Monday, September 3, 2012

Worlds Apart -- an Interview with authors Dorothee Lang and Smitha Murthy

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I've recently had the great pleasure of reading the epistolary book Worlds Apart by Dorothee Lang and Smitha Murthy. While the book is a compelling mix of travel insights, photography and essay (that I could not put down), it is also a story of two strangers becoming friends through the almost-lost art of correspondence. Worlds Apart is available from Folded Word Press.

IMBO: Hi, Dorothee and Smitha! When did it occur to you that you had something more than an email exchange? It is certainly much more. It's a compelling and insight-rich dialogue interspersed with poetry, essay and photography. 

Dorothee: It would be difficult to define a single mail, but I think one impulse to collect the mails came when Smitha started to tell about her journey in form of the personal and reflective travelogue that starts with her hopes and fears: “China? China. A land unknown. A land shrouded in mystery. Where abound dark whispers of communism. Rumours of hostility. News of deadly illnesses. These thoughts and more swirl in my head as I prepare to embark on a ten-month voyage to discover the unknown.“ It inspired me to include more personal travel memories or diary-like notes myself. With that, our mail conversation moved to another level. And seen like that, it makes sense that those first lines now form the preface of the book.

Smitha: For me, I don't think I ever thought of it as more than an email journey in the sense that the exchange was already part of an exchange of life, philosophy, questions and unresolved answers. The emails were the medium for the dialogue.

China mountain gate flower and fruit mountain
IMBO: Well, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the depth of the exchange. I've met Dorothee in person, so I know what a beautiful soul she is, but I feel I have met Smitha as well now. You both give so much of yourselves in this book.

Smitha: Writing a letter -- especially to someone you don't know -- brings that out sometimes. I have always spoken more to strangers, for some reason, than people I know -- is it the easy conviviality of knowing that what is shared is unknown? I don't know. But when I look back upon it, I think to myself now, Oh no! My parents are reading this, what shall I ever do?

Dorothee: I think it’s an effect of the journey – like Smitha said, when talking to fellow travellers, it’s a different kind of conversation, outside the usual frame of the everyday. Often, travel talks start with the question “Where are you coming from?” / “Where are you going to?” – but of course, beyond the geographics, these are also deeper life questions.

And maybe the ongoing conversation also came from lucky timing: at the start of it, we both were constantly arriving and leaving from places, which put us both in the same kind of mind tune, I guess.

Dorothee in Rajasthan
IMBO: Seeing that you come from different mother languages, was there ever a time in the collaboration when the lingua franca of English didn't work?

Smitha: I think English was the common unifying factor. I have always been comfortable 'thinking' in English -- it's been the language of communication for a while to me now, and I don't think I would have or could have expressed thoughts better in my mother language.

Dorothee: I just tried to remember a point in our conversation where we talked about this – language as a theme moves through the whole dialogue, with Chinese and German and Hindi peculiarities and expressions – but I think we never really discussed the fact that we are talking in English. I guess that’s because English is the base of the dialogue, and we both felt comfortable in it - otherwise the conversation probably would have got stuck at an early point.

One thing I do remember, though, is writing a mail in which I used the term “Second World” or “Third World” (I think that was in relation to some news from Africa). Smitha wrote back and was upset about the way these terms categorize the world, and pointed out that actually we all live in exactly one world. It was one of those revealing mails that showed how sometimes, we use terms that have become so common that we don’t even notice the prejudice they carry.  (That was at a later point in our conversation, so the lines aren’t included in the book.)

" . . . there are lessons we learn on journeys, and then note down, and are eager to bring into our everyday life . . ."

Die Kaufingerstrasse in München. My hometown! 
IMBO: Since living in Germany for 17 years, I've become aware of my own "category". Before I moved away from my country, I never realized that I was "American" and all the stereotypes being so brings with it. Has there been a time in your travels when you became intensely aware that you were "German" or "Indian" to the people you came in contact with?

Dorothee: One thing that I both found fascinating and irritating while travelling in Asia: in almost every interaction with guesthouse owners, taxi drivers, tour guides, shop owners, even kids on the street – I first got asked: “Hello! Which country are you from?” – To which, of course, the answer was: “Germany”. But mostly, that was also the end of the country-related conversation – just in a few cases, the theme then moved on to either the German Reunification, or the German football club FC Bayern. Which was interesting, to learn that these 2 themes are the first associations with Germany. But I didn’t really feel categorized by that. I’m probably not the very typical German either. But then, I guess that’s true for most individual travellers that venture into another culture on their journeys.

Smitha: I think I have never felt Indian. This search for something Indian in me -- I think I stopped that search long ago. I feel often like a cross between cultures that I don't know, don't exist in, yet feel more comfortable there than here. Does that even make sense? But that's how I look at my Indianness -- there is nothing I feel Indian about myself, but to others around me perhaps I was. Or I am.

From Worlds Apart by Smithy Murthy and Dorothee Lang
IMBO: While reading the book, I made so many notes. They're like gifts I wanted to take with me from the reading. "Relax into the tension. Do something different every day. Your impression (of a place) depends of your own point of view." There's more of course, but these are three of the lessons I've learned from my own life of travel. I know there's no question here.

Dorothee: Thanks for quoting those lines. Reading them makes me realize once more that there are lessons we learn on journeys, and then note down, and are eager to bring into our everyday life – and then they fade in time again. Which now leads back to your first question: I guess that’s another reason Smitha and I started to collect the mails, and edited them – to keep those lessons. And probably the ones who handed those lines to us – the yoga teacher, the other traveller at the breakfast table – again have been carrying them, and handing them forward.

IMBO: I remember having the same "breakfast table" experience when my father and I traveled together through Scotland and Ireland a few years ago. Invariably, we ate breakfast with German speakers. There is no better way to travel than staying in bed and breakfasts if you want to meet people. What has been your most surprising and most satisfying encounter with another traveler?
Smitha: I think there are many. That chance conversation you have with someone in a pub in Shanghai -- memories of that always stay with me. The kindness of unknown friends -- the experiences you garner -- there is no particular encounter I can recall, but just that every time I travel, I am reminded often why I travel through the people I meet -- good, bad or ugly.
IMBO: Thank you, Smitha and Dorothee, for this discussion and this fascinating book. It's one of those books that I know I'll keep coming back to.
I must be off,

Read the Author Q&A on GOODREADS

Dorothee Lang is a writer, web freelancer and traveller, and the editor of BluePrintReview. She lives in Germany, and always was fascinated by roads and by abroad places. Recent projects include the start of >language>place, an open, collaborative blog project. For more about her, visit her at

Smitha Murthy lives in Bangalore, India. A restless wanderer in the wilderness of this world, she worked as contributor to the Deccan Herald, as teacher in a school in China, and in the Global Markets Research department of Thomas White International, India. Currently, she is spending some months in Chengdu, to learn Chinese, and blogs at Musings on a life half-lived.