Gaiutra Bahadur, Robyn Davidson and Cheryl Strayed

Reinvention, invention, construction and deconstruction was the topic of this session. No, this session was not about mechanics or engineering of the typical kind. This was the discussion of the engineering of the human body and mind, specific to these two writers: Cheryl Strayed and Robyn Davidson. It was chilly and the tent was less than accommodating for everyone but the discomfort was worth it, for such were the inspiring words of these two authors.

Cheryl Strayed and Robyn Davidson sport a pretty smile as they take their seat on the stage. Their grace and elegance hushes everyone into silence and everyone waits for them to start speaking.

The mediator for this session is Gaiutra Bahadur. Cheryl Strayed and Robyn Davidson are two very similar women who hit rock bottom in their lives and came up gracefully by plunging themselves into the passionate adventure that the unknown holds: the wild. Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ and Robyn Davidson’s, ‘Tracks’, are memoirs which chronicles their separate, different yet similar journey into the wild.

Cheryl Strayed says her journey began at the bottom of her life, when she lost her mother to cancer and her marriage to circumstances. Cheryl Strayed then decided to begin trekking on the Pacific Crest Trail to reinvent herself.

At Jaipur Literature Festival, Cheryl speaks of how she wanted to reinvent herself and look deeply within herself during this journey. “I needed to start afresh. I needed to reinvent myself”, she says. As a writer, she found the only way to do so was with the help of language and words. “I would use language to redefine myself”, she adds.

Robyn Davidson’s idea of a 1,700-mile trek across the deserts of west Australia using camels was spontaneous. She had had no experience in riding camels before. On being questioned on this, she says there are no straightforward answers for the question. She was interested in aboriginal culture, to see the mythical side of her country: the desert.

Strangely, neither of them ever thought of compiling their experiences into a book. Cheryl speaks of how since she was already a writer, her experiences and thoughts in her head, were arranged like a narrative in a book. Her intention on the hike was to have an adventure. It wasn’t until recently, in 2008, that she was ready to publish her work.

Robyn Davidson, on the other hand, confesses of how she was never a writer and the profession found itself in her somehow.

Robyn Davidson speaks of this journey being an invention of her, not a re-invention. “When I wasn’t a writer, I don’t know who I was”, she says.

On their experience in the wild, Cheryl speaks of how she experienced the landscape with the Otherness. We are one and the Landscape is the other, she says. She speaks of how we become the wild and we blend together in perfect harmony.

Robyn Davidson speaks of something similar while agreeing with Cheryl. She says after being on her own for nine months, consciousness of a person changes, the brain of a person changes. It is first frightening and then it expands to something more. The paradox is that even though you are alone, you are completely at home.

Gender and sex act as a constraint sometimes and being a female in the wild, all alone, does not seem like an appealing or a safe and sane idea. Robyn, however, disagrees and says she was unaware of her gender in the Wild. She does speak of how her sex granted her access to the world of men and women.

Whereas Cheryl says she enjoyed being alone, she decided to feel safe in the world, to do things even if she was afraid. She speaks of how we are told to be afraid and how she just decided not to be. “I’m okay, I’m not afraid”, was her mantra in the wild, which she successfully implemented in her life.

On her books being turned into films, Cheryl says, “Movie is a different thing than the book”. She says the experience of watching a huge part of her life being turned into a move was the “strangest experience” of her life, especially when she saw an actress reconstruct instances of her life.

Robyn Davidson agrees with that. She speaks of how she had the strangest experience with an aboriginal man whom, when she met five years later after her book, identified her as his wife. Robyn speaks of this incident with tenderness and amusement. She talks of the gift of family that she inherited from that man.

Robyn Davidson goes on to say that to do something extraordinary we have to go through a tragedy.

There was a huge gap between the experience of being in the wild and the writing of the book, on being asked as to how they remembered all the details, Cheryl says she had kept a daily journal and the experience of writing freshened up her mind, just like you instantly remember everything you want to ask or talk about when you meet an old friend, after a long time.

Robyn on the other hand speaks of how she had no diary to record her days. She only had her memories and writing the first draft was an intense experience for her. The book almost ached with memories, she says.

Both writers have displayed exceptional honesty in their books, been honest with reality and their sexuality. Cheryl says it is because she herself is interested in reading that which tells the truth. As an artist, be a truth teller. For women to write frankly about their sexual desire has always been a taboo. Robyn agrees and speaks of how she wrote about menstruation in her books, which was received with shock on part of her publishers.

The moral of their books is “If I can do it, anyone can,” Cheryl says. “So much of writing is to make sense of what it is to be human”, Cheryl said in the due course of the conversation.  And that is what we have to take away from the session.

This session was inspiring and positivity exuded by these two authors was electric! So, empower yourself, go on an adventure and write about it! Get inspired!

Cheryl Strayed signs books for her fans
Cheryl Strayed signs a copy of ‘Wild’ for her fans
The Penguin India Blog

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