Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vancouverite's travel essays cover her personal waterfront

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Good travel writing opens up the mind, even as it relates a journey. Genni Gunn seems to know this intuitively.

And though her collected essays aren't all, or even exclusively, about travel, her instincts remain sound throughout.

Gunn is a Vancouver-based writer who has written nine books, including three novels, the most recent of which, Solitaria, was long-listed for the 2011 Giller Prize.

Born in Trieste, Italy, she came to Canada when she was 11.

She discounts suffering any childhood immigration trauma, but her suddenly being propelled from one continent to another at least partly explains why family ties figure so prominently in this compilation, which has been released by a small Winnipeg-based literary publisher.

It also explains why recollections of her early life pop up everywhere -- even decades later, in the midst of exploring remote jungle villages of the Asian subcontinent.

Gunn's subtitle is entirely appropriate; though her book is partly about travels to foreign climes (principally Myanmar, but also Cambodia, Mexico and Hawaii), it's also part childhood memoir of a life begun in another country. Still other pieces are about Gunn's past life in Canada.

She spent much of her 20s as a vocalist and bass and keyboard player in a succession of forgettable Canadian touring rock bands. It was an existence apparently short on sex, dope and cheap thrills, but long on bone-tired weariness, ennui and poignantly sad observations about bar-band life.

These remembrances-of-things-past pieces stand out, as do the essays about her adult self returning to childhood haunts and re-connecting with elderly relatives in Rutigliano, a city on the Adriatic coast of southern Italy sing. She has a knack for illuminating how landscape and history, both national and personal, can intersect.

Many of her best-rendered memories are ones she shares with her older sister, Ileana.

Ileana -- of both the past and present -- is the book's other major recurring character. Not only does Gunn trade childhood memories with Ileana, but her sister is often her companion on her journeys to Southeast Asia.

The book almost refutes Thomas Wolfe's you-can't-go-home-again dictum. Sometimes, it seems, you can go home again. But only if you have a close, artistic and articulate sister who'll share, amend and vivify your memories.

Gunn's travels often left her wondrous at what she encountered.

But she doesn't over-romanticize Third World countries. Nor does she shy away from describing the frustrations, discomforts and even dangers that are the natural lot of the adventurous traveller.

Gunn visited Myanmar several times between 2006 and 2010. She treats that beleaguered nation with fascination, respect and an eye for detail, including the political details of Burmese daily life.

The country is run by a fabulously wealthy and unimaginably brutal military junta that has networks of spies and informers everywhere. Not surprisingly, low-level paranoia is omnipresent among its people.

Her tales of a paradisiacal country under military rule display fortitude and fine writing in equal measure. She never tried to put herself in harm's way, but ended up being intrepid in the face of men with guns, almost in spite of herself.

The tales of journeys taken Gunn details are mighty fine. But they're more than matched by the inner journeys she's tapped for this collection.

 

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 4, 2014 A1

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