In 2011, Susan Conley’s candid memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, took readers to Beijing around the time of the 2008 Olympics. Conley’s concise and poetic prose showed a side of Beijing few expats experience: the fears of a new cancer diagnosis while trying to navigate a new city with her husband and two young sons. This was followed in 2013 with a novel, Paris was the Place about a young American woman who moves to Paris during the 1980s AIDS crisis to be closer to her brother. She finds work at a refugee detention center where she helps women prepare for their asylum hearings.
Deborah Baker opens The Last Englishmen with the admission that she was looking for a new way to write about WW2 India when she came across the papers of John Bicknell Auden, the older brother of the well-known British poet, WH Auden. In her explorations, she found another brother of another poet—Michael Spender. The fortuitous connections lead her to yet another man, this time no brother, but a poet himself, Louis MacNeice. The result is a book that is a detailed account of who was having an affair with whom, especially one Nancy Sharp, a painter, and when, and who climbed which mountain peak and when, and discovered what. The book is three books in one: loving, mountaineering, and Baker’s original ambition to write a book about India.
The Japanese are fascinated by cats, and it’s not difficult to find shrines dedicated to them. There are cats that live in train stations (one, at least, has a uniform and a “job”) and cat cafés, where people go to pet them and hang out with them. We are all familiar with the maneki-neko, the beckoning good-luck cat who appears in Asian shops everywhere, ensuring the success and prosperity of the enterprise. And they like to write about them, too; in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book (1002) the Emperor Ichijo, who was the earliest Japanese emperor (or anyone else of note in Japan) to own one, loses his cat at one point, and everyone has to go and look for it.
Academic integrity sometimes requires revising theoretical perspectives as a situation changes and new evidence comes to light. Mobo Gao, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide, finds himself in that position. In 1998 he wrote Gao Village, an anthropological study of life in a very poor Chinese village during the latter half of the 20th century. He was thoroughly qualified to do so, because he was born and raised there in abject poverty. He frankly recounts how qualifying for a university education from such a background, in addition to intellectual gifts, required a combination of luck, guanxi and a bit of cheating.
Travel-writing can sometimes seem like a genre stuck in the past. Writers are forever setting out in the “footsteps” of more illustrious predecessors, or embarking on journeys focused on the history of person, place or thing. According to some scholarly critiques, this tendency is symptomatic of travel-writing’s fundamental “belatedness”. It is, the argument goes, a genre ill at ease in the modern, globalized, postcolonial world; the figure of the travel-writer is fundamentally anachronistic. As far as critical scholars are concerned, it is in its attempts to overcome this belatedness that travel writing is sometimes guilty of echoing—unconsciously or otherwise—a colonial attitude. There is the endless quest for the “authentic” and “unchanged” in an effort to fix the places described in an exotic past; or alternatively, there is a melancholy nostalgia and a frantic hunt for the last traces of “tradition” before the shopping malls take over.
This volume of eighteen essays is an opportunity to deepen our understanding about the landlocked and sparsely populated Laos—a country with a fascinating cultural and political history, too often overshadowed by its larger neighbors.
How many readers of this book will have been subjected to teachers who made them write bad haiku in school? I count myself lucky to have attended a school where such torture didn’t take place, although I am assured that some students actually enjoy the exercise.