Travel Writing World Author Profile

Monica Connell stops by Travel Writing World again, this time to answer a few questions about her career as a writer. She is the author of several books including Against a Peacock Sky: Two Years in the Life of a Nepalese Village (Eland 2014) and most recently Gathering Carrageen (Sandstone 2015), a memoir about her time in Ireland.

How did you first become interested in writing travel books?
I was studying Anthropology at Oxford University and went to a remote village in north-west Nepal to do the fieldwork for a doctorate. The idea, at that time, was that anthropologists live in a place for at least two years, learning the language and participating as much as possible in daily life. Those two years changed me deeply and I realized I no longer wanted to force everything I’d experienced into the straightjacket of an academic thesis. I wanted to write about my relationship with the family who shared their home with me, I wanted to describe the weather, the landscape, the seasons, my own emotions, and the difficulties I encountered—all of which would have been irrelevant to a thesis. So I left the University and wrote what eventually became a travel book

Monica ConnellHow did you manage to get your first travel book published?
At first, I had a lot of rejections, many publishers saying the book fell between categories being neither conventional travel writing, nor memoir, nor anthropology. But amongst the rejections, there was enough encouragement to keep me trying. In the end, I found an agent who secured me a contract with Penguin not only for this book but for a second one yet to be written.

What is your writing process like, both on the road and at home? And how long does it take you to write a book inclusive of the research, travel, writing, and editing phases?
My first book took about ten years: one researching and learning Nepali, two-and-a-half in the village in Nepal, and about seven writing—including working out how to structure the book and finding a voice. I made notes in the village, in a book that became so black from filth and smoke, I could hardly bear to look at it when I got home. I tried using a voice recorder but found it intrusive. Photos were invaluable for visual memories. Prose style is important to me and I build my books slowly, paragraph by paragraph, hoping to transport the reader to the situation I’m describing through language and rhythm. I rarely do second drafts and edit minimally.

What travel books or travel authors influence or inform your own work?
John Berger’s Pig Earth and Once in Europa. What inspires me most about them is that, although their intention is to ‘document the eclipse of peasant culture’ in Europe, they are novels. I started to wonder if an artistic approach might convey an extra dimension—emotional perhaps—that is often lacking in travel writing. Both my books read as collections of short stories. I have also enjoyed Robyn Davidson, Geoff Dyer, Peter Matthiessen, Norman Lewis, and Dervla Murphy.

What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?
Go with an open mind. Let the experience come to you rather than shaping it with your own preconceptions, or an agenda you want to fulfill. Learn at least some of the language. Treat everyone you meet, their culture and beliefs with respect, even if you disagree. Don’t be daunted by publishers’ rejections — a submission one publisher hates, another may love.

What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?
It confuses genres, shifting between memoir, documentary, fiction, narrative non-fiction, and —why not? — poetry.

Why write about travel?
Travelling, especially if you stay in one place for a long period of time, is a humbling experience. You learn the relativity of many of the values and much of the conditioning you have never questioned. For both writers and readers, understanding and empathizing with other cultures is surely the basis for a kinder, more humane, world.

Monica Connell is the author of Against a Peacock Sky: Two Years in the Life of a Nepalese Village and most recently Gathering Carrageen (Sandstone 2015), a memoir about her time in Ireland.

Travel Writing World Podcast; Against a Peacock Sky with Monica Connell

‘An interview with Jeremy Bassetti about Monica’s time in a Nepalese village and the writing of her book ‘Against a Peacock Sky’.

You can listen to the podcast on the Travel Writing World website 
You can visit Monica’s author profile on Travel Writing World here.
Monica Connell

Eland Newsletter Article

‘I spent a good part of the summer reminiscing about my time in Nepal for the Eland Newsletter.’

‘How did you do it?’ is a question I’m often asked by people who read Against a Peacock Sky, my account of two years in a remote village in northwestern Nepal in the early 80s. This is often closely followed by a reference to my comment that ‘several times, when I had fleas, lice, worms and diarrhoea all at once, I actually dreamt of a bathroom’.

AGAINST A PEACOCK SKY Two Years in the Life of a Nepalese Village – Monica Connell

The village, called Talphi, was ten days’ walk from the nearest road and one from the airstrip in Jumla Bazaar where small aircraft landed sporadically during the winter and never during the monsoon. The reason I was there, with my partner Peter, was to do the fieldwork for a PhD in anthropology. It was partly because of this that my focus in the book is the village and the family who shared its home and life with us, rather than myself and my own emotions.

But to answer this question: it was hard, sometimes very hard, and I’m not sure I could do it now, but with hindsight I feel utterly privileged to have had the experience.

The village had no running water or electricity. The bathroom was the river, drinking water river water, and the toilet was the bushes (or for some the village paths and river banks). For lighting we used splints of pine wood gouged from deep inside the biggest trees. They were almost translucent pink from resin and burned with smoke so black that soon our faces, hands, ankles, books, clothes and sleeping bags were permanently engrained with soot. For warmth and cooking there was a small fireplace in the centre of the room, but no chimney (which would have allowed access for evil spirits), so thick smoke hung in the air, causing our eyes to stream and our heads to ache, until eventually it seeped out under the eaves.

Against a Peacock Sky by Monica ConnellBut, for me, these physical hardships were nothing compared to the emotional ones. Before we arrived many of the villagers had never seen foreigners, let alone white ones, so their curiosity was understandable, but I was occasionally reduced to tears when groups of people gathered round us pointing and laughing, reaching out to touch us and talking about us as though we were animals in a zoo. Then, there was the local conviction that we were doctors and had infinite supplies of medicine. It was useless trying to convince people that they needed to go to the hospital (the nearest health post) a day’s walk away, so we did our best with a medical manual and the medicaments we had brought with us and later replenished. But I shudder now to think of the terrible injuries and afflictions that people we knew and cared about trusted us to cure.

Perhaps it was because of these general discomforts that small joys took on added proportions: the view from our window of snow capped Patrasi Himal changing with the light from ice blue to golden; our friendship with the family which deepened as our language skills improved; my expeditions with Kali, the ten-year-old daughter and my closest friend, to gather wild strawberries in the forest; a boar-hunt with the village men on a frosty winter’s morning.

This year my friend’s son is on his gap year. A month ago he Skyped his parents from a pizza restaurant in Rajasthan – they saw him sitting there with hazy yellow buildings in the background. As he toured he searched each new destination on his iPhone for yoga classes and cheap restaurants. Now he is in South America travelling with and meeting other young people from London, where he lives, and all over the world. From time to time photos appear on Facebook: a group of school leavers, grinning, pulling faces, happy with their new-found freedom and the possibilities ahead.

But many of these pictures could have been taken anywhere. Television, the Internet, Facebook and other social media are spreading a single culture throughout the world, which is both exploited and driven by multinational companies. Even the most remote communities are losing their unique identities in a bid to modernise and promote tourism.

This is why I feel privileged to have spent those years in Talphi, a village whose culture had barely changed for hundreds of years. The people were subsistence farmers; everything they needed they grew, made, bartered, gathered in the wild, or in the case of animals, bred. Fields were tilled with oxen and wooden plough shares; doors were tree trunks chipped flat with adzes; men’s clothes were typically sheep’s wool, spun, woven and stitched in the village; women’s skirts were tubes of rough cotton printed with a wooden stamp and natural dyes; oil was pressed by hand from wild walnuts and the fruit of thorn bushes; hair was washed with mud, dishes with cinders and ash.

How many cultures like this are left in the world? I haven’t been back to Talphi but Peter tells me a missionary has settled close to the village and many people now wear crosses. This will undoubtedly lead to the demise of the traditional religion and full moon festival when, to the roar of kettledrums, local gods enter the shamans’ bodies to dance and answer questions about sickness, crop failure and family feuds. There is also now electricity, radio and a monthly film show.

Much of this is inevitable and for the better. But as I wheel my supermarket trolley through aisles stuffed with processed and packaged foods from all over the world I sometimes remember the delight on Kali’s face as she offered us a rare bowl of milk in summer, when the cows were yielding, or a handful of wild greens that she had picked in the hills.

I am deeply grateful for my time in Talphi, which changed me profoundly; and I am grateful too to Eland for their commitment to keeping alive accounts of this and other extraordinary places throughout the world.

You can read the article online on the Eland publisher’s website here.