Vici Johnstone, Ed., This Place a Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone(Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin, 2015). Paperbound, 224 pp., $24.95.
I’ve travelled on my own many times and the clear prose of This Place a Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone would have been a welcome companion. In the past, I’ve started books about adventuring women only to put them down, disappointed because the focus was on the external rather than the more interesting and complex internal journey. Yvonne Blomer, Shannon Webb-Campbell, and the other authors of the twenty-three essays in this collection, have layered and woven the personal with the public, and candid honesty with pertinent details so we get a real sense of who the writer is in that particular place. And that, for me, is the main point of travelling alone: discovering a foreign land is a bonus to the insights I glean about myself.
This is the first anthology edited by Vici Johnstone, who owns B.C.-based Caitlin Press, and her experience in media and publishing is evident. It’s an inspiring, insightful, and sometimes sobering odyssey of the spirit. Johnstone brings together award-winning and emerging writers of varying backgrounds who contemplate difficult physical and emotional journeys, from a Lithuanian city to remote Bolivia or a Walmart parking lot. The writers use words to navigate the thin membrane between freedom and loneliness. They explore the contradictions inherent in travel and the ways that we are changed by foreign places. Most of the writing is beautifully sparse and emotive. There is no whitewashing of traumatic events—men still grope and rape lone women—and no glossing over the complexity of travelling as one of the privileged in countries where there is little health care or few human rights. At the same time, the writers have provided just enough information so the reader isn’t overwhelmed. They don’t preach; they question and search.
There is something wildly delicious about this collection, about real women doing real- women things: we’re queer, straight, single, divorced, young, older, in love; we’re mothers, we’re rejected and confused. These are true tales written by women who want to escape the human desire to cluster, who seek solitude, independence, and freedom from labels—sometimes while juggling the guilt of leaving family behind. We smoke shisha in Sudan (Yamuna Flaherty) and kayak with a broken-hearted researcher in the Yukon (Kim Melton). We experience emigration and alienation standing outside the doorway to a childhood home in Bratislava (Miriam Matejova), and we take our failing body to Egypt during the Arab Spring (Julia Selinger). We search for Anishinaabemowin words for travel (Waaseyaa’sin Christine Sy), and we motorbike across eastern Canada with the “scrappy, shabby’’ insecurities of not being good enough (Lori Garrison).
Reading is not objective and, as I made my way through the essays, I wanted to contact some of the writers, to tell them I got it. They captured the recurring ephemera of our lives: a desire to be taken seriously, the heightened pleasure of being alone and autonomous, the rebellious act of doing what we want rather than what’s expected of us, and the giddy joy, the strength and resilience that comes from these things.
Each essay has been constructed with care and the anthology is paced so the reader is not only walking with different people in different countries but also strolling along inside the writer’s head. We see how the mind of a poet works as Kelly Pitman explores a small town in Cape Cod before “wrestling a poem to the mat,’’ and we watch Jane Eaton Hamilton survey her broken self through the lens of Paris. Chaos is often camouflaged under the appearance of ordinary. There is also levity and humour. While hiking in Austria, Sarah Paynter tries to shake off a pestering male: “Oh goody. He reeked of beer and cigarettes, which was exactly what I’d hoped the Alps would smell like.’’
Humour helps to underpin the unexpected gains rather than the hazards of solo travel. We can all learn to travel smarter from people like Trysh Ashby-Rolls, who was held hostage for weeks in Spain in the 1960s, as well as from a couple of other writers who let their guard down around unknown men. But we don’t forego solo adventure, just as we don’t barricade ourselves in our homes or give in to the over-riding narrative that pins women as too weak to travel alone. We mark these stories for teenage daughters and sons and students to read because travelling alone is about testing who we are when the familiar props are removed. If we don’t set out on these journeys, how will we know?