||Edited by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 196567) and C. W. Truesdale
New Rivers Press, $21.95
Reviewed by Bird Cupps (Kenya 198789)
Good news! Despite the doom and gloom, despite the fact that most book news seems to involve mergers and acquisitions, despite the woe-is-me tales of editors and writers, despite all, small presses are publishing books on paper that feel good in your hands, with covers that look good on a table, and best of all, written so inventively that youll be eager to spend an afternoon lost in the pages.
Third in a series
An Inn Near Kyoto, third in a series, collects, chock-full and fat, the stories of American women abroad. Editor Truesdale tells us this is the overrun, the good stuff that wouldnt fit in the second collection, Tanzania on Tuesday. Well, bring on a fourth because the quality is high and women are still heading out of the country on jaunts long and short.
Indeed, it is the variety of experiences that makes this collection unique. Spanning four regions (Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe), the anthology ranges from first visits of tour-bus travelers to the immersion experiences of longtime residents.
Peace Corps writers
Of course, I couldn't help but look for the Peace Corps stories and found resonance in Kathleen Moores (Ethiopia 196567) selection, Returning. Her impressions of heading back to Ethiopia where she served twenty-seven years earlier stuck with me. She writes in vignettes, one vignette per place name, and the structure moves back and forth in time. The result is a travel journal cum memoir, a story about making friends and reconnecting, crossing borders and years. Nothing happens, no big climax, no big conflict, and that might be the running theme of these selections, the quality that emerges after that afternoon well spent with a big book.
As womens writing and womens travel experiences, the themes of many books on the travel essay shelf are (at last) absent. No adventure drama, no exotic for the sake of exotic, no cross and conquer themes here. Tim Cahill will have to wait for the next issue of Outside magazine. Women head out filled with worries about their safety, interested in connections, in experiences sensual. Michelle Dominique Leigh writes of the inn near Kyoto that gives the collection its title: This is a place for eating, for sleeping, for bathing a place for being. She might be speaking of the place a reader occupies with the quieter themes driving many of these stories.
Sometimes a womans worries may seem trivial, but I must only recall the 5,846 pick-up lines I heard as a Volunteer and the one incident on the road outside of Nairobi when I waved my hand desperately at passing cars, begging for a ride away from the man following and promising rape. Writers such as Joan Lindgren look straight at this reality. I am registering no fear, she writes. And then she adds, with humor, the process, trivial but crucial:
It must be because I have paid the bills and boarded the cat, filed away my identity, and survived twenty hours of flight, because I have found the building and discovered the key, and because I have navigated the strange elevator, the stares of the permanent residents, and the tricky corridor light switches. I have tracked down the place to buy milk, there next to the green grocer with his outdoor art exhibit; the woman selling fragrant coffee beans; the bakery with its succulent medias lunas; the kiosco where matches are sold. I think this is probably the exhilaration of a lizard shedding an old tail, a crab its shell.
A place is where you are
Many of the writers stay put, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for years, and there is a palpable difference in the writing. William Zinsser has written that what raises travel writing to literature is not what the writer brings to a place, but what a place brings out of the writer. Yet, time allows a writer to go deeper, to experience more intimately the day-to-day. So it is with Mary Ellen Fieweger's selection Teresa, a story about her Ecuadorian maid, a reluctant arrangement on Fiewegers part. She cites her mother's words: You make a mess, you clean it up, but Teresas promises of laundry seal a deal and Mary Ellen mitigates her liberal values through friendship. Teresas life is a drama Fieweger watches from the sidelines and only years of observing can unveil the outcome it's like a soap opera, event piling upon event, and the whole is only available to the long-time viewer. It is a perspective known to returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Best travel writing
But the best travel writing whets the appetite of the traveler, even if she never leaves her armchair, and this collection pulls you across oceans, from cities to rural lands, effectively creating the texture of place, the mysteries new places present to the foreigner, the experience of facing down your own values. These writers know how to observe. Try these lines, gleaned from several essays:
I wanted to be a portable person, . . . Rhiannon Paine
Crossing the city was like traversing a giant botanical garden: humidity and chlorophyll, laced with the hot cries of parrots. Marilyn Krysl
Womens easy curtsies, little way of shifting their back-carried babies around to nurse, and hip-swinging walks (backyard is what they called our buttocks here, and women are routinely said to have gotten something through bottom power). Andrea Benton Rushing
Women Making Sense
An Inn Near Kyoto gives you an emphasis on relationships and stories of women making sense of their lives not just through writing but through place. There is something of relief in facing unknown or unacknowledged parts of ourselves, I think, writes Deena Linett in the context of experiencing Scandinavia. Travel is perhaps like art: it nourishes the parts of us we didn't know were longing.
In early 1999 Bird Cupps returned to Kenya for the first time in ten years so she can write an essay for the fourth New Rivers anthology.