A nomadic artist talks about pseudonyms, heritage, and what you can learn from breakfast in a foreign country.
She’s lived in Brooklyn, Tibet, the Marin Headlands and Thailand, yet the best bookshops and coffee bars in Portsmouth are not beneath her notice. Beginning from Breaking New Grounds in Market Square, we make our way past Ceres Bakery, Sheafe Street Books and Kaffee VonSolln (the only place in Portsmouth I know), to the place she wanted to show me–Pickwick’s Mercantile on State Street.
The shop is something between Portlandia Jägerkitsch and Dickens curiosity shop–a fuggy, tobacco-dark trinket cave that feels like a forgotten closet in a maiden aunt’s house. There are whiskey flasks and ginger cookies, colored crystal brooches and candles that smell like saddle soap, recycled flannel shirts and books the size of the palm of your hand.
As we poke around, supervised by a woman in a shawl and muslin bonnet, I get the strangest feeling. I look at e.v., who is looking at things more than touching them. Those she actually takes off their shelves, she turns over in her fingers like a jeweler handling loose stones.
What I feel is an inclination toward friendship—a feeling I’m not used to having toward other women, still less toward other writers, and never toward both in the same body.
Joan Didion I could approach in a pally spirit—she’s already achieved legend status, in age as well as accomplishment. E. Annie Proulx I could very easily hang with, because I’m not trying to share her genre. Marilynne Robinson I’d prefer to worship than befriend.
I’m using these giants as examples of lady writers I could be friends with because I don’t actually know any lady writers. Not vocational ones, anyway, and certainly none who are flitting from one locale to another, trying to create great art out of the personal travel-based narrative. (Yikes—guess I showed my hand there.)
And this might be very much my own fault. Whether by fault of some eldest child neurosis or simply native bitchiness, I instinctively shun the company of women my age. Simply put, I don’t want to be compared to them, and it doesn’t matter if I’m the only one doing the comparing. In the past few years, I’ve made slow strides out of this mindset, even going so far as to open up with some very beautiful, athletic and smart women and discover that their friendship is worth standing beside them in a public place or getting ready for a party side by side.
Maybe that’s what possessed me to contact e.v. when I found her website—some little part of me that wants to grow out of the stunted posture of envy and learn how to view other women—and other writers, whom I’ve also instinctively shunned—as allies, instead of enemies.
That doesn’t stop my inner eldest child from snapping right back into its protective hunch when I see her sitting outside WHERE, sunning her finely tooled features in the late morning light, wearing a woven scarf and Ray-Bans and a brunette fringe that falls perfectly across her forehead.
And I can’t console myself, as I approach, with the assumption that she writes poorly. Because I already know she’s an ace.
We wind through Prescott Park, where she tells me about the creative writing MFA she’s doing through UNH Manchester–it has a low residency requirement, which means she can live wherever she pleases. We talk about what one does in a creative writing graduate program–I’ve always wondered–and about our favorite authors at the moment: John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Gay Talese.
We wander through Strawberry Banke, the historic part of Portsmouth (as may be inferred from the superfluous “e”). A man in an open-necked blouse is banging wooden lathes into a hoop with a mallet. The gardens, though on their last legs, are beautiful.
I tell her about my new sisters from Africa. She tells me about her father’s new wife from Thailand.
Back in the town square, at the Book & Bar (my new and instant favorite), she mentions how differently her family perceives her travel penchant from that of her father, brothers and male cousins. Differently, as in unfavorably. She doesn’t expound too much on it–simply shrugs and says, without a note of apology in her voice,
“It’s like I can’t help it. I like moving.”
And right there is where I fall headlong into friendship with e.v. Better than me at everything she might very well be, but anything is forgivable in someone who understands what makes you such a freak.
I don’t remember which of us found the other’s website first. I do remember how hers struck me, starting with her photographs. Taken on an Olympus 35RC, offer a wide angle with a focus sharp and ethereal as a Rembrandt etching. They give you the feeling that I imagine an astronaut has, suspended over something precious, more conscious of your weight because for the moment, it’s irrelevant.
Then there are her writings have the same wide span and narrow focus. It’s sort of heartbreaking–you feel as if getting too close, inquiring too deeply, would shatter it. And yet the detail is so precise, you want to reach out.
She also makes journals, tidy little constructions from world maps and aviation charts that have the harmony of a well-appointed kitchen.
The one photograph of e.v. on her website shows only the side plane of her face, illuminated by sunlight at half-mast, the frame of her glasses in focus. There’s a willingness to meet the camera only so far–to show herself, but not for the purpose of being seen in a certain way.
My reactive envy was so intense that I quickly realized it was just contorted admiration. And maybe it’s because I was in a place just mature enough, or needy enough, that her website inspired a gratitude greater than my jealousy. Though we’d never met, and I’d never been to most of the places depicted on her site, I found something not only gorgeous but epiphanically familiar in what she photographed and wrote.
Wanderlust never dulls the love of the familiar–some people’s wanderlust is just a strategy for making more places home.
Guessing she would understand that, I asked if she wanted to meet.
We’ve come to rest at White Heron Tea & Coffee, just outside of town on Islington Street. She points out the owner as he walks in, tells me that I should talk to him, if I can–that the story of how this place came to be is a good one. I’m still trying to get over how uncompetitive I feel toward her, though her posture is Audrey Hepburn-perfect and she’s won a number of writing contests I’ve never even heard of.
Even though in some ways we couldn’t be more different–e.v. shoots exclusively on film, is highly strategic about what she writes and is mapping out a plan to get published where it matters–that feeling of familiarity hovers like a saint over our meeting. We both wear blue stones on our left index fingers, we both are drawn to the symbology of swallows in flight–she has them tattooed on her feet, I have one hanging round my neck.
She’s beautiful now, but you can tell that she’s going to be one of those old women whose radiance causes young men to question their casual approach to life. Her silver-rimmed oval glasses give her classic features the look of a Victorian schoolmarm–the kind with a tumultuous inner life that Theodore Dreiser might write about. The kind whose story even today would be called “sad” if it didn’t end in marriage.
But if it ends in being “eternally wed to transition,” as e.v. describes herself? How would society, from Dreiser’s age up to ours, qualify that?
De Cleyre is not her real name. She adopted it in honor of Voltairine de Cleyre, an 19th century anarchist known for her vitriol. e.v. learned about her in a women’s studies course she took at UNH in 2009.
It’s fair to call Voltairine de Cleyre’s life a sad one–she was born into poverty, educated in a stifling convent, which she attempted to escape by swimming across the Detroit River and then hiking 17 miles. Her mentor and closest friend, a male labor activist, killed himself three years after the birth of her illegitimate child, whom she rendered to his father and didn’t raise. She tried committing suicide twice, was disabled by a physical assault from a former student, and finally died of meningitis at the age of 45.
It’s not so much the particulars of de Cleyre’s life, or the issues she represented, that attracted e.v.; she was inspired by the anger that comes across in de Cleyre’s writing, and affected by the consequences de Cleyre incurred for being that radical.
“I was searching for a pen name for a while. I wanted to separate my creative work from myself as a person. I wanted to create an identity that was completely removed from my dad’s side, but also my mom’s. Establishing my own. I Google-searched the name to see if it was being used…
“I told a friend about her life…”
She smiles with a well-practiced graciousness.
“She said that was a weird reason to have a pen name.”
Certainly, working for Tibetan freedom under the watchful eye of China provides a good excuse to invent a new identity. Maintaining it, now that she’s back in her hometown, has incurred its own political struggle.
At school, her professors know that as far as publishers are concerned, she is e.v. de cleyre. But she has to be enrolled under her given name, which translates to being called Elizabeth in class. People who have only known her since her mother resumed her maiden name refer to her (with no small delight) as Elizabeth Taylor. Her family calls her Lizzy.
Her father and brothers took some umbrage at her pen name–“Do you not want to be identified with our family?” they’ve asked her.
In fact, she does want to be identified with them, but in a way that goes a lot deeper than their name.
e.v. comes from a line of vagabonds–there’s a rumor of gypsy blood somewhere in her ancestry. Her paternal grandfather and both his sons are aviators. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was a traveling salesman. Her brothers and cousins are inveterate globe-trotters–at the moment, one is in New Zealand, one in Pakistan, and one just returned from a semester in Italy.
For all of them, there is an excuse. Better than that–there is good reason for male vagabondry. It’s a responsibility–family to care for, jobs to advance in, miles to go before they sleep.
And even for those who don’t plead responsibility–guy friends, hers and mine, who hobo around from couch to couch in the name of playing music or just finding themselves–wandering as a way of life is regarded with something between tolerance and encouragement.
“It’s almost a coming of age, a rite of passage.”
I’m starting to suspect instead that the comfort I feel in her presence is that, for once, I don’t feel the need to prove my femininity against a lack of nesting instinct. In the presence of a dedicated nomad who is unimpeachably feminine, I’m finally starting to feel some confidence that doesn’t have a barbed-wire fence around it.
e.v.’s grandmother died recently, and she feels badly that they were never very close. But there was always this underlying feeling of disapproval for her transience, which has been unmistakable since she finished high school.
After growing up in New England, e.v. enrolled at Oakland’s California College for the Arts. She spent her second year of school volunteering in Dharamsala, India with Students for a Free Tibet. The summer that followed, she returned to California, working at a hostel in Marin Headlands. In 2008, she came back to New England, feeling like she needed to prove her adulthood by staying in one place for a while.
After a couple months, she decided that that place would instead be Portland, Or. In preparation, she got rid of most of her belongings and moved temporarily back to the house where she grew up, in Barrington.
There’s a beautiful staircase in the house; her dad started building it 20 years ago; it still isn’t finished. That, e.v. says, is typical of her childhood. Most of her growing-up milestones happened alone with her mother, while her dad was flying around the world as a commercial pilot.
Her father’s wanderlust could be, and probably was, interpreted as a sacrifice for the sake of five mouths to feed. But e.v. knows that it wasn’t. He loved the travel, as much for the mobility as for the exotic destinations–e.v. says he keeps bicycles locked up in Paris, Barcelona, London, and other international cities so he can cruise around on layovers
In the midst of solidifying her plans to go to Oregon, her dad invited her to come with him to Thailand. She went, and ended up staying in southeast Asia for two months.
Neither is there any resentment against the general way of life expected of women in small town New England–“It’s ‘get a degree, get a husband, get a house.'” Though she smiles with hard-won tolerance when recalling the comment of one of her family members on her blog: “I just thought that you were globe hopping for fun. I didn’t realize that you are on the edge of human experiences.”
“It was almost like there was an assumption that it was party traveling: a lot of drinking, a lot of souvenirs, the common perception of studying abroad.”
It’s easier with e.v. than I’ve ever found it alone to speculate without bitterness about why there’s less societal excuse, not to speak of encouragement, for women who choose to live the way we do. Certainly, women are now largely permitted (even by each other) a “sow your wild oats” period, prior to assuming the mantle of adulthood. The difference is that the encouragement women receive in this regard has almost all to do with sex–as if that were the only factor in a woman’s coming of age.
I didn’t notice it until recently, when other women would ask whether I didn’t think I was sabotaging my chance of ever having a committed relationship by moving around so much. Sometimes, it was because I mentioned loneliness; other times, I can only suppose they felt close enough to me to finally ask what had been on their minds.
I wonder how many male travelers who mentioned loneliness would be asked if they weren’t ruining their shot. The loneliness of the male traveler is a romantic thing, in itself–there’s something about it that we feel is right, and proper, for a man.
In response, e.v. brings up Matthew Fox (another author I haven’t heard of before).
“He writes that it’s acceptable for men to go off and find themselves, but it’s more acceptable for women to be spiritual. How often do men get asked about their emotional connections they made in a given place, instead of how much ass they got?”
This brings us, naturally, to the Beat writers. Like me, the first Beat Generation novel e.v. read was the Dharma Bums. We loved the same thing about it: that exploring the world was not simply a way to explore the self, in a Thoreauvian sense, but a way to understand the world through its effect on yourself. For e.v., it was also her introduction to a fascination with the Far East.
It wasn’t until the second time she read it, that she realized the unspoken assumption beneath the story.
“When he goes into the wilderness, he goes with men. He rides the rails with men.”
The narrative of existential travelers casts women in the same role as nature–present for exploration, for the men’s comfort and relief and self-revelation. Their stories were never part of the real story.
In the late spring of 2011, e.v. started working at the Students for a Free Tibet headquarters in Brooklyn.
“I thought that since I had graduated with my undergrad degree, I should stop traveling and get a ‘real job.’ SFT was my attempt at that.”
She couldn’t shake the desire to go to Tibet and see for herself what was going on. Eight months later, a long-distance romance with a photographer she met during the SFT training in Germany precipitated a move with him to India.
“I had this romantic idea that we were going to live this expat lifestyle. I was going to be a writer, and he was going to be a photographer.
“I left thinking I was never coming back. I ran back, after 17 days.”
Travel, for e.v., is a way to feel herself in the skin of another culture. And while paying effuse respect to her photographer boyfriend’s drive and ability, she discerns that they had “different ways of traveling.” It became overwhelmingly clear to her one morning when they ordered breakfast: she ordered typical Indian food–rice, tofu and curry sauce; he asked for a sandwich and fries.
It was more than just breakfast–after a full day of work, she wanted go out exploring the town by night, while he wanted drink beers with the other expats. In a recent piece (one that her MFA program featured on their blog), e.v. describes what’s at the heart of her uneasiness with expat communities–that they isolate themselves into a community that shares only “a tangible futility…foreign students in an occupied nation, studying a dying language, filling our evenings with cheap Chinese wine and watered-down beer.”
I know that futility, I think. And I think it comes from what she writes next:
“I looked around the room, at each and every one of them, my fellow students, and didn’t know who to trust.”
Some of us travel to change the world, and some of us travel hoping it will change us. But there’s a third kind of folks that travel to understand the world by what it does to us, like understanding light by the way it filters through a prism. We get tired and lonely and jaded, like any other traveler, but those feelings don’t make us want to withdraw…they provoke us to move in closer. It has the effect of making us feel most foreign among those who know us best.
For a while after Tibet, e.v. lived at her mom’s condo in Dover, which served as her unofficially fixed address. But then her mom sold the house. After that, she crashed on friends’ couches and floors, while living out of a car she borrowed from her dad. But then he sold that.
“It hit me when I was walking by this woman on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. She was asking for help for the homeless, and I thought, ‘I’m homeless, too!'”
Being in grad school gives her a sort of extension on respectability, but she only uses it for those she wants to spare the awkwardness of the H word. In general, she likes owning up to it: “this”–she gestures from her head to her knees–“is the new homeless.”
Extended family members ask her where she’s living these days, and laugh uncomfortably when she gives an honest answer.
“I went to India the day I turned 24 and wondered, ‘Should I be doing this? Shouldn’t I have progressed in some way? Upgrade from a one bedroom to a 3 bedroom…”
“I had those things, but I didn’t really want them. Making the choice that I don’t really want them…it’s really empowering. It’s uncharted territory.
“The steady apartment, the job, it’s not for me. Even if sometimes it is really scary, since I don’t know what’s coming next.
“It would be nice to have one dedicated workspace. But I like moving. I like the freedom of going to Cambridge for 4-5 days, just because I want to.”
What’s in Cambridge is her boyfriend, Sam. They dated in high school, drifted apart after graduating, and met again only recently, when e.v. returned to New Hampshire. He has a steady job and an apartment in Cambridge. His whole family lives where he grew up, in Dover. He lives sort of between his job and his apartment.
e.v.’s voice is warm when she describes his life as “very landed. He keeps me grounded,” she adds, though it has been a subject of discussion between them, how their lifestyles might work together if things move forward, as they seem to be doing.
“We talk about it very openly. It might be the kind of thing where I’m gone for 6 months at a time…”
She makes a wry face, indicating rather than saying aloud that there isn’t a real alternative.
“Because for me, it’s this insatiable wanderlust. There’s so much I want to do, and see, before…”
I’m so tired of hearing the barbed encouragement “Do it while you can!” from people with good intentions and heavy mortgages; I’m almost afraid to ask, “Before what?”
“…Before I turn thirty,” she finishes.
Sam, who has joined us by now, remarks that “do it while you can” sounds like a threat. I laugh–he’s right, and the absurdity of such a threat makes it sounds much less malign. What is so fearful about the prospect of nomadic women, that they must be threatened?
There is, I suppose, our cavalier regard for the future generations that depend on us. We may care nothing for our own safety, but what about the safety of our uteruses? What of the men who, having sufficiently discovered themselves to settle down and be good, return from their wandering to only to find no one around for them to impregnate?
Not having to explain myself makes it easier to explain the inanity of others to myself. Being able to laugh about it makes their inanity easier to forgive. I always kept my head down, before, in the presence of other people’s tacit disapproval. The idea that it might just be their own survival anxiety is funny, and somehow endearing. We espouse so much through our unthinking fear; it makes the most progressive among us quite conventional.
As far as safety goes, e.v. tells me that last year, a girl was murdered in Dover, her body dumped off Peirce Island.
“Her name was Lizzi Marriott. Something about her name, and the fact she was a 19 year old student, going to school two miles from where I lived…”
She looks away, the suggestion of a shudder passing through her composed posture.
“I’ve traveled to India and Tibet, and never felt as unsafe as I do in my own hometown.”
Right now, she’s housesitting for some family friends in Dover–one of those mansions that wears its wealth discreetly. e.v. wasn’t quite aware of its extent until she discovered the home gym in the basement. It reminded her of something her mom said, when they were cleaning out the condo in preparation for selling it: “I didn’t realize how much of the stuff I had, just because I had a place to keep it in.”
And again we agree that part of the charm of traveling, and inhabiting homes not our own, is to see what people value.
At this juncture, Sam speaks up on behalf of domestic groundedness, saying that there’s a lot of joy that can be derived from that–it all depends on what lens you turn in your life, and where you got that lens…if you chose it, or were just given it.
He’s right, of course. And I love domestic groundedness–it’s why I love doing people’s dishes and making their beds. I just don’t want dishes or beds of my own. My own greatest domestic thrill comes when I slide behind the steering wheel of my Jeep; what some women feel from getting a new bedspread, I feel when I get my tires rotated.
When my dad drove me out to college, I spent hours cleaning out my station wagon in preparation for our trip. I never felt much pleasure, only a grim righteousness, in cleaning my house for company. It never occurred to me before that it might have been because that wasn’t a real expression of what I had to give; it was only the best I thought I was allowed to do.
The competitive feeling I used to have with other women has been replaced by an embarrassed kind of pride in their presence. Some are uncomfortable with my transience, some with my lack of concern for safety, and some seem to most resent the fact that I’m doing it without a man in tow. And some seem to have a crisis of identity right in front of me, as another woman traveler recounts:
Wherever I go women come over to my picnic table and ask the same questions: you’re camping alone? and in a tent? how do you know how to do it? how do you decide where to go? how do you stay safe? what do you eat? isn’t it uncomfortable? aren’t you scared? have bad things happened? how do you know what to bring? how do you fit it all into your car? aren’t you lonely? Those questions are often followed by a faraway longing in their voices: “Oh my, I wish I dared to do what you’re doing, I know I’d love it, although I don’t know how my husband would feel about it.”
Or, as my friend’s mom said at the end of my apologetic for how I live, “That’s intrepid hot shit!”
They might eventually admire it, but they don’t get it. It doesn’t occur to anyone that what I’m doing might be my own way of propagating the species and nurturing it.
In truth, it never really occurred to me, either because I thought for sure I was the only one.
“You think they aren’t out there, but I’ve met so many.”
She mentions Cheryl Strayed, whom I vaguely remember from a brief NPR profile. She tells me about Kate Christensen, whose memoir of solo travels e.v. recently reviewed, and of her mother, Liz LaFarge, who at the age of 77 bucks not only the conventions of womanhood but also the conventions of age. (I wonder what the “do it while you can” people would say to her. e.v. agrees, “You can really get hung up on that youth thing.”
The fact that these women’s travels are largely unpublicized at the time they’re happening (Ms. Strayed’s memoir came out twenty years after her actual travels) could be blamed on “society.” But e.v. speculates it’s a decision of the women themselves–they don’t need to make a big deal about it, because they’re doing it for themselves.
“Maybe this is the beat generation for females.”
If it is, she adds, it’s long overdue.