Kevin Oderman writes smart, introspective literary travel essays. In a genre fraught with issues of othering and privilege, Oderman’s writing is full of grace and an awareness of his own foreignness. He writes about place, but always from the perspective of one who is only visiting, who cannot stay.
Oderman is often abroad. He’s taught at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan. This movement between and into places infuses all of his work. His novels Going, set in Granada, and White Vespa, set in Greece, tell stories of expats and tourists, people whose lives are shaped by where they go as much as by where they are from. It’s this sense of how travel changes a person, makes them bigger, grants them more access to not only the world but also to history, that is one of the principal strengths of his writing.
He is also a generous mentor, and I tell you this so that when you see that my questions to him make it obvious that I’m fond not only of his writing, but also of him, you know why. All of my own writing is only possible because of the years I studied with him at West Virginia University, and I am grateful to him for that. He gave to me his deep commitment to ethical writing, and to writing that acknowledges that the way we move through the world matters.
Would that we were all able to move through the world with as much awareness of the ripples we leave behind.
This interview took place over email during late October.
The Rumpus: One of the things I most admire about your travel writing is that when there is a sense of foreignness, a sense that someone is other, it is always you who seem foreign. The mourners at the public cremation, the monks in Cambodia struggling to tie their robes, the old woman hanging her laundry in a courtyard in Vilnius; all these people are comfortably where they should be, and it’s only you—and the occasional tourist—who feels out of place. I’m wondering if you can talk for a moment about this awareness of yourself as a visitor, and as a foreigner, in your work?
Kevin Oderman: Interesting question. The obvious answer is that I am the visitor, the foreigner, and I’m simply acknowledging that fact. But I suspect the way you see “me” in these essays also has to do with the kind of book I set out to write. I wanted the kind of travel I wrote about to be familiar, and for most travelers that means abroad for only awhile (cannot stay). That decision ruled out the insider’s book, books written out of a deep familiarity with a particular place, a familiarity that begins to rub the foreignness off that place.
If you travel widely at all you soon find yourself traveling where you don’t know the language and in cultures you don’t understand. To travel is to experience things a little like a child who finds the world strange but fascinating.
And I almost always travel solo, so I can’t revert to our culture by just talking with my wife or a friend. I’m traveling face to face with people in their native places, a man just passing through.
Rumpus: You write about how travel allows one to be unmade, and then to remake oneself a little differently, away from the habits and rhythms of home. And yet, there are things about ourselves we can’t lose. In the essay “Waiting for the Bombs,” in which you are traveling through Southeast Asia in the months after 9/11, you write:
One of the good things about being American is that at home I don’t have to feel American very often. That layer of identity drops out; for weeks at a time it never occurs to me to think of myself as an American. Traveling abroad, of course, the world insists, asks, Where are you from? In Southeast Asia, this question is asked all day, every day. And now, I’m sorry [about 9/11], and that thin shell of my identity that is national, accepts the condolences, Thank you.
Can you tell us about your decision to travel during this time, when most folk were staying home, when your wife was worried about your going? Because part of what makes your travel writing so uniquely lovely is that you don’t shy away from what many of us would think of as “difficult” travel; you go to hard places, often at difficult times for those places, and then find ways to be in those places that is clearly different from touristing them.
Oderman: It’s true that I was on one of the first planes to fly out of Pittsburgh after 9/11, but I never felt that my going at that time exposed me to any particular danger. I had time to travel and a ticket, good enough. I’m not an adventurer; I don’t ever remember being frightened while traveling. Nervous, maybe, buses passing on blind corners on narrow mountain roads, that kind of thing, but I’ve never felt threatened. The news makes the world seem like a far more dangerous place than what you find when you go traveling. Are there dangerous places, dangerous situations? Of course, but staying away from them is not so difficult. And death is always at your shoulder, anyway, home or away.
If by difficult, you mean places with hard histories, there are few enough places where you can scratch and not find blood, people being what they are. But yes, some countries are more difficult for an American than others: Vietnam, Laos, and most of all, for me, Cambodia. I traveled to Cambodia in search of the serene smile of old Khmer statues, a smile that filled me with longing, and I found it again and again, in art and often on the faces of children. But I was traveling in the wake of the Khmer Rouge, and the ghosts—they were everywhere—finally got into my head in a way that was, yes, difficult.
Rumpus: In spite of your willingness, maybe even desire, to visit such places, it always seems clear that you understand where you are, and are not, welcome. Not just where you are forbidden to go, but where you oughtn’t.
It’s another element of the grace of your writing, for me, that throughout the book you remain mindful of history, including the difficulties of being American in some parts of the world. In Vietnam, you inquire about making a side trip from Hoi An to My Lai, and then decide not to go after seeing the look on the face of the woman working the desk of your hotel when you ask.
Can you tell us a bit about the places you have wanted to, but haven’t, gone and why?
Oderman: As you know from “Trips Not Taken,” I intended to go to Mali, but the planned trip came too soon after Cambodia, and a weary heart kept me home. But I’d love to visit Mali, and Burkina Faso, to walk among the beautiful, vernacular mud houses. I would like to visit Norway and Sweden but am sobered by the expense of such a trip. I still want to visit all these places, and more of Japan than Kyoto. Rajasthan, I just haven’t got there yet. Sanaa in Yemen, to see the amazing architecture there, but for now that’s out of the question. And I want to visit Copenhagen, because I intend to write about, or perhaps around, the Danish painter Hammershøi. So many places unvisited. These and more. Most of my not going has had to do with time and money.
Rumpus: While travel is, by definition, a movement through physical space, much of your travel also engages with travel though time. You are particularly drawn, it seems, to the old city centers and parts of the rural world where art and ceremony have survived the centuries. In reading Cannot Stay, I was made more mindful than usual (which is, actually, pretty mindful, since my European husband likes to remind me of it often) that we don’t have that sort of history in the US. There is, here, a paucity of centuries in our architecture and art. This search for the past is particularly clear in the essay “White Amber,” in which you write,
In a gemstone occlusions count as a fault, but in amber they add value. They seem to suspend time, and for this the traveler is expected to pay. But I find the equation a little too easy, and we never make anything our own by a simple purchase.
What does it take, then, for the traveler to access the past in the way that you do? How can we avoid being tourists who see only the constructed, purchasable history made easily available to us?
Oderman: I think you imagine me a better traveler than I am. I’m the guy right next to you at the gelato stand. I’m not walking behind a guide in a herd, but I’m there, somewhere off to the side. Many of the places I want to visit are heavily touristed, and I’m not willing to cede those places to packaged tours. What’s made-for-tourists is, if not unavoidable, very hard to avoid, but usually it’s just a scrim. Not taking an interest in the packaged and purchasable is often enough to let you see through that scrim. Then, pursuing some other interest, almost any interest, will lead you away from what the tourist industry has thrown up to distract you.
As you note, one of my interests is in old places, old ways. I grew up in the 50s and 60s in suburban Portland, not a place where there was any obvious age on things. Even downtown an old building would have only been there seventy or eighty years. So when I first traveled abroad—right after college, Europe—I was startled. Of course, as a reader, I more or less knew what to expect, but being there really woke me up to how thin a purchase Portland had on the land. (And you would have had to look carefully to see the mark of the displaced native peoples in my suburb. An arrowhead? Maybe.) So I fell for the old places, the old ways. A lot of what I loved was the beauty, but more even than beauty I wanted, paradoxically, the feeling of transience that visited me in the face of these things. All those lives that had passed down those streets, and mine, now, as transient as theirs. I welcomed this as a humbling. And that sense of transience runs all through Cannot Stay. I want it to.
Rumpus: You encounter tourists rarely in this book, but when you do, they often serve as a foil for your own sort of travel. I think there is a lot that we can learn from this collection about how to venture out into the world, but I’m wondering if you can tell us, as well, how not to?
Oderman: Would you please excuse me from standing on that soapbox?
Rumpus: You write, “The best travel estranges in just this way—insists our worlds are made up. Which is not to say arbitrary. Different worlds don’t cancel each other out, don’t make it all relative and meaningless. Everything human speaks. But sometimes at home the world speaks in a drone, the familiar drowns out the strangeness of our own choices.” It strikes me that literature can do much the same thing for us… shake us out of the known and expand the world. And that Cannot Stay is one of the books that can do that for its readers. I’m wondering if you can talk about the connection between travel and reading? You tell us that it was books that led you out into the world, and I’m interested in how that happened, and in where you would like your books to lead us.
Oderman: I too think reading can shake us, awaken us from our cultural trance, and I’m in favor of awake. Although I don’t know if it’s fortunate or not, as a reader I came to American literature last, after European and Japanese literature, and to nonfiction after fiction and poetry. It’s as if I’ve walked backward into the kind of writing I’m doing now. For me, the storied world was elsewhere, and, having read, I wanted to visit. On my first trip abroad I carried a beat-up Let’s Go Europe, but my real guide was Nikos Kazantzakis’s memoir Report to Greco (so I was reading some nonfiction). I jumped a fence in an electric thunderstorm to visit his grave in Iraklion, Crete; I clambered up the hill over Assisi after a vision; I baked in the summer sun in Toledo until the town dissolved in heat waves; I got lost in the Byzantine ruins of Mistras near Sparta (tracking Kazantzakis then through the pages of his Journey to Morea). His was the only picture I carried in my wallet. I read all of his work that was available in English or French. I read what seems to me now an astounding amount of Greek, Russian, French, and German literature. And how I loved Japanese literature, novels and poetry. The world of my imagination was elsewhere. All this reading before I ever took a literature class in English. And yes, that reading did estrange me, much as travel estranges, and I welcomed that, too.
Before iPads and Kindles, traveling readers often found themselves without books, having read what they could carry. This problem was remedied by swapping for books left by other budget travelers, usually kept in a small bookshelf in a hall or the lobby. I read several volumes of Henry James on the road, plucked from such shelves (James, for some reason, must have been easy to leave behind). But I prized the serendipity of reading this way, and once, in a travelers’ tiny lending library, in Ubud, I found a copy of Sebald’s Austerlitz, and did I ever travel in the pages of that book! Chance finds, however, were not always so fortunate: once, east of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, I think it was in Zagora, chance provided me nothing better than a single yellowed Readers Digest, and I read it.
Where would I like my books to lead the leader? Onward! If that means to look out in a strange land over new prospects, that would be a happy thing. But if it means just to venture further into the world of the literary essay, that would be a happy thing, too. I spend a lot of time in that world. I can recommend it.