THE QUOTES chosen to adorn the back cover of Dispatches from the Republic of Otherness, Laura Kelly’s collection of vignettes chronicling her experiences teaching journalism in post-communist countries, are immediately off-putting. “Excuse me please, but you are adventure,” says Tirana resident Bashkim Gjergji. “The generous and the bold have the best lives,” proclaims a Norwegian proverb. Travel writing always risks slipping into self-indulgence, and the prospect of following this “part-time bon vivant” from Miami on her self-congratulatory adventures isn’t too enticing. Fortunately, it quickly becomes clear that the trumpet-blows of the blurb are misrepresentative.
The first story, set in Mongolia, displays some of the characteristic attributes of Kelly’s writing. She has a keen eye for the absurd and incongruous details of travel, her descriptions are original and engaging, and events are carried on a current of emotionally honest and self-effacing reflections. As a child, she’d “fashioned Mongolia as the poster child of all locales beguiling and mysterious.” On arriving, she’s picked up by a taxi driver in a Yankees baseball cap. Together they pass a Buddhist temple:
“Its rooflines silhouette the sky like a flock of large birds alighting. I spy graffiti painted on the temple wall: Puff Daddy Rules.”
Her first day of teaching in Ulaanbaatar is an over-enthusiastic disaster:
“I laugh horsy, forceful laughs. I am runaway train of scary behaviour. I am Jim Carrey in a skirt.”
As we delve further through the book, we come across the back-cover quote presenting Kelly as an embodiment of adventure. It doesn’t relate to Kelly careering through encounters with the criminal underclass of these turbulent countries. Rather, occurring in Albania, it is a local’s reaction to the sight of her helping her grumbling ninety-year-old neighbour down their apartment stairs: “Amazonian me next to the tiny black hunch of her.” This wry, understated episode captures much of the tone of Dispatches.
A Free Press
Laura Kelly is a freelance writer, editor and essayist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Newsweek International, and the Miami Herald. A decade into her career she began teaching to give her life some structure, and fell in love with it. In 1997, she won a Fulbright Scholarship to teach journalism abroad. Of “the hundreds of flavours of countries” in the Fulbright catalogue, she chose to work in Tirana University, Albania. “I wanted to witness the formation of democracy,” she explains in the second of the stories set in Tirana. “I wanted to talk about journalism in a country where the media are reinventing themselves.”
Fascinated by the area, she took teaching jobs in a number of surrounding countries in the years that followed her scholarship. Dispatches is made up of 24 autobiographical stories and poems; while some of the stories recount Kelly’s youth in the mid-eighties, the collection orbits around the six years she spent teaching journalism in “the nether regions of Europe.” The majority of them move between four recently-democratised, post-communist countries: Albania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Armenia.
Less than a decade before Kelly arrived in Albania, these countries functioned under varying degrees of Orwellian autocracy. Journalism was controlled by the state, leaving a lasting imprint on the culture of the profession. A couple of the longer stories use her experiences teaching to illuminate some of this history.
In ‘Hello Morning, Mrs English!’, set in Armenia, Kelly describes the career of one of her students, 53-year-old Grigor. An “accidental journalist,” Grigor gradually rose to a job with a popular Armenian daily. For two years he fought to publish articles on a range of human rights issues, labouring under a barrage of criticism for his “un-Armenian views.” He finally resigned in 2002. In contrast, in the same class Kelly describes an Azeri refugee who was running a weekly TV show dedicated to refugee issues. The show was funded by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees; because the UN paid for the airtime, she exercised a highly unusual degree of freedom to criticise the Armenian government.
Another story, ‘I Cannot Imagination This’, is set in Albania. Kelly’s students are preparing to enter a profession which “for most of its life during the 20th Century … was a tool of the state. The few journalists who questioned or criticised the government were beaten, imprisoned or killed.” Kelly recounts this history before quoting some of the opinions of her students on the changes they have seen in the media. One announces that freedom is described most perfectly in the words of “a great American philosopher” – who turns out to be Janis Joplin. “Freedom is a word when nothing is anymore able to be losed,” the student says, proudly.
At this point in the story Kelly changes focus, and brings us suddenly to “Tirana’s biggest flea market.” Here, Joplin’s words resonate in a different context: “the gypsies look coarse and impoverished, but they wear their smiles more readily than most of the people that I pass on the sidewalks of Tirana.” The description of the flea market is full of vitality, packed with characteristically colourful observations: “The gypsies dress in mismatched layers: jackets over shirts over skirts over leggings. Socks and plastic shoes. Scarves cover their dark hair.” As she wanders among the overloaded stalls, Kelly has an encounter with a young government official that sparks a small epiphany about the purpose of her trip.
Of the two parts of ‘I Cannot Imagination This’, the second best captures the feel of Dispatches as a whole. Despite the political and professional curiosity that drew Kelly to this area of the world, her stories don’t tend to focus on history or politics. Instead, they revolve around small moments of personal insight, sparked by her sensitive impressions of the places and people that surround her. Her style really suits this approach; it kindles the imagination, drawing us into the atmosphere of Europe’s less-trodden ways. The stories immerse us in the rainy streets of Tirana, in Bratislava’s Christmas market, in grungy Bulgarian radio studios. Encounters with sheltering policemen, harmonic student tenors, and tragic Balkan poets are delicately woven into evocative tales of self-discovery in strange lands.
At times these impressions convey something of the culture in which they take place, such as the frantic urban transformation driven by the deluge of free market capitalism. But just as often they express little more than Kelly’s own feelings. Towards the end of the book she further foregrounds her personal development by including a few stories that swing away from the exploration of post-communist countries and reach back into her earliest experiences of wanderlust. As this suggests, the most important part of travel in Dispatches is the impact that it has on the self.
Thanks to the evocative power of the writing, much of this self-exploration is enjoyable to read. However, after a while one is saturated with descriptions of Kelly wandering lonely and fragile amid “stern and functional Stalinist apartment boxes,” “standard imposing and artless Soviet apartment blocks”, and “standard issue Balkan bleak architecture.” Consequently, some of the stories towards the end begin to drag. The poems are largely dispensable, with only one or two striking moments among all of them.
But when the writing reaches its atmospheric peaks, it can inspire one to look again at what is around you, to discover the small stories contained within the blanket activity of a busy marketplace or a seething street. On these occasions Dispatches is a captivating celebration of travel and otherness.
23. Apr 2012 at 0:00 | Tobias Hill