Travel Writer and Veteran Putney Leader Alden Jones
Congratulations to former Putney student and veteran Pre-College staff member Alden Jones on the publication and incredible reception of her travel memoir, The Blind Masseuse. Alden, a graduate of Brown University, NYU’s Creative Writing Program, and the Bennington College Writing Seminars, has led summer community service programs and taught creative writing to Putney students all over the world. She currently teaches Creative Writing and Cultural Studies at Emerson College in Boston. We here in the Barn have loved reading her book, and we’re not the only ones! You can find links to reviews by The Boston Globe, Shelf Awareness, Publishers Weekly, and more on her website. The Blind Masseuse was even listed as the #1 Book of 2013 by a Huffington Post Book Reviewer! She was recently interviewed on the Rudy Maxa radio show, where she credited some of her passion for travel to her experiences as a student and leader on Putney programs. You can even find references to Putney programs in the book! Read our interview with Alden, and learn about the enriching ways that travel, writing, and personal growth often intersect.
1. Congratulations on the publication of two books in two years! Both The Blind Masseuse and Unaccompanied Minors have garnered significant acclaim and you were recently awarded the New American Fiction Prize. Has your recent success changed your day-to-day life at all?
Alden: Publishing two books in two years has certainly changed my way of looking at life, in the way accomplishing a life goal does. While you’re writing it’s all about the writing—it’s just you and the page—and when you’re publishing you are engaging with the world. Finally publishing a book you’ve been working on for years is like watching your kid board the bus for summer camp. Suddenly this thing over which you had some semblance of control has left the building, and you have to let whatever is going to happen to it happen. So publishing a book that took ten years to write (The Blind Masseuse, which came out in November 2013) has been an exercise in letting go more than anything else. And it’s been exciting to connect with so many readers, many of whom are avid travelers.
2. Can you talk to us a bit about the different ways you’ve been involved with Putney Student Travel and the effect these experiences have had on your writing and your teaching?
Alden: Putney has had a tremendous impact on me. I was a Putney student on two trips when I was in high school, one to Spain and one to Western Europe. I began leading trips when I was 23 and eventually taught for and then directed various Pre-College programs. I had incredible trips to Spain; Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji; Oxford/Tuscany; Costa Rica; three summers in Cuba; France; Amherst and Williams. Former Associate Director Tim Weed was a mentor as a teacher and Pre-College director, and his style influenced me dramatically. He was always so interested in learning about Oxford or Havana or wherever we were, and he modeled an excitement for learning for his students and for his colleagues. Because of the structure of Pre-College classes abroad—you didn’t want to be stuck in the classroom, you wanted to be out in the streets—I adopted an early teaching style that included an informal classroom, and creative approaches to integrating the activities available to us. As a college teacher I go on a lot of field trips; my undergrads find this radical.
My next book, the story collection Unaccompanied Minors, is out in June 2014, and the stories are about and from the point of view of young people, mainly teenagers. After working with teenagers for Putney for ten years, I was more than a little interested in teen psychology!
3. How do you feel the act of writing relates to the act of traveling? Have the two always gone hand-in-hand for you?
Alden: When we travel there is this sense that everything is heightened, and travel is often such an emotionally compelling act. It’s also often a time we check out from the workaday, bill-paying, chore-doing hamster wheel of real life, so it’s a great time to sink your imagination into a project. I’ve always been amazed by the discoveries I make about human nature, universality, and how other people live when I travel, and I am always thinking about how I might shape these experiences and thoughts into stories.
Alden, bottom right, and the rest of the Cuba staff.
4. The Blind Masseuse explores some complex questions of displacement, cross-cultural relationships, and stereotypes. How do you, individually, confront these questions, and how do you facilitate your students’ exploration of these questions when traveling?
Alden: The key question of The Blind Masseuse is whether there is a right or wrong way to travel. Each chapter of the book tells the story of an experience I had abroad, in Costa Rica, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Burma, Cambodia, and Egypt, and explores that question. I did not intend to answer the question definitively—I don’t think there’s one answer—but rather to take myself to task, and to ask the reader of The Blind Masseuse to consider what he or she thinks is the “right” or “wrong” way to move through the world. A big part of this is cultural sensitivity, being open to the idea that one’s one cultural norms are not necessarily the ideal norms, and being willing to put one’s cultural assumptions aside.
In terms of how I facilitate my students’ exploration of cross-cultural relationships, Putney provides a healthy framework for meaningful interaction between students and locals. I still remember as a Putney student getting to Luarca, a small fishing town in the north of Spain, and being handed a list of questions for a scavenger hunt. I was so uncomfortable with the idea of approaching strangers and engaging them. But it broke the ice and made it clear that the way to engage with the culture we were in (and get more comfortable with speaking Spanish) was to put yourself out there. Connecting with people is really the key to meaningful travel.
5. What kind of an effect do you think displacement from one’s comfort zone has on an individual’s writing? Have you seen this come to pass on your Putney programs?
Alden: I tell my memoir students that if they aren’t a little bit scared or uncomfortable with what they’re writing, it probably isn’t as good as it could be. It’s scary to be honest, sometimes. It’s scary to go outside your comfort zone. But that is where the human experience gets real.
6. The chapter The Answer Was No, within The Blind Masseuse, details a close friendship with a local contact from our Pre-College Cuba program. Have your experiences with local contacts enriched the programs you’ve led and directed?
Alden: No doubt about it. I remain close friends with Darwin, the subject of that chapter. The locals we work with on Putney trips become friends very quickly. This is probably one of the best ways Putney participants become travelers, not tourists—we seek out contacts who can help us get into the culture, instead of riding around on a tour bus shutting ourselves out from the culture. In Cuba, we hired two local contacts; they introduced us to countless friends who grew tobacco or played drums or hosted art openings, and we were able to enter the homes and businesses of these people as acquaintances, not tourists.
Alden, top left, with the inaugural community service group in Silencio, Costa Rica.
7. In The Blind Masseur, another chapter within The Blind Masseuse, you talk a bit about your experience establishing Putney’s connection with the community of El Silencio, Costa Rica. What is it like to make first contact in a village and to see that partnership blossom over the years?
Alden: I co-led the very first trip to El Silencio in 1999. And it’s still going strong! That’s amazing. The Putney presence in El Silencio is the perfect example of a healthy cross-cultural relationship. Putney students help them with projects of their choosing—the year I was there we built a school from the ground up—and the exchange comes when a dairy farmer throws a pair of boots at a shy Putney student and says “Come on, we’re going to milk some cows!” Everyone comes away having learned something, and with stories, and with new friends who’ve changed their lives.
8. What sort of advice do you have for budding travel writers, or for students preparing for their first experience abroad?
Alden: For budding travel writers, my advice is purely technical: Learn how to write a good narrative. If you can tell a story well, you can turn any travel experience into a successful piece of writing. For students preparing for their first travel experience abroad, you probably know what my primary advice will be: Get dirty; be uncomfortable; put yourself out there! Always remember that you will leave an impression about your culture wherever you go, so be thoughtful about that. And beware, because once you travel abroad in a meaningful way, wanderlust has a way of working its way into your bones…you may never be able to stop.