Interview by Vicki Mayk
Kevin Oderman had recently returned from a trip to Italy when I interviewed him for Hippocampus – an appropriate segue to discussing his recently released book Cannot Stay: Essays on Travel. Released in July by Etruscan Press, the book – Oderman’s fifth – is a collection of essays that explore not just where he traveled, but why. Oderman, who teaches creative writing at West Virginia University and the Wilkes University low-residency graduate creative writing program, is a frequent traveler. Twice he has lived abroad as a Fulbright Fellow. He taught Modern American Poetry as a Senior Lecturer at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, and subsequently American literature to M.A. students at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan. He has written two expatriate novels, Going, set in Grenada, and White Vespa, set in Greece, the latter also published by Etruscan. His first collection of essays, How Things Fit Together, won the Bakeless Prize in nonfiction.
Vicki: What drew you to write about travel – other than the fact you travel quite a bit?
Kevin Oderman: This was a way for me to put together something that was more coherent in terms of subject matter. I hope that was a good move. And one of the reasons I decided to write travel was that I found travel writing very formulaic. There are great books about travel that don’t hue to a formula, but in general they do. And something like Conde Nast Traveler and travel magazines are a little bit like country songs. Like my brother says, you can sing along the first time you hear them.
People who see “Essays On Travel” may be expecting something like what you read in a travel magazine. The book is really about your personal experiences and the self-discovery that grows out of travel.
Every experience in travel is a personal experience. Every time you step outside the personal when you write about travel, then you’re creating something that is quite artificial. I was aware of what you’re saying – and that’s why I put “Essays about Travel” and insisted on the word essays before travel on the back of the book. For me, travel is both about self-discovery and getting a fix on our own culture. I mean, I’m a very respectful traveler. I’m going to learn other, better ways of being alive in the world. And I think that very often if you’re just in America and you’re just knocking about here, you’re in the American trance. If you get outside of that trance, you realize much of your experience is being pre-formulated by our culture. But there are other ways of being in the world. They’re not necessarily better ways or worse ways, but you come to see our way of being in the world as provisional and not the best, really.
The experiences that you write about are not about typical sightseeing. Is that deliberate?
I think it’s important for me to travel with an interest — and an interest that’s not chosen because I’m writing about it. I started doing less traveling when I realized some of my trips were being taken to write about them. I wasn’t really comfortable with that. But if you go with a specific interest, you’ll have a different kind of experience. I traveled to India since I wrote this book. I went there to see Theyyem trance dancing in which the dancers assume different personalities. They’re inhabited by the gods they’re representing. They’re in a deep trance, and it’s really quite remarkable. So I was going there for that. I’d be getting up in the middle of the night, going in a tuk tuk down a little jungle road three feet wide to arrive at a temple or someone’s house just before dawn or after dark, and there would be these amazing dances. Any real interest will poke you through the tourist bubble and take you out of the world that’s created to meet tourists.
The visual arts are an interest that influences your travel in a number of these essays. Your essay about Cambodia begins with a piece of art that inspired you to visit there. Can you talk about that?
It is supremely beautiful – that piece of sculpture in the Sackler (Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.) I think in that case, there’s a useful contrast between the serenity of that (sculpture’s) smile and the events before I went to Cambodia. In Cambodia, you still had people associated with the Khmer Rouge walking around with these demonic faces. That was just huge from a writing standpoint, the useful contrast in the beauty and the history of what happened there. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been there but it was a disturbing experience in many ways and at the same time so beautiful. Here, we have our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we may know someone who was killed there. In Cambodia, every person knows someone who was killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Speaking of photos: One thing you talk about in the book is about how taking photographs often keeps the world at bay for a traveler. Yet you took the cover photo of a Buddhist priest at Angkor Wat and there are other photos in the book
First let me address the photos in the book. The photographs that are in there are grainy black and white photographs. They are an homage to W. G. Sebald’s writing. He used these kinds of photographs in quite evocative ways. I just wanted to pay my respects in some way. But for sure, cameras normalize your experience when traveling. I think Annie Dillard addresses this in her essay “Total Eclipse.” It’s not frightening to look at a total eclipse through a view finder. But I think you can also use a camera to see. It can be like the practice of somebody who draws. But drawing is probably a much better way to see the world, because you look and look and look again. Oftentimes when I take photographs now, I just see it and take the picture and then I move on. When I was taking photographs then, I had a very expensive camera and a zoom lens. And now I just use my phone. I find I seldom look at my photos after I take them.
Can we talk about your writing process while you’re traveling? Do you keep a journal and do you write about the places while you’re there?
I have written some things pretty close to an event, but I don’t think that’s the best way to operate. If you want to write about your experience of travel, most of the experience of travel is in memory. And memory performs its own alchemy on your experience. I think it’s good to let that happen. That’s the way we know it, in the past. Sometimes when I’ve been traveling, I’m writing about another place when I’m in a new place. I really like to write when I’ve traveling. I don’t keep journals. If I go to a place where I’m going to be for two or three weeks – which is my preferred way of travel – I’ll identify a writing café or perhaps two. And I’ll usually spend my morning in those cafes, eating breakfast and sometimes eating lunch, writing away about something. I might be writing fiction rather than a travel essay.
Mortality is a theme in the book. Has travel made you more aware of your mortality?
I am a person who’s very conscious of mortality. Intentionally even. It’s sort of like a memento mori: certainly keeping your mortality in mind improves the decisions you make day to day. You’re less likely to fritter away your life on things that, in light of your own mortality, seem silly. I don’t expect to be lying on my deathbed saying I wished I watched more TV.
We’re here in this world and then we’re not. We’re doing that all the time when we’re traveling. We’re passing through and then we’re not there. That place goes on perfectly fine without us. One of the striking things I noticed was about time and it’s mentioned in this book. I noticed it in the essay about the Baltics, “White Amber:” You’re passing through and in your memory, that place will remain what it was when you were passing though. If it was fall, it will always be fall for you.
The line in the essay about Corsica from which the title of the book is taken seems to echo that awareness of mortality and transience. You’re writing about the old buildings alongside the tourist establishments. Why are the old buildings saying to tourists “cannot stay?”
Because of their antiquity. You know you’re walking by something that was there centuries before you and will likely be there for centuries after. You’re passing through. Everyone’s impermanent. It’s also a line in a song that Eddie Vedder sings with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, “The Long Road,” on the soundtrack for the film “Dead Man Walking.” That’s really stayed with me. I also like the title because it makes a link to my novel Going.
Do you have travel writers whose work you admire?
My influences, such as they are, are not in travel writing. However, William Dalrymple is a fascinating travel writer and a great travel writer. He was a student at Cambridge and he was waiting for the results of his exams and went over to India and he stayed. And then I found he had also written a book about traveling around to Christian sites in the Middle East. But he’s coming at it in a completely different way. He’s writing out of a fund of knowledge. There’s a lot of explaining going on. He can write history with terrific fluidity and make it interesting in a way I never could. I’m kind of an ignorant traveler. I have a certain mindset that I bring to the world that I hope is not unintelligent.
Is there something in particular that you hope readers will take away from your book?
I suppose we all like to have influence. A literary influence. I’d like to encourage other kinds of travel writing besides what appears in glossies. And I’d like to encourage people to attend to the nature of their own travels….It’s interesting to me that almost everyone wants to travel and we’ve lived in a time when it’s practical for people in the middle class. We can make it happen.