In the summer of 2017, I was one of five Scottish writers chosen by Edinburgh International Book Festival to undertake journeys across the Americas.
I travelled through the United States for three weeks, from north to south, beginning in North Dakota, through Appalachia, and ending in Louisiana. For much of this time I was accompanied by the novelist Jennifer Haigh. I wrote the diary posts below as we travelled.
For just over three weeks, from 10th May to 1st June, I travelled through the United States of America, from North Dakota to Appalachia to Louisiana. During the course of this journey I drove thousands of miles (4390, according to Google Maps; 5165, according to the odometer). I passed through seventeen states, all but two of which voted for Donald Trump in November 2016. I saw national parks, national forests, and national monuments; prairies, mountains and swamps; bison, groundhogs, and alligators. I made literary pilgrimages (Red Cloud, Port Royal, and Rowan Oak) and musical ones (Tupelo and Highway 61). I saw floods in Louisiana, blazing sunshine in the Dakotas, and electrical storms in Indiana. I started using Oxford commas.
For most of this trip I travelled with the novelist Jennifer Haigh, and it was an enormous pleasure to do so. Spending this time with her, talking to her, I learned more than I could ever have done from travelling alone.
The blogs I have published on this page have scarcely touched upon the ideas and questions that have most interested and troubled me along the way. In part that is because my time has been so limited. But largely it was deliberate. I have been wary of publishing anything that might seem like a conclusion. I have been wary of haste and prejudice. The questions I have been asking – and that Jennifer and I have been discussing as we drove, ate and wandered – will take time to nudge in the direction of answers. And those answers, inevitably, will be tentative. I have spent only a little time in this huge, complicated country. I am not going to pretend that it does not, still, baffle me.
Much of the political division and tension in the United States today is a result of intolerance, on both right and left. It is a result of the failure to take time, to make the effort, to understand those you disagree with. 'Liberals' condemn and caricature half the population as ignorant, racist, backward; while 'conservatives' condemn the other half as hysterical elites, out-of-touch with reality. What truth there is in these criticisms is lost in the muddle of hyperbole.
Writing literature, in part, is an act of empathy, and as such it ought to cut through this hyperbole, this sweeping condemnation. But to do so is not simple. I have seen and heard things on this journey that have shocked me, offended me. It would be easy to draw words out from that shock, and to criticise what I don't understand. The sight of a Confederate flag waving in the hot, Mississippi sun made me feel deeply uncomfortable, and I know why. My discomfort was not a surprise. But I didn't come to this country to confirm what I already knew. I didn't come to cement my own opinions. What is interesting about that flag is not how it made me feel, but why, in 2017, it is still there.
What I have tried to do on this journey is to observe honestly the things that I have seen. Now, my task is to turn those observations into something more substantial: into words that I am willing to share. I hope that somewhere in the many pages of notes I made, and in the hours of conversations I had with Jennifer and with others along the way, I will find what I need to do that.
After three weeks on the road, this was my last day of travelling. It began beneath a sun that felt remarkable after yesterday's torrential rain, and a heat that felt remarkable because it seemed, quite literally, to be cooking us in our skins.
We took a tour of the swamp in the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge, saw herons and egrets and alligators, and felt ourselves to be in some weird, unfamiliar world. It was beautiful, but somehow terrifying. We drank a lot of water.
In the afternoon we drove north to visit a local writer, Bev Marshall, and her husband Butch, who told us a great deal about the area, about differences between Louisiana and Mississippi (where they both grew up), and about life before integration. It was an eye-opening discussion.
Finally, after yet more driving and yet more rain, Jennifer and I reach our destination: New Orleans. This is a city unlike any other in this country. It feels foreign, and charged with an energy that seems both of another place and perhaps of another time. We wandered the evening streets together in search of food: hungry, glad to have arrived, and yet, more than anything, sorry that our journey was over.
The Mandelay National Wildlife Refuge
"Ya'll try to stay dry!" So said our waitress as we stood from breakfast to head out into what was not, certainly, a dry day. The rain had been pelting down from before I woke, and it continued to fall, without let up. Fields of rice were now paddy fields, ditches and bayous were close to overflowing.
It was an unpleasant, slow drive, with wipers going as fast as they could go, but still failing to keep our vision clear. And we were travelling in the wrong direction: towards the darkest clouds, towards the flashes of lightning, towards swamp land.
This part of the country, on a day of heavy rain, does not feel like a place fit for human habitation. Everything, everywhere, is water. Water falling, water rising; the air filled with it, your body sticky with it. All else is sinking or rotting or crumbling.
When we reached our accommodation – the first on this trip to feature a pet alligator – we stayed inside.