Lagos life (Lemi Ghariokwu)
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 18 July

Granta's compelling new take on travel

Granta has just released a new Travel issue. Managing Editor, Yuka Igarashi, explains why travel - and the people who write about it – are so important

Granta magazine has a long tradition of travel writing, from its tenth issue featuring Martha Gellhorn, Saul Bellow and Paul Theroux to issue 94, On the Road Again. Granta 124: Travel explores encounters with new landscapes and collisions with the moral and emotional dimensions of another place.

Peter Moore talks to Granta's Managing Editor, Yuka Igarashi, about why travel – and quality travel writing – is still important.

I'm interested to know how a book like this comes together. It's called Travel, which is a pretty broad topic. How do you give it a focus? Or do you?

The magazine has themes for every issue – in the past few years we’ve done Work, Horror, Medicine, Betrayal. We always want our themes to open up a topic, rather than close it down or narrow our definitions.

With Travel particularly, Granta’s had a long history of travel writing, and has featured some of the giants of the genre. Thirty years ago in 1983 it had a Travel Writing issue featuring Martha Gellhorn and Bruce Chatwin as well as Saul Bellow and Gabriel García Márquez. The magazine has come back to it many times, with themes like New Worlds, Necessary Journeys, On the Road Again. So while we’re not imposing a focus on the issue, you could say the issue continues and reflects on and updates that tradition.

Do you approach the contributors or do they approach you? Do you have a wish list? Or a particular kind of contributor you prefer?

It goes both ways. Haruki Murakami is best known for his novels but he has a wealth of travel writing, some of which we knew hadn’t been translated from Japanese into English, so that was something we pursued. And there are contributors like Robert Macfarlane, whose writing brilliantly narrates his journeys through landscapes, and whom we’ve often published in our pages – we knew we wanted to include a piece by him. 

Then there are other pieces that just fell in our lap and found the perfect home in our issue: David Searcy’s strange, amazing ‘The Hudson River School’, which involves a trip to the dentist hygienist and coyote hunting on a remote west Texas ranch; Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s surreal short story about a guy wandering through Asia and then getting creatively kidnapped. (You’ll have to read the story!)

What makes a Granta travel piece different from something you'd read in the Sunday paper travel supplement?

Depth. The magazine gives writers and photographers the space to explore their subject. The writing in Granta is couched in the personal. This doesn’t mean that the writing is all memoir. There are pieces of serious reporting here – Sonia Faleiro investigates child labour in India, and Héctor Abad visits indigenous communities in the Amazon jungle – but the writers have a real stake; you can tell that they’ve thrown their whole selves into experiencing and trying to understand where they are.

The book is described as 'collisions between people and places'. Is the nature of travel to jar, to jolt people into some kind of understanding?

John Freeman, the editor-in-chief of the issue, conceived the issue that way and it was a guiding principle as we put it together. I think the travels that we feature here are not just about places, but about the things that happen to particular people in particular places. There are lots of ‘jolting’ moments in the stories – but there are also dawning realisations, bewilderments, sudden reliefs...

The issue doesn't feature just writing. There's a collection of photos of people lost at sea by Steffi Klenz, where she exposed the negatives to corrosive effect of seawater. I found that very moving. How did that come about? It's not outwardly and openly about travel.

That’s a good example of one of our contributors coming at the theme from a new angle. Our artistic director for the issue, Michael Salu, chose Klenz’s work for one of our art and photography spreads. Photography and travel have always gone hand in hand, but this piece plays with that and does something different with photography and portrait photography as a form.

The magazine showcases a variety of voices from a variety of cultures – contributors come from China, Colombia, Japan, India, Sweden, Bulgaria, Nigeria, etc. Was that important? Do you think there is a different perception of travel in other parts of the world?

The magazine is always looking for new voices in every language and from every part of the world. One of the threads that emerged with this issue is that notions of ‘home’ and ‘travel’ are becoming more complex. A lot of these stories feature travels that are also homecomings – Haruki Murakami takes a walk in his hometown of Kobe, and Teju Cole returns to Lagos 20 years after he grew up there. So it’s not just about going to other parts of the world but also about experiencing old places with new eyes.

The Tour Guide piece includes old B&W photos taken by Colonel Claude A. Black during the Second World War. What was the idea behind that?

There’s this photography archive and publisher based in London called Archive of Modern Conflict that have amassed a great collection of archive photographs and this was selected from their files. As with Steffi Klenz’s work, this collection pushes our notions of tourism and photography. Phil Klay, a writer who is a veteran of the Iraq War, wrote an introduction that adds an interesting layer. It’s a reminder that one of the ways that people get to see new places is as soldiers sent to war.

I really enjoyed the Dave Eggers piece, The Man at the River. It's short, it absolutely resonated with me and experiences I have had. Is it important for people to relate to the pieces or would you prefer that they were challenged to think differently instead?

That’s really is a gem of a piece. It captures a particular type of travel experience – the frustration and absurdity of it – that many people might be able to relate to. What I love about it is that you can relate to it but you haven’t necessarily thought about travel in that way before, or seen it articulated so well. I don’t think relating to something and being challenged are all that different.

The magazine is beautifully illustrated. The illustration that accompanies Teju Cole's story about returning to Lagos is delightfully trashy, like the cover of an African pulp novel. Were the pieces commissioned for each story? And how did you decide which artists to use?

That work is by the Lemi Ghariokwu, a Nigerian artist and designer who did the original cover art for Fela Kuti’s albums. He’s an incredible artist and the illustration is perfect for the piece. Michael Salu, our artistic director, has an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary art and illustration. He  commissioned it, and managed the commissioning of the illustrations in the issue.

The magazine features poetry, fiction, different styles of non-fiction, images. Is there a particular medium that conveys the complexities of travel best or do you think they all have something to offer?

It’s exactly as you say: the reason we feature different types of writing is that they have different things to offer.  

Finally, what do you hope readers take away from the magazine?

The heart of Granta is good writing. One of the reasons why travel writing has such a rich tradition is that good writing is so much like travel: it transports you, and challenges you, and you come back from it changed. 

Grant 124Granta 124: Travel is available now. For more details about the issue and how to buy your copy, visit the Granta website.