Tag Archives: walking

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

We called him Tran. Apart from being tall he had Vietnamese characteristics: thin, dark haired, dark eyed, quiet. He held himself aloof from the other young people in his Year 9 class. He caused no trouble until one day I was summoned as his Head of Year to an incident in which he had turned on another boy. ‘All I did, Miss, was this.’ The other boy mimicked holding an automatic weapon, aiming at me. ‘He just flipped.’

Tran was one of the boat people. We knew very little of his story. He spoke so little. But he told me that his response has been a reflex action to the attack by his class mate when he turned the imaginary weapon on him. PTSD was hardly recognised in the early 1980s. Who knew what horrors he had witnessed? Looking back I do not feel I gave Tran enough support. So Tran, this is for you.

Viet Thanh Nguyen may have had some idea of what Tran had been through. The stories in the collection all concern refugees of Vietnamese origins.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

This is collection of eight short stories, which have in common the effects on families and individuals of the Vietnamese refugee exodus of the 1980s. Published in 2017, they describe the enduring effects of the experiences of migration, and the specific experiences of the characters. Children might be thought to be more capable of adapting to change and new countries and sometimes are ignorant of their parents’ past. But children thread their way through this collection and some have had experiences that will damage them forever. For some refugees the healing will be slow and we come to see their truth – that the new life in America may not be so great.

The stories are written with great care, sympathy and tenderness, yet they are never sentimental or melodramatic. It’s a little like watching wildlife: look, Nguyen seems to say, look quietly and you will see beauty and endeavour and brutality and you will learn.

The sparseness of the title is indicative of the tone of the stories. They are also intense in their depiction of what the experiences of migration can mean for identity, relationship within families, between generations, within the American-Vietnamese community, and with the people who remained in Vietnam.

The narrator of The Black-eyed Woman is a ghost writer, haunted by the brother who exchanged his life for hers when their boat was threatened by pirates:

These fishermen resembled our fathers and brothers, sinewy and brown, except that they wielded machetes and machine guns. (14-15)

Her dead brother has swum across the Pacific to re-join their family, to keep company with the survivors. His sister was destined to retell stories, her own, her mothers, those of famous people.

Others stories also explore the effects upon a family of their migration, not least in the final story, Fatherland, in which the father of a new family are called by the names of the children who were left behind. The American Phuong takes a new name, Vivien, and when she comes to visit her older sister it is clear that despite the presents, the ease of the Americanised identity, Vivien is as adrift as her sister.

Identity is robbed or altered. In a startling story, I’d Love you to Want Me, an old Vietnamese professor with Alzheimer’s begins to call his wife by the name of a another woman. She is distraught at first, but comes to see that she can provide comfort by adopting the identity of this woman.

We read of the former B-52 pilot, whose views are challenged by the new Vietnam and his own half-Vietnamese daughter.

The flat fields behind the homes were mostly devoid of trees and shade, some of the plots growing rice and the others devoted to crops Carver did not recognize, their color the dull muted green of algae bloom, the countryside nowhere near as lush and verdant as the Thai landscape visible from Carver’s cockpit window as his B-52 ascended over the waters of Thale Sap Spngkhla, destined for the enemy cities of the north of the Plain of Jars. There was a reason he loved flying. Almost everything looed more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming ever more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God’s eyes, man’s hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere. But seen up close, from this height,, the countryside was so poor that the poverty was neither picturesque nor pastoral: tin-roofed shacks with dirt floor, a man pulling up the leg on his shorts to urinate on a wall, labourers wearing slippers as they pushed wheelbarrows full of bricks. (136-7)

I like the way that the romantic but destructive view of the landscape is compared to the reality of the poverty. We in the west had Carver’s view from his cockpit in our evening news on tv. This is from the story called The Americans.

A Life in Books considers The Refugees in February, alongside another collection of short stories I have also reviewed, Breach.

There is an excellent review of The Refugees by Joyce Carol Oates in New Yorker in February 2017.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Born in Vietnam, living in California his previous novel The Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This novel also featured transition from Vietnam to the US, but in very different circumstances. 25 Great books by Refugees in America in the New York Times in January includes The Sympathizer.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the eighth post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 75% of my target thanks to readers’ and supporters donations. Please help me reach my full target, which is £1800, by making a donation.

March walk

My good friend Marianne arranged March’s walk near her home north of St Albans. Three of us met on a beautiful day at the end of March, and walked Three Burys Walk in the Ver River Valley, from Harpenden, along the Ver River to Roman St Albans and home. This walk raised about £100. It was about 14.5 km (9 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in April

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26 Steps: Walking and Writing (2)

Writing and walking are closely connected for some writers. I explored some connections in a blogpost in August: Steps to Improve Your Writing. In this post I explore a project in which I participated which explicitly links writing and walking. It was an homage to John Buchan and his novel The 39 steps.

287-buchan

26 Steps in 62 words

In March I agreed to contribute to a project called 26 steps, part of an on-going collective writing programme, hosted on the 26 steps website. Writers undertook a walk, wrote about it, drew a sketch map and added a B&W photo. The walks were linked by the letters of the alphabet: the first walk was from a place beginning with A to another beginning with B, then the 2nd writer walked from a place beginning with B to another starting with C and so on. My route was Stoke Fleming to Torcross: S-T. The distance was about six miles and followed a section of the South West Coastal Path. I usually plan circular walks, so this required organising a taxi from Torcross to Stoke Fleming so that I could rejoin my car at the end of the walk. My plans were not helped by storm damage to the sea wall at Torcross just before the scheduled walk in March, and by several stormy days.

Version 2

Walking and writing are not things you can do simultaneously. But I always carry my notebook. And my camera. And my map. I finally chose a day when the clouds were high, there was a chance of sun and I was a couple of weeks into a fitness programme.

St F to Torcross

Slapton Sands

The route took me along Slapton Sands. It is impossible to live in the South West and not know that something happened at Slapton Sands, an event that was rarely spoken about immediately after it happened, and only exposed by the campaigning a local resident, Ken Small. He finally obtained permission to dig up an M4 Sherman tank that had been buried in the sand and it was placed in Torcross car park in 1984, a memorial to the men who died on Slapton Sands.

287-tank

The story begins in the 1940s when the US joined the war effort, and plans were made for the invasion of the Normandy coast. Elaborate plans to persuade Hitler and his generals that the invasion would happen nearer the Straits of Dover were successful. There were decoys to distract attention from the huge number of troops and equipment being moved to the South West coast, ready to cross to the beaches of Normandy.

Slapton Sands were selected for rehearsals because its coastal bar resembled ‘Utah’ Beach. The local inhabitants moved out. On Slapton Sands there is a granite stone, put up by the United States Army Authorities. It has a long inscription thanking the people of the villages in the area who moved out of their homes and farms to make way for the troops in order that rehearsals could take place.

Version 2

A tragedy

On 27th April 1944 a rehearsal went very badly wrong, resulting in the deaths of 946 American servicemen by ‘friendly’ fire. Signals had not been coordinated to the same frequency. Some ships were delayed and the information was not received by some participants. Men, large numbers of men were killed by their own allies.

Among the missing were ten BIGOTs, officers who knew the details of the invasion plans. Until all these were accounted for it was impossible to be confident that the plans hadn’t fallen into German hands. Until all ten were accounted for, the Normandy Landings were at risk.

Aftermath

The armed forces do not celebrate their mistakes, and after 1944 other events captured people’s attention, such as the end of the war in Europe and the final stages of the war in Japan. For these reasons, it seems, the whole incident was ‘conveniently forgotten’ in the words of Ken Small.

It is impossible to walk along the Sands without this knowledge, of the war, the preparations, the Normandy Landings and the cover-ups. Not much of it reflects well on humans. The story is present even while people enjoy the beach, watch the wild fowl on the freshwater lake that lies behind the Sands, fish, bathe and go naked on the naturists’ beach.

I tried to capture all this in my 62-word description of the walk. This is what I wrote:

Stoke Fleming to Torcross

Sea is constant, caressing the sand, careless of leaping dogs, naturists, anglers, the granite monument of gratitude from US forces, walkers, sea wall, and Operation Tiger in 1944, when almost a thousand men were rehearsing and killed by friendly fire, jeopardising the D-Day landings. The Allies went to Normandy and I walk along the sands in sun, liberty and knowledge of this.

Related website

You can find all the contributions – A-Z – to the 26 steps project on the website here together with other projects undertaken by the group.

There have been several fictionalised accounts of the events. Among them are:

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo, adapted as the play 946.

The Night of the Fox by Jack Higgins

An episode of Foyle’s War called All Clear (2008) also drew on these events.

 

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Walking in Four Novels

Writing and walking work together very well. I explored some connections for writers in a recent blogpost: Steps to Improve Your Writing. Here I explore four novels to consider how walking features in them.

Few characters walk in novels to get from A to B or for the good of their health. These aspects of walking do not contribute to interesting plots. Instead, some characters walk to escape, such as the woman in white, Rosaleen along the Green Road, or Harold Fry. Some characters need to walk to be connected to other people, the history in their surroundings, or their memories. Frequently by walking, characters assert their independence, as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

279 The_woman_in_white_Cover_1890

Who can forget the first meeting with the woman in white? The narrator has visited his mother in Hampstead and is returning on foot at night to London. He is, indeed, walking from A (Hampstead) to B (back to London). The stage is set: dark, isolated and already a bit weird.

I had now arrived at that particular point on my walk where four roads met – the road to Hampstead, along which I returned; the road to Finchley; the road to West End; and the road back to London. I had mechanically tuned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road – idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like – when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my young body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.

I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening around the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road – there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven – stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her. (23-4)

It is dramatic and weird. Who would not read on to find out the mystery of the pointing Woman in white?

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, (1860), I used the Penguin Classic edition.

The Green Road by Anne Enright

231 Gr Rd cover

In the second novel, Rosaleen also takes a night walk. This walk shapes a dramatic scene, towards the end of the novel, as if it will lead to a reconciliation or final departure. It is late on Christmas Day, in west Ireland near the Flaggy Shore. Rosaleen, an older woman, leaves her disconnected family for a solitary walk she has taken many times along the Green Road. It is cold and dark and she is plagued first by the wind and then by reflections on her life.

She had been waiting, all her life, for something that never happened and she could not bear the suspense any longer. (259)

Like many walkers, she responds to the elemental atmosphere.

Rosaleen spread her arms wide and flung her face up.

‘Hah!’ she said.

In the middle of nowhere, on Christmas Day, when no one was out, not one person was walking the roads.

‘Hah!’

Old women were not given to shouting. Rosaleen did not know if she still could, or if your voice went slack like the rest of you, when you got old.

‘Oh, don’t mind me!’ she said. She roared it. She stuck her fists down straight by her sides. ‘Don’t mind me!’ (260)

She is walking along the Green Road in response to her fractured family, the loss of her husband, her advancing years.

This is why Rosaleen had come up here, to this wild place. She had come to cleanse herself of forgetfulness and of fury. To shout it loud and leave it behind. To fling it away from herself. (265)

Rosaleen gets into trouble in the dark and the cold and her family must find her. It should lead to reconciliation. This novel is highly recommended, by the way, for many other qualities too.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (2015), published by Vintage and winner of several prizes including the Man Booker Prize. My full review can be read here.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

136 Pride & Prej

Elizabeth Bennet is a walker, energetic and undeterred by poor weather. Her walks are associated with key plot moments in Pride and Prejudice. She walks to Netherfield Park to take care of her sick sister, Jane. The reactions of those in residence reveal a great deal about each of them, as well as about Elizabeth. Mrs Hurst, Bingley’s sister, makes the following comment.

‘To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.’

‘It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,’ said Bingley.

‘I am afraid, Mr Darcy,’ observed Miss Bingley, in half a whisper, ‘that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied; ‘they were brightened by the exercise.’ (82)

Elizabeth walks a great deal in the grounds of Rosings and here is met by Darcy the day following his disastrous proposal and he must give her a letter. She next meets Darcy accidentally when she is walking in the grounds of his great house, Pemberley. And finally Darcy and Elizabeth ‘get it together’ on another walk near her own home. As Willoughby says, in his cheerful way, ‘Mr Bennet, have you no more lanes in which Lizzy may lose her way again today?’ (383)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813. Edition used: Penguin English Library.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

279 Harold Fry

The fourth novel is structured by Harold Fry’s walk, He is an older man, retired, who has lost his energy, emotionally and physically. Harold receives a message to say that an old friend he lost touch with is dying. He sets off from his home in Kingsbridge, Devon to post a letter to her, but just keeps on walking, and after 87 days arrives in Berwick-upon-Tweed. He walks 624 miles and along the way, as is the case with pilgrimages, he meets other people and has adventures which help him understand his life and other people. He is reconciled with his wife and learns a great deal about himself including his own resilience.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce published by Black Swan in 2012.

Some other novels that feature walking

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, compared to her short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The Long Walk by Stephen King

Over to You …

Can you recommend other novels that feature walking?

 

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Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes

256 RLS coverIn the autumn of 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson set off with his donkey Modestine, spending 12 days travelling in the French region of the Cevennes. This is a mountainous area north of Montpelier. They covered 120 miles together, travelling south from Le Monastier (near Le Puy) to St Jean du Gard.

Last week (May 2016) I travelled, in much more luxury but also on foot, from Ganges to Millau. This route took us further south, crossing from East to West. My companions were 13 walkers, guided by a professional tour leader, looked after by a wonderful tour manager. No donkeys, but a lonely cow, with bell joined us for an hour one day.

Walking in France

RLS was suffering from a broken heart when he set out. He was 27 years old, already a veteran traveller, and destined to go on travelling, ending his life in Samoa. He came from Scotland, son of a lighthouse builder.

RLS was also a writer, and most people first meet him as the author of Treasure Island or Kidnapped. [Pause for people to mutter Aaah Jim lad! And Black Spot!] He published his account of his trip with Modestine in the year after his journey: Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. He gave no reason for his journey, being a devotee of travel for its own sake.

Why any one should desire to visit either Luc or Cheylard is more than my much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. Alas, as we get up in life, and are more preoccupied by our affairs, even a holiday is a thing that must be worked for. To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future? (12)

Cevennes

RLS’s present was very exacting and he experienced many ‘needs and hitches’, not least in his relationship with Modestine. Most of the time he was on his own (except for the donkey) and at night, if there was no convenient auberge, he slept under the stars. He spent one night in a Trappist monastery. Trappists take a vow of silence. As he approached, with some trepidation, he met Father Apollinaris near the monastery, Our Lady of the Snows. They walked and conversed together.

‘I must not speak to you down there,’ he said. ‘Ask for the Brother Porter, and all will be well. But try to see me as you go out again through the wood, where I may speak to you. I am charmed to have made your acquaintance.’

And then suddenly raising his arms, flapping his fingers, and crying out twice, ‘I must not speak, I must not speak!’ he ran away in front of me, and disappeared into the monastery door.

I own that this ghastly eccentricity went a good way to revive my terrors. (18)

256 Gorge

He describes the details of his adventures with wry good humour. More than once he sleeps outside, rarely disturbed by people in this remote region. One night he leaves the village of Bleymard and camps among the pines. In the night he awakes.

256 travels-with-donkey

The stars were clear, coloured, and jewel-like, but not frosty. A faint silvery vapour stood for the Milky Way. All around me the black fir-points stood upright and stock-still. By the whiteness of the pack-saddle I could see Modestine walking around and around at the length of her tether; I could hear her steadily munching at the sward; but there was not another sound save the indescribable quiet talk of the runnel over the stones. I lay lazily smoking and studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars. …

As I thus lay, between content and longing, a faint noise stole towards me through the pines. I thought, at first, it was the crowing of cocks or the barking of dogs at some very distant farm; but steadily and gradually it took articulate shape in my ears, until I became aware that a passenger was going by upon the high-road in the valley, and singing loudly as he went. There was more of goodwill than grace in his performance; but he trolled with ample lungs; and the sound of his voice took hold upon the hillside and set the air shaking in the leafy glens. (55/56)

RLS the Walker

Map of RLS's route, licensed by Creative Commons

Map of RLS’s route, licensed by Creative Commons

It struck me that RLS does not report those things that occupy most walkers: feet, especially any blisters, tired legs or knees, whether the weather will hold, the next meal, all matters physical. Rather he focuses on Modestine’s limitations, which are great. Some ascents are too steep for her. Sometimes she refuses to walk. She meets a fellow donkey and wants to socialise. RLS has to learn how to encourage, entreat and provoke Modestine to carry his luggage: a switch, a goad, whistling, and pulling. It is a constant source of anxiety to him that he must treat this animal in ways he would rather avoid. Eventually, after 12 days, they reach St Germain de Calberte, but the donkey’s physical state means she can’t continue to Alais (today called Ales) as intended. So he sells her and she is gone before he realises that he will miss her, grieve for her.

He tells us about his struggles with Modestine, his luggage, finding the way, meeting various characters, the history of the region (known for being a stronghold of Protestants in a bloody struggle in the previous century) and innumerable conversations about religion. ßHe notes the telegraph wires, the railway, surveyors preparing for new tracks. But other signs of mechanisation are few.

Dartmoor Donkeys

Dartmoor Donkeys

His generosity of spirit, his belief in getting along with everyone, in the pleasures of travel for the adventures it brings, and his reluctance to goad Modestine, these are the charming characteristics of this account.

My journey

My journey did not coincide with RLS and Modestine’s. I went with no purpose but to enjoy the walking, the countryside, the company, the food and wine. I began to understand Modestine’s reluctance as we struggled up steep and rocky paths, and descended more of the same. Some tracks were forbidden to car and bikes, but there was no sign of any donkeys (except perhaps that pile of poo).

No entryOur journey lay over the high plateaux, in May awash with numberless wild flowers, overseen by larks and vultures. Our views were spectacular, the pine woods quiet and fragrant, our way up the slopes serenaded by nightingales.

And …

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson, first published in 1879. The edition I used is published by John Beaufoy Publishing ltd, Stanfords Travel Classics. 95pp

There is a useful website on Robert Louis Stevenson here.

The next post on Bookword will look at other Cevennes-related reading.

 

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Bookword in Alsace

I spent the first week of May this year walking in Alsace. I took some reading, heard some excellent stories and came across some bookish things along the way. Here’s one of them, seen on a gatepost on our last day, walking through Ammerschwihr, a village between Turckheim and Kaysersberg.

174 stone girl reading

Reading in Alsace

I planned to read The Erl-King by Michel Tournier in my non-walking hours. It was the only Alsace-related novel I had found that interested me. But I didn’t finish it before my return. This was because

  1. I was also reading the fabulous Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and thoroughly immersed in her erudite and fascinating writing about Frankenstein, Innuits, Che Guevara, apricots, the Grand Canyon and other equally engaging topics. Much of her book is about having a voice and the importance telling stories.
  2. I was worn out by walking up and up and down. I needed a wee lie down every afternoon.

I also took with me to read the latest in Peirene’s subscription: Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. I will finish both these French books very soon and you may find more about them on this blog.

Stories in Alsace

On hearing about the witches of Riquewihr I amused my fellow walkers by exclaiming that the region must be one of the most sexist! The witches’ dispatch was necessary for the quality of the grape harvests, we were told. And the female saints of Alsace, in particular, had a very hard time: St Odile and St Richarde. Both were treated badly by men close to them who should have known better.

174 storks

Storks did rather better than saints. We came across this charming pair of storks in Katzanthal. Their ‘swinging’ habits could have contributed a few episodes to a soap opera. I think this is Marguerite and her new partner Arnold. But it might be Balthazar, her original partner, with her younger replacement, who currently ‘keeps him company’.

174 vineyardsOur walks provided ample stimulus for a storyteller’s imagination: castles, Hansel and Gretel houses, Heidi meadows and dark woods. And if the creativity lagged there was always the wine, the vineyards, the Rhine valley and the people we met along the way.

174 castles

Book Exchange

I nearly missed this delightful book corner in Ribeauville, as I was distracted by grit in both my eyes. But what a delightful and low key way of keeping books in circulation, with the added assistance or forbearance of the French postal service.

174 book box

Walking, Writing and Reading

In a section of her book I read Rebecca Solnit’s thoughts about labyrinths, reading, walking and books:

In this folding up of a great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the words and lines and pages of a book. Imagine all the sentences in this book. Imagine that they could be unwound; that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it. Reading is also travelling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and your understanding. (188-9)

This connection between some of my favourite activities – reading, writing and walking – is most satisfying and a good excuse for a post which is basically about what I did on my holidays!

174 Faraway coverI plan to explore more of Rebecca Solnit’s writing in the next post: Men Explain Things to Me. Meanwhile take this as a rather relaxed recommendation for The Faraway Nearby.

In the Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Granta Books in 2014. 254 pp

 

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