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British Travel Writer Jan Morris Weighs In On The 'Advantages Of Androgyny'

Mar 27, 2018
Originally published on March 28, 2018 11:20 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. After hearing Maureen's review of Jan Morris' new book, we thought it would be interesting to listen back to the interview I recorded with Morris in 1989. In her 1974 memoir "Conundrum," Morris wrote (reading) I spent half my life traveling in foreign places. I've only lately come to see that incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey. Until 1972, Jan Morris published under the name James Morris. At the age of 46, Morris underwent gender reassignment surgery. Two years later, she wrote about gender in her memoir "Conundrum."

When I spoke with her, she'd just published a book called "Pleasures Of A Tangled Life." In the prologue, she wrote that there was a time when new to womanhood, she tried to forget that she'd ever lived as a man. But over the years, she came to think that this was not only intellectually dishonest but rather dull. Yet Morris didn't write much about gender in the book I talked to her about. That book focused on the pleasures that had sustained her over the years. She wrote that a pleasure she highly recommends is androgyny. So I asked her to explain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JAN MORRIS: Well, androgyny means to me that I have shared, if not in the present, at least in the past, a lot of the emotions and the experiences of both genders. And why I say at the beginning of the book, chiefly to make you smile, that I highly recommend the advantages of androgyny, why I said that was that in my experience, if you share both the emotions of both sexes, neither sex is frightened of you. Both sexes are willing to confide in you. Nobody thinks you're a threat.

And since it seems to me that life - well, my life, anyway - has been a constant urge towards reconciliation and unity, that does seem to me an enormous advantage in life's quest.

GROSS: When you were still writing as James Morris, you were best-known for being the reporter who climbed Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary and for your volumes "Pax Britannica," which was about the Victorian empire. Do you think your writing changed when your gender changed?

MORRIS: To begin with, I did think so. I seemed to fear in myself more of a compassion towards detail rather than sweep, if you understand me. It seems to me I was exploring smaller things rather than larger things. But as the years have gone by, I seem perhaps simply to have widened to be moved equally by both, if you understand me, both by macrocosm and by microcosm. And that may be, again, another symptom of the fact that I've come to terms with what I am more completely than I had some years ago.

GROSS: You've traveled and written about travel for much of your life, and you think you write in a different style than many American travel writers do.

MORRIS: Yes, I do. And I think there are historical reasons for it, as a matter of fact. You know, I think that Americans having all, after all, come from somewhere else perhaps feel properly really that they have an extra lean upon the world. They have - they do genuinely, I think, have a more universal view than Europeans do. And therefore, when they go abroad, they - it's easier for them, I think, to identify - and more natural for them too - to identify with other peoples. But for somebody like me, not merely from Britain but actually from Wales where my people have probably been since Neolithic times without much change, it's very much harder for us to pretend to identify with other peoples. And added to that is the old English culture, a rather arrogant, insular culture, which led people back in the 18th and 19th centuries to go abroad in a spirit absolutely of slightly arrogant independence.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, you write that you had to learn to see Africa in non-colonial terms. What were some of the things you were up against because of your own upbringing that you felt you had to unlearn when travelling?

MORRIS: Certainly, I think the imperial aspect of it because people of my age - I'm 63 this year - people of my age were brought up in Britain to think of the world as ours, really. The parts of it that weren't ours were generally misguided (laughter) and the majority of it was ours anyway and was colored largely red upon the map. And so one went abroad in a spirit of unfair and illicit privilege.

I remember Alan Moorehead writing about the British officers in Cairo during the war. And he said that all of them seemed to think that they came from very rich, privileged backgrounds. And of course, they didn't at all. The richness and the privilege came from history and from the empire. And we were all - it was true of us all. And that is something that I did gradually unlearn. Like all the rest of us when I was very young, I went abroad in that spirit, not exactly of jingoism but certainly of overweening confidence.

GROSS: One of the experiences that I think first made you famous or kind of famous was your experience on Mount Everest. You were there with Edmund Hillary when he scaled to the top. And you were the first person to report it to the press. What was the experience like when you got to the top there?

MORRIS: When you say sort of famous, you got it right.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MORRIS: It was Andy Warhol's fame - wasn't it? - 15 minutes of it, but in fact, it changed my life, you know, because I was young and having even a sort of specious success of that kind alters one's whole attitude and attitude to one's self. I was only there simply to write about it, you know. And the excitement for me was not so much actually getting to the top of the mountain as the excitement of getting a scoop, as we used to in those days to call it, the only one I ever had (laughter).

GROSS: And did you think, well, I'd better exploit this fame right away to get myself more pay for what I'm writing or to write for a more prestigious place or to write my first book or whatever?

MORRIS: (Laughter) No, I'm not a New Yorker.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: I was quite happy with what I was. The only thing I did want to do was to write a book about it. And unfortunately, The Times in those days was - not only were all its correspondents anonymous, but you weren't allowed to do anything at all except write for The Times. So I - after a few years, I did leave The Times in order to write books.

GROSS: You were really quite successful in the world of men - I mean, for instance, being able to climb part of Mount Everest, you were an officer in the cavalry. I guess wanting the gender change didn't have to do with what we would perceive as success as a man.

MORRIS: No. It didn't have to do with anything, as a matter of fact. I've - it was a mystery to me then and it remains a mystery to me now. I personally think it had some sort of a spiritual purpose behind it, which is inexplicable to me, but that's my own conviction.

GROSS: I think it was at the end of "Conundrum" you wrote I have lived the life of a man. I live now the life of a woman. One day perhaps I shall transcend both. Are you still interested in transcending both, and what do you mean by that?

MORRIS: I think it's conceivable that I have transcended both, as a matter of fact. I feel myself to be part of each and of both and that seems to be a not unhappy situation.

GROSS: Did you say happy or unhappy?

MORRIS: Not unhappy (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, oh.

MORRIS: Somewhere in between the two (laughter). I rather like these double negatives.

GROSS: (Laughter) Why would you prefer transcending both sexes rather than being part of one?

MORRIS: Because, as I've said before, it seems to me the purpose of my life anyways is a quest for unity and reconciliation. And that's a beginning, isn't it?

GROSS: OK. Well, I thank you very much for talking with us.

MORRIS: Thank you very much indeed.

GROSS: Jan Morris, recorded in 1989. Her new book, which Maureen Corrigan reviewed earlier in the show, is called "Battleship Yamato." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to my 1989 interview with bass player and composer Buell Neidlinger, who died earlier this month. He played with people ranging from jazz avant-gardist Cecil Taylor to country star Dolly Parton. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.