I’ve always known that reading about an exotic location while you’re actually in that location heightens your experience of any given book. If I hadn’t figured it out on my own, I’m sure the section at the front of each Lonely Planet guide would have tipped me off. Among others, I’ve been lucky enough to read The Quiet American in a cheap hotel in Saigon, The Bus Conductor Hines from my student flat in Glasgow, and the first half of Brother Number One while travelling through Cambodia.
I only read half of Brother Number One because it scared the bejesus out of me – there was something too present about that nation’s history and the knowledge that the Khmer Rouge still had strongholds in the hills of the north. Add that to the way that travelling itself opens up your pores and increases your sensitivity to the world and my imagination went into overdrive. I exchanged my paperback for a copy of Gautama Buddha and finally got some sleep.
But that didn’t stop me packing my bag full of the Zanzibari author Abdulrazak Gurnah before getting on the plane to Tanzania. I devoured Paradise on a beach in Zanzibar. As the tide pulled out each day, I took the journey with young Yusuf as he was taken from his home by his uncle in exchange for his father’s debt at the turn of last century. It was Ramadan when I was reading the tale; each evening as I heard the call to prayer, I could see replicas of Uncle Aziz’s white kunzu and silk embroidered cap filling the streets of Stone Town. A fortnight later, an ex-pat based in north-east Tanzania hinted at a broad and unofficial discrimination against Indians living in Tanzania, and my mind returned to Gurnah’s Indian mechanic and small-town shopkeeper who throw insults at each other incessantly. Most embarrassingly, as my partner and I considered whether to catch a ferry across one of Africa’s great lakes, I had to confess that my fear stemmed from page 146 of my tattered paperback:
After they had been travelling for nearly two hours, the skies quickly darkened and a strong wind sprang up, apparently out of nowhere … They all knew from the yells of the boatmen and the intensity of their strokes that they were in danger. The waves rose higher and swept into the flimsy craft, drenching the men and their goods … Some of the men vomited over themselves with terror…The sun was setting as they caught sight of the other shore, and the slanting rays lit up the red cliffs so that they looked like a wall of flames.
But reading Gurnah while travelling through Tanzania didn’t just serve to activate my already overactive imagination. A few weeks into my trip, after one of those cranky days that travellers inevitably have, after allowing myself to wallow in negative thoughts, Gurnah gave me a kick in the pants. In Desertion, the Englishman Frederick finds himself out of his colonial comfort zone and walking through ‘the narrow crooked lanes of the dilapidated native town’. As I sat on my comfortable porch feeling sorry for myself about the local boys calling out insults to the mzungu intruding on their streets, I read Frederick’s analysis of his own thoughts:
Sometimes native crowds were abominably and recklessly excitable, and so he found it helpful to think angry and ugly thoughts about them to keep his unease in check.
I realised that reading about the place that you’re in not only gives a reader insight into the place, but can give the reader an insight into themselves and how they fit into that place. In this instance, Gurnah’s fiction gave me a good dose of reality.
I’m mindful of Marion Rankine’s recent piece in Overland 200, ‘Sometimes it takes a writer’, as I write this post. Specifically, I’m thinking of whether or not one needs to know Tanzania in order to imagine it through Gurnah’s work. I’m quite sure I would still gain a great deal from his writing even if I were at home in my weatherboard house in Melbourne’s western suburbs. His writing is beautiful and descriptive, his dialogue sharp, his characters loom large, his landscapes are daunting. It is original rather than popular. But I feel that by reading it here, during a period of travel when all that I really have to do with my time is to think about the place I’m in, I have the chance to pick up a great number more of the gems and gifts that his writing holds.