What Our Writers Read, Watched and Listened to Before Their Big Trips9 min read
Before they’d even arrived, all three of the features writers for T’s Travel issue immersed themselves in the place to which they were going with a number of books, television shows, songs and films. After all, the assignment — to return to somewhere they had once visited as a different person and examine the way the it reflected both their old and new selves — was a true test of memory. The assignment revealed that strange way our minds work: how much music or literature can transport us to a different place and time as much as the destination itself. Who among us can listen to a song that we first heard, say, while visiting Rio de Janeiro years ago, and suddenly smell the salty air of the ocean or see the cramped and enormous city glittering against the jungle? Below, a comprehensive but by no means exhaustive list of what Aatish Taseer, Maaza Mengiste and Thomas Page McBee read, watched and listened to in preparation for their travels. — Thessaly La Force
Three writers retake trips they made when they were different people — and experience a place other than the one they thought they knew.
– Switzerland: Maaza Mengiste revisits Mount Pilatus after a life-changing first trip there.
– The Grand Canyon: Thomas Page McBee returns to the landmark with his mother’s ashes and reflects on what he’s forgotten — and remembers.
– Istanbul: In trying to understand the complexities of the city, Aatish Taseer examines both his past and present selves.
Aatish Taseer’s Istanbul Recommendations
“De Profundis” (1905) by Oscar Wilde
Wilde’s letter to his lover Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) from jail meant the world to me when I was a closeted young man in love with someone who was also living a secret life. It gave me my earliest intimation of the price both of hiding and disclosure.
“The Waste Land” (1922) by T. S. Eliot
This poem conveyed the mood of Europe laid low after the First World War, of exiled royalty and assassinations, which followed me through the ghost lands of the Ottoman Empire as my girlfriend and I traveled south from Venice on our way to Istanbul in 2005.
“A Bend in the River” (1979) and “In a Free State” (1971) by V. S. Naipaul
I go to Naipaul for his understanding of the mechanics of the past, as well as his fear of what he used to describe as “the danger of falling into lies.” As he writes, “the only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.”
“The Museum of Innocence” (2008) by Orhan Pamuk
I adore this book: It captures a kind of yearning whose full power we are only really able to appreciate when youth is gone and the objects of our obsession have shed their power.
“Destinations” (1980) by Jan Morris
Can I just say: Jan Morris is wonderful! I have ransacked this collection of urban profiles for the quality of the writing and her ability to capture the inner lives of cities.
“The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs” (2021) by Marc David Baer
Essential reading for anyone who has failed to see the extent to which the Ottoman Empire was in the main a European one, a world of hybridity in which culture mattered no less than religion.
“Istanbul” (1998) by John Freely
An absolutely first-rate run though the history of this coastal Greek colony that went on to become the greatest city on earth.
“A Mind at Peace” (1948) by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar
Pamuk’s favorite novel about Istanbul requires some work on the part of the reader, but is a marvelous window into the early years of the Turkish Republic.
“Notes on a Foreign Country” (2017) by Suzy Hansen
We travel to see ourselves from a distance. Hansen’s book is a meditation on what it means to be an American, at home and abroad.
“James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade, Erotics of Exile” (2008) by Magdalena J. Zaborowska
Until I read this scholarly work, I had no idea how deeply embroiled James Baldwin was in Istanbul. His presence in the city, his homosexuality and his feelings of liminality provided a crucial background against which to understand my own.
“Magnificent Century” (2011)
My entire Indian family is obsessed with this operatic Turkish serial television show, which dramatizes the glories of the Ottoman past. It is also completely of a piece with the historical revivalism flowing through Turkish society at the moment.
“10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” (2019) by Elif Shafak
My favorite Shafak novel. It captures an atmosphere of grit and squalor that is part of my attraction to gay life in a big city like Istanbul. I love back rooms and saunas and that feeling of being at home in settings that, though outwardly depraved and sordid, seem to burn away the marginality within.
Maaza Mengiste’s Switzerland Recommendations
“Force Majeure” (2014)
In this Swedish film, an avalanche descends on a ski lodge and a man named Tomas races away to avoid it, leaving behind his stunned wife and children. What follows is the slow unraveling of a marriage told with wicked humor and deadpan, brutal honesty.
“We’re Flying: Stories,” (2012) by Peter Stamm
Stamm, an award-winning Swiss writer, has a gift for excavating the complex realities of relationships and the sometimes-shattering compromises they demand. His novels and short stories are beautiful, carefully crafted jewels, so precise in their construction that the seismic shifts that occur in his characters destabilize and mesmerize at once.
“Stranger in the Village” (1953) by James Baldwin
Years ago, I went to Leukerbad, Switzerland, and paid a visit to the tiny town where James Baldwin wrote this essay. The house where he stayed is now a rental, and the village has seen other Black people since then. Rereading his incisive, blistering commentary on race and belonging, I was reminded once more about the urgency and necessity of his words today.
Irene Cara’s 1983 hit song from this movie, “Flashdance … What a Feeling,” was on rotation as I tried to remember what it was like to be a preteen in 1983. Rewatching it, I found myself cheering for Jennifer Beals’s character when she auditioned to get into Juilliard.
“Dubliners” (1914) by James Joyce
James Joyce lived in Zurich and, though he partially worked on his novel “Ulysses” (1920) while living there, it was his short story collection, “Dubliners,” that I picked up to read instead. The portraits he creates of Dublin residents are incredibly vivid and poignant. As the stories progress, the interconnections between characters emerge, along with a reminder of how tightly bound we all are to communities much more extensive than we might imagine.
“Game of Thrones” (2011)
Visiting a mountain known for its myths about dragons required another viewing of every “Game of Thrones” episode that features a certain Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen. The House Targaryen symbol features a dragon and bears a resemblance to the shapes on the Lucerne Dragon Stone, a rock of unknown origin with some interesting markings found in Lucerne. Dragonstone also happens to be the name of the ancestral home of Daenerys Targaryen.
“The Sound of Music” (1965)
Come for the music, stay for the scenery. This film has been captivating audiences for decades. I have watched it too many times to count — and doing it once more didn’t hurt. The stunning Swiss Alps provide safety to the Von Trapp family after they escape Salzburg and the Nazis. In real life, you can’t really get into Switzerland directly from Salzburg, but who’s counting?
“An African in Greenland” (1981) by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
In 1965 in Togo, Kpomassie saw a book with a picture of Greenland and knew he had to go there. Years later, he finally made the journey, and the heartwarming story that unfolds in this travel memoir, about a West African man in the Arctic, at home with the Inuit, is rich with insight and humor.
“The Magic Mountain” (1924) by Thomas Mann
Davos, Switzerland, is known for its political summits, but it is also the setting for Thomas Mann’s sprawling novel. In it, Hans Castrop goes to visit his cousin in a sanitarium, intending to stay for only three months. He remains for six years. During that time, the world changes and time itself seems to shift.
Turner is a resident of Switzerland, and her albums were required listening while on this trip. “Proud Mary,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and, of course, “River Deep Mountain High” were blasting as I took the bus to Pilatus.
“The Bourne Identity” (2002)
Poor Jason Bourne — he cannot seem to catch a break. In the first film of the franchise, he goes into a Zurich bank and soon finds himself chased by security.
Bong Joon Ho’s film is an unsettling masterpiece about class warfare in a post-apocalyptic world. Passengers on a train are the last surviving people on earth after an experiment to prevent global warming fails. Aside from the breathtaking action, the scenery — beautiful shots of snow-topped mountains — will keep you glued to your seat.
Thomas Page McBee’s Grand Canyon Recommendations
“How the Canyon Became Grand: A Short History” (1988) by Stephen J. Pyne
The Arizona State University historian Stephen J. Pyne’s thoughtful 240-page paperback breezes through centuries of environmental, intellectual, scientific and cultural history, but still provides incredibly useful historical context. Reading this book greatly aided my understanding of the evolution of the Grand Canyon in the American imagination.
“In a Queer Time and Place” (2005) by Jack Halberstam
Halberstam’s book — which argues that queer subcultures exists outside of compulsory, heteronormative and deeply linear definitions of time and space — resonated with me when it was first published, but I’ve found myself returning to it in recent years as a way to work through my own definition of trans time. Trans time is an orientation toward becoming that, at least for me and other trans people I know, involves an organic circularity and multiplicity — a need to reckon with the past, hold space for the present and imagine new futures. All of which I explore in my essay.
“Hav’suw Ba’aja: Guardians of the Grand Canyon — Past, Present and Future” (1993) by Rex Tilousi
In researching this story, I found very little Indigenous writing on the culture and history of the Grand Canyon — a disturbing reality that reflects the displacement and cultural erasure of native communities with relationships to the land. This speech by Rex Tilousi, an activist and Havasupai tribal leader, interweaves personal history, Havasupai mythology and the political and legal battles Indigenous activists have undertaken to protect and maintain their sacred land.
“Thelma & Louise” (1991)
Ridley Scott’s film was released a couple of years after my childhood trip to the Grand Canyon, and I first watched it with my mother a few years later, in 1994. We both loved the feminist outlaw energy of the movie, but I’d somehow forgotten the iconic ending — when the titular characters, on the run from the law and with nowhere to turn, drive over the rim of the canyon to their deaths, while holding each others’ hands. Rewatching the film today, I was troubled by its core thesis: For victims of gendered violence, justice is often elusive and unlikely — and for these two friends, who take that justice into their own hands, freedom from their male oppressors ultimately comes at the cost of their own lives.
“Grand Canyon: The Complete Guide: Grand Canyon National Park” (2004) by James Kaiser
I mostly do my travel-related research online, and I found many useful tips for hiking the Grand Canyon on outdoor blogs and websites. Still, there’s something about the tactile quality of a guidebook, and I found this one to be particularly illuminating.
“The Alpinist” (2020)
This harrowing Netflix documentary follows the 23-year-old mountaineer Marc-André Leclerc as he attempts nerve-racking free-solo ascents up some of the most dangerous mountains on the planet. The film is both a tribute to Leclerc’s sense of adventure and a cautionary tale about the Icarus-like extremes he pursued. Although my hike into the canyon was nowhere near as dangerous as what Leclerc attempted, the film functioned as a reminder for me to be mindful of my body’s power and its incredible fragility.
“Graceland” (1986) by Paul Simon
Death is often a process, not an event. In the final days of my mom’s life, my siblings and I attempted to help her let go in as many ways as we could imagine. We played her voice mail goodbyes from relatives who couldn’t be by her side, we talked to her, we sat silently beside her, we left her alone — and we played her music. I’m not sure if hearing Paul Simon helped my mom in the end — she could no longer speak — but I hadn’t been able to listen to the album in the years since her passing. Driving north on Route 64 for this story, I worked up my courage to play it. When Simon sings, “Losing love/is like a window in your heart./Everybody sees you’re blown apart,/everybody sees the wind blow,” I had to pull over to catch my breath. The lyrics hit in a new way, reminding me of a quote by Queen Elizabeth: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”
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