In the latest article collaboration between Wales Arts Review and the Western Mail, Doreen Cunningham reveals the books that inspired her to write her acclaimed travel memoir, Soundings: Journeying North in the Company of Whales.
In Soundings, Journeying North in the Company of Whales, Welsh-born climate researcher turned journalist Doreen Cunningham tells the story of her escape from her life in a hostel for single parents in the Channel Islands with her toddler Max to follow the grey whale migration, an expedition that takes in thousands of miles up the West Coast of Mexico, the US and Canada to the whales’ feeding grounds in the Alaskan Arctic. Doreen and Max’s journey is interwoven with an earlier experience in Arctic Alaska when, as a young BBC reporter, Doreen lived with an Iñupiaq whaling family while researching attitudes to climate change among Indigenous communities, during a time when climate sceptics dominated the airwaves. A raw and deeply personal memoir, Soundings won the Royal Society of Literature Giles St Aubyn Award, The New York Times described it as ‘melodic’, and it named in the best books of 2022 in The New Statesman, The Daily Telegraph and Smithsonian Magazine, as well as being picked in The Guardian’s top ten nature memoirs of all time. To mark the publication of the paperback edition of Soundings, Doreen picks five books which helped inspire her to write.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her 1100 mile walk up the West Coast of the US, was instrumental in demonstrating how to be as brave in telling my story as I had been in living it. I journeyed with a toddler from Mexico to the Arctic following grey whales but it was only when I read this keystone book that I realised how Cheryl’s baring of her flaws on the page gave her work authenticity and depth. I trusted her. Cheryl writes of walking away, one step at a time, from an undertow of loss that sucked at her heels: the death of her mother from lung cancer, abandonment by her step father, heroin addiction and a marriage, entered into aged 20, which broke under reality’s weight. When I read her brutally honest account of the shooting of her mother’s adored horse, I knew the book had been sent to help me. The story was a light which guided me in recalling and writing my own trauma and losses. Wild is fierce, dirty and became a talisman that gave me the courage to write Soundings.
The grey whales are major characters in Soundings, and I first tried briefly, and disastrously, to write in their voice. The Blue Fox by Sjón expanded my understanding of narrative voice, writing about another species through my limited human understanding of their world. Sjón started off as a child-poet, self-publishing and selling his poems on buses. His account of the rare fox, and the hunter pursuing her through the storm, builds an immersive experience. The text is sparse and mostly limited to observation, so the reader trusts the few sentences that reach towards animal consciousness. In chiselled, unembellished sentences, equal space, import and motive are given to the fox, the human, time and the landscape. ‘The world opens its good eye a crack..’ Trickling springs under the ice are ‘dreaming of spring’.
Page 17 consists of a single sentence, when the hunter is stuck in a snowdrift.
‘The night was cold and of the longer variety.’
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