I’m officially on holidays, so I’m finally munching through some of the “to-be-read” pile. The first thing I picked up off that pile was Neon Pilgrim by Lisa Dempster, which I bought from the EWF Page Parlour a few weeks ago.
I should probably flag it here that I interviewed Lisa for Yartz just before the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and she seemed absolutely lovely. I’ve also been following her blogging for a while, so I went into this book with an already reasonably good opinion of Lisa and what she’s been up to. I have to say though, that this book boosted that by about a hundred percent.
Neon Pilgrim is about Lisa’s journey along the henro michi – a back-breaking trek, 1200 kilometres through Japanese mountains, all the way around Shikoku. No small effort.
I’ve never really read travel books before. Something about the term “travel literature” puts me off – I imagine middle-aged intellectuals relaying things like “the rich history” of countries with Western histories much older than Australia’s… While it’s all very interesting, it’s not something I’m keen on dedicating myself to for a whole book. And I’m sure this isn’t even what travel literature entails. It’s just what my mind has made it.
When I heard about Neon Pilgrim though, I felt like this might be something I could relate to, and get something out of reading. When Lisa started the journey, she was a 28 year-old, overweight and very depressed. Having visited Japan as a student, she had heard about the henro michi, and decided that this was what she needed to pull her out of depression.
The pilgrimage is said to be enlightening, each henro (pilgrim) is accompanied by the spirit of Kobo-Daishi, who the walk is done in honour of. The Japanese who inhabit Shikoku believe that by giving settai (gifts) to pilgrims, they too honour the spirit of Kobo-Daishi even though they cannot do the trek. So the journey itself is a respected thing, and pilgrims are helped out a great deal by those who live in the towns and cities that the henro michi passes through.
The book is written simply, there’s no complicated jargon or assumed prior knowledge of Japan or its rituals. The book includes a glossary of Japanese terms used in the book, but most of the time it isn’t needed, as Lisa makes meanings very clear.
Along the way there are fantastic crazy old men, deeply respected veterans who have done the pilgrimage hundreds of times, and kind people Lisa’s own age, who are all doing the pilgrimage for different reasons. There are bears, and spiders, and blisters. Every story along the way has its place, and the pilgrimage becomes a mesh of encounters and problems to negotiate.
I won’t say that the prose is amazing. It’s good – very funny at times, and at others you can really feel Lisa’s frustration. But I wouldn’t call it artful. Artful prose isn’t what this book is about though.
There’s an old Taoist saying, that “the journey is the reward” – while Lisa’s fitness improves, and she meets some wonderful people along the henro michi, the reward in terms of escaping depression is less tangible. I think this is one of the things I loved about the book – Lisa proves to herself that she can still get out of herself and tackle the world, but along the way she still hits that brick wall many times. She doubts herself – in fact, it’s not until temple 76 that she actually thinks that perhaps she will actually reach the end. At certain times in the journey the only way forward is to “step. Step. Step”. And I think this is how it is, and how it’s meant to be – getting through tough things like depression is like that, it’s not “cure!” and then everything’s great. It’s just one foot in front of the other.
At the end of the book there is no definitive ending. Yes – Lisa makes it to the end. But it’s only the end of the henro michi – the start of something much bigger. And I didn’t even find the open ending frustrating, I found it incredibly hopeful. While I know I probably won’t do a trek like this, I have taken a lot from the “Step. Step. Step.” attitude and the idea that accomplishing something is not the end.
Lisa Dempster, the smiley lady you will see at many a literary event, has walked 1200 kilometers and slept in some very crazy places. She has gone through some absolutely insane shit – go shake her hand next time you see her. Or go read Neon Pilgrim. Or both.