The Best Female Travel Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

I just finished reading a memoir of sorts by the late New Yorker writer Emily Hahn (1905-1997), entitled No Hurry to Get Home. The book is actually a collection of Hahn’s New Yorker articles which she strung together upon encouragement from others who thought she should write a memoir. She herself was less intrigued by the idea (she didn’t like to revisit old ground, according to an introduction in the book by her biographer, Ken Cuthbertson.)

Hahn wrote 54 books and more than 200 articles for the New Yorker over her 68-year association with the magazine. According to Cuthbertson’s intro to No Hurry to Get Home, Hahn had been making a living as a writer from 1929 onward, and by 1970 she was producing at least one book a year. Her books ranged from novels to short stories to biographies, histories, humor and travel writing. Strange then, that few people know her name. Strange too, because she was a woman who pushed the boundaries of the female experience during her time, and attracted attention for it. She describes many of these incidents in No Hurry to Get Home, including the period in which she and her sister wore knickers to school at a time when such dress for women caused an uproar, and how she decided to major in Mining Engineering at the University of Wisconsin because some male students and professors told her it couldn’t be done – no woman had ever majored in Mining Engineering before, and the general consensus (by the male faculty members and students) was that women simply didn’t have the head for it. Whether Hahn was actually interested in Mining Engineering was beside the point; the prevailing attitudes presented a challenge, which she accepted.

Later, her unconventional life led her to live, work and travel in Africa, England and China. She kept pet gibbons. She became addicted to opium for one year, until a hypnotist cured her. She lived in Japanese-occupied China, where she began an affair with a (married) British spy, Charles Boxer, and gave birth to a daughter at the start of World War II. Boxer was interned as a prisoner of war in Hong Kong and Hahn kept both he and their daughter alive with food acquired on the black market.

All of these experiences are chronicled in No Hurry to Get Home, which reads like a childhood memoir-turned travel adventure story. Roger Angell has described Hahn’s tone as “the offhand first-person casual.” Her laid-back response to some of the situations she gets into, for example blundering onto private mining land in the Belgian Congo and being faced with some angry gun-toting Belgians who accuse her of spying, or dodging bombs in China while being seemingly unaware of the danger or urgency of the imminent Japanese takeover add suspense to already-exciting adventures. Her sense of humor, though dry and offhand, is always present.

Some might find Hahn’s writing’s old-fashioned in that these pieces lack some of the emotion and the share-every-detail mentality of modern memoirs. Hahn is not out to detail her emotional responses to her challenges, however, but the experiences themselves, and yet she conveys feeling all the same. She describes her failed attempt at suicide matter-of-factly, with that same casual tone, which perhaps makes the writing more impactful. Only in the last piece in the book does she hint at the lasting traumatic effects the war had on her and her new family, and even that she achieves without becoming maudlin or self-pitying.

It was refreshing to read this book, a memoir that covers sexism, depression, addiction, war and other challenges but never goes over the top to describe every single disturbing event. It made me want to read more by Hahn, and more memoir – a genre I have been turned off from of late, after being overwhelmed by too many books that were far too hard to get through due to their heavy-handedness.

Links:

Emily Hahn’s obituary in the New York Times

Ken Cuthbertson’s biography of Hahn

A incomplete listing of Emily Hahn’s many books