Continuing from where we left off last week, here are several more excerpts of new lessons from the MatadorU travel writing program.

LAST WEEK we examined rhetoric in travel writing, the way it’s often used unwittingly, and how this can result in an unintended “packaging” of cultures, people, and place. This week we look at two specific forms this “packaging” takes: travel “porn” and plight writing.

[DISCLAIMER: I feel compelled to state that I don’t really look at writing (title of this piece aside) as a spectrum of value judgments. My intention in these “lessons” isn’t to judge one kind of writing as “good” and another “bad,” but to identify common patterns I see as an editor receiving submissions. The goal is simply to deconstruct causal relationships between certain elements of language.]
Travel “porn”

As travelers, many of us experience an initial sense of “charm” when arriving at a new, unfamiliar place. If we only stay a few days, oftentimes this sense of the “charm of the unfamiliar” can define our experience there.

If, however, we remain in a place for a while, the little details that at first seemed unfamiliar — customs, food, clothing, language — will, little by little, begin to normalize. In this way, we realize that ultimately there is nothing “exotic” or “foreign” in the world but that — to quote Robert Louis Stevenson — it is only the traveler who is foreign.

Nevertheless, travel writers — and, in particular, travel industry marketing — have for decades used abstractions of the “foreign” or the “exotic” as a kind of rhetoric to “sum up” a place, culture, and / or people:

  • The “sunny” Mediterranean
  • The “friendly” Costa Ricans
  • “Romantic” Italy

While these kinds of descriptions may be effective in advertising or marketing, when they appear in travel narrative, they have the (often unintended) effect of turning a piece into “travel porn.”

As in traditional pornography — when sex acts are shown explicitly, usually without any “story” or context — travel “porn” occurs when details are either taken out of context or used without sufficient context in order to produce a certain effect. Example:

A bit dizzy and with a face crusted with sea-salt, I walked over sand that had the consistency and appearance of powdered sugar to the nearest palm tree, under which a small Thai man was standing. He held a tray of ice cold washcloths rolled up into neat pinwheels.

“Welcome to Phi-Phi and the Zeavola Resort,” he exclaimed, with a broad smile typical of the Thai people.

It’s the very last part, the “broad smile typical,” that turns this into porn. The point isn’t whether “broad smiles” are “typical” of Thai people or not. The point is that the author either fails to recognize the context of the scene or is deliberately leaving out a key element of the context: As a point person for the resort, the “small Thai man” has a material interest in giving a “broad smile.” But because this isn’t recognized transparently, we as readers are basically “fed” this behavior as “typical” for all Thai people, similar to an advertisement for “romantic” Italy or “friendly” Canada.

Here are a couple different ways you could rewrite that same paragraph so instead of coming off as porn, it’s narrated transparently:

A bit dizzy and with a face crusted with sea-salt, I walked over sand that had the consistency and appearance of powdered sugar to the nearest palm tree, under which stood a Thai man whose name I later learned was Kamol.

“Welcome to Phi-Phi and the Zeavola Resort,” he told our group, with a smile that seemed genuine beyond just his role as a greeter for the Zeavola. Later, as he told me a little about growing up on Phi-Phi, I realized Kamol was always smiling, and I couldn’t help but feel good around him.

Or:

A bit dizzy and with a face crusted with sea-salt, I walked over sand that had the consistency and appearance of powdered sugar to the nearest palm tree, under which a small Thai man was standing. He held a tray of ice cold washcloths rolled up into neat pinwheels.

“Welcome to Phi-Phi and the Zeavola Resort,” he exclaimed, with a smile that seemed forced to the point of deliberately mocking itself, the resort, and the uniform he was wearing, making me like him instantly.

Note how in both of these variations the man is treated as a character, whereas in the original he is more of a caricature, a stand-in for “Thai people.”

Poverty porn, or “plight” writing

The irony of rhetorical devices such as the generalization above (“small Thai man” w/ “broad smile”) is that they typically have the opposite effect of what the author intended. In the original example, the author likely meant for the “broad smile” to convey her good feelings / experience in Thailand. She probably didn’t realize she was creating a stereotype / caricature out of the man.

Nowhere are such “good intentions” undermined more frequently than when writers address subjects with serious social issues such as injustice, poverty, or genocide, or in which the characters are engaged in an ongoing struggle or plight that is far outside the author’s realm of experience. Although the subject matter couldn’t be more different from the “travel porn” described above, the mechanism is the same: By failing to narrate events transparently, the narrator reduces characters into caricatures or “advertisements” to illustrate a certain emotion, typically a “breathless outrage.” Example:

A few weeks ago I was in Mexico City working at an orphanage. The kids there were so loving and disciplined, yet they were no strangers to the darkness of this world. Their little eyes had witnessed the murder of parents and siblings. Prostitution and drug wars. The orphanage did everything in their power to care for and protect these children, but the realities of life in Mexico City still pervaded their existence. By day two of my trip, gunshots and screams sliced through the air as a result of increasing youth gang activity. By day three our area was declared a State of Emergency by the president, all government entities shut down, media outlets blocked, and the streets deemed too dangerous for even daily commutes. By day four the list of those murdered grew significantly, sparking citizen protests in the city center just opposite our walls. Yet amidst the violence, days at the orphanage were filled with the warmth of joy and laughter.

The point here, of course, isn’t faulting the author’s intention. The issue is that the outrage (and other emotions, such as the admiration for children’s resilience) is expressed rhetorically (similar to being “fed” as in other examples above), essentially forcing or assuming the reader’s agreement. The author has failed to transparently narrate exactly what she saw and heard, instead packaging it up (“Their little eyes had witnessed the murder of parents and siblings,”) and thus “flattening out” a complex set of characters, issues, and stories into a single plane of outrage.

Appropriating the subject’s struggle as your own

A common occurrence with “plight” writing is that the author becomes so emotional that he or she begins to confuse or appropriate the subject’s “plight” as part of his or her own personal struggle. In general, the higher the emotional “stakes” of a piece — particularly pieces dealing with genocide, violence, poverty, and other dire social issues — the more transparent and explicit the narrator must make his or her relationships to other characters in the story. A narrator must never forget that he / she will go home after a trip, while his / her subject will remain there.

Here’s an example. In a piece about volunteering as a doula in Africa, a narrator describes a horrifying scene:

Working quickly, he opens the uterus and pulls out a baby girl whose head appears normal despite hydrocephalus. There is a terrible hair lip and cleft palate. She is whisked off to be resuscitated. It has all happened in half an hour. By morning the baby is dead.

But only a few paragraphs away, she describes her own travels in a similar style:

The plane has four propellers, bald tires, and an interior in shocking disrepair. On this flight, there is no cabin crew. As we are taxiing in the Rent-A-Wreck plane, I smile bravely.

Herein the writer effectively juxtaposes her own “struggle” of travel in Africa with the terrible ordeals faced by local women, seeming to include or conflate her difficulties with the overall sense of “hardship.”

We’ll follow up next week with another new excerpted lesson that further illustrates these points with the concepts of pathos and the self-aware vs self-absorbed vs self-effacing / self-deprecating narrator. In the meantime, you can learn more at our travel writing program at MatadorU.

* MatadorU’s curriculum goes beyond the typical travel writing class to help you progress in every aspect of your career as a travel journalist.