Rita Golden Gelman e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (December 2001)
In addition to over 70 children's books, Rita Golden Gelman has written Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World. Though its author's perspective on other places is fascinating, her book is much more than a travel memoir. Many dream of making big changes in their lives. Rita Golden Gelman had the courage to do it. In her journeys, she makes the effort to connect to the cultures around her (rather than simply to observe them) and to break down barriers of misunderstanding; a talent the world could use more of these days.
Ellen Snortland, author of Beauty Bites Beast, summed it up succinctly in a recent Pasadena Weekly article on this amazing woman 'She's contagious and I hope more people can catch her.'
Q: I understand that you have been traveling through the United States recently, promoting Tales of a Female Nomad. Do you see your own country through different eyes after living in so many other places?
A: I was actually a little worried when I started out. So many people told me that the US might disappoint me after I had experienced so much warmth and kindness around the world. Not true. The best part of my journey (I have now talked in and driven through 27 states since May) has been the wonderful people I've met and the fabulous welcomes I've been receiving.
All over the country I've been staying with people who have invited me to their homes after reading my book, and with Servas hosts (firstname.lastname@example.org). I've stayed with a woman who lives in a cabin in the woods in Vermont without electricity, water, or phone (not even a cell) and I talked to her friends in the light of a lantern; I've stayed with people in the mountains and others in cities. Many people had pot luck parties for me ... and I've cooked Thai food for several families who were open to it.
In addition to hundreds of bookstores, I've talked in many elementary schools about my life and about my kids' books: public schools, a charter school, a Catholic and a Jewish school. I was actually in a Catholic school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, on September 11th. When my talk was over at 10:00 o'clock, the kids left the gym and parents filed in carrying chairs for a prayer vigil. I've been adjusted by chiropractor by hosts, massaged and hands-on healed. And I've been taken to the theater and local mansions for tours. All in all, it's been wonderful.
Q: Many of us dream of re-inventing ourselves (common themes seem to be running a bed and breakfast, a marina or a vineyard). You have succeeded, by living the nomadic life. Was there something that happened in your life that enabled you to make the decision to leave the familiar for the unknown?
A: You bet. I'd been living a very comfortable suburban existence in LA when I was unexpectedly faced with divorce. I'd never thought about giving everything away, donning a backpack, and taking off to explore the world, but when I was 22 years old I had dreamed of traveling the Amazon in a canoe. Instead, I got married and brought up children. Then suddenly, 25 years later, I revisited that dream and realized that my kids were grown, I was single again, and I didn't have to ask permission to do something I'd always wanted to do. I jumped in feet first into the deep water, sold everything and took off. Sixteen years later, I still have no home and no possessions. I think dramatic events in life are often the impetus for extraordinary changes. I've had letters from people who have revisited and lived their dreams after serious accidents, illnesses, divorce, retirement, etc..
Q: It seems to me an interesting juxtaposition, that you travel to so many places where people lead simple lives, but take advantage of technology (email and the Internet) to keep in touch with friends and publishers. Does this link, when it's available, give an added sense of security?
A: I love the technology. When I first started, there was no e-mail. It took weeks to send letters off from places like Indonesia and the Galapagos Islands. And weeks to get answers. Now it's minutes. There have been times when I've "talked" to my kids four times a day ... and my editors can always reach me. It's great.
Q: At the end of your Tales, you emphasize the importance of savoring the present, something brought home to many of us after September 11th. Do you have any new thoughts on this subject since then?
A: Not really. Certainly my feeling that life is "now" has been reinforced. I've never been a worrier about things that might happen in the future that I can't do anything about ... and I find that dwelling on the past, places unnecessary burdens on the present. Of course, we should learn from the past, but not live in it.
Q: In the book, you mention walking into situations where people fear you (and your differences from them) and leaving as a friend. What are the biggest barriers that you have found to understanding between cultures?
A: Fear comes from ignorance. And arrogance as well as a sense of inferiority. If more people interacted with other cultures, or even with foreigners within our own culture, the barriers would dissolve. Smiles work. So does asking people to teach you their language and skills. An inner feeling of superiority is the greatest barrier to Westerners seeking interaction. I highly recommend that everyone invite a foreign family over for dinner and ask the guests to teach their hosts a song (in their native language). There are plenty of opportunities: students, owners and workers in restaurants, neighbors, maids, gardeners, green grocers. There are millions of foreigners in this country who have lived here for years and never been invited to visit an American home.
Q: Of all the cultures that you have encountered, which was most difficult to penetrate?
A: The Lacondona Indians of Mexico wouldn't let me into their village.
Q: Of all the places you've travelled, which lingers most in your memory and why?
A: I adored Bali. The people, the ceremonies, the dance and music and art, the white and black magic, the trancing and healing. I lived there for 8 years. It was so fascinating that I couldn't tear myself away. Many people tell me that their favorite parts of the book are the Bali chapters.
Q: In addition to this latest book, you are a best-selling author of children's stories. Do your travel experiences influence them, and what have you written recently for kids?
A: My most recent books for kids are Pizza Pat, Mole In A Hole, Rice Is Life, and Queen Esther Saves Her People. The most recent one is about two sheep who are bored on their hillside and take off to see the world. It is available in New Zealand and Australia; it's never been published in the US: Goodbye, Adios, Sayonara, and Ciao.
Q: How do you feel about flying these days and where will you head next, after your current US tour?
A: I don't have a problem with flying. That fits into the category of not worrying about things I can't do anything about. As to where I'll go next ... when I'm ready something interesting will come across my path. That's the part of me that thrives on serendipity.
Q: bi:Tales of a Female Nomad] left many of us anxious for more. Do you plan another book on your nomadic lifestyle?
A: Not yet. It took fifteen years of travel to fill the pages of this book. Maybe in another fifteen years.Rita Golden Gelman lives and writes all around the world. Find out more about the author by visiting her at www.ritagoldengelman.com.
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