Writer Andrew Solomon says he has “a burning curiosity about the world.” He’s journeyed to more than 80 countries during 25 years of reporting for the New York Times magazine, the New Yorker, and other publications. He has been kidnapped by revolutionaries in Ecuador, faced tanks during the 1991 August coup d’etat attempt in Moscow, and been tied up in ram intestines during an exorcism in Senegal.
Solomon recounts these adventures and more in his new essay collection, Far and Away: Reporting From the Brink of Change. The book is his fourth work of nonfiction and follows his National Book Critics Circle Award winner Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity; his 2001 memoir The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Solomon will appear in discussion with Aleksandar Hemon on May 1 as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival Spring Style series. The Reader spoke with him by phone from his home in Greenwich Village.
Nissa Rhee: In Far and Away, you write that if all young adults were required to spend two weeks in a foreign country, two-thirds of the world’s diplomatic problems could be solved. What do you mean by that?
Andrew Solomon: I think a lot of the time people assume that their values are universal. And they don’t understand which aspects of their values are actually universal and which aspects are very specific.
So I think what would be helpful about instituting that program of early travel is not so much the particulars of what people would encounter in the countries that they went to, but simply the fact that once you’ve been somewhere else, you will know that there are other ways of doing things. And there are other people who are doing things in that other way, who actually prefer doing things their way, and that they don’t want to turn into you.
I think an awful lot of the diplomatic problems that exist in the world come from people assuming that their society is the one with a purchase on truth. It’s deeply humbling to realize that there is no such thing as a society with a purchase on truth.
I was struck by how often you question your own truths and assumptions about a place. In your essay “Naked, Covered in Ram’s Blood, Drinking a Coke, and Feeling Pretty Good” you recall a trip you took to Senegal to research depression. And you go through a tribal exorcism called n’deup that sounds completely out-there and crazy from the American perspective of depression. But in the end, it sounds like it helped. Did it work for you?
It didn’t work for me in the sense of me actually believing that I was occupied by spirits and that the ritual was casting the spirits out of me. But there were things that were in it structurally that were very powerful—particularly the sense of having a mental illness characterized as something that can be cast out. It’s an idea that I think is extremely useful.
I was also struck by the fact that the entire village, without any pay or anything, took the day off to all come together and work toward my restoration. The support of all the people was moving. The sense of celebration, that they thought they did something that helped, was moving. And I was exhilarated by it in ways that I couldn’t have imagined.
The fact of the matter is that going to a small, dark office on Central Park West lacks some of what it was that made n’deup powerful. And it’s too easy to make it into a big joke. To say, “That was way out there, that crazy exorcism, can you believe that?”
How has traveling to so many different countries changed the way you look at the world?
There is an assumption that people often make here that America has gotten it right in some profound way. And what other people really want is to become America. And that if you remove all the stuff that is interfering, you will automatically move toward democracy and move toward the creation of wealth.
My experience is that people don’t automatically move toward those things. Often when you remove all those things, you get chaos, you get violence, you get horror, and you get tyranny. Sometimes you get other things that are better than that.
This notion that democracy is where everyone is ultimately heading is a misguided one. I don’t think I would have understood that if I hadn’t spent so much time in so many other parts of the world.
Where do you want to travel next? Is there any country you’re itching to go to?
The country that I am going to travel to next is Sri Lanka, because I’m going to write a travel story there this summer.
I feel like the gap in my travel is in the Middle East. It’s such an explosive—in both the good and bad sense—part of the world map right now. And I’d really like to explore that area if the opportunity arises. v