I am so pleased to present this interview with Canadian travel writer Karen Connelly, who has been an inspiration to me in my own writing and whose work took centre stage in my graduate thesis.—Mo
I struggled to be a real writer, I had to transcend to become quite artful.” – KC
It all started with for you with Touch the Dragon. Tell me about that.
Touch the Dragon is where I fell in love with the work of Karen Connelly, her 1987 long form diary that chronicles her year after high school in rural Thailand. Connelly had to come to terms with her “relative wealth and privilege”, and describes her struggle over form, as she began with a series of long letters and journal entries. Were her letters to become part of an essay? A novel? Should she publish them as letters? Finally she settled on a chronological approach. “Aristotle approved of it,” she adds. I can almost see her wink over the phone.
Do you feel that “travel writing” should somehow be political?
KC: “Whether by choice or by design, my work has been implicated in the necessity of the political. We have a responsibility to be truthful to the world we live in. ”
Connelly’s writing journey has been long and involves a curving span of almost 25 years. Her passion for writing has accompanied her through her years of living in Canada and in Europe, mainly Spain and Greece, while followed by a segue back to Thailand and Burma in 1996. She continues to keep a small residence in Greece and speaks candidly on the Syrian refugee crisis – which takes front and centre the September morning which we talk. “We have a responsibility as Westerners,” Connelly says. “People don’t realize that the slow response of the Canadian government physically, vitally affects the people in the East.” She comments that her exploration of the political language “has been a growing and evolving part of my work to be explored, and after all, writers have to be willing to go there.”
We have a responsibility as Westerners,” Connelly says.
Describe your process for writing a book.
“First I write poetry, then I write a nonfiction, then I write a novel.” —KC
Connelly’s first book was in fact not Touch the Dragon, it was Small Words in my Body, which won the Pat Lowther Award in 1991 for best poetry book of the year by a Canadian woman.
Connelly describes how “poetry remains a very emotional response to life’s most intense situations,” and she admits that for her, it can be transformative. Burmese Lessons: A Love Story is her memoir about her first trips to Burma, her time living on the Thai-Burma border interviewing dissident, refugees, and migrant workers. It also tells the story of Connelly’s passionate relationship with the leader of a small revolutionary army fighting the Burmese regime. It is the record of the artist as a young woman in an extreme political environment.
Naturally this shared certain themes with The Lizard Cage, her novel which re-creates the world of a Burmese prison. Although writing Burmese Lessons Connelly called “an entangled process,” she describes the outcome of The Lizard Cage as a richly layered book.
We spiral into a discussion on nonfiction and truth. I noticed that in Come Cold River, several passaged related to truth. Did she feel compelled to always be honest in her work? Did she find comfort in creative non-fiction? What is the destiny of memoirists everywhere?
Connelly comments that, “Although the rise of creative nonfiction in the 70’s makes the genre seem new, Montaigne was writing candid personal essays in 1580. I love both genres, and I have faith in both of them, too. By illuminating the lives of individuals we don’t know, they illuminate our lives. Good writing is still magical to me: it can make strangers feel familiar, even beloved, and it can make the familiar seem extraordinary. Reading and writing in any genre allow us to come closer: to other human beings, to ourselves, to the natural world, to the world of the spirit.”
How do you balance your own teaching / traveling lifestyle with your poetry and prose?
Now twenty-five years later, with more than two decades in the publishing biz, Connelly continues to write, speak publicly, and teach nonfiction courses at Toronto’s Humber College, all the while conducting regular Residencies at Alberta’s spectacular Banff Centre for the Arts. I feel that as a young writer and mom with many projects on the go, Karen may have some heightened sense of enlightenment to pass on that will propel me forward to my next deadline. I am strangely comforted by the honesty and bravery of her response. A slow smile rises, and with it a sense of relief.
KC: “If you don’t want to be a single mother (which was something I could not have been myself, as an artist) make sure you find a partner who will truly co-parent and share all expenses. Make sure the person you have children with understands and sympathizes with the challenges of being a woman writer. Women artists still face an uphill battle, even moreso if they have children. So be absolutely ruthless about the importance of your art in your life. Make and take the time for it. No one will do that for you.”
And I wonder, am I making it up? Was it a dream?”
What is the real value of getting lost?
I wonder where Bangkok is. Shouldn’t it be here by now? Shouldn’t the city lumber out of the rice fields soon? Bangkok always comes to you slowly, languidly, but its sprawling outskirts gradually transform into a taloned, grinning creature with an appetite for money and human time.”
from Touch the Dragon
By now it feels like Karen Connelly and I are old friends. I can ask her about her lost, her weak, her vulnerable, right?
She describes not a time she got lost, but a place she gets lost, in the sometimes phantasmagoric and sometimes euphoric moment of memory. “There was a time where I was travelling for 8 or 9 months between France, Spain, Greece, and SE Asia. I would be switching countries all the time, switching languages. I remember a beautiful evening I spent on a tiny little street with a man whom I had a lovely, intense relationship. It’s one of my favourite travel memories — but I can’t remember which country it took place in. And I wonder, am I making it up? Was it a dream?”
What advice you do have for a young travel writer?
“It’s anti-travel writing. My advice is to NOT travel. Do not leave one place. Places don’t just give us the stories we want, they don’t give their treasures up. The longer we stay there, the more profound the experiences become.” —KC
Karen Connelly is the author of ten books of best-selling nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, the most recent being Burmese Lessons, a love story, a memoir about her experiences in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border. She has won the Pat Lowther Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction, and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novelThe Lizard Cage. Married with a young child, she divides her time between a home in rural Greece and a home in Toronto.Read more about Karen on the web at http://karenconnelly.ca/ or follow her Facebook Author page at FB: Karen Connelly, Author.