Monday, March 25, 2013

Learning a New Way to Travel

at the Australian Festival of Travel Writing.

There was a great little writer's festival on in Melbourne last weekend: The Australian Festival of Travel Writing, a biennial event organised at Melbourne University by Jacqueline Dutton. I’d heard about it in the best possible way;  word of mouth at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Burma, and knew I just had to be there.

AFTW  Director Jacqueline Dutton
AFTW is a small intimate festival, the kind I like; no queues for sessions, only $25 per day for a festival pass and a very friendly atmosphere. There were excellent workshops in the days leading up to the event: with Claire Scobie, (Last Seen In Lhasa), with USA’s Rolf Potts (Vagabonding) and a very funny gala opening event where a selection of festival speakers (international and local) had 3 - 5 minutes to tell a travel story. Emceed by the Wheeler Centre’s witty Michael Williams, the speakers had the audience rolling about in the aisles, reminding us of the simple power of frank and funny story telling.

International travel writer Rolf Potts -  author of Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn't Go There.

Over the two days we were informed, entertained and challenged by panels, discussions, debates and  conversations which all in some way or other had the notion of travel at their centre. Non fiction, fiction, blogs, feature writing, voluntourism, travel writing tips, eco travel, ethical travel, gourmand travel, the future of travel -  were just some of the topics on the program. Short sessions, only an hour long, with half hour breaks in the nearby cafe and bookshop, meant you could easily last the distance and even hop between simultaneous  sessions.

I particularly enjoyed the discussion moderated by Tess Rice (Transit Lounge) with Patrick Holland (Riding The Trains in Japan, The Darkest Little Room) and Maya Ward (The Comfort of Water - A River Pilgrimage), and listening in on the conversation about India by Christopher Kremer, Alex Landragin, Claire Scobie and Josiane Behmoiras. 

Memoirist and environmental activist, Maya Ward - The Comfort Of Water

While I can’t report on all the sessions (and I aplogise to those fabulous writers I have left out) I can tell you; the talk by Rolf Potts of course was packed out, while next up the French wine writer, Oliver Magny charmed the audience with his tales of the French wine trail. Sue Gough Henly, Craig Tansley, Justin Jamieson and Natasha von Geldern gave solid tips on What it Takes to Become A Travel Writer, while Rob McFarland added practical icing to the cake with his Ten Tips For Aspiring Travel Writers. And of course the worlds current hottest travel destination, Burma, was discussed by Burmese born Michelle Aung Thin (Monsoon Bride), Brett Melzzer (Balloons Over Bagan) with Simon Westcott and Tony Wheeler.

Novelist, Michelle Aung Thin - Monsoon Bride

It was fitting that the final presentation before the last debate, was given by the godfather of travel writing and co-founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler. With fabulous slides and stories, he talked about his latest books: Badlands and Darklands - stories of travels into ‘rogue’ countries with ‘bad’ reputations such as Afghanistan, Albania, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea and more.

Tony Wheeler telling stories of visiting North Korea (just for fun).

For me however, the genius stroke of the festival was inviting Chinese writer and intellectual Xu Zhiyuan to talk about his recent foray into travel writing. Xu is editor in chief of the Chinese edition of the Business Weekly, writes columns for Yazhou Zookan and the British Financial Times and is co founder of One Way Street Library,  a bookshop and literary venue in Beijing.

Born in 1976 at the end of the cultural revolution, he joked that his generation has nothing dramatic to write about. This hasn’t stopped him publishing eleven books and gaining iconic status in China for his “firm critical stance, profound cultural background and idiosyncratic writing style.”

In his travels inside and outside China, Xu said he was interested in exploring the stories of Chinese people living on the margins. Travelling from north to south China, he lamented that the diversity of cultures is fast disappearing in a desire for national globalism.

On a trip to Mandalay in Burma where Chinese signage was banned, he noted that as China’s economic power and confidence grows, ordinary Chinese living in the diaspora still suffer discrimination.

He described the inner struggle of Chinese travellers (not those in large tour groups), who learn about their own country from the outside, and the dilemma he faces as a journalist, marrying the lack of dialogue within China, with the plethora of opinion without.

Chinese journalist, intellectual, travel writer, Xu Zhiyuan.

You often hear travel writers at festivals say there are no new places in the world to travel,  nothing left to discover, and yet listening to Xu Zhiyuan’s softly spoken sensibilities, you can't help feeling he has much to teach us about travelling in new and different ways.  One of the hopes and foresights of a festival like this is that exposure to writers like Xu Zhiyuan will lead to the translation of his works into English.

Reminding us of Camus’ views on travel,  Xu added that guidebooks like Lonely Planet give such a clear and precise map, they can make travel too restrictive and safe.

Looking up the quote he refers to from Albert Camus’ The Notebooks, I find this gem:

“What gives value to travel is fear. It is the fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. This is the most obvious benefit of travel. At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being. We come across a cascade of light, and there is eternity. This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure."

For the small crowd lucky enough to attend his talks; a Saturday conversation with Jenny Niven (from The Wheeler Centre) and again on Sunday with Chris Taylor (Harvest Season), Xu Zhiyuan brought a fresh voice and depth of insight to the tried and true topic of travel and travel writing.

One of the books to inspire Xu Zhiyuan, written in the 1930's by Lin Yutang, it became a NYTimes best seller .

Jan Cornall is a writer/performer who leads Writer's Journey retreats in inspiring international locations - Bali, Fiji, Laos, Morocco, Burma. She has written for theatre and film, and her novel, Take Me To Paradise is set in Bali between the bombings in 2002 and 2005. Jan is currently working on a short story anthology with Indonesian author Triyanto Triwikromo and a Vietnam/Cambodia travel memoir.

Find out more about all the speakers at AFTW here.


  1. Wish I had been there! Why is it you always hear about these things too late? I'm a close friend of Murphy!

  2. Well, I was lucky enough to find out before the event and now I am doing Rob McFarland's 2 day travel writing course in Melbourne - so glad I went! Thank you all for the inspiration to keep writing and keep never know where you might end up! Maribel Steel