Beyond Travel Lit / by N. Dhar

When we first began Elsewhere Lit we envisioned a journal of literature and art that not only engaged the writer or artist’s personal relationship to place, but that also acknowledged and wrestled with the political nature of this relationship. Much of contemporary writing about place falls under the category of travel writing. This genre encompasses a broad range of work, not all of which employs a colonial gaze. Books like Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Lorca’s poems about New York, Jamaica Kinkaid’s A Small Place, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Tiphanie Yanique’s The Land of Love and Drowning offer counter-narratives to literary tourism.  With Elsewhere Lit we wanted to offer a space for similar work, work that turned the colonial gaze back on itself, that ruptured the conventions and traversed the boundaries of travel writing. We believe that thinking deeply about one’s relationship to place is always necessarily a political act. To visit any locale, whether on the page or on the ground, means to touch a stranger’s feet with our own feet, to rub shoulders with ghosts, to fill our lungs with the air of countless spoken narratives. To be anywhere means to place our bodies and our histories in conversation with one another. To ignore these bodies and their histories in U.S. and international art and literature about place in the era of globalization and ongoing neo-imperialist conflicts means to write around the elephant in the room, to produce work whose center contains an elephant-shaped hole.

By starting Elsewhere Lit, we wanted to build a space for the poetics and politics of place to grow their intertwining roots. The work we’ve selected thus far reflects this intertwining. Four issues later, the ground we’ve cleared here has grown lush with narratives of places and their secret histories, their unseemly corners, their cracked borders. Art about place disrupts the notion of background, of static settings, of empty space. As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography “photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.” We believe this to be true of all art. We wish Elsewhere Lit to be composed of creative work that gets to yes by way of this initial no.  

We don’t wish to create a museum in which our readers will safely gaze upon the precious relics of the past from behind panes of glass, quietly ignoring the story of love and loss behind each object and the image of their own reflection superimposed over the remains of other people’s narratives. Instead, we seek work that compels the reader and/or viewer to peer closer.

The Brazilian Portuguese word saudade, a word that emerges from a history of colonialism and empire, describes the love that remains for a place or person in the wake of their absence. The word encompasses the deep melancholy but also the heightened sense of being alive that comes with reflecting on a place or person that one has left. Whatever your chosen topic, we encourage you to use saudade as your model. When writing and creating art about place, whether it’s a cul de sac, a warehouse, a trailer, a cellar, a penthouse, an abandoned factory, a childhood home, a war-torn country, a drought-ridden countryside, pay attention to the bodies that inhabit and have inhabited those locales, whose narratives have rendered space into place. Strive to capture both the melancholy and the being alive, the dark history and the song.

Dena Afrasiabi

Dena Afrasiabi‘s fiction has appeared in The ButterJMWWPrick of the Spindle and the anthology Tremors: New Fiction by Iranian American Writers among other publications. She has been featured in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions and her short story collection,All That You Think is Rain was selected as a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She’s currently at work on a novel.