary of that single day in 1904 when the action of James Joyce’s great novel, Ulysses, take place. Joyceans celebrate the day in a number of ways, including public readings and recreations of the wanderings of the novel’s main characters through the streets of Dublin. If you’re in Dublin itself, don’t be surprised to come upon men and women in Edwardian dress strolling down streets, entering pubs, quarreling, extemporizing, and much more.

Of course, you don’t have to be in Dublin or even Ireland to join in the fun. The James Joyce Centre offers this list of Bloomsday celebrations taking place around the globe. They also offer a list of events taking place in Ireland.

If you’re busy on Bloomsday itself, no worries. The James Joyce Centre offers walking tours of Joyce’s Dublin throughout the summer.  Whether you’re interested in following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses, or exploring the settings for the stories in Dubliners, there’s a walking tour for you.

If you’d like to hear the author himself reading an excerpt of Ulysses, you can watch this quirkily animated photo on YouTube.

To some readers, Joyce’s writing seems willfully difficult and obscure. But Bloomsday reminds us that a lively, quick-witted, and thoroughly social spirit lives in his works—a spirit that manifests itself most happily, even raucously, every June 16.

Ireland: A Traveler's Literary Companion

Ireland: A Traveler's Literary Companion

You’ll find an excerpt of the first chapter of Ulysses, along with many fine Irish short stories, in Ireland: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.

Photograph of the Martello Tower, where the opening scene of Ulysses takes place, by gabig58, Creative Commons License, some rights reserved.

An Interview with C.M. Mayo

May 5th, 2009
C.M. Mayo

C.M. Mayo

C.M. Mayo, author and editor of Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, discusses her new novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which is being published today.

WP: Who was the last prince of the Mexican empire?
C.M. Mayo: He was Agustin de Iturbide y Green (1863-1925), grandson of the first Emperor of Mexico, Agustin de Iturbide (who had been executed by firing squad shortly after his abdication). His father was Angel de Iturbide, second son of the Emperor, and mother was Alice Green de Iturbide, who was from a prominent Washington, D.C. family. When the childless Maximilian von Habsburg became Emperor of Mexico, he made a contract with the Iturbide family, making them all Highnesses and granting lavish pensions (but, for the parents, to be paid in Paris), in exchange for his taking custody of the little Agustin, then two and half years old. Having delivered her child to the palace, however, the mother went nearly mad with grief, and her attempts to get him back from Maximilian—she claimed her son, an American, had been kidnapped— ignited an international scandal.

You can view a carte-de-visite of the little prince here.

And you can read an excerpt from the first chapter, about his parents, here.

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

WP: When did you learn about the last prince? When did you realize you wanted to write a novel about him?
C.M. Mayo: Many years ago, I was at a friend’s house and happened to see his portrait, when he was a little older probably about 12. He looked English, but there was Chapultepec Castle in the background. When my friend told me he was the prince, Agustin de Iturbide, I was intrigued. It was later, when I read more about the period and found out that his mother was an American, and what a scandal she’d caused in trying to get him back from Maximilian, that I knew I had to write the book. But it wasn’t easy—it turns out, as I explain at length in the novel’s epilogue, that much of the available material on the affair is riddled with omissions and serious errors.

WP: What was the most interesting thing you uncovered in your research?
C.M. Mayo: That the story had been so obscured, relegated to footnotes, and shot full of sometimes bizarre misinformation. So little was known about the price’s mother, who turned out be from a very prominent family—her grandfather, General Uriah Forrest, had fought with General Washington in the Revolution, and her great grandfather, George Plater, had been governor of Maryland. When I went to do research at the Historical Society of Washington, at that time, the portrait in the vestibule was of her grandmother, Rebecca Plater Forrest, who grew up at Sotterley, one of the most important tidewater Maryland tobacco plantations. The house where Alice grew up, Rosedale, is considered one of the most important historic houses in Washington.

Alice had a powerful personality, to put it mildly. She was one tough cookie.

WP: What was your greatest pleasure as a novelist in telling this story?
C.M. Mayo: Coming across things in the archives that very few people, and maybe even no living person, had seen, that told a new part of the story. Researching oftentimes felt like panning for gold. A lot of sludge and useless pebbles and then, wow, that shine. And also, after thinking about them for a very long time, getting sudden flashes of insight about characters, e.g., why he wanted something so badly, or why she lied about that. The sense of it coming together.

WP: Where in Mexico does the novel take place? Did you travel to some interesting locations for research?
C.M. Mayo: It begins with the prince’s mother in Washington, and then moves to Maximilian in Trieste and Austria, and his voyage (via Rome and Martinique, among other places) to Mexico. Most of the action in the novel takes place in Mexico City, but there’s also a chapter set on the road to Yucatan, another in Cuernavaca, another in Rio Frio, then Rome, Paris, and again Mexico City. It roves all over the globe.

That said, one of the surprises, for many people who know the story of the Emperor Maximilian, is that the novel only very briefly mentions Queretaro, the city, where he made his final stand for the empire, and was captured, tried, and finally, in June of 1867, executed by firing squad— a terrible scene, famously envisioned by the painter, Manet. But of course, my novel is not about Maximilian per se, but the story of the prince, which wraps up some months before Queretaro.

WP: Which pieces in your anthology, Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, touch on places in your novel?
C.M. Mayo: There are several. Mexico City has its modern portraits in the pieces by Carlos Monsivais, Juan Villoro, and Guadalupe Loaeza. I translated a brief an excerpt from Fernando del Paso’s novel, Noticias del Imperio, which shows Maximilian on the roof of Chapultepec Castle, pointing out the sites to Commodore Maury, the famous Confederate oceanographer. It’s considered a great classic of 20th century Mexican fiction, and in fact, has just been published by Dalkey Archive, translated by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark as News from the Empire. I have to tell you, though, that quite intentionally I did not read the novel because, as I was writing my own, I did not want to be unconsciously influenced. How did I select the excerpt then? I swear this true: Juju. I just randomly opened the book, and there it was. Now that my own novel is out, I’ll have to read it!

In Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, there’s also a devastating short story by one of Mexico’s master writers, Monica Lavin, set in modern Acapatzingo. Maximilian’s main country residence was in Cuernavaca, but he also had a smaller, more informal retreat in that nearby village, which is now replete with large houses for weekenders from Mexico City. I should also mention the short story by Araceli Ardon, set in the conservative society of 1930s Queretaro (and it includes a mention of Maximilian’s photographer).

The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is available for purchase here.

And for more information about Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, click the book cover below.

Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion

Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion

Paradise Lost in Southern France: Le Clezio’s “Villa Aurora”

April 27th, 2009

photo_mediterraneanvillaNobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday on April 13. In commemoration, we offer this post about one of his short stories.

When a place you’ve loved dearly in childhood changes irrevocably, can you bear to return there to live?

That’s the question the narrator of Le Clezio’s short story, “Villa Aurora,” must answer. This story, which appears in France: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, pays homage to the old, grand villas of Mediterranean France—villas whose lands, buildings, and picturesque charm are increasingly threatened by sprawling commercial and residential development.

Le Clezio’s story begins with the narrator recalling the seemingly timeless Villa Aurora in whose gardens he used to play as a boy:

Aurora had stood, for all time, up there on the hilltop, half lost in the lush tangle of plants, yet still visible between the trunks of latania and palms, a great, white, cloud-covered palace quivering in the leafy shadows. It was called Villa Aurora even though no name had ever been inscribed on the pillars of the gateway, only a number engraved on a marble plaque that had worn away long before I could even remember it. Perhaps it had been given the name precisely because of its cloudlike color, so like the faint, iridescent hue of sky at dawn’s first break.

The villa is high, remote, and enshrouded by mists, much like the abode of the old Greek gods. The ancient, otherworldly character of the villa is reinforced by the worn away street number and the likeness of its color to dawn. We’ll soon learn that the villa includes within its walled garden a small stucco temple inscribed with the Greek word for “heaven.”

Aside from the myriad cats roaming its gardens, the villa has a single inhabitant: the lady of Villa Aurora. Like her ethereal home, she is difficult to pin down. At the beginning of the story, the narrator’s recollections of her are “blurred, elusive, barely perceptible.”

As a boy, the narrator used to sneak into the villa’s garden through a breach in its wall. There he and his friends would explore, play hide-and-seek, and relax.

The days were long and bright back then in the garden of Villa Aurora; there was nothing else of any interest in the town or the streets or the hills or even the sea, which we could glimpse off in the distance between the trees and the palms.

But the narrator grows up, and he no longer visits the villa. He even comes to forget about it, cutting himself off, he says, from the “heaven” promised by the temple’s inscription.

Years later, just before exams, he returns to his home town and the environs of the villa. In this part of the story, Le Clezio paints a vivid picture of a new French Mediterranean landscape: a paved, almost savage terrain crowded by the elevated freeways and high-rises.

Everywhere up on top of the hill were gutted gardens, ruins, gaping wounds dug into the earth. At the building sites, tall, threatening cranes loomed motionless, and trucks had left muddy tracks on the pavement. The buildings hadn’t finish sprouting up yet. They were still growing larger, biting into the old walls, scraping the earth, unfolding sheets of asphalt, dazzling concrete grounds at their feet.

Soon the narrator comes upon the villa itself:

All of a sudden, I saw it. I hadn’t recognized it because it was below the level of the circular highway, so crunched down under its supporting wall in the crook of the curve that I saw only its terrace roof and its chimneys. . . . I’d never seen it up so closely before, and most of all, I’d never imagined what it might look like seen from above, as if from a bridge. Then it struck me as looking sad, gray, forlorn, with its high, close-shuttered windows and the plaster stained with rust and soot, the stucco eaten away with old age and misfortune. It had lost that faint pearly color that had once made it seem ethereal when I spied on it from between the low laurel branches. It had lost its color of dawn.

The villa, which once surmounted the hilltop, is now itself surmounted by a freeway and high-rises. Modern development is strangling the quaint, lush world of Villa Aurora.

The narrator discovers the name of the villa’s inhabitant: Marie Doucet. She still lives in the villa, and a year later she posts an ad, seeking a student “to look after the house and protect it.” The narrator finds this opportunity irresistible. He applies for the job. After decades of admiring the villa from the outside, he at last enters the villa itself and meets Mme Doucet.

The question in the story then becomes, can he bear to take the job and live in what remains of Villa Aurora? Can he stand to live in a place cherished in childhood but now utterly transformed and under siege, caught in the crook of the highway’s curve?

He cannot. He flees, abandoning Mme. Doucet, who remains in her home like a creature fixed in amber.

I don’t know how I ended up leaving there. I think I must have slipped away like a coward, like a thief . . . The old lady was left alone in the middle of her big, forlorn house, alone in the large room with flaking plaster walls and amber-colored sunlight. I walked back down the street, down the avenues, toward the bottom of the hill. . . . As I went into the crowd of cars and trucks between the high walls of the buildings, I thought I could hear, off in the distance, the wild cries of the city’s thugs bringing down the roofs of Villa Aurora one after the other.

France: A Traveler's Literary Companion

France: A Traveler's Literary Companion

You’ll find the complete story of “Villa Aurora”—and many other wonderful French stories—in France: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.

Mediterranean villa photo by Villa Regina, Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.

Remembering John McGahern

March 30th, 2009

Today marks the third anniversary of the death of John McGahern (November 12, 1934 – March 30, 2006), one of Ireland’s greatest writers of the twentieth century. His novel, Amongst Women, which tells of the story of a domineering IRA veteran, was shortlisted for the Booker prize and won Ireland’s GPA Book Prize. McGahern himself was awarded Ireland’s AE Memorial Award and the Irish-American Foundation Award, among other prizes.

McGahern is rightly praised for the power of his descriptions, in particular his descriptions of characters trapped in bleak circumstances in rural Ireland. Through sonorous language and with painstaking detail, McGahern could summon the mood of a place and the daily routines that make up so much of life in a rural place. To get a sense of his style, consider this passage from the opening of his first novel, The Barracks.

The bright golds and scarlets of the religious pictures on the walls had faded, their glass glittered now in the sudden flashes of firelight, and as it deepened the dusk turned reddish from the Sacred Heart lamp that burned before the small wickerwork crib of Bethlehem on the mantlepiece. Only the cups and saucers laid ready on the table for their father’s tea were white and brilliant. The wind and rain rattling on the window-panes seemed to grow part of the spell of silence and increasing darkness, the spell of the long darning-needle flashing in the woman’s hand, and it was with a visible strain that the boy managed at last to break their fear of the coming night.

“Is it time to light the lamp yet, Elizabeth?” he asked. (The Barracks, p. 7, Penguin Books)

An almost identical description appears at the very end of the book. By then, the step-mother, Elizabeth, has passed away; the father, Ned Reegan, an Irish guard, has confronted his watchful boss, Quirke; and the children’s interest in preparing for darkness by lighting lamps and lowering blinds suggests the continuation of life, even quotidian life, after the death of the novel’s central figure.

Such repetition isn’t surprising in a long work like a novel. But it can be daring, even jarring, in a shorter work such as a nine-page story.

McGahern’s story, “The Stoat,” which appears in Ireland: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, begins with the narrator, a golfer, discovering a rabbit which has just been attacked by a stoat.

I was following a two iron I had just struck just short of the green when I heard the crying high in the rough grass above the fairway. The clubs rattled as I climbed towards the sound, but it did not cease, its pitch rising. The light of water from the inlet was blinding when I climbed out of the grass, and I did not see the rabbit at once, where it sat rigidly still on a bare patch of a loose sand, crying. I was standing over the rabbit when I saw the grey body of the stoat slithering away like a snake into the long grass.

The rabbit still did not move, but its crying ceased. I saw the wet slick of blood behind its ear, the blood pumping out on the sand. It did not stir when I stooped.

What follows is a graphic and gripping description of the injured rabbit and the rapacious pursuit by the stoat.

And then the story shifts to its main action, which concerns the narrator’s father, a fifty-year-old widower and schoolteacher, who has placed an ad in the paper, looking for a mate. A grim little comedy follows, and McGahern shows that his descriptive power works as well in miniature as it does in large.

Teacher, fifty-two. Seeks companionship. View marriage. “What do you think of it?” he asked.

“I think it’s fine.” Dismay cancelled a sudden wild impulse to roar with laughter.

“I’ll send it off, then, so.”

After about a month he showed me the response. A large pile of envelopes lay on his desk. I was amazed. I had no idea that so much unfulfilled longing wandered around in the world. Replies came from nurses, housekeepers, secretaries, childless widows, widows with small children, house owners, car owners, pensioners, teachers, civil servants, a policewoman, and a woman who had left at twenty years of age to work at Fords of Dagenham who wanted to come home. The postman inquired slyly if the school was seeking a new assistant, and the woman who ran the post office said in a faraway voice that if we were looking for a housekeeper she had a relative who might be interested.

(I love the detail of the woman in the post office remarking about her relative in “a faraway voice.” Perfect.)

Eventually, the father’s attentions focus on a Miss McCabe. The son accompanies the father to a meeting with Miss McCabe in the lobby of the Ormond Hotel.

She was small and frail and nervous, a nervousness that extended, I suspected, well beyond the awkwardness and unease of the whole contrived meeting. There was something about her—a waif-like sense of decency—that was at once appealing and troubling. Though old, she was like a girl in love, in love with being in love a whole life long without ever settling on any single demanding presence until this late backward glance fell on my bereft but seeking father.

Dinner follows, and a sort of unspoken engagement.

But a complication arises, and the story concludes with McGahern repeating word for word an earlier description of the stoat.

How he pulls this off, I’ll leave for you to discover. I’ll point out his daring. I’ll let you experience firsthand his deftness.

Photo of house and mountains in County Leitrim by dingbat2005, Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.

Great Stories from All Over the World

March 27th, 2009

Welcome to the blog of Whereabouts Press. We’re a fifteen-year-old independent publisher of books that convey a sense of a place—a country, a region, a city—through stories.

Unlike guidebooks written by professional travel writers, our books feature stories written by literary writers—all of whom are native to the places they write about. They didn’t write specifically for travelers. They wrote because they had good stories to tell. And their stories tell us not just about people, but about the soul of a place.

In this blog, we’ll introduce you to some of the writers, translators, and editors behind our books. We’ll explore the locations that their stories describe. And we’ll touch on anything else, serious or amusing, that we think would be of interest to our readers.

We welcome your comments on anything we write about. If you’d like to learn more about our catalog of books—each, a traveler’s literary companion for a specific destination or a type of journey—please visit our main Web site.