SF resident and retired professor James Kohn travels around the world virtually—and is busy showing others how to do it.
When COVID hit, James Kohn would have been a great person to take into lockdown with you. That’s the case because he’s traveled the world virtually, from the comfort of his home on nearby Twin Peaks, and he hasn’t done it in economy—he’s gone to world-class destinations with some of the best guides anyone could hope for. With Kohn by your side, lockdown would have been interesting and possibly even fun, thanks to these virtual travels.
Kohn, a lifelong Bay Area resident, is a retired English professor at San Francisco State University. Today he still teaches, but at places like San Francisco’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, where his students are seniors—people mostly over 50, retired, and eager to learn in a more relaxed, informal, and friendly atmosphere than is possible on most college campuses. Today he’s hard at work on a new course for Osher that will focus on virtual travel to some very exotic locations.
Kohn is also a docent at several San Francisco institutions, including our Botanical Garden, the de Young Museum, and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. If you’ve visited those places, he may well have been your guide.
How exactly does Kohn travel the world from home? Here’s his secret: he devotes a big chunk of his time to studying the works of what he calls “cultural straddlers”—people who write in English but were born—and sometimes still live—in faraway places like India, Nigeria, New Zealand, and the Caribbean.
If you’ve ever wanted to visit Africa, for example, Kohn says you have two choices: spend a lot of time and money on airplanes, hotels, taxis, and restaurants. Or relax at home immersed in the works of someone like Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who does a great job of showing you what the world looks and feels like to people born in his country. “I’d rather travel from home,” said Kohn. “It’s easy, cheap, and safe, and I can stop any time I want and enjoy our great life here in San Francisco—Ocean Beach, the mountains, or some pretty amazing restaurants.”
For a virtual trip to Africa, Kohn recommends Achebe’s masterwork, Things Fall Apart, a tale of life in Nigeria before and after Europeans arrived and began inflicting some horrendous effects on his country and its people. If you’re more interested in South Africa, Kohn says it’s hard to go wrong with Nadine Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. And a good place to start is “Is There No Place We Can Meet?”, a short story that’s focused on the struggle to end apartheid, in which Gordimer played a very active (and heroic) role. Kohn also recommends Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee, a terrific look at the effect Europeans had on native peoples and their cultures in the southern part of Africa.
If India is more to your liking, Kohn can recommend lots of works. One of his favorites is “Orbiting,” a fascinating short story by Bharati Mukherjee that describes how a White girl introduces a South Asian friend to her family. Interested in New Zealand? Check out the works of Witi Ihimaera, author of The Whale Rider. This novel, which was made into a popular film, tells the story of a young woman who becomes tribal leader while living out her Maori heritage. How about the Caribbean? If you want to go there, V.S. Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Earl Lovelace are great travel companions.
“I love the way these books inject you right into some very exotic places,” said Kohn “Achebe, Gordimer. Coetzee, and the rest are just some examples of where you can go, but there are many, many more.” The bonus, of course, is that it’s easy, cheap, and super-convenient. And, as James Kohn can attest, it’s also a great way to cope with a pandemic and a lockdown.
Categories: letter to the editor