On Influence

This project was partly inspired by seeing and then reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which reminded me that I’ve always wanted to do a long hike and made me see that now is the time to do it: I’m into my 40’s, and things I used to be able to take for granted (like my back) I suddenly can’t, while my kids, on the other hand, are becoming independent, and getting stronger and more skilled. This is the sweet spot, when we can all hike at the same pace and with the same intensity.

The conceit of Strayed’s book is that the hike allowed her physically to work through the grief and turmoil following her mother’s untimely death: the promotional material on her website says the hike “maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.” While I do think about my backcountry experiences as a way of confronting myself, I’m not hoping for closure, and I am trying to resist writing much of it into the account (though it’s a hard impulse for me to resist). I’m old enough to know that the breach doesn’t get closed in this life. I’m scratched up and bleeding and don’t expect not to be anytime soon. My aim is to live attentively within the painful contradictions of vocation, matrimony, and parenthood, not to resolve them.

Crossing a river in central Mongolia
No bridge? No problem!

And then I was fired up by this, a project that made the rounds of the liberal news media this summer. Like a lot of the cultural coverage by NPR, it’s insidiously androcentric. This particular project details ten or twelve literary road trips, an undertaking with which I have a lot of affinity, being a kind of road trip afficionado myself. Only just this summer I drove from LA to Boston and back again with the kids. (This is not even to mention the Russian-jeep-dirt-road odysseys of physical and emotional endurance I undertook in Mongolia). On the pedagogical side, I used to teach Kerouac’s On the Road to high schoolers using a map as a (only mildy effective, it turned out) learning aid: part of our “reading comprehension” at the beginning of each lesson was for one lucky student to win control of the sharpie and push pins and map out the route covered in the previous night’s reading. But check out those trips the Atlas Obscura memorializes: only one is a woman’s, and it’s Cheryl Strayed’s. I call bullshit on literary projects that lionize the male establishment and do squat to incorporate the voices of nondominant perspectives. If they don’t even try, they’re just rehearsing the grand argument that’s been handed down to us by a traditionally patriarchal literary establishment: that a white male perspective stands in for, trumps, and is generally richer and more interesting than the more “particular” perspectives of women and racial minorities.

I incorporate texts by authors writing from nondominant social positions in my scholarship and in my curricula, but why not write my own road trip? Why not pipe up? Why wait for the word when I can write it?

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