A first look at Dallie Ago’s Lesser Journeys, an engaging chronicle of a writer abroad that provides readers a reflective literary escape…
by: Christian Niedan
Roads are a popular metaphor for life’s journey. A great deal of pop songs have utilized the symbology. Last week, I heard one such track while pushing a cart around my local Trader Joe’s. At that moment, I was choosing between frozen pizza, frozen pasta, and frozen lasagna as my dinner for that night. Just then, Tom Cochrane’s 1991 hit, “Life is a Highway” came over the store’s music speakers. As I listened, I paused from considering my frozen dinner choices. Instead, I pictured a long shimmering multi-lane asphalt highway stretching over a sunny prairie landscape into the distant horizon. But it wasn’t just a single road cutting across the flatland I imagined. No, I also saw hundreds of shadowy off-ramps and spurs diverging away from the bright main artery. Some of them were overgrown, ignored, bypassed, full of potential — the sorts of routes that the poet Robert Frost would love.
I saw these diverging roads as life’s choices — and not minor ones either. They were far more important than the frozen pizzas, pastas, and lasagnas sprawled before me in a supermarket aisle. No, these roads were the numerous life decisions we make, such as the relationships we forge with people in our lives. The impact of those relations can take us far from home. They can determine which country’s roads we travel upon, what sort of lifestyle we craft for ourselves in those countries, and even a new alias we take on to shape our public identity around.
Dallas Athent (pen name for this release: Dallie Ago) touches on such choices within her new novel, Lesser Journeys, published by Pravum Books. The story is a fast-moving fictionalized version of the author’s own personal and professional journey, which most recently transplanted her from New York City to London. The narrative is voiced by successful writer Dallie Ago, whose career path poses her with tough choices, as in this conversation with friend, Quentin:
“Sometimes I don’t know whether to be a better writer or a better person.”
“Be a better writer,” Quentin offered. “It’s what you’re good at to begin with.”
Other choices are posed by societal expectations of motherhood versus professional success, as in another exchange with Quentin:
“Having children can be one of the greatest gifts of life, especially when you’re aware, physically, that life is only temporary. But so is writing a great novel.”
“Can’t I have both though? I always felt I was told I could do one or the other. But then I reflect on such great artists and writers and they managed to do both. Mostly men, but it can be possible for me too, I think.”
“If any woman can do it, you can, Dallie.”
That conversation is sparked by the choice made by Dallie’s ex-boyfriend, Santiago. to move on from their relationship:
“Dallie, I’ve been talking to you for years,” he responded. “Nothing has happened. It’s time for me to try something new.”
“But you said you’d wait for me!” I protested.
“Yes, but I didn’t say forever.’”
Reading Lesser Journeys, I was carried along by the engaging relatability of Dallie’s many decisions that shape her intertwined private and career paths. Yet, I was also curious about where the “rubber” of Ago’s fictional self met the “road” of Athent’s real life. A key component is the author’s evolving pen name (“Dallas Athent” for previous published works), and I wanted to know why it changed for this book. After reaching out, Athent explained the decision to me:
“I’ve always felt like an impermanent version of myself, and sometimes, when I’m writing I feel I need to step outside of my experiences and allow the character to really become her own person. In Lesser Journeys, the narrator Dallie is a writer, and I really tried to imagine how she talked, and felt, and thought, and not just what she would say but what she would actually write as opposed to what I, Dallas would write. So it may be annoying and confusing and pretentious, but I do really feel in a sense that ‘Dallie,’ not me, wrote Lesser Journeys and this is her book. That’s part of the cool thing about doing this with Pravum, is I get to decide that sort of thing even if it’s not marketable.”
Indeed, “PRAVUM” is prominently printed just below “Dallie Ago” on the book’s pink and black paperback cover. Athent co-founded the independent publisher of what its website trumpets as “degenerate literature.” Of Pravum’s meaning, the site helpfully provides the definitions as “perversity, depravity, abnormality, ugliness.” Lesser Journeys is the imprint’s first release, with Athent filling in the backstory of Pravum’s creation:
“While COVID-19 became more rampant throughout the world, I found myself discussing the concepts of mortality, bureaucracy and not wanting to let life pass me by in an existence that is fragile with fellow writers and book nerds Jennifer Obidike and Camille Johnston. In isolation, we sort of committed ourselves to bringing literature to the world that we wished we had in their hands while stuck at home. And so we formed our own publishing house titled PRAVUM.”
The way Jennifer puts it:
“We want to publish books that express tenderness or sensitivity as strength. We want to publish books whose worlds are so ridiculous, they’re welcome and needed in this time of utter chaos. In the end, we hope that our readers feel a sense of renewal or transformation through the sexy or the absurd.”
Athent completed Lesser Journeys in 2019. The year before saw the loss of friend and fellow writer and poet Ash Faith, to whom the book is dedicated. Athent released Faith’s collected works, Laddie Stardust in June 2018 through her Catopolis Publishing imprint (the book launch taking place the same day as his memorial service), and described his impact on her:
“Ash Faith has been, and will continue to be one of my greatest inspirations. For those who aren’t familiar with Ash — he was a poet and meditation guru who recently passed away as a result of a progressive brain tumor, after having become disabled from a car accident. I knew him before his accident, and well before his tumor. The transitions he went through amazed me. A lot of people think that those who suffer physically are ‘heroes,’ because we can’t imagine ourselves in their situation, and are secretly wondering how they manage what horrifies us, but for me it went deeper than that. Physical suffering isn’t a restriction on freedom. In fact, for some of us it liberates our minds by reminding us of how impermanent all of this is. Ash truly had that quality to him. I’ve had Type 1 Diabetes since I was 6 years old — an experience I explore in Lesser Journeys through Dallie’s character. And so it was a given that this book would be dedicated to Ash. Like Dallie, he had a relentless desire to own every second he had on this earth no matter what limits his body gave him.”
Athent drew inspiration for Lesser Journeys characters and passages from experiences with other real life friends:
“The trope ‘write about what you know’ has become a trope for a reason: because it’s true! I’m friends with all sorts of amazing, nuanced and hilarious individuals, and more than anything when it came to relationships I wanted to paint a picture of friendship between two unlikely people and how they can bond. Ahmed (Dallie’s best friend in the book), is a perfect example of this. I pulled their friendship from a real friendship of mine. I tried to remember the times I laughed the most with this friend, and also the times I was the most frustrated with him but loved him unconditionally anyway.”
Another character is the city of London itself, which (for those who follow her on Instagram) Athent is still discovering:
“I recently moved from New York to London for my career, and I felt sort of between being a New Yorker and being a citizen of the world for a few months. Although there’s a lot that London and New York have in common (both are western, financial capitals of 8 million people with English as the primary language), I did find myself sort of as an outsider, with my personality being a little more, shall we say, direct and over the top than most people around me. I started to jot down my observations, and then do so when I was traveling, and enjoyed poking fun at myself in the process while thinking about how I fit into this large puzzle of the rest of the world.”
Those observations of a traveler on life’s road are channeled with enjoyable verve within Lesser Journeys. And though the source names have been changed by Athent — Dallie Ago’s experiences with a sweeping cast of interesting people, Old World places, and uneasy decisions make this an engaging chronicle of a writer abroad. It will prove a familiar guide for readers seeking a literary escape to somewhere over their own housebound horizons of 2020.