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Nicholas D. Kristof, Columnist, The New York Times. Photo: World Economic Forum

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Travel stories, as any writer who paused to think about it might tell you, are anything but benign. They help readers imagine places they can’t go themselves just as much as they serve as the writers’ own struggles to understand the places and the people they meet. No, they’re not as important as, say, regulating the world’s trade in nuclear material, but abuse of writing about distant places and people is at least important enough to work up a minor froth about.

And so, taking a few pages from the playbook of the oft-accused essentialiser-in-chief — Nicholas Kristof, not Jason Russell (though those fields lie rich and unplowed) — it’s time to hang some of the most egregious offences of ignorance up for a bit of a dry.

Stop being a bridge character.
    “Often the best way to draw readers in is to use an American or European as a vehicle to introduce the subject and build a connection.”

Kristof — as far as the internet will tell me — gave this writing device a name, but he is far from the only person employing the device in writing (or video *cough*). The essential belief here is that people back home won’t care about your stories unless they have a protagonist who looks and speaks like them, through whose experiences the stories of others’ lives — and indeed whole countries — can be told.

Writing like that is the intellectual equivalent of going to Kathmandu and judging it on the quality of its Starbucks.

Why should local people only be of value once they have been interpreted through the eyes and experiences of a westerner? Something that results in them only having value to the story insofar as they have value to the character.

Travel, as much as any writing pursuit that is based in experience and learning, is about coming to understand others on their terms. Understanding the world you are traversing as it might make sense to those in it. Not selecting as of importance only the bits that you recognise as familiar. Writing like that is the intellectual equivalent of going to Kathmandu and judging it on the quality of its Starbucks.

Bridge characters, so the argument from supporters of the concept goes, are necessary to hold the interest of readers who don’t care to read about people who aren’t like themselves. Which is often a polite shorthand for “I don’t want to read about nonwhite, nonwesterners.” There are other, more provocative words to describe that kind of reading attitude.

Moreover, catering to the lowest, myopic denominator is just lazy writing that reinforces the idea that only ‘people like me’ matter, only ‘people like me’ get to be protagonists. Everyone else is relegated to being the props for my story. Nameless, inscrutable locals.

If you want to write more empathetically, more genuinely open and honest, then the first step is to stop being the only three dimensional character in your stories. Gripping stuff can and has been written that’s entirely about other, non-western protagonists.

Burn those bridge characters and make a commitment to writing about places on their own terms. Unless, of course, you are happy spending a career composing one long hagiography.

Context and history, it turns out, matter.

If we are going to unpack essentialising practices, it’s important to understand that there are basically two kinds of writing about place: that which understands its history and questions of how it came to be as it is, and that which… ooh… rice wine!

But I digress.

The most stubborn problems in the world nearly always have long and tangled histories and causes, an alarming number of which likely implicate you as a privileged traveler, and the comparatively wealthier circumstances you came from.

From poverty to homophobia, the abuse of women, or even simply the fact that some locals treat you like a gullible wallet on legs, many of the urgent causes that the interloper (that’s you) identifies in the new place have causes deeply rooted in history. And, strangely enough, part of it is often yours.

Countries didn’t develop as they did by accident. It wasn’t destiny that made Mexico unsafe, Thailand a home for a cheap, depraved sex industry, and the US prosperous. Or the Congo a raging mess and Belgium… well… Belgium.

History, and frequently the same history that bequeathed you the opportunity for your backpacking / Contiki / voluntourism / sex tour, was responsible in various ways for the things you might pick up and write about as being most egregious about your home away from home. Even where there aren’t long histories of oppression or evil deeds though, cities, countries, and even individual families made specific choices over time that they could have made otherwise, but didn’t.

Which is all a very long-winded way of pointing out that when you next pick up on poverty, dirt, ladyboys, or other cultural “weirdness” that you feel needs to be singled out for screeds of firepower from your literary cannon, pause long enough to understand how the thing came to be as it is.

Many of these things are fascinating and/or stuff that is worth calling out, describing, and drawing attention to (either that, or you are just being hellishly grumpy), but unless you can understand and pass on something of the larger structure that makes those things possible, you are the journalistic equivalent of that hero that throws starfish back into the ocean; content to pick at one strange thing without devoting a word to uncovering the world that makes it, and so many more, possible.

Yes, the beggar in India was irritating / tear-inducing / photographically amazing. The world got that. But why are they there in the first place? And, for that matter, who are they, Mr. Bridge character?

Kristof, as arguably the most famous white westerner writing about non-rich world destinations, is the remarkably resilient lightning rod for the prodigious ire of those who think accounts of foreign people and places could be done better.

But the truth is that while he at least works to be honestly reflective — if not always repentant — about his approach to writing, hordes of other folks who get to write about foreign lands do so with not the slightest moment’s introspection on how they do so. Understanding context sounds like too much work, and I am, like, totally more interesting than a Thai ladyboy.

Honestly, I very much doubt that.

*The travel writing course from MatadorU gives you access to freelance leads for paid travel writing, travel jobs, and press trips, as well as connections to travel editors at Matador and beyond.

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About The Author

Richard Stupart

Richard lives and works in South Africa, exploring as often as possible the strange and unknown places that his continent is so rich in. What stories of far flung places and mischief he is able to trap and bring home are mounted on his blog. Where the Road Goes.

  • Scott Hartman

    I “Like” seeing your name on a byline… I’ll always stop, listen to what you have to say. Nicely done, and said, Richard.

  • Scott Hartman

    I “Like” seeing your name on a byline… I’ll always stop, listen to what you have to say. Nicely done, and said, Richard.

  • Rob Chursinoff

    Another great, informative read Richard.

  • Kate Sedgwick

    Kick ass, Richard.

  • Marco Benigno

    There is no Starbucks in Kathmandu. There isn’t even a McDonald’s. But there is the trifecta that is Pizza Hut/KFC/Baskin Robbins.

    • Sebastien Beirnaert

      Please no MacDonald’s in KTM …

  • Christina Newberry Writing and Editing

    I now it’s not exactly the point of the article, but since your point is that you have to look at things in their own context, not just the context imposed on them by a wealthy, white, westerner, I’d question your assertions that Mexico is unsafe and the U.S. is prosperous.

  • Karen Braschayko

    Nick Kristof is not a travel writer. Nick Kristof is a journalist and humanitarian activist. Judging his writing style based on travel writing, or in any way placing his work in the same lens or genre, is inaccurate and disgustingly irresponsible. With his words, Kristof has brought awareness to so many causes that were previously ignored or dismissed. He has tackled some of the most difficult, damaging, dangerous humanitarian topics in the world. He has risked his life and fought governments, and he has faced down some truly ugly situations. He also works for one of the top newspapers in the world, one that is particularly reflective about writing. I am sure he and his peers have talked about these very subjects, and I would hear out his reasons for writing the way he does. But I would not – NOT – criticize Kristof’s work based on some fairly superficial aspects. How is this piece valid at all? So you dislike his style and methods? You have some complaints about how he gets his message across? I might too if I bothered to nitpick the text rather than glean the important message, but I make it a point not to pettily criticize people who are doing a lot more good in the world than I am. What about the integrity of his work itself, does that not have far greater value? Stupart, you made one of the rookiest mistakes possible — you left out the context of your piece. And more egregiously, as a human, you criticized someone of far superior credibility — without support or merit.

    • Sarah O’Neill

      I am so with you on this.

    • Kate Sedgwick

      He brings “awareness” insomuch as bleeding for someone of your own “tribe” is bringing awareness. Somehow, I don’t think you get the point of this article at all. Someone hurt your pride by telling the truth. Maybe you’ll get it one day, though. It’s not too late to try.

    • Kate Sedgwick

      He brings “awareness” insomuch as bleeding for someone of your own “tribe” is bringing awareness. Somehow, I don’t think you get the point of this article at all. Someone hurt your pride by telling the truth. Maybe you’ll get it one day, though. It’s not too late to try.

    • Karen Braschayko

      Kate, you know Kristof has won two Pulitzers, right? And a lot of experienced, dedicated people in his own fields have tremendous respect for his work? So his peers strongly disagree with you. That’s the truth, and your disagreement is not “the truth,” it is your opinion. I absolutely get what Stupart was trying to say, and I am outraged that Stupart unfairly attacked his writing style. Taking someone’s work out of context, such as comparing it to travel writing when it is humanitarian journalism, is unfair. My outrage is intellectual as a writer, that one of my peers dares attack a far finer writer without decent points or supporting evidence, and as a human, that someone who does not fathom the decades of outstanding work a journalist has risked his life to do has the hubris to write something this ill informed. If you are going to criticize something that far above yourself, you need to do it with integrity and do it very well. Did Stupart even read his Wikipedia page? Or any of his books? I doubt it. If Kristof occasionally — and having read his work I know this is actually occasionally — uses a bridge character to get us to listen to a painful story about genital cutting, so be it. Again, Matador — leaving up an essay this poorly done and this inaccurate reflects on your editorial judgment. This is incredibly irresponsible work. And Stupart, criticizing someone you assert leaves out context while YOU leave out the context entirely is just amazingly rookie.

  • Aabbeeyy Drane

    This whole article is an over-reaction from a very unoffensive quote. Kristof suggests using an American or European as merely a bridge character, not as a main character which in that case I would understand your argument.

    “Bridge characters, so the argument from supporters of the concept goes, are necessary to hold the interest of readers who don’t care to read about people who aren’t like themselves.”

    Using bridge characters is a basic literary technique used to create a reference point for the audience.
    Kudos to Karen Braschayko!

    • Karen Braschayko

      Great point. And as someone who has actually read a lot of Kristof’s work (unlike Stupart, apparently), I know that he very frequently tells the story of non-Westerners, and he does it respectfully and well.

  • Sarah O’Neill

    I legitimately read this piece and laugh. First of all, before you believe what the ‘internet’ tells you about Kristof, you might want to consider, first, WHY he is writing from the perspective of a Westerner. It’s not simply for the sake of romanticized travel literature, unlike yourself. He is writing on behalf of many of the world’s under represented population. Those who are enslaved in child marriages, human trafficking, sex slave trade, genocide, the list goes on. You act as though you have any pedestal on which to sit and proclaim Kristof doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but *cough* that is in fact you. Please do your research before you write a piece like this. Kristof is not a travel writer- he’s a humanitarian and a damn good one at that. Shame on Matador for allowing this piece to be floating around the Internet. It’s one thing to stir a good discussion full of differing opinions. It’s another when it’s just wrong.

    • Sarah O’Neill

      <3 Nicholas Kristof forever

    • Karen Braschayko

      I absolutely agree with you as well, Sarah. It’s very wrong. When Kristof writes about rape in India, he’s writing about what these people are going through and how do we help them or help them help themselves. The point is increase awareness and to improve lives. He doesn’t have time in a newspaper column to delve into the history of rape in India, and that is not his focus. When he has the space, such as in book form, I think he does a particularly exemplary job of presenting the history and the context of the issue and addressing many sides of it. He travels as part of his work, yes. But that is vastly different than being a travel writer.

    • Sarah O’Neill

      I totally agree, again, with you Karen. Nicholas Kristof is one of the most amazing human beings on the planet. Whether he’s in the States or traveling to a developing country, I feel like he’s always doing it for the betterment of those in less fortunate positions. I would like for this writer to watch his PBS documentary and THEN write an article about him. ….I will defend him until I die. :)

    • Karen Braschayko

      Right on! I’ll be right next to you doing that. :)

  • Carlo Alcos

    I found this video answer from Kristof where he talks about, and defends, his use of bridge character:

    In the arena that Kristof works in, perhaps this method is a necessary “evil”…it becomes a question of, do the ends justify the means? If a journalist can get the general public to pay attention to and come to care about, for example, issues in Africa, does it matter how he/she does it? (To be clear, I’m not answering yes or no to this).

    In the arena of “travel writing/travel journalism” is there a different standard? Perhaps so, because the audience is more specific than for a news outlet (people who are already interested in travel and foreign culture vs. the general news-consuming public). Richard is applying this bridge character technique to travel writing specifically (which the title states) which makes his assertions very valid. It may seem like an attack on Kristof, but I don’t think that’s what his intention is. It’s to, as Kate pointed out, bring awareness to how we write about (and photograph, and film) these issues.

    • Karen Braschayko

      Stupart called Kristof ignorant in the second paragraph, and Matador also shared this piece on the Facebook page with that phrase. That is an attack, and who is Stupart to make it? How much hubris does it take to call two-time Pulitizer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof generally ignorant about his own field of work? You may disagree with somewhere he has profiled, or you might think he’s wrong about an issue. But to call him ignorant is just nonsensical.

      Had Stupart placed context in the beginning of his piece and explained that Kristof is not a travel writer and that his travels, his text, and his endgame are vastly different than travel writing, you might have a valid point. But he didn’t. He never says, ‘Kristof is not a travel writer, but this is what we can glean from his work…’ That is why I say he attacked out of context. Because he did. He also never acknowledged that he’s criticizing someone far above his ken or offered any compelling evidence or even detailed analysis that Kristoff does it wrong. He just said he does it wrong and he’s ignorant.

      And you would defend someone with the intellectual immaturity Kate demonstrated with her comment — to say that her opinion is truth? That’s college 101 — your opinion is never “the truth.” It is your perspective.

      My vote on whether Kristof’s sometimes-questioned means justify the end? HELL YES. Has any of your travel writing inspired an entire movement to help women and other oppressed individuals help themselves? Has any of your travel writing brought global awareness to sensitive, horrific topics most people would like to ignore? Taking just one aspect — sex trafficking — who else has brought so much in-depth awareness to that topic? I’ve learned a great deal from his work. I know many people who have learned a great deal from his work. People are helped by his work. So YES. (And why would you term using a bridge character as “evil”? Why would you put those words near each other, when we’re discussing rape and oppression?)

      And to be clear — we have not been discussing the ethics of what Kristof is actually doing, traveling and learning and communicating about human welfare issues, and yes, he’s a white male Westerner doing that. We’ve been talking about a writing device. He’s not writing to sell destinations or to create fame for himself or to make pretty text or publish pretty pictures or look global and informed. He’s writing to talk about sex slavery and rape and genocide. So to say, ‘I don’t like this device he is using,’ without saying, ‘but he does do a lot of great work’ — that’s why I call this piece petty.

      So if you want to talk about how we do travel writing and how to do it better, do that. Do not call an esteemed writer ignorant and wimpily attack his methods for doing good in the world unless you have better evidence.

    • Carlo Alcos

      You’re interpreting this the way you want to see it. Richard is creating dialogue and provoking media producers to think more critically about how they portray culture / place. I don’t see him calling him ignorant. He’s calling the use of the practice ignorant…there’s a difference…if you want to extend that to mean that Kristof is an ignorant person, that’s your call. Also, I didn’t defend Kate. But again, if you want to interpret what I said as defending her, that’s your call too.

    • Karen Braschayko

      Here is the line from when Matador shared this piece on Facebook: “Richard Stupart hangs some of New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof’s most egregious offences of ignorance up for dry.” If you want to get technical, in paragraph two he’s calling Kristof’s writing device/style ignorant. Kristof, again, with two Pulitzers and the praise of his peers — he’s calling that man’s work ignorant. When Stupart writes nowhere near that level and clearly does not understand the importance and the practice of what Kristof does. Kristof, per your video, is even highly reflective about what he does and how he does it. I listen to people above me, not tear them down with words like ignorance, unless I have a really good reason. A minor writing device (not an accusation like staging photos, making up characters, something huge, that would be much different) is not a good reason.

      Because if only we could all write like Kristof, to employ the judgment and use words as he does and make people care. “Words can build great castles or create empty dungeons,” Emerson said, and Kristof has built a great castle, and a solid one, by many accounts.

      You have not addressed this: Why is it okay to take a device from writing that has a very different purpose, and without context (again, yes, harping on that) degrade that writing in an essay about another type of writing? Different motivation, different purpose, different auditor, different questions, different debate, different answers. All the basics of writing — different. No acknowledgement of this difference. Why is that okay?

      And do you get the sense that Stupart understands the work of Kristof or has studied it much? I don’t. Irresponsible to critique something you don’t understand.

      Stupart is creating dialogue, but he’s doing it unethically. Obviously in my view. But I am a writer. I went to grad school for it, and I do it regularly. I know how you create an essay and your responsibility to your readers. I hope he uses this opportunity to learn. I think he had a decent point to make, had he done it fairly. He didn’t. Destroys his ethos, his pathos and his logos.

      Defend was a poor word choice on my part — I meant that you used the sort-of point written by someone who used immature framing. And she wrote it in a way that I’d call it condescending, a low blow. Destroying her ethos, pathos and logos.

  • Chris Tharp

    Bullshit. Write from whatever perspective you wish, just as long as you TELL THE TRUTH.

    • Steve K. Feldman

      This piece was shit . Hard to tell even what his opinion on kristof is. And kristof isnt even a “travel writer”. He’s a columnist. And he absolutely gives a compelling 3-dimensional measure of humanity to the third-world people he writes about.

    • Johnny Ioannidis

      The author of that blog is a douchebag. Every possible writing angle has been flogged to death at this point. But insight can come from anybody as long as they’re honest about what they’re writing about.

    • Karl Johnson

      I’d appreciate it if you wrote from a woman’s perspective more often Chris. You might consider trying to write from another minority’s viewpoint as well. You know, to provide balance. Blessed be!

    • Karen Braschayko

      I’m done flogging, so genuine question: Why did Matador publish this piece, and why are they leaving it up? Any thoughts?

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