Some time ago, Devi Lockwood asked me to write about diversity in literary travel writing. Rather, she asked me to write about the lack of diversity in literary travel writing.
To begin, I should explain two things. First, that I am a travel writer myself, and secondly, that I never had any intention of being one. Originally I had an aversion to being called a travel writer, because I thought it was too narrow of a definition. For although my bookcases were full of the classic travel writers—and I adored them, I found myself frustrated that I did not see my own type of narrative represented very often—it was cast into genres such as memoir, or something annoyingly termed “women’s writing”. Moreover, my local bookstores had slim pickings on the shelves: very few books by women, people of color, or those with different identities of gender. But over the course of this year—with the guidance of my local library, the internet, and an open mind, I’ve come to see things differently, and have embraced the title “travel writer”. Now I see travel writing as a vast vista, unchartered in some places, and in others, full of voices from multiple genres, voices that I’ve discovered just this year (I’ll share some of those at the end of this essay). Travel writing itself is often typecast as being a remnant from a worn out colonialism, but it’s not anymore. It is becoming a cross over genre: bleeding into memoir and fairy tales; creating mini manifestos on gender, politics and social ills; rubbing elbows with fiction and poetry. Travel writing is everywhere.
Before I delve into what I think travel writing is, I’d like to take you back, way back into time, when the world was divided and difficult to move about in. People who traveled from one continent to another were rare. Western thought had just begun its frenetic takeover of the world, but some places were still quite untouched and undisturbed by any outside dominant political and economic forces. There were landscapes few outsiders had seen and ground none of them had walked upon. People did travel: motivated by environment, trade, political strife, nomadic lives, their own desires—but their storytelling stayed within their own cultural narratives, rarely leaving their hearth, unless through their own art, literature, and oral traditions.
We can look at different populations to see what voices and perspectives were represented in that time: who traveled at all, outside of necessity or tradition? Religious leaders and missionaries. Political dissidents and those escaping religious persecution. Slaves and operators who worked in the slave trade. Sex workers, courtesans, and temple prostitutes. The military, merchants, elite classes, artists, and royal households. Therefore travel was defined very narrowly by a handful of populations who had limited ideas about what it meant to be out in the world at large. Some of these “travels” meant moving to other countries, but sometimes they meant moving from one walled-in compound to the next: it’s important to keep in mind that many of these people did not move about freely, and so travel during this time was not about leaving one’s country insomuch as it was about leaving one place for another. There are numerous examples of early travel writing from some of these individuals, who for the most part—if they left a story that we can still find– left it in form of poems, letters, diaries, or oral storytelling that was recorded much later. One of the earliest examples of travel writing is the forty year travel diary of royal household court member, Takasue’s Daughter, (real name is unknown), Sarashina nikki, which was written between 1020 and 1060. She also leaves us one of the first travel tales which weaves love and the duality of exotic places and identity: Mitsu no Hamamatsu, an eleventh-century Japanese monogatari. Leaping ahead, we have the example of the Muslim travel writer Al Hassan Ibn Muhammed Al Wazzan, (renamed Leo Africanus by the Europeans). His diaries and letters tell a travel tale which began with exile as child from Spain, and continued throughout the early 1500’s as an envoy to the sultan of Fez.
At some point, exploration, extreme adventure, and even danger, began to define travel and even travel writing. But what that means today is much different than what it may have meant a few hundred years ago. The first images that come to mind, for me, of that era of travel and the stories I’ve read are of men with icepicks in the Artic; people visiting some tribal group which had never had contact with Westerners, or a sort of around-the-world in eighty days whirlwind for the privileged and wealthy. Perhaps a Victorian rebel, walking around in full dress and bustle in the desert and riding a camel sidesaddle. There is truth to these images, but they only represent an era— they do not define an entire genre. There are quite a few interesting exceptions. Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Letters from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. Margaret Catchpole, imprisoned for prostitution and theft, who wrote Letters from an Australian Prison at the time of English colonization in the 1800’s. Fanny Parks, who was sympathetic to the loss of culture and tradition in Afghani and Indian society, and wrote about it 1850. (William Darymple later republished her work under the title, Begums, Thugs, and Englishmen: The Journals of Fanny Parks.)
From the Victorian era onwards, travel became more popular—and so did travel writing, for a variety of reasons. People in Western cultures were consuming huge amounts of resources, including labor and people. There was an almost obsessional curiosity with what I will call, “otherness”—including people being seen as “others.” The rich had more money and disposable income, and it became desirable to see the world, as a sign of status or intellect. While there were some who were drawn in by the benefits of travel, those benefits were hardly glittering. Those who had the ability to travel within the specific parameters which were socially acceptable within Western society had numerous factors to contend with. Travel was uncomfortable, dangerous, expensive, time consuming, and frankly, not for the faint hearted. Travelers often were people with inheritances, connections in society, shady financial backing, or with political aspirations. A perfect example of this kind of traveler is Freya Stark, whose travels, reportage, and political and financial leanings changed the parts of the world she visited for the worse. But it’s important to remember another larger context for the majority of women travelers of her time: they traveled to create choices for themselves, to have options. As travelers, they could afford to live in other places more cheaply, avoid marriage, explore identities not available as choices at home, and get outside of the constraints of a life devoted to family and duty. Therefore, our frame of reference of what travel is from this period in the past—and what writing came out of it—is very thin, and generally comes from writers of a certain social strata, class, and gender.
There were two main aspirations of the typical Western travel narrative during these years: the ongoing theme of exploration and The Grand Tour, which was typically reserved for privileged people–not people of color or with low economic/social status. There are fleeting glimpses of narratives of fierce survival and independence, however. Ada Blackjack, and Inupiat Inuit, who was left stranded alone on Wrangel Island in Siberia in the 1920’s, had her diaries published. And Juanita Harrison, an African American, traveled the world and wrote about experiencing place as a woman of color in her book, My Great, Wide, Beautiful World in 1936. A few writers broke the mold and managed to swing the traditional Grand Tour, such as Langston Hughes and Caryl Philips. Outside of these rare exceptions, the traditional narrative of these types of journeys—if published as travel writing—rarely captured cultural or environmental sensitivity on a major scale. On the unusual occasion that it did, it was sometimes seen as political or social commentary, not travel writing.
But travel stories began to change when information highways and borders began to open up: no longer were readers dependent on a single writer and their version of events, and this gave birth to a new type of travel writing which included writing about cultures, peoples, and landscapes in more inclusive ways. Moving from the early 20th century, sensibilities morphed into a new modernism of travel writing. While the genre still included the traditional themes of exploration and the pleasures associated with the imprint from The Grand Tour, it also became flush with books and essays that captured this newfound sensitivity with gusto. Topics of sexuality, identity, diaspora, race, politics, and the effects of globalization threaded through unusual narratives, and altered the genre forever. This is illustrated beautifully by Jan Morris, in her book, A Writer’s World: Travels from 1950 to 2000, where she dives into the trial of Adolf Eichmann and race relations in 1950s and 1970s South Africa. Another example is Cebuano writer Lina Espina-Moore, in her book on the Filipino/Cebu experience of identity in The Heart of the Lotus, written in 1970. And exile and the grim realities of war become part of a cultural travel narrative in Dang Thuy Tram’s diaries, written during the Vietnam War and discovered at her death, later published as Yesterday I Dreamed of Peace. And of course, I have to include Nayani Krishnakumari’s unusual travelogue published in the 1980’s of the Kasmir valley, kashmira deepakalika, which almost reads like a poem.
Twenty five years have passed since the beginning of a gurgling quiet revolution in the world of travel writing, and actually, in all writing. We are blessed by writers like Jeff Greenwald, Tim Cahill, Dervla Murphy, Anthony Doerr, Don George, Robyn Davidson, and so many more. But we have the added blessing of a half empty bookshelf, waiting to be filled with all the wonderful writers that are writing devastatingly beautiful travel literature with wildly diverse narratives. I still can’t find many of these authors in my bookstore in the travel section, but I can find them interspersed throughout other parts of the same bookstore, under topics like gender, LBGT writing, fiction, social justice, poetry, politics, feminism, race, commentary, and history. Travel writing seems to be pleasantly showing up everywhere, and someday soon, it’s all going to be together.
Until then, I’m leaving you with a list of some of my favorite travelogues I’ve discovered this year by diverse and interesting writers. My favorite top ten discoveries. Happy reading!
- Bishwanath Ghosh. Longing, Belonging, an Outsider at Home in Calcutta, 2014.
- Elisha Lim, 100 Butches, 2012. This is a graphic novel of queerness on a journey. Her new book, 100 Crushes, has this older book and new material, too.
- Kenneth Ngwa, Brothers Don’t Travel, 2010. A travelogue of a Cameroonian-American as a teen in Israel and observations about values and classism.
- Larry La Fountain, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writers from the Antilles, in particular, La Fountain’s essay on Puerto Rican gay culture and identity: De un Pajaro las Dos a las, 2002.
- Maliha Masood, Zaatar Days, Henna Nights, An American-Pakistani who writes from a Muslim perspective.
- Monique Truong, The Book of Salt, 2003. A Vietnamese writer who tells a fictional story about the Vietnamese personal chef of Gertrude Stein and their travels in Paris and abroad.
- Pankaj Mishra, The Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, 1995. As well as India in Mind, 2005. Both books are travelogues but with a focus on the impact of globalization in India.
- Paula Lee, Deer Hunting in Paris, 2013. Korean-American writer who travels the world and learns to hunt.
- Suki Kim, Without You, There is No Us, 2014. North Korea during the last months of the dictatorship,
- Veronique Renaud, aka Pantau, Pantau in Dharmasala, The Fire in Hell, Pantau in India, 2000. A transsexual woman from the Netherlands, she writes about the current affairs of Tibet and gender.
World traveler and explorer Amy Gigi Alexander writes tales of place interwoven with memoir and social commentary. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines, as well as National Geographic India, BBC Travel, World Hum, Lonely Planet, and others. Her award winning travel essays have been translated and published internationally. Her work focuses on being an empowered woman, a solo traveler, and finding the good in the world. Her website is http://www.amygigialexander.com