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Has travel writing reached the end of the road?

Moneycontrol logo Moneycontrol 23-10-2021 Moneycontrol News
Has travel writing reached the end of the road? © Moneycontrol News Has travel writing reached the end of the road?

Does travel writing as we know it have a future? At present, it seems to be holding on. For a start, the annual Best American Travel Writing anthology series has been going strong for over two decades now. This year’s selection, guest-edited by Padma Lakshmi, features dispatches from West Africa, China, Alaska, and elsewhere.

In the UK, the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award has similarly been recognising the best travel books across categories. In 2021, the Travel Book of the Year had seven titles on the shortlist and was awarded to debutante Taran Khan for Shadow City, about journeys on foot in Kabul.

Even septuagenarian Paul Theroux is still sojourning: his recent On the Plain of Snakes is an account of revisiting Mexico. It was respectfully received, though one reviewer of Mexican origin did accuse him of being narcissistic and blind to privilege.

Yet, below this surface, there have been questions about the genre’s viability for a while, particularly in the halls of academia. Such debates have circulated well before the recent pandemic which, of course, has put a crimp in the plans of all travellers, not just writers.

It isn’t just the academy, though. In a 2015 essay, writer and publisher Barnaby Rogerson wrote of a slow collapse in sales, gloomily predicting that the role of the professional travel writer would soon be at an end.

Further, as Tim Hannigan points out: “As the chilling after-effects of the ‘war on terror’ unfolded across what had once been prime travel writing territory, the globetrotting escapades of the 1950s, and even of the 1990s, began to look like unwitting elegies at best, and appalling self-indulgences at worst.”

In his lucid and illuminating new book, The Travel Writing Tribe, he sets out to explore these questions. Interestingly—and entertainingly—he structures it in the form of journeys to meet other travel writers as well as academics, chiefly British.

He travels around England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to talk to Dervla Murphy, Colin Thubron, Samanth Subramanian, Monisha Rajesh, Kapka Kassabova and William Dalrymple, among others. In between, he ventures to Berlin for an academic conference, and to a 10th-century Byzantine chapel in Greece where the ashes of Bruce Chatwin were buried, with Patrick Leigh Fermor in attendance.

One of the chief concerns about the genre is to do with separating fact from fiction, which has been present at least from the time of Sir John Mandeville in the 14th century. Hannigan writes of hearing “dark stories of fabrication, of invented encounters and counterfeit characters”. Such issues often arise when assessing the work of Chatwin and Leigh Fermor, for instance.

For Rory MacLean, though, making extensive use of fictional devices is part of the process. After the trip, “individuals will be transformed into composite characters in places; perhaps I’ll shift dates; but I will never shift the inner meaning of an individual”.

Though MacLean’s inventions go well beyond the consolidation and compression of creative non-fiction, Hannigan underlines that in all such narratives, it’s an actual trip that’s the starting point. “No matter how unreliable the narrator or heavily fictionalised the narrative, these books had ultimately been made out of movement.”

For Monisha Rajesh, however, “if you’re going to call your book non-fiction you have to make it non-fiction”. This is a journalistic commitment to veracity shared by Samanth Subramanian, who adds that an overlapping function of travel writing today is to reveal intimate, individual details of others: “journalists go and talk to people about their lives and about their problems and about their views on the world”. Dervla Murphy, too, sees herself as “a sort of commentator, and to that extent a journalist, of course”.

Over and above this is another issue, that of travel writing’s entanglement with colonial and orientalist attitudes. As Hannigan observes, although people from all corners of the earth have always made journeys, the most attention has been paid to those from Europe venturing into lands beyond their ken.

With the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, there was a surge in critiques of the genre, such as Mary Louise Pratt’s seminal Imperial Eyes. Critic Debbie Lisle has gone so far as to say that travel writers maintain their relevance in a globalised world “by mimicking their colonial forebears”.

Some readers, too, are coming to resent this. As a member of London’s Globetrotters Club tells Hannigan, what she hopes to find in a travel book is essentially an encounter with another human being, rather than “I’m the privileged European white traveller and I’m encountering a brown person in another country, and this is how we relate to one another”.

For Nicholas Jubber, though, travel writing can be an exercise not in power and privilege, but “an attempt at understanding and empathy”. It can arise from a position of humility, he goes on, from people who think other cultures have has something to teach them.

William Dalrymple is more forthright: “I think it’s just plain wrong, the postcolonial criticism that this is a white man’s genre that is only done by British public schoolboys.” He points to work such as Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land and Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake, for example. Even with British writers, “you do become sensitive to the world you’re living in, unless you’re a block of ice”.

Allied to this is the rebuke that most travel writing is the preserve of men. Sara Wheeler, a notable exception, does feel that women are underrepresented and unappreciated. This “has a deleterious effect on young women trying to think about writing things today”.

With others such as Dervla Murphy, writes Hannigan, a certain set of characteristics accrues around them. “They’re all indomitable, doughty and a little bit crazy. It goes back through Freya Stark to Isabella Bird and Mary Kingsley, all of them; they have that sort of persona.” Fortunately, such attitudes are changing, with Wheeler herself being an example.

Bulgaria-born Kapka Kassabova outlines another perspective: “It seems as if I’m more and more in search of pattern, of metaphor, of a unifying vision…perhaps a fractured vision. More and more in search of symbol rather than movement.”

Such a vision is sparked off by a specific location, which she calls a “human geographical” approach. In the process, she overturns the writing-from-the-centre attitude, with her work being informed by the condition of the émigrée.

What emerges strongly from The Travel Writing Tribe is that the genre is more protean than most. It can take the form of an “insider-outsider” narrative; a closely-observed piece of reportage or a journey of self-discovery; a historical and anthropological account; or “the new nature writing”, with Robert Macfarlane as its figurehead.

In these ways and more, as Indonesian writer Intan Paramaditha recently wrote, “questions of travel should go beyond the rainbow, digging deep into the greasy moments, disjuncture, power relations, and social inequalities”.

There are reasons for hope, then. One has to agree with Jubber when he says: “I think the future’s there for travel writing, it’s just not going to be travel writing as you and I perhaps recognise it.”

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