Mark Abley is QWF’s latest featured member. Mark is an author, poet, and editor. His books include Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, which was translated into French, Spanish, Japanese, and Latvian and was a finalist for the Montréal Grand Prix du livre, and The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind. His website is www.markabley.com.
Mark’s newest book is a travel memoir. Published in February 2023, Strange Bewildering Time: Istanbul to Kathmandu in the Last Year of the Hippie Trail documents his experience travelling through Asia in 1978, in the throes of the Iranian Revolution and one year before the Soviet-Afghan War.
QWF Communications Officer John Wickham spoke to Mark about his new book, the joy of literary travel and memoir as genres, and what’s changed in the world since his travels. Here are five questions for Mark Abley.
1) Strange Bewildering Time is about your journey from Istanbul to Kathmandu 45 years ago. Why write and publish this book now?
Because the wonderfully flexible genre of literary travel—utterly different from guidebooks and travel websites—allowed me to journey through time as well as place. This is not just a book about Asia, it’s also a book about life in 1978. The countries I visited were so different in those days from what they’ve become, I found that some of what I scribbled down in my three red notebooks might shed a certain light on what has happened since.
2) You relied on those red notebooks you kept during your travels to retell the events of this book. But it isn’t a simple retelling: you often shift focus to question your younger self’s perspective and to provide historical context. What was your writing process like to develop the book this way?
My journals were detailed but they weren’t sufficient—I constantly needed to supplement my notes with research. Luckily, the research was a pleasure. Much of the difficulty I faced in writing the book was to make sure what emerged from the research and the journals would fit together without battling each other.
To be blunt, I had to keep asking myself about ignorance. What did I not know in 1978? What did I still not know as I began to write the book? And equally important, what will readers not know? I had to strike a delicate balance between explaining too little and explaining too much.
3) What do you consider the biggest changes in the world since your travels? Do you see any connections between that time and now?
The explosion of digital technology and the rise of neo-fascism are two very obvious topics, and politics certainly plays a role in the book. But I devoted more pages to a less obvious change: the deterioration of the natural environment in west and south Asia. My travelling companion Clare and I crossed a prominent river in Iran that has since dried up, and we passed a lake that has become a salty wasteland. We clambered on a glacier in Kashmir that would be hard to reach today because of all the political tensions—but people who do manage to get there will find the glacier has shrunk enormously from its former size. We experienced a heatwave in Pakistan and India that was exceptional for the 1970s. It’s not exceptional now. The population of many cities we visited has increased fourfold or fivefold—and the infrastructure simply can’t cope. I think that much of the political unrest and religious fundamentalism that afflict the region has to do with the collapse of nature.
4) You’re currently leading a workshop for QWF called “The Joys and Pitfalls of Memoir.” What pitfalls did you experience writing this memoir? What joys?
As the above answer may demonstrate, I always face the pitfall of preachiness. One way to sidestep my unfortunate urge to pontificate would have been to indulge in nostalgia—and I tried to avoid that temptation. For older writers nothing is easier, or more dangerous, than to look back in complacency.
I found it a joy to think back through time, to relive my experiences and recreate them on paper. Literary travel, unlike poetry, is a genre I know I can write well; I love the form and I’m confident I can overcome the challenges it poses.
5) In this book, you describe your younger self as a (rather naïve) poet. Do you still write or read poetry? (And if so, what are you reading?)
I don’t find it easy to fit poetry into the contours of daily life, and I regret this. Poetry flows for me now only when I’m away from the constraints and obligations of home. I visited Wales in 2017 and 2022, and in just a few weeks I wrote nearly twenty poems. That’s more than I’ve written in Montreal in decades. The landscapes and cultures of Wales send my imagination spinning.
I don’t read a vast amount of contemporary poetry, and to be honest the poets I most enjoy (e.g., John Burnside, Robin Robertson, Gwyneth Lewis, Simon Armitage) are more often British than North American. Poetry is a function of the inner voice, and having spent most of my early childhood in England, I suspect my inner voice still has something of a British accent even if my spoken voice does not.
Bonus Question: What’s next for you?
A revised and updated edition of Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott (2013). I’m about to write a substantial new introduction. The book should appear from a new press, Stonehewer Books, in early 2024.
Thank you, Mark!
Strange Bewildering Time by Mark Abley is available for purchase online and at most bookstores.
To learn more about Mark’s work, visit www.markabley.com.