An Interview with Kurt Caswell 

Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters 

Kurt Caswell is an itinerant. He was born in Alaska, but his family quickly moved with their young son to first to Michigan, then Oregon, and later Idaho. From there he backpacked through Europe, spent a year teaching in Hokkaido, Japan, another year teaching on the Navajo Reservation, then later spent time teaching in California and Wyoming. Always intending to make it back to the verdant Pacific Northwest, Caswell has instead made Lubbock (also my home town), known for its parched cotton fields and transcendental monotony, his nest for the last ten years. He still travels widely, often with grant money, to investigate Iceland, climb the four highest peaks in the UK, India, the Philippines, Japan again.

One of the first things Caswell and I ever did together was backpack in the Grand Canyon — awing red rocks, sawing Chuck Noris jokes, and reciting poems. Kurt is a man able to perform both high brow and low, personal and academic. He is, I must admit, the reason I traveled to Japan to teach (and met my wife), why I realized that to be a writer didn’t always mean being wrestled to your desk and thoughts.

I’ve read several dozen travel narratives in search of a writer model besides Kurt, and so far none top In the Sun’s House, Caswell’s frank, direct, and searching memoir of a year spent teaching on the Navajo Rez. The followup to that book, his third, is Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, a book of travel essays in the vein of his first book, An Inside Passage, which won River Teeth’s Literary Nonfiction Book Contest in 2008. As Grey Owl’s subtitle suggests, the book is a series of travel essays, which span three decades. Kurt and I talked about the collection and travel, each with coffee, though he in windswept Lubbock, me in recently flooded and tornadoed Denton.

Clinton Crockett Peters: You have this line in the first essay, “A River in Hokkaido,” where you’re writing about hanging upside down from a whitewater canoe with a diving mask looking at salmon and you write, “how terrifyingly good we are at getting into places we really don’t belong.” For me, that line sends a shock through the essay and the book. It seems to point up the discourse about where is home and the problems of finding home in other places, cultures, times. It reminds me of the title essay of your first book, An Inside Passage, as well as your second book about living on the Navajo reservation. Is this an ongoing struggle for you, home?

Kurt Caswell: When An Inside Passage came out, yeah, I think I was struggling with this idea of home. Where was my home? What was home supposed to feel like? Would I know it when I found it? Was home supposed to be the place I grew up? Or was it something I had to choose or create myself? Those kinds of questions haunted me. I lived in many places growing up, and had always felt at home. I never asked the question about home. It was only when I got out on my own that I started to ask the question. Did I need to “settle down,” the thought of which was distasteful to me? Or could I just keep moving about and living in new places? I didn’t really know.

When I was living in Hokkaido, I thought a year was an immense span of time. I thought I’d get roaming about out of my system, then return “home” to the Pacific Northwest, and never leave. I’d just be content after that long time away, and I’d live happily ever after in my native land. But that never happened. I went to New Mexico instead. And then to Arizona. And on from there. I just kept moving along to the next place. And here it is all these years later, and I’ve still not returned to the Pacific Northwest to live, though I spend a lot of time there, to see family and whatnot. I’ve come to accept that home is a construct, and I’m most at home when I’m a bit displaced. Displacement can be a kind of home. It feels homey to me. I think this is one of the reasons living in Lubbock, Texas has worked out for me, for the most part, because I feel a bit displaced here. I resisted living here for a time, but now