A Q & A with Aaron Smith, Shanti Bloody Shanti author

Monday, October 7, 2013

This weekend, the Avid Reader at Tower will be hosting Aaron Smith, author of a travel memoir: Shanti Bloody Shanti

Aaron will be in 10/13/13 at 2pm to talk about his experiences and the book that evolved from them. 

For a taste of his style and personality,  I asked him a series of questions.

What was the most important experience you had in India?

I could wax lyrically about sunsets in Varanasi over the Ganges or sunrises over the Himalayas, or swimming the azure waters of the Andaman Islands, or riding rickshaws through the frenetic back streets of Calcutta - but I won't. 

As a 'travel writer', a moniker I use cautiously, I avoid prose that sentimentalizes the travel experience. It not only nauseates me as a reader, but it annoys me as a writer as its not what travelling is really like, especially in India. That is what I call 'Travel Wank'. No travel in India is often uncomfortably hot, cramped, often dirty, dysentery is common, as is being ripped off. 

So to answer the question the most important experience I had in India was the sum total of all my experiences there and the way it permeated my psyche. Unlike many other countries tourists visit (and I think we are all tourists and not 'travelers', no matter how intrepid), India is often the destination people visit who are 'seeking' something. I didn't know what I was seeking other than an antidote to the malaise of modernity, and what stayed with me was a permanent realignment of what I thought was important in life - that is to live in the now.

What was the most memorable conversation you had in India?

The most memorable conversation I had was actually on the plane flying from Melbourne to Mumbai with an older Indian woman. I had babbled a typical wishlist of what I wanted to do and hoped to achieve and she just smiled knowingly. She wobbled her head and replied, "Mother India is bottomless, you can go as deep as you like and there will always be more." 


 What informed your decision to travel to India initially?

Most people go to India to 'find themselves', I however went to lose myself. I needed to disappear off the grid. An affair with a cocaine dealer's mistress resulted on a contract being placed on my head - so I figured it was a good time to disappear in the sea of humanity that is India.

What would you say to a prospective traveler heading to India absolutely needs to do there?

Mother India is a love/hate relationship. At first you will hate it - the crowds, the sweltering heat, the touts, the Delhi Belly, the open sewers, the endless delays. Then after a time you will love it, after it has got under your skin and you find the rhythm and you have aligned with the pulse of a place that transcends space, time and even logic. 

What I would tell a prospective tourist heading to India is to try to forget their agenda and not to be in a hurry, just let India happen to them and give India time to happen. My plan has always been to have no plan, and I stick to that plan religiously.

The reason I said earlier I believe we are all tourists and not travelers is because unless you are an asylum seeker fleeing a war-torn country with nothing but the clothes on your back, or merchant in a caravan crossing maybe Central Asia or Africa, whose way of life relies on the act of migration, you are most likely not a traveler. A backpack, travel insurance, Thai fisherman pants, exotic beer T-shirts, trinkets and rhetoric makes you (and me) nothing more than a tourist. Travel is a luxury, a privilege for the comparatively wealthy (even if on a shoestring) and travelling in no way makes you superior to anybody else - food for thought before hitting the road. 

Could you describe the process of writing your book? 

A lot of crazy things happened to me in India, and the subsequent four years I spent on the road crossing Asia, Europe and Latin America. Telling my stories in bars and cafes, I was told time and time again I should write them down - so I did. At first on napkins, in notebooks and in Internet cafes as emails to myself. Then when I settled in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil I collated it all into a manuscript. 

The first draft was awful, torpid, full of self-indulgence and way too long. I sent it to some publishers, all of whom knocked it back. I then sought out professional feedback, which tore it shreds - the best thing that could ever happen to me. Re-write after re-write pared it down to a much tighter narrative which culled about 50 per cent of the text. 

In the three years it took to finally get published I continued to refine my writing, freelancing for whoever would take my work - at first writing gratis for travel blogs, then for paltry sums in some magazines. As my writing improved, so did my commissions. I then did an MA in Journalism and an internship with a prominent magazine. Today I am the editor of a regional newspaper that has me posted in one of the wildest and most remote places in the world - the Torres Strait, which is just south of Papua New Guinea. My second book, Chasing El Dorado. Into the wild and back, a South American adventure, recounts my three years living as an illegal immigrant in Brazil, studying the myriad of Indigenous cultures and being feathered and tarred by every brujo I could meet. It is due for release late 2014. 

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