September 12, 2013

Restlessness and Wanderlust

By Genni Gunn

Genni Gunn: writer and world traveler.

My new book is a departure from my other work, in that it is creative nonfiction – a combination of travel/memoir. I have been travelling all my life, and have rows upon rows of travel journals. While I have used many of my travels as the backdrop to short stories or novels, I felt compelled to write about some of those journeys as my experiences, without the filter of fictional drama.

As I accumulated these stories, I began to think about my fascination with travel, with movement, and while sorting through the mass of stories to include in Tracks, I began to realize how much my childhood experiences have shaped my wanderlust.

When I think of travel, I don’t think of destinations, I think of movement, of assuaging restlessness, of being rootless, as immigrants are, always reaching for that elusive imagined home, like trying to catch a mirage on a hot desert highway, the illusion shimmering and enticing.

Travel for me is a comfortable state, a detachment from the trappings of a physical place. It’s the motion I crave, the to-and-fro, taking flight and landing, going to cities or countries, towards new landscapes and emotional terrains, because when one travels, the unknown awaits to be discovered — about one’s self, about others, about one’s relationship to time and place.

Sometimes, I travel to explore new landscapes, the sea, the sky, the natural world a perfect metaphor for memory, for (e)motions, for relationships, for all that is in endless motion and change. Nature is organic and as close to perfect in its properties as anything could be. In the intricate design of a leaf or a tree trunk is art and architecture, texture and colour; in any living thing is the constant metamorphosing, the visible stages of birth, life and death, evident within a moment, or a season, or a month or a year. All life, a three-stage play of beginning, middle and end. I leave home, I travel, I return.

And if I stay away long enough, on my return, home reappears slightly altered, discordant, a melody played in the wrong key. For a while, I feel unsettled — the city louder, greyer, the people strange. I long for solitude and open spaces, recreating myself elsewhere in memory, until slowly I settle into the busyness of my city life.

Sometimes I travel to enter a state of alienation — not as flights to and from anything, nor as quests, but as journeys into the unexpected, through which even the ordinary becomes extraordinary, as if an opaque film has been removed from my eyes, rendering my vision more acute. In Sittwe, outside my window, a tree heavy with hanging fruit bats appears miraculous, as if it had borne the breathing creatures that cling to its branches until dark; scarlet lava flowing into the sea in a thunderhead of vapour in Hawaii is a sharp reminder of the earth’s fearsome power. In the hills of Myanmar, I jump to safety when water buffalo approach, then realize they are afraid of me. Nothing is what it seems, my perceptions in continual flux. Motion is my aphrodisiac: the possibility of discovery versus the claustrophobia of continuity. The unknown, a constant attraction/distraction.

Because my sister was living in Myanmar, my travels there in the years before the election were not only an opportunity to reconnect with her, but also to visit a country closed to the outside world for decades, to glimpse the evolving political landscape and the effects of events that led up to the election of 2010. These were journeys into the foreign, into uncertainty, into mystery — the antithesis of our media-saturated, technological, reality-TV, public artifice. In Myanmar, my sister and I remembered our child selves, and recounted who we were, mixing and matching our memories, as if to rediscover each other.

To Italy, I travel often, because Italy, for me, is a return to the echoes of childhood — both familiar and foreign — a mythical home: a ghost town I populate with the memories of those who knew me then, their version of me more palpable than my version of myself. Each return leads me to a slightly altered place, a fata morgana of hilltop towns and cliffs toppling into the sea, of experiences distorted and magnified, unlike the ones fixed inside the snow-globe of memory.

Genni Gunn is an author, musician, and translator. See her read from Tracks at the Thin Air "Forewords" event, and compete in the Haiku Deathmatch on Saturday, September 21 at the Free Press Cafe.

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