Introduction: On Staying at Home | William Atkins | Granta

Introduction: On Staying at Home

William Atkins

‘Why do I travel so much when I am so terribly frightened of traveling?’
– Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes, trans. Joan Tate


It’s a good question. Some years ago, on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, in Xinjiang, China, a young Uyghur man asked me another one: why, when I could travel ‘anywhere’, as he saw it, had I come to this place of dust storms and surveillance, which he longed to escape? He couldn’t sleep, he said; whatever he tried, he couldn’t sleep. China’s network of ‘re-education’ camps, where as many as 1.5 million Uyghur people are today enduring internment, forced labour, torture and rape, was then in its infancy, but for him the ‘autonomous region’ was already a nightmare of state harassment and incipient violence. He spoke in a whisper, even in the desert. I had no reasonable answer to his question, and felt, not for the first time, the self-disgust of the European travel writer in a troubled place, who – journalistic pretexts aside – is neither a news correspondent nor an international observer, but basically a tourist with a book in mind: monitored, perhaps, but free to brush off the sand and go home to his desk when he wishes. The feeling lingers.

This volume has evolved with such questions of travel in mind. Since its tenth issue, published in 1984, Granta has been credited with shaping, if not defining, what is blithely called ‘travel writing’. Granta 10’s contents page is a catalogue of the genre’s most influential, and best-selling, modern practitioners, including Jan Morris, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. Its editor, Bill Buford, acknowledged in his introduction that travel writing, as a genre which ‘borrows from the memoir, reportage and, most important, the novel’, is hard to pin down. We needn’t persist with definitions, other than to wonder if travel writing’s resistance to them is one of the things that energises it.

The current volume exemplifies what Buford calls the ‘generic androgyny’ of travel writing, but certain themes recur. Bathsheba Demuth, in far-east Russia, and Eliane Brum (trans. Diane Grosklaus Whitty), in the Antarctic, both write about environmental decline, embodied in the whale and in humankind’s treatment of this creature we often profess to love. It’s increasingly clear that the environmental crisis is inextricable from the crisis of human displacement, even while traditional drivers of exile persist. In her essay about the Afghan migrant community in Hamburg’s Steindamm district, Taran N. Khan notes that ‘when we talk of writing on travel, we are often describing borders’. It is partly in the hope of dealing with suppressed trauma that Javier Zamora drives with his friend Francisco Cantú to the US–Mexico border – the border he once crossed as an undocumented child migrant and Cantú once guarded as a Border Patrol agent.

They are not alone in going back, in memory or reality. ‘When I thought about returning, it was only ever in my mother’s language,’ writes Jessica J. Lee, in her mapping of the alleys of Taipei, Taiwan, where her mother was born. Tiring of New York, Emmanuel Iduma returns to Nigeria, where he grew up, recalling the journeys of his father, an itinerant Presbyterian minister, and recognising in himself an inheritance of restlessness: ‘From his impermanence I grew into mine.’

The American artist Roni Horn has been visiting Iceland since 1975, returning with what she calls ‘migratory insistence and regularity’. She describes ‘16 Sheets from LOG’ as a ‘collection of notes, casual observations, facts, quotes, events of weather and private life, news, and anything otherwise notable that came to mind or hand each day’. There can be a feeling of liberation in surrendering to the complexity of any place – especially one that is not our home – and thus to its unknowability. ‘I’m often asked but have no idea why I chose Iceland,’ Horn writes, ‘why I first started going, why I still go. In truth I believe Iceland chose me.’

It’s been an interesting time to commission a volume of travel writing. The carbon implications were a consideration from the start – contributors were to be discouraged from flying – but in the event, the journeys they wrote about were by necessity journeys that had already been made. At first Covid was only an ominous whisper, but its spread can be traced across these pages. Aboard a Greenpeace ship, Brum hears of a virus that is ‘devastating the whole world’ and assumes the speaker is describing a disaster movie. Among the volcanoes of the Philippines’ Cordillera Central, Ben Mauk registers rumblings of a ‘novel virus in China that seemed at risk of spreading to other countries in Asia’. Then, around the world, cases erupt. In Kapka Kassabova’s ‘The Ninth Spring’, seasonal workers returning to Bulgaria’s Mesta basin bring Covid back with their pay cheques. Other journeys were abandoned altogether. Sinéad Gleeson’s planned return to that ancient place of healing, Lourdes, had to be forgone in favour of a journey, compiled of fragments of memory, in the footsteps of the Ukrainian-born Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Both Khan’s reflections on her status as an Indian passport holder and Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s account (trans. Frank Wynne) of his interrogation by immigration officers in Cuba, meanwhile, are reminders that nonchalant global mobility has never been available to most of the world’s population.

One response to Elizabeth Bishop’s enquiry in her poem ‘Questions of Travel’ – ‘Should we have stayed at home’ – might be: ‘It depends who you mean by we.’ According to the writer Charles Sugnet, Granta 10 was nothing more than a ‘highbrow version of the Banana Republic catalog’, guilty of perpetuating ‘colonialist discourse’. Hyperbole, perhaps, but the travel writer of myth – Bowie knife in one pocket, Moleskine in another, off to Patagonia – is a stubborn ghost, and even in the 1980s, often came across as a revenant of the 1890s: alarmingly erudite, unflappable, prone to affectionate generalisations, and indistinguishable in all but style from the emissaries of colonial power that went before.

The genre has lost some of its self-assurance, and that’s a relief. The bluff tone has abated – prompted partly by an overdue postcolonial reckoning, partly by a greater plurality of perspectives, and partly by what scholars of the genre call ‘belatedness’. Tim Hannigan, in his recent book The Travel Writing Tribe, describes this phenomenon as ‘the nagging suspicion that all the truly worthwhile journeys have already been done’. The world having been well and truly ‘discovered’, and thus despoiled, the modern travel writer’s task is to pick sagaciously over its bones. The Amazon basin is a smoking ruin; the sands of the Arabian Empty Quarter are as footprint-riddled as Clacton-on-Sea; the throat singers of Tuva are doing numbers on Instagram. But grief can easily become a posture of art, or lapse into colonialist nostalgia. It’s hard to imagine a future, or even see the present clearly, when we are entranced by dreams of the past.

A second response to Bishop’s question can be found in these words attributed to another American poet, Gary Snyder: the most radical thing you can do is stay at home. Stay at home and it’s hard to colonise, enslave, pillage or fight a war, as Bishop recognised. Had we stayed at home, the human race might not be reeling from a global pandemic, and the globe itself might not be in the state it’s in, with grey whales ‘eating themselves from the inside out’, as Demuth describes. When any long-haul flight can plausibly be described as an act of violence, we’d all do well to learn to dwell better, to know and love our own patch more deeply. And yet precisely because of the peril we face as a species, there remains value in venturing – carefully, reverently – beyond the horizon, as these pieces show, even if we reject the modes of travel that brought the world to this pass in the first place.

One of the contributors to Granta 10, Jan Morris, told the Paris Review that travel, for her, had been a search for reconciliation: ‘with nature but with people too . . . a pursuit [of] unity and even an attempt to contribute to a sense of unity’. Putting together this volume has confirmed to me that conscious, conscientious travel (and writing about it) goes hand in hand with an ethos of hospitality. If the following pieces can be said to have an overriding characteristic, it is that they take seriously the experience of being a stranger. What does it mean to be an outsider, wherever we call home? How do we react when stripped of everything familiar? Who are we, removed from hearth and loved ones? And how can we, in turn, offer the stranger ‘[a] helping hand, a feeling of safety’, in Zamora’s words? Only by doing so, as we continue to go out to meet the world on its own terms, can we begin to imagine an equitable future.



Extract from ‘Questions of Travel’ from Poems by Elizabeth Bishop. Copyright © 2011 by The Alice H. Methfessel Trust. Publisher’s Note and compilation copyright © 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. From Poems by Elizabeth Bishop published by Chatto & Windus. Copyright © 2011 Alice H. Methfessel Trust. Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Limited; extract from Exterminate All The Brutes by Sven Lindqvist, translated by Joan Tate. Copyright © 1992 by Sven Lindqvist. Translation copyright © 1996 by The New Press. Reprinted by permission of The New Press,, and by Granta Books,

Map design by Theo Inglis


William Atkins

William Atkins’s The Immeasurable World won the 2019 Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award. His latest book is Exiles: Three Island Journeys. He is working on a book about Sizewell and its nuclear power stations.

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