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Getting Near to Far & Away

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I started my professional life with international reporting, driven by curiosity about the larger world. I was always drawn to the foreign, both because it seemed to be the locus of adventure and because I grew up with an innate sense of otherness, as I’ve written in my forthcoming book Far & Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change: Seven Continents, Twenty-Five Years, which has just had its first reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly). As a gay person in the 1970s and ‘80s, I felt marginal, and was relieved to venture where I was on the fringe for reasons other than my sexual orientation. Unready in those years to fall fully in love anyone, I could instead form passionate attachments to places. Because my mother and grandfather had both died young, I felt some urgency about seeing what was out there lest I run out of time. I also just found the world fascinating.

Before my career started, I assumed I would write about literature. I changed course for two reasons. The first is that foreign literature is generally not written in English, and I am dyslexically bad at learning new languages. The second is that to write about, for example, a Russian book, you need only ask that someone mail it to you at home, while to write about, for example, Russian art requires your venturing to Russia, where the art is. Literary critics imagine going where art critics need to go. Writing about art soon required investigating the artists, and knowing the artists tangled me in politics and social culture. As my own identity gradually took shape, I became interested in how other people arrived at coherence. In a time when depth of knowledge tends to be the most highly valued commodity, I went for breadth, and visited as many places as I could.

Far & Away is a compendium of such formative travels, which are ongoing, but it is a testament against the fierce demagoguery of separateness that has recently taken hold at home and abroad. People’s suspicions are whipped up by xenophobic ideologues into terror not only of those who would terrorize them, but also of vast swathes of unfamiliar and generally benign populations. In a collective panic about the incursion of otherness, we think that fear must be played out in fight, with military intervention, or in flight, via isolationism—but we are not hunted game, and those are not the only options. There is also the possibility of acceptance, with its corollary of understanding and its ultimate manifestation in embracing. That option may be pursued in a spirit of generosity, but it is not ultimately selfless, because other countries, cultures, and belief systems stand to teach us a great deal, and our interactions with them are often mutually advantageous. Travel is a set of corrective lenses that helps focus the earth’s blurred reality.

I’ve reported from troubled places: Moscow during the failed coup that ended the Soviet Union, Afghanistan during the Western invasion in early 2002, Libya in the late Qaddafi period. I’ve gone to investigate the complex psychology of places steeped in recent trauma: Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda ten years after the genocide. I’ve also enjoyed holidays in places as far-flung as Mongolia and the Solomon Islands. I’ve met world leaders, revolutionary intellectuals, firebrand artists, former political prisoners, and the disenfranchised poor. These travels have changed who I am and transformed my politics. I believe that they have made me kinder, more willing and able to perceive from others’ points of view. The same experiences have made me less sure of myself, insofar as I no longer believe that any universal logic applies to all societies. They have also been surprisingly joyous; I have chronicled places in the throes of transitions, often gorgeous ones.

Travel is not merely a luxury or an educational strategy, but a moral imperative for those who have the means to voyage out. As the economy globalizes and uprooted populations introduce unanticipated diversity to previously insular societies, we need to know what it means to live and think differently. The craven language of scarcity that seeks to guide our aggression and constrict our immigration policies can be defused only when we understand that there are different riches in different places, different priorities here than there. What is obvious to us is bewildering to others, and it’s impossible fully to comprehend that until we’ve been bewildered by what is obvious to them. Other places are both a window and a mirror; other places reveal themselves but also place you more clearly within your own culture. They alert you to future choices and reveal past ones. If every young adult in the world were required to spend two weeks in another country, half of the world’s diplomatic tensions would be resolved. It wouldn’t matter what countries they visited or what they did during their stays. They would simply need to come to terms with the existence of other places, and recognize that people live differently there—that some phenomena are universal and others, culturally particular. If knowledge is power, xenophobia is an engine of folly.

Far & Away will be published by Scribner on April 26th. I didn’t time it to this year’s American campaign season, but I am pleased that it will stand in its small way as an argument against bigotry. It supports the conviction that no nation can achieve dignity except by granting to it others, just as no person can achieve dignity except by extending it to others.

Advance Praise for Far & Away

“From Cape Town to Bucharest, and Hangzhou to Tripoli, Andrew Solomon’s Far and Away is positively Whitmanian in its openness to difficulty and its embodiment of wonder. I felt exposed and expanded. This book is an ecstatic provocation to understand ourselves not as citizens of nations but as citizens of the entire world, a world whose territories are glorious and troubled and desperately connected.” —Leslie Jamison

“Andrew Solomon is every bit as magnificent a traveler as he is a writer — in fact, it’s difficult at times to determine which is the greater talent. Thankfully, the reader gets to experience both gifts throughout the pages of this deeply impressive and profoundly moving collection. Here is man whose curiosities are vast (politics, art, food, psychology, anthropology), and whose intellect is beautifully honed, but whose spirit is humble and whose heart is enormous. You will not only know the world better after having seen it through Solomon’s eyes, you will also care about it more.” —Elizabeth Gilbert

“This is a beautiful book, inspired by love of ‘away’ and uncertainty about ‘home,’ a celebration of freedom which valuably warns that freedom must sometimes be learned. Much more than ‘travel writing,’ it’s a portrait of our world, made by someone who has been there.” —Salman Rushdie