By Ruth Cornish
On Wednesday night, The International Anthony Burgess Foundation hosted two of today’s finest contemporary travel writers, Kei Miller and Elif Shafak, for an intellectually enriching evening of readings and stimulating discussion surrounding what it means to travel away from home and then return.
Kei Miller is a Jamaican writer, currently living in London. He has been announced as a Next Generation Poet, a prestigious accolade awarded once every ten years to recognise the 20 most exciting new poets from the UK and Ireland, and is the winner of this year’s Forward Prize. He hasn’t always lived in London though, as this critically acclaimed poet and author completed a Creative Writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University ten years ago. His new book, The Cartographer Tries To Map A Way To Zion, was released this year to a succession of fantastic reviews.
Kei was quick to express just how important he thought travel was.
“Travel isn’t important because it makes you realise how big the world is. It’s important as it makes you realise how small the world is,” Kei stated.
I had never thought about travel in such a way before. It wasn’t to show you how much of the world you would never get to explore, it was to show you what you could explore of it.
“The problem with tourism is that the tourists have the money to transform someone’s banality to a pleasure for themselves,” Kei told the audience. “Places are not exotic. For the people who live there, it is banal.”
The view that the banality and ‘every day’ of a place had to be experienced by a traveler to get the full benefit of traveling was an opinion that both Kei and Elif shared. They both believed that the commercial side of a place would not give you an honest reflection of the destination. To see a country through the eyes of a native was the best way to travel, they each enthused.
Elif Shafak is a Turkish writer, also living in London. Her books have been translated into over forty languages and she has won a number of literary awards. She grew up and lived in Istanbul for her early life and spoke interestingly about how it was to return.
“Language had moved on,” she told us. “Languages are alive, they change.”
In order to try and keep up with the ever-changing language of her native tongue, Elif began studying Turkish. She relished learning more about her language and claimed that although losing touch with it made her feel like a bit of an outsider, it made her pay more attention to her language and understand it’s origin.
Even though he visited several times a year, spending time away from Jamaica made Kei feel out of touch with his mother country too – something that he didn’t feel comfortable with. He admitted to maintaining a façade with many people back home by allowing them to believe he had never moved away. He called this deception, “a game that had to be played.” Having to play such a game reminded the audience that when you leave a country it’s not just the place you leave behind, it’s the people you leave with it.
Traveling the world may not be readily accessible for everyone. But not to worry, Elif reassured us that you can be transported on a journey from the comfort of your own home just by reading a novel.
“When we read we retreat into an inner space … it opens up the possibility of pulling ourselves out of our mental ghettos,” she said.
This form of travelling, Elif told us, is just as important as the physical kind, as it expands your mind and can change your perspective. She gave the example of a homophobic man reading a novel and hugely relating with the homosexual character. Elif and Kei were both clearly of the thinking that literature can break down barriers in a way nothing else can.
Something we can all learn from Kei’s journey is that, despite our own, perhaps commonplace, beginnings, it is possible to find inspiration from a home away from home. Looking elsewhere, for both these writers, has taught them the true meaning of ‘home’, and what it means to belong.
Both Kei and Elif affirmed that the deepest understanding attainable by travel, is love. The acceptance of diversity, of hardship, of discrimination, and isolation is fueled by love, and facilitated by both first-hand experience of travel, and by reading. They also agreed that love is truly permanent – whether you are settled away from home, or on the move, it is a love of family, friends, place that grounds you.
“The act of writing and of loving brings nearness and distance at the same time,” Elif proclaimed.
I caught up with Kei towards the end of the evening. He was very happy with how the event had gone and was excited to be back in Manchester. His experience of Manchester has clearly stayed with him.
“You will always find an affinity with the emblem of your adulthood,” he said. “So Manchester will always have that place in my heart.”
Ruth Cornish is UniLife Editor in her third year studying English and Creative Writing, she likes Christina Rosetti and Daley Blind. Follow her on Instagram @remilycolec