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Intrepid Travellers: Canadian Women in the World

This month at 49thShelf, we're Writing the World, exploring travel guides and memoirs, and books with global issues and international themes. And this week in particular, in the run-up to International Women's Day, we're celebrating women's stories, beginning with this cross-genre list—memoir, fiction, and poetry—of Canadian women's travel tales.

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Book Cover Outside of Ordinary

Outside of Ordinary: Women's Travel Stories, edited by Lynn Cecil and Catherine Bancroft

Thirty-two Canadian women writers—including Alison Pick, Sharon Butala, and Lorna Crozier—tell their travel stories in this anthology of stories in which lives are challenged spiritually, physically, emotionally, and otherwise, as well as deeply enriched. Elaine K. Miller cycles across the Southern United States, Janet Greidanus climbs to Everest Base Camp, and Jane Eaton Hamilton, on vacation in Mexico with her partner, contemplates whether to join the fight for same-sex marriage in Canada. For it seems that travel doesn't just change one's view of the world, but it changes also how one sees one's own self, and also notions of home. 

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Burmese Lessons, by Karen Connelly

Burmese Lessons is partly the story of how Connelly came to write her celebrated novel, The Lizard Cage. I say "partly", because Burmese Lessons is about many things, strands of experience from that time in Connelly’s life plaited together. The book is subtitled "A Love Story," and much of it is the story of Connelly’s love affair with Maung, a Burmese dissident guerrilla fighter. But theirs is not the only love story: Connelly writes of her effusive love for the whole world, this one country in particular, and every corner of it, and its language and its people, and its beauty, and she seeks an understanding of its ugliness too. Burmese Lessons is very much a story of the body, of sex, of violence she witnesses inflicted upon Burmese protesters, of the sick children she sees who are dying of malaria, of her own experience with malaria, of living in the jungle and not having a bowel movement for days. Connelly holds nothing back here, and her passion is written in every line.

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Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, by Esi Edugyen

In this short book that follows-up her Giller-winning novel, Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan chooses to intertwine fact and fiction, objective and subjective, in an effort to find out if one can belong to more than one place, if home is just a place or if it can be an idea, a person, a memory, or a dream."I, who had lived so much of my life looking elsewhere, was slowly coming to acknowledge that not-belonging, also, can be a kind of belonging. There are all sorts of nations on this earth. It is a lonelier citizenship, perhaps, but a vast one." Read a short excerpt here. 

**

Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb

In her third novel, which won the Trillium Prize, and was nominated for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Gibb moves in and out of time and place, between the 1970s and 1980s in Ethiopia and London. Sweetness in the Belly is the story of the orphaned daughter of English/Irish hippies who grows up learning the Qur'an in Harar in Ethiopia and becoming immersed in the culture around her. Following the deposing of Emperor Haile Salassie in 1974, she flees to exile in London, where life as a white Muslim woman proves no less complicated, and she becomes involved reuniting Ethiopian refugees with family members. I first read this book on a Greyhound bus to Ottawa at a time when I was so broke such travel was a treat, and it served as a reminder of the wideness of the world and the wondrous stories to be discovered within it. 

**

No Place for a Lady, by Barbara Hodgson

Barbara Hodgson traces three hundred years of world travel by both the celebrated and the unknown women who endured exotic diseases, scorching heat, bed bugs, destructive thunderstorms, plagues of scorpions, and many other life-threatening situations—all in the name of adventure. From Lady Ann Fanshawe, who disguised herself as a cabin boy to confront a band of Spanish pirates, to Isabella Bird, who traversed the muddy trails of Japan by horseback despite severe back pain, the women profiled in these pages sacrificed personal comfort and respectability to pursue exotic experiences that had traditionally been open only to men.

**

Belonging, by Isabel Huggan

Belonging, a collection of essays with some short fiction thrown in for good measure, won the Charles Taylor Prize for Non-fiction in 2004, takes its reader from France (where Huggan has made her home for many years) to Canada, Kenya, the Philippines and Australia. "I know all about homesickness—sipping maple syrup from a spoon while listening to a tape cassette of loon calls, endlessly writing letters to friends, asking for news, sifting through old photographs, weeping on the telephone. I've been there, that strange and dangerous place where longing can leave you blind to everything else." 

**

Book Cover Writing Away

Writing Away: The PEN Canada Travel Anthology, edited by Constance Rooke

Published 21 years ago this year, this first PEN Canada Anthology (whose proceeds support work on free speech and writers in prison around the world) changed my life when I discovered a copy in the Hart House Library at the University of Toronto in 2002. I read Margaret Atwood's "The Grunge Look," and decided to run away to England. It wasn't just Atwood's memoir though—this wonderful collection includes essays by Dionne Brand, June Callwood, Isabel Huggan, Alice Munro, P.K. Page, Carol Shields, and even some men! It definitely deserves a place on this list, though copies have become rare. 

**

Six Mats and One Year, by Alison Smith

Smith is not the only young Canadian who has travelled to Japan to mix adventure with some income from teaching English, and she's not even the only one who came out of her Japanese experiences with a book (see Catherine Hanrahan's Lost Girls and Love Hotels, among others), but she is the only one whose book cover is designed to resemble the floor of a six mat tatami room—the kind of exquisite detail you get with a book from Gaspereau Press. And the poetry! "I left as we do our childhoods:/ rushing to escape, without souvenirs./ I collected no sake cups/ no tsukemono plates./ All this time/ a core of miso grew." 

**

The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder

This second book by Carrie Snyder (author of Girl Runner), a collection of linked short stories, was published to much acclaim and nominated for a Governor General's Award. The stories are from the perspective of Juliet, a young girl whose peace activist parents have taken their family to Nicaragua at the height of the country's post-revolutionary war. The experiences of Juliet and her family in Nicaragua have far-reaching effects upon the years to come, even after they've returned home to Canada. 

**

Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, by Alison Wearing

Years before her memoir, Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter, Wearing made her debut with Honeymoon in Purdah, the story of her travels through Iran under the guise of a honeymooner. Author Jaime Zeppa writes of Wearing's first book, "I got on the bus to Iran with Alison Wearing in Istanbul on the first page and got off in Damascus with the last. Written with great humour, candour, and tenderness, Honeymoon in Purdah transformed Iran from a country I had formerly associated with fear and black cloth and oppression to a place of a thousand colours and tastes and kindnesses. This book is why we travel and why we read travel writing: to be transported, and to return transformed."

**

Saving Rome, by Megan K. Williams

CBC broadcaster Megan Williams' debut collection of short stories about ex-pat life in Rome are fabulous, funny, and surprising, even while her characters fail to be engaged by the settings of their stories. Which is the very point—wherever you go, there you are. And life abroad is rife with frustrations and annoyances, and being engaged with one's surroundings when one is far from home can be exhausting, and there's always a friend-of-a-friend showing up to sleep on your sofa, and sometimes those people happen to be certifiably insane...

*****

What are we missing? What are your favourite travel stories by Canadian women writers or Canadian women abroad? Mavis Gallant, anyone?? 

March 2, 2015

Books mentioned in this post

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Outside Of Ordinary

Women's Travel Stories

by Lynn Cecil, edited by Catherine Bancroft
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: essays & travelogues, women

Female writers share 32 transformative stories of traveling in diverse locations — some exotic, and some more familiar.

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Burmese Lessons

Winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers and the Governor General's Literary Award

by Karen Connelly
edition: Paperback
tagged: essays & travelogues, love & romance, southeast asia

Burmese Lessons is a love story. Unlike conventional love stories, this one takes the reader into a world as dangerous and heartbreaking as it is enchanting.

When Karen Connelly finds herself in Burma in the late 1990s, she is immersed in a world of students staging mass demonstrations in opposition to Burma’s dictators, revolutionaries fighting …

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The Lizard Cage

by Karen Connelly
edition: Paperback
tagged: historical, cultural heritage, literary

Set during Burma's military dictatorship of the mid—1990s, Karen Connelly’s exquisitely written and harshly realistic debut novel is a hymn to human resilience and love.

In the sealed-off world of a vast Burmese prison known as the cage, Teza languishes in solitary confinement seven years into a twenty-year sentence. Arrested in 1988 for his inv …

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Half-Blood Blues

by Esi Edugyan
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback eBook
tagged:

The brilliant, bestselling, Giller Prize–winning novel

Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues took the literary world by storm when it was first published, captivating readers and reviewers with its audacity, power, and sheer brilliance. The novel won or was nominated for every literary prize in Canada—and many international ones, too, including the p …

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Sweetness in the Belly

by Camilla Gibb
edition: Paperback
tagged: literary, coming of age, contemporary women

NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE

Set in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia and the racially charged world of Thatcher’s London, Sweetness in the Belly is a richly detailed portrayal of one woman’s search for love and belonging. Lilly, born to British parents, eventually finds herself living as a devout, young, white Muslim woman in the ancient walled …

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No Place for a Lady

Tales of Adventurous Women Travellers

by Barbara Hodgson
edition: Hardcover
also available: Paperback
tagged: women, adventurers & explorers, social history

Barbara Hodgson traces three hundred years of world travel by both the celebrated and the unknown women who endured exotic diseases, scorching heat, bed bugs, destructive thunderstorms, plagues of scorpions and many other life-threatening situations -- all in the name of adventure. From Lady Ann Fanshawe, who disguised herself as a cabin boy to con …

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Belonging

Home Away from Home

by Isabel Huggan
edition: Paperback
tagged: france, essays & travelogues, literary

The long-awaited new book from the acclaimed short story writer, author of The Elizabeth Stories and You Never Know.

Belonging is pure pleasure to read -- entertaining, beautifully written, laced with gentle humour and perceptive insights. Shifting from memoir to fiction, it focuses on the commonplace experiences underlying our lives that are the tr …

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Belonging

Home Away from Home

by Isabel Huggan
edition: Paperback
tagged: france, essays & travelogues, literary

The long-awaited new book from the acclaimed short story writer, author of The Elizabeth Stories and You Never Know.

Belonging is pure pleasure to read -- entertaining, beautifully written, laced with gentle humour and perceptive insights. Shifting from memoir to fiction, it focuses on the commonplace experiences underlying our lives that are the tr …

rated!
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Six Mats and One Year

by Alison Smith
edition: Paperback
tagged: canadian

Over the past decade, countless young Canadians, lured by adventure and the promise of well-paid work, have travelled to Asia to teach English in the many private language schools that have sprung up there. Although these schools provide new opportunities for Asians by opening up Western language and culture, those who have travelled to Asia to tea …

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Six Mats and One Year

by Alison Smith
edition: Paperback
tagged: canadian

Over the past decade, countless young Canadians, lured by adventure and the promise of well-paid work, have travelled to Asia to teach English in the many private language schools that have sprung up there. Although these schools provide new opportunities for Asians by opening up Western language and culture, those who have travelled to Asia to tea …

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Lost Girls and Love Hotels

by C M Hanrahan
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged: contemporary women, literary, noir

Margaret is doing everything in her power to forget home. And Tokyo’s exotic nightlife—teeming with drink, drugs, and three-hour love hotels—enables her to keep her demons at bay. Working as an English specialist at Air-Pro Stewardess Training Institute by day, and losing herself in a sex- and drug-addled oblivion by night, Margaret represses …

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The Juliet Stories

by Carrie Snyder
edition: Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged: short stories (single author), family life, literary

Shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award: Fiction and selected as a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book

Juliet Friesen is ten years old when her family moves to Nicaragua. It is 1984, the height of Nicaragua's post-revolutionary war, and the peace-activist Friesens have come to protest American involvement. In the midst of this tumult, Juliet's …

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Honeymoon in Purdah

An Iranian Journey

by Alison Wearing
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
tagged: women, iran

To go beyond the legacy of revolution, religious fundamentalism and veiled women and find the real people of Iran, a young Canadian dons the cloak of Islam. The result of Alison Wearing's journey is a warm, funny and shocking collection of riveting portraits and stories about the generous, irrepressible people she met. With a novelist's love of lan …

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Saving Rome

by Megan K. Williams
edition: Paperback
tagged: short stories (single author)

Nine funny and insightful stories that delve into the lives of women searching for meaning (and survival) in an ancient metropolis awhirl in honking Fiats, smouldering cigarettes and teetering high heels.

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