INTERVIEW: Susan Jane Gilman, author of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

By Rebecca Touger

Two decades ago, Susan Jane Gilman and her friend Chloe were just out of college and dreaming of a romantic, globe-trotting adventure. They headed to China, intent on becoming “female Byrons and Kerouacs.” When they got there, they learned the hard realities of being a traveler in a completely foreign land. Gilman’s new memoir, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, is out this month, and our interviewer, Rebecca Touger, sent a few questions her way.

You can check out a long excerpt from Undress Me over at Hachette, and be sure to enter our contest, in which five lucky readers will win copies of Gilman’s books with their six-word travel memoirs. -Elizabeth Minkel

How did you settle on your title, “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven?” What did you strip off during your adventure in 1986, and what have you ultimately bared in the process of recording the trip twenty years later?
The title was inspired by a sailor I had a brief fling with in China, who told me he’d like to take my clothes off in the Temple of Heaven. (Note: the Temple of Heaven is China’s most famous landmark temple—Beijing’s equivalent of Notre Dame.) I liked the suggestiveness of “undressing in the Temple of Heaven”—on one hand, it promises a wild, rebellious fantasy; on the other, a dressing-down full of danger, nakedness, desecration, and vulnerability. This pretty much sums up the thematic conflict in my book.

My friend and I went to the People’s Republic on a romantic impulse, hoping to become female Bryons and Kerouacs and impress the world with our derring-do. Instead, we found ourselves in a foreign land, completely cut off from the world and stripped of everything: language, cultural understanding, our status in the world, our physical health, our sense of self, our sense of direction, and even the most rudimentary ability to communicate. The Chinese, we were shocked (shocked, I tell you!) to discover, even counted on their fingers differently than Westerners.  So we couldn’t even point to a wok and communicate to them via sign language that we wanted “three” dumplings.  It was a huge comeuppance. We were stripped of all our preconceived notions about ourselves and the world. All our weakness were laid bare.

Before settling on the title, I played around a little. “Strip-tease in the Temple of Heaven” sounded too porny, “Naked in the Temple of Heaven” too crude. I thought “Undressing in the Temple of Heaven” was good, but it didn’t roll off the tongue. I went out to dinner with some editor friends, and one of them said, “I love your declarative titles. Make this one declarative, too.” So “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” it was.

As for what I “ultimately bare”—well, you’ll just have to read the book, now won’t you? I can’t give everything away, even with a title like mine.

How did you reconstruct the precise details of your trip after so long?
Tell me your name repeatedly at a cocktail party, and I’ll forget it the moment I hear it. I’ll read a novel, love it, spend four days doing nothing but reading it—and then, voila. As soon as I’ve put it down, I’ll forget the title, the author, and even what happened in it. But ask me about the birthday party I had in sixth grade, in which my mother made laminated bookmarks for the guests reading, “Thank you for coming to Susie’s birthday,” and I can recall every detail from the kelly green tablecloth to the party dresses the girls wore to the set of 74 magic markers I got as a present. I have a ridiculously good sensory memory. With names, facts, trivia, I’m a sieve—yet I can re-experience whole moments in time as if I’m reliving them.

Plus, I kept a journal in China. I also managed to track down some of the people whom I’d met there 20 years ago; I ran the story by them to make sure I’d gotten it right.

But I have to tell you, I could mentally transport myself right back there with unnerving ease—which is good because when I actually went back to China in 2005 to retrace my steps from almost two decades ago, there was almost nothing left. An entire world had vanished in under twenty years. The progress is astonishing.

The book only follows a few hair-raising months of your travels, but you mention continuing on to many more countries. Where else did your trip eventually take you? Will we be seeing more stories of your travels in the future?
I went on to Bali, Java, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, then over to Western Europe and the Middle East. It’s funny: back in 1986-87, all of these places in Asia were considered to be really off the beaten path for Americans. Now, Condé Nast Traveler ranks the five-star resorts in Bali and Phuket every year.

Readers will see more of my travels in the future—and perhaps other trips as well—only if I feel such stories rise above mere bragging or voyerism. I have little desire to treat another culture as a specimen, to simply report on “exotic” architecture and flora, or to describe myself riding a camel or sitting at a French café as if it in itself were newsworthy. For me, travel writing in and of itself can be tedious and narcissistic unless it fucks with our preconceptions. How does travel humble us and expand our understanding? This is what interests me—not the thread count of sheets at the Banyan Tree, or fetishizing the poverty of “undeveloped” nations, or recounting my own adventures with bravado.

I write a blog, “A View from A Broad” in which I attempt to offer insights as an ex-pat and traveler. Whether I succeed is up to readers. You can check it out here.

You’ve become a seasoned traveler in the years since this epic trip. What advice would you give to a new graduate suffering from wanderlust like you were? What “great frontier” should she seek out? What should be avoided at all costs?
My advice: By all means, go! Travel the world after graduation! Certainly, it’s likely to be cheaper than the cost of living in a major American city for six months. Never again in your life will you be so unencumbered, nor think that it’s great to sleep on the roof of a youth hostel in Bangkok for only $6 a night. You will have the rest of your years to build a career, harness yourself to a mortgage and kids, and settle down. At this stage, you should have a magnificent combination of curiosity, energy, and innocence, combined with a heightened threshold for physical discomfort. Exploit this. As soon as you get a job promising a whopping two weeks’ annual vacation, you’re screwed. So get a backpack, defer the student loans, and carpe diem.

As for where to go, I’d say anywhere, barring war zones and places for which the State Department has issued serious travel warnings. Figure out what your comfort zone is, then step outside of it a mile or two. That said, do some homework beforehand. Read about the culture, history, and current political system of wherever you’re going. Be aware of how women are treated and how women travelers may be regarded (generally, it’s a good idea to leave the shorts at home and get some gauzy cotton blouses to throw over the tank tops).

Above all else, learn a few words of the local language. I’ve found “thank you” to be the single most important phrase to know while traveling, with “hello” and “please” running a tie for close second. Just by making an effort, you’ll be treated infinitely better as a foreigner anywhere. You do not need to be fluent. I’m talking about knowing the absolute basics. Carrying a phrasebook is fine. You will not risk looking like an idiot (you already do)—you will look like you are trying to communicate, and this will be enormously appreciated. It is a sign of respect.

It is crucially important for anyone when traveling—but particularly us Americans—to be humble and polite when interacting with the locals. This sounds so simple and obvious, but so many Western travelers ignore it, it’s staggering. They don’t say “hello,” or “do you speak English?” or “please.” They either bark at people gruffly, or start pantomiming insultingly, and they get annoyed when the concessionary “hamburger” or “apple pie” on the tourist menu isn’t on par with back home. They act boorish, then wonder why the locals treat them coldly. I’ve even seen “uber-cool” backpackers do this, and it’s hideous. Avoid ignorant arrogance at all costs. And if you want mostly hamburgers (or, conversely, to stick to your vegan diet) above all else, stay home.

Always remember that you are guest in someone else’s country, and that how you interact with them will likely color the way they view Americans in general. Be flexible and polite. Always err on the side of your most straitlaced, moral inner self. That said, also keep your wits about you. In terms of behavior, don’t do anything abroad that you wouldn’t normally do at home—be it getting into a taxi without a meter or a pre-negotiated price, wandering off with strange men, buying drugs, flashing money around. Do not go in with an agenda, either—be it converting locals to Christianity, proving how tough you are, or sticking to a rigid itinerary.

To be a traveler is to surrender. To go abroad is to forfeit control over your environment and your ability to navigate it. This always create great anxiety within me at first—even now—and it might with you, too. (Or not. Everyone reacts differently.) But if you find yourself freaking out a little, know that it is normal and that it’ll pass. If you “go with it,” as they say, you may find yourself feeling more liberated than you ever did before. And keep a sense of humor. You’re in for the ride of your life.

Your book straddles the genre line somewhere between memoir and travelogue. Who are you some of your favorite authors of travel narratives like yours?
I like fiction as well as memoirs (like mine, I suppose) in which stories unfold in a foreign country that’s integral to the story, but not the sole focus of it.

Nonfiction: I loved Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, Ryszard Kupuscinski’s In the Shadow of Sun, and Micheal Herr’s Dispatches. Mortenson and Relin’s Three Cups of Tea is un-put-downable, of course, though it’s as much inspiration literature as travelogue. I adored The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner too, but I’m in it, so I’m biased.

As for the novels: Oh! Tamina Aman’s A Golden Age; Haruki Murakami’s After Dark; Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss: Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger; Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao: Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building. These are better than travelogues. They bring countries and cultures to life.

What are you reading right now?
Unbowed, a memoir by Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman who founded the Green Belt Movement and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Are you still into horoscopes?
Only when I’m having dinner with my friends “The Astro Twins” or reading women’s magazines at the dentist’s office.


READ an excerpt from Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

BUY a copy of the book

VISIT Susan Jane Gilman’s website

WIN all three of Gilman’s books with our six-word travel contest

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11 responses

  1. CONTEST: Your six-word travel stories | Editors’ Blog says:

    [...] at Memoirville, we’ve published Rebecca Touger’s interview with Susan Jane Gilman, author of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Gilman chronicles her 1986 [...]

  2. laura says:

    her friend’s name is claire, not chloe

  3. Straitlaced inner self says:

    I just finished “Undress Me” and enjoyed it (if that’s the word–more like, “was gripped by it”) but am puzzled by Ms. Gilman’s advice that travelers should “always err on the side of your most straitlaced, moral inner self.” In reading the book I was turned off by her unashamed lust, promiscuity, and foul language and especially by the way she and “Claire” took advantage of Ghana Jonny’s kindness and hospitality only to betray his hopes and not even be honest with him when they deserted him. Had “Claire” really lost her mother at age 4 or was that a fictitious device (among many) to conceal the identity of the real-life friend: this maternal loss figured heavily in the narrative, especially in the presumed motive for “Claire’s” attempted suicide. So much “disguise” of the friend and of her family’s real characteristics and behaviors makes a genuine understanding of the “real” story via the narrative very difficult. Given the importance of “Claire” to the narrative, isn’t the book, in fact, with “Claire’s” identity so altered, almost as much fiction as truth? Gilman tries to deny it, but for this interested reader the question remains. That said, I’m very glad I read her book. I visited China with a group six years after her visit and my reactions to the horrific smells, filth, pollution, and seemingly total “otherness” were very similar. Even within the security of a group visit, I too felt –overwhelmingly at one point– that “there’s no place like home.” (Fortunately, at that desperate moment my husband took me to a western hotel restaurant for a hamburger that had never tasted so good, and I was able to continue the trip with greater peace of mind.) The architecture and complete “differentness” of the country and its Communist culture were very well depicted in her book. I’m glad she wrote it and that I read it; I would recommend it. (A final comment: what a repugnant example of American young womanhood was “Claire,”–all taker and no giver. Wish we readers could have found out what really happened later to her and her selfish, inadequately grateful family .)

  4. Offinomimawem says:

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  7. sophie says:

    I found this book very disturbing- not because of the content, but because I think the author expolited her friend by writing it. Author may have disguised her friend’s identitiy, but anyone who knew them back at Brown would now know who it was. The author’s claim that she tried googling and searching for “Claire” seems inadequate. Authors says she doesn’t think “CLaire” wants to be found, but myabe it is the auhtor who does not want to find “Claire” because then she would ethically have to have her approval and input before publishing this story.

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  10. FYI says:

    It’s not declarative title. It’s an imperative title.

  11. FYI says:

    A declarative title would be “I Undressed in the Temple of Heaven,” or something similar.

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