Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Travel writing that could use some feminist advice

Book review of Embracing the Dragon: A woman's journey along the Great Wall of China (Wellington: Awa Press, 2004). Cross-posted from At the Bay.

I guess I should have been warned by the girlie-looking pink dragon on the cover that this wasn't going to be my kind of book. The pink dragon itself is not Greeks' fault, but gosh, what a depressing read. The author, a young woman who embarked on an extraordinary project no Western woman had attempted before - walking some of the most remote and dangerous parts of the Great Wall of China - has written a a book that isn't so much about China as it is about her hopelessly mismatched relationship with Nathan Gray, a young man obsessed and possessed by the Wall. This strikes me as a disappointingly wasted opportunity for some really interesting travel writing, but the narrative does, unwittingly, reveal a cautionary tale that all adventurous, romantic, bookish young women should think about before they hitch their dreams to someone else's.

If Greeks were a better writer, this tale of a dangerous expedition by two high-spirited, hot-tempered New Zealanders could have been more skilfully interwoven with the counter-tale of their volatile erotic relationship, perhaps even using the treacherous landscape as a metaphor for the casual cruelty of her lover, but somehow it never quite works like that. Greeks veers between hackneyed descriptions (a woman's mouth predictably makes "a perfect 'oh' of surprise", merchants in a market are "eagle-eyed", the water in a much-needed shower "cascades in cool beads of silver", houses "crowd together like a mouthful of crooked teeth") and lengthy soliloquies about how her illnesses and how her man done her wrong, but photographs are few, and really compelling descriptions of the extraordinary landscape even fewer.

But I was not unmoved by Embracing the Dragon. What woman who's been through a bad relationship can fail to sympathize with Greeks' absorbing desire for everything to "be all right", her heart-wrenching willingness to forgive Gray's insensitivities and unkindnesses, and her contradictory urges to get the hell away while she can? Who doesn't feel a twinge of familiar, uncomfortable pain at her hopeful eagerness when Gray makes one of his increasingly rare shows of affection? Who hasn't made the mistake of trying to make someone else's aspirations their own, and hoped and hoped and hoped to change that person's unattractive qualities, and suffered endlessly at their little put-downs, their little gestures of uncaring, and their ingratitude at the sacrifices we have made for them? Who hasn't tried to portray the man who rejects us as an immature creep incapable of love?

I guess what a woman in such a position doesn't always realize is that perhaps adventurous men don't want us to follow them on epic journeys. Perhaps men don't want us to make sacrifices for them or to make their goals our goals. Perhaps relationships would function a great deal better if women made our own epic journeys and followed our own adventurous instincts, rather than casting ourselves in the rĂ´le of helpmeet or supporter to someone else's adventures. It's hard to love the subservient and the dependent - and who is less suited to do so than a professional explorer? How frustrating, how maddening it must have been for Gray, an experienced traveller, to embark on this tremendous journey with a lover who has impulsively quit her job and shown up in China with no guide book, no phrase book, and no language skills, thus needing his protection as if she were a helpless baby. As Greeks comes to this realization herself, the sadder and sadder I felt for her. In some ways, her journey is a lot of women's journey, and sends a strong feminist message about how we place ourselves in a position of dependence on men to our peril and our heartbreak.

Postscript: You can read Nathan Gray's side of the story in First Pass Under Heaven, published by Penguin, 2006.


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