Novel Navigation

Reading and writing is what I do. Every day, all day, seven days in the week. My husband does the same thing and our house in Amsterdam perfectly accommodates us both. So why leave home? And yet that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Travel around the world for 7 months. Go to countries we’ve never visited before. Let go.

When I first came up with this crazy idea, my intention was to get lost. People do it. I know a guy who set off on the Camino Santiago de Compostela with a bicycle and a credit card. A couple who saved $20,000 to to travel wherever the wind blew them and made that nest egg last for 2 years. Just last weekend, I heard about a guy who’s been off the grid in India for the past 3 years. How cool is that?

I am not cool. There’s something oxymoronic about trying to be spontaneous. I need an itinerary and confirmed reservations. Because this round-the-world venture is going to be all about reading and writing and that means we need the time and space to do both.

So I continue to plan. As I do so, I’m surprised to find myself navigating the world using novels as our lodestar.


Korean reading and writing
My copy of Human Acts by Han Kang

Take, for example, Korea. I know very little about the country. But once I had read Han Kang‘s novels, I decided we had to go.

I want to see the city of Gwangju where Han was born and which features so very prominently in her novel Human Acts. Gwangju was the site of the 1980 uprising when the government sent in tanks to mow down unarmed students. Those bodies were then bulldozed into mass graves or burnt. I want to pay my respects to the fallen and maybe some of their ghosts will speak to me, too.

Or maybe I’ll have better luck in Seoul where Han now lives and is one of the settings for her breakthrough novel The Vegetarian. But there’s also a more personal connection in the capitol. My friend, the violinist Eun-shik Kim, has kindly set us up in an artist’s residency in the university area of Seoul. It’ll be a whole other take on life in this Asian megapolis.

But the highlight of this trip will be (I hope) a traditional hanok out in the Korean countryside. The house looks just like the one in the feel-good movie Little Forest. It also happens to be within biking distance from Asia’s first Slow Food city, Changpyeong, where artisanal soju makers can be found. I’m still not exactly sure how we’re going to get there, but when we do, there will be plenty of eating and drinking to go along with the reading and writing.


Japanese reading and writing
My copy of Snow Country by Kawabata Yasunari

Kawabata Yasunari is our guide into Japan. He once wrote a novel about life at a sleazy hot springs resort. That site, Echigo-Yuzawa Onsen, is now known for its ski slopes. Yes, book fans, we’re heading to Snow Country.

In Akita prefecture, we’ll hang out at Dairyuji Temple run by the Zen Buddhist monk Keno Miura and his American wife Gretchen. We’ll also do some soaking in the mineral waters of Nyuto Onsen, a mountain hot spring where traditionally the local farmers go in winter to rest their weary bones.

To re-create our very own Shōgun experience, we’ll spend some time walking the Nakasendo, the ancient imperial route between Kyoto and modern-day Tokyo. Along the way, we’ll pass checkpoints where travelers once had to justify their presence on the road, villages famous for their lacquerware, and plenty more hot spring baths.

Here, too, we’ll have our spot for reading and writing. We’ll probably need a car to reach this remote part of the Japanese countryside and a lot of help navigating the Japanese-only signage. If and when we get there, we’ll retreat into the garden to read and write.

Reading and writing on the road

fiction (long)
Long form fiction to be read. Photo credit: Karen Kao

My cunning plan is to take only ebooks. It’s not my favorite way to read but on a trip of this length, there’s really no alternative. It’s a great excuse to buy new books. The hell with the towering to-be-read stacks (last count: 123).

For this trip, I’ve been working on a reading list. Novels, short stories, poetry. I’m looking to these kinds of books to offer me insight into the countries we’ll be visiting. That insight might be historical or contemporary.

I want at least 2 books per country. Each book should be set in that country and written by a local author, which will probably mean a lot of work in translation. There’s no shortage of books out there about, say, Thailand or Taiwan. How, then, do I choose?

For example, is it still relevant to read about the Vietnam War in order to understand the country today? Words without Borders offers a great list of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that is Vietnam-centric and available in English. Electric Literature has a similar feature on a new generation of Cambodian-American writers who are ready to move past the horrors of genocide. My Aussie friends are more than happy to tip their favorites.

So the reading will be the easy part of the equation. What about the writing? Well, we’re both taking along journals (his paper, mine an iPad). We might be able to develop a rhythm, like the one we found in Texas, of reading and writing in the morning and tooling around the rest of the day. But what are we going to write about? Now, that’s a good question.

My list so far

If you’d like to read along on my round-the-world trip, here are my picks so far. Some of these are books I already have and others to be purchased still.

Tips, anyone?