Books, Personal

Travel writing, the good and bad

finkelsteingirl: What are the problematic and/or positive aspects of travel-writing?

OMG, I was just reading a free magazine that exemplified the most terrible aspects of travel writing. Sample sentence:

… [i]n the far north of the Scandinavian peninsula, exists a people known as the Saami, or Lappish people (the people of Lapland, just do not call them by that name, as it is a major insult), who might be described as similar to the native north American population, or what we used to know in pre-PC times, as ‘red Indians’, or even the Inuit people (‘Eskimos’), from even further north.

Note that this article, which casually notes that “Lappish” is a “major insult”, is entitled Enduring Lappish Welcome. Cephas and I did not burn it, but only because our fireplace doesn’t work. (It works as a book storage unit, but not qua fireplace.)

I think the problem with this article — well, there were a lot of problems with this article, but one of the problems, and a problem that afflicts a lot of travel writing, is that since it’s usually about going from Point A to Point B, the writer tends to assume that their readers are going to be from Point A, and share the writer’s assumptions about Point B. In today’s world this is no longer true. Especially nowadays (though this was true before as well), you need to be conscious about who you mean when you say “we”.

And it’s more common for the more privileged to be generating travel writing about the less privileged, not because the less privileged do not travel, but because they are probably too busy doing the shittest jobs at Point A to write interesting tell-alls for the benefit of their countrypeople back at Point B. And when you get more privileged people talking about disprivileged people, that’s always a recipe for condescension, misunderstanding, flat-out inaccuracy, and other divers horrors.

But I do like good travel writing, and I think one thing that you need for good travel writing is a keen awareness of where you are from and what that means — how that influences your perspective. Ignorant expat blogs are usually annoying because they take their own culture as the norm and complain about how local cultures diverge from that without recognising that their norm is culturally constructed.

But I think there is something very valuable in reading about someone’s personal experience of a place you know or are going to, and that includes TripAdvisor comments as well as books on the Waterstone’s Travel shelf. Not least because TripAdvisor comments are frequently hilarious!

(Incidentally, I like reading accounts by locals as much as accounts by newcomers and tourists — in fact I probably prefer the former — but I can see that you get something different from the latter if you are a newcomer/tourist too.)

My favourite kind of travel writing tells you as much about the traveller as the places they describe.

Travel writing I have liked:

Chiang Yee’s Silent Traveller books, especially for the pictures and poetry. I think I’ve only read London and Edinburgh. Maybe Oxford also?
– Kapka Kassabova’s Street Without A Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria. I find the memoir parts of this more interesting than the Lonely Planet-style travel writing parts, which I guess is consistent of me!

Travel writing I really need to get back to and finish: An Ottoman Traveller, a selection of excerpts from Evliya Celebi‘s travelogue. (Another good tactic with travel writing is to read dead people, because if they are racist or otherwise annoying in their depiction of a place or people, you can just be like, oh well, they’re dead! Not that that fixes it, of course, but such attitudes would annoy me more in a person living today.)


3 thoughts on “Travel writing, the good and bad

  1. Love what you’ve said about travel writing, and your suggestions at the end of the post made me remember what I was complaining to someone about some years back – that so many travelogues in the bookstore always seemed to be going from (white) West –> East. That being said, when I’m less lazy and my attention span can tolerate it, there are are good many travelogues by Japanese people (in Japanese) about going to everywhere else, so I guess that would be one place to start. If I can get my eyeballs used to moving vertically on the page rather than horizontally.

    • Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the posts!

      Re Japanese travelogues, there’s actually a book of essays/misc writings by Natsume Soseki about his time in London that’s been translated into English — I remember enjoying it. And I don’t know if you’ve read Mimi Mashud’s travelogues in comic form but those are fun too!

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