Jan Cornall on buying books abroad, writing on the plane and the joys of travel

Jan Cornall is on of Australia's most treasured teachers of creative writing, and someone who has had a profound influence on my own writing. Jan leads the most wonderful writing tours all over the world, and just before she embarks on a tour of Bali I thought I would ask her about travel writing - and reading!

Writer & teacher Jan Cornall

What is your favourite place in the world to travel?

I love travelling in SE Asia, but I have many favorites. Burma is at the top of my list at the moment. I have been twice in the last eighteen months and was particularly sad to leave in February, after I took a group there for the first Irrawaddy Writers Festival and post festival retreat among the temples of Bagan. Aung San Suu Kyi was the patron of the festival and it was wonderful to hear her speak about books and literature.

What do you think we should read while we travel?

I like to pick up books as I go. It is so interesting to see what turns up. Often I will arrive in a country with little preparation regarding reading and research but my first stop is to head for a bookshop and see what I can find. I have discovered some wonderful bookshops along the way, like L’Etranger and Yesabai bookshops in Luang Prabang, Monument Bookshop and D’s Books in Phnom Penh, even little book exchanges are great for picking up random literary treasures. I usually search out memoir, short stories, poetry by local writers, but it is interesting to see which international writers are sitting on those bookshelves. I found Diana Athill in Luang Prabang — I’d never read her before, and of course the wonderful Colin Cotterill’s crime series set in 1970s Laos. On the way home I will often download books to read on the plane. Returning from Sri Lanka this year I read Michael Ondaatje’s Running in The Family, a memoir set in his childhood days there. He is one of my favorite writers, and to read him writing about the country I had just visited added an incredible depth and richness to my travel experience.

Is there any particular writing routine you follow when you travel?

Well, on a six week trip I took to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, Indonesia in 2009, I made a pact that I would start writing on the plane in Sydney and not stop until my return. The promise I kept instilled a habit I keep to this day, that as soon as I get on a plane, boat or tuk tuk, I pull my note book out and take notes - describing all I see, hear, taste, touch, smell. If I don’t, I know I will forget it. My notes become the beginnings of poems, short stories - I may even write them on the spot - and later use them for longer works like the travel memoir I am slowly working from that 2009 trip, which follows the footsteps of my literary hero Marguerite Duras through Vietnam.

Can you tell us a couple of travel books you love and would recommend we read?

The Kindness of Strangers is a book of travel stories put out by Lonely Planet. I often come back and re-read different pieces to remind me of the joy of travel.
One travel writer I can’t get enough of at the moment is Tahir Shah. I picked up his book In Arabian Nights on our Moroccan desert writer’s trip in January this year and have been reading him ever since. His descriptions and stories about travelling to Morocco and finding a new home there give the best background to the life and culture of his adopted country. In this book he is told to “find the story of your heart” and he travels up and down the breadth of Morocco meeting storytellers as he goes. About half way through the book he casually mentions that his father was Idries Shah, the famous Sufi teacher and author, whose books on psychology and spirituality were on all our bookshelves in the 70s.

What are a couple of sacred sites in the world that continue to inspire you?

Being a student of Buddhism of course I love Borobodur (Java), Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Shwedagon (Burma), but my special sacred sites tend to be small and less known, like the tiny forest temple we visit on our Backstage Bali trip in Abang, where statues carved eighty years ago from tree ferns have grown into wild and wonderful shapes. Not far away at the Bali Aga village of Trunyan, is a cemetery where bodies are left in the open air beneath a perfumed tree that dissipates any bad odour. To me this is a special place to pay respect to the notion of impermanence and make dedications to sentient beings who have passed on to other worlds.

Is there an art or performance space anywhere in the world that you find particularly interesting?

The most interesting places I have performed were in Indonesian villages during a performance art festival called Perfurbance.  For five days we were billeted in villager’s houses while the performances would take place in locations around the town: rice paddies, orchards, cemetery, back yards, town square etc.  We did this in Gemblangan Village after the 2006 earthquake and also at Mt Merapi before its deadly eruption in 2010.
As far as more well known sites go, last year I took part in the Northern Kingdoms Poetry Festival, at Siem Reap in Cambodia, where, with a small group of local and international poets, I read/sang my work in the ruins of Angkor Wat. I’d written a poem the night before in smot style. Smot is a form of sung poetry practiced by monks and lay people, often sung at funerals to celebrate the life of the deceased person, but also about life’s hardships. My smot was for my mother who had passed away some years before while I was in Asia when complicated visa arrangements meant I was unable to return to attend her funeral. At that time I began performing small rituals for her in Asian temples, a habit I continue to this day. As a result whenever I arrive in an Asian country and visit a temple, my mother Marjorie is always there to greet me.

Jan Cornall leads Writers Journey Creative Adventures in Bali, Fiji, Laos, Burma, Morocco.


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