Travel writing today and yesterday: an interview with Kent Davis of DatAsia Press

Sometimes I wonder if modern travel writing still has anything fresh to say, and I can’t really find a satisfactory answer.

This question became much more pressing after I discovered an American publisher who reprints old travel writing gems from early 20th century’s Asia. I’m talking about DatAsia press, based in Florida.

Congai-Cover-Front-500They have just re-released Harry Hervey’s two early travel accounts of French Indochina (which we use to call Southeast Asia, today), King Cobra and Congai. They are the first ever accounts of an American traveler in the region at the end of the 1920s. Only in his mid 20’s, brave Texan Hervey stormed off to Indochina and captured his first impressions by penning down these two sultry, fictionalized accounts of a place we have now lost in time.

Pico Iyer, one of the greatest living travel writers, introduces King Cobra with great emphasis: “Great travel books give you journeys from which the traveler (perhaps the reader) comes back transformed, a mystery to himself. Suddenly you can no longer trust what you knew so firmly a day ago; suddenly all sense of “home” and “abroad” — of “you” and “I” — dissolves. A real trip turns you around so that you leave behind the person you were and maybe the one you wanted to become. Hervey may have embellished his real experiences, and drawn liberally from the books that fired his imagination before he left home — as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta and Bruce Cahtwin did.”

I decided to reach out to Kent Davis, owner of DatAsia press, to ask him a few exclusive questions for all those Vagabonding readers who are –or are dreaming of – honing the travel writing craft. Kent has definitely a few opinions that will help your quest to understand more about this difficult craft, and will explain how he decided to look back, instead of publishing anything contemporary.

2011-Kent-Davis-01-Photo-credit-Phalika-Ngin-700pxHow did the DatAsia venture came about, and what is your main publishing goal?

In 2005, my wife and I founded DatAsia as an independent press. Our mission is to publish rare books about Southeast Asian history and culture, with a special focus on topics relating to women. In addition to sharing previously unpublished research, we are also devoted to reviving obscure histories that have long gone out of print and been forgotten. Another aspect of this is translating selected works into English for the first time. In many ways, we have become “literary archaeologists.”

You just released two books by Harry Hervey, one of the first voices to write about early 20th century Indochina. Why this choice?

Hervey was a visionary writer with great observational and intuitive skills. But what makes Hervey especially unique is that he was an American writer in Southeast Asia, writing about this exotic outpost of the French colonial empire from that perspective.

In light of present world politics, it’s important to be clear that Hervey saw America and its ideals of democracy quite optimistically, as fit the times. In the early 20th century, Hervey observed, and questioned, the politics of colonialism, sexuality, exploitation and racism while observing the extraordinary experiment that mixed the races of East and West in French Indochina.

In King Cobra, he gives us a readable travelogue with adventures that, for the most part, can still be experienced today. Despite being a fictional novel, I think that he gives us even more truth in Congai, his tale of a Eurasian woman who becomes the mistress to a series of Frenchmen.

Pico Iyer, an esteemed travel writer, wrote the introduction to both Hervey’s books you published. Why did you ask him, and how do you see this legacy of early and contemporary travel writers continuing a discourse? 

I’ve admired Pico’s writing since reading Video Nights in Kathmandu back in 1990, concurrent with my own first travels in Asia. Pico has that magical knack for expressing what is going on deep beneath the surface of other cultures. It’s a wonderful gift. He and I exchanged a few letters over the years and when I learned that he had never read either of Hervey’s books I sent him my originals. He was stimulated by what he read and I knew he was the perfect person to comment on Hervey’s works.

Ultimately, Pico helped me to understand just how talented and prescient Hervey was in his documentation of Asia. Last summer he agreed to write an original foreword for each book. His articles really put the author and his works in perspective and answer your question far better than I can. Both Pico’s unabridged forewords are available at the links below:

King Cobra, “The Lure of Hidden Treasure” 

Congai, “The Book That Launched a Thousand Ships” 

How do you think Hervey’s writing is still relevant today?

Two things immediately come to mind.

First, new visitors to Southeast Asia will be surprised by how much the culture, the experiences, the social interactions and the mysteries are still intact. Yes, there’s more technology now, we live in a “global village,” but the essence of what he saw is timeless and his impressions are still very valid.

Second, the issues he addressed also remain a part of everyday life, not just in Southeast Asia but around the world. Racism, sexual discrimination, subjugating populations with force, surviving in a hostile world, economic exploitation…all, sadly, still a big part of the human experience. But Hervey’s views weren’t all negative. He also optimistically captures the elation of intercultural travel…a thrill that your readers embrace today.

Some of Vagabonding’s readers are aspiring travel writers. I’m sure that it could be useful to have some comments from the other side of the publishing trench. How do you see the industry today, and especially travel writing?

2013-King-Cobra-front-500Digital media has changed everything for the better. Books and blogs like Vagabonding have empowered every traveler to have his or her own adventures, and to share them with others. I’m frequently amazed by detailed traveler accounts about destinations that I myself dream of visiting. Print books have always allowed armchair travelers to experience remote corners of the world through words. Now, the Internet lets us see and experience these places with a level of detail only limited by the imagination and technical skills of travelers posting their accounts.

I’m a bit of a dinosaur in that I still like print books, but I’m working hard to learn how to create digital content by enjoying the creativity of young guys like you. Economically, of course, we both face the challenge of surviving long enough to share our travel visions. Not many people read books, fewer still buy them, and on the web most information is available for free. The driving forces are our passions for discovery and sharing…and if we share the right stories, there may even be some modest compensation involved. Fingers crossed!

If you were to publish modern Asian travel writing, what would you be looking for in a manuscript?

In one of the appendices of Congai, I quote Hervey having this amusing exchange with a Frenchman in Phnom Penh in 1925:

“You are a tourist,” he said; and it was not even a question.

“I replied that I was a writer; for, aside from my perfectly healthy dislike for the word tourist applied to me, it would be technically incorrect because a tourist, in spite of popular opinion, travels to tell other countries about his own”

What journalist doesn’t bristle at being called a mere tourist? The journalist’s rarefied role is to penetrate the Zeitgeist, whereas, with few exceptions, tourists see what they are supposed to see and go where they are supposed to go. Tourists visit the same predictable sites that—through years of refinement —governments and businesses have carefully packaged for financial gain and the burnishing of national images. Short-term visitors hardly get a chance to experience local ways of life or sample local ideas. Indeed, such things are downright inconvenient, especially when language barriers and time constraints stand in the way.

Harry Hervey quite literally strayed far from the beaten path to interact with natives and colonial residents alike. So the best advice I can offer is…don’t be a tourist.

MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng  was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld

Posted by | Comments (1)  | March 30, 2014
Category: Asia, Travel Writing

One Response to “Travel writing today and yesterday: an interview with Kent Davis of DatAsia Press”

  1. Tom Says:

    I’ve read both these books from DatAsia and enjoyed them immensely. I’m not a writer myself, but my partner is Cambodian and I’ve spent a good deal of time in that part of the earth living in a small village with his family and getting a more intimate perspective than the average traveller. I also travelled quite a bit in my youth in the mid-1970s doing the overland to India thing and also around the middle east. The other thing that fascinated me about Hervey is the fact that he was gay and seemed to be relatively out about it for the time. The additional biographical and other content that DatAsia provides in these publications (and other publications that they’ve done) makes these not simply reissues but entirely new works because of the additional research. I’m always looking forward to DatAsia’s next book. P.S. … if you haven’t read DatAsia’s Angkor the Magnificent by titanic survivor Helen Church Candee I’d highly recommend –