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Jini Reddy drops in to answer a few questions about her new book Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape (Bloomsbury 2020). Jini is a British journalist and author whom National Geographic recently profiled in their Women of Impact series.
Tell us about your new book
Wanderland is about my search for the magical in the landscape in Britain. In a nutshell, I was seeking a more spiritual or transcendent relationship with nature, and that set me off on a rather unorthodox trail.
The book has been described as having an eco-spiritual edge and it blends memoir, nature and travel writing. It also touches on themes of identity and belonging. It straddles genres but I think in these challenging times, it’s relevant as more of us are turning to nature for solace and connection, and we’re also in a more reflective mode, asking the bigger questions.
Where did the book take you?
The journey unfolded in a quite organic way. I wasn’t focused apriori on going to this place or that place, and I wasn’t destination-focused. It was more that something drew me to each. In this fashion, I ended up in (sometimes hidden) corners of counties scattered across Britain – from Cornwall in the South West corner of England, all the way north to the Hebrides in Scotland, as far as Northumberland in the East, and Wales in the West. I alighted in Sussex, Herefordshire, Derbyshire, Somerset, and even South West London, with digressions to Quebec (where I grew up), and the book starts in the Pyrenees. But each of those places was illuminated for me by an encounter or experience, or because I felt a pull for reasons I couldn’t entirely explain, at the outset.
In the introduction, when speaking about the desire to embark on a new adventure, you mention that you sought to “roam with a juicier intent,” to “actively seek to enter a world that co-exists with the visible one, a world of signs and portents.” Can you unpack this for us?
I needed to roam, to immerse myself in the simple and profound physical beauty of a natural landscape but I was focused on the inner journey. In the book, I talk about wanting to connect with the spirit of the land. What did I mean by that, you might ask? Did I mean a benign ‘umbrella’ presence in nature I somehow knew was there and on my side waiting to be invoked? The Divine? The sentient essence in every living thing? One spirit or many spirits? I wasn’t entirely sure. But I enjoyed asking the question. I wasn’t relying on map and compass – I turned to my inner compass, if you like. I put my faith in the power of intention, I used my intuition, I practiced deep listening, and trusted that I’d be guided, and that the path would unfold. In a way, I traveled as a pilgrim.
In terms of following signs, to give you a concrete example from one chapter, an academic, apropos nothing, casually mentioned a mysterious temple in the land to me. I was intrigued, so I then went on a 12-hour journey from London by plane, train, two ferries and a bus in search of it! Or in another chapter, I’d met a woman who feels a close connection with water. She thrust a bonafide treasure map into my hands – the treasure being a secret ‘lost’ spring. So then I wanted to find it! I took a real childlike pleasure in all of this, and I explored in a playful spirit of experimentation. In my research for the book, I discovered features in the landscape that held significance for me, or a synchronistic encounter or episode would unfold, one that induced a feeling of elation.
What had left you yearning for such an adventure?
I was driven to write ‘Wanderland’ for a few reasons: first, a desire to invite more magic into my life, in a real, tangible way – I’ve always been drawn to magic and mysticism. And as I say in the book, I craved a childlike intensity of experience. I also hungered for a deeper feeling of communion with the forces of nature, in the way that those people from indigenous cultures who I’d met on my travels had. Those relationships were two-way and involved receiving wisdom and insight. To me, this was incredibly exciting and mysterious, and I was eager to know if I might be able to get a glimpse of this sort of relationship for myself, bumbling, inexpert seeker though I might be, by journeying in landscapes across Britain. I also just love being out and about in the countryside and in wild places, and I wanted more of that. Plus, I’d had an experience high in the Pyrenees on solo nature quest, a few years before I began writing the book. I heard a distinctly strange – and what I am convinced was – a non-human voice one night, which terrified the life out of me! I’m not a shaman, or a medicine woman, or a medium or anything, which was what made the moment even more goosebump worthy. Maybe it was a breakthrough of sorts. And when you cross the threshold, you want to keep going. I wanted to hear that voice – or some version of it – again, hence the seeds of my journey were sewn.
You mention a concept called “Otherness” several times throughout the book. How would you explain this idea in relation to your mission?
While I was searching for the elusive magical ‘Other’ in the landscape – that which we often don’t attune ourselves to, what we might call the numinous or the wild unseen, I began to see parallels with my feelings as a woman with a multicultural heritage and brown skin who knows what it is to be seen as Other, as different, as not always accepted. I was born in Britain and raised in Canada to Indian parents who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. On a practical level, I was venturing into the British countryside, where mine was the only non-white face I saw so I began to explore those feelings of not belonging, of Otherness, of not fitting in, or being on the periphery. I began to feel that maybe I was seeking the Other in the landscape, because I was seeking a kind of kinship with that which, like me, lived in the liminal space, the in-between space. Towards the end of my journey, I came to a realization that the place of ‘Other’ that I inevitably occupy is a unique and special place to be and that I could claim it and make it my own.
What difficulties and challenges did you encounter while writing this book?
I suppose logistically, seeing as I didn’t have a set plan, I was very much relying on things to unfold as I hoped they might. Sometimes I felt like a conjurer and sometimes I felt that I was wandering around in the dark. In terms of logistics, I have no car, so I made a lot of journeys by train. In the British countryside, buses can be infrequent, so I sometimes had to rely on lifts. As a writer, the greatest challenge was crafting a (hopefully) flowing narrative. It was my first time writing a narrative, and it was really important to me that I write with the reader squarely in mind, and that it be accessible and warm-feeling. I hate chilly, remote, emotionless writing, so that challenge for me was to be as honest and vulnerable as I could. I admit that initially, I wrote with a critic on my shoulder– it was a long while before I was able to shrug off that critic!
The process of research and writing is often one of discovery. What did you unexpectedly discover?
That there is phenomenal beauty in our British landscapes, sometimes in the most unexpected of places. That though there are tensions on this island, a great many kind, open-hearted people dwell in it. That there is support ‘out there’ in the realms of nature available to us that we may not have even realized existed – there is more to this world than meets the eye! Also that it is intensely liberating to write about the things I care about, and not worry about being judged for being too esoteric. I’ve really let that go – and the irony is, people have told me they really like that side of the book!
Jini Reddy’s book Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape will be published in April 2020 in the United Kingdom and in June 2020 in the United States by Bloomsbury.