Everyone who’s traveled knows the sensation of mild disorientation that accompanies landing in a strange place. Jet lag, unfamiliar languages, getting around in strange cities — the complete absence of the familiar can produce an almost physical sense of imbalance until the traveler gets lost in the pleasures of discovery. Genni Gunn’s essay collection Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place creates this sense of travelers’ disorientation. One is thrown off balance by the unfamiliar in each essay, then gains a foothold and goes exploring.
In this collection, Gunn documents not only the travels that began in her Italian youth, but also a state of mind in which constant transit is both a source of insight and a means of inquiry about the family roots of her own restlessness.
It’s a fascinating, if uneven exploration. Well-written and keenly observed, these essays move back and forth between a conviction that wanderlust is the author’s true home — superior to “the claustrophobia of continuity” — and a longing to penetrate the mystery of her relationship to her mother: “…her feet/my feet wanting to map new soils.” This dialectical tension is the true subject of these essays, but in weighing and balancing the two uncertainties, the reader ends up feeling that the author’s voyage of discovery is in fact an extended rationale for a set of personal assumptions stated at the outset. “Travel for me is a comfortable state, a detachment from the trappings of a physical place.” The tone of the foreword infers that those who don’t travel are, in effect, trapped.
Yet this over-arching view is a useful means of imposing cohesion on a disparate group of essays.
Gunn, author of nine books (including the acclaimed novel Solitaria), has an unusual family story. As a child in postwar Italy, she was unaware that her father had worked for British intelligence during the Second World War. Her mother was an artist; both parents were independent souls. The family never lived together in their native land. She seldom saw he parents, and she and her older sister Ileana grew up apart — she with an aunt in southern Italy, her sister with their grandparents in the north. The two girls visited each other often; then at ages 7 and 8, they were shipped out from Naples to Halifax to reunite with their parents. They lived in British Columbia, but the author’s father died while still young. Her mother remained restless and unsettled all her life.
Given this background, it’s not surprising that Gunn’s reflections weave together the personal and the political. In Cambodia, she reflects on the killing fields, on the fact that no one has been charged for the crimes, that criminals and victims live side by side, that unfortunate people become scapegoats for a still-present dread. A stunning photo shows the enormous roots of a banyan tree, a crumbling temple wall in its grip. Ruins — both physical and psychological — are everywhere.
“In travel,” writes Gunn, “I search for the unstable ground, the fault lines, the deepest caves that echo my inner journey.” Some of this is literally true, all of it is metaphor. In an effort to reconnect with her sister (who was teaching in Myanmar), Gunn travelled there several times between 2006 and 2010. These opportunities to steer clear of “family histrionics” nonetheless pull her back into memory. Myanmar’s political oppression stirs vivid recollections both of Italy’s wartime fascism and her first visit back to her native country after over a decade of political violence that left 2,000 people dead.
A deep longing pervades many of these essays. Gunn returns to Italy in 2007 to visit the aunt who raised her, now the victim of a stroke. This confronts her with an intense desire for lost happiness. “I want to return to my aunt’s room…to the same old house where I spent my early childhood. I want to return to the same place, to the same memory. I want to return.”
It’s a poignant reflection. A person who accepts travel — even a sense of displacement — as a way of life also longs for roots, also hints at a family far less pleasant than it appears, also needs to escape from home while longing to return to it. These sixteen essays reflect many facets of that complcated life, a microcosm of the human condition.
Tracks: Journeys in Time and Place by Genni Gunn is published in Winnipeg, Canada by Signature Editions (2013).