Travel Writing LAB in Kerala, India

5 March 2016 (Sat),

Written by Professor Heidi Stalla |  Image credit: Sean Cham


“I came to Kerala in late February 2016.  I saw light bulbs hanging from the trees.  I heard the groan of generators mixed with the constant cry of crows. I heard the drummers on the boardwalk of Cochin, and the trinket vendors calling out their wares.  I felt the anxiety of color, eased by grey-brown backwaters.  I encountered a heated world.  And then, not knowing that I had been looking, I found a way to use one of the thousand questions that are given to each of us at our beginnings, to be used or released one-by-one over the course of a lifetime.” 


This was the beginning of my focused free-write on the last day of our CIPE Leadership LAB in Kerala.  I, along with Dr. Rebecca Tannenbaum, Dean’s Fellow Lauren Seaman, and Professor Diana Chester from NYU Abu Dhabi, traveled there with 15 students over mid-term break on a trip designed to get everyone thinking in new ways about the creative process.  Students and faculty participated in a series of arts and writing workshops designed to help us draw on cultural and personal memories as well as detailed observations about selected sites and communities in Kerala in order to express a developing idea about heritage and identity.  We started with a pre-trip workshop in the Writers’ Centre where the group responded to family photographs and writing prompts that introduced the art and writing practices that we used on the trip, and generated reflection about existing ideas about self and heritage.  While in Kerala we spent four days exploring Cochin and two days floating down the backwaters from Alleppey recording life around the river through sound, visual art, and writing.  One prompt asked the group to describe nothing but the water for 60 minutes—and believe it or not one or two of us needed more time!  On the last day, we began the first draft of a literary travel essay that thinks about personal encounters with the unknown.  We all started in the same way:  “I came…I saw…I heard…I felt…I encountered…and then, I found…”  And from there our writing wildly diverged.  These compositions were finished during a final workshop back in Singapore in March.

Image credit: Sean Cham

Professor Heidi Stalla