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Thursday, 19 October 2006

Living in the Sierra Madre: An Interview with Jeff Biggers

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.


jeffBiggers has worn many hats in his life. Educated at Hunter College in New York, he earned a B.A. degree in History and English, and pursued additional studies at UC Berkeley, Columbia University, and the University of Arizona. In his 42 years, he has worked in politics, as a community organizer, as a reporter and radio correspondent, and, most recently, an author. His writing has earned him many awards and honors, including an American Book Award, a Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, a Field Foundation Fellowship and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship.


In the last couple of years Biggers has released several books in rapid succession. In 2004 he co-edited an anthology of poetry written by legendary Appalachian poet-activist Don West. Earlier this year he released the highly-acclaimed – The United States of Appalachia – which tells how the culture and history of America was influenced by a series of remarkable, pioneering people from this misunderstood region. On October 16th, his third book, In the Sierra Madre, became available. This piece is a remarkable account of his year spent living and learning amongst the Tarahumara people of the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico.


I recently interviewed Biggers by phone from his home in Illinois, where he resides when he’s not living in his wife’s native Italy. We discussed life in the Sierra Madre, myths about Appalachia, and travel writing.


When did you first become interested in the Tarahumara people?


I was tagging along with my wife who was doing her PhD dissertation in social linguistics. She was heading into the canyons of the Sierra Madre to do research on bi-lingual education programs for indigenous people in Mexico. My main job was to fit in in whatever way I could as an outsider in a traditional lifestyle. I worked as a lumberjack, planted corn, and took part in the rituals of the local community. I saw it as a year off from working, which I had been doing a lot of.


Did you intend to write a book, or did that come naturally out of the experience of living there?


bookNo, it wasn’t really planned. While I was there- amazing stories kept cropping up, both things that I would run across, and the history of other travelers and adventurers. I started by occasionally filing stories with places like Savvy Traveler, and then eventually decided to just write a whole book.


You write a lot in the book about the myriad foreigners, revolutionaries, adventurers and misfits who have been drawn to the Sierra Madre through the years. How do you explain the appeal of the region and its people to outsiders?


It’s a breathtaking, amazing landscape. There are seven canyons, three of which rival the Grand Canyon in terms of their immensity. It is only a day’s drive from the Arizona/New Mexico border. My book also draws on the book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which came out in the 1920’s. In that book, an old prospector named Howard tells of gold that can be found deep in the canyons, amongst the Indians, and then everybody runs off looking for it. That has always attracted Americans and Europeans – the idea of these legendary, mythical, treasure-filled canyons. But also, one of the leitmotifs of my book is about how we spin these incredible stories – then adventurers and travelers go up into these canyons in search of this illusory treasure.


That treasure could mean anything. The great French poet Antonin Artaud went there looking for peyote and some kind of life-altering experience. The great travel writer, Frederick Swotka, went down there in search of cave and cliff dwellers. Everyone goes down there seeking their fortune, and although they don’t necessarily find what they’re looking for, they find an even better story. More importantly, the journey is very transformative in their own lives.  I think that is sort of the whole essence of traveling and travel writing. You take this journey and it’s not about the trip itself, but how the trip impacts you and your life.



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.



In In the Sierra Madre you spoke to Alfonzo, the great storyteller who told you of his wild worldwide journeys. 
He said that when he came home people said to him 'You are as poor as we are, what good are your stories?'  
You seemed affected by that as well.  Do you think that many Tarahumara people are not interested in the 
outside world?


They were interested in the outside world, but had very little experience of it. There is this idea amongst the Tarahumara (and other people) that what you do in life should be reflected in how much money you make. And they think that anybody who gets out will have had contact with wealth. So they wondered why he would bother to travel the world if he could not make a profit off it. That’s true as well for us – as travel writers we sometimes ask ourselves why write if you can’t get rich doing it? But what hit me hard with Alfonzo was that here was this man who truly had this extraordinary life, but his friends couldn’t believe that he traveled for a rich life, not personal riches.


I thought, shouldn’t that be the whole point of our travels – not to find a great fortune, but to have a beautiful experience? You struggle as a travel writer to make money - there are only about three people out there who make any money doing it. But you realize that’s not the point. The point is to have great experiences and tell great stories.


What was your favorite journey/trip and why? Of all the traveling you've done, 
where are you most drawn to?  

There are so many paradises on earth. I filed a lot of stories about amazing places for Savvy Traveler, and even didn’t file stories sometimes because I thought; I don’t want anyone to know about this place! I actually lost money doing that, but gained a great place that I thought maybe was not ready for mass tourism yet. But I am in love with deserts, mountains….. Sicily is in the top three places I love most in the world. My next book is about an incredible place in Kerala, India. There is a mountain range there called the Ghats that is just amazing.


Do you have a favorite piece of travel writing or author that you particularly admire or aspire to be like? Why is this one your favorite?


That’s a hard question because I read a lot and really admire a lot of travel writers. The really hopeful thing about this genre is that there is so much great stuff going on. There is a lot of stock commercial travel writing, but there are also lot of great writers in books, magazines, and websites such as your own who are getting the story out.


Bruce Chatwin was one of my favorites, even though he had a problem with the truth sometimes. He wrote a book called The Songlines, about the aboriginal people of Australia. It was a great classic of travel writing, even though he probably made up half of it. He had a beautiful way of writing and unfortunately died of AIDS. Colin Thubron is another one. He does an amazing amount of research before each trip. He actually spends a year learning the language, a year doing his trip and then a year doing follow-up research. It shows an incredible commitment to the journey. Peter Hessler is doing some amazing books on China. There are so many great writers, from so many different countries.


What advice would you give to fellow travelers and aspiring travel writers?


I tell people to start out writing for smaller publications such as yours, and not worry about making money. You just want to churn it out. Work on your stuff. Keep traveling and refining your stories. I think a lot of people get sort of pessimistic because they get rejected a lot, but even though travel writing is a fairly open-ended field to get into as a freelancer, there are a lot of people out there competing with you. Even me, with a few books under my belt and having been published in some big publications, I am just starting to break into the big-time after doing this for many years. It takes a lot of time. But if you really love what you’re doing, keep cranking it out for smaller publications, online publications, and regional newspapers, where the bottom line is not money but building your craft and building your clips. Enjoy what you’re doing and keep traveling, and eventually things will fall into place.


To read a review of In the Sierra Madre, click the 'ink' link on the left

You can read more about Jeff Biggers on his website, .

© Karen Elowitt 2006



Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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