Thinking about Travel Writing

Last night I attended a reading and discussion put on by the American Club in Mumbai. An American nature writer and poet named Bruce Berger was in town. After reading some wonderful poetry, Mr. Berger spoke with a moderator, poet Ranjit Hoskote, and the small audience about the writing life.

The discussion turned to travel writing, a genre that Berger also writes in. He talked about how great travel writing used to be, especially in the post-war years when magazines like Holiday published long-form stories by such writers as Paul Bowles. Back then, there were places in the world still to discover and explore. Now, with the global media ad cheap airfare bringing the most far-flung locales within reach – virtually if not actually – there is little left to write about.

Berger’s complaint is a common one, but I feel he is missing something. In a world where there may be no new places to discover or explore, travel writing has changed. It is no longer enough to describe an African marketplace or the beaches on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. This has already been done. Now travel writers – the good ones, at least – are seeking out narratives in these places, not just scenes. They are looking for people’s stories. They are writing about relevant things, not just postcards.

And perhaps they are doing it in disguise. No one would immediately call the ‘Letters From …’ articles in Harper’s travel writing, but the stories are long dispatches from abroad, usually with some cultural or political focus. I just finished reading a book called AIDS Sutra in which a number of authors of Indian descent, my friend Jaspreet Singh among them, told the stories of the communities in India most impacted by HIV-AIDS. The authors wrote about sex-workers in Kolkata and Andra Pradesh, AIDS orphans and the transgendered in Mumbai, and drug-addicts in Manipur. This is not a travel book by anyone’s definition, yet each story brings to life both people and their place in the world.

Perhaps we have reached the end of our explorations on this earth, but all that means is that those who write about far-away places will have to find more interesting stories. We cannot write about rivers we’ve discovered or mountains we were the first to climb. We can no longer write about ‘first contact’ with ‘the natives.’ Now we have to sit down and listen to them.

What a fantastic opportunity this is. In a time of falling towers, when people are increasingly afraid of the other, we writers are invited to tell the other’s stories. The end of discovery might turn into a golden age of travel writing. Or whatever you want to call it.