Treasure as Transformation

Amy Gigi Alexander

Mexico

When the editorial team for Panorama suggested the theme of ‘treasure’ for our second Quarterly, I was immediately intrigued. The idea of treasure is a layered one: it has a certain mystique that appeals not just to lingering childhood fantasies, but also to the very grown up side of ourselves, which longs for what is secret and precious.

As a young girl, I was fascinated by treasure, and this was heavily influenced by the first major American international exhibition of artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb. I had an elementary school teacher who had attended the exhibit at the American Metropolitan Museum of Art, and returned with postcards of golden faces, jewelled bowls, and panels of hieroglyphics she passed around the class. What struck me most about King Tut’s possessions was not their beauty, but the story that came with them: from the moment Tut was buried, treasure hunters coveted his belongings, and finally, they succeeded in finding them, to great accolades. I remember holding a postcard showing the gilded, stylised mask which had covered King Tut’s mummified face, and feeling as though I had seen something I should have not have. I liked the idea of a hidden tomb, and I liked the idea that it might be discovered — but I didn’t want it to be actually found.

It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I took treasure hunting to task, and began searching for adventure books that I hoped would alter the spirit of ‘looking for treasure’ into a nobler one. These books were hard to find, for the dominant narratives in such travelogues were of the more greedy variety: The Golden Bug, by Edgar Allen Poe; Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathon Swift; and Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. But these tomes led me to collections of shorter works, and soon I was immersed in a world of short stories, folklore, and fairy tales: from Tibet, The Punishment of Avarice; from Kashmir, The Lucky-Bird Huma; from India, Vedabbha-Jataka: Misguided Effort; from 1001 Nights, The Merchant and the Two Sharpers; from Canterbury Tales, The Pardoner’s Tale; and many works by the Brothers Grimm. I had discovered stories that showed treasure hunters to be complicated people, not black and white —  thinkers, adventurers, outcasts. In every narrative, they were transformed by the treasure they had found, and their discoveries were not paired with happy endings, but instead, an entrance to a more complex role in the world.

As I got older, my concept of treasure changed, too. I still liked the idea of that hidden tomb somewhere, unmapped and unknown forever; or, a secret island where a traveller might chance upon a chest filled with the silver gleanings of my earlier imaginings. But it was when I began to travel myself that I realised that treasure is everywhere, and that discovering it depends on who you happen to be.  Finding treasure, whether it is within you or the landscape you find yourself in, depends less on your belief that it exists, and more on your willingness to see it for what it is when you unearth it.

In this issue, we’re charting new territory: that of treasure lost and found, and what happens to the one who both loses and finds it. We don’t just want to define the experience singularly: we want to offer a kaleidoscope, which is why we’ve curated a collection of memoir, poetry, fiction, and imagery from around the world.  From Australian Leah Kaminsky’s astonishing recounting of Polish poet Melekh Ravitch’s search for a potential Jewish homeland in the Australian outback, to Kenyan Richard Oduku’s narrative on how Thor Heyerdahl’s Kontiki voyage transformed his boyhood, to American Peter Wortsman’s wanderings across New York City, we’ve aimed to show you that finding treasure is not as simple as locating a point on a map — it is the journey itself.

Our panoramic revolution continues.

Amy Gigi Alexander

Editor-in-Chief