I am a travel writer and I am a woman.
Think about it.
For women to be able to write in the open and under our own name, and to travel by ourselves looking like women, is an enormous yet recent achievement in history. But there’s still room for improvement. First, it largely remains a first-world privilege. Second, it is a field in which genre & gender are still intimately connected.
Citing pieces published online in The Telegraph, Outside, and Matador Network, Hailey Hirst remarked how poorly represented women are in articles listing must-read travel books. Or, as she aptly puts it:
“Men seem to dominate travel literature… or at least the popular culture of it.”
The list published in Outside for instance sports 25 books, and includes one by Alexandra David-Neel (1927), and one by Beryl Markham (1942) – who, let me point that out, is reviewed as “charming.”
But even I plead guilty. On my blog, I wrote two articles listing 4 “Travel Books For Your Summer” and both only include male writers. When it dawned on me, I thought it pretty ironic coming from someone who claims on her homepage (in capital letters) to be a feminist.
In her piece published in New Republic, Gwyneth Kelly is annoyed by the prominence of male names when it comes to famous travel writing pieces: Bryson, Cahill, Theroux, Wilson, Krakauer. Lots of testosterone on the bookshelf. If you open any other volume of The Best American Travel Writing, you’ll notice the very limited amount of female travel writers included in these anthologies. Women got to edit 5 of the 17 volumes, and that includes best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert. The other volumes were all edited by men; Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux each got to do it twice.
Now if I just look at the latest articles on online platforms, I notice a large amount of female authors. Do other people share my feeling that while traditional publishing has remained for a long time the province of men, online publishing has much more promptly given a voice to a lot more writers, a great proportion of whom are women? That would kind of debunk the argument that there is a lesser quantity of travel pieces written by women. Traditional editors and publishers might argue (and perhaps very rightly) that the way they pick pieces is solely based on quality, not gender. But we live in a gendered world. As an avid reader of the genre, I have noticed many times occurrences of gendered language, gendered cooptation, gendered reviews and critics, and the belief in a gendered genre. And, wait for it: women can be the harshest critics of their own gender.
In his 2006 introduction to The Best American Travel Writing, Tim Cahill attracted my attention when he commented on what he calls “barbershop reading.” He explains how “adventure travel” tended to be considered as a separate genre in the 1970s and how it was targeted at a clearly gendered (male) audience. Cahill deplores it, and adds for good measure that “Kira Salak proves [in this volume] that adventure is not the sole province of men.” (Notice it is interestingly put: Salak proves it, in that volume.) I also noticed how Cahill focuses his introduction on defining what travel writing covers exactly. This is actually what Kelly criticizes about Theroux in her New Republic piece, and as a junior writer I am struggling with this too.
Both Cahill and Theroux have – and I am sure with very good intentions – discussed the difference that exists between two sub-genres: (a) “Proper” (my word) travel writing, which should be both about objective facts and a mirror of the writer’s expertise, in short, to paraphrase Cahill, the art to tell a story with the precision of “high-level journalism.” (b) “Improper” (my word again) travel writing, which is deemed more subjective, more focused on the self, on the inner journey within the journey. I do not agree with this split in the genre, but my personal opinion is unimportant. What seems crucial to me however, is how this split seems to fuel the idea that women travel writers today are more into “inner journeys” or, in the words of Jessa Crispin, “psychodrama.”
In her ominously titled “How Not To Be Elizabeth Gilbert”, Crispin is very critical about what she perceives as a gender + genre equation.
“[Gilbert is] more interested in relaying the details of her recent breakup than noticing anything about her host country…”
Just like Gwyneth Kelly, Crispin argues that “we do not need men to explain the world’s far-off reaches to us anymore.” But she also thinks that women like Gilbert, or like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, are only writing the way their gender is expected to write. Namely, that this subjectiveness in their travel writing is in fact “not so much transgressive as regressive,” or more straightforwardly put:
“… nor do we still need women to tell us it is fine to set up a life outside of marriage and family.”
Upon reading this, I thought: “In fact, Jessa, I think we still do.” Female travel writers who made it to the bookshelves of pop culture are scarce. It turns out many of these women (including Gilbert, Strayed, or Mary Morris) have in common that their personal lives are intimately connected with the motive of their journey. That very fact seems extremely “gendered” to Crispin, perhaps even dictated by a sexist society which expects male travel writers to analyze and describe, and female travel writers to fee — just like it expects men to be strong and women to be vulnerable, or men to be loud and women to be unassuming. I agree with Crispin that this is what society does. But I do not think it is right nor fair to blame female travel writers for writing what they felt they needed to write. I think it is not right nor fair that we do not read more travel pieces written by men “relaying the details of [their] recent breakup,” or telling us “it is fine to set up a life outside of marriage and family.” Or telling us how they felt on the PCT, rather than giving us a detailed description of that crisp morning light on the Sierra — a morning light which by the way probably triggered in them feelings about which they won’t write, because society does not expect their male self to write about them.
And isn’t it all because the rules of the genre have been so far defined by men, by the way of gendered cooptation and gendered use of style and language?
Let us take one specific travel situation. Will Ferguson and Mary Morris both have described a scene in which they meet a woman. In both cases, that woman, for cultural, personal reasons, lives a life on which a man has too much control — at least according to our own / first-world / western / privileged standards. Here’s what each travel writer thought they should write about that scene.
Ferguson, in Hokkaido Highway Blues, is sitting in the living-room of a Japanese couple, whose husband and wife roles are strictly codified. As a guest, he does not break the Japanese social codes in trying to help or talk about personal matters with his female host (and of course he was right to do so). But he finds a way to make use of a bit of humor in his description, which I find, as a woman and in his very own words, a bit “insensitive”:
“Mrs Migita cleared the table of the wreckage and debris, and her husband and I settled back, suckling on toothpicks like a pair of feudal lords. This may sound sexist and insensitive and politically incorrect — and it is — but I had long since learned that had I offered to wash the dishes, or worse, had I insisted, I would only have humiliated Mrs. Migita”
Morris, in Nothing to Declare, is sitting in her living-room with Lupe, her Mexican neighbor who is a financially struggling single mom. Lupe uses Morris as a confidant, telling her about the parents she has never known, hinting at the possible untimely disappearance of her mother. In fairness, Morris receives here personal feedback Ferguson couldn’t access due to gendered social codes he is not responsible for. But Morris still dedicates three pages of her writing to the scene, telling us how, in her heart, while listening, she silently tried to guess what had happened to Lupe’s mother after she gave birth to her:
“She nursed the child once. Then she carried it to the door of an old woman and left it there. Afterward she disappeared. Perhaps she let herself be carried away by the shallow water of the stream. But I think she wandered into the sierra, where she remained hidden in the hills. She was an invisible woman and it was easy for her to escape. A woman without substance, the one no one saw.”
As a travel writer and reader, I would have loved a paragraph signed “Will Ferguson”, where the author tells us more about Mrs. Migita — her body language, the look in her eyes. But all we know from his description, is that he and Mr. Migita settled back, “like a pair of feudal lords.”
Now books are published to be read. The editors of Wild and Nothing to Declare probably targeted them at a largely female audience. This is why I was all the more dumbfounded when I read the reviews that women readers had left about these books on Goodreads. Mary Morris in Nothing To Declare is described as “conceited”, as “a very poor role model for women” who is ensconced in “navel-gazing thoughts.” But the words used to describe Cheryl Strayed were much more personal and shocking to me as a woman, a travel writer and a feminist. While the husband she left prior to hiking the PCT is forcefully described by these women as “a decent guy,” “a total saint” (seriously?), “a really wonderful man,” Strayed is described as “a self-absorbed asshole,” “a half-ass femme-Nazi [whose] moral compass was also off-kilter” (“Good Lord!” I exclaimed at that point). But wait for this one:
“But the one message she clearly wants you to take away from her allegedly inspiring story of a complete personal transformation on the PCT is that the author is preternaturally sexy, and virtually nothing with a penis can resist her. Strayed’s relentless hotness actually becomes such a prevalent theme that I began laughing out loud each time she described yet another man expressing his interest in her hot hiker self. I laughed a lot, O Reader. I laughed a lot. Don’t worry; those people she met who didn’t want to stick their trekking poles into her worshiped her for other reasons.”
This, I think, is called “slut-shaming”. So long for Jessa Crispin’s positive assurance that we don’t need any more women travel writers “to tell us it is fine to set up a life outside of marriage and family.”
So on the one hand we have successful female travel writers who get criticized for “writing like women.” On the other hand, we have successful male travel writers whose use of language and style often hints at the tacit agreement that “proper” travel writing still is a male-dominated genre. Such agreement is most probably the result of systemic sexism rather than sexism individually expressed by male authors. In fact, I believe their writing also falls victim to the situation.
Sometimes it is just about the choice of a word. Cahill in BATW 2006 writes an introduction that is clearly inclusive of both genders. But at some point he mentions that travel writers attending workshops and seminars often gather to discuss how they were “financially sodomized” by editors. (There is so much to say about that choice of words! But I won’t.) I am just not sure about the effect produced on the reader if a woman had formulated things that way. Actually, I am not sure either that this formulation would have come to her mind in the first place. Fuck me if I’m wrong.
In fairness, I am sure Cahill intended it humorously, and I actually laughed. Humor will warm up your audience. It should be balanced and include sarcasm or a tad of self-deprecation. Sometimes however, it is less clear whether the intended effect on the reader has been carefully thought over. Take Ferguson’s Beauty Tips for Moose Jaw for instance. Saying that I cringed my teeth several times is an understatement – although yes, I did learn lots of interesting, objective, analytic, descriptive facts about Canada. The book is named after a chapter where Ferguson goes to a spa in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Upon discovering that a man is going to be his reflexologist, Ferguson writes humorously his disappointment, which triggers approximately two pages of bons mots:
“If anyone is going to fondle my feet, I’d prefer it wasn’t someone with a moustache.”
(My thought as a reader: Yes, because women naturally do that so much better.)
“I start dropping subtle hints that I am married. To a woman.”
(Yes, because no one should ever believe you are gay.)
“It’s one of the few remaining advantages of being a man that the creases around your eyes make you look distinguished not old.”
(I read this 8 months ago and I still know exactly where to find those lines in the book.)
It is clear that everyone, readers, writers and editors have a part to play when it comes to promoting gender equality in travel writing as a genre.
What is also clear however is that everything I have discussed so far can be dismissively hashtagged #FirstWorldProblems. There is not a single piece or author I have cited here that does not belong to my own cultural area. What about women who live in areas where their invaluable pieces are extremely unlikely to make it to the bookshelves of visibility, for cultural, financial, personal, probably complex reasons? In terms of solutions, several key words come to mind. As editors, “communication” (between very local and more visible editors). As readers, “reviews” (careful with gendered beliefs or cooptation!) and “collection” (gathering these pieces in thematic collections or in list posts, on travel writing blogs, on Medium with a travel writing tag, etc.). As writers, “inspiration” (quotes, comments, mentions in our pieces) and “translation” (offering to translate the piece into our own language so more readers all over the world can get to know the author).
“Travel writing by women is more than about places – it’s about how women cope with being women in a foreign land.” Leyla, on Women-on-the-Road.com.
More generally, I think we need to break this “journalistic story-telling” vs. “self-exploratory travel journal” distinction. We need to (re)open travel writing to the insane diversity of reasons why people travel, including the undertaking of an inner journey, which has been practiced by human beings since time immemorial. Published travel writing should not convey the idea that there is a proper way of traveling.
Travel changes you. To me, separating the facts from the inner journey, keeping one aspect public and the other private is not “progressive” at all. This split in the genre may result from the professionalization of the field. It may also be a symptom of the media we use to convey travel writing. We need shorter pieces, catchier titles, useful facts, because today everyone can travel, and readers won’t just dream about those places you have explored: they intend to follow in your footsteps.
Yet tortured inner journeys shouldn’t be the sole province of women, nor sleek adventure-telling the sole province of men. Both genders should be expected to express in their writing these two necessary sides of travel.
We travel, we write and read about travel because we want to evade codes and cross boundaries, including gender codes and boundaries. This is exactly what in the past has made travel writing transgressive for women. In my book, this is what today should make it transgressive for both genders.