Chris Taylor is a journalist and author who has lived in Asia since the early nineties. You can check out his work (including the first chapter of his new novel Harvest Season) at his personal website. I have know Chris for a while — before, during and after he wrote Harvest Season — and I talked with him recently about the novel, some of the themes the story deals with and how the backpacker scene has evolved over the years.
Free Harvest Season Giveaway
Chris has been kind enough to offer a free copy of his book to Chengdu Living readers. To get Harvest Season for Free, just leave a comment below saying you’re interested in the book and we’ll select a reader at random on Saturday to receive the free copy. If you’re outside of Chengdu but in China, you’re still eligible and we’ll ship the book to you. Good luck!
Every single traveler basically relates the destination to his own soul and comes out with a conclusion about mankind and himself. In many straight travel books the “locals” are treated as one (or at the most two dimensional) foils for the exploits of the main character. Harvest Season on the surface might seem like a book about one character’s dealings with place and populace, but what it actually contains are the last choking gasps of a traveler’s delusions about who he is in relation to the destination. And this traveler fights to the bitter end — in his own way — like the last adherent to a dying faith.
As the end nears for our hero Matt in Chris Taylor’s first novel, two fates begin to merge: a devastating collapse in which Matt crumbles along with his hopes and a slow resettling of the dust as time and place march on despite the protestations of one lone man. Chris has got all the tools needed to tell this story. He’s been up and down the beaten path long before it was beaten and he’s seen entire scenes emerge, flourish and then get swallowed up only to re-appear as something altogether different and yet sadly familiar.
Blowing up the Spot
Chris is in and out of Kunming in Yunnan Province and the fictional town that he creates in Harvest Season could be a mixture of places ike Kunming, Dali, Chiang Mai and others like it that are popular with backpackers. Towns of extraordinary beauty and charm; towns that attract foreigners looking to escape the world they come from and melt into a new home and become someone new. The problem is, as soon as the backpacking circuit has made a place chic enough to retire in, then everybody wants to go there.
“You don’t see as many dreadlocks in Kunming as you did before,” said Chris, referring to the dusty Kunming Laowai I described in this post. “The closing of the Speakeasy there was pretty much the end of an era. Kunming is truly on the cusp of a big change as more and more students and families move in … I’m not concerned as much as interested to see what will happen as Kunming becomes more and more popular.”
As soon as everyone goes there, then the adventurous fringes of society recede or cut their hair or move on to an even more remote place. And even though Harvest Season isn’t filled with hreadlocked hippies, the same characters can be found between the covers: Strangers in a strange land desperate to preserve what they’ve found.
“Matt in Harvest Season wants to save this place and the girl,” said Chris. “He is delusional about both. What he finds so hard to accept is that the community doesn’t need Matt’s help. Foreign characters think this is some pristine paradise but the truth is that people live here. Every single one of these tourist towns has an established society that might reach back thousands of years.”
Helplessly watching it happen
That is the tragic irony that any long term traveler faces. Not the strange commune politics of the Beach, but the real heartache one experiences watching towns, regions even entire cultures succumb to the very consumerist nightmare that many of us are fleeing from. Just today I was walking through Shanghai and lamenting the destruction of the old lanes to make way for sky scrapers and malls. I remember lamenting the disappearance of back alleys and small shops because they had so much character.
Chris reveals the beautiful and sordid humanity of the community and in doing so exposes the hypocrisy inherent in wanting things to “stay like this forever”. Of all the travel-related books out there, Harvest Season is the only one that successfully shatters the wall between traveler and local and that act seems to affect the visitor to a much greater degree than it does the host.
Chris Taylor will talk about all these themes and more this weekend at the Bookworm Literary Fair. Be sure to stop in and check it out.