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  • "Experiencing It through the Skin:"Karen Connelly's Writing on Travel
  • Magali Sperling Beck

The crossing of borders is part of human experience, and the stories we tell of our journeys inform how we imagine ourselves and others in the world.1 In fact, narratives of geographical displacement have become pivotal in the production and understanding of cultural identities, mainly due to the potential encounters and revisions these narratives depict and reenact. It is exactly from this space of possibility that this paper departs, beginning with a discussion of two short excerpts from texts that negotiate moments of travel and encounter. The first is taken from Canadian writer Karen Connelly's One Room in a Castle: Letters from Spain, France and Greece, in which she collects not only letters, but stories, reflections, and impressions from these three places in which she lived for various lengths of time. In the last section of her book, when writing about her experiences in Greece, Connelly records what she calls a "Greek lesson":


Out. In. Eime exo. Eime mesa. I am out, I am in.

Thelon na eime mesa. I want to be in. Eime mesa. I am in. The Greek expression to denote belonging, intrinsic understanding of a given place, event, or situation. Eime mesa.

(One Room 342)

This seemingly straightforward account not only describes the meaning of words in a different language, but also alerts the reader to Connelly's reflections about her travel writing. Her choice of Greek words to learn reveals the paradoxical attempt to grasp, in a foreign language, the concept of belonging or, in other words, to comprehend through difference what it means to possess an understanding of place. As a writer who embraces travel and encounters with difference as ways into self-explorations, Connelly elaborates something emblematic about the experience of displacement: [End Page 202] understanding eime mesa means understanding eime exo. One is imbricated in the other. In order to belong, one needs to not-belong.

This sort of duality also appears in the following excerpt from Holly Luhning's "Traveling: Poetic Notes," published in a collection of Canadian women's travel writing. In this piece, Luhning reflects on her travel poems:

When we write about landscape, travel, and place, we reveal as much about ourselves as we do about the worlds represented. […] The exotic acts as a catalyst to thinking about the familiar.

Although we often think of home as being fixed and stable, […] home can also function as a place to escape to, and escape from. […] This state of movement, of travel, is necessary in order to perceive the entire picture of the narrator's relationship to home. Without distance, her comprehension of home is one-dimensional, what has always been known; only while displaced is she able to re-view the place with which she's most familiar.


The above passage shows Luhning's search for an articulation of the notions of "home" and "away." These are concepts in which the relation of signification does involve an awareness of "not-being," but, as Luhning's piece seems to suggest, this relation also reflects transiency. Similarly to the considerations present in the excerpt from Connelly's work cited above, Luhning's elaborations on the idea of "home" or of belonging are constructed through movement.

This paper begins with the kinds of questions that surface in Connelly's and Luhning's quotations, as they allow me to explore issues of dislocation and movement in connection to current debates on identity. Both Luhning and Connelly are among a group of contemporary Canadian women writers who incorporate the experience of "not being at home" into their works as a way to reinvent their selves. For them, the crossing of borders is marked by their gendered, cultural, and social bodies, which are constantly reading, and being read, by the people they encounter. If travel and exploration have been traditionally approached as "masculine" endeavours, many of these women challenge this view as they engage in physical and literary experiences of travel, further investigating the connections between the inner and outer worlds. As the titles of collections of women's travel literature, such as Outside of Ordinary...


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pp. 202-217
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