NOT A TRAVEL BOOK: Deborah Levy’s ‘Swallowing Geography’

Swallowing Geography is less than a hundred pages, and I am having a hard time reading it in one sitting. Also, that the fuck is happening?! Where the hell is she this time?!”

Aside from being a supposedly short read, I found the book cover design very appealing. The word ‘geography’ in the title has obviously got me as well., but as I will point out later, this is definitely not a travel book. The name of the main character, J.K., apparently was inspired after Jack Kerouac. I could actually say that this book is ‘On the Road’ written from a strong, independent woman perspective. I’ve heard good words about Deborah Levy’s work, but rarely on Swallowing Geography, which also fueled my curiosity for this book even further.


The Penguin Essentials edition of the book cover of Swallowing Geography is designed by Holly Ovendan, who have also designed a couple of other classic book covers, including several of Agatha Christie’s. I am surely getting a lot of design inspirations from her style. The book cover design of Swallowing Geography alone is enough for me to start reading the book.

“Ask J.K. what she wants, she’ll give you things she doesn’t want. Ask J.K. where home is, she’ll tell you where she wants to go next. Ask J.K. who she wants to be, she’ll tell you who she doesn’t want to become. Ask J.K. her real name is, she’ll only trace ‘JK’ like a child who is just learning how to write.”

From Deborah Levy’s Swallowing Geography

Seriously, everything in this part of the book fully resonated with me.

As a stubborn, non-conformist 30-year old woman who has been trying to define her own ways to live and defy all societal expectations, I have spent my 20s figuring out what I want, where I want to be, and who I am. As I slowly pull myself out of the whole millennial rat race (what are we even doing it for?) and come into terms that not following some set of societal expectations is totally okay, reading Swallowing Geography is a joy and pain at the same time.

J.K. has definitely been to many places, and this short novella has taken me to some of them. Although it can get frustrating at first reading what’s happening without any idea where in the world they are taking place, it validates the idea that home is not actually a place, but rather a feeling. Or better yet, home is not about the place, but the people you are surrounded with. Having experienced a difficult childhood, J.K. did not feel home in the arms of her own mother. She seems living life in a suitcase and always ready to leave.

“How a stranger never belongs to a person or a place. He can be an insider and an outsider at the same time.”

J.K., Swallowing Geography

I’ve felt ‘home’ many times in my adult life. Having a constant love-hate relationship with the town I grew up in, I never considered it home. I can’t remember living in the same roof for longer than two years since I graduated from college. Whenever I get bored of a place, I would always move. Whenever I feel like nothing inspires me anymore, I would go away somewhere far and unfamiliar. I have felt ‘home’ in the most unexpected places — places with a totally different weather with people who speak a totally different language. I have felt ‘home’ with a person I just met. I have felt ‘home’ pursuing a new career or venturing out to learn something new.

Swallowing Geography by Deborah Levy
Swallowing Geography by Deborah Levy

J.K. does not and will never box herself in a certain label as to who she is, nor will never pretend about her own character. Society puts a stigma to certain people. Swallowing Geography was originally published in 1993, but if J.K. would probably exist in 2022, she would definitely be unapologetic of who she is. People can always make up versions of who you are to their perspective, but only you can be able to define your true self. J.K. considers herself “the wanderer, bum, emigre, refugee, deportee, rambler, a strolling player.”.

People have the tendency to put their best foot forward when introducing themselves, to the point that we try to paint a picture of a fabricated version of ourselves in order to be accepted by the people around us. I think that’s just sad. The worst that could happen to us is to have no answers to the very cliche job interview question, “tell us something about yourself that’s not on your CV” or something. The world needs more people who are honest about themselves. That’s the only time society can be genuinely democratic.

J.K. has encountered several people and she knew their deepest, innermost struggles. She knew about George’s struggle with AIDS and X’s feelings about his marriage. Being a kind of person like J.K. will force one to be a people person who could read what’s on their mind by just looking at them. Learning that you are just one of the billions of people in this world who has their own versions of sufferings really takes away your self-pity. While this is not a travel book, J.K.’s adventures indeed introduces us as to what kind of person you can become if you would travel.

“You can always tell a tourist, their eyes don’t know where they’re going.”

J.K., Swallowing Geography

The phrase ‘Swallowing Geography’ can mean so many things, and it depends on how we view our sense of place in this world, both geographically and existentially. Reading Swallowing Geography has driven my mind a bit crazy. I had to re-read specific chapters in order to make sense of that was happening until I realize it really was meant to be messy (in a beautiful way). Experimental literature is something that not all readers might not appreciate; I myself was adamant about it at first, but I liked the chaos of it all.

This book is a messy fragment of unrelated parts of J.K.’s life, but after having finished it, I came into a conclusion that there was indeed one grand narrative to it. And that, I think was excellent.

And with that, I am very strawberry excited to acquire copies and read more of Levy’s works!

Please check out my other book reviews! πŸ™‚

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