As most of us are stuck at home, whether due to lockdowns or border closures, some of us have returned to the idea of travel writing: nonfiction that charts someone’s journey to a different land, a different people, and a different culture. Once a mainstay of bookstores in the eighties, travel writing has fallen behind a bit, both commercially and academically, as scholars critique some of the assumptions and perspectives that drove much of that writing.
To appreciate Lucy Atkinson as the most intrepid of all Victorian women explorers one only has to read her discreet allusion to giving birth after 150 kms of horseback riding across a waterless steppe: “I was in expectation of a little stranger, whom I thought might arrive about the end of December or the beginning of January; expecting to return to civilisation, I had not thought of preparing anything for him, when, lo and behold, on the 4th November, at twenty minutes past four pm, he made his appearance.” No one ever maintained a stiffer upper lip.
In late 1974, the thirty-four-year-old Bruce Chatwin departed New York to begin a journey through Patagonia. He was engaged upon a postmodern quest: a voyage to a place tellingly named “Last Hope Sound”, where, he hoped, he would find some last remaining relics of the long-extinct Mylodon, or Giant Sloth. Inside his grandmother’s Victorian house in Birmingham had been a “cabinet of curiosities”; of its many treasures, a small, bristly piece of Patagonian Mylodon skin—said to be Brontosaurus, and sent from South America by a distant cousin—was that which most fascinated the young Bruce, who “set it at the center of my childhood bestiary.”
Anne Liu Kellor’s mother was born in Chongqing during World War II, moved around mainland China during the civil war, and fled to Hong Kong with her family in 1950 before settling in Taiwan. Kellor herself grew up in Seattle in a mixed race household. Her Chinese grandmother helped raise her, keeping her hearing and speaking Mandarin until she started replying in English as she neared her teens. Her new memoir, Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging, is a sort of reverse immigration story as Kellor returns to the province of her mother’s birth to feel more connected to that side of her heritage, one that was so central to her early childhood but had faded as she sought to conform more to her environment in Seattle.
It’s a cliche to call North Korea the most isolated country in the world. Those of us living outside the country often have very little idea of what life there is like, often only seeing what its government would like us to see: military parades, missile launches, and joyous crowds.
From Peking to Paris tells the story of Ellen Thorbecke (née Kolban, 1902-1973), a free-spirited woman who holds a singular position in international photography. Her work has been largely forgotten, but is currently making a revival, because—among other reasons—her photographs provide a unique portrait of China ruled by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government. Over several years in the 1930s, Thorbecke made six photo books (of which five have been published) covering China. From Peking to Paris compiles these into a single volume, which also includes Thorbecke’s photography of France, the Netherlands and the newly-established state of Israel.
Resource extraction has been integral to the economy of Myanmar’s borderlands for decades. One of the most valuable of these is jade, mined in northern Kachin state and then smuggled over the border into China. In Until the world shatters: truth lies and the looting of Myanmar, Daniel Combs depicts this extraction, the cost it imposes on civilians and the myriad of uneasy business relationships between parties nominally at war with each other.