Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Week Five: Agents of Change

Several years ago, I came across a video podcast in which Rick Steves discussed the ways in which travel is a political act. (I hadn't known that his talk was based on his book Travel as a Political Act.) This particular talk was part of a video podcast lecture series that included lectures on travel skills, a lecture on Italy, and a lecture on Iran.

Until I watched his talk, my exposure to Steves had been limited to an awareness of his travel guidebooks (none of which I believe I have bought) and his show, which airs in my area on a PBS affiliates. I found him to be a good speaker and his talk interesting because he emphasized that the foundation of travel is one in which the traveler interacts, as much as possible, with the people who live in the area that is being traveled to. Steves discusses the ways in which travel shaped his politics and broadened his perspectives. 

A novel concept to be sure, given that some critics and their theories indicate that travel writers are of a predominantly imperial mindset, that travel writing is almost insidiousness in its inability to present the truth, and that travel narratives “cannot be verified, hence the ready and habitual equation of traveller and liar" (Clark 1). Charging all travel writers with imperialism presupposes that all travel writers come from imperial or colonial backgrounds, or that they see the world through an imperial lens; I cannot believe that all travel writing is the result of imperial conquest. This is cynical and, I believe, the result of imperial thinking itself in presuming that others must come from a comparable background and view other people through a similar lens. 

Steves' talk had resonated with me the first time I saw it, and it does so even more now that I have read travel writing theory and applications. An "agent of change" requires being communicative; it requires an ability to simply talk to people, and negates any potential behind imperialism because it exposes the traveler to different politics.

Being an agent of change can simply be the cause and result of being kind, friendly, and open. Being an agent of change does not need to include elaborate actions; the sacrifice and immersion to which Novograt refers does not have to result in moving to an African country or founding an organization; it can be looking for small acts domestically, but it does start with educating oneself to see what the possibilities are. It can start with educating yourself and learning about the history behind where you're visiting, and realizing how nuanced history is. King discusses some of the history behind slavery in Barbados. While she examines some of the imperialism behind the history, this does not imply that her motivations are imperial, yet her blog posts are indicative of some of the ways in which history is chaotic. In this case, Lisle is correct in asserting that "travel writing provides an opportunity to escape the forces of modernity and globalisation and retreat back into a Golden Age of discovery, exploration and Empire" (204); Barbados - and indeed many other countries - have a history that includes being overthrown, the inhabitants raped, killed, dispersed, their lands taken, their language and culture destroyed. 

And it can cause us to simply share our traveling experiences and our own histories. A recent conversation on which I was admittedly only the edges led to a discussion of some of the colonizing of India and Ireland by the British. The person with whom I and another person were speaking did not know some of the extent to which Britain had acted. His position was that Britain had done quite a bit to help modernize India, what with paving roads, etc., but the third person in our party was able to contextualize to what degree the British government had destroyed and impoverished the native people, their lands, their culture. Simple education leads to being introduced to histories of other people and of other places, which expands our thinking, which causes us to rethink our beliefs and convictions, to understand the damage that can be done - it causes us to rethink.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Week Four: Divergence

Stories about the same group of people or the same country diverge in all sorts of interesting ways. Newby includes excerpts from a variety of travelers whose explorations of (in this case) North America include encounters with unknown landscapes, animals, Native Americans, and "the white man" (432-4), and includes more contemporary Anglo-American perspectives, including those in the 19th century that offer advice as to how to live well on the eastern seaboard at the turn of the last century (429-30), and a description of New York City in the 1940s (437-8). What's interesting about these multiple perspectives is the way in which different authors focus on different aspects of the same landscape.

Divergence is central to these literary interpretations; different writers focus on different aspects of the same culture based on their own experiences, although bias and prejudice would color their points of view, too, based on experience. (This is sometimes frustratingly circular; bad experiences lead to bias, which can lead to further bad experiences.) Columbus' Eurocentric views of religious conversion are central to his narrative, and as a means of demonstrating friendship, he provides what are (to his mind) snazzy clothing (383-4).

Similarly, Cartier's sixteenth-century descriptions include a dismissive attitude towards Native American theology, and include descriptions of the apparently hearty disposition of the Hurons (385-7). These stories are not necessarily dissimilar; rather, they include multiple narratives that could be seen as confirming a stereotype. Cartier's narrative especially has almost a tone of an outsider with his descriptions of indifference to cold and "very bad customs" of placing the daughters in the tribe, when they reach a certain age, into a brothel. Of course, these are just two examples, and not necessarily fully representative of what we might consider an ignorant mindset.

If these travel accounts were written today, I would consider them a form of willful misunderstanding, and would I not consider any one example more authoritative than another. I would not ignore these narratives, though, either, because they provide insight into a Eurocentric mindset such that we could analyze how travelers and their writings have changed.

Perhaps they're as important to the growth of travel writing as a genre because they allow us to compare how our attitudes have shifted towards different cultures; I've come to think of early travel writing as foundational. We "listen" to whatever stories are interesting to us and use them as a source of comparison to develop our own opinions about another country. These multiple stories fill in the gaps and offer different perspectives that we might not have otherwise considered.

More recently, stories from journalists who cover war-torn areas add a different dimension of understanding that we miss if we limit ourselves to news sources or more typical investigative journalism. Chilson's "The Border" is a good example of one journalist whose article examines movable borders, both geographical and cultural, while incorporating multiple viewpoints from those on different sides of the war in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali. In this case, authority is tied to Chilson's credibility; multiple attitudes are prevalent throughout the piece, leading to a deeper understanding of the complexities of the trying to negotiate multiple types of boundaries.

Authority can be misleading, though: Credibility can be suspect, and can be culturally defined in terms of both geography and history. Definitions of what women are capable of, for example, has changed, but remains culturally inconsistent. Schribner provides examples of the ways in which women traveling was considered dangerous, with the potential of wreaking domestic havoc, a danger to social structure, order, and system (27). Clearly, women were seen as delicate creatures who needed the protection of men. In western cultures, and in many eastern cultures, this thinking is now suspect and not credible (dare I say incredible). When I hear stories that indicate that women are to be protected, under a man's care, that women should not have educations or be allowed to drive, I am exasperated. I belittle this line of thinking in the same way I might have been belittled a century ago.

The story that we truly listen to is the one that resonates, or is one that comes from a person with whom we feel connected. I wish I had been a bit braver in talking to the native Icelanders in whose midst I spent nearly three weeks last summer. The waiter who taught me how to pronounce "Eyjafjallajökull" was very funny and very friendly; Sigurbjörg, the woman who led my husband and me on an elf tour in Hafnarfjördur was also very friendly and obliged me by answering me (probably ridiculous) questions about Icelandic schools and culture. Certainly Sigurbjörg was authoritative on Icelandic elf culture, and it was a wonderful insight into Icelandic fairy culture. (Ireland has a similarly strong fairy and fairytale culture, and since I grew up being told Irish fairytales, going on this elf tour appealed to me.)

a troll rock from the Hidden World Walk tour; if you look
carefully you can see a big forehead  and a nose; the face points to the left
Something about first-hand insider accounts lend credence and authority. In this particular case, I was able to relate Icelandic culture to my own heritage, and allowed me to briefly connect to another culture.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Week Four: An Eyjafjallajökull Story

Do you remember Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano that erupted in 2010 and caused all sorts of aviation problems? Before my husband and I went to Iceland last summer, a friend asked if we would find someone who could pronounce it for us. I finally talked to a friendly waiter at Lækjarbrekka who allowed me to interview him so we could get the correct pronunciation. (On a side note, we specifically went to this restaurant because we wanted to try Hákarl (fermented shark), an Icelandic delicacy.)

My friend had wanted to hear how one actually pronounces Eyjafjallajökull if for no other reason than because it was such an exotic and difficult sounding word; when the volcano erupted, I remember reading a lot of news stories online but had no earthly idea how to even go about pronouncing it. (I have never found pronunciation guides helpful.)

I had gone to Iceland before I knew I would be taking a class on the rhetorics of travel writing; I hadn't yet even begun classes for the graduate program in which I had been accepted (I would start that fall). This particular interview does perhaps not entirely fulfill the requirements of talking to at least one person (preferably several) whose stories converge and relate to the concept of multiple stories. Yet I remember the waiter knowing exactly what I was talking about when I referred to the eruption and was almost blasé about its consequences. Of course, this was also two years after the fact, and whether it would have affected him anyway was another story; in hindsight, there are all sorts of questions I wish I had asked.

What attracted me at least in part to Iceland was the linguistic impenetrability, which in and of itself was almost enough of a reason to want to go there. I knew almost nothing about Iceland before we went, aside from the what turned out to be correct assumptions about the plethora of Vikings.

I want to do some more thinking about the authority and narrative divergence of those who present multiple stories; this will be the subject of my next blog post in a few days, as well as a reaction to some of the week's readings.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Week Three: Colonialism, Part 2

Caveat: To me, "imperialism" and "colonialism" are dirty words, reminiscent of a violent loss of identity and language, bigotry, cultural repudiation, misappropriation, starvation, and theft. "Colonialism" implies the belief that a land and a people can, and indeed must, be conquered and civilized. It reflects a sense of entitlement and overinflated ego at its absolute worst. Given the history of British imperialism, it is only during my visits to Ireland does colonialism affect my travel writing or penetrate my mind.

Ireland is 
the country I've visited most often. This isn't because I find Ireland fascinating or that I've found a lost sense of "home," although there's a lot to appreciate about Ireland: It's difficult to go anywhere without encountering something historically interesting - which I love - and cows or sheep cause traffic jams often enough - which is equal parts funny and frustrating. My mother's parents were from Ireland, and many of my mother's relatives - mostly cousins at this point, and two aunts-by-marriage - still live scattered throughout, so because of its small size, going for a visit is easy. I've yet to actually rent a car and drive in Ireland myself, but visiting my parents and cousins in Ireland means I've been chauffeured all over the country (only very occasionally by tractor). It's such a small country that one can get from Dublin to Arigna, where my parents live for part of the year, two-thirds of the way across the country, in just over two hours. Galway, the major city on the west coast of Ireland, is also just over two hours' drive from Dublin. It can take just over seven hours to drive from Londonderry, on the northern tip of Northern Ireland, to the southern tip of Ireland.

Spurr says that the "problem of the colonizer is in some sense the problem of the writer: in the face of what may appear as a vast cultural and geographical blankness, colonization is a form of self-inscription onto the lives of a people who are conceived as an extension of the landscape" (7). The presumably British cartographers have subsumed Ireland's landscape as a means of overtaking their culture, as you can see in the map of Ireland in 1653, when Cromwell led the conquest of Ireland by the forces of English Parliament during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Ireland according to the Act of Settlement
 (26th September 1653) and Subsequent Orders
Throughout Irish history, Irish Catholics were forbidden to speak their language, practice their religion, play their music, or own property, including the land on which they lived. Ireland was perceived as an extension of England, in some cases used to pay off debts, and in other cases as a means of reward for service. In the above map, you can see that the Irish were pushed off to the western part of the country, as has been done throughout American history, with the Native Americans, who were pushed farther and farther west and into smaller and smaller spaces.

Traces of the British are still visible in the Republic. During one visit to Ireland, my mother and I drove down to Clonmacnoise, a mid-sixth Christian monastery founded by St. Ciarán, which had been sacked by British troops in the mid-1500s, and was finally returned to the Irish Government in 1955. Since the 18th Century, Church of Ireland services have been held on site in Temple Connor, and although everything else was open for exploration, that particular building was continually padlocked.

Meanwhile, as Iyengar would say, I get to choose my narrative;  as an American (albeit one who also has Irish citizenship, and from a distance of more than 3,000 miles and two generations), I get a choice in how I wish to present how British colonialism has affected me. I believe, because I am American, that I have a choice, and as an American that choice is mine to make - not my parents', not a teacher's. (Iyengar's studies demonstrate that choice is a matter of cultural perspective, since in America, as she argues, the primary locus of choice is the individual. Had I been - for example - of Asian descent, I might not be making this choice for myself.)

Perhaps I merely corroborate Bassnett's assertion that I, like, many other women travel writers, have different motivations for writing, in that I a "physical engage with the everyday as an end in itself, not as a means to a different end" (230). Land ownership for me is not particularly important, for example, but it had been very important to my mother, who understood that in many cases, land ownership was equivalent to power. Similarly, education had been understood to be extremely important as a means of protection against loss; you might lose your land, your house, and your horse, but education inoculates. My motivation for writing can be echoed in Bassnett, who says that travel permits the redefinition of self (234), and my "gaze" is more likely to reflect the "demise of a world-view that separated us from them" (240).

One of the reasons I write about my travels is not only to remember what's happened, to have a written (and hyperlinked) record of where I've been, but to see connections between myself and others, even when seeing the differences in personality, culture, and history.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Week Three: Colonialism, Part 1

There's a problem with the thinking that all travel writers automatically view the world with an imperialist mindset, the assumption being that all others must think, act, and travel like us, and therefore write from this viewpoint as well. (Ironically, this speaks to an imperialist mindset.) 

Colonialism does not influence all writing about different communities and cultures; for many people, there is simply not the assumption or belief that the "other" is inferior. There is a basic awareness of difference, the result of culture, religion, geography, nature, etc., but this does not lead to the implication that those from different cultures are inferior. Difference is neither automatically better nor worse; it's like questioning whether one type of food is better than another; it's a matter of preference and mood.

That said, in many ways it is easy to see difference before we see similarity, but the assumption that "difference" is seen negatively is also a presumption. Different is merely difference; it is not necessarily better or worse by dint of being different. "Better off" is a relative term, regardless of cultural status. If one person has more money than another person, the first person may be seen as better off; however, if this first person is miserable - doing a job she hates; desperately lonely or in an appalling marriage - this is not necessarily better off than the person who finds meaning in her work and/or is in a happy relationship. 

Somehow, for many people, Europe has apparently come to be seen as the cultural center; at least, it seems that's what many of the previous readings suggest.  I'm bothered by the assumption of Eurocentrism and imperialism in our collective traveling mentality. I don't see how it could be problematic in moving away from this type of writing, which I find interesting but limiting in its appeal. 

Since this is not my own default method of thinking, how to move away from writing that separates power and inferiority from the writing seems clear: If this is one's mindset, perhaps consider traveling to places that aren't in Europe. Consider that there are non-European empires (the early Chinese empire comes to mind) that had just as far-reaching effects throughout history. I could see how this could be a challenge; I'm finding it difficult (and slightly offensive, given that "imperial" has such negative connotations) to respond to assumptions that my travel writing and mindset is one of an imperialist. 

What about travel writing in or from other parts of the world, travel writing that focuses on Asian countries, or South America, Australia, or Antarctica? There are many reasons to travel, including that it might lead us to think differently, but regardless of where travel takes us - regardless of continent - that the traveler is exposed to something new is, for me, one of the primary reasons to travel.