So What is Travel Writing Anyway?
Written by
Susan Conley
November 2011
Written by
Susan Conley
November 2011

The Goodreads Choice Awards have nominated my book, The Foremost Good Fortune, for its semi-final round in the Travel Writing Section. And you could be so very kind as to vote for my book here.


On Saturday I had the treat of driving two hours up the Maine coast to teach a memoir writing class at the Rockland Public Library. It is a beautiful, historic library—with high, white plaster ceilings and Oak floors and gorgeous, meticulous moldings. I opened the class by saying that memoir writing often unveils its subterranean meaning to us while we are in the very act of writing it. We may be sitting at our desks, typing away about our trip to China, and then the true meaning of what our essay is about will separate itself from the rest of the text and float above us like a small, white cloud. I call these the sparks. The stories within the stories that we only arrive at by staying the course.


And I urged all the amazing people who turned out for Saturday’s workshop to write through their scenes until they arrived at least one small thing in their writing that was unexpected. In a way this is what all good writing does and what travel writing can do especially well—take you somewhere far away, like the sprawling animal market in Kashgar in Western China, and then show you a much smaller story you weren’t expecting to see there about an ancient grandmother who has a food stand near the gates and makes the very best dumplings in the world.


I wrote my memoir The Foremost Good Fortune about moving to China with my husband and my two boys. It is a travel memoir in large part because it takes the reader on a trip to China and shows them the sights. But the book also leaves the tar road and goes to other far-off places—it takes a ride to a place I call cancerland and has a look around and then leaves. It detours into the parallel universe of early motherhood and tries to be honest about what it sees there. 


After I got home from the writing workshop on Saturday, a fifty-two-year-old man named Wang Guanghe arrived at our house to stay for the week. Mr. Wang is a senior teacher and Vice Principal of the Yunxi No.1 Senior School in Anhui Province, an uber-performing high school deep in an interior region of China.


It was Mr. Wang’s first time out of his country and here is what I learned about him while he and Tony and the boys and I ate a dinner of fish soup that my neighbor Patty had made for us:  he is unfailingly polite. He has a ready smile and a quick laugh and wants to teach my boys, Thorne and Aidan, new vocabulary words every other minute. He has a twenty-seven-year-old son who lives nearby him in their hometown of Huangshan. He has been a teacher all his life. He speaks very, very little English.


What this lack of English means is that Mr. Wang has already gotten Thorne and Aidan to speak more Chinese in the four days that he’s stayed with us, than my boys did in the last year and a half since we moved home from China. Mr. Wang’s visit is also making me unpack some of my Mandarin and this is not quite as rosy a picture. My Mandarin is rustier than my boys’. But on Saturday night I began turning the language machinery on again. I had no choice if I was going to be able to talk to Mr. Wang, and there is only so long you can sit in silence over cups of green tea in your kitchen with someone who has just flown all the way across the world to learn about your education system.


On Sunday afternoon, we took Mr. Wang to the Bubble Tea Shop on Pleasant Street, where we knew we could get him some decent Chinese food. Rice is what he said he needed. He explained he was from the south and that if he had some rice then he would be okay. We ordered him pork and green onions and veggie dumplings and also the rice, and he smiled and ate with gusto for what seemed to me like the first time since he’d arrived with us.


The small story that sits inside my larger Mr. Wang story is that his visit to my house has made me miss China in a way that I hadn’t expected. Mr. Wang’s visit has made me miss China and the intricate constellation of a dislocated family that my husband and the boys and I comprised when we lived in Beijing. There was an intimacy that the four of us have partly lost now. An easiness with our family unit—because we did everything as a unit.


That solidarity has been replaced by all sorts of other good things like more friends and great guitar lessons and dodge ball tag.  But I miss that closeness just as much as I miss China, and I hadn’t expected this small essay to reveal that missing to me. Now it’s time to go make Mr. Wang some rice for dinner.


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