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Sam van Zweden

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travel

I am tiny. Beyond that. Nothing.

Grand Canyon w flag

 

When we got to the top of the rise in the car park, the Grand Canyon appeared – sudden and immovable. Huge. Hilarious in its immensity. My eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden abundance of depth and distance. Immense. Haha. What. the. fuck. My boyfriend and I walked along a pathway for about half an hour, stopping to take photos. I gave up on the photos quickly, not seeing the point in trying to do this landmark justice in a frame. The path veered away from the rim occasionally, and each time it came back I felt newly affronted by just how massive a piece of the Earth this is. I laughed. What even *are* my problems?!, I joked. I felt insignificant, and this was comforting.

Small metal markers set into the path represented a ‘geological timeline’ – each large step I took corresponded to a million years of the Canyon’s existence. I thought of the act of flying forwards in time, as we’d done to reach the US. Here I walked backwards in time, and my mind similarly struggled to make it a reasonable act. Pieces of rock placed periodically alongside the timeline displayed the changing colours and patterns that we might see if we were actually further down, in the Canyon. These rocks looked foreign to one another – as though they were from different parts of the planet. Or perhaps from different planets entirely. After half an hour of long, million-year steps, I didn’t reach the end of the Canyon’s formation story.

We sat on white rocks and stared out into this negative-space wonder. We held hands. I looked at the rock around us and thought of Hanging Rock – there, people had etched their names into the surrounding trees and boulders. In response to the Australian landscape, this gesture seems to be some kind of feeble protest against the intense discomfort that particular experience can provoke; against the fragility of our tiny lives. At the Canyon, there are no etched names. Along the path on the way back to our starting point, I saw names carved into a bench – so many names that they crowded and took up every inch of the man-made objects. Perhaps these small-time vandals could deal (existentially, I mean) with carving their initials into something they could comprehend the creation of. On the other side of the path, the sheer force and might of the Canyon screamed silence. Why bother trying to leave a mark on that?

Its expanse is terrifyingly beautiful. It is also comforting. It is the hole I feel open inside me at times, and the place I want to disappear into when the shame of existence gets overwhelming. It is a place where I could get truly lost, despite all the visitors to this site, and never, ever be found. I want this. This is my nightmare. I am pulled toward the edge, a scream in my chest; the knowledge of that self-destruction on this site would mean nothing, would be forgotten in a breath. Not even half a step.

Periodically, American flags dot the rim. As if this site could be claimed.


cityoflitlogo

This trip was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund. 

“G’day, ma’am,” says the man at the visa desk at LAX. He hands back my passport and giggles to himself. I had assumed him to be humourless – but then this. He’s used ‘g’day’ like it’s ‘aloha’ – like I could be coming or going. I’m unsure which I am, now sporting the very first stamp in my still-new passport.

In the LA twilight sky, a flock of geese soar overhead. Long necks and feet point out at either end, and remarkably straight, stable wings shoot out to the sides – a floating cross. The geese turn in silence, confident of their direction. Synchronicity in the city. Changing direction, they become X-s. Kisses in the sky.

Kisses for your coming, they say; kisses for your going.

 

 

cityoflitlogo

This trip was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund. 

Count-down

Now that I’m able to count down using my very own hands – now that I don’t need to make use of toes, or borrow another person’s body to make up the numbers – now it seems real.

Earlier this year, I was lucky to receive a City of Literature Office travel fund grant. The grant is helping me get to Flagstaff, Arizona for the NonfictioNOW conference from October 28-31. The conference describes itself as “a regular gathering of over 400 nonfiction writers, teachers, and students from around the world in an effort to explore the past, present, and future of nonfiction”. Not quite a festival and not quite a conference, NonfictioNOW was hosted at RMIT in Melbourne in 2012. During that conference, I blogged and soaked up new ideas. I feel like that conference changed the way I approach nonfiction, and energised my writing practice. I wanted desperately to make it to the next one – and now it’s happening.

2015-09-09 16.51.27

I’ve been helping with social media for the conference (hyper-aware of spelling differences, like ‘travelling/traveling’) and blogging on the conference’s own blog up to this point, and am so excited to be blogging the festival. This post is, then, a bookend – preparing you for the posts to come. And not just a bookend for the conference, because the travel keeps going after that.

I haven’t travelled before. Well, I have travelled before. In 2014 I went to Adelaide, Hobart, Launceston, and Newcastle – it was a big year for travelling. But that travelling was small-scale travelling. Non-passport travelling. Get in a car, get on a boat, get on a train, get on a plane. Get to your destination in no more than an hour or two. The travelling I’m about to embark on is more ambitious – get on a plane, stay there for 9 hours. Stop over in a city that’s further from home than you’ve ever been, but don’t be too excited about it because this isn’t The Travelling yet, this is just a thing on the way to The Travelling. Get on another plane and stay there for 12 hours. And then you’re there, but you’re not there.

NonfictioNOW is being held in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a 10-hour train ride from LA (or a much shorter flight from Phoenix, but what fun is that?). Speakers I’m incredibly excited about include Ander Monson, Roxane Gay, and Maggie Nelson  – writers whose work has surprised and challenged me. The program has many names in common with my Honours reading list – Steven Church, Judith Kitchen, and Brenda Miller. The conference provides insight to the act of writing creative nonfiction in a way that no gathering in Australia (that I’ve seen) does. What does it mean to craft the world? How do we wrangle it, does it need to be wrangled, what are our lenses, and what are the implications of what we write? These are questions the conference will engage with.

Oh, and me! I’m speaking! I’ll be on a panel called ‘Unusual Foods and the Edible Guests’, discussing food writing with wonderful writers Amy Wright, Matthew Gavin Frank, Elena Passarello and Joni Tevis. These writers are all brilliant, and I’m feeling entirely humbled to be part of such a stellar session. I’ll be delivering a 12-minute paper on the idea of writing food memories, and how difficult that can be, and why – and how we might meet that challenge. MFK Fisher suggested that she couldn’t write about food without writing about a yearning for love and security – “We cannot straightly think of one without the others”. It follows that we can’t straightly write it, either – that’s what my paper looks at. At last reading it was 21 minutes long – I’m in the process of editing it to meet the 12 minute brief, but it’s certainly a big challenge in economy of language and clear communication.

When I pitched the trip to the City of Literature Office, I said that I’d like to investigate the ways that nonfiction – particularly creative and experimental nonfiction – is shared. I want to know how it’s published, presented and sent forth into the world. There are only a handful of journals in Australia which really embrace unconventional nonfiction writing, and I hope to come home armed with some knowledge and ideas that will help open us up to the form. Many, many thanks go to the Melbourne City of Literature Office for making the trip possible, and to the organisers of NonfictioNOW, who’ve embraced my small involvement with all generosity.

After the conference, I’ll be travelling across the United States with my partner over almost four weeks: Las Vegas, New Orleans, Washington DC, New York. I’ll be blogging the trip, and meeting new people, and trying to write meaningfully about the significance of what I learn.

I have many hopes attached to this trip, and I’m not sure they’re all reasonable. Now that I’m only a handful of days away from leaving Australia for a while, I’m realising that I hope a great deal of my own travel: I hope it helps me meet new people. I hope those people are open to sharing with me. I hope I deliver a good paper. I hope I can meet the world for what it is, and move outside my own small universe. I hope travel makes me simultaneously more and less: more open, more knowledgeable, more capable. Less inward-looking. Less scared. I’m full of questions.

Tomorrow I can get rid of the second hand for counting – there will be only 5 days to go.

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