I'm writing a travel memoir and have come across a dilemma of sorts. Yes, I know that a memoir is usually written in the past tense -- since it happened in the past. But certain facts remain true as I write.

For example: "Beijing is the capital of China. I enjoyed my time there. Her wide boulevards are flanked by sumptuous government buildings...."

"Train stations in Turkmenistan are always white edifices with large waiting rooms. Turkmen trains are in mint condition, punctual and invariably air-conditioned."

Was my usage of the tenses in these two examples as well as my general understanding of how tenses work in travel memoirs correct?


2 Answers 2


I'm with @DWKraus that there's no absolute right, and I think @Chenmunka's link gives guidance, particularly the non-accepted answer: sometimes there are specific reasons behind mixed tenses.

When I imagine your first example as a narration, the 3 sentences do feel like you start "inside" the story, then make an aside from "outside," then re-enter. As if:

Beijing is the capital of China. (I enjoyed my time there.) Her wide boulevards are...

I would say the "specific reason" you did this might be because you want to begin with an emphasis on the city of Beijing. Imagine alternatives:

I enjoyed my time in Beijing, the capital of China. Her wide boulevards are...

That starts outside and goes in, avoiding the flip flop, but doesn't have the same emphasis.

Beijing, the capital of China. I enjoyed my time there. Her wide boulevards...

That just obfuscates whether you're inside or outside, and wouldn't work unless you happened to like the style.

And so on. If no alternative delivers the emphasis you desire, then I'd argue that that is the specific reason to justify the flip flop.

Interestingly, this would resolve naturally in languages with different orderings. In Korean for example your second sentence can begin with the location:

베이징에서 즐거운 시간을 보냈습니다.

Beijing, in, enjoyable time, I spent.

This simultaneously delivers emphasis and begins "outside" the story, going in. Any emulation of that in English might sound unnatural, or weird if you kept structuring it that way.

Beijing, I enjoyed very much. It is the capital of China. Her wide boulevards...


A moment in time:

I'm not a travel guide or an English major. Feel free to do what you like, I don't think there are absolute rules. It really only matters if you think it sounds right. There are statements that will sound totally valid in present tense. If I were writing this for the future, I'd use past tense as much as seemed practical.

Think of a theoretical future reader after some great change has come to Turkmenistan. 50 years from now, Turkmenistan's new leaders may have painted the buildings red and let the trains fall into disrepair. A revolution may happen, and Hong Kong may be the new capital of China. You're capturing a moment in time in a memoir.

If it's more of a travel guide, feel free to use present tense. But if it's meant to sound like you describing the place to someone as you saw it, I'd use past tense.

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