Ways of Writing
Can travel writing be redeemed? An essay based on a reading of Tim Hannigan's Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre.
Dear friends and readers,
This week, I’m sharing here a slightly longer version of an essay that was first published in the Mekong Review’s August 2021 issue. Minh, the editor, had suggested I review the book, and it opened up time for me to explore some of the thoughts that had been collecting in my head on travel writing and what it is or isn’t, should or shouldn’t be.
Tim Hannigan, a British author of several narrative histories on Indonesia, is on a meta quest in Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre. As a bookish teenage surfer in Cornwall, England, in the nineties, he had gravitated to the towering figures of his fellow countrymen similarly “scholarly” and “intrepid”—Eric Newby, Paul Theroux, Nick Danziger—and continued his hero worship of such adventurers into adulthood, largely free of inner conflicts. That is, until he stumbled upon the academic field of travel writing studies, which owes much of its existence to the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism.
As critical theories of post-colonialism have spilt over into popular consciousness, many of travel writing’s long-existing problems have been laid bare: the predominance of white male authors, the favouring of a romanticised past over modern-day realities, the speaking for “subjects” in developing countries who can’t talk back. Critics say they stem from travel writing’s historical origins as a vehicle that gave European colonialism its legs, which continues to shape how we see the world in ways taken for granted. This has given travel writing, and travel itself, a faintly disreputable air, complicit in reinforcing the terrible inequities of the world. Can travel writing survive ethically? Or is it already too tainted to be redeemed?
That’s what Hannigan sets out to discover. To begin, he searches for a workable definition of travel writing. It’s no small feat considering its amorphous forms, capaciously borrowing from memoir, reportage, history, even fiction—“a notoriously raffish open house”, Jonathan Raban has called it. I would put “nature writing” in the same roundhouse too, though that itself seemed also to be a reaction to “travel writing”; this is not the first time the genre has suffered an existential crisis. Taking cues from the genre’s history, Hannigan settles on “predominantly factual, first-person prose accounts” of a journey, and then limits his scope to modern travel writing in English. Drawing on the scholarship of Mary Baine Campbell, he traces its provenance to Sir John Mandeville, who left St. Albans, England, in 1322 for an odyssey around the world that lasted more than three decades.
It later turned out that Mandeville the narrator was not an actual person, and that the published manuscript had been heavily plagiarised and imagined, including “dog-headed men” and “fish-guzzling cyclopes”. Nevertheless, this Mandeville would eventually give rise to a particular British literary tradition: unlike his predecessors, Mandeville travelled not as pilgrim or missionary or trader. He travelled simply for travel’s sake, and wrote about it.
As a lifelong aficionado of travel writing, Hannigan isn’t a dispassionate investigator, nor are the travel writers he interviews. Sometimes the book feels like a justification for, rather than an interrogation of, travel writing—though I say this without disparagement. Being an avid reader and writer for whom a sense of place is often the animating factor, I feel that there is still some value to “travel writing”. Travel Writing Tribe feels like a timely book amid this pandemic, which has exacerbated the inequities between those who can move and those who can’t. It appears to be the first of its kind aimed at the general reader, and does a comprehensive job of collecting the myriad perspectives already percolating on the subject.
In a journey spanning England, Scotland, Ireland, and Greece, Hannigan dives deep into the archives to commune with the spirits of Wilfred Thesiger and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and meets with living British travel writers with at least two books published, of different generations, gender, race, and specialities—Phillip Marsden, Nicholas Jubber, Colin Thubron, Nicholas Danzinger, Dervla Murphy (who passed after this book was published), Rory Maclean, Patrick Barkham, Sara Wheeler, Samanth Subramaniam, William Dalrymple, Monisha Rajesh—and closes with Kapka Kassabova, whom he touts as paving a new way forward. Hannigan also attends academic conferences and picks the brains of Carl Thompson, a professor of literature, and Barnaby Rogerson, who heads Eland Books, an independent London-based publishing house that has specialised in travel writing for over three decades.
They talk about what value there is in writing as outsiders to a place, what techniques could be employed to alleviate ethical concerns about orientalising, and what travel writing of the future might look like. For them, the conclusion is foregone: it’s not travel writing that’s the problem, but the power imbalances—which are not always so crudely defined along the lines of race, as Subramaniam points out—that shape the author-subject relationship, and that’s something that can be tempered.
In a kind of tongue-in-cheek meta commentary, Hannigan signposts his own journey with travel narrative conventions. There is the obligatory quest. The possibility of obscuring the existence of a travel companion (his girlfriend) during one of his house calls. The requisite self-deprecation that he had found could be an authorial strategy “to dodge ethical culpability in all manner of issues”—the limits of one’s authority or the lack of justifiable motivation, perhaps, or some kind of bias. The last trope seems especially endemic in our hyperconnected world, where “subjects” can now talk back, raining hashtagged damnations on a writer’s head.
That’s not to say that one should never write outside one’s own culture. For Rogerson, being “sufficiently an outsider” is an inherent feature of travel writing, which, at its very heart, is all to do with exploring what’s unfamiliar. Patrick Barkham also makes a case for the “clarity and vividness” of first impressions, especially in noting how they change over time. And he goes a step further, arguing that the value lies not just in describing, say, your community to his fellow outsiders, but also in describing it to you—it can be instructive to know how others might see you, whether or not you agree with what they think.
I’m inclined to agree with this, though to be fair, travel writing’s history of playing fast and loose with the facts, committed by some of its most famous stars, has sullied its reputation somewhat in this regard. While the writers Hannigan spoke to were broadly in agreement on many issues, they varied significantly in their views on where the boundaries lie between fact and fiction: from Dervla Murphy never taking notes, to Rory MacLean reimagining the lives of historical characters in intimate detail and liberal use of composite characters, to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s reconstruction of diary entries decades after a trip, to Bruce Chatwin’s outright lie about an interaction with his Australian bush guides to cast himself in a better light. All this leads Hannigan to conclude, convincingly, that “the simplest, least ethically fraught approach for a travel writer was to keep a firm anchor in the actuality. Not in some nebulous ‘truth’ or ‘greater truth’, whatever that meant.”
In this vein, a number of the writers Hannigan meets are also journalists, and lessons could be drawn from them on how to represent a place and its people more accurately. Patrick Barkham reveals that, with his books, he sometimes sends relevant passages to the people he writes about to make sure he has things right, and that he has generally found it to improve his work. But it’s easy to see the danger. If you were writing a biography, would you show as-yet-unpublished passages to the person it concerns? Even as outsiders may miss important nuances about us, we don’t always see ourselves the most clearly. I prefer Samanth Subramaniam’s approach: letting his “subjects” talk back to him within the text itself, so that readers can weigh differing perspectives. Maybe for that reason, Hannigan found that some writers were stepping back from their narrative personas to portray places and their communities more than their own journeys.
As the informational and even the experiential functions of travel writing have fallen away, travel writers have to go further than ever to take readers where they can’t go themselves: not just to pass on histories from books and follow in the footsteps of other writers, which creates an echo chamber stuck in an imagined past, but to open one’s eyes to the modern present and to speak to the man and woman on the street, who may reveal something of a place’s contemporary life. Travel writers have to go beyond what a traveller can readily see and learn for themselves, which could be augmented by a journalistic sensibility. In this way, too, writers can debunk the myth that they’ve come too late to the party and every place worth exploring has already been done. Facing such threats as the pandemic and climate change, the world has changed and continues to change greatly, and so should travel writing.
In the discussion of this overlap between travel writing and journalism, however, there seems to be a missed opportunity in Hannigan’s lack of consideration of the blurred boundaries between travel writing and foreign correspondence, which occupies a field that has similarly come under scrutiny. But there is an important distinction in travel writing that is central to its survival as a separate genre: travel writers, unlike journalists, have the license to bring their own experiences, feelings, and opinions to the story. They have room to be more imaginative—which does not include making things up.
To paraphrase an essay of Thomas Swick’s, travel writers can be interpreters of landscape: two of them can observe the same realities but come to completely different conclusions about a place. Because the truth about a place, as the late Jan Morris once wrote, is nobody’s monopoly. That’s where the magic of travel writing lies, and that’s why it’s so important that travel writers come from a multitude of different backgrounds. Subramaniam hopes that, one day, we’ll have more travellers from the “third world” writing about the “first world”, not just the other way around. And perhaps, Hannigan suggests: if one were to go by Kassabova’s example—she grew up in Bulgaria and now lives in Scotland; she has written four books in English, her fourth language—travel writing of the future might make it more difficult to distinguish between traveller and the clumsily termed “travellee”.
Whether or not the “travel writing” genre survives—these days, we seem to prefer to include it under the larger rubric of “narrative nonfiction”—it will surely persist in some form. Whenever I return from somewhere, I spend several weeks, even months, enveloped in the pages of books about where I’ve been. Like the readers Hannigan writes about, I prefer reading deeply after my trip, not before, so I can see things with fresh eyes and arrive at my own observations on the road, before coming home to test my assumptions against those who have gone before. None of the books can, or should, exist in isolation. As I read them, they are also talking to each other, across years and decades and centuries, adding incrementally to our understanding of our common humanity.
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