By Geo Ong
Travelogues have for some time now been my favourite things to read. These written accounts provide so much for me: entertainment, insight, and most importantly, inspiration. A handful of my favourite books are travelogues. Furthermore, a good number of my favourite writers, be they novelists or poets or journalists, have written at least one. Simply put, I want to know what other travellers think, about what they do, and about what they are thinking as they do them.
And so, I am always looking for different perspectives from interesting writers about places both nearby and far-off. Whenever I come across a writer I’ve never read before, I study that writer’s list of works with the question, ‘Have you written a travelogue?’ And if she has, that’s almost always the title I read first. Fiction is constructed; memoirs can be veiled; but I believe you are most yourself when you are travelling, and it seems to me much more difficult for a writer to embellish (or even want to embellish) when recounting a travelling experience. Of course, they may, and some probably do. But what I gather from the travelogues I’ve read and admired, I’m getting, for the most part, the realest deal.
Because I spent most days inside a bookshop, my radar is finely tuned for travelogues. For some reason, however, I didn’t think to look at the graphic novels, even though I love reading them. Then one day, scanning the shelves, I see a group of titles bunched together. ‘Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Jerusalem…? Those sound like place names to me!’
Sure enough, these books were travelogues, by a French-Canadian called Guy Delisle, in graphic form. Up until that point, I hadn’t even considered the possibility of a graphic travelogue; the oversight makes little sense to me now, since a graphic travelogue makes so much sense. If done well, every nuanced, minute detail that can occur while you’re travelling could arguably best be told through images.
So far, Guy Delisle has four books available in English. These books are evidence that he puts as much importance and attention on what travelling does to a person as I do. The three trips that constitute the three books I’ve read (in addition to the fourth book I’m about to read) are written – at least in its primary form, we can assume – while he’s abroad. Not only does he believe each trip can be transformative, but he believes it enough to tell these travel stories to other people.
Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea cover three-month and two-month work stints in those respective Asian cities as an outsourced animator sent to help improve regional cartoons and animated programmes. Burma Chronicles and his latest, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, cover year-long stints accompanying his wife, who is stationed in these respective areas as an adminstrator for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders).
While each book offers something unique to the area Delisle covers, each book contains those strong, recurring themes that make travelogues what they are and so enjoyable to read. Delisle’s approach, most specifically the details he chooses to focus on, is driven by an endearing childlike curiosity about how different parts of the world work (or fail to work), and the resulting words and images are oftentimes humourous, oftentimes poignant.