My life has always been filled with literature, it transported me across oceans and airways, through continents and conflicts but most importantly, it has taken me through time. I have not always had the means to travel, so reading is how I travel the world, yet, I had never heard of the concept of bookpacking.
It was first introduced to me at an information session at the University of Southern California. “Bookpacking the Big Easy” they called it, a concept coined by Andrew Chater, that provides students with the opportunity to use books to enhance their travel and literary experience by using the novels as “portals through which to explore regional history and culture.” The concept seemed odd but exciting.
I had always thought of books as films that your mind creates based off the words of an author, but this style of reading fused with traveled seemed almost too good to be true. After all, so much time has passed since some of these books have been written, hadn’t their settings changed as well?
The answer is yes, but that does not invalidate the experience of bookpacking. It was at the Grand Isle where I was able to truly grasp that concept. While, it is no longer the Isle that Edna looked upon, there is one pivotal feature that remained the same—the ocean. It was in the ocean that I was able to be alone with my thoughts and reflect upon Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.”
“The Awakening” follows a woman named Edna through her journey of self-discovery along with the pain and pleasure that comes with it. She feels trapped by her societal obligations coupled with, in my interpretation, her struggle with depression. Reading the novel on the Grand Isle where it is set affected me more than I was expecting. I am not entirely sure why, perhaps it is because I am a very empathetic person, or because sitting on the beach that inspired Kate Chopin to write the novel in the first place made me feel as if I were Edna myself. As of now, I am not sure if it is one reason or a combination of reasons but perhaps farther along into this bookpacking journey I will understand more. All I know is, “The Awakening” and all its beautiful prose, exhausted me emotionally.
I loved every minute of it, I couldn’t stop reading. Its subject matter was so painful, but that is what made it so beautiful to me. The fact that Chopin wrote so openly of inner turmoil, especially in her time when anything other than a perfect wife was considered taboo. It hurt me that Edna felt so alone, her emotional highs were such fun but her emotional lows left me feeling sick to my stomach. Her pain and the way she saw the world resonated with me. As her mental health began its descent, it made me realize how grateful I was to be in the Grand Isle.
The Isle is peaceful and serene; it is a place of joy and relaxation and for Edna it was an escape. When it was time for her character to return to the city, it was clear to me she felt trapped in more ways than one. She was trapped with a husband whom she didn’t really love, societal obligations enforced upon women through the patriarchy, and by her own mind but when she was on the Isle, she didn’t feel trapped, in fact, she even learned how to swim.
It was swimming where I felt most connected to Edna. The ocean made me feel alive; it was cool and refreshing. In fact, one of my favorite experiences on the Isle was getting up before sunrise with some of my classmates and taking a sunrise swim, even though Chopin never had Edna do such a thing, it felt like an Edna thing to do.
The morning I finished the book, I realized I needed to decompress so I relaxed on the beach and then went for a swim. I thought of Edna’s emotional highs when the weather affected her more deeply, when the sun gently kissed her skin and enveloped her in warmth and the contrast of the cool ocean water on her skin. It was at this time where I first noticed sea foam. I had never given it much thought, only the fact that after the waves hit the sand, it appeared. As I swam through the waves, I noticed how much it tickled. It felt like little bubbles gently popping. I made me giggle, it helped me relax. It made me grateful to be alive during a time where mental health is not a taboo subject anymore, where psychology and treatments exist, where I am not alone, where I don’t have to feel as Edna felt. The sea foam brought me serenity.
Just as Kate Chopin’s character Edna understood the beauty of the Grand Isle, I too could now understand it. I think being at the location where a portion of the novel occurs exacerbated my emotions while reading. Bookpacking is such an immersive experience, I no longer have to rely on my imagination in its entirety because I have walked the shores she walked, and I now know some of what she saw.
For me, Edna’s perspective was a contrast to my own. In her time depression was a word that did not exist whereas in my time, not only are subjects like mental health being properly researched but they are also being de-stigmatized. Chopin was decades ahead of her time and I am grateful to have been offered a glimpse into her world because the novel truly came alive.