What is it about not knowing, about wanting to find out more, to discover, to chart, to explore? About mapless navigation, this addictive insatiable nature fed by curiosity and the allure of vast territories, the need to escape the familiar, to find what lies beyond. Just beyond reach.
In “Tales of the New World,” a collection of ten short stories published by Grove/Black Cat, Sabina Murray sets out to on her own journey to recreate the lives of well-known and little-known explorers through fiction.
Murray, a Filipina-American writer, who won the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Caprices, has lived in Australia, the Philippines, America, and traveled extensively. In the Tales, she details the stories of Mary Kingsley, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Antonio Pigafetta, and Ferdinand Magellan, Jim Jones, Captain Zimri Coffin, Edward John Eyre, William Dampier, , Motecuhzoma and Nezahualpilli, and Anton Chekhov with surprising insights and an understanding of the lives of characters who are always on the move.
“Fish,” the first story of the collection and also the longest, is perhaps the one that is most fully developed. It starts with Mary Kingsley, Charles Kingsley’s niece and one of the first persons to explore the Upper Ogawe River in Gabon and the remote regions of the Congo jungle. Mary is a child confined to the house because she has to look after her ill mother.
She has nothing but fairies inside her head and books to amuse her. When her mother died and quite suddenly, her father passed away, she decides to take a trip to the Canary Islands. The book is peppered with some remarkable sentences, such as this in Fish: “She will go to Africa. She will because she has nothing to lose. For one brief second she’s euphoric—literally dizzied—by this: her intoxicating life of value to no one. Worthless translates quite narrowly as freedom.”
Mary eventually concedes that “she has ambitions, an embarrassing thing for any woman, but particularly for her.” She returns to England after her trip but feels like her “lungs have already half-collapsed.” As soon as she is able, she leaves for Africa and Murray follows her into the jungles.
The distinct differences in atmosphere as it affects Mary in England and Mary in Africa are skillfully created. In the jungle, we are with her in the quiet: “Here’s Mary, she thinks, here I am, as if she has been waiting for herself in the jungle all these years…Here I am, she thinks. Pleased to make my acquaintance.”
Fish is followed by “Translation” about Antonio Pigafetta and Ferdinand Magellan, another interesting telling of a journey that Pigafetta himself had recorded. She explores the relationship between the two characters.
“Last Days,” one of the shortest pieces in the book, is a fascinating retelling of the final days of the Aztecs. It is bloody and violent but with an unflinching patience that invokes the quality of Motehcuhzoma’s character amidst chaos.
“On Sakhalin,” which is about Anton Chekhov’s trip there, is disturbingly calm in its portrayal of a period in Chekhov’s life that angered him. The intention of the writing is something Chekhov himself might have approved of: it’s distant but astutely observant. In the following interview, Sabina Murray talks about the choices she made when working on Tales of the New World:
What started you off on the writing of Tales of the New World?
I’ve always been fascinated by explorers, what it must be like to be the first person from one culture to encounter a new place. Being in this position allows you in a sense to create what this new place is for your country of origin. Explorers nearly always write accounts of their travels. William Dampier, who is the subject of the story Full Circle Thrice, inspires the form of Gulliver’s Travels. Indeed, Swift’s writing style in this particular book seems to be a departure from his normal satirical voice, evidenced, for example, in ‘A Modest Proposal.’
Swift’s style mimics that of William Dampier in Dampier’s collected travelogues. So, that’s a quick look at explorers as writers. Of course, thinking in this way about the profession of an explorer makes me want to define the term in a broader way, and to also look at the role of text in creating or transporting or translating new realities and cultures back to the old. So I write of Chekhov in the story ‘On Sakhalin’ playing against his census and history of Sakhalin, The Island of Sakhalin, and a character that bears similarity to my father appears as he writes a paper on the Carthaginian explorer Hanno.
Jim Jones can be defined as an explorer since he goes to Guyana and colonizes the jungle with his followers. I think of the newsreels of the Jonestown Massacre as the text that translates his alien world into the familiar. And so on. Pigafetta writes of Magellan, Mary Kingsley is a celebrated Victorian lecturer and writer John Edward Eyre is remembered in court transcripts and newspapers of his time.
How much research did you have to do for each story?
I did a lot of research. I read about the explorers and I read the explorers. If I think about this in terms of pages, it will make my eyes bleed. But it was all terribly interesting stuff and as research constantly plays an important part in my work, I don’t think relief at having finished Tales will give me much comfort as I’m already deep in research for the next.
On what basis did you pick and choose the characters you did and reinvent their lives?
The truth of the matter is that I didn’t manage to even scratch the number of explorers I wished to write about. I could write another volume just based on the ideas and leads I didn’t get to in this recent book. Every story is a problem that needs to be viewed at different angles, restructured, pushed to its limits, and this is true for the characters in the stories as well. What you see in the book are the problems I managed to wrestle into good shape before publication. Of course, putting the whole together, I was trying to create variety in terms of historical periods, genders (there is a woman in the mix), the actual structures of the stories, regions. Variety was very important.
Did you journey to the places they did? What was important to you in the writing of the stories?
Research takes the place of travel for me much of the time, although I did travel alone through southern Africa a few years ago, and this is certainly an interesting experience for a woman. I thought, I can’t imagine what that would have been like for Mary Kingsley who traveled alone during the Victorian era. But that’s a falsehood because I am a writer and I can and do imagine what it was like for Mary Kingsley.
Writing about Australia in ‘His Actual Mark’ and The Philippines in ‘Translation’ was no doubt made easier since I’ve lived in both those countries: I know what the birds sound like and gestures that people make. What’s more important is that the reader journeys to these places. That’s what makes it fun.
What kind of order did you have in mind for the collection?
What is exceptional about this collection is that, from the start, it was conceived of as a book, a whole volume. Each piece is doing something that I think is necessary for creating a sense of known versus unknown, barbaric versus civilized, Christian versus heathen, and so on. So for me, it’s all the same story. Beyond that, I deployed a variety of forms and styles to execute my ideas, and people respond to that in different ways. I have heard what people consider their favorites in the collection, and, honestly, favor rests in a surprisingly evenly distributed array.
What are you working on next? How much time do you allow yourself between books?
My current book looks at the friendship between humanitarian and Irish revolutionary Roger Casement and the adventurer and sculptor Herbert Ward. It’s an epic novel. I allow myself no time between books, and projects tend to overlap. I can’t imagine not being immersed in the writing of a book.