Devi Lockwood asked me to write a guest post for her blog, One Bike One Year. Her request was accompanied by a specific topic she wanted me to write about: the lack of diversity on the literary travel writing bookshelf. I wasn't sure I could write it, but I made an attempt. I decided to focus on the historical Western narrative and show that alongside that tradition were other storytellers--just as there are now. There's a short reading list at the end.
Here's an excerpt and a link follows:
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. (to read the rest of the piece, please visit the link here.)