Writing Cities, Writing Secrets
By Debra Nicholson, Official JLF@Boulder Blogger
Writing about a city and travel writing are two different genres. The genre of travel writing dates back hundreds of years, with Italian, Japanese, and Arab wanderers telling their tales, to name a few. To write about a city requires finding a way to capture a city’s unique elements while staying in place. William Dalrymple and Suketu Mehta entertained their audience with stories of researching and writing their books on cities in Boulder Library’s Canyon Theater at the session entitled, “The Secret Life of Cities.” While writing City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi, Dalrymple appreciated the time to really “breathe in” Delhi and all its layers of “haunted” history; Mehta meant to go to Bombay for a year to write about it and ended up staying for seven to write his book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.
How do you make a city into a character?
In order to find a way into their subject matter, both authors read publications about place from other authors, such as V.S. Naipaul’s trilogy about India and Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. Both authors kept journals as they interviewed many people about the history and lived experience in their respective subject cities. Dalrymple read from his book a captivating description of his Parsi taxi driver; Mehta read about interviewing 1992 Bombay riot participants about observing gasoline-lit “burning men.”
What does it take to write about a city?
Writing about cities requires a mixture of curiosity, vulnerability, and persistence. Mehta suggested the best technique for a researcher is to claim a “weak bladder;” listen carefully, then excuse yourself to use the restroom to write down all you’ve heard. Dalrymple’s historical research took him to Karachi, Pakistan, to interview angry Delhi-ites in exile after Partition.
While the temptation to add to or embellish non-fiction research is strong, it is important to keep to the truth in the narrative. Otherwise, as Mehta said, why not abandon all pretenses and just write a novel?
Bringing cities to life requires searching in the shadows for hidden stories; a city is a character with secrets just waiting to be told.