Van­cou­verite’s travel es­says cover her per­sonal water­front

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Doug John­ston

GOOD travel writ­ing opens up the mind, even as it re­lates a jour­ney. Genni Gunn seems to know this in­tu­itively. And though her col­lected es­says aren’t all, or even ex­clu­sively, about travel, her in­stincts re­main sound through­out. Gunn is a Van­cou­ver-based writer who has writ­ten nine books, in­clud­ing three nov­els, the most re­cent of which, Soli­taria, was long-listed for the 2011 Giller Prize. Born in Tri­este, Italy, she came to Canada when she was 11. She dis­counts suf­fer­ing any childhood im­mi­gra­tion trauma, but her sud­denly be­ing pro­pelled from one con­ti­nent to another at least partly ex­plains why fam­ily ties fig­ure so promi­nently in this com­pi­la­tion, which has been re­leased by a small Winnipeg-based literary publisher. It also ex­plains why rec­ol­lec­tions of her early life pop up ev­ery­where — even decades later, in the midst of ex­plor­ing re­mote jun­gle vil­lages of the Asian sub­con­ti­nent. Gunn’s sub­ti­tle is en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate; though her book is partly about trav­els to for­eign climes (prin­ci­pally Myan­mar, but also Cambodia, Mex­ico and Hawaii), it’s also part childhood mem­oir of a life be­gun in another coun­try. Still other pieces are about Gunn’s past life in Canada. She spent much of her 20s as a vo­cal­ist and bass and key­board player in a suc­ces­sion of for­get­table Cana­dian tour­ing rock bands. It was an ex­is­tence ap­par­ently short on sex, dope and cheap thrills, but long on bone-tired weari­ness, en­nui and poignantly sad ob­ser­va­tions about bar­band life. Th­ese re­mem­brances-of-things-past pieces stand out, as do the es­says about her adult self re­turn­ing to childhood haunts and re-con­nect­ing with el­derly rel­a­tives in Rutigliano, a city on the Adri­atic coast of south­ern Italy sing. She has a knack for il­lu­mi­nat­ing how land­scape and his­tory, both na­tional and per­sonal, can in­ter­sect. Many of her best-ren­dered mem­o­ries are ones she shares with her older sis­ter, Ileana. Ileana — of both the past and present — is the book’s other ma­jor re­cur­ring char­ac­ter. Not only does Gunn trade childhood mem­o­ries with Ileana, but her sis­ter is of­ten her com­pan­ion on her jour­neys to South­east Asia. The book al­most re­futes Thomas Wolfe’s you-can’t-go-home-again dic­tum. Some­times, it seems, you can go home again. But only if you have a close, artis­tic and ar­tic­u­late sis­ter who’ll share, amend and viv­ify your mem­o­ries. Gunn’s trav­els of­ten left her won­drous at what she en­coun­tered. But she doesn’t over-ro­man­ti­cize Third World coun­tries. Nor does she shy away from de­scrib­ing the frus­tra­tions, dis­com­forts and even dan­gers that are the nat­u­ral lot of the ad­ven­tur­ous trav­eller. Gunn vis­ited Myan­mar sev­eral times be­tween 2006 and 2010. She treats that be­lea­guered na­tion with fas­ci­na­tion, re­spect and an eye for de­tail, in­clud­ing the po­lit­i­cal de­tails of Burmese daily life. The coun­try is run by a fab­u­lously wealthy and unimag­in­ably bru­tal mil­i­tary junta that has net­works of spies and in­form­ers ev­ery­where. Not sur­pris­ingly, low-level para­noia is om­nipresent among its peo­ple. Her tales of a par­a­disi­a­cal coun­try un­der mil­i­tary rule dis­play for­ti­tude and fine writ­ing in equal mea­sure. She never tried to put her­self in harm’s way, but ended up be­ing in­trepid in the face of men with guns, al­most in spite of her­self. The tales of jour­neys taken Gunn de­tails are mighty fine. But they’re more than matched by the in­ner jour­neys she’s tapped for this col­lec­tion. Dou­glas J. John­ston is a Winnipeg lawyer

and writer.

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