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?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Duck, Duck, Wild Goose?

I promised some more reflections on how Wild Goose Festival dealt with the issue of justice for sexual minorities. This is a very important question for Wild Goose. The four mottoes of the festival are "Justice, Spirituality, Music, Art." To me the order of those nouns wasn't coincidental: there was a lot of visible activism around justice and spirituality, and quite a bit of music, but not much art.

Justice was certainly prominent--water for Africa, abolition of the death penalty, prison reform. Here's where the trickiness comes in, though, for Wild Goose: this was still a Christian festival. Christianity, as we all know, has had some severe sexual hang-ups over its two thousand year history. For just a taste, try the rambling, all-but-incomprehensible incoherence of the opening of Paul's letter to the Romans, often used to bash gay people. It's obvious in this passage Paul isn't talking about LGBT people, but rather "idolatry." But can we be real for a minute? Even in these terms, on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate this guy's comprehension of ancient Greek religion and philosophy about a 2.5--a first-century equivalent of Joseph Conrad's characterization of African religion as "unspeakable rites."

Or listen to St. Augustine torment himself about how lust always ruins intimacy for him. I love St. Augustine as a father of Western autobiography, but this isn't exactly the definitive guide to healthy and loving sexual relationships!

Prominent among Wild Goose's sponsors was a magazine called Sojourners. As a perusal of their web site will make clear, Sojourners is passionately dedicated to celebrating diversity and fighting every example of cruelty, inhumanity, and injustice in the world--except that directed at queer people, who are conspicuously absent from their mission statement. I can only conclude that, for example, the recent execution of these gay men in Iran wouldn't strike Sojourners as an injustice worth fighting?

All of this said, though, I still felt welcomed and accepted at the conference, not just because of the stated commitment to inclusiveness, but also because I felt the center of gravity of the mostly young, cool, hipsterish social justice-supporting attendees was overwhelmingly pro-queer. When Tony Campolo, for example, said he believed same-sex eroticism was a sin because of the aforementioned Romans 1, the silence from the audience was deafening. Pro-queer statements, on the other hand, like my partner Peterson Toscano's call for 400 supportive clergy to come out next National Coming Out Day, got cheered. So I got the feeling emergent Christianity, represented by the attendees, was palpably shifting beyond the opinions of some of its intellectual founders.

I didn't agree with the opinion I heard that people like Campolo shouldn't have been allowed to proclaim their views, since the festival would not have allowed a speaker to state that black people were inferior. Having lived in so many different parts of the world, to me it seems that almost all progressive activism is context-dependent. For example, in the Madrid intellectual circles where I lived for a year in 2003, opposition to same-sex marriage was unacceptable, but the racist belief that Spanish Roma are essentially cultural nomads--non-Spanish, inclined to thievery, and unable to benefit from government housing and education routinely provided to white Spanish--was taken for granted. Organizing a "Wild Goose" in Spain would, I predict, see less homophobia than we saw in NC, but more racism. If all shades of anti-Roma views among Spanish speakers were completely unacceptable, they'd struggle to organize a Wild Goose-style festival and fill a roster with names well-known enough to fill the venue.

So in my own writing, criticism and activism, I approve of festivals that move the social debate in the right direction--on race, gender, sexuality, peace, whatever--depending on context, and not one that conforms to a rigorous and consistent, but abstract definition of justice. I thought WG did this--imperfectly, but still. I really liked the festival, and am grateful to its organizers for putting it on.