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Thursday, 19 October 2006

Living in the Sierra Madre: An Interview with Jeff Biggers - Page 2

Written by Karen Elowitt
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Name any place in the world, and chances are that Jeff Biggers has been there. A seasoned writer and traveler, he has journeyed to some of the most exotic places on the map and written about them with great vitality and passion. Biggers is not simply a “travel writer” – that label is far too simple to describe his work. His books, short stories, articles, and radio programs explore the inner life of the places and cultures he has visited by weaving a complex tapestry of historical details, vignettes of daily life, profiles of local people, and geographical discovery.


Your writing is a blend of travelogue, memoir, and history lesson. Is that a deliberate approach, or is it organically dictated by the experiences you have when traveling?

Yeah, it’s pretty deliberate. I’m sort of a journalist, sort of a historian, sort of a radio correspondent, and sort of a storyteller. I haven’t really decided which one of those I’m going to be. But I think I’m mostly a storyteller at heart. I don’t see myself so much as a travel writer, as a “traveling writer.” I have been around the world for the last 25 years, and continue to have this wanderlust, but not so much to write stories as to be part of the travel experience and help chronicle my experience through the history I see.


I really love travel writing but what’s important to me is travel writing that transcends your own experience and takes you beyond the front door of a culture. That means you have to do a lot of homework. I’m a believer that you need to sit down and read the history and the literature, really get immersed in the culture, in order to put your travels into context. Because these places are so outside our experience, if you don’t have the historical and cultural context to look at things, then as a travel writer you’re generally misinformed and can only be pretty lightweight and superficial in terms of what you’re saying.


Speaking of getting immersed in a culture, there is plenty of traveling to be done and stories to be told right in our own backyard. Was this part of your motivation in deciding to write about Appalachia? In your book The United States of Appalachia you lament the fact that many Americans know very little about this fascinating region of the country, and what they do know tends to be only stereotypes and myths.


appalachiaMany of the stereotypes of Appalachia, for example the uneducated hillbilly, or moonshine, or the backwardness and poverty, came out of early 20th century writing, which portrayed the people as strange mountain creatures. These stereotypes still persist today. So part of what I wanted to do was say hey, here in our own backyard we have a vanguard region in terms of American history. Starting with the Cherokee, and continuing to the original declaration of independence, long before the Boston Tea Party happened. The abolitionist movement even traces its roots there. William Lloyd Garrison was trained by a bunch of backwoods people in eastern Tennessee who had an abolitionist newspaper 20 years before he did.


I originally bought into many of the stereotypes and misperceptions when I was younger, until I made these incredible discoveries. As a travel writer, I often do workshops, and I tell people that your own backyard can be a source of some amazing stories. Even here in the cornfields where I live in western Illinois there are a lot of great stories. You don’t necessarily need to jump on a plane and go up to the Arctic.


Do you see any similarities between life in Appalachia and in the Sierra Madre?

Oh, yes, definitely. With many mountain cultures, the bottom line is that the landscape still determines the culture. That really fascinates me. I grew up both in rural Illinois and in the Sonoran desert of Tucson Arizona, and ever since my childhood I have been interested in how land and culture are connected. Mountains in particular make a huge imprint on culture, which shapes the way people live.


You speak of the silence among the Tarahumara. Have you experienced that in other cultures that 
live close to nature?

Yes. I have seen that even in my own people, who hail from the backwoods of southern Illinois. My mom tells me that her defense mechanism as a 16-year-old kid going to college, having grown up in a rural coal-mining area, was to keep quiet. I think it’s often misinterpreted as shyness. Similarly, the Tarahumara don’t talk much; they’re quiet and enigmatic. Often it’s because of the language barrier, or the gender barrier. Spanish is a second language for these people, and few travelers know the Tarahumara language. According to their cultural protocols, a man can’t just go up and talk to any woman when he wants to. We often forget about the gender protocols that exist in other cultures.


Also, as travelers, we bring this sort of magisterial presence with us as outsiders. No matter how dressed-down we try to be, we forget that the equipment we tote as backpackers is probably equivalent to the amount of possessions these people have in their lifetime. That immediately sort of silences some of the interaction, because it’s viewed as a sort of imbalance in the rapport. I talk a lot about that, about the misinterpretation of silence. It’s related to the land, and the fact that rural people often communicate in different ways, and the fact that there are sometimes cultural imbalances between travelers and locals.


The silence of the Tarahumara must be a stark contrast to the gregariousness of the Italians, amongst whom you spend part of every year.


Yeah it’s funny, because in Italy if you don’t talk a lot, people think something is wrong with you! Americans, too. We are such a talk-show culture now. And I’m part of that too – I’m a big talker. We get into these situations where, for example, you can be at the barber, and you feel obligated to strike up a conversation just to pass the time. We sometimes see silence as a void that needs to be filled with meaningless pleasantries and conversation. We forget the art of just sitting and being quiet. In the Sierra Madre, I used to just sit with my neighbor and strum my banjo, or just listen to the bats and look around. You would communicate, just very slowly and quietly. You didn’t need to ramble on, and I appreciated that.


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