Is travel writing dead?

Granta Magazine pursued this question with a clutch of writers in Issue 138 on JourneysIn the bookstore last week, I took to a corner and began pouring down the responses. It wasn’t driven by curiosity. Instead, it was to figure out if there is a general perception among the authors (many of whom are noted travel writers) that travel writing is saturated with banality and overdone representations of places which no longer remain far flung in these times.

Travel writing has meant making sense of events for me (as I wrote here earlier). It is to draw and distill an understanding out of the experiences that I have when I leave home. This understanding tends to be about the place as well as the self in the place, as I felt in a post on Paris.  At other points I tried dealing with coloniality and places in post-colonial times, as in Luang Prabang and Tranquebar. It is for these reasons that Granta’s question stood out for me.

Travel pieces have become dry and try hard to sound interesting, often exotic, in my experience. Whereas, unknown and exotic is no longer the position one can afford to write from in these times of cheap air travel and with a flood of medium through which pictures, videos and news from around the world reach us, all the time.

Two views on travel writing are widely held – that its emergence lies in colonial times with the proverbial white man going out into the vast unknown to bring the exotic and ‘other’ back to the readers in the West. The other, that much of the world today has been discovered, seen and hyper-connected for such writing to now find a place among readers interest. What then is the state of travel writing and its future? Pico Iyer maintains his extraordinary equilibrium of views and gets to the future of writing than waste time on critical analysis of the present. The ‘inward’ journey ‘into the realm of silence’ is where a writer should be venturing, he suggests. He makes a case for nuance and personal enquiry. Ending on a philosophical plane which he invariably climbs up from the real, in the course of his writing, he settles the question with this delightful sentence –

‘But that doesn’t mean that travel writing is dead; only that we sometimes are.’

One can see that the old, seasoned hands of travel writing are tempered in their views. Macfarlane reflects that travel writing ceased being a matter of originality. It is about form instead.

The best writers rose to the challenge by seeking not originality of destination, but originality of form.

On the other hand, there are two angry and critical responses to this question from Hoa Nguyen and Rana Dasgupta. And I am with them! They make a compelling case for a shift in the concerns of travel writing as a genre. Nguyen’s piece reminds me of my impressions of modern day Luang Prabang, which align with her sentiment about travelers from the West visiting places in the East –

Do we need more Westerners consuming their way across Vietnam, commenting on local dress, smiles, food and sharing tips on where to get the best deal on bespoke silk skirts?

There is a sense of frustration and anger in Nguyen’s response, and it is compelling. I am again with her when she lands a few punches to that irrelevant and disrespectful narrative of Western gaze, in these questions –

Instead of more consumerism – the buying of experiences, the accumulation og things, of eating the ‘other’ – perhaps writers should name their own environment. What is the shape of your watershed? How is your electricity produced? Where is your water treated?… Homing as a way to place oneself in a constellation of process and being.

It is a compelling argument, which gets to the heart of politics in travel writing which many choose to pretend ignorance too.

Travel writing of the known variety is certainly dead, in my opinion. A writer can no longer be ignorant of his own immediate environment and get to places thousands of miles away to report critically on life, people and societies as they exist in distant places. It only makes for vacuous writing.

Ian Jack’s writing as a foreign correspondent in India has held good example for me to learn from. I have often gone back to his anthology Mofussil Junction for his style and empathetic tone. In response to Granta’s question, I think his thought is laden with wit and insight –

It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironised, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way.

And I completely agree!

It has been an insightful read – these responses to a question as commonplace as state of a genre of writing.

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