In my third year at York, I did a module called ‘Writing in the Marketplace’, which focused on the publishing/film/journalism/creative industries and the various forms of production available. It was definitely one of my favourite reading lists during my degree, but as any English Lit student will tell you, there are some books that just don’t get read during the module. When lockdown began, I found much more time for reading, which led to me reaching for lost titles, right at the back of the shelves. It was here that I found an edition of Granta Magazine.
After reading the introduction, I knew there was something really special about this form. As a devourer of magazines and a lover of books, the idea that there was a form in between was hugely exciting. Granta’s reputation as a literary magazine had put me off before, in feeling like I would need a long period of time and perhaps a professor to help me decipher it. However, it seems the Granta I had chosen at random was non-fiction - a revelation to me and firmly blasting my preconceptions out of the water. In ordering second hand on Abe, absentmindedly checking off the boxes on my list of books to buy, I’d gone for the coolest cover in the line up (yes, supremely shallow as ever). The edition in question was entitled Journeys, and discussed the process of travel writing, as well as featuring obscure and vivid ‘journeys’, travelling from one place to another whilst narrating a developed and transformative experience or feeling.
These non-fiction editions of Granta have a theme, usually a question, which various writers in the chosen field attempt to answer. Here, I read Robert MacFarlane, Geoff Dyer, Colin Thubron, Amit Chaudhuri and Edna O’Brien answer, in varying degrees, ‘Is travel writing dead?’ or contribute one of their own ‘journeys’. The variety of answers, the pessimism and the optimism, and the unique takes on the nature of travel writing as a form was a refreshing approach. I read heartily, like when you demolish a shepherd’s pie or a bolognese, feeling warmth and comfort from the perspectives on the page, and in being invited into their journeys, in worlds so different and unconnected from mine. Breaking the fourth wall in a film can either be stimulating or mind numbing, and here too, discussing the form and its future alongside travel stories was a jarring but demonstrative experience - I learned, I thought, I felt like I felt back at uni, discussing ideas and philosophies and questioning. And growing my perspective through questioning.
I also felt connected; to the outer world and other countries and cultures, experiencing the thrill of landscapes and cities unknown and ripe for my own discoveries. I learned about the bonkers admissions processes at a Chinese Film School, the pull of your birthplace long after you’ve left it behind, and the journeys people make when reflecting on their childhood. I could see myself and my own stories in the stories of others, and felt by the end that I could almost contribute to the question. That’s empowering in itself, that an edited collection actually compels you to join in the discussion. Hell, I’m even writing a blog post about it.
Of course, I wanted to double check that this wasn’t a fluke. I went to Abe again, to pick out another travel themed collection, this time entitled Canada. This collection had no question throughout, but instead a powerful introduction first in English by Madeleine Thien, and then in French by Catherine Leroux. By the end of these four pages, many questions had arisen, on what Canada means as a nation, the issues surrounding the anglicism of a country that includes 7.2 million native French speakers, and of course the rewriting of history to overlook the First Nations. In the following stories, all manner of themes are explored, in vivid and moving prose asking and attempting to answer both these questions and some of the greatest to trouble humankind, such as the nature of genius, of separation, of addiction. The collection represents many forms too, from scripts to photography, and continually innovates your impression with each new perspective.
So often, we read from one author, on one subject, before moving on to a vastly different pair, entirely unrelated from the first. It tends to be how we digest our news, our opinions. But, Granta has demonstrated the power of perspectives, coming together to divide, contradict and build on those that came before it. To really explore a subject, and to force your brain into contemplation, in a world that so often tells us what and how to think.