How not to write a travel piece like Nicholas Kristof
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.
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.