Hear me out.
My life has been made in non-fiction. I am a blogger, a travel writer, a personal narrative junkie. When I’m planning a trip, the first thing I do is seek out well-written travel blogs and guidebooks like Lonely Planet and all the rest.
But when I’m on the road, there is nothing – and I mean nothing – that beats a good chunk of fiction for understanding a place’s spirit. The life force that makes it flow. The heart and soul.
I almost exclusively read fiction these days, as you might have realized from my book lists. I recently had a conversation with some editors about the fact that what we read online can be very different from what we read offline. When I’m sitting in a bus navigating my way from Montenegro to Croatia, the last thing I want to be absorbed in is a top ten list.
I came across this Boston Globe article recently that talks about why fiction is good for us. I think this quote sums it up:
“Fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence.
We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.
But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds.”
Fiction writers have the uncanny ability to give us insight into a way of thinking, or a local concept, in a way that often outside travel writers cannot. This is one of my all-time favourite quotes from Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams:
“I exhausted myself trying to take it all in, noting every little variation and departure from how things were supposed to be. My notion of home and everything in it as ideal, archetypal, was being overthrown. It was as though the definitions of all the words in my vocabulary were expanding at once…Cape Breton was much like Newfoundland, yet everything seemed slightly off. That I was able to detect such subtle differences made me realize how circumscribed my life had been, how little of the world I had seen.”
I remember reading this for the first time and putting the book down in shock, because for the first time ever somebody had adequately described how I feel every single time I travel. And you can bet that many, many Newfoundlanders feel the exact same way.
In Iceland, I read Halldor Laxness’s Independent People. In a book like this, it’s clear that the landscape shapes the people. You’ll see for yourself.
In Greece, I read Niko Kazantzakis’s Zorba the Greek…one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever come across. While it takes place in a much earlier Greece, it’s just so very Greek. All of it. How the people there appreciate the smaller details – a slower lifestyle.
“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roasted chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.”
In travel writing, we talk a lot about how important it is to immerse into a local culture. What better way than the local literature?
I guess it’s a good time to announce that I’ve been accepted into the Humber College School for Writers starting in January, where I’ll be working on my first book-length manuscript with a Canadian author. I’ll always be travel writing, but it’s a relief to return to my first love – fiction!
What do you think? What pieces of fiction have you read that help you identify with a place?