- The Last Man I Was Human To, poem by Saaro Umar
Is Travel Writing Dead? Karan Mahajan
And then it hit me: America, because it shares borders with so few countries, because it is so isolated, has an apocalyptic relationship with the world. It only hears about other nations, such as Syria, when the worst possible thing has happened to them. Missing is the constant intercourse that exists, say, between India and Nepal and its neighbors, or the somber knowledge that the Croats have of the Serbs and Slovenes and Bosnians, or the Bosnians have of their swarms of Turkish tourists.
This one revelation – as obvious as it may seem now – was worth more than all the forced, self-serious, world-historical, proud, second-hand mourning I undertook in Croatia and Bosnia. It concerned home; it worked its way into my marrow.
The estrangement that travel engenders is far more profound than the images consumed on a trip. I would prefer to see American writers who have spent significant time abroad magnifying and expounding on problems at home. Too often, a kind of travel writing – especially the novel set abroad in an exotic locale – feels like a way of allegorizing and escaping problems at home. Travel literature should go local and micro, but with international heft.
The second thing about modern travel writing: I am tired of the nation state. I grew up in India and moved to the US when I was seventeen; for the last fifteen years I have ping-ponged haplessly, crazily, self-destructively, between countries, unable to a choose one place over the other, always missing or mourning one when I should be enjoying where I was. In my mind, India and the US are two incommensurate universes – places where not only the air, water and food differ, but I, by association, change as well. I see them not as part of a continuum of humanity but as levels in a video game I must leap between – quantum states, almost.
Travel writing often feels dated to me because it stresses these differences and orients itself the way tourists do, around the nation state. Why not give people like myself a new, comforting idea of space – the way it has been blurred and rearranged by travel? Why not take us someplace new in the mind – someplace between countries rather than inside them?
Whenever utterances don’t seem or feel unambiguously classist or racist or sexist, they can still remain in what sociologist Simon Weaver has called a zone of ‘liquid prejudice’: a kind of gaze that combines racism and anti-racism in a way that means no single reading can win out as dominant, leaving discrimination simmering beneath the surface of the text. Adopting Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity to the ways in which we speak to each other and haggle over social capital, Weaver suggests that our texts today offer so many different interpretations, generated by ambiguous cultural signs, to the point that we are encouraged to lean even harder on our “entrenched socio-discursive positioning.“ As things become blurrier, old prejudices harden and suggest fundamentalist reactions, “alongside those of political and social issues that are not necessarily” prejudiced. That is, we can see what we want to see, and ignore what’s right in front of us…
Racism or sexism might sit within a text, but it’s not exclusively racist or sexist, not the only thing there. In other words, for the most part, this digital, liquid generation of audiences no longer possesses your bad uncle’s bigotry; discourses are buried, available and accessible, but just beneath the surface of the text, and always slipping out of reach, a stowaway in the hold of the joke.
- My Feminism by Maxine Beneba Clarke