Writers & Company

William Atkins on the beauty, myths and harsh realities of life in the desert

The British author talked to Eleanor Wachtel about the literary allure and mystique of the world's driest, hottest places.
William Atkins is a British journalist, editor and author. (Johnny Ring, McClelland & Stewart)
Listen to the full episode55:00

In his new book, The Immeasurable World, British writer William Atkins travels to some of the world's most inhospitable regions — in Oman, China, Australia, Kazakhstan, Egypt and the American Southwest — to investigate the enduring myths and darker realities of desert life.

Drawing on historical accounts and present-day reportage, he explores the troubling impact of migration, nuclear testing and environmental disaster. But he also delves into art and poetry, and the role of the desert as a place of spiritual awakening.

Atkins's widely acclaimed previous book, The Moor, looked at a very different kind of landscape — the moors and fenlands of his native England. From Jane Eyre to Lorna Doone to The Hound of the Baskervilles, the moors have long captured the literary imagination.

Atkins spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from the CBC's London studio.

The truth of the land

"The approach I took to reveal or understand the truth of the desert was through story. There were things I wanted to explore in the way that these landscapes have been misunderstood and often treated as kind of worthless and valueless — and without history, narrative, meaning or value. I wanted to explore the way they've often been exploited or maltreated, and particularly the way that those people who live in deserts have suffered as a result of that thinking, including the use of the testing of nuclear bombs in the deserts of the world.  For example, I spent a lot of time in South Australia at a place called Maralinga where the British first tested their nuclear bombs on land, and of course there are corresponding places in New Mexico, in the deserts of India, or in the Sahara. 

I was also interested in the theological significance of these places. And so I went to the places where I could tell stories and follow stories and often follow in the footsteps of others who'd been to these places before me."

The exiled sands

"The desert as a place of exile is interesting to me. This is particularly relevant to the Taklamakan Desert, which is in the far northwest region of Xinjiang in China. It was a place where political troublemakers, particularly from the heart of China, were often sent. Exile is a form of punishment, second only to the death penalty. There are poems and letters from the period of 100 years or more... of people who had been exiled out. For those who knew only the city, the mountains or only the verdant heart of China, it was a punishment that was greatly feared."

Guided in the desert

"It's the nature of these places that they are unwelcoming to outsiders, by virtue the fact that they're dry, isolated, lacking in resources and very easy to get lost in. Invariably I was calling on the expertise, familiarity and generosity of those who knew these places intimately. Of course that's balanced with a slight loss of independence... and perhaps you don't necessarily get as broad an experience as you might otherwise. I'm fairly cautious in where I go and part of that is being reliant on the right people.

"Very often, your life is in the hands of the guides and the people who know these places far better than you do. Certainly in the desert, I do very little solo travelling simply because it would be dangerous. I'm not particularly interested in taking physical risks. I want to, as far as it's possible as someone who's passing through as essentially a kind of tourist, I want to get some small understanding of the reality of these places or at least I want to begin to be able to describe my own experience of those places. And so, in order to do that, it's necessary not to be entirely focused on staying alive."

The desert paradox 

"It's a paradox these places that are often seen as, and indeed are marginal to human concerns, very often are the sites of the most urgent questions of the day. I spent time in Australia and in New Mexico at the Trinity site where the world's first nuclear explosion occurred. But then think about somewhere like northwest China, where today the weaker minority Muslim population is experiencing conditions of profound suppression of religion and suppression of all other kinds, including the establishment of a network of 'reeducation camps' with up to a million people incarcerated without due process.

"Particularly I also think of the deserts of the southwest U.S., where I spent a lot of time trying to understand something of the landscape that the undocumented migrants were attempting to cross. What's become apparent to me is that many of these places that seem to be kind of on the edge and seem to be nowhere places — that seem to be places where human stories don't occur — are actually extraordinarily politically vibrant and contested places."

William Atkins's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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