The Self in Travel Writing and the discourse of travel

What do you think about the discourse of travel? Is it a question of privilege? Or has the whole act of travel become mundane?

I’m happy to say that I’ve now completed a course at Linnaeus University, called The Self In Travel Writing. Linnaeus has campuses in two small cities in southern Sweden: Växjö and Kalmar. But I’ve been studying from a distance. Oh, and as a mature-age student. More on that shortly.

The course discussed travel writing from the second half of the 20th century until today. It covered the main trends in research on the genre. We analysed travel writing from contextual, stylistic and formal perspectives. But we focused on the construction of a textual Self. All in all, it was a stimulating and interesting course.

I intended this post to be a kind of aide memoire for the course. I thought I could update it every now and then. You know, add notes on the books I was reading and the essays I was writing. But of course, other things tend to happen, and to get in the way. As it turned out, I struggled to finish the third and final essay before the deadline passed last week.

But that’s done and dusted now, and I’ve passed, so there’s no need for me to worry about deadlines any longer.

This post is a reflection on my experience of studying from a distance. It’s also a chance to document the literature I read and discussed in the course. And to try and reach some kind of conclusion about the nature of travel.

The Self in Travel Writing is a course provided by Linnaeus University, which is based in two cities in southern Sweden: Växjö and Kalmar. This image shows Kalmar Slott (castle) from the water.
Kalmar Slott, Sweden. Image by Alexandru Baboş Albabos via Wikimedia Commons.

On returning to the academic study of literature

You could say I’ve been to universities that never shut down. From Sydney, to Melbourne, to Swinburne University of Technology. Doesn’t scan, I know, but whatever. The point is, despite my academic credentials, it’s been a long time since I studied literature.

So, going back to uni as a full-blown mature-age student was nerve-racking, to say the least.

Sure, I’ve read lots of books (although the onset of parenthood has lessened that impulse). And I enjoy discussing writing as much as the next ageing hipster. But applying literary theory to a specific genre (in this case, travel writing)? Coming up with interesting and relevant ways to analyse content and style? This turned out to be more of a challenge than I first expected.

To put it into context, the last time I had to write an essay on a work of literature was during my Honours year in 1993. That’s 27 years ago now.

I understand the world of literary criticism and theory may have moved on since the early 1990s. But, I mean, has it? Analysing literature still involves understanding theory and applying it to a work, right? It remains one of the great unacknowledged skills acquired through a generalist education.

That’s not to say that I myself am particularly good at applying literary theory to anything. Far from it. But at the very least, this wasn’t my first rodeo. Although the value of my own prior rodeo experience was, in hindsight, doubtful. Especially when it came to the lariat.

On returning to the non-academic subject of travelling

I was 17 years old when I started university. I didn’t have a passport. Despite living in several country towns in New South Wales in my childhood, I hadn’t seen much of the world. A trip to Tasmania by plane was the closest I had come to jet-setting. Brisbane was the first big city I ever visited. It was a simpler time. A desperate, ignorant time in my life.

Unlike ‘English’, ‘History’ or ‘Economics’, travel is not a subject you can study at university. This much is obvious. Instead, travel is a bit like life: you learn by doing it, and give thanks for the opportunities you receive.

My first overseas trip was to Thailand and Laos in 1999, at the peak of my morose late-twenties. Since then I’ve travelled a bit more in East Asia, including two stints living in Seoul. I’ve visited a few of the big cities in North America, and even spent a week in Uganda for work.

I’ve lived in Europe now for over a decade. So, most of my travelling experience comes from this continent, of which I have now ‘seen’ a fair chunk. Plus I’ve now been to every state in Australia but who cares about that.

Travel has, for a long time, been a part of the way in which I conceptualize myself, or at least my poetic self. My trip to Thailand and Laos led to my first poetry chapbook, The Happy Farang. Later trips led to further collections influenced by travel. See for example Between Empires, Abendland and Morgenland.

So, why did I enrol in The Self and Travel Writing? Why study travel writing at all? Well, it seemed a natural enough opportunity to pursue the ideas sketched out in my own writing. I am critical of the effects of Western tourism on the developing world. I have explored the ironic, self aware tourist as subject. And I can’t help but view the phenomenon of ‘travel’ as imperialistic.

But the course ended up having precious little to do with my own preoccupations. In fact, I came away from the course with a much more considered view of travel writing, and travel as a discourse. This has left me with some questions for myself as a traveller in the future.

The Self in Travel Writing forced me to reconsider the purpose and effects of my own travel. This is an image from a fjörd near Bergen in Norway, taken in 2019.
Mostraumen fjörd near Bergen in Norway. Image by the author, taken in April 2019.

Three lessons from The Self in Travel Writing

But first, here are some some quick lessons I gleaned from the course. Think of it as advice from one recent mature-age student to, well, myself. And anyone else who happens to have got this far into what is already a long post. Yes, I’m aware of that. And working on it.

Lesson 1: Read the (right) syllabus

As an undergraduate I despised people who read the books for every course. I sneered when they turned up in the first week firing on all literary cylinders. To me, that approach was more suited to high school, where you had no choice. This was university, which was all about freeeeedom, am I right?

I alone would choose the books that I would read, and the manner in which I would read them. Mkai?

Two and a half decades later, that youthful arrogance sure gets old fast. When I signed up for The Self In Travel Writing, I had no job and no other extracurricular activities. But I also had (and still have) three small children, so my time was (and remains) precious. If I was going to study travel literature, I was bloody well going to study it good.

In a fever of activity, I jumped through the necessary administrative hoops. I obtained a university email address: crucial! I registered in Ladok and Moodle (more on that shortly). Then I signed up for the course, downloaded the syllabus and started reading the first book I could get my hands on.

By the time the course started in September last year, I’d read everything. Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yawwws! Mkai?

But there was one problem. I’d downloaded the previous year’s syllabus. Which contained a bunch of books I didn’t have to read.

In other words, I’d plowed through Richard Wright’s Black Power (1954), Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978), NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (2014) and Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps (1936) for no reason at all.

Actually, to be honest, I couldn’t finish Journey Without Maps. But that’s irrelevant: I hadn’t needed to start reading it in the first place.

You could argue that reading these texts could do no harm. After all, I’d also read some other books that were on the syllabus. But there was another small problem. We would only be discussing those books in the second part of the course.

So, I spent the first half of the course trying to catch up on the readings I had not already done. And the second half trying to remember the contents of books I had read, like, six months beforehand.

Always read the syllabus, and make sure it’s the right one. The benefits of doing so will more than outweigh the feelgood factor provided by forging ahead and reading everything without thinking. Like some loser with no friends and nothing else to do.

Oh, wait.

Lesson 2: Accept that online courses are not as good as live tutorials, and then move on

Look, I know that some of us would like to live in a kind of Dead Poet’s Society meta world. Where tutorials are intimate and never-ending. Where we’re free to hold lessons outside, in caves, or wherever we like.

But this is 21st-century Sweden. I’m a mature-age student and father of three with no time for flim-flam, so online courses are my only real option.

Having said that, online educational software lacks something in the interaction department. The simple fact is that online interaction is still not as immersive as we’d like to think it is. This suggests that Fredric Jameson was right—that cyberspace is a load of old cobblers. And will remain so for the foreseeable future. But I digress.

And yet. Imagine, even for a millisecond, that I entered the Moodle for The Self In Travel Writing. That I thereby jacked in to some kind of edumacational matrix. And that the thoughts of my fellow students appeared as a 3D strand of DNA I could experience on my own eyeballs.

Would that be too much to ask? Or am I doing a disservice to the makers of a half-arsed piece of software like Moodle? Not to mention the not-entirely-impossible and totally-okay-with-me coupling of DNA and eyeballs?

Well, there comes a point when you have to admit something to yourself. Interacting in Moodle still trumps admiring the brilliance of your own ideas. You know, the ones you communicate to yourself, alone, late at night.

There were only six participants in our course. But that only meant a response took a while to arrive. Sometimes I didn’t get any responses to my posts at all.

In the end, the posts I wrote during the course, and my replies to replies to others’ posts, ended up helping me a lot. For example, when it came to writing the three essays I needed to complete to pass the course.

Which I guess was the whole point.

Make use of the tools available to generate your ideas in writing. Get over yourself. You’re no more special than a bunch of strangers typing away in silence at various other places in the world. You can’t see or hear them. Which makes it impossible to make judgements about anyone in the first place.

Lesson 3: Read the theory first, and the rest as late as you can

The last time I engaged with literary theory in an academic setting was in the early 1990s. Sure, Pierre Bourdieu’s work might have formed a cornerstone of my PhD thesis. But I came away from that one not sure whether I’d written something relevant or a steaming pile of jitches.

So let’s cut to the chase and say I’ve never been good at theory.

To some extent, this is a product of my own high school education. My teachers taught me the value of analysing texts using an array of literary devices. I later learnt that this was a version of the Leavisite approach to textual analysis.

We read and discussed Shakespeare’s plays line by line. I memorized sections of Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock’. I recorded myself reading Emily Dickinson’s poems. And then fell asleep each night with her words blaring out of my Walkman.

I didn’t have time to ponder the death of the author. Or the question of whether Othello forms a discourse. But, again, I digress.

I realized something, one minute into The Self In Travel Writing. I would have been much better off diving into some good old theory before attacking the syllabus. Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’ may well be a difficult text. But it’s kind of fundamental, isn’t it?

On another level, Masters-level courses assume knowledge of Foucault, Said and Kristeva. To give three not-so-random examples. I’d forgotten about them all. So the supplementary materials were thus rather impenetrable to me.

I should have worked that out a little earlier. And then delayed the act of reading each book until the week before we discussed it in Moodle. Simples.

The Self in Travel Writing syllabus included E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. This image shows a still from David Lean's 1984 film adaptation of the book.
A still from David Lean’s 1984 film adaptation of A Passage to India. Via the Internet Archive.

Eight quick takeaways from The Self in Travel Writing

Well, this has been a lot of words, even for me. I came away from The Self in Travel Writing with a more considered view of travel as a discourse. Here are some quick takeaways. Followed by a slow-baked conclusion that may still need some more time in the oven.

  1. E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) is a work within a work. It’s partly concerned with the discourse of women’s travel. In fact, Forster is merciless when it comes to Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested. But it’s also about the real ‘friendship’ between two men, Aziz and Fielding. The fact that the book is silent on their relationship both surprised and shamed me. But David Lean’s 1984 film is more explicit, and well worth watching.
  2. I now understand why I failed to finish Ernest Hemingway’s turgid Green Hills of Africa (1935). It’s because Hemingway equals He-Man and the wildlife of Africa represent Skeletor. Whether Hemingway’s wife, Pauline Marie Pfeiffer, is She-Ra (Princess of Power) is moot. 
  3. I read Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy (1977) with a sense of relief. I’d endured the stifled colonial atmosphere of A Passage to India. I’d rolled my eyes at the He-Man narrator of Green Hills of Africa. Sissy’s account of her travels as a Ghanaian in Europe was  a real palate-cleanser. Plus, Our Sister Killjoy is a very short book. This is important. 
  4. Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (2009) generated a lot of discussion on Moodle. It struck me as a strange book to include in a course about the self and travel writing. The grand sweep of the narrative is closer to a David Mitchell novel in style. I had a lot of problems with Shamsie’s texts, none of which I’m ready to articulate here.  
  5. Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother (2007) came in for some criticism in the course. Some students saw it as too self-absorbed but I found the book quite moving. Like Richard Wright in Black Power, Hartmann ‘passes’ for a Ghanaian but is aware of her difference. Her treatment of the idea of the ‘stranger’ is poignant, contradictory and human.
  6. Caryl Phillips’ The Atlantic Sound (2000) was my favourite book on the syllabus. Phillips describes the travel experience with an unflinching honesty that I found refreshing. But it’s also travel writing at its most cynical. It’s a fine line to tread to skewer human failings without mercy. At the same time, the book’s subversion of traditional narrative forms is fascinating. 
  7. Noo Saro Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012) was an easy read. But this does not make it simple. The tone is light and self-deprecating. The style is more like a guide book for millennials than an academic treatise on colonialism. While Saro-Wiwa discusses serious issues, she never becomes too self-absorbed. Which is a considerable achievement. After all, the Nigerian regime murdered her father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, in 1995.
  8. By the time we got around to discussing Tom Chesshyre’s A Tourist in the Arab Spring (2013) it had been a year since I read it. But I still felt Chesshyre was protesting a little too much by constructing himself as a tourist. To paraphrase the character of Boromir in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one does not simply walk into Tunisia. Especially when you work for The Times—an organ of British soft power worldwide. But it did seem fitting to end with another example of British (neo)colonial literature. 

Conclusion: Re-evaluating the Self in Travel Writing

Speaking of neo-colonialism. Have I been guilty of travelling in the manner of a privileged Western jerk? This question bothers me a lot more than it should, given that I no longer go anywhere. But in the context of travel in a post-carbon age, it’s worth remembering that travel is a privilege.

I have obtained social and economic advantages via my freedom of movement. I’ve left behind the place and country of my birth, and started a new life on the other side of the world. Millions of people try to do the same thing each year. Most of them never make it.

The so-called European refugee crisis that began in 2015 was a small part of a global phenomenon. All over the world, people are on the move, whether by force or by personal choice. The majority of their stories never make it into travel literature. Their journeys are rarely even considered ‘travel’.

All this points to a possible conclusion. That travel forms a discourse (in the sense that Foucault might use the word). Travel writing, and discussions on travel writing, offer evidence of this discourse’s power.

In its simplest form, this power relates to who gets to travel. It also affects who gets to call a specific type of movement ‘travel’ in the first place. And who gets to be a traveller, as opposed to a tourist. Or a migrant, a refugee, an illegal, an alien.

This doesn’t feel like a conclusion at all. More like the beginning of another post, the post I may have been trying to write when I started drafting this one.

I’m not sure where this line of thought will lead me, but I need to leave it here for now, in the hope that I will return. As ever, comments are more than welcome.

What do you think about the discourse of travel? Is it a question of privilege? Or has the whole act of travel become mundane? What is the distance from which you experience the world? What would your version of The Self in Travel Writing look like?

Are you a traveller, or a tourist, in your own life? 

4 Comments

Oh hai, Davey. Thank heavens for the trusty ol’ RSS reader (that I don’t check nearly often enough) for alerting me to this post! I am interested to read your travel writing! It’s more memoir (or, I suppose I should say ‘autofiction’) than travel, but I enjoyed Olivia Laing’s Crudo a lot last year and it’s piqued my interest in autobiography. I especially recommend the audiobook, read by Laing. Anyway, more to be said, but perhaps travel to a nearby pub would be the best mode of conversation. Come to London!

O hai, Carlie! I am very glad to hear that you still use RSS (it seems hardly anyone does these days!). I am not sure the world is ready for my travel writing just yet, but am intrigued by Crudo, and by autofiction generally. I can also recommend Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (which I mentioned in another recent post), whose title reminds me a little of How to Make an American Quilt but which is much better. Would love to come to London again soon, here’s hoping our planets align!

WOW I just opened my RSS reader as well after running away from the tweety thing. Absorbing, David, and lovely to read. Yay for blogs, those marvellous old fashioned noughties things. I will talk more another time, this is breakfast blogging, a nasty habit left over from reading msm. Yuk, even my comment feels like Twitter, it’s been a while out of the comments saddle too. It is great to hear your voice over the bytes.

Dear GMT, lovely to hear from you, too! I understand your desire to run away from Twitter. I have recently attempted to get back into it but found myself scrolling through posts with a growing sense of outrage and a decreasing sense of agency. Which is, I guess, why I’ve been writing a few more long-form blog posts instead. Yay for blogs, indeed! Looking forward to future discussions/comments/asides … D

O hai, you were saying?

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