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Travel Writing and the shape of the world

Reviewing Paul Fussell’s Abroad for the New York Times Book Review on 31 August, 1980, Jonathan Raban defined the travel book a “notoriously raffish open house where very different genres are likely to end up in the same bed” (14). The rather cheeky metaphor would not probably be universally subscribed to nowadays, since travel literature has in the meantime gained full respectability. Its renaissance started in the late 1970s, and serious criticism on the genre was probably ushered in by Fussell’s book, among the first to take travel books seriously and also among the first to detect the fictionality implicit in the genre. But it took time before a systematic study of the literature of travel could gain a legitimate position within academic research. The 1990s was the decade when female travel writing and colonial discourses became a new focus for criticism, first with Sara Mills’ Discourses of Difference: An Analysis of Women’s Travel Writing and Colonialism (1991), where the travelogues of three women writers of the ‘high colonial’ period in Tibet, India and West Africa were assessed; a year later with Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992), and, even if to a lesser extent, with Bellie Melman’s Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1781-1918 of the same year. All three of these books in different ways and with different tools did develop, according to a gendered viewpoint, Edward Said’s discourse of Orientalism, as discussed in his 1985 seminal work. Said’s idea that the Orient is a form of European invention and that viewing the Orient in a certain way was an instrument for the Western dominion over the East, is also the starting point for Mills, Pratt and Melman discussing the genre that, preeminently, has proved capable of producing images of other countries and cultures for readers back home. Said’s propositions, together with Foucault’s analysis of the function of space and its link with power, amount to the strongest influences in travel writing criticism at the end of the twentieth century.

In the beginning, however, was Peter Hulme, who in 1986 with his Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Carribean 1492-1797, suggested that the period of colonial meetings of Europeans with Native Americans had helped to shape a European identity through the encounter/clash between “civilized” peoples and “barbarians”, in a list that starts with Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the ‘cannibals’ and is followed by a long series of representations that came in its wake (Prospero and Caliban, John Smith and Pocahontas, Robinson Crusoe and Friday, and Inkle and Yariko, as popularized in the early years of the eighteenth-century in the pages of the Spectator). Some ten years later, the first international travel writing conference was organized at the University of Minnesota (1997) by Donald Ross, and in the same year the first issue of Studies in Travel Writing was edited by Tim Youngs, who is very much behind growth in the field, also as co-organizer of the 2005 conference “Mobilis in Mobile” in Hong Kong.

This special issue of Textus devoted to travel writing is a very fruitful approach to a topic and a genre that have continually received fresh impulse from cognate fields of research. After a long and prolific season of studies of the literature of the Grand Tour, the tremendous impact of Postcolonial studies, Cultural Studies and the more recent development of Visual Studies has provided new insights into what used to be regarded as a very marginal theme. The protean quality of travel writing is still the source both of richness and of critical disapproval: no fixed form can be attributed to it but in fact elusiveness is its main formal characteristic. The mobility of its medium, even within a given chronological period, accounts for the variously rich web of narratives that have flourished and continue to be produced all over the world in the name of experiencing through travel.

Since Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs’s editing of the Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing in 2002, and the next volume, Perspectives on Travel Writing (2004), co-edited by Tim Youngs with Glenn Hooper, this issue of Textus is a very wide-ranging treatment of the matter, updating the already composite pictures provided by the British publications. The breadth is implicit not only, as stated above, in the interdisciplinary approach, but also in the inclusiveness of spaces and modes of writing.

One of the issues at stake in this volume of essays, as the Introduction by Elio Di Piazza and Loredana Polezzi makes clear, is ethical, political, representational reliability, that is the age-old problem of truth and fiction, an issue which is reader-related, travelling being recognized as central to the way all of us see and describe the world at large. Travel literature does not necessarily need accuracy the way travel guides do, some elements of fiction being taken for granted. Just as no such thing as a realistic novel exists, so there is no such thing as a straight, “factual” account of anything, narrating always implying some kind of editing, selecting, rearranging and chronological disruption. These, indeed, are likewise the ingredients of fiction as well.

The “shared assumption” of the whole collection is that travel narratives “function as metaphorical connectors to the traveller’s and travellee’s cultural environments” (13) and that “[t]he problematic encounter of divergent cultures in travelogues is not studied from a reflectionist standpoint but […] by way of an understanding of these texts as active promoters of the cultural dialectics” (14).

The first group of essays in the collection sets out from the above assumption which constitutes a blueprint for the reader.

With an eye to mythmaking, fictionality and truth, Susan Bassnett’s essay offers a paradigmatic and fascinating excursion into centuries of travellers and travel liars to Central Asia, a space onto which fantasies have been imposed for more than a thousand years. ‘Caverns measurless to man’ – Central Asia in the Western Imaginary, however, is also a very pungent reflection on how even the twenty-first century is still reading this otherness, in light of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and the threat of the Talibans, perceived as menacing as the Mongol armies in the thirteenth century in Marco Polo’s travels or in the fourteenth-century Travels of Mandeville. Taking as her starting point Coleridge’s use of sixteenth-century Purchas’s Pilgrimage (a collection of travels partly based on Marco Polo’s narrative of his passage across central Asia) for the composition of his “Kubla Khan”, Bassnett identifies the topos of the terrible land of insurmountable mountains and deserts, a huge barrier separating Western and Eastern “civilizations”, marked by extreme weather conditions and peopled by traditionally monstrous, fierce and cruel inhabitants. After centuries of oblivion thanks to the opening of new sea-trade routes to the East, a climactic chronological point is represented by the British expansion in India, parallel to the Russian expansion eastwards in the course of the nineteenth century. For the first time in history the two empires were brought very close to each other and at that point Central Asia once more assumed the label of region of horror and fascination as expressions of the anxieties about the North-Western frontier of India. A great activity of exploring, mapping, describing ensued which was accompanied by an increase in risky travels by enterprising British subjects attracted by the lure of this terrible yet terrific area. On these occasions, the encounter with eastern enemies took the very pertinent form of an experience of atrocities and hardships, superseding mythic monstrosities. Lady Florentia Sale’s A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan 1841-42, and Frederick Burnaby’s A Ride to Khiva of 1874 testify to both aspects of this experience.

In his essay “Of Travel”, Francis Bacon, advocating the practice of keeping journals during travels, famously stated that “It is a strange thing, that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen, but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land-travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it”. The statement is contradicted – for what concerns there being nothing to be seen in sea voyages – by centuries of sea narratives, both in European and in trans-Atlantic literatures. Parallel to the myth of the road in American literature is the myth of the watery road. The fluid nature of this chronotope has saved it from petrification into myth. This is what Cinzia Schiavini discovers in her analysis of two novels by Jonathan Raban, published at the distance of some twenty years from each other, Old Glory (1981) and Passage to Juneau (1999). Waterscapes are the focus of her The Flows and Tides of Memory: Reconfiguring Trans-Atlantic Imagery in the Waterscapes of Jonathan Raban’s ‘Old Glory’ and ‘Passage to Juneau’, aimed at Anglo-American relations in contemporary narratives, but mainly centered around the exploration of the author’s literary and autobiographical past and his relationship with both his biological father and his literary fathers. The waters of the placid Mississipi on the one hand, the acting out of a childhood fantasy, and the waves of the rough Pacific Ocean on the other, are one and the same with the subjectivity of the traveller, acting as they do as bridge and divide, respectively. The contemporary British Huckleberry Finn drives a motor boat in the wake of Mark Twain’s hero, from Minneapolis to Louisiana, observing the people and their customs along the way. In the second book, whose telling subtitle is “A Sea and Its Meanings”, the writer takes the reader on his journey along the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska.

A very peculiar itinerary is that chosen by Iain Sinclair for his 2002 travelogue discussed by Maria Luisa Bignami in a very lively essay titled No Beginning No End for the Uroboros: Iain Sinclair’s ‘London Orbital’. The image in the title immediately points to the central focus of Bignami’s attention: the quality of a text that records movement but no progress, traveling that portrays permanence. A perfect oxymoron, especially since the setting is London, the permanent place, though in fact probably one of the most mobile cities in the world, both in terms of architectural changes and in terms of fluxes of people. The mythical figure of the serpent in the title is meant to describe this absurd trip around London, along M25 highway, allegedly number one in the BBC’s “seven horrors of Britain”, a 200 kilometers, 10-lane ring of smog, heat, and angry motorists that encircles the city. In short, the clearest instance of the drawbacks of urban sprawl. Sinclair makes the walk of the whole circuit over a period of more than a year, taking daily itineraries with a few varying companions, in the meantime mapping the area in a very unusual psychogeography of the city. The essay follows the whimsical itinerary through lanes and minor roads that run along the motorway: the fascination is not – obviously – with the cityscapes, but with the multiple detours that take Sinclair around the history and the shapes of London. The traveller’s gaze keeps pointing backwards in time, trying to recapture, wherever and whenever feasible, the past connected with and embodied in areas and buildings. The walk is through time as well as space, and whenever Sinclair is not able to fill a gap in his encyclopedic knowledge of his country, he is ready to find somebody to fill him in. Mad as this idea might sound, it is madness that constitutes one of the leitmotives identified by Bignami in this unusual travel book: “In various locations around the outer rim of the motorway he comes across health establishments, especially mental hospitals. […] though traveling very few miles in space, the author realises he is traveling quite a way back in time, to the Victorian era, when some of these establishments were founded and others were at the peak of their activity. What we perceive from Sinclair’s narration is the fact that mental illness was ‘rusticated’, sent away from the context of civilized life in the city and removed to the countryside, there to be hidden from sight” (65-66). In the middle of everything, just as at the heart of our present, is the city: thus, as Bignami pertinently points out, “the Victorians, with their dominating idea of progress, looked ahead; we on the contrary find our own values in reflecting upon ourselves” (61). Iain Sinclair’s travelogue is not cross-cultural, is not transnational and yet it crosses time and territory as well. So movement and outdoor activity are the main features that characterize it as travelogue.

Iain Halliday’s essay Shadow Wrestling: ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ (1997) by Geoff Dyer closes the first section with a discussion on another rather anomalous travel book, Dyer’s memoir describing his uncertainties about the writing of a critical study of D.H.Lawrence, his own literary father figure. Dyer travels the world in search of the right place and the right time to set down writing, but his academic work on D.H.Lawrence is never completed, although insights into D.H.Lawrence’s life and work and also into a writer’s anxieties are given: and the result is an amusing record of Dyer’s attempts, mainly meant to convey the fundamental idea that the world is shaped by words.

The second part of the volume follows a more traditional pattern of travelogues, starting with Donatella Abbate Badin’s Self-Fashioning Through Travel Writing: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters from Italy, followed by Daniela Corona’s Imperial Complicity and Gender Ambiguities in the Egyptian Archeological Travelogues of Amelia Edwards, and Elena Spandri’s Beyond Fellow-Feeling? Anglo-Indian Sympathy in the Travelogues of Eliza Fay, Maria Graham, and Fanny Parks. 

One of the major areas in recent travel writing scholarship are studies of the role of gender in shaping the genre and the three essays mentioned above provide different and stimulating analyses of how in different contexts, and from different milieus, women were capable of offering new stimulus to a very crowded market. Montagu’s contribution was in establishing not only the power of epistolarity as an instrument of communication for travel experiences but also the necessity to concentrate on a daily, experiential approach that she was able to adopt having been a resident for many years and at different times in the country she describes (Italy). Abbate Badin’s reading of Montagu’s letters from Italy (published posthumous) underline the writer’s specific interpretation of  a society that was being analyzed and criticized in the same years by Addison’s male gaze and according to classicist stereotypes followed by many other publications in his wake. If Montagu’s letters had become public at the time of their writing (1718, 1739-42, 1746-61) probably the course of eighteenth-century travel literature would have taken a different course. Italy as seen by a woman: this is the big difference, because this is the first time a British female was able to express her own opinion on Italy independent of male opinion. Only the Romantic writers would be able to profit from this publication: scenes of common life, different itineraries from the usual staple grand tourists’, the dominion of the present over the past, the changing present of the country visited and the author’s own changing present. Travelling on her own, Montagu also notices natural things very few observed at the time, and she pioneered a kind of picturesque description of the country that was destined to become staple in later itineraries.

Corona’s essay on Egyptologist Amelia Edwards shows how the literature of travel could speak the language of ideology and how “[t]he ideological ambiguity of [her] Egyptian travelogues [was] rooted in the contrast of patriotic complicity and imperial expansion”(17). An interesting comparison is prompted by the comment on the use Edwards made of the old Grand Tour stereotype of the difference between, say, Italy’s past greatness and its eighteenth-century decay: a similar contrasting cliché is employed for Egypt, its past greatness and the present “colonial” status. Great emphasis is also laid on the scientificity of her archaeological discourse which is embedded in the typical autobiographical style characteristic of so much female writing. Edwards’ role in the exploitation of the Suez crisis and in the setting up of the Egypt Exploration Fund marked a decisive step in the colonization of Egypt’s (past) history. In her travelogues different discourses intersect: “the colonial discourse with its implied racism, the discourse of archaeological Egyptology […] and the discourse of liberal, middle-class feminism, with the rhetorical idea of British women’s moral mission (in their homeland as well as in the colonies) and their commitment to nation-building” (115). Corona’s reading ends up projecting Edwards’ alleged step forward in nineteenth-century women travel writing as in fact a step backwards in the direction of male (especially the male explorer’s) colonial discourses.

Elena Spandri conducts a survey of female travelogues in India in the nineteenth century, analyzing Eliza Fay’s, Maria Graham’s and Fanny Parks’s travel books as the locus of the interaction of the colonised’s and the colonizer’s discourses through a sympathy which stems from eighteenth-century British thinkers like Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and William Jones. Viewing the Indian question from the standpoint of sympathy, according to Spandri, these writers gain access to an intermediate attitude towards India and its inhabitants, midway between sentimental appreciation and imperial stance, which distinguishes them from male points of view. The chronological period chosen for the analysis is a critical point in the history of British relationships with India, covering the first half of the nineteenth century, from Maria Graham’s Journal of a Residence in India (1812), to 1816, with Elizabeth Fay’s Original Letters from India, to 1855, when Fanny Parks’s two volumes Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque, During Four-and-Twenty Years in the East, with Revelations of Life in the Zenana appeared in print. The three texts capture images of India and of British attitudes to India in the momentous passage from colonization to Empire. The uniqueness of these women writers stems from their curious attitude towards the places they visited, very different from the average male attitude of generic indifference. An attitude which unites desire for adventure and the desire to approach the difference in the others but one that also questions the social boundaries of their gender. Being plural, these female gazes enforce each other.

The last group of essays deals mainly with contemporary travel books, whose authors have directly experienced the condition of migration.

The first, by Nadia Santoro (Desiring Subjectivities in Motion: Italian-Canadian Women in-between Travelling and Dwelling), considers the texts of accomplished Italian-Canadian writer Mary Melfi studied through the lenses of Diaspora studies. The term Italian Diaspora usually refers to the large-scale migration of Italians in the period between the unification of Italy in 1861 and the beginning of World War I, but it is also employed with reference to the wave of migration following World War I. Since 1930 and especially after World War II, there have been other periods of emigration under different circumstances and this is where Mary Melfi’s family’s migration to Montreal, Quebec, in 1957, belongs. Coming from a small town south of Rome, Mary was educated in English schools, finally gaining a Masters of Library Science from McGill University in 1977, after her BA in English Literature at Concordia University, Montreal, and has since published poetry, drama and prose books in English. To all her works she brought displacement, ethnicity, class, gender – a writer of Italian origin writing in English in a French-speaking environment – but also an element of irony that contributes to their success. Her first powerful novel, Infertility Rites, was published in 1991, and later translated into French and Italian. A portrait of the various contradictions in being other in Canada, through the character of Nina, a marginalized painter and a compulsive overachiever, as Melfi herself defined it, the text seems to pose serious doubts about the success of the process of assimilation or about its ambiguities. In an interview published by W.Anselmi in 2007 the question “Do immigrants have a choice in being themselves, or are they forever satisfying the voyeuristic exoticism of a sick, but moralizing/controlling majority?” receives the following answer by Melfi: “[…]Yes.[…] fiction is not fact  …[however] immigrants, any minority, are part of a traveling circus.[…] exhibited as freaks […] no one expects them to remain in town”. Noted for her black humour, wry wit and imaginative style, Melfi has been said to be able to entertain readers at the same time as she makes them think.

The next essay by Alessandra Rizzo analyzes Leila Aboulela’s novel about a travel experience as a document of identity searching (Leila Abouylela’s ‘Lyrics Alley‘: Crossing the Sudan, Egypt, and Britain). The figure of the traveller as translator of cultures has emerged as an interesting subject in travel writing criticism, because of the affinity existing between the representations produced by the experience of travel and the practice of translating. This African novel, written in English, is set in the Sudan of the 1950s, that is at the historical moment when the country was gaining independence from Egypt (1956) after a union that had lasted since the early nineteenth century, and Egypt was separating itself from Great Britain (with the Egyptian revolution of 1952). The historical and cultural situation is “translated” into the English language not so much “to erase difference in order to maintain conformity; instead, it implicitly describes an act of transportation of diverse African customs, traditions, and ideologies from one place to another” (166). Following the events connected with the powerful dynasty of Abuzeid, the novel records the consequences of the end of British rule on personal destinies and the diverging reactions of the single characters, who are, all of them, “migrant travellers and translators” (179). The metaphor of “nomadic experience” Michael Cronin uses to define translation, is perfectly fit for this novel where “characters travel across fluctuating territories, translate their language and culture into the space they temporarily occupy and also become mediators  between local languages and cultures” (178-179).

Finally, Carla Locatelli discusses the peculiar traveling experiences of Filipino writers (most of them women) of the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries in her essay The Space of Travel Writing and the Filipino Gaze. Female writers from the Philippine archipelago have privileged literature to the past oral tradition to narrate their experiences and beliefs, so as to interrupt the long-prevailing silence that overshadowed their own history in their own country. As the title of the essay clearly indicates, the focus of the analysis is the idea of space and more specifically literary space as viewed through the writers’ peculiar gaze, a gaze that modifies space while narrating it, since it is necessarily selective and over-conditioned. In this sense “[d]iasporic and ex-pats travelogues are particularly interesting, not only because of the inscription of a double gaze in the objects and places they describe, but also because of the implicit double address of their reporting. They bring together the home native, who might actually have become foreign to the natives, as well as the foreigner […] who is well known but always remained foreign because his/her country never became a home for the immigrant and/or the international nomad” (188-189). The essay poses radical questions to the criticism of the genre of travel literature at large, but first of all it advocates a more specific attention to language, rhetoric, and writing in order to avoid stereotyping. The rationale behind this stance is that, in Filipino literature, as in many post(?)colonial literatures, “English is appropriated through a different eloquence, one that produces a different intimacy of word and silence” (186). Travel writing therefore appears, according to Locatelli’s own phrasing,  as “world conceptualization” (183), but perhaps, first and foremost, it might also be termed  “word conceptualization”.

The great variety of approaches, themes and case studies addressed by this issue of Textus once more points to the fact that for every travel book the undefinedness of its form and the constant variation in the narrative shapes across centuries and within centuries are merely a confirmation of the well known quality of travel literature, as stated at the outset, that of being utterly anarchic.

[In corso di stampa in Il confronto letterario, n. 60, anno 2013]