JANUARY 26, 2017
IN 2011, CHILEAN nonfiction writer Juan Pablo Meneses decided to try something different. After 10 years traveling around the world and writing about it, he accepted an unexpected job offer and became editorial director of HoyxHoy, a local newspaper in Santiago, Chile. That was when we first met. I had recently graduated as a journalist and this place became my first real job. By then, Meneses was already well known for his travel stories and publications, among them his controversial book La Vida de una Vaca (A Cow’s Life, 2008), where he buys a cow and faces the dilemma of taking it, or not, to the slaughterhouse. While at the newspaper, Meneses, my boss, worked in a small office with a window looking towards the parking lot, something that accentuated the confining sensation the room provoked. There were very few personal items: a few notebooks and his laptop. No family photographs hanging on the walls, no travel souvenirs on the shelves. His office was like a temporary stop in the middle of the desert: impersonal, unfinished, like he was always about to drive to the airport and leave — something he would finally do in 2016, when he received a John S. Knight Fellowship from Stanford University and moved to the United States.
Working at the newspaper was Meneses’s first attempt in a long time to settle down and hang his walking shoes, at least for a while, on the rack. Animal of the road and a passionate mileage fiend, he has visited and written stories and essays about more than 30 countries, including India, the United States, Argentina, and Spain. He spent most of his life as a journalist working out of his suitcase, wearing down the soles of his shoes, and writing stories on his laptop while sitting at some unglamorous spot he referred to as his office: a cyber cafe. It was this way of life that led him to publish his first book in 2003, Equipaje de Mano (Hand Luggage). Six years later, he created the “School of Portable Journalism,” an online platform that cultivates new nonfiction Spanish writers and journalists all over the world.
These days, Meneses is living in Silicon Valley, California, and working on his new projects with the backing of Stanford University. We can say, perhaps, this is his second attempt to settle down. I’m only six hours away, pursuing my own master’s degree at the University of California, Riverside. We are both sort of traveling, trying to reshape our definitions of home. That’s why I decided to email him, and we sustained a written conversation in our native language, Spanish, which I then translated. I wanted to know his thoughts about how traveling affects a writer’s mind and his own experiences about writing nonfiction on the road.
We also discussed his latest book, Una Vuelta al Tercer Mundo: La Ruta Salvaje de la Globalización (A Tour of the Third World: The Savage Route of Globalization). Published in 2015, although not yet translated into English, and written after several years gathering stories around the globe, it narrates what Meneses has witnessed while traveling through Third World countries as a consumer of what he christened “peripheral tourism.” The author describes it as a growing industry that found success partly due to the ability to share experiences through social networks. This tendency, along with a drop in airline prices all around the globe, is currently changing how people travel and why they do it. About this, the Chilean author adds: “They buy the ticket, pay for the hotel room, hire the tour, all with the only purpose of posting their pictures on their favorite social network. They travel only to get more ‘likes.’ They travel to get more airline miles. Even since Herodotus, people have always traveled with something else in mind, something that goes beyond the travel itself.”
BERNARDITA GARCÍA: Why do writers and nonfiction storytellers travel? What’s your theory about that?
JUAN PABLO MENESES: We travel to tell the story. I don’t see more romanticism than that. I have never truly had a good relationship with traveling. It’s not an ideal kind of lifestyle, though it always ends up being addictive. It’s like a bad drug. In my case, that drug changed my life. At first, I used to write because I wanted to travel. Now, I travel because I want to write. I rarely travel somewhere if I know I’m not going to write about it.
Your last book, Una Vuelta al Tercer Mundo, is a collage of stories that resulted from different travels around the world in several different moments. How and when did you realize that you could connect these experiences and turn them into a unified piece?
The idea of writing a book about travels around the Third World started 10 years ago, when I received an invitation from Soho Colombia Magazine to travel into space. At first, I accepted. I wanted to see the stratosphere, the Earth from above. But after, I decided to turn down the idea because I wanted to tell stories with my feet on the ground, while standing at the front line. I wanted to witness and understand the Third World’s paradoxes in live broadcast. Once I understood this, I also realized it wasn’t really important if I was writing for a magazine, for a newspaper, or about my last vacations. Deep inside, I knew that I was already writing this book. That’s a huge difference. This book isn’t a selection of travel stories as my first book was. When you already know what you want to say, it becomes easier. From that point forward, you only need to gather the stories that will help you to say it better. That is why this book is a single journey that I made through different travels and along several years.
In your book, you criticize the idea of a tourist that pays big amounts of money to witness this “peripheral tourism” of the Third World. However, even journalists and writers need to pay for a ticket and for a hotel room in order to visit these places, to write about them. Where do you see the limits?
My general rule: I don’t believe in limits when it comes to writing a nonfiction book. That’s the difference between journalism and nonfiction literature. The first one is usually limited by time, length of the piece, morals, and values. In a literary nonfiction piece, limits are usually set by the story itself. In my case, the story had led me to buy a cow for the purpose of killing it, as in my book La Vida de una Vaca, or even to buy a Latin American soccer player kid for the purpose of selling him to a European club, as in Niños Futbolistas (Golden Boys, 2013 — English edition is supposed to be released in 2017). To buy a ticket and become just another tourist is necessary to understand what I want to talk about. How am I supposed to show a group of North American tourists celebrating in Ho Chi Minh City if I’m not celebrating with them, jumping among them? Besides, the whole current system is based on contradictions. Capitalism is based on contradictions: the idea of killing animals is horrible but to eat them is delicious. That contradiction is also a part of me. I visit the same places tourists do and I enjoy them too. I don’t take a step back. I believe unequivocally in landing somewhere, without prejudices, without limits, just letting yourself go, living the experience intensely.
When we travel, everything is new, novel. How do you know what is worth telling and what is not?
I usually know what I want to say, what I want to talk about, even if sometimes I don’t really know how to explain it. This indescribable certainty works like a magnet. I go somewhere like Varanasi, India, a place full of stories, but at the end there are only three or four that stick with me. And once I track them, I finally end up writing about one or two. I only have one rule to decide whether I’m standing in front of a story I really have to write about or not: if I feel like I can’t die before writing down this story, well, that’s the story I need to follow and write about, no matter what.
Do you travel and then write, or do you write while you are traveling? What’s your formula?
Every story is different. There are no recipes. Some of them are written right away, others take years, others only a few weeks. The story always runs the show.
A good book about travel stories has the power to open the eyes of many people, even to generate change. Do you think that any of your books has achieved something like that?
All my books talk about traveling. I can’t imagine myself writing a book without movement, changes, shifts, air. We live in our tiny worlds that all the time are getting smaller and more suffocating, so anything that might help the readers escape that feeling is worth it. Each book has its own readers and people usually tell me they liked X the most, or Y the most, and so on. I don’t use formulas for writing and that is why each book makes sense in a different way for each person.
Which books about travel have had this effect on you?
The best book I have ever read is called A Partir de Manhattan (Starting from Manhattan) and I take it everywhere with me. It’s a book of poems written by a Chilean, Enrique Lihn. When I first read this book it split my head into six pieces. Since that moment on, I have had to carry it with me. I need to know it’s always on my bedside table, or somewhere not more than six meters away from my bed.
In this context of traveling and writing about it, how was the “School of Portable Journalism” born and what is its purpose?
This project seeks to discover new Spanish nonfiction writers, promote them, and show them off to the world, no matter the city or country where they are. No matter if they have plenty of followers on their social networks or if they are currently inhabiting an isolated area. No matter if they live in a faraway place and they have never left it, or if they travel from one place to another looking for new stories. The school offers online workshops, and for the past five years we have received more than a thousand unpublished pieces written by new authors that are looking for an opportunity. This is a joint effort with the University of Guadalajara and several Latin American media companies. Our most recent adventure was to launch a free-of-charge workshop for Hispanic nonfiction writers that are currently living in the United States. This last project is sponsored by Stanford, which provides equipment and monitors how it goes. As a result of these efforts, our students have received three “Rey de España” awards and published 10 new books. The current editor of the Spanish version of The New York Times participated in our workshops. I’m not saying this all happened because of us; they already had the talent. But we showed them to the world, we put them on the stage.
You’ve been living for the last couple of months in California and, once again, you’re going through the experience of settling down. What does this act mean to you and to the way you relate with traveling and writing?
I first left Chile in 2000, heading toward Madrid. Since I decided to dedicate my life to “portable journalism,” which is how I baptized this lifestyle where you survive writing stories around the world for newspapers or magazines, I’ve never stopped traveling. That’s why I describe it as an addiction, as an illness. Now I live in Palo Alto, California, and next year I don’t know where I’m going to be. Before coming here, I spent almost five years at an office in Santiago, Chile, which was amazing too. That was my first experience at an office and that’s another kind of traveling. I experienced it as a grand journey. And in the practical aspects, those office years allowed me to save money and finance future long journeys and forthcoming projects. I spent 50 days in India, doing research for a book about spirituality that I’m currently writing. That was something I could only do thanks to the fact that I was working at the newspaper.
How does a writer’s identity transform as he travels? Do you feel more Chilean? Latin American? A Third World member? Citizen of the world? None of the above?
Roberto Bolaño said it before and more accurately, and it happens to many of us that decide to leave our countries: the further we get, the more people call us “the Chilean guy.” Even before coming to the United States, after living in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Santiago, I liked considering myself a Latin American writer. Today, however, I’m a Latino — that’s something that happens to Latin Americans when they come to the United States to live here. And tomorrow, who knows. Though I insist, as Bolaño said: at the end of the day, we would always find someone that will call to us, “Hey, Chilean.”
Despite the way tourism and traveling has changed, do you have any advice for those who are seeking to recover the old mystic experience?
My main advice would probably be to recover the spirit of the ancient adventurers, the very first travelers that left their homes seeking new worlds to discover. To instill this sense of wonder when arriving in new places, or even when meeting new people. Leave your comfort zone and understand that it is possible to survive writing stories around the world.