Novelist and T+L contributing editor Gary Shteyngart on how he travels, and why.
A few years back a friend of mine took me out to eat with several recent college graduates. As soon as I was introduced as a novelist, the cheerful, sangria-fueled table stopped chattering as my new friends tried to digest exactly what that meant. “So…you…write…books.” It reminded me of one of the first questions I was asked at a reading after my first book came out: “What’s the difference between, like, fiction and a novel?” Since that reading took place in Los Angeles, the next question was to be expected: “So who directed your book?”
This time around, I knew to head off the conversation at the pass immediately. “I also write about travel,” I said, to a chorus of “Wow!” and “Awesome!” and “Where was the last place you went?” and “Isn’t Bangkok’s new airport the bomb?”
The ascendancy of travel writing as a serious endeavor is not exactly new. It’s possible to think of Don Quixote as an extended travelogue, and, if you’re so inclined, the Book of Exodus. As a teacher of fiction writing at Columbia University, I am no longer surprised when my students drop by during office hours with the question, “How do I break into travel writing?”
To write well about travel requires an emotional attachment to the idea that life is composed of a series of shifts. Being an immigrant, or someone with roots in more than one culture, helps. But really all it takes is being an emotional immigrant. The next place you land should seem as real to you, if not more real, than the place you left behind. When I was six, my family left Leningrad for a one-week stay in Vienna, followed by a half-year in Rome, followed by a small lifetime in Queens, New York. Our existence was an endless trail of train stations and airports, men in official hats bearing heavy passport stamps, the crunch of authority against travel documents. And because I was a child and lacked any sense of tragedy—the tragedy of leaving one’s culture and language behind—each newly cracked train timetable, each fog-choked airplane takeoff was thrilling. When we hunkered down in Queens for 10 years of relative poverty and zero plane travel, I was heartbroken. Why weren’t we moving? I spent large parts of my childhood on my grandmother’s fire escape, watching TWA 707’s nosing into LaGuardia.
Today’s traveler is often confronted by hordes of newly minted tourists from Russia and China. Some bemoan their lack of manners, but I am always glad to see people from repressed places let out of their holding pens, if only for a few weeks. My aunt left the Soviet Union during the tail end of the Gorbachev era, and she used her tiny salary to travel as far as Switzerland and Japan, living on air and water, sometimes solely on air. Many of us ex-Soviets grew up with the idea that the best you can do with your life is to pack your luggage and head for the airport.
There are differences in how one conducts the Grand Tour these days. Chinese and Russian travelers, whether in groups or alone, seem to pass through the traditional gauntlet of museums and temples. When I return to St. Petersburg, if only for a few days, I pay my respects to the Hermitage, cultural duty mixing with childhood memories. But I cannot remember the last time a museum visit has truly moved me, or radically changed the way I perceived the lay of the land. Maybe the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, in Seoul, did the trick, the quiet brilliance of its celadon ceramics contrasting nicely with the electronic hustle outside. The fact that the museum carries the name of Samsung made it doubly so.
But many of us now want more than the chance to see our jet-lagged faces reflected in a museum vitrine. The contemporary Western traveler wants to see the lives of others—maybe actually live them (cue Airbnb). Blown away by Shanghai, saddened that I had only a few days in the city, I found myself transfixed by the postings outside a real estate office. My mind flashed with figures. If the average Shanghai resident earns x per year, how on earth can she afford to buy an apartment for y? Real estate prices, the insane hunt for the best soup dumpling in town, the thrill of nearly having your leg shorn off by some kind of motorized post-donkey-cart—all of these come together to form our impressions of a place. Each of them can be the start or end of a travel piece.
I used to jot down my travel notes in a series of miniature reporter’s notebooks, but now most of my notes are typed on an iPhone and make for a long string of non sequiturs when I return home. “Some of Dubai’s pale-brick mega-architecture oddly mirrors the Creedmor mental facility in Queens.” “Eat around the actual fish and u find little morsels of flava.” “Emiratis r really into decoration.” Off-the-cuff iPhone photos—an ATM dispensing gold jewelry in Abu Dhabi, for example—complement these musings. Returning to my hotel late at night after a few shots of Turkish raki or Chinese baijiu, I can whip out the laptop and make some truly grandiose generalizations along the lines of “Damaged people from a damaged country can’t just suddenly become whole.”
Another key to travel writing is to have friends. Like a CIA agent cultivating new operatives, I think half the reason I still attend parties is to make sure that when I fly into BKK or HKG, or even ATL, I will have someone on the ground who knows the place better than I know my own New York. Because I’m not looking as much for the sights, or the shops, or even the food stalls (okay, maybe the food stalls), as I am for opinions. I want to get off a plane and start chatting with my friends right away, seeing the landscape through their seasoned eyes, and typing “Emiratis r really into decoration” into my phone. I want to hear not just the exultations about the best fried chicken on the planet and the second best tripe in Lazio, but great outpourings of disappointment and regret. To steal from Tolstoy: each happy country is alike (and dreadfully boring, I might add); each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. I know I’ve hit upon something when, deep into the night, the last lights of some garish new skyscrapers twinkling off until dusk, someone whispers to me some version of: “Please don’t quote me, okay? But everything here is a lie.”
Often I’m afraid. Not for my life so much. These days, from Ramallah to Baku to Asheville, the world is actually shockingly safe. I’m afraid that I won’t get it right. That I’ll bring too many biases. That I won’t see the lies. When my plane lands in Beijing, a city of 20 million, I know I have just eight days to come up with something original and insightful about the place. Yes, I’ve already made all the right connections before boarding at Newark and tonight I will meet a Chinese American former rock star who, if his Internet musings are anything to go by, is one of the smartest and funniest people in the People’s Republic. And so, jet-lagged but full of purpose, swinging my luggage from escalator to moving walkway, cutting off that truly annoying Belgian couple whose child has been drooling on me for 20 hours, running toward the bittersweet word immigration, with the universal symbol of a man in a cap examining an open book, I begin my new life.