To kick off our new series on the art of travel writing, we asked the award-winning photographer and travel journalist B.A. Van Sise, whose new book Children of Grass was recently called “startlingly original” by Joyce Carol Oates, to share his advice on telling a story from the road.
When I was a boy, it became a monthly task for my mother to call my grandparents in Italy; it was a ritual for us, scheduled and practiced. Money then was worth roughly triple now, and phone calls to Italy were five dollars a minute, so it was truly a capital-o Occasion to crowd around our phone and make chit-chat.
It took centuries to dial the number—011-39-081-850-3179—on our green, wall-mounted rotary phone, pulling each number all the way round and watching it tick back again, and then another, and another, fifteen times. We’d listen to the dull, flat ringtone of Italian phones for a few seconds, and grandmother would answer, excited and wealthy with gossip—this uncle was having an affair, this aunt was running around on her husband, one cousin had turned a raw hand to another, and so on. Telephone comes from the Greek for hear from a distance, and we’d strain to do just that as calls were made along undersea cables sitting in the cold, dark bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, stretched all the way from our suburban New York home to Europe, and then through a series of oversea connections to their sunny spot at the end of the southern slope of Mount Vesuvius. There were constant bumping sounds on the line—as a boy, I convinced myself it was those deep sea fish, eyeless and illuminated, bonking into the undersea cables. We’d always end up shouting at each other—the voices were always muffled and remote, and the lags often so severe that the anecdotes felt downright historical. Sure, Aunt Silvana might have cheated on Uncle Bartolo, but at this point the transmission had taken so long that she might as well have done it with a pterodactyl.
Today, my cousins and I chat instantly, constantly, effortlessly, and for free, all day long at the click of a button.
Our world is growing smaller; we can now communicate with most anyone on the planet, learn from most anyone on the planet, and it’s changing us. No matter what the politics of our world might tell us, there is more that adds to us than divides us, and increasingly so; we follow the same news, experience the same triumphs and tragedies, love the same things. As I’m writing this, I’m on a 25-hour flight to the States from Mongolia, where just last week I trekked out to that remote nation’s most remote province, was then driven out four hours to meet a family of nomadic eagle hunters, and the first thing their son asked me was whether I, too, enjoyed Game of Thrones.
There is no such thing as “exotic.”
There is a habit amongst travel journalists, especially western ones, towards condescension—the qualities of any culture that differ from our own are, of course, quaint. In Peru, they eat guinea pigs! The cathedral of Cuzco has a painting of the last supper, where Christ is even eating one! Isn’t that funny? This is something one should remember when one is, say, sitting in a Queens deli, eating one’s own national food: the native food of the tribesmen of the New York archipelago is bread that’s been boiled—who boils bread?—and then baked as well to take the edge off the inedible rubberiness, before being smeared with moldy milk and raw, aged fish that’s been smoked to mask its gamey flavor. My god, one should remember, they’re so backwards.
Don’t assume. If you ask ten travel writers—as, in fact, the editor of Intrepid Times has—you’ll get seventeen different answers, but my belief is that you can’t walk into the story knowing what the story is. You find it or, more often, it comes to you. It’s not what’s in the guidebook or the Wikitravel article. If they’ve put it on a magnet, it’s not for you; if some shaggy white guy you met at that festival in Portland tells you how rad it was, it’s not the story. No matter the demands of the Instagram world, avoid the memes: when you land in Paris, when your plane sets down in Hong Kong, you’re not swamped by mimes and accordion-grinders, and no man in a conical hat toodles out to bang a gong. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the best ink put to paper about that world-changing event was not about the gunshot, the hospital, the assassin, the policemen, the succession, or his wife’s pink coat. The best story written was by an enigmatic features reporter named Jimmy Breslin, weaving the tale about the blue collar, overlooked man tasked with digging the president’s hole in Arlington. The story, when it needs to, will find you.
Tell the truth, and tell it well. E.K. Hornbeck, the fictional stand-in for H.L. Mencken in Jerome Lawrence’s 1955 play Inherit the Wind, is told by one of the politicians he criticizes that “you never pushed a noun against a verb except to blow up something.” Never, ever be afraid to blow something up—but, again, do it while telling the truth, and telling all of it. The truth isn’t offensive, and anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. Honesty is a form of respect, perhaps the highest, and if you’re going to do this, or do anything, really, find the truth in it and do it beautifully.
Go forth, and have no fear.
Top photo credit: Men, by B.A. Van Sise