People, Places, and Themes
It isn’t where I am, it’s where I’ve been that seems to affect my writing. I can write almost anywhere—from the serenity of the hummingbird aviary at the San Diego Zoo to the bouncing back seat of a UCSD shuttle bus, immersed in a wilderness hot spring in the snowy Sierras or soaked in sweat during an exam in a classroom. Where I write doesn’t make much difference, but I could not write as well if I had not been to different places and met a variety of people.
Geography can have a stimulating newness and a comforting sameness all at once. In the summer of 1989 I took a trip to Thailand; it was the farthest I had ever been from home. It was a strange land, with great rivers and waterfalls, tropical rain forests, three seasons instead of four, and hundreds (perhaps thousands) of varieties of mosquitoes. Yet nothing was bizarre or out of place. Rivers meandered toward the sea, waterfalls were as striking and beautiful as they are anywhere, tropical hardwood trees reached for the same sun that shines on San Diego, and each new variety of mosquito still seemed to prefer my flesh to all others’.
The people and their cities were exotic, too. They drive on the wrong side of the street, but apart from that they seem to have a total disregard for traffic laws. Their alphabet has over forty curvy, complex characters. The Thai language is tonal — if you try to make a question out of a statement by putting a rising inflection on the end, you instead change the meaning completely. (Thais amuse themselves by tricking Farongs — Westerners — into misusing tones, thereby uttering embarrassing statements.) You seldom see mixed couples or solitary people in the cities, and single-sex groups walking along the streets often hold hands or embrace. Monks, in saffron robes with shaven heads, are a common sight — even far away from airports. Buddhist temples are everywhere, and every home has a small, elaborate spirit house nearby so that the shades of the departed will not be tempted to share the main house with its more corporeal inhabitants. Yet the Thais are not so different from us. Traffic sounds and smells the same in most any city, and you’re never far from a Coca-Cola advertisement. There are a surprising number of English cognates in Thai; not just Western imports, but words with same Indo-European origins. When language fails, a universal vocabulary of gestures and expressions suffices. Though people might express them differently, they all share concepts of love, friendship, sex, affection, religion, and curiosity about death.
I thought that being in Thailand would inspire great writing. Long hours on noisy airplanes or in quiet monasteries, exotic sights, contact with cultures much older than my own, and separation from my familiar, comfortable surroundings seemed certain to stimulate my pen. Instead, I found no magic. I still had to make time to write — difficult, with so much to do and see — and what I wrote was neither more inspired nor more insightful than usual. It was only after my return that I began to notice a change in my writing. A subtle shift in themes began to exploit my new knowledge of the way cultures can differ, and the remarkable number of ways in which we are a single people on a single planet.
I have since taken other trips, to lands like Pagosa Springs, Colorado; Beach Haven, New Jersey; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Philadelphia; and New York City — lands which can be as strange as any in Southeast Asia. Pagosa Springs has striking mountain vistas and the Wild Women Club, and it got so cold while I was there that the clouds froze and fell to the ground. In Beach Haven you must buy and wear an ID badge to go to the beach, and picnicking, volleyball, running, and Frisbees are prohibited. In Saint Paul the downtown emergency room doesn’t make you pay in advance. New York City has one of the greatest concentrations of art and culture I have ever seen, attended by persons notable for their rudeness. Yet the people in these exotic locales responded favorably to a smile, a good story, or a generous tip.
None of these trips has been the catalyst for a masterpiece, but all have improved my writing by increasing my appreciation for the ways in which lands and people differ, and the threads of experience that are common to us all.
— Ron Risley – 21 Feb 1991