Travel Writing Defined: The Person versus The Place?

A review of Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, edited by Gillian Kendall. University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

Something to Declare, Good Lesbian Travel Writing I was at travel writing conference not long ago, and the cocktail conversation eventually (and inevitably) turned to the question of what made a good nonfiction narrative.  Opinions abounded, but one guy – who happened to be an editor at a major newspaper’s travel section – said that travel narratives fail when they’re overly focused on the writer. What he wanted, he said, was to walk away from a story knowing more about the destination than the person who wrote it.

I, along with the assembled, sagely nodded.  But I’ve been turning it over in my head ever since, and I’d like to amend my nod: while travel writers, as a class, can be an amazingly dull bunch, there are plenty of writers who are at least as interesting as a destination, sometimes more so. Travel writing exists somewhere in the magnetic tension between two poles: that of place and that of the person who is traveling. There’s no one point of perfect balance; it shifts on a case-by-case basis.

In the pantheon of great travel writing, there are pieces where the writer as a character is hard to detect, concealed partially or entirely in the cloak of objectivity. Travel writing itself began in this way, as an essential means of transmitting basic information about terra incognita – for instance, see Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus. Or Mark Twain. I’ve recently been re-reading Twain’s travel writing, and while it certainly holds up, he obviously expects his story to be an introduction to the destination he’s visiting, spending many perfect sentences describing the exact shade of the white that is the houses in Bermuda, for instance.

Twain was publishing in the 1860s and 70s, and in the following decades, more of the world became known, and traveled, and written about, and the task of a travel writer changed. By the early 20th century, readers needed less basic information — guidebooks had emerged to handle that task anyway –and more in the way of something deeper, more personal. (By then, as now, even if a reader hadn’t been to Bermuda, they’d become familiar enough with the concept of a subtropical island to disqualify description as depth.)

So, in 1905, when Edith Wharton published her travel book, Italian Backgrounds, she summarized the situation perfectly: “Italy is a foreground and a background. The foreground is the property of the guidebook…the background that of the dawdler, the dreamer, the serious student of Italy,” which is to say, herself. But not only herself, Wharton implies: the foreground and the background work together. The place illuminates the person, the personal story illuminates the place.*

The personal story takes precedence in many contemporary anthologies of travel writing, whether they’re focus on the work of writer, or a particular type of writer. Among these, there’s a new offering Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, edited by Perceptive Travel contributor Gillian Kendall.

The punning title implies that the stories in this book could be slap-your-palm-on-the-customs-counter strident — in contrast, a book of gay male travel writing from the same publisher is entitled Wonderlands – but the very fine stories gathered here are not argumentative. Something to Declare is an engaging collection of deeply felt, unapologetically personal pieces. These tales are searches for soul, for answers and for meaning in the most intimate of relationships that happen to take place in a setting that is elsewhere.

There are a number of stories here that achieve that magical balancing act between person and place, where the place illuminates the personal and vice versa. Among these, “Hot Springs, Montana”, by Lori Soderlind, which deftly paints a picture of a not-often visited part of the United States, while exploring the ideas we have about the sort of people that live there, and what she hoped to gain by hanging out with them. “Oaxaca”, by Suzanne Parker, tells the story of a fraught return trip with her current lover to the city she’d visited with a previous one; “Wind”,  by Tzivia Gover, which is a close observation of a closeted Japanese lesbian couple.

As well, there are  pieces in the anthology that tilt so far towards the personal that I’m not sure they can be properly characterized as travel writing. For instance, “What Happens After This Day”, by Hannah Tennant-Moore, is the engrossing story of an intense love affair, woven in with a finely drawn narrative of a time spent at a Buddhist monastery in India — but the point of the story isn’t really the monastery, it’s the love affair. In “You Can Take Me to the Shrine, But You Can’t Make Me Pray”, there’s vivid description of Mexico City and its Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but the story is really about a woman struggling with the idea of compromise and making a lifetime commitment to a partner and perhaps to motherhood. In “Shopping”, by Laura Sanders, the setting is dressing rooms in Italy, but the subject is –well, clothes shopping — and a woman’s sexuality. These are all excellent personal essays – and yes, they involve travel — but the place itself is a mere backdrop for the personal drama, not an essential part of the story. These stories could easily be set in other places without doing any damage to the overall meaning.

In fairness, we’re prepared for the fact that definitions will be fuzzy. In her introduction, Kendall questions every word in the book’s subtitle except “good”, She writes that she had a clear idea of the definition of “lesbian”, before she started on the project, but as she sorted through submissions, certainty wavered. What makes a lesbian a lesbian? She received stories with no reference to sexuality or orientation, submissions from a transgendered woman who was born male, from a lesbian in a heterosexual relationship. “As editor, did I need to be…policing the definition of “women” as well as “lesbian”? She settled the issue by skirting it: “I decided that my responsibility was not to create exclusive definitions, but just find stories with heart.”

Who could blame her for that? The result is that many of the writers in this collection do not make their sexual orientation a particular issue in one way or another; it’s a simple fact about their lives that informs their outlook and their stories. As well, while the stories in the collection do not shy away from sex, but neither is sex inserted gratuitously. And that’s all for the better, I think.

Kendall also questions the genre of writing that she’s curating: “What [is] “travel writing” anyway? Must it be about an exotic destination, a foreign culture, or could these stories be about a return to home after a long time away?” Again, she punts: “[I] quit trying to determine how far one had to go to “travel”, and settled instead on choosing the stories that let me know the narrator’s heart.” This explains why there are many fine stories in Something to Declare where place is less integral than it ought to be in a book of travel writing.

There’s one other essential criteria for this anthology that’s left fuzzy, and it’s the one that troubles me the most: the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. In the introduction, we learn that there’s one work of pure fiction in the book — I assume it’s the piece labeled “story”. But there are two other pieces in the anthology where we’re privy to the central character’s thoughts, and the central character’s name is different than the writer’s, and so it’s unclear what the writer’s intent is towards the truth – could it be a deft piece of reportage? A partial fiction? Or is this the work of a transgendered writer, a memoir in the persona of her former gender? This speculation is a disorienting, and ultimately a distraction from an anthology that otherwise offers so much to admire.

*My source on the history of travel writing is the essential Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing.

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