When New Zealand author Heidi North won an international Irish Poetry Prize in 2007, and was told by the Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, to keep writing, it made her realise that not everyone wrote the way she did. Further recognition and confirmation of her own unique voice came just before Covid hit, when the band U2 used one of her poems in their Joshua Tree Tour on a gigantic screen before audiences of thousands. The writer of poems and fiction has been published in anthologies, journals and magazines around the world, but underlying her writing is a fascination with the human condition and how out of grief we make parcels of light.
When did you first start writing?
I’ve always been writing. I think I thought everyone just wrote poems and stories the way I did, when I was a kid. But as to when I started taking writing more seriously, that was when I won an Irish poetry prize in 2007 (The Feile Filiochta International Poetry), that’s when I realised that perhaps not everyone wrote quite the way I did.
What cultivated your love of words and storytelling?
My mother was a great storyteller and she often told me stories, especially family stories, growing up. In fact, a lot of those have made their way into an essay collection that I’m currently working on, a few decades later. My dad was an architect and artist, and my step mum is an artist, too so I grew up surrounded by creative people and books and a feeling that creativity was valued.
What do you enjoy about the process of writing?
It can be a frustrating one at times, there’s the gap between what you want things to be and where they are and finding the way to work from that point to another can be a challenge. But the great joy comes from the flow state, when you’re in that state, time and space are nothing, there is just you and the page and it’s joyful. You have to hold onto that as a writer, because a lot of the time is spent berating yourself for not actually writing, feeling deep despair about your work, and the process of editing, which can be joyful and painful too.
What differences are there between writing poetry and writing short stories/novels? Do you have to put a different ‘hat’ on to create?
For me, it’s sort of instinctual, I just know when what form things I want to explore will take. I was a poet first, so I did have to go through a process of really learning to write fiction. John Cranna from The Creative Hub (Auckland, New Zealand) really taught me how to bolt my fiction writing down. I feel like fiction adheres to the rules of gravity whereas poetry doesn’t have to. But writing both has made each form stronger, my poetry has become more narrative and my fiction benefits from the stripping back you do in poetry.
I wrote my second poetry collection, We are tiny beneath the light, as a sort of side project while I was working on my bigger project for my Masters. And it’s more a narrative than my first collection, Possibility of flight, which I published in 2015, for that reason.
How do you go about your writing? With planning, spontaneous, inspiration or contemplation?
These days, between work and kids and the obligations of adulthood, the writing has to be planned and I have to give myself deadlines and hold myself accountable to them. But in terms of what I want to write, that still is fairly spontaneous. I have never felt like I choose what I write about, things just tug at me until I make something out of them.
Does being a writer make you more observant, mindful or aware, or does noticing details and recording them make you a writer?
What a chicken and egg! My dad always says I was fascinated by why people did things, so I think writing perhaps helps me make sense of the world.
What did you gain from studying creative writing at university?
Every time I’ve done any writing study, there have been two great gifts of it; one, it ringfences writing time and gives me deadlines, and a place to play with writing, to read and to really think hard about both. But the second, and perhaps the greater gift, is the cohort. I finished my Master of Creative Writing at Auckland University in 2017, and that cohort of writers, and our lecturer, Paula Morris, have been so valuable to me since. Plus, I still keep in contact with, and champion writers from other courses I’ve taken along the way. I’ve taken several short courses at the IIML at Victoria University of Wellington and those always gave me new inspiration and introduced me to new writers, many of whom have stayed friends.
What was your experience in China/Shanghai like?
Being in Shanghai for the International Writers Program in 2016 was just such a wonderful, stimulating creative time. I’d lived in China, in Huizhou, 12 years earlier for a year teaching English at a language school there, so I had a bit of an idea of what China was like, so while in some ways I was prepared, it was also so different. I loved spending two months there. I loved having the time dedicated to writing and to being in a different culture and to be being part of a group of 10 writers from around the world and to spend time with Chinese writers and particulate in many literary events. I feel so very lucky and thankful to the Michael King Centre in New Zealand for the exchange.
It was also hard and challenging and bizarre to be away from home. I had a small daughter at home and my marriage had recently broken up. So it was many things, all at once.
How do you go about getting published?
Just sending things out and keep sending things out. Hopefully, you send things out that people like and they get published. I’ve had a lot of rejection letters, and I’ve also learnt that some people will love your work and some people won’t. It’s true what they say that everything is subjective. I’ve had work rejected by someplace that ends up winning a prize somewhere else.
How do you think writing can address difficult subjects, such as your ‘We are tiny beneath the light’?
Your hope as a writer, when you write about difficult subjects, such as I did in, ‘We are tiny beneath the light’, which is about the breakdown of my marriage and the process of rebuilding myself after that, is that it illuminates something for someone else. Maybe someone else going through a hard time reads my poems and it gives them a foothold into their own life, or a way to express their grief, or offers a sliver of hope. I go to hard writing in hard times, and it gives me great comfort.
Does writing from your own experience mean being vulnerable on the page? If so, how do you live with that?
It would be easier to step back from your work and say it’s not you, and in ‘We are tiny beneath the light’, I could no longer do that. Was I scared of being vulnerable? Yes, I was terrified. My publisher and editor Mary McCallum was invaluable through that process and trusting in her careful guidance helped me get to the heart of the story I was telling.
The other thing is, that writing anything truthful always contains poetic license, and even if it’s not about you people will make assumptions anyway, so that’s freeing in a way. And you have to get past what you think people might think of you if you’re a writer, or you’ll never write anything.
Being vulnerable is something I find quite difficult, and yet, both of the projects I’m currently working on have memoir elements, so demand a level of vulnerability. In the end, I think all good writing is an act of vulnerability of some kind, and when I’m scaring myself that’s when I know I’m going in the right direction.
How do you make a bridge with the reader for them to get into your writing?
I think it’s vulnerability. You don’t have to agree with me or like me, but you have to know I’m telling some kind of truth – which is widely subjective, but that’s what the reader is here for, to see the writer tell the truth they have in the best way they can.
How useful are deadlines, goals, and writing groups to writing and improving your work?
They cannot be underestimated! It’s not an understatement that the process of getting to the desk is extraordinary hard. It would be such a relief not to want to write, because it’s so fraught just getting to the page. You have to really want to write to overcome that dread. It makes absolutely no sense that something you love is so intensely hard to do. This is where deadlines and writing groups, that come with deadlines come in. And it’s great to be able to talk about the craft with people who care about it as much as you do.
How rewarding does it feel seeing your work and name in print?
Holding the copy of your book in your hands for the first time is such a wonderful feeling. And when you get accepted for any kind of publication there is just this instant bubble of joy. And you have to hold onto that, because the slog is hard, and the rejections keep coming. It can be hard to savour the feeling of reward that comes with seeing your work published, but it is why we continue writing, so that someone will read it.
How has your writing ended up being shared to the wider world? Is it true that U2 used your poem ‘Piha Beach, two years on’ in its New Zealand concert screen images?
Yes! Isn’t that just wild? Having my poem picked up and used by U2 is one of the most unexpected and wonderful things that being a writer has led to. I wrote about it — the surreal joy of having my poem selected to play on the largest screen I’ve ever seen – may ever see – in my life, to a crowd of thousands here: When one of the biggest bands in the world bought my tiny poem
If you can’t make a living from writing poetry, what other benefits are there from publishing poetry?
You don’t write poetry or short stories in New Zealand for the money, but being a writer has lead me to some extraordinary experiences, like an all-expenses-paid trip to Bali when I won the Asia New Zealand Foundation Short Story Competition, going to the Shanghai Writers Programme and all the wonderful experiences I had there, meeting Seamus Heaney and having him tell 26-year-old me sternly to keep writing when I picked up the Feile Filiochta poetry award in Ireland, and spending the evening in the Friends and Family lounge before the U2 concert in Auckland.
So, it’s not bought me great monetary riches, but it’s bought me great dinner party stories.
How important is winning awards, and getting feedback from readers in keeping your writing?
Really, really important. I’d like to say I don’t care what people think, but I do. I don’t mean in the way it stops me from writing hard things, but in the way that if I’d never had any positive feedback at all the doubt would have gotten the better of me and I would have stopped writing long ago.
How do you use your writing skills in your day job?
I work in strategic communications and engagement, which is all about how to communicate the bigger story and connect with people. It’s fulfilling to tell stories in different capacities.
How do you juggle your life and other responsibilities with making time to write?
I’ve learnt to write in snatches, when kids are playing noisily around me, when I don’t want to, when I’m too tired, when I’m feeling flat. There’s always something writing or writing-adjacent you can do, even when you may not be at your best and that way you keep a toe in the water. I do everything I can just to keep a toe in the water, and then sometimes that leads to full body immersion, but with kids and a job and a house there isn’t much glorious uninterrupted time these days.
What are you currently working on?
I always have multiple things on the go at the same time, so one project I’m working on is a personal essay collection about childhood, family politics, parenting and love. And the other is my Shanghai project, a hybrid novel memoir about a runaway bride who finds herself hiding in Shanghai – the last place she remembers being happy, and it’s also about me, on the Shanghai writers programme grappling with where I was in my life post-separation.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. Do interesting things. Find your own voice. Allow yourself to write things without expectations or limits. Write into the things that make you scared. Then go deeper. Keep going.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t agonise so much, and just keep going.
How does writing make you a global citizen better connected to the world?
Participating in literary events and publications and exchanges creates so much connection and empathy with different cultures and ideas. It’s so important.
New Zealand writer Heidi North has won awards for both her poems and short stories, including an international Irish Poetry Prize, and has been published in anthologies and magazines around the world. Heidi was the New Zealand fellow in the Shanghai International Writers Programme in 2016. The same year she was awarded the Hachette/ NZSA mentorship to work on her first novel. Heidi has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland and lives in Auckland with her family. Her first poetry collection, Possibility of flight was published by Makaro Press in 2015. Her second collection, We are Tiny Beneath the light (The Cuba Press 2019), was launched by U2 when they used one of her poems from the collection in their 2019 Joshua Tree Tour.
‘Piha Beach, two years on’ by Heidi North
My feet punch bruises in the black sand
and I am back in the burn of childhood summers
the circle of sentinel gulls
their grey wings tipped to catch the light
warn me back
but I go down to the white foam edge
bluebottles bloated with their pretty poison
yield to the sharp edge of my stick
I go down to the place
where the wind kicks holes through my heart
and there is a child down there
too close to the ribbony horizon line
holding his blue kite
towards the updraft
still smiling as it lurches
against the wide white blaze of sky –
and I smile and laugh and I run with him because how can I tell him
all the brutal things are yet to come
(‘We are tiny beneath the light’ has been published with permission from The Cuba Press)
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Blazing trails, as well as retracing the footsteps of great explorers, Christopher Winnan, a travel writer, delves into the past, and gazes into the future while conversing with Keith Lyons.
Christopher Winnan is a man of many hats. He has travelled widely throughout Asia, seeking out the latest breakthroughs and emerging technologies; with an uncanny ability to pick and forecast trends. As a travel writer and location scout, he’s explored off-the-beaten-track places; contributing to National Geographic and Frommers. When not consulting or publishing about Asia’s newest frontiers, he has an on-going fascination with past exploration, from the karst landscapes of south China’s opium trails to the ancient tea-horse trading routes across the Tibetan borderlands and eastern Himalayas. He writes on a wide range of subjects, both non-fiction and fiction, transporting guests to worlds old and new. Keith Lyons introduces us to the multi-faceted persona of Christopher Winnan, his past, present and future…
Tell us about growing up in the UK. When did you first get into writing?
The first paid writing gigs that I had in the UK were for top shelf men’s magazines, titles like Mayfair, Knave and Men Only. I was still too young to write the Readers Wives’ Real Stories, and so instead, I would pitch them bizarre subjects that they used as factual fillers. One I remember doing was a deep dive on the Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane, and another was about the Sultan’s harem in Constantinople. I used to find obscure books at the library on strange subjects and then compress them into articles. I may not have been Pulitzer Prize work, but the pay was good, and the work was steady.
Before you moved to Asia, what things did you do?
In the UK, I worked as a manager in a pet food warehouse, and I was one of the first casualties in the steady move to logistics automation. Just about everybody I worked with has since been replaced by AI and robots. I was not all that cut up because I had been working almost every hour that God sent, and the great boss that had originally hired me had since moved on a replaced by someone I could not get along with. I was happy to go, just to get away from him. Fortunately, I got a nice redundancy settlement, and decided to spend it on one of those round-the-world air tickets. I always thought that I would be back in twelve months and find another job. I would not have believed that I was never going back.
What first brought you to visit Asia, and where did you go? What was your first impression?
I heard about a big military parade in Seoul, and so I decided to make that my first stop. I was only planning to stay a couple of days before moving onto Tokyo, but an Australian at my guesthouse persuaded me to go for an interview at a local English school. I had never done a days’ teaching in my life, but they did not seem to care, and I was hired on the spot. I started work two days later. The school was a massive Hagwon, a cram school right in the middle of downtown. There were at least 300 foreign teachers, and about two-thirds of us were illegals, working on three-month tourist visas. Back in those days, the authorities did not care. South Korea was an Asian Tiger economy and everybody and their dog wanted to learn English. The Korean won was really strong against the dollar, and so we were all making bank. We would do three months on and three months off. During the down time, we would go off and explore other parts of Asia, and party like animals. Then we would come back and work like dogs for three months. I can remember that it was not long that I knew all the textbooks by heart and was teaching 14 contact hours a day, starting at 6am and finishing at 10pm. I had taught just about every class at least a dozen time so my prep time was minimal, and honestly, I loved every minute of it. The entire country was on a massive growth streak, and everybody had high hopes for the future. It was an amazing time. Eventually, I started dating one of the Korean teachers at my school. Unfortunately, she was not an ordinary local. He father had been an ambassador, she had studied at Oxford, and Papa was now the mayor in Korea’s second largest city. When he found out that his precious daughter was with a dirty foreigner, he hit the roof. The following Monday six immigration officers turned up at the office of my Director of Studies. They were all wearing long black trench coats and dark glasses and looked like the Gestapo.
“Tell us which classroom Chris Winnan is in. If you do not tell us we will arrest every teacher you have and close down the entire school.” Clearly, he did not have a lot of choice. I spent a couple of nights in an out-of-town jail and was then on a plane back to the UK. I was not too cut up about it, because at the time, Kim Il-sung in North Korea, was jumping up and down threatening to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire”. A lot of the other teachers were desperate to leave but could not get out of their contracts. Anyway, it had been a good run. I had only planned to be in Seoul for three days, but I ended up staying for nearly three years.
And China, what was your first encounter like, and what made you decide to live and work there?
Like I said, we were doing three months on and three months off in Seoul, which gave us plenty of chance to explore the rest of Asia. Some places were just starting to open-up in those days. We went wreck diving in the largest WWII warship graveyard in the Philippines and ancient coin hunting in Cambodia. Cambodia, for example, was still a scary place in those days. The Khmer Rouge had only recently been ousted from power, and there were still UN peacekeepers everywhere. The markets were full of weapons, and much of the country was still off limits. We went down to Sihanoukville because we heard about an intrepid Frenchman was setting up the country’s first dive centre down there. When we went back three months later, he had been murdered by Khmer Rouge militants. We took the once-a-week train back to Phnom Penh and then just a week later, Khmer Rouge bandits kidnapped a dozen westerners and twenty odd locals off the very same train. Every one of them was executed and ended up in a shallow cave. That was a very close shave. If we had been travelling just one week later, we too would have been on this train, and I would not be talking to you now. Unsurprisingly, there were not a lot of other travellers at the time. Back in the capital, we met a Swiss who was smuggling looted artefacts out of places like Angkor back to Europe. Then there was the young Belgium kid who was trying to buy authentic Khmer Rouge uniforms. He was heading off to Battambang, which was the militants last remaining stronghold. We never saw or heard from him again.
It was dangerous but incredibly cheap. We met an American who had rented a massive nine-bedroom villa out of town for just a hundred dollars a month. It turned out he was a bit of an idiot though. He was petrified of being abducted and so he went to the Russian market and bought a load of land mines. He buried them all around the perimeter of his place, and then that night the monsoons rains came, and washed them all away.
When I was deported from Korea, I was still quite flush with cash and I had really enjoyed my teaching experience, so I decided to do a year-long intensive TEFL course back at university in the UK. The course itself was a waste of time, far too academic to be of any real practical use in the real world, but I was one of the only native speakers, on the course so I had a wonderful time partying with teachers in training from all over the world. Even in those days, the universities were corporate money-making machines. My course had about thirty students and nearly all of them were non-EU residents, which meant that they were paying around four or five times as much we UK residents.
This was long before the influx of mainland Chinese students, but there were at least half a dozen Koreans and Japanese in my class. They could barely speak a word of English between them, but the professors were instructed to give them every possible assistance, in order that they would come back and sign on for even more lucrative Masters and PhD courses. The faculty would bend over backwards to help them and practically wrote their essays for them, while we English students were generally ignored. I can only imagine that universities are far, far worse now that they are full of rich tuhao Mainlanders. At my university, there were only two Mainlanders in the whole place out of about 6,000 students in total, and they both looked as though they had stepped right out of the Cultural Revolution. They were more like a pair of North Koreans than the Chinese students you see today.
Their English was excellent, but they both wore Mao caps, and they talked as if they had come out of a time warp. They wanted to exchange stamps and discuss Marxism, while everybody else wanted to go down to the student union and get drunk. They must have had a tough time of it. Talking to them I realised that mainland China was about the only place in Asia I had not yet visited and so once I finished my course, that was where I decided to go.
What was China like when you first went, and how has it changed?
I initially went to Shanghai and worked at the very first English First language school. I soon saw what cowboys they were at that company, but fortunately, there was an abundance of work in Shanghai at the time, so I quickly jumped ship and went to work as a ‘Training Manager’ at a local five-star hotel. There were only a handful of luxury foreign hotels in Shanghai, and so I was really lucky to have landed such a plum job. I got my own room and ate like a king at the restaurants along with the other executives. My hours were few, especially when compared to that of the interns who had come out from the UK and who had to share rooms and eat in the staff canteen.
Shanghai in those days felt much like it must have done in the twenties nearly a century earlier. In the clubs that we went to at the weekend, famous MTV VJs and Cantopop stars from Hong Kong would fly in to party. There were so few foreigners at that time, that we still had a kind of rock star status, which I fully took advantage of. I ended up dating the Prima Ballerina from the Shanghai Ballet, which gave me all kinds of incredible introductions to the local movers and shakers. For a year or so, I felt like I was living a charmed life.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Shanghai was growing so fast that scores of new five-star hotels were being built. The one where I worked was one of the first, and therefore one of the oldest. Occupancy rates dropped as other more exciting options came online. They had to make cuts and having a full time English teacher on the management roster seemed to be rather extravagant and so I was one of the first to be let go.
I decided to take a job in Guangzhou at the Guangdong Foreign Language University. I went for that option because I had heard that university jobs were becoming more prestigious, even if they were not as well paid. The salary back then was 1,100 RMB per month which was about US$100. Fortunately, I had been earning ten times that at the hotel, and as it was full board, I had been able to save most of it.
I can still remember the staff of the foreign affairs office picking me up at the Railway Station and how we drove though the downtown of Guangzhou. We passed a couple of big five-star hotels, and I immediately felt more comfortable, thinking that this will not be so bad after all. We then continued to drive for another hour, and I found out to my dismay, that I was going to be working out in a secondary campus way out in the sticks.
The teacher apartments had definitely seen better days and the student canteen was like something out of the Cultural Revolution. This time, I was in for a major culture shock. Fortunately, the students were all very keen and enthusiastic. They were mainly from poor second and third tier cities out in the hinterland. Most of them had been delighted to be accepted into this particular big city university, but like me, hit the ground with a bump when they realised that were going to be at an out of town, secondary campus.
Immediately, corruption reared its ugly head. The waiban (the foreign affairs office) had a nice little earner going where they would hire out their teachers to the local joint ventures at the weekend for inordinate corporate rates. I was immediately placed at Coca Cola in a nearby industrial city. The money was good, but it was two hours travel either way and really ate into my weekend.
The other big problem that I was one of only two qualified teachers. All the other foreigners were undercover Christian missionaries from some American church organisation, who actually paid the University to hire them. Most of them were far more interested in preaching than teaching.
After a couple of months of extreme boredom, stuck out in the middle of the Chinese countryside, I started to take the long bus trip downtown to explore Guangzhou. The city itself was amazing and far more interesting than Shanghai, as it really was the Workshop of the World in those days. It was filled with every kind of wholesale market you could imagine. If it was a ‘Made-in-China’ product that ended in the west, it was guaranteed that it had gone through the markets in Guangzhou first. And they were huge sprawling places, as big as any shopping mall back home, and each one focussed on just one range of products. There were vast buildings filled with suppliers of tools, toys, Tupperware and textiles. Every time I ventured downtown, I would visit a new one and it would usually take me the whole day to explore the entire place.
I remember the day I first went to the Toy Market. There was a peasant woman outside with a bunch of plastic Star Trek figures on a piece of battered plastic tarp. Upon closer inspection, I found that they were all stamped with serial numbers on the feet, and most of them were very low numbers indeed. There was a 0001 Captain Picard, a 0002 Commander Riker and a 0003 Mr Data. I quickly realised that these were probably the factory prototypes, the original production batch that had gone up to marketing for displays and presentations before the main quantity was shipped out. I made her an offer and bough the lot, some thirty or forty figures. This was in the days before Ebay, so I went on a few early Star Trek collectors’ forums and told them what I had found and offered them for sale. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling them where I had found these, and everybody immediately accused that the figurines were fakes. China’s reputation was terrible even in those days. I could not give them away, let alone sell them, and so I sent them back to a friend in the UK as a gift. I hear that many of them are now worth hundreds of dollars apiece. This experience got me very interested in export opportunities, and from then on, I bolstered my measly teaching income by buying all kinds of oddities that I would stumble across in my travels and sell them overseas. One day I found the factory who made all the patches and insignia for the FBI and the Secret Service. For many years, I exported vast quantities to collectors in the US. I was buying them for pennies and selling them at high prices on eBay, with the help of a couple of partners in the US.
How was your experience in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai?
Guangzhou was an interesting place to be in the early days. It really felt as though I had been taken back in a time machine. In the decade before the handover, Hong Kong was at its most exciting and vibrant, and crossing the border back into the mainland after a visa run was like suddenly going back fifty years. Bicycles ruled the road, there was no such thing as the internet and there was not even any English language TV. I might as well have been on another planet. Guangzhou was the first city to open up to western business interests, and this had also been the case in the past, and so the people that were drawn there were curious about all things western and what was going on in the largely unknown outside world. The city had been hosting the world’s largest international Trade Fair for more than fifty years, and so twice a year I was able to make friends with intrepid entrepreneurs from the remotest corners of the earth. I remember developing a passion for Yemeni cuisine, partying with Senegalese ambassador and exploring the factory slums with a group of businessmen from Madagascar.
Living conditions were most definitely in the hardship category, but the opportunities were immense. I left the university and went to work for an American corporate training company right in the heart of downtown, and fully immersed myself in what was, at the time, the most exciting city on earth. I had always felt myself to be somewhat of an ugly duckling, but here I quickly transformed into a tall, handsome swan. While I was coaching the eager new managers at the world’s biggest multi-nationals, I had a nice little sideline in modelling gigs. One year, I played the role of visiting businessman in an advertisement for the first state-owned five-star hotel in the city, and suddenly, my face was on TV all over Guangdong and Hong Kong, twenty times a night. I could not walk down the street without people recognising me and wanting to talk to me.
It was ironic that I was so popular downtown because my name was mud back at the University that I had just left. I was talking to some of my old students, and they told me that one of the missionary teachers had been caught in bed with one of the students. Rather than fire and deport the missionary, they expelled the student. They then announced at a student assembly that it was me that had been caught en-flagrante, and that I had been fired for this indiscretion. This was of course a lie, but I was no longer there to defend myself, and it also meant that they got to keep a missionary teacher that they did not have to pay.
I later landed a short-term six-month contract at the brand new computing campus of BeiDa, Beijing’s most prestigious university, and I hated just about every minute of it. I had been looking forward to working with the crème de la crème of Chinese education, but the students turned out to be robotic study machines, superb exam takers, many with photographic memories, but barely a shred of imagination between the lot of them. Nobody ever asked any pointed questions, contradicted what I said or suggested interesting alternatives. All that they were capable of was rote-memorisation and mindless regurgitation of the textbook.
Obviously, any discussion of current affairs, geo-politics and domestic issues was completely off the table. Here I was, with what was supposed to be a few thousand of the brightest young minds in China, and not one of them wanted to discuss anything of consequence. To make things worse the climate was appalling, the freezing temperatures made worse by industrial smog that was so thick that you could cut it with a knife and spread on your toast for breakfast. I did a little bit of sightseeing on my days off, but everywhere had been so thoroughly transformed with revisionist propaganda that I soon gave up. Even the food was appalling. Chinese cuisine is disappointing at the best of times, especially if you have spent any length of time in any other Southeast Asian countries but coming directly from Guangzhou where Cantonese really bucks the national trend, being in Beijing was like being on prison rations. After six months, I was going crazy and incredibly relieved to leave.
What has it been like to be in China at its peak in terms of energy, growth, dynamism?
I am not really sure I saw China at its peak, not by a long shot. You have to remember that China was way ahead of the rest of the world back in the days of Confucius and then again back in the Tang and Ming Dynasties. When I was there in the nineties, China was still reeling from a series of the worst man-made disasters that the world has ever seen, including the Great Famine and The Cultural Revolution. It was not surprising the Deng Xiaoping era was a period of rapid growth. They were after all starting from almost nothing and just about every other country on the planet was years ahead of them. People talk about the Chinese economic miracle, but in hindsight, which other way could it have gone? They were already at rock bottom in terms of economy and technology. From there the only way was up.
I was very lucky that I was living there as a foreigner with all the advantages that entailed, but it was still pretty unpleasant to be a Chinese citizen, especially a female. For ordinary Chinese people, life was not much better than it is in Iran, Russia or even North Korea. It was slightly better for a few years after Deng’s reforms, up until, say the Beijing Olympics, but it was not some Golden age of equality and mass prosperity.
As foreigners, we were somewhat isolated from the most unpleasant aspects. In fact, many existed entirely inside an expat bubble of privilege and protection, not even wanting to know what was going on in the real China. As an explorer, I saw with my own eyes what life was like in the mega-city slums, or back in the quasi-medieval villages of the hinterlands, and it was really grim. I can only imagine what it is like now, with the mass lock downs and large-scale crackdowns.
Most of the expats I knew enjoyed the exoticness of their existences, but it is not like we lived like the British colonials of the Raj. Yes, occasionally you met the kind of expat businessman who live in a gated villa and threw away a thousand dollars a night on karaoke whores, but most of us were teachers who lived in regular apartments and shopped at local wet markets. The fact was that life in China was so unpleasant that the really rich folks simply did not want to go there. I can remember briefly doing some consulting work for the heir to the VW fortune, who was planning to invest millions, if not billions in green technology and environmentalism. Once he arrived, he found that he hated the place so much that he immediately flew back to Tokyo permanently and handed off all responsibility to his subordinates. Once his initial enthusiasm disappeared, so did the funds and the whole thing came to nothing.
I can also remember meeting an eighty-year-old who was backpacking his way around Yunnan, staying in hostels and guesthouses with youngsters that were around a quarter of his age. It turns out that he had been stationed in Shanghai as a Marine, just after the war when he was still in his twenties. For me, that would have been a much more interesting period to experience China, or maybe even earlier, in the days of Chiang Kai Skek and the gangsters that ruled the city.
How did you get into researching and writing travel articles and guidebooks?
I was on a visa run in Hong Kong, browsing through the China travel books in a bookstores in Tsim Sha Tsui. I was quite proud of the growing body of knowledge that I was slowly accumulating on the growing megalopolis of Guangzhou, and I wanted to see what the existing guidebooks said about the place.
I was very disappointed when I saw that the writer for Frommer’s claimed the entire city was a complete waste of time. He talked about a few lacklustre tourist sites, but this was completely unfair as Guangzhou was never a tourist city. It was an international business hub. He practically ignored all the wholesale markets, and the vibrant restaurant culture. I was very disappointed and wrote to the publisher telling them so, and that Guangzhou deserved much better. They agreed and asked me if I would contribute to their forthcoming edition, and could I cover another eight provinces at the same time.
When did you venture into Southwest China and how did it contrast with other parts of coastal city China?
It was when I got that first commission that I really started venturing into the Hinterlands. Obviously, I was required to cover all the coastal cities, but honestly, most of them were just provincial versions of Guangzhou filled with pop up factories and very little else. Huizhou Hangzhou, Fuzhou, Wenzhou and every other bloody Zhou were almost all identical. A few fake temples to replace everything that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but otherwise all pretty similar and boring. I was glad to get out into the sticks and explore the mountains and the countryside. Of course, this also had its downsides.
The second time I worked for Frommers’, I recommended a guy that I had met on the road who had been working for Rough Guides. They gave him Shanghai, Beijing and Xinjiang, all the places that I did not want and so it worked out really well. I had just had a meeting in Shenzhen with the new Director of PR for Shangri La hotels, who had been incredibly gracious and offered to comp me at any of her properties all over the country. I was grateful, but back in those days there were only about two Shangri Las in all the provinces that I was covering, so it was not really a big deal. Anyway, I told my friend Simon from Rough Guides to get in touch with her, and she quickly offered him the same deal. There were so many Shangri Las in his patch that over the next twelve months he enjoyed more than 200 free room nights completely at her expense. She was so happy with all the free coverage that he gave the brand, that she put him and his entire family up for a two-week, all-expenses-paid vacation at the company’s flagship hotel in Hong Kong. All meals included, unlimited bar tab, limo, everything. It must have been the holiday of a lifetime. As for me, I can remember turning up at the Shangri La in Beihia, and it was a worn-out shell of a state-owned enterprise dump that had yet to be renovated. I took one look at the place and decided to pay for a guest house in town out of my own pocket instead.
What’s your fascination with things like the ancient tea-horse routes or opium trails?
I was very lucky working for Frommers’, as the editor encouraged me to explore and find new places. She gave me a freedom that most other guidebook writers did not enjoy. If you work for Lonely Planet, you have to cover the three must see sites, the three most popular eateries and three of the most well-known hotels. They cover so much that there simply is not room for anything else.
With Frommers, I had much more autonomy. For example, the first edition that I did they asked me to go and cover the up-and-coming destination of Hainan. It was so disappointing that I told them if they insisted that I go back, I would not be doing another edition for them. Fortunately, they agreed.
I was fascinated by the real history of China, not the propaganda that the official guides had to memorise in tourism school. I knew that there were stories that were being suppressed, fascinating takes of history and adventure that deserved to be told. The Opium Trails was a great example. For hundreds of years opium has been the main cash crop in Southern China, and much of the North too. Not only was in popular domestically as a recreational drug, but it was also exported to feed the habits of all the coolies that worked in the Chinese enclaves that existed all over Southeast Asia and beyond. So much of it was grown by the greedy landlords that it often led to regional famines and conflict. When the Communists took over, they changed the names of most cities, but if you start looking at the old records, you soon see that opium was the key commodity of the domestic economy. In Kunming alone, there were more than 120 opium distilleries.
How do you feel as a guidebook writer knowing later others will use your expertise to make it easier, but also that it might change a place?
Nowhere stays the same forever. Brigadoon is not real. Everywhere changes, whether I write about or not. In fact, it would be incredibly arrogant of me to assume that I can do anything alter the vector of a specific location. I agree that tourism can cause irreparable damage to pristine environments, but that is a problem that is caused by the many flaws of capitalism, not by me writing about it. To be honest, most of the very best places that I ever discovered are still relatively unknown even by the most adventurous travellers. For a while I did consider keeping them a secret, but I soon realised that was completely pointless. The real damage is caused by mass tourism, not by a few adventurous backpackers trying to get off the beaten path. From what I have seen, even the most remote locations were pillaged and plundered long before I was even born. Occasionally, I would find a remnant of what existed before, but it is usually just a brief glimpse of what was there previously.
How have you managed to stay at the cutting edge of ideas, new places, trends etc?
I love to read old guidebooks that have long been out of print. One time, I found an eighties paperback that had been compiled by a couple of overseas language students who wanted to explore the provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou during their summer vacation. Much of what they had written was tips on how to avoid the local authorities and visit places that were usually off limits to foreigners. Back in those days, nearly everywhere was forbidden and those two guys seemed to have spent half their holiday being escorted onto buses by local policemen who really did not want them to be there. Their explorations were long before the first Lonely Planet, and so their guidebook was filled with places that I never heard of before. This is the main problem with guidebooks. They establish well-travelled routes, which then receive so much traffic that everywhere else is usually ignored, even if the places recommended in the book have gone so far downhill that they are hardly worth considering any more.
I was always on the lookout for new places that I had never heard of. Whenever I arrived in a new town, the first place that I would check out was the local Xinhua bookstore. In the days before mobile phone and even owning a GPS device was completely illegal and likely to get you arrested as a spy, locally printed maps were always a treasure trove of information. Libraries are few and far between in rural China, but everywhere has a state-owned bookstore that disseminates all the government propaganda and school textbooks.
Sometimes I would really on local expertise. I remember one time I was travelling through Yunnan with a really glamorous Shanghai socialite. I think that she was slumming it with me, probably to enrage her parents. While we were in Kunming, she insisted on visiting one of the most expensive hairdressers in town for a suitably elegant coiffure. I asked her to quiz the head stylist on the trendiest new restaurants in town, and he gave us some amazing leads. One of the best was an amazingly innovative new place that had set up shop in what was previously a retail outlet for the local, state-owned Chinese medicine factory. It was full-on oriental apothecary in style, wall-to-wall with all those tiny wooden drawers that they used to store all the herbs and tinctures inside. The menu was a bamboo pot full of temple shaker sticks, the kind that are used by Chinese fortune tellers. You shake the sticks and depending on what falls out they tell you your future. In this case, we shook the sticks in order to decide what to order. All the food had medicinal ingredients like Lion’s Mane mushroom, gingko nuts and goji berries. It was a unique experience, that I would never have found by myself. Sometimes, insider information is essential.
How glamorous is being a travel writer and how does the reality compare with the perception?
As I explained before with regard to my friend from Rough Guides and all his free comps, it can be extremely glamorous. I imagine that if you are working for the New York Times and writing about the Caribbean, it must be a non-stop life of luxury. If, on the other hand you are out in the back of beyond in rural China, working for an English language guidebook in a place where absolutely zero percent of the population speaks any English, it is more of a challenge. In a place like China, in terms of finding interesting places, you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs before you ever meet any princes. Unfortunately, I can never be absolutely sure of that fact until I had actually been there and had a good look around for myself.
There again, some of the most spectacular discoveries come from the most uncomfortable conditions. The further you get away from civilisation, the more unspoiled the nature becomes, but the harder the travel becomes. I can remember spending endless hours in a horribly cramped minibus to reach a remote one-donkey mountain village that probably had barely changed in the last five hundred years. The accommodation would have been considered hardship conditions even by Mary and Joseph. There was no heating, the bed was carved into the bare rock and the toilet was a couple of planks over the adjoining pig sty. Despite all of this, the terrain was some of the most spectacular karst that I have ever seen, ancient stone staircases cut directly into the side of the mountains surrounded by vistas straight out of a Tolkien epic poem.
What’s the process of writing for you? How do you find topics or get ideas?
I try to keep abreast of interesting new developments by dipping into a wide as range of media as possible. Fortunately, this is easier than ever with the modern internet. I especially like websites that have very active comments sections, where people express a wide range of opinions and add valuable insights to the original article.
It is only when you dig into sites that have very active comments sections that you start to get some contrary opinions and interesting leads to follow up. Reddit is obviously one of the most useful resources, while Youtube videos have by far the most comments.
I recently watched a video about the future of resin 3D printers, and the presenter asked his viewers to share their thoughts on the way that that the industry was heading in the comments. The result was a selection a very knowledgeable individuals offering some very valuable insights that would have been difficult to find anywhere else. Good videos can often have thousands of individual comments and so in that case, I find that it is always good to sort them by the most replies received. That way you can start with the most active conversations and avoid all the mundane monosyllabic comments.
I recently found an interesting website called Exploding Topics. They have a regular newsletter where they highlight the most searched for trending topics on Google. Most of them are quite obscure but it is still interesting what is going viral before it hits the mainstream.
With subjects that I am especially interested in, I will do a regular Youtube search every month or so and sort the results by date uploaded. This way I can see all the latest content since I last searched and see for myself what is trending. For example, I regularly search for new 3D printing related videos, and recently discovered that the field of 3D musical instruments is suddenly taking off. Some wind instruments, such as clarinets can be extremely expensive, often requiring rare tropical hardwoods and craftsman engineering for all of the finger controls. Seeing and hearing some of the 3D printed versions showed me that the technology is rapidly catching up, and it probably will not be long before we see the very first entirely 3D printed orchestras. A 3D printed violin might not sound like a Stradivarius, but open-source designs are being improved on all the time and are vastly reducing the cost of entry for any aspiring musicians.
The general media is slowly being eviscerated and they simply have not got the resources to cover all the interesting stories out there. Even with the field of 3D printing, there are so many new areas opening up. Mainstream media cannot be expected to cover niche topics such as 3D printed firearms, 3D printed clockwork mechanisms or 3D printed crossbows, but all of these are making very rapid advancements and are fascinating subjects to watch develop.
What satisfaction do you get from being an expert in your many fields, getting positive reviews, gaining acknowledgement?
I am not sure it is possible to really become an expert these days, especially when so many fields are advancing so rapidly. It is good to try and keep an overview over a broad range of topics. Anyway, that is where the most interesting breakthroughs come from. From people in different fields making imaginative connections between topics that would otherwise seem completely unrelated. Hopefully, one day I will be able to make one of those world-changing cross-fertilisations that nobody else had ever considered before.
How vital are language skills, contacts, connections and your own drive to help find the latest?
The world has become such a huge place that I am not sure that personal networks are really of all that much value as they were in the past. If anything, I would say that social media is a distinct disadvantage in this sense. It is too much of distraction and too often becomes an echo chamber. Look at Wechat in China for example. Everybody is separated out into their little special interest groups which really makes it difficult to get an accurate view of the bigger picture. It is for this reason that I choose not to have a phone, and I notice that slowly, more and more people are starting to see the advantages of this choice. Not many at the moment, admittedly, but I recently found out that both Alan Moore and Andy Hamilton both choose not to have mobiles. These are two great examples of amazing writers, and so I am tempted to believe that I am following the right path.
How do you stay disciplined for your writing?
My last job in China was as the director of Marketing with a Chinese travel agency. The Chinese owner had very little clue of what was involved in the creation of quality content. Towards the end of my contract, she signed a contract that would have required me to write about 400,000 words in a matter of months. In the end, the project never came to fruition, but for a for weeks, I found myself under enormous pressure and realised that I was quite capable of writing 10,000 words per day, something that I would never have dreamed possible previously. I would not like to have to maintain that kind of output on a regular basis, but it is very useful to know that you can do it when push comes to shove.
These days, I like to get at least a thousand words out of the way first thing in the morning before I check my email or get sucked into Reddit. This gives me a sense of achievement early in the day and means that I can be more productive for the rest of the day.
How has the guidebook industry changed from the days of Lonely Planet/Frommers to now in the digital age?
On-line Travel Agencies such as Agoda, Tripadvisor and Booking.com killed the guidebook publishing industry stone dead. I hear that there are still a few Lonely Planet guidebooks being published, but they do not really count, as that company never paid a decent living wage in the first place. I read that that the brand has been sold twice in the last couple of years and are now a major money sink. Unfortunately, the OTAs are no better, and in many ways much worse. Having worked in the travel industry for such a long and having experienced all the tricks that hotels and travel agencies get up to, I would estimate that at least 90% of TripAdvisor reviews are fakes. They might not be paid for in cash, but are usually part of some quid pro quo deal, like a kind of insider trading within the hospitality industry. The remaining 10% that might be genuine are usually for the most popular, well-travelled places that everybody already knows about. The end result is that there are plenty of reviews of five-star business hotels that are paid for with points or exchanged air miles, but hardly anybody is going out finding new routes, and discovering new places.
The other main problem is the fact that the OTAs charge 20% or 30% per booking which has put huge financial pressure on a lot of the smaller accommodations. Admittedly, this was also partly true for Lonely Planet. In any location, the three places that got included in the book usually had more business than they could handle, while everybody else struggled to find customers. The OTAs have only made the situation far worse and have caused endless numbers of smaller operations to simply give in and shut up shop completely.
Still, what grates me most about about the OTAs is that they did away with one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Anybody that was paid to be a professional travel writer literally had their dream job. I am all for automating as many of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs out of existence as possible, but why do away with the most exciting jobs on the planet, just so that another Internet company can improve its bottom line by a few bucks? The demise of the paid guidebook writer is the end of an era, amazing job opportunities that future generations will never even know existed.
How different is factual writing from writing fiction?
Writing fiction is far more difficult because you need to be constantly creating an original storyline. Either you need to be a natural born storyteller, or you need to do a lot of drugs. I have been working on a solar punk novel for many years now but it requires much more effort than non-fiction. Rather than repackaging facts, you have you come up with truly novel ideas and then back them up with believable facts anyway, which makes it at least twice the work of producing non-fiction. Some of the more prolific novelists seem to be able to channel stories from another dimension. I remember reading that Robert E Howard, for example, would just sit down at the typewriter and the character of Conan the Barbarian would just flow out of him, like he was possessed by some literary spirit. Only very occasionally have I had that kind of experience, but I sure wish it was something that I could turn on and off at will. Now I understand why so many fiction writers struggle with writer’s block. At least when you are writing about real world facts for a work of non-fiction, you can always go out and do some more research. It is really frustrating when you are halfway through a fictional plot line and suddenly the inspiration just dries up and will not come back.
What is travel like post-Covid? What have been the best places you’ve lived in, and where are you now?
Honestly, I have not yet done any post Covid travel. It is still too much hassle to consider at the moment and anyway, I am lucky that I have spent the lock downs in a very pleasant Thai beach resort, and I could not have been more comfortable if I had tried.
As for the best places that I have lived, well I always found that tourist locations were a better bet than solely industrial or commercial centres. Tourist towns are usually popular with good reason, and as long as you find one that is not too developed, then they are often quite affordable. Obviously, this does not apply to the Bahamas or Tahiti or Monte Carlo. While I was living up in the Himalayas, I would often bump into fellow guidebook writers who were there on vacation, but who like me had chosen to live full time in one of their favourite discoveries. I met an Australian who had relocated to Thimphu in Bhutan, a Kiwi that was living up on the terraces of Ubud above Bali, and a couple who were enjoying the high life in Hong Kong. This was shortly after the handover but still long before the descent into despair, back when Hong Kong was still a world class city.
What was interesting was that most guidebook writers would choose to settle somewhere that had been a highlight in their travels, and that these places were often far more attractive than any of the places that you see in these entirely fabricated Top Ten Places to Retire articles. The only exception was the Lonely Planet writer who was compiling the latest China edition. It turned out that he lived in Ulan Bataar of all places, the capital of Inner Mongolia. It turned out that he had married a Mongolian girl and that is why he was stuck in Bataar.
These days, there are far fewer places to choose from than before. Most countries have clamped down on long term visas, and the end of the globalisation era will see far fewer long-term expats than I have experienced in my lifetime. A worldwide wave of fear and xenophobia prevails all over and the only foreigners that are welcome are those with huge amounts of disposable cash, even though they often end up wrecking the housing market and the economy for the locals.
I was very lucky to experience as much travel as I did, and it is sad to see that current generations will not have the same opportunities. When I was young it was easy to travel and find work as an English teacher or in the tourist industry, but those days have rapidly come to a close, and in the future, I think that if you really want to travel to exotic climes, you will probably have to go with the military as part of an invasion force.
How about air travel in the age of climate change? Is it better to view documentaries?
Oh yes, definitely. I gave up flying in the early part of my writing career, but I was lucky in that I had plenty of time to travel, and so going everywhere by boat and train was an adventure that I could justify. These days the new cost of flying is so prohibitive that it is going to be restricted mainly to the very wealthy from now on. The good news is that you can explore many of the most amazing parts of the world through travel documentaries. When I was young, we were lucky to see the occasional show about the rain forest or the outback, but these days, there are amazing films of some of the most remote places on the planet. These guys that jet around the globe with the aim of visiting every single country on the planet, honestly make me sick. What utterly narcissistic excess, when you can now travel all the way around the globe from the comfort of your very own armchair!
What future travel plans do you have?
Not many at the moment. Covid has put pay to just about everything and it looks like we are entering into a global recession that will make travel expensive and difficult for a long time to come. Still, there were not all that many places left on my bucket list anyway. It is ironic that most of the places that I really wanted to tick off were locations that most people had either never heard of or would never dream of actually visiting. For example, Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, has been at the very top of my list for a long time now, and yet the UK government only considers it a place to forcibly deport unwelcome refugees. In truth, Kigali was one of the fastest developing cities in Africa, attracting lots of high-tech investment and with a wonderfully cool climate and beautiful countryside. Admittedly, it was not ideal when it came to democracy and freedom of speech. I really wanted to experience the urban chaos and incredible opportunities of Lagos in Nigeria.
I always wanted to see the Tepuis of Venezuela, and I always fancied the idea of living in one of those medieval tower blocks in Sana’a in Yemen. Unfortunately, more and more of these places are now becoming off limits to even the most intrepid of travellers, and so maybe I will have to wait until my next life before I get chance to experience their charms.
The good news is that life in Thailand is really not so bad.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
There is good money to be made on Amazon, but only if you approach writing as a business. This means putting in long hours and hard work when you are getting started. It means having a wide selection of attractive products for your potential customers to choose from and making sure that they are up to date and relevant. I took all the unique experience that I built in Guangzhou and created the world’s only guidebook to the city and its hundreds of specialist wholesale markets. Unfortunately, as soon as the Chinese economic miracle began to grind to a halt, so did my sales. Although I had recommendations from embassies, consulates and chambers of commerce, I could not get any official backing at all from the local government or tourist authorities. Then, on top of this I had to deal with assassination reviews from local tour guides and interpreters because my work was so thorough that it negatively impacted their business. Finally, Covid struck and by now, my book is probably completely out of date.
Initially it took years of adventure and exploration to compile, and now I doubt that I could ever afford to update it, even if I could get back into the country in the first place. Therefore, my advice is to try and make sure that your writing has a long shelf life. If you want to create an evergreen title that provides you with a long-term passive income, then you will need to choose your subject matter very carefully. Find a good cover designer on Fiverr or develop the necessary skills yourself. A good cover sells your work and a bad cover will quickly consign it to Amazon oblivion. Find a fellow author who will help you with proof-reading and editing. You will never catch every single spelling mistake by yourself, no matter how many times to go over your work, and this will be the first thing that readers will complain about in their reviews. Professional editors are very expensive, so find someone who you can share the task with.
Always be looking for new subjects to write about. Your breakthrough book will very likely be the title that you least expected to succeed, but the more you publish, the more you increase your chances of it happening.
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZor blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Rabindranath Tagore’s selected letters to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis had been published in 1938 under the title Pathe-O-Pather Prante. The sixty letters included in this volume had been personally selected by him from among the five hundred plus letters he had written to her. This volume was translated by Somdatta Mandal and included in the book ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore (Bolpur: Birutjatio Sahitya Sammilani, 2020). Selections from some of these letters had been included in borderless journal in its September 2021 issue. A few more letters have been selected here for the benefit of the readers.
Yesterday I reached the Japanese port named Moji. Tomorrow I will reach Kobe. A bird builds its nest with straw and twigs; it does not take long for it to leave that nest and go away. We build our nests mainly with things of the mind, with work, studies and thoughts and an invisible shelter starts growing around us. Just as the seat of the plane moulds itself according to the pressure and shape of the body, the mind while moving along also creates differently shaped holes, and when it sits in that hole it gets stuck there. Later when it has to leave it does not like that at all. Something like that happened to me on this ship. In this cabin there is a writing desk on one side, and a bed on the other. Apart from this, there is a chest of drawers with a mirror, a cupboard to hang clothes and an attached bathroom. After crossing these, there is another cabin where my boxes, trunks etc. are kept. Within this my mind has arranged its own furniture. Because there is little space, my shelter is very intense and every necessary item is within my reach. After getting down from here, I was in Hsu’s house in Shanghai for two days; I did not like it, it made me very tired. The main reason was that the mind did not get the measurements of the body in a new place; it was being hit on all sides and to add to that there was hospitality, welcome and chaos day in and out.
There is newness of thought and imagination everyday but the external newness tries to prevent them. We have imbibed new substances of life in their entirety and have understood that the newness exists within them. I have known for a long time that we do not have to leave them to look for something new. Like other valuable things one has to mediate to seek the new. This means you have to make it old and then attain it. If you think that you have suddenly found something, then that is not true because within a few days its actual emaciated state is revealed. Nowadays man is engrossed in securing this cheap newness and that is why he wants change at every moment. Science is helping him in this obsession for change, so he does not get the time to sink deep and search for the forever new. This is why a base knowledge from text-books has spread everywhere in the education system. No one has the time to seek the ultimate truth in its real form. This is why obscenities that affect the mind in a strong way are being found in literature. Those who lack the time and have less power find this to be a cheap means of getting quick entertainment. The mind that has grown inert and has had its life strength reduced requires strong stimulation – its roots are starving.
9 Chaitra, 1335( B.S.)
You will be surprised to know that when I was writing this letter I was feeling very sleepy. I was warding it off and progressing with my writing. Even now I have not overcome that drowsiness. But it is morning now, it is eleven o’clock – let me go and take my bath.
I have come to Tokyo last night and have put up in a famous hotel. It is not that less famous hotels are cheap or unsuitable for relaxation, but since it is my misfortune that I am also famous, I have to tolerate an equal amount of oppression. It is easy to hide in a small place, but the places to hide in this world are closed for me. Once upon a time I could not even imagine that it would be essential for me to hide from the public for self-defence. Those were the days when I was alone in the boat on the shoals of the Padma. So I haven’t developed the habit of warding off people and anyone can come and keep on pulling me. This morning when I was tired and was sitting down someone came and convinced me with a lot of words. He made me sit in a car and took me to their house inside the lane. In the end I realized that all this excitement was because they wanted to be photographed with me.
In our house we were first born amidst a simple lifestyle and were encircled by love and care from our own people. Then I was a totally private person and there was a very personal thing called a barrier. Gradually with age the relationship with the outside world started to increase. But however much it increased it had a simple measure and there was a balance between the private and the public self. Ultimately through the hands of fate my fame as an exceptional person began to grow and I became more public than I was private. The barrier which I was entitled to became insufficient now. Like an extremely ripe fruit the hard upper shell of my body has split up into seven pieces, and now any kind of bird with any sort of motive can come and peck at me and there is no one to prevent them. There is no harm if they really benefit from it. If they want to satiate their own greed through me, let them do it; but if you think about it, this creates a serious harm not only for me but also for their own selves. My heart is upset by the little demands, and I waste my strength available for doing sufficient work. Moreover, when I realize that I have become the vehicle of other people’s interests, and that those interests are trivial, then I feel reproached. I keep on wishing to return to my traditional and non-famous small house and take shelter among people who are willing to pay a price just for my existence. But at the same time I often meet people who are unknown to me, but who have accepted me within their heart even from a distance. They do not ask anything from me, do not judge me according to my fame, but accept me out of their own happiness. There is nothing more fortunate than this. This time when I was being tortured by my fellow countrymen with a cheap reception in the city of Kobe, then the wife of the English consul here came to meet me. After speaking to her a lot of my sorrow disappeared. I realized that for some people my work has been deeply successful and they do not want anything more than whatever they have received from me without my knowledge.
Today I have three invitations in Tokyo and it will extend from one o’clock in the afternoon till dinner at night. I will then travel to Yokohama by car. After that tomorrow I will have lunch with the Indians who invited me and then leave for Canada at three o’clock. After that I don’t know.
27 March, 1929.
Throughout my life I had to inwardly keep hold of a pursuit. That pursuit is to remove the veil, to keep myself far away from everything. It is the pursuit of releasing me from myself as a person. Stationing myself at one place, I often try to realize that each day this person is troubled with both sad and happy thoughts of work, which is equivalent to letting myself drift within an uncountable flow into another sphere without any fixed destination. This can be seen clearly when it is identified as an independent object, but if we try to associate and become one with it then that knowledge becomes false. I desperately need this realization and that is why I desire it so much. My mind is situated at the crossroads and all its doors are open, so all kinds of winds reach it and all kinds of guests enter the inner chambers. There is a place within man’s life which is that of pain, and all the feelings are located there. That is why only intimacy can enter it. Part of our domestic existence is to spend life with them both in pleasure and pain. Everything has to be tolerated within its limits. But my God, my jeevandebata, decided to make me a poet and that is why has kept my inner chambers unguarded. I don’t have a back door and there are main entrances on all sides. That is why both invited and uninvited people keep coming and going within my inner chambers. Therefore, the chords of the instrument of pain are always tuned to the highest pitch. If the music stops, then my own work would be left undone. I have to know the world through painful experiences; otherwise, what should I express? Unlike scientists and philosophers I do not have vast knowledge and my expression is that of my heart. Though these feelings are the tools of expression for a writer, it is necessary to leave them behind and move away. This is because if we don’t move to a distance, we are unable to perceive the whole at once and reveal it. Being too much engrossed in the world gives rise to blindness and guards the object that is to be seen. Besides this, the small object becomes large and the large one is lost. The great advantage of the domestic world is that it carries its own weight, but the small objects do become a burden. They are the most meaningless things but they create the greatest pressure. The main reason is that their weight rests upon falsehood. When the mind seems to be overwhelmed by bad dreams, it is also an illusion. If we encircle the world with that little ‘me’, then in that small world the small wears the mask of the great and creates anxiety in the mind. If whatever is really great, meaning that its boundaries cross that little ‘me’, is brought in front of the small, then the smaller one’s false intensity is dismissed and shrinks into littleness. Then one feels like laughing at what causes one to cry. That is why removing the big ‘me’ from my life becomes the greatest thing to pursue; and if that is done, the greatest insult to our existence is lost. The humiliation of existence is to live in a small cage that befits birds and animals. In this cage called ‘myself’ we are tied and beaten up, and that becomes a useless burden. That is why it is essential for Rabindranath to seat Rabindranath Tagore at least at a distance: otherwise, he gets to be humiliated by himself at every step. The sorrow of death brings in stoicism, and I have felt the freedom of stoicism several times, but the real stoicism is brought about by accepting the great truth. There is greatness within me and he is the observer; what is small within me is the consumer. If both of them are combined, then the pleasure of vision is destroyed and the happiness of consummation is spoilt. If you keep pushing your work externally like a pushcart then it moves smoothly, but if you carry that pushcart on your shoulders then you get exhausted. I have taken up a work called Visva-Bharati, and it becomes simpler if I don’t bear the burden and dissociate it from myself. A work is either a success or a failure depending upon the circumstances but if it does not touch ‘myself’ then that work brings in freedom for itself and also for me. Our greatest prayer to the one who is the greatest is asato ma sadgamayo (take me away from whatever is false and lead me towards eternal truth). How will this prayer be successful? If His arrival within me is complete, if I see Him truly within me, then the torture of that ‘me’ can also be pacified.
I don’t know when you will receive this letter. I will be happy if you receive it on your birthday. If you don’t get it there will not be much harm in stretching your birthday by another day. It is not possible always to express all the innermost thoughts but they have to be spoken for the sake of myself. That is why I wrote this letter on the occasion of your birthday; because freedom is the main mantra of every birth, and it is freedom from darkness to light.
6 Kartick, 1336 (B.S.)
I am writing this letter to you from Copenhagen, after having fallen into a whirlwind that does not let me pause even for a while. I am moving along garnering knowledge about strangers, but there is no time to store that knowledge. Moreover, I have a forgetful mind, and there is no lock and key in the storehouse of my memory. As soon as something accumulates, instantly something else comes and replaces it. Some just sink in, some get distorted and become hazy. I do not of course consider this to be a complete loss – if you cannot discard then you cannot earn; if you have to store it then you will have to sit firmly without any movement. For a long time, I have constantly ridden the chariot of my mind from one road to another and did not have the time to lock it up in the garage. Instead of fame, I would have found a lot of things if I had gone and sat firmly at the entrance of the museum. Just think of this simple fact: If I had the intelligence to remember everything then at least I would have passed all my examinations and could have left with pride by saluting the world and by gathering accolades. If I want to speak about something, I cannot quote references and so in intellectual gatherings I try to overcome the deficiencies of my education by covering them up naively with my own talk. Since I cannot think of paraphrases and parallel passages in seminars where poetry is being discussed, I try to retain my prestige by composing poems myself. I can clearly visualize that you are reading this and laughing out loudly both physically and also in your mind. You are saying that it is just empty politeness, a bundle of pride. There is no way out. Due to societal norms one can truly praise others but not oneself. So one has to praise oneself in the mind and instead of reduction it leads to more sin. The fact is that once you come abroad from your homeland your self-glorification becomes enhanced a great deal. Someone who doesn’t even have the fortune of having cold water is suddenly given champagne. Then I feel like calling your professors and telling them, ‘O, you masters! Don’t make the sudden mistake of considering me as your student. Don’t mark the papers that I have written in the same way as you mark your examination scripts, because they are demanded by the professors here.’ You know that by nature I am very polite but my tutors at home have beaten me to make me feel proud. This is why I often feel ashamed in my mind. But let me tell you the truth. I have received a lot of fame and respect, but even then my mind always looks across the Indian Ocean. Khuku has written from Santiniketan, “Yesterday there were heavy showers and this morning the sunshine is like liquid gold.” These words were like the sudden touch of a golden wand. My mind became agitated; it said, all right, this is acceptable. I will go to those teachers again. If they make me stand up on the bench, then at least that ray of sunlight like liquid gold will come in through the open window and fall upon my brow and that will be my prize. In the meantime the letters of Bhanusingha have been published once again and I have received them. The letters are full of the monsoon clouds and autumn sunshine of Santiniketan. Reading the letters in such a far off country makes them even clearer. For a brief while I forgot where I was. What a vast difference! The difference between what is good here and what is good there is like the difference between the music here and there. European music is big and strong and varied. It emanates from the victory of men; its sound resonates from all sides and creates a great impact on the heart. We have to congratulate it. But the raga that comes out from the flute of the shepherd in our country, it calls my lone mind to accompany him on the path which is full of shadows from bamboo groves, where the village belle walks with a pitcher full of water at her waist, the doves call from the branches of the mango trees and from a distance the special song of the boatman can be heard. All these excite the mind and blur the vision with a few unnecessary teardrops. They are extremely ordinary and that is why they can easily find a place in our minds. The letter which I wrote on that day seems to be written for today. But there is no way for me to revoke my reply. That day’s post office is closed. So let me end this letter with a deep sigh. I have several engagements and many other things before me.
8 August, 1930.
There is a word prevalent in Bengali called ‘Samoyik Patra’ that means periodicals. But there is no way by which we can hold back time and send them through letters. I do not know when the news of my painting exhibition in Germany reached you and now I got to know from your letter that all of you did not get the news at all. So probably the time for receiving the news is also over. On the other hand, my trip to Germany will be over today and I will go to Geneva tomorrow. Even before you receive this letter you must have already heard the news that my paintings have been received quite well in Germany. The National Gallery in Berlin has taken five of my paintings. I hope you understand the impact of this news. If Lord Indra suddenly sent his horse Ucchaishraba to take me to heaven, then I could compete with my own pictures. But I don’t know why I am not excited about discussing these things. Maybe there is some hidden hostility in my mind, and so there is almost no relation between my country and my paintings. When I write poems then an emotional link is automatically created with the message of Bengal. But when I paint the lines or the colours, they do not come with the identity of any particular state. So they belong to those who like them. Just because I am a Bengali does not automatically turn it into a Bengali thing. This is why I have eagerly donated these pictures to the West. The people of my country probably have come to know that I am not a special category of a human being and so in their mind they have been antagonized towards me. They do not feel any qualms of conscience about saying bad things about me. Let my paintings prove that I am not a hundred percent Bengali but belong equally to Europe as well.
I visited many places which I had known earlier and also delivered lectures there. But unlike my last trip, this time I have entered the inner spirit of Germany. I have come closer to them. Not that they have sufficient love for nationalism in the world, but by being rejected by other races of Europe, they have become strong nationalists in their hearts. Of course I cannot understand why they have a special liking for me. Whatever it might be, they have extraordinary strength, great intelligence and also the capacity to make all things equal. I feel that no other European race has so much strength in all aspects. I understand why France cannot get over the terror of Germany. These people are extremely irascible. After the nudge of poverty their strength has increased many-fold.
The enthusiasm for world nationalism has been brought forward in Geneva. The right tune has not been played in the League of Nations – it may not be played at all – but on its own that city has become the epicentre of the whole world. Those who believe in the unity of the world will automatically come and get united here. In that case I believe that a great power for the welfare of the world has been inaugurated here.
After planning to leave for quite some time, the day of my departure has ultimately come near. It has been almost one year. I liked it as long as I was in Europe. After reaching America my mind got suppressed and my health was also affected. The external world in America is too bold, aggressive and restless and so after being continuously shaken up, a sort of stoicism creeps in. I am in that condition now, and for quite some time have become eager to get some shelter within my inner self. After many incidents my mind had become outward-oriented, and the truth of the self was growing rusty without use. It was during this period that I came to America and saw how man has tried to develop his society with unnecessary failures. They have decorated rubbish with the glamour of wealth and spend their days and night behind them, thus creating an indecent burden upon the world. Within all this crass materialism, when the mind becomes restless the eternal longings within man express themselves. Just as cows are herded together to be taken back to their shelter in the evening, in a similar way I am calling my scattered self to return to the deep recesses of the mind. Maybe a shadow of the evening has descended on the late afternoon of my life and the strength of my mind, which had disseminated my endeavours in different kinds of work to the outside world, is also coming to an end. The guard at the entrance of the mansion has already rung the bell signalling that the main door will be closed, and so we cannot do without lighting a lamp in the andarmahal – the inner chambers.
I haven’t written anything for a long time and I don’t feel the urge to do so. This means that the power of expression has also reached the end; it doesn’t have any extra portion in its coffers and therefore easily stop all dues from the outside world. I am not feeling bad about it. If the fruit starts growing inside, then there is no loss if the petals of the flower fall down.
I shall begin my journey on the 9th of January in the ship called Narkanda (P&O) and will reach home at the end of the month.
29 December, 1930.
 Hsu-Tse Mu, Professor of Literature at the National University, Peking. In 1924 he had accompanied the poet during his China tour as an interpreter. [Mukhopadhyay, Rabindrajiboni, Vol.III, p. 166].
 Khuku was the nickname of Amita Sen, a noted Rabindrasangeet singer; Rabindranath adored her. She joined Sangeet Bhavan as a teacher but died very young.
 Rabindranath wrote a series of letters to a young girl called Ranu Adhikari. He signed the letters as ‘Robi Dada’ or sometimes as ‘Bhanu Dada’ which was the penname of the poet as Bhanusingha.
About the book: Pathe O Pather Prante (On the Road and Beyond It) included in ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis and Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific letter writer and Rani Mahalanobis is the only person to whom he wrote more than five hundred letters, the maximum number written to any individual person. In 1938, in the third volume of the series entitled “Patradhara”, Rabindranath selected sixty letters written at different periods of time to her. This he titled Pathe O Pather Prante and it was published from Visva-Bharati Publications Department in Kolkata.
Incidentally, we find the first ten letters of this series as a supplement to the narrative where Rani’s memoir Kobir Shonge Europey ends in 1926. Since it was published much later, Rani has also included some of these letters in her memoir. The rest of the letters selected from those written up to 1938 describe various moods of the Poet for a period of twelve years. They include philosophical musings, his observations on the changing of seasons, news about the incidents and functions taking place in Santiniketan during Rani’s absence, and especially his views on his new-found interest in sketching and painting. In other words, unlike those written to Indira Devi and Ranu Adhikari, these letters are interesting because they cover multifarious topics and issues and reveal the Poet’s tone of intimacy with Rani. As per Prashantakumar Pal’s biography,
Rani Mahalanobis used to suffer from a sort of non-infectious tuberculosis, so for her fever was almost a regular affair. Naturally Rabindranath would get worried – he would suggest different medicines – and write innumerable long letters, which according to him would help Rani forget some of her physical ailments. (Rabijibani, vol.IX, p.297. Translation mine)
The sixty letters included in this volume also vary in length. Some are quite short, while others are lengthy. Again some of the letters are dated with the Bengali month and year, whereas others are dated according to the English calendar. A few of the letters do not have any dates at all. Also some of them seem quite sketchy, and do not have the usual beginning, middle or end. The reason for this becomes clear when we get to know that Tagore had drastically edited several sections of these letters, especially places which revealed his innermost self.
About the author:
Rabindranath Tagore (1861 to 1941) was a brilliant poet, writer, musician, artist, educator – a polymath. He was the first Nobel Laureate from Asia. His writing spanned across genres, across global issues and across the world. His works remains relevant to this day.
About the translator:
Somdatta Mandal is Former Professor of English at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. A recipient of several prestigious fellowships and awards, her areas of interest are American Literature, contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, Diaspora studies and translation. She has edited three volumes of travel writing —Indian Travel Narratives(2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), and Indian Travel Narratives: New Perspectives (2021) and has translated from Bengali to English different kinds of Indian travelogues, with special focus on men and women in colonial times. Among them are: The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose (2010), Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family (2014), which records vignettes of travel by nineteen members of the Tagore family spanning more than 150 years, A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das, which is the first woman’s travel narrative from Bengal published in 1885(2015), Crossing Many Seas(2018) by Chitrita Devi, Gleanings of the Road (2018) by Rabindranath Tagore, and The Journey of a Bengali Woman to Japan and Other Essays (2019) by Hariprabha Takeda. Two other translated volumes on Rabindranath Tagore have been published recently, ‘Kobi’ and ‘Rani’: Memoirs and Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobisand Rabindranath Tagore (2020) and The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs (2021).