Monday, July 18, 2011

Is travel writing literary colonialism?

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?


  1. I think you said it perfectly in your penultimate paragraph above - a grain of truth, but not much more. Nice post.

  2. I have stayed away from Travel writing for the very reason you list - it struck me as literary colonialism: someone has popped into a place that is "quaint and rustic" and tries to show how the "savvy traveler" can enjoy herself. As a Third Culture Kid, I grew up spending a great deal of time abroad; those "quaint and rustic" or "savage and beautiful" places were my home.

    I remember distinctly trying to not look or act like the tourists. I was embarrassed by them. When asked 50 cents for a coconut drink the tourist almost always wanted to barter down - not because the price was too high, but because the traveler believed it her duty to display the superiority of her own culture, almost always from the United States. These incidences made me cringe and feel ashamed of my country of origin. These are the type of stories I encountered in travel writing.

    I remember picking up a travel book about Panama. I spent four of the happiest years of my life there. I wanted to read of others adventures in my "home." What I found was a collection of stories that broke my heart.

    The writer exoticized (is that a word?) the indigenous people. A people who had fought pirates, the Spanish and Colombia for their freedom; these were people who were still fighting for their equality in their country. I read of the beautiful villas and esplanades but not of the shanty town that I passed everyday to and from school. The book was full of descriptions of the beautiful beaches that could be found and empty of the stories of the fishermen who fed their families from those waters. This Panama was not my home, nor did I feel that anyone could come to love the country from the sterile, sequestered travels written of in this book. After this book, I quit reading travel writing. I wanted some truth along with the beauty.

    I find that I am not familiar with many of the writers or books that you mention. (Shame on me.) My dips into travel writing have been by white, anglo, mostly male writers. The titillation of the country is what was expressed most vividly, but the real essence of the locale was always lost. It may be time for me to experience some other travel writers. It may be time for me to ask publishers to publish travel books that convey a more realistic picture of the country. My main wish is that people could see the glory or gloom of a place through the eyes of someone who's lived there.

    When I travel, even within my home country, I try to remember that this is someone's home. Memories abound for countless individuals. Those are the stories and places want to hear and see.

  3. Jane, it sounds like you have had the misfortune to have read "Travel Writing" but NOT literary Travel Writing. I think there is a vast difference. From the little I have read (thanks to Glen's recommendations and reading to me on the road) I have discovered thoughtful, self-reflective work that reveals as much about the author and the author's culture and about human nature rather than a place for tourists to visit.

    I think one of the keys here is the quality of the writing, the control over the language, the heart and mind of the writer, and the tools she uses. Also, as Glen suggested, it is critical to bring in a diversity of voices, not only the privilege, white American or European male.

    I am sure there are examples of really poor trashy travel writing, but that does not discount the wealth of enlightened and enlightening literature that centers on travel.

  4. Thanks for your comments! Yes, to me the distinction between literary and commercial travel writing is crucial. It is like the difference between a John Grisham novel and an Elizabeth Strout one. Both novels are about people's experiences. But in which are you likelier to get a sense of real life? The Grisham novel, purely for entertainment, doesn't even really try to capture the essence of real people's lives. The Elizabeth Strout book does evoke real people's aging, sadness, joy, lies, transcendence.
    Ryszard Kapuscinski says tourists come to a place to rest, whereas travelers come to work hard at getting to know it. The same might be true of travel writing. Fun has its place, but if travel writing is ALL about foreigners' enjoyment, by definition it's not literature and not real.
    I should say that academic critics reject this distinction and say that literary travel writing--and serious-minded educational travel--is just a different and more pretentious way of exploiting a place and culture.

  5. I honestly do both when I visit another place. But I think gaining knowledge about the place and the locals is what makes my trips worthwhile. I do not act like a regular tourist being too ecstatic taking pictures. I am more likely to be observant and relishing the experience so that I have something valuable to write about when I get home.

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