A frequent pitfall of travel writing is the dull “I-did-this-then-I-did-that” diary narrative.
In other words, since I was there, the journey must be all about me.
So I was struck when I read This Is Paradise by Suzanne Strempek-Shea, which manages to escape the dual tyrannies of chronology and narcissism that commonly afflict writing about travel. Though the author travels to Malawi, Ireland, and the Eastern States Exposition near the author’s home in western Massachusetts, there’s nary an “I” to be found. Just a cold, clear eye, observing, reporting details: an old African woman “with gaps in her line of teeth, [who] wears a pink T-shirt that proclaims ‘Thank God I’m Cute.'” Or the fact that in Malawi female breasts are “often displayed as casually as an elbow.”
This Is Paradise tells the remarkable life story of an Irishwoman, Mags Riordan, whose son Billy drowns while on a trip to the country of Malawi, in Africa. In his memory, Riordan moves heaven and earth to establish a medical clinic in the remote village where her son died.
“I come from a background as a newspaper reporter,” says Strempek-Shea, who first met Riordan at a local fair. It was a fateful encounter that sparked years of research, writing, and travel. “It’s natural for me to look for stories in others, to have that radar out.”
Initially, Strempek-Shea wrote her impressions of Riordan’s story in the first person.
“I didn’t consider telling this in first person until I traveled to Malawi to follow Mags for a month,” she says. “As Mags had predicted, I was blown away by the landscape, the people, the culture, the weather, and then I saw firsthand the needs that inspired her to create the Billy Riordan Memorial Clinic. There was so much to say as that newcomer to it all that I was writing away about what I was seeing, feeling, thinking, doing.
“I began writing those “I” pieces there, and one day realized that wasn’t what I was there to do. This wasn’t a story about me. It wasn’t a story about the outsider watching someone do some astounding things. I was here to tell that woman’s story. I could take my wonderment about being in a new place and situation into essays or a part of some other story down the line, and I probably will at some point. But this book needed to be about her.” So as Strempek-Shea shadows Mags, we see Mags doing her daily work, adding comments here and there, but Strempek-Shea as observer and interlocutor remains invisible — for example, in a scene in which Mags recounts the story of her son Billy’s drowning on the beach where it happened:
“Somewhere one hundred yards down the beach from here,” Mags says, “he took off his shoes, took things out of his pockets — swam out there.” … She looks up at the beach. A parade of children and a scrawny dog are following a pair of white tourists, nearing the portion of the beach where Billy went for his swim. Her eyes remain there as she says, “In the morning, he wasn’t in the bed. He hadn’t even unpacked.”
At the same time as there’s no “I” in This Is Paradise, there’s very much an awareness of an authorial “eye,” or a distinct point of view. After all, any piece of travel writing is as much about the place of origin and the personality of the writer as it is about the place being visited, usually embedded in any number of tiny judgments being made about what the traveler is seeing and how the traveler is describing it. Even if we wanted to, we can’t stop ourselves from having these judgments, and maybe we shouldn’t. In fact, it is precisely these judgments that create flavor and texture in travel writing. The key is to show an awareness of them.
“We always write from our frame of reference,” says Strempek-Shea. “So I noted there were no magazines in the clinic waiting area, for one simple example, so ‘I’ am in there, but I’m not holding forth on the lack of magazines. It’s merely a detail. Because I noted that skirts are daily dress for women, that women’s breasts are all part of the landscape and no big deal, that something as simple as flip flops means you probably are connected to one of the few people who have a job and a paycheck — pointing out those things hints that the writer sees this as not what she’s used to.”
The result of this approach is a striking alternative to the typical “hero’s journey” travel narrative, in this case, a dialogue between home and destination, as well as traveler and native. The writing becomes less focused on dramatizing a single discrete experience as a set piece and instead is more open-ended, reproducing the complex and often confusing experience that is travel in real life.
One striking example of this is a recounting of a dinner Strempek-Shea had at the home of a Malawi woman named Memory. It begins:
Take a walk. Down the beach, then up one of the skinny lanes that allow beach access between properties. The path is lined with reed fences, and through them you can glimpse backyards, chickens, laundry, an open fire. Cross the main sandy lane that runs parallel to the beach and head along the left-hand side of a small brick house, where a flimsy reed gate is opened for you. Enter the home of Memory and her family.
“By removing the wide-eyed first-worlder, we are closer to Mags and her efforts,” says Strempek-Shea. “I cut out the middleman of what I thought and experienced, wove it into the underlayment, but made the main story that of Mags and those who could tell me about her, about Billy, about the village, about the clinic.”
I asked Strempek-Shea what advice she might have for writers eager to make clear their “eye” without resorting to the shopworn “I” in their travel writing.
“Be passionate about your project. If passion is driving what you’re writing about, I think your ‘eye’ will come through without going anywhere near the I.”