I recently had to correct a misunderstanding when a friend asked how things were going with my travel books. No, no – time travel. Not enough material to write travel books. Plenty of material for time travel, of course. Since it’s all research and imagination, and transmuted rather than direct experience.
I am currently traveling – as I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in O’Fallon, Illinois, where I’ve never been before, and headed into Missouri in an hour or so. I’m tweeting my travels (@ericahsmith, #midwestadventure) if you care to follow along – nothing to do with the books, necessarily, though Andy might enjoy a visit to Cahokia Mounds.
In any case, the travel aspect of my novels isn’t insignificant, even if they are far from Michelin, or even Rough Guides. It’s mostly business travel – go some place, get a job done; just that you come back three minutes later and the place you went doesn’t exist in any present form – though some of it, especially as the books go on, is more accidental relocation and/or journey of personal discovery. In a rather traumatic sense, sometimes. Reading and hearing about the real-life travels of so many refugees from Syria and elsewhere of late, I can’t help thinking about my fictional World War Two refugees, and about the real people I read about when doing research for Time Goes By, who fled Nazi-occupied Europe for other parts of the world.
[Czech refugees from the Sudetenland, 1938]
Other people have made the comparison, of course, and there are many similarities and differences between the refugees of the 1930s and 40s and those of today’s crisis. There’s a big-picture view: populations do shift over time, and the countries involved will change but adjust; it’s clear that Germany, for instance, is absorbing refugees with a mind to increasing its labor force (and also to make up for its past). And World War Two refugees, along with scores of other immigrants, have made the U.S. what it is today (and will continue to do so). But the small-picture view is far more poignant: all those individual lives and deaths, illnesses and sufferings, sore feet and degradation of privacy and farewells to those never to be seen again.
When I look at real people having real life-changing experiences – the agony of drowned children, the hope of finding a job far from the height of a previous career, the desperation to cross a border – I feel kind of ashamed to be thinking about fiction. But this is part of being a writer – even a travel writer – that you never quite represent reality, but you can present a kind of shorthand version of it, a map with a symbol key, or a way to cut quick to emotional reactions in the same way that iconic photographs do. I can’t give you what NPR does, or historical newsreels, but maybe through the eyes of fictional people I can make you feel what real people might have felt. Olivia and Sam don’t just observe refugees; they become refugees, doubly so as they are trapped in a time not their own, and caught up in a flood of people forced from their homes, through the north of France to Paris, and then onwards ahead of the invading German army to the unoccupied territory in the south.
The power of fiction, however, is not just to provide representational portraits of reality; it’s to provide a bridge between those specific experiences and universal ones, so that we no longer shake our heads at TV reports and internet photos and feel sorry for distant figures, but realize more viscerally that we could be in their places. Even if we never will be; even if that sort of travel is not part of our fates. It helps more significantly to give money to refugees (and there are plenty of worthy organizations to which you can donate) but I think it helps, too, in a broader sense, to use imagination to discover what it’s like to be a small helpless part of one of these repeated surges of humanity – repeated, in different ways, throughout history, the repetition making it clear that this is part of what it means to be human. To go places, purposefully or not, willingly or not. We cling to homes, and we’re forced from them.
I spent a little time in Lexington, KY on this trip, and walked through Lexington Cemetery. I love cemeteries; that may sound morbid, but I love them because they’re full of stories. Full of time travel stories, really – reading gravestones is the faster way to whirl yourself into history. I don’t care if I have no connection to the people buried somewhere – as far as I know I’ve had no Kentucky ancestors – I can still trace family histories just from what’s written in memoriam. The heartbreaking deaths of young children; the first wives dead in childbirth, second wives outliving husbands. A 100-year-old woman dead a year after a man who must have been her son. Opulent statues for patriarchs in family plots, giving way to plain stones a generation or two later. Wars and epidemics. It’s all there. And you can tell this was, for a time, the frontier:
Wish it was a better photo, sorry – but I was struck by the family who found it important to note that though their members had died in Kentucky, they were from New Jersey and New York originally. They were travelers; we have to imagine, though, whether they regretted coming west, were boasting of their cosmopolitan origins, or were telling the world how far they’d come. It would be a good story.