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Remembering Travel Writer And Memoirist Jan Morris


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember travel writer, memoirist and historian Jan Morris. She died Friday in her home country of Wales at the age of 94. Until 1972, she was known as James Morris. She changed her name to Jan at the age of 46 after transitioning to female and having gender confirmation surgery. Two years later, in 1974, she wrote about gender in her memoir "Conundrum." She wrote, (reading) I spent half my life traveling in foreign places. I have only lately come to see that incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey.

When I spoke with her in 1989, 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 it had grown on her over the years that this was not only intellectually dishonest, but rather dull. "Pleasures Of A Tangled Life" focused on the pleasures that had sustained her over the years. One of those pleasures was androgyny. I asked her to explain.


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, the beginning of the book, chiefly to make you smile, that I highly recommend the advantages of androgyny (laughter) - 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 - my life, anyway - has been an urge, 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. 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: Yeah, it was Andy Warhol's fame - well, 15 minutes of it (laughter). But, in fact, it changed my life, you know. I was young and having even a sort of specious success of that kind - all to one's whole attitude and attitude to oneself (ph). 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 in those days to call it, the only one I ever had (laughter).

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.

GROSS: Yeah, well, you write that you had to learn to see Africa in noncolonial terms. What were some of the things you were up against because of your own upbringing that you felt you had to unlearn when traveling?

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. And added to that is the old English culture - rather an arrogant, insular culture - which led people back in the 18th and 19th centuries to go abroad and in a spirit, absolutely, of slightly arrogant independence. And so one went abroad in a spirit of 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 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 it's certainly of overweening confidence.

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, both. And that seems to me a not unhappy situation.

GROSS: Did you say happy or unhappy?

MORRIS: Not unhappy. Somewhere in between the two.


MORRIS: 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 said before, it seems to me the purpose of my life, anyway, is a quest for unity and a 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: My interview with Jan Morris was recorded in 1989. She died last Friday at the age of 94.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we celebrate Thanksgiving in good company with Conan O'Brien. Last week, he announced he'll be ending his TBS late-night show in June after 28 years of hosting late-night shows. We'll listen back to the interview we recorded in October 2019. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show.

We wish you a happy Thanksgiving. We know many of you will be unable to celebrate with family and friends because of COVID precautions. Please do what you need to do to stay safe and protect the people you love. I'm Terry Gross.

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

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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