by tony robinson-smith
A dominant theme that emerged in my creative project was self-revelation. I wished to communicate the thoughts and feelings of my travelling alter-ego – as he flustered, for instance, over getting a teaching contract and a work visa to go to Bhutan, struggled to understand the political developments afoot upon arrival, or reflected at length on Gross National Happiness and on contentment more generally. By studying recent works of travel, in which the writers were expressive of the personal, I was able to draw on some of the literary techniques they deployed (Jamie Zeppa’s use of dramatic monologue, for example, to display the trepidation of her younger self at the prospect of teaching overseas, Edward Abbey’s tonal shifts to express irritation over the threat to wilderness as a result of industrial tourism, or Peter Matthiessen’s lyricism to articulate a perceived merging of self with mountain in the Nepali Himalaya). My practice also led to the study of critical theories that examined self-revelation in life writing: the ways that “devices of fiction,” such as dramatic scenes and rising action, invigorate the progress of the wayfarer toward fuller understanding, or the potential of nature at her wildest to nurture larger awareness. Theory fed back into practice. I had to decide how I would distinguish (through reflective asides) my more seasoned travelling self from his newly arrived counterpart. How self-searching could I be in my reminiscences without appearing self-absorbed or guilty of glorifying wilderness for the sake of self-realisation?
Though the doctoral journey is now at an end, the creative/critical dialogue prevails as I prepare my memoir for publication with the University of Alberta Press in Canada. My critical reading continues to guide my practice. I might, my editor suggests, further develop the persona of my travelling self by bringing to the fore the other principal characters in my memoir. On our long run across the Kingdom, my wife, for instance, became “camp mum,” taking our Bhutanese student runners under her wing, making sure they ate well, did their assigned chores, and attended to their injuries, while remaining in high spirits. Through reporting on the way she treated them (and on the ways they responded) and expressing my feelings, I will inevitably say much about who I am (or who I was at the time of the trip). Irritated by the presence of smoke-belching quarry trucks on the road to the final mountain pass, my running self seeks imaginative escape by remembering a striking nature encounter. Is his memory of the golden langur in the forest - endowed through recollection with the power to soothe the beleaguered traveller - somewhat contrived, my editor wonders ... Am I guilty here of fetishizing nature?
- Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968)
- Matthiessen, Peter, The Snow Leopard (New York: Viking, 1978)
- Fussell, Paul, Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars (New York: Oxford University, 1980)
- Slovic, Scott, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1992)
- Zeppa, Jamie, Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan (Toronto: Doubleday, 2000)