Books

'Travels with a Writing Brush': 1,000 years of travel writing, united by a poetic thread

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

The poet-traveler may be familiar to lovers of Matsuo Basho, but for most, the Japanese way of travel writing diverts from well-trodden paths.

Travels with a Writing Brush, by Meredith McKinney.
400 pages
PENGUIN CLASSICS, Nonfiction.

As Meredith McKinney, author of “Travels with a Writing Brush,” explains to The Japan Times, “the way they wrote about travel is so unlike how people in the West write now that it is quite a journey just to travel into their perspective.”

The book begins with a selection from the “Manyoshu,” the oldest known collection of Japanese poetry, and ends 1,000 years later with the 17th century and Basho. For McKinney, researching and translating the selections became a journey of discovery that began at the end. “I was just playing around in my mind with Basho and how he is typically read in isolation in the West. And it occurred to me that it would be interesting to go back to the beginning and see where his writing came from.”

At the same time, McKinney was also reading the “Manyoshu” with her neighbor and fellow Japanese scholar and translator, Royall Tyler.

“For years we’ve been slowly reading through the ‘Manyoshu,'” says McKinney. “I kept being struck by how much continuity there seemed to be with the travel poems which are everywhere in that text, and (the poems of) 1,000 years later when Basho sets out on his journey. So I thought I would go back and look especially for travel poems, feeling my way through history and literature to see where it might take me.”

At the time, McKinney never intended her work to be published. It was a private exploration that gradually evolved into an intellectual trek that combined her talents.

Straddling the border between translator and researcher, McKinney’s doctorate from the Australian National University was on Saigyo Hoshi (1118-90), a late Heian and early Kamakura period poet. But she brings a colloquial, down-to-earth style to her copious introductions to each chapter and scholar’s notes at the end, acting as translator, historical guide and literary commentator for the reader.

“My research placed me pretty much squarely in the middle of 1,000 years of (the country’s) narrative development,” she says. “From there I could more easily reach backward and forward and find my way. Even though I was doing it blind, I had some signposts along the way that I was familiar with.”

Four years into the project, she casually mentioned her progress to editors at Penguin, and they offered to publish it.

The finished product is a fascinating adventure, fully armed with layers of context so that we as readers can walk alongside the hodgepodge of humanity who travel through the pages.

From emperors and aristocrats to illiterate female asobi (traveling entertainers), whose existence is noted because other travelers recorded them, a range of voices unite under the great equalizer of travel, where the dangers and loneliness of the road are captured by the writing brush.

Juxtaposed the writings of the provincial governor of a small island in Shikoku (“Tosa Diary”) — moving his family back to the capital while mourning the recent loss of a child — and the musings of an impressionable 12-year-old girl as she travels to the capital with the fresh perspective of a privileged youth, longing for access to the great literature of the age (“Sarashina Diary”). Or traverse the road to Kamakura with two separate accounts, 20 years apart, in “Journey Along the Sea Road” and “Journey to the East.”

Familiar works, like “The Tale of Genji” or Lady Nijo’s “A Tale Unasked” are re-examined through the lens of travel, while maps plotting famous routes and sketches of landscapes offer new vistas throughout the text. Similarly, noh plays wander across the pages, as McKinney reveals the deep connections between this classical performing art and travel.

Although McKinney was first attracted to this distinctive perspective toward travel writing, what emerges from the pages feels both timeless and contemporary, a universal vista on the human experience that resonates as much with today as with yesteryear, and even for readers unfamiliar with Japan.

For McKinney, starting off the project as a solitary scholar and translator venturing into the unknown, this literary exploration satisfied on multiple levels. As McKinney says, “I was amazed at how it all hangs together … the way the literature evolved into this single, overarching theme of travel and how travel moves through the literature consistently, but is constantly changing across those 1,000 years. And finally, to come back to Basho and see him with fresh eyes.”

It’s a beautiful work that consistently informs a deeper understanding of nature and human nature as we see the world through the eyes of such varied observers.