Archive for July, 2011

Ryga, vol. 3

I have eight (8!) poems in the latest issue of Ryga. I really respect this journal’s editorial mission (which I wrote about in a post last year), so am very pleased to be published here. The issue is on newsstands now, and one of the poems in my set is also available to read online.

Books & Bikes & Dervla Murphy

A little later this month I’ll be getting together with a bunch of the cyclists from a cross-Canada trip I was part of ten years ago, and to gear up for our reunion ride I wanted some appropriate reading material. I follow a few cycle touring blogs, some of them quite well written, but I find the focus on day-to-day logistics sometimes overwhelms any sense of the landscapes and communities the writers are riding through. This is partly the nature of blogs, I guess, and I know the updates I wrote for our trip are filled with minutiae that no longer seem at all relevant, if they even were back then. In any case, this time I was looking for something a bit different.

Then I discovered one of Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy’s books at the library. South from the Limpopo: Travels through South Africa recounts three solo cycling trips Murphy made: the first in 1993, just prior to the country’s first multi-racial election, the second in April and May of 1994 to witness the elections, and the third a few months after Mandela took office. Her books are cleaned-up versions of her journal entries, so there’s the immediacy of life on the road, but Murphy’s central concern is talking to South Africans about their country’s politics and history. A rough night has less to do with a flat tire or food and shelter than with finding people who will speak candidly about their lives and opinions. But by and large she finds them, and has an incredible knack for getting them to open up. More importantly, she has the patience to listen long enough to get past the better-rehearsed versions of their stories, getting closer to the source of some deeply ingrained ideas about racial differences. I’ve started and deleted a couple of paragraphs about these ideas, but the fact is that for ignorant me, Murphy’s book was a bit of a crash course on South African history, so I’d rather let it percolate a while longer and not totally embarrass myself here. Still, I think even readers who do know more of the history than I do/did will find some of their assumptions checked in this book.

What I will say is how much I appreciated Murphy’s determination to locate her own prejudices. Although she develops friendships with many black South Africans, and lives for a time in the township of Khayelitsha, outside Cape Town, she is honest about her involuntary responses in certain situations, and ponders what these reveal about her. There is a moment when she has finished speaking with the driver of a truck and pedalled off, only to realize that in the back of the truck were three black men whose presence she had entirely failed to acknowledge. She forces herself to question whether she would have done the same thing had it been a crew of white men and concludes that it would have been impossible for her not to have noticed them.

Well worth reading. And there are many more. Murphy’s first book, Full Tilt: From Ireland to India with a Bicycle, was published in 1965 and she’s written another twenty-odd since then. She’s known for being disinterested in publicity, but there’s a recent article about her here. She turns eighty this year and is still travelling by bicycle.