For many, the term ‘travel literature’ has skin-crawling connotations. It conjures up images of Elizabeth Gilbert palming fistfuls of olives in Eat Pray Love; of the white, middle-class traveller seeking spiritual rebirth under the Indian sun; of the intrepid colonialist traipsing through the Borneon jungle. In an age in which discussions surrounding the climate crisis, mass migration, and race are absolutely essential, the world of travel writing should be shifting the conversation. So why is it still emphasising the same perspectives and recycling the same tired narratives?
For a long time, if you looked through the travel section of any major bookstore it was nearly impossible to find anything other than Gilbert-esque travelogues, Lonely Planet guides, and examples of what Jini Reddy calls “hero lit”; are stories of white men embarking on perilous adventures against the odds, in which nations serve as mere backdrops. This kind of book (think Ranulph Feinnes) has its roots in the distinctly Victorian legacy of expedition travel, whose key figures believed themselves to be walking in the footsteps of ‘gentleman’ adventurers such as Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook. David Livingstone is a good example of this kind of traveller.
In the Victorian imagination, Dr Livingtone was the very embodiment of masculinity and moral virtue. In the 1857 issue of the Juvenile Missionary Magazine, an article about Livingstone’s overland expeditions in Africa introduces the missionary through the eyes of a young boy who overhears his parents discussing his many exploits. The mother tells her son that “Livingstone went many thousand miles through countries never before trodden by the foot of a white man,” before going on to establish him as a role model of masculinity and Christian morality. According to the mother, Livingstone wanted to “do good to the people,” even though he “knew that he should suffer a great deal by the way, and that perhaps he should die in the attempt”.
While this kind of narrative is less ubiquitous than it once was, it is still very prevalent, which, of course, poses a problem. The purpose of Livingstone’s expeditions were to advance British industry and empire, and because many early accounts of the global south were written at the height of Europe’s colonial project, they are frequently suffused with the same values and prejudices that justified the brutal treatment of indigenous peoples. As Professor Robin Jarvis told The Guardian following his study of 18th and 19th-century travel narratives: “It tends to be in the later Victorian period that you get the hard, nasty racism coming in: dividing the peoples of the world into rigid hierarchies and measuring people’s skulls and so on”. While the travel literature that has populated bookstore shelves since then is perhaps less overtly racist, much of it can be seen to adhere to the same racist paradigms that underpin the works of Joseph Conrad or H. Rider Haggard.
Indeed, if you look at the best-selling travel literature of the 1980s, 1990s, and even 2000s, such as Eric Newby’s On The Shores Of The Mediterannean or Phillip Marsden’s An Ethiopian Romance, you find that they are speckled with the same prejudices and sweeping generalisations that characterised the colonial writings of the 19th century. This is unsettling because books such as these were undoubtedly written by people who believed themselves to be more morally enlightened than their colonial predecessors, which would suggest that – woke as we are – we have a tendency to ignore our embedded prejudices. It was this concern that prompted Granta to publish a selection of new travel writing designed to remind its readers that to travel is “to embrace the experience of being a stranger – to acknowledge that one person’s frontier is another’s home”. But if we can acknowledge the importance of diversity in travel writing, why are new voices so rarely heard? Well, for William Atkin, whose essay On Staying at Home open Granta 157, the answer to that question might be that the post-colonial travel writer is haunted by the idea that there is “nothing left to discover”.
A globalised world is one devoid of the mystery that the traditional travelogue relies upon, meaning that the temptation is to project an imagined past into the present. These projections carry the perspectives of those original colonialists who painted their portraits of colonised nations with such broad and corrosive brushstrokes. With European colonial conquest came the desire to capture the ‘essence’ of a landscape – to assert an imaginative as well as political authority. This desire was, by and large, fulfilled in the travel narratives of the day. But now that the world has been well and truly discovered, the modern travel writer’s task, Atkins notes, is to “pick suspiciously over its bones”.
It’s clear that the travel writing industry needs to continue embracing a plurality of voices, voices like those of Travis Levius, who I spoke to over a crackly zoom line from his grandmother’s home in Atlanta. Since quitting his job as a school teacher to pursue his dream of living in London, he has written for some of the biggest travel publications around – bringing fresh insight to each and every article. When I asked Travis what the benefits of a more inclusive travel writing industry might be, he was quick to note how “travel in itself is a very global experience. So to hear tales from just one monolithic voice does no favours to the industry, and the capabilities of other people being heard”. Referencing his recent trip to Kazakhstan, Travis explained how an individual’s experience of a country – and how that experience is subsequently conveyed – depends on myriad factors, including race. “For better or for worse, people who look different are treated differently around the world,” he began. “Somebody white going to Kazakhstan might have a completely different experience than someone whose Black, but if you’re only hearing that white experience over and over, that’s the only experience that other people will have too”.
As Levius points out, crossing borders is different when you are a person of colour. Taran N Khan explores this very idea in her story The Dam, written in 2018 when she was living in Hamberg writing about Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. “As an Indian woman,” she writes, “The invisibility of Europe’s borders often leave me fretful, because borders rarely work to my advantage”. For the colonial powers, whose control of a nation’s resources depended on in-depth cartography, borders became of the utmost importance. These imagined thresholds became one of the main ways for imperialist nations to divide and subjugate, and many of them continue to do so. As Khan observes, they too are braided with the values and prejudices of Europe’s colonial project. “As an Indian writer, my desire to write about the world frequently collides with the reality of my location,” Khan continues. “These obstacles often appear to practical, even impartial, like visa requirements and currency exchange rates. Behind these are more insidious ideas of power expertise; maps that run from an imagined centre to its perceived margins. Which may be why, in a local newspaper office, and by other writers and journalists that I met, I am asked exactly what I am doing here, writing about Germany”.
In The Dam, Khan demonstrates how behind even the most mundane aspects of travel lies a dark legacy of power that continues to shape the way we live. It is a gloriously interrogative piece of travel writing that views movements from A to B as political as well as geographical ventures. “When we talk of writing on travel,” Khan concludes, “We are often describing borders. And when we read narratives of travel, we are usually moving in one direction.” Writing such as this is proof of why the future of travel literature depends on embracing a plurality of voices, on shifting the focus to describe a world in flux. In doing so, we may begin to see that the world isn’t well and truly discovered after all, that the world is only ever known to those who refuse to see it in a new light.