In this exclusive preview of Peninsula 2012, Emma Easy talks with Jay Griffiths.
In 2007, Jay Griffiths published Wild, a book seven years in the making. Tracing a path through Earth, Ice, Water, Fire, Air and Mind, it documented her exploration of wildness, as she spent time with indigenous populations across the world and reached searchingly for a collective wild consciousness. The result was a work that exposed the perils of a disconnect with wildness, both on an individual level and a global scale. The work has been championed by names as diverse as Radiohead, Gary Snyder, John Berger and KT Tunstall, and acclaim is escalating.
EE: Wild is nearly six years old now. Has your relationship with wildness evolved at all, since then?
JG: I think I feel more and more interested in the psyche’s wildness, and in the necessity for the mind to have dwelling in nature, which isn’t the same as literally being in a rural environment. I’m also more and more aware of how wildness edges on to the divine: that there is something ferociously sacred in the life of life.
EE: What was it like, being a guest in such different cultures to our own for such long periods of time?
JG: Well, it is probably the same for everyone all over the world: I was always curious but sometimes concerned that my curiosity might be ignorant. I was always excited to be in different places and sometimes exhausted by the overload of sense-impressions. I was always keen to listen and always, but always, sorry not to be fluent in all the languages I met.
EE: How was your role as a writer regarded by the different tribes you stayed with?
JG: My role as a writer was usually considered fairly straightforwardly. In the Arctic, I sometimes felt that people were a little tired of being written about, which is very understandable. There’s a joke that the typical Inuit family consists of a mother, a father, a grandmother, two children and an anthropologist, and sometimes it seemed that people were humouring and tolerating the presence of a writer. But a couple of times people came to talk to me when they felt that a particular anger they had was not more widely understood, for example that Inuit people still smart with an understandable irritation about being told by the West that they should not hunt whales, when it is massive industrial whaling that has caused such drastic loss of whale-life in the whale-ways (as the oceans were called in Anglo-Saxon literature).
In West Papua, my role was enormously, heartbreakingly welcome, as so few writers go there. From Britain, you could probably count on the fingers of one hand the writers who have gone there, many others embarrassingly and falsely claiming they can’t go because Indonesia ‘forbids’ them. It does, and it doesn’t matter: you just buy a ticket. It’s that difficult. West Papua is a land of beauty. It is a land of laughter, where, if someone knows they are going to fall over laughing, they lie down first. It is a land of song, everyone is a singer. And Indonesia is annihilating a nation of singers. It is strangling the laughter. Why? Because they invaded West Papua, and have mounted a genocide, with the connivance of the international community because international corporations are making enormous profits. Writers do not report on it. The media does not cover it. And that is why it continues.
EE: As you take us from element to element in the book, and from culture to culture, similar themes crop up: not taking more from the land than you need; having an intimate, sensual knowledge of your surroundings; how wildness deteriorates into wasteland if connection is lost. Do you think that the Western world is waking up to these messages and starting to reconnect with the wild?
JG: I think that people have never ceased to feel a need for wildness. I think the thirst which people feel for their pets and gardens is evidence. One window box in a first-floor flat in London might be all you have (it was all I had when I lived in London), but the need for it is not related to acreage but to the fact of its vitality.
EE: More and more of us in the West are travelling – gap years, voluntary projects, honeymoons, business trips. It appears that it can either be an individual blessing – for yourself, for example – or a global curse. What are your thoughts?
JG: Any travel can be either a curse or a traverse of understandings. If the latter (and one would hope it is always the latter), then it centres on the idea of the gift, that one must always give as much as receive, when one is travelling. It can be hard, I know, to work out what to take, how one’s trip is made to be useful to someone else, but it is a necessary part of planning. And there are certain situations where it is always a curse: the tribal safari holidays which are not managed by indigenous people but which use them like creatures in a zoo are odious. Visiting so-called ‘lost tribes’ is something which can be literally murderous, and should be illegal.
EE: From time to time, you reveal glimpses of your note-taking process, writing things down whilst scaling a mountain, or at risk of frostbite in Arctic conditions. Can you tell us a little more about your note-taking process – and were any notebooks lost on your travels?
JG: Notebooks, well, I took loads with me everywhere, I use pencil and keep a penknife with me to sharpen them. I never use gear, no recording devices, nothing except paper and pencils because they don’t leak and you can use them in different temperatures. At home, too, when I write, I write in pencil, sometimes biro, but never on the keyboard, except right now, typing emails. I find thoughts and language are more flexible, and words yield themselves more, like soft damp clay, if you write by hand. No notebooks were lost, no, though I did once give my notebooks to a man in the Amazon when we were crossing a very difficult river, as I thought he was much less likely than I was to fall.
EE: What’s your next project?
JG: I’ve just finished a short truanting novel called A Love Letter From a Stray Moon, which will be published as an e-book by Penguin, then as an actual book by Go Together Press. It is partly ‘about’ Frida Kahlo, much to do with the rebellion of poetry, the necessary fire at the heart of art. I’m also finishing a long non-fiction book about childhood.