Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Bridges to Travel: Celebrated Transgender Travel Writer Jan Morris Reflects upon Her Century of Sojourning the Ever-Changing Globe

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Bridges to Travel: Celebrated Transgender Travel Writer Jan Morris Reflects upon Her Century of Sojourning the Ever-Changing Globe

Article excerpt

Along with Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, author of over 40 books, is one of the most famous travel writers of our era. Born in 1926, she began life as James Humphrey Morris but from childhood felt that she was a girl. Though doctors had warned that a sex change could have unforeseen effects upon Morris's personality and literary talent in 1972 she had the surgery in Casablanca. Elizabeth, Morris's former wife and the mother of their five children, has supported Jan through all her transitions, and the couple lives together in a small village in Wales to this day: This interview is excerpted from the new book A Sense of Place." Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration With Michael Shapiro (Travelers' Tales, $18.95).

Shapiro: Imagine this comes up in almost every interview: You started life as a male and exulted in one of the greatest masculine journeys of all time, the ascent of Everest. Now you've spent the second half of your life as a woman. Could we talk about this in terms of your writing and in terms of how or if it has affected your view of the world? Morris." I don't know. I have no idea--other people say it has affected the prose, but I don't notice it myself When I did this book [The World, a collection of previously published articles spanning Morris's career], I honestly can't see much difference between the prose at the beginning and at the end. As you get older your experience widens in every way; and it's hard to know how much of that is simply age and how much is the difference between genders. Of course I changed, but I would have changed anyway.

When you were touring with your latest book, The World, you made a comment about the American Empire, and you said, "Don't worry-yours will subside too." Do you feel that the American Empire is subsiding now? Yes, visibly. Morally, certainly. I suppose economically and politically, probably not. But the rot is setting in. And a good thing too: Hubris has most clearly set in and hubris is the precursor of the end. I think it has gone too far, but then I think the whole democratic capitalist system has gone too fan There's too much of everything.

Too much capitalism or too much democracy? Both. It isn't working very well, is it? I know Churchill always said that democracy was an awful system, but that there wasn't anything as good. And there is that, but at the moment if you look at the democracies, by and large they don't seem to be pursuing the aim of human happiness very successfully. And so one has to wonder if it is necessarily the right system. In America, particularly; it's assumed that it is the right system, that it's the end of all, is it not?

You allude to your smile test. What have you found by grinning at people in different cities? Oh, that's a very useful device indeed, though unnerving for the recipient. But it's true that if you smile deliberately at people, their responses are very revealing because they show every degree of confidence, or shyness, or self-doubt, inhibition--all things which can be extrapolated not only into a civic meaning but even into a national meaning if you're rash enough to do it.

Let's talk about the spirit of place, because when you started writing you did something different from most people who wrote about place. It wasn't,"Here's what you'll find in New York" and "This is what Venice looks like," it was more impressionistic. …

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