The country that I have travelled most thoroughly is India. I have seen its lively countryside and strange rituals. I fell in love with both its colour and darkness. I saw its urban spaces and gritty glamour. I can describe the disorientating streets of Mumbai, heaving with sari-clad women, motorbikes and chattering street food vendors, or the holy site of Varanasi, a flurry of vivid orange and sinister smoke. Yes, India and I are well acquainted — and yet, in reality, I do not know it all, for I have never even stepped foot on its distant shores.
Allow me to explain: I travel widely and frequently through literature. The dense and over-saturated genre of travel writing now offers everyone the option of encountering just about any destination, all from the comfort of his or her home. I regard myself as a champion armchair explorer. My thirst to travel is great and desperate, and although I am unable to consume the world in person, I am sated for the time being through the accounts of the travellers who have already been fortunate enough to do so.
It was only recently, however, that I began to consider the ethical weight of my favourite genre. This realisation came during a trip to Scotland, where I was constantly questioned about my pale skin, or why my mother tongue was English and not “African”. How could I, a native of South Africa, be so very Western, they wondered? I, in response, mulled over how the Scots could be so ill informed about the realities of my country.
One convincing explanation is that it is due to art forms such as travel literature that ignorance about the world is allowed to persist. We travel first through books, images and films, and these initial journeys, narrated to us most often by white, Western men, formulate our expectations about a given country. These anticipations ultimately determine one’s relationship with a place when or if one eventually visits it. Places are neither good nor bad, a destination simply is. We, on the other hand, are charged with a multitude of expectations handed to us not by locals, but by outsiders who, despite their best intentions, insert out-dated fictions where realities are assumed to be.
This becomes most problematic when considering the writings of Western travel writers on destinations regarded as exotic, such as countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Contemporary writers illustrate that they have done little to shake off the colonial clichés passed down to them through the early writings of explorers before them. When these recycled, antiquated myths are wrapped up in that factually imbedded label of “travel writing”, fiction becomes gospel, and the subjugation of so-called “Third World” countries persists. Hence, people assume that all South Africans speak a language other than English, and look a specific way, even when the smallest amount of investigative journalism will reveal the opposite to be true.
This is the ethical conundrum surrounding travel writing. How can one condone the continued production of texts that unflinchingly allow out-dated, colonial misconceptions to thrive? I reluctantly have to acknowledge that perhaps the wisest thing to do would be to boycott the entire genre, but this would be to lose a rich and exciting body of work that, I feel, showcases exciting and valuable generic and narrative literary experimentation.
One solution is perhaps not to change the genre, but rather society’s approach to it. Readers must be encouraged to be far more critical and suspicious of all that they read. If I had realised sooner that all travel writing is essentially a form of fiction, I perhaps would not have allowed so many misconceptions about the world to be understood as reality. A second suggestion is if one is going to read travel literature, one should do so with volume and variety. One cannot simply read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and subsequently assume familiarity with all of America. Read widely and critically, and not just those texts written by Westerners! Lastly, when one does eventually travel to the destination that one has read about, one should actively attempt to erase all expectations about the place, and instead simply allow the observations and experiences to take place in a non-judgmental frame of mind.
If individuals could learn how to master these three approaches to the genre, travel writing may become the most socially influential body of work in existence today. It could teach its readers how to critically consider the world, and free themselves of deep-seated prejudices. Travel writing could even instigate a cognitive shift in our approach to previously conceived “Third World” spaces. This genre is rich and exciting and experimental, but it is not factually informative or reliable. Long live the travel writer, but death to the existing travel writing reader. Let her become more flexible, accommodating, and forgiving, and we will have perhaps begun to move in the right direction.