Intrepid Travellers: Canadian Women in the World

This month at 49thShelf, we're Writing the World, exploring travel guides and memoirs, and books with global issues and international themes. And this week in particular, in the run-up to International Women's Day, we're celebrating women's stories, beginning with this cross-genre list—memoir, fiction, and poetry—of Canadian women's travel tales.

*****

Book Cover Outside of Ordinary

Outside of Ordinary: Women's Travel Stories, edited by Lynn Cecil and Catherine Bancroft

Thirty-two Canadian women writers—including Alison Pick, Sharon Butala, and Lorna Crozier—tell their travel stories in this anthology of stories in which lives are challenged spiritually, physically, emotionally, and otherwise, as well as deeply enriched. Elaine K. Miller cycles across the Southern United States, Janet Greidanus climbs to Everest Base Camp, and Jane Eaton Hamilton, on vacation in Mexico with her partner, contemplates whether to join the fight for same-sex marriage in Canada. For it seems that travel doesn't just change one's view of the world, but it changes also how one sees one's own self, and also notions of home. 

**

Burmese Lessons, by Karen Connelly

Burmese Lessons is partly the story of how Connelly came to write her celebrated novel, The Lizard Cage. I say "partly", because Burmese Lessons is about many things, strands of experience from that time in Connelly’s life plaited together. The book is subtitled "A Love Story," and much of it is the story of Connelly’s love affair with Maung, a Burmese dissident guerrilla fighter. But theirs is not the only love story: Connelly writes of her effusive love for the whole world, this one country in particular, and every corner of it, and its language and its people, and its beauty, and she seeks an understanding of its ugliness too. Burmese Lessons is very much a story of the body, of sex, of violence she witnesses inflicted upon Burmese protesters, of the sick children she sees who are dying of malaria, of her own experience with malaria, of living in the jungle and not having a bowel movement for days. Connelly holds nothing back here, and her passion is written in every line.

**

Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, by Esi Edugyen

In this short book that follows-up her Giller-winning novel, Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan chooses to intertwine fact and fiction, objective and subjective, in an effort to find out if one can belong to more than one place, if home is just a place or if it can be an idea, a person, a memory, or a dream."I, who had lived so much of my life looking elsewhere, was slowly coming to acknowledge that not-belonging, also, can be a kind of belonging. There are all sorts of nations on this earth. It is a lonelier citizenship, perhaps, but a vast one." Read a short excerpt here. 

**

Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb

In her third novel, which won the Trillium Prize, and was nominated for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Gibb moves in and out of time and place, between the 1970s and 1980s in Ethiopia and London. Sweetness in the Belly is the story of the orphaned daughter of English/Irish hippies who grows up learning the Qur'an in Harar in Ethiopia and becoming immersed in the culture around her. Following the deposing of Emperor Haile Salassie in 1974, she flees to exile in London, where life as a white Muslim woman proves no less complicated, and she becomes involved reuniting Ethiopian refugees with family members. I first read this book on a Greyhound bus to Ottawa at a time when I was so broke such travel was a treat, and it served as a reminder of the wideness of the world and the wondrous stories to be discovered within it. 

**

No Place for a Lady, by Barbara Hodgson

Barbara Hodgson traces three hundred years of world travel by both the celebrated and the unknown women who endured exotic diseases, scorching heat, bed bugs, destructive thunderstorms, plagues of scorpions, and many other life-threatening situations—all in the name of adventure. From Lady Ann Fanshawe, who disguised herself as a cabin boy to confront a band of Spanish pirates, to Isabella Bird, who traversed the muddy trails of Japan by horseback despite severe back pain, the women profiled in these pages sacrificed personal comfort and respectability to pursue exotic experiences that had traditionally been open only to men.

**

Belonging, by Isabel Huggan

Belonging, a collection of essays with some short fiction thrown in for good measure, won the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-fiction in 2004, takes its reader from France (where Huggan has made her home for many years) to Canada, Kenya, the Philippines and Australia. "I know all about homesickness—sipping maple syrup from a spoon while listening to a tape cassette of loon calls, endlessly writing letters to friends, asking for news, sifting through old photographs, weeping on the telephone. I've been there, that strange and dangerous place where longing can leave you blind to everything else." 

**

Book Cover Writing Away

Writing Away: The PEN Canada Travel Anthology, edited by Constance Rooke

Published 21 years ago this year, this first PEN Canada Anthology (whose proceeds support work on free speech and writers in prison around the world) changed my life when I discovered a copy in the Hart House Library at the University of Toronto in 2002. I read Margaret Atwood's "The Grunge Look," and decided to run away to England. It wasn't just Atwood's memoir though—this wonderful collection includes essays by Dionne Brand, June Callwood, Isabel Huggan, Alice Munro, P.K. Page, Carol Shields, and even some men! It definitely deserves a place on this list, though copies have become rare. 

**

Six Mats and One Year, by Alison Smith

Smith is not the only young Canadian who has travelled to Japan to mix adventure with some income from teaching English, and she's not even the only one who came out of her Japanese experiences with a book (see Catherine Hanrahan's Lost Girls and Love Hotels, among others), but she is the only one whose book cover is designed to resemble the floor of a six mat tatami room—the kind of exquisite detail you get with a book from Gaspereau Press. And the poetry! "I left as we do our childhoods:/ rushing to escape, without souvenirs./ I collected no sake cups/ no tsukemono plates./ All this time/ a core of miso grew." 

**

The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder

This second book by Carrie Snyder (author of Girl Runner), a collection of linked short stories, was published to much acclaim and nominated for a Governor General's Award. The stories are from the perspective of Juliet, a young girl whose peace activist parents have taken their family to Nicaragua at the height of the country's post-revolutionary war. The experiences of Juliet and her family in Nicaragua have far-reaching effects upon the years to come, even after they've returned home to Canada. 

**

Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, by Alison Wearing

Years before her memoir, Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter, Wearing made her debut with Honeymoon in Purdah, the story of her travels through Iran under the guise of a honeymooner. Author Jaime Zeppa writes of Wearing's first book, "I got on the bus to Iran with Alison Wearing in Istanbul on the first page and got off in Damascus with the last. Written with great humour, candour, and tenderness, Honeymoon in Purdah transformed Iran from a country I had formerly associated with fear and black cloth and oppression to a place of a thousand colours and tastes and kindnesses. This book is why we travel and why we read travel writing: to be transported, and to return transformed."

**

Saving Rome, by Megan K. Williams

CBC broadcaster Megan Williams' debut collection of short stories about ex-pat life in Rome are fabulous, funny, and surprising, even while her characters fail to be engaged by the settings of their stories. Which is the very point—wherever you go, there you are. And life abroad is rife with frustrations and annoyances, and being engaged with one's surroundings when one is far from home can be exhausting, and there's always a friend-of-a-friend showing up to sleep on your sofa, and sometimes those people happen to be certifiably insane...

*****

What are we missing? What are your favourite travel stories by Canadian women writers or Canadian women abroad? Mavis Gallant, anyone?? 

March 2, 2015
Books mentioned in this post
Outside Of Ordinary

Outside Of Ordinary

Women's Travel Stories
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
No Place for a Lady

No Place for a Lady

Tales of Adventurous Women Travellers
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
More Info
Belonging

Belonging

Home Away from Home
edition:Paperback
tagged : france
More Info
Belonging

Belonging

Home Away from Home
edition:Paperback
tagged : france
More Info
Honeymoon in Purdah

Honeymoon in Purdah

An Iranian Journey
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged : women
More Info
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