Some of you may know I teach a travel writing course at Susquehanna University. Jenna Antoniewicz and I take US students to Tshani Village in the Eastern Cape, where they visit local people, make friends, and then write about their experiences using the techniques of creative nonfiction.
Judging by the course feedback, this experience was a pretty big hit with the students who went along. Going by the travel essays I read, the trip also provoked searching questions about self, culture, justice, and global citizenship.
And the Tshani villagers seemed happy, too. "So many tourists come here," said one woman, "yet you are the first to ever spend time with us and ask us about our lives." Another said, "I learned so much about American culture!"
In Cape Town, though, a relative who works in postcolonial studies seemed horrified when I told her about the trip.
"But are you going to theorize travel writing?" she wanted to know. What I think she meant with her question was: am I going to expose students to the academic critique of travel writing as a genre?
This critique can be stated crudely as follows: travel writing generally consists of white writers from wealthy countries going to poor, powerless communities and making the people and customs there sound intriguing and exotic, but also ignorant and inferior. This portrayal makes them seem needful of Western aid or leadership. Thus travel writing is "literary colonialism."
A crying child interrupted my conversation with my relative, and we weren't able to continue it very far.
"Lightly, and from a practitioner's point of view," was my response in the moment. If I'd had more time, I would have elaborated: I certainly think it's very important for apprentice travel writers to recognize the dangers of ethnocentricism. But as someone who loves this genre, I have to remain optimistic about travel writing's potential to build bridges and highlight inequality.
And I do. Even reading 18th and 19th century travel literature, I'm struck by the genre's diversity. You have slave narratives, exposing the evils of the Middle Passage. (Yes, I think reflection on forced travel counts, as do immigrant stories and business travel literature. It's in itself biased to restrict the genre to leisure travel).
You have a sexually ambiguous, aristocratic fop like John Boswell, floating around Europe in the 1700s, trying to seduce princes and, in the process, making gentle fun of his social class. You have Muslim travelers' accounts of Christendom, and the reverse. And among European travelers, you have everything from a gentle curiosity about non-Western cultures, all the way down to extremely offensive racism.
Some contemporary travel literature that you'll read in glossy magazines or see on the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble does condescend to rural people, Asian, African, and Latin American cultures, and so on.
But others offer powerful illustrations of global economic injustice, or of Western-funded human rights abuses: see The Shadow of the Sun, or almost anything by Ryszard Kapuscinki. Or Salman Rushdie's "Eating the Eggs of Love," about the Nicaraguan contras. The essays in Annie Dillard's Teaching a Stone to Talk invert the stereotype of a place like New York being at the "center of things" and make a piece of jungle in Ecuador "the heart of the world." Many more travel masterpieces have their moments of condescension and others of real, stunning critical insight. I think of the book I'm reading right now, Colin Thubron's Shadow of the Silk Road, which sometimes seems to look down on Chinese peasants with "broad faces," and at other moments writes about Asian culture with wondrous detail, sympathy, knowledge, and curiosity.
I also love books about America and Europe, written by outsiders. I enjoyed Jan Morris's Coast to Coast, about 1950s USA--written by a British trans woman, still pre-transition at the time. I'm curious about Naipaul's travels in the American South.
In short, to me it seems the "literary colonialism" label has a grain of truth to it--yet overall, it's really a terrible oversimplification of a very rich and complex genre.
What do you think? Do you like reading literary travel writing? Why/why not? What are some literary travel books that respect cultural difference? Which are some that fit the model of the exploitative objectifier?