Different approaches to travel writing
Lately, I’ve been thinking about travel writing. What atavism! To most minds, the rubric conjures tatty moleskine notebooks and the spoils of far-flung voyages, flouncy linen shirts and Lawrence of Arabia desert pics. Of course, its animating impulse is the journey, and the more studded it is with potholes, peopled by wearers of eccentric native dress and perfumed with mystery, the better. Isabelle Eberhardt, Ryszard Kapuscinski and V.S. Naipaul are a few of the genre’s most illustrious practitioners.
Here’s Naipaul on his vocation, in Finding the Centre (1984): ‘To learn how to move among strangers for the short time one could afford to be among them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for adventure or revelation; to allow oneself to be carried along, up to a point, by accidents […] This gave a gambler’s excitement to every arrival.’
Oh, the gambler’s excitement! Naipaul travelled a huge amount – all over Africa, to America, Britain and India, etc. Inevitably, I read him – The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro (1984), India: A Wounded Civilization (1976) – before I set out to write about a place. I know I’m not alone in this. Naipaul primes the eyes and ears, he captures the world in a detail; the shit-stained portrait of a maharaja, reflective monsoon puddles, suicided flies in a cup of tea.
But I’d like to evoke an entirely other sort of travel writing. Like its namesake, the writing I’m thinking of is often built around a pilgrimage or quest. While it might involve actual travel, it really doesn’t have to. The writing isn’t as overdetermined, gonzo, male; it’s more existential – a posture, let’s say, rather than a physical peregrination from A to Exotic. It’s what happens when you don’t seek out the snake’s sinuous path, the hieroglyphics on the wall, the end of empire. What if, instead, you paid attention to the small stuff – the taste and smell of a place, a moment, a circumstance? These, too, can bring with them ‘adventure or revelation’. What if colour, rather than being the pleasing window dressing along the way, is the destination? The late John Berger did just this, treating each subject he set out to write about like a fresh discovery, telling us a story about how it came to be, but also how he, as a critic, came to know and be taken – gripped, vexed, whatever – by it. (See his essays on the Fayum funerary portraits of Egypt or the painted caves of Chauvet.) T.J. Clark, for his part, devoted an entire book, The Sight of Death (2006), to the task of staring at two paintings by Nicolas Poussin, morning after morning, for a period of six months.
Clark teaches us that travel can happen at home, whatever ‘home’ might mean. (In his case, it was the Getty Museum, where he was a fellow.) There’s a piece I love, published in Transition magazine in 2004, in which the writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts wanders the length of Lenox Avenue in Harlem, which is to say the very street she lives on, being broke, looking around, communing with neighbourhood ghosts. When you haven’t flown 3,000 kilometers to find the Bigfoot, see a biennial, or interview the Maximum Leader, and instead write about what’s close at hand, you’re more likely to stumble over the unexpected, the lovely, the quietly surprising. Besides, ‘exotic’ can be found at home, too. Diane Arbus showed us that.
I wonder, if ‘home’ can mean so many things, and if we’re as mixed up and itinerant as they say we are, can our ‘travel writing’ mirror these qualities? Edward Said channelled this ethos when he wrote of how being a permanent exile had seeped into every last bit of his being. Here’s the great man in his essay ‘Reflections on Exile’ (2000), quoting the critic George Steiner: ‘It seems proper that those who create art in a civilization of quasi-barbarism, which has made so many homeless, should themselves be poets unhoused and wanderers across language. Eccentric, aloof, nostalgic, deliberately untimely.’
We do live in quasi-barbaric times. Barbaric tout court. Upheavals are all around us. The kind that translate to thousands of people losing their lives each year in the deep blue sea known as the Mediterranean, escaping war and famine. Could we nurture writing that embraces such spiritual zigzag? What sort of arts and letters will a generation of Syrians living in impersonal German tower blocks, negotiating their ungainly new tongue, produce? I, for one, would like to read their version of ‘a day in the life’. Can we aspire to a writing that thrives in these interstices, dons linguistic drag, poaches from here and there? I’m not suggesting formlessness or bricolage in the name of ‘experimental writing’ (groan); I’m reaching for something else. Let’s call these uncommon travelogues. Uncommon eyes. An altogether unhinged idea of place. That’s what the best writing – and art – can do. The gambler’s excitement is everywhere.
Main image: Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and Emanuel at Blacknuss Books on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, 2014. Courtesy: Sonia Louise Davis
First published in Issue 189