IT SEEMS TAKEN FOR GRANTED that for someone to write about travel, he or she actually travels. But people rarely seem to question if someone who travels somewhere with the intention of writing is (a) truly ‘there’ in any level beyond just physical presence, and (b) able to write transparently about what he or she experiences versus what he or she wants to believe – or wants others to believe – about the experience. (I sometimes call this ‘speaking for’ a place or another person.)
Travel Writing at Ground Level
If I take the majority of submissions received at Matador, the majority of beginning writers’ work at MatadorU, and even the majority of material published by most travel publications as my indicator, I have to conclude that speaking for a place is the default mode for most people’s travel writing. And while it’s interesting to consider possible causes (the ‘imprinting’ of marketing language on travel writing, for example), what’s most interesting to me is how this reflects our relationship with place.
At Matador we’re always looking for writing that expresses, reports, and reveals truths about people’s connections to place at Ground Level.
I use this term to describe the concrete reality of a certain place at a certain moment in time. For example, right now at Ground Level, some of my neighbor’s grandkids – the Colques- are laughing and yelling as they push-start an old truck. The dogs are barking and chasing the truck out of the barrio.
When reporting – and eventually, creating narrative – from Ground Level, each detail simply is. There’s no rhetoric, no explaining, no reducing, objectifying, justifying, obfuscating, implying, or suggesting anything, but simply reporting what one perceives, as close as possible to the way one perceived it.
But if rhetoric is introduced, the reader is suddenly displaced. Narrators begin ‘speaking for’ someone else, or for a group, or place, as opposed to their own experience, inventing scenarios and personae, places and people that don’t necessarily reflect those they visited in concrete reality.
Here’s how this works. A travel blogger might condense the details of a Ground Level scene such as the one I described into something like:
So here it is, another late afternoon noise-fest at the Colques’.
or perhaps, a travel writer who’s just passing through might observe the scene as:
The barrios on the outskirts of El Bolson, Patagonia are filled with stray dogs and happy-go-lucky kids.
While these sentences may be ‘entertaining’ or ‘information-filled’ they’re not actually true. For example, the Colques do often gather for asados on weekends, and these can be noisy, but they’re not inconsiderate in the way that the hypothetical blogger is leading readers to believe. Nor are the barrios here ‘filled’ necessarily, with ‘happy-go-lucky kids.’
When writing isn’t at Ground Level, relationships between people are not clear. Characters besides the narrator are reduced to a kind of scenery or abstraction, serving as a backdrop for the narrator, particularly in the context of how much a place or people fulfills the narrator’s expectations. In this way, travel writing becomes a way of mythologizing place, or looking at it as a kind of commodity.
An example would be a travel writer describing some ‘authentic experience’ at Machu Picchu while leaving out lives and stories at ground level – say a guide asking him about the brand of clothes he was wearing – because that, the very words from someone at ground level, may not fit into the narrator’s concept of what Machu Picchu represents.
By contrast, each truly Ground Level detail (the Colques’ old truck, for example, or the guide asking about the clothes) can – if followed – lead to important truths about where one lives or travels.
At Ground Level, nothing is ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic’ or ‘virtuous’ or ‘pure’. People are just people. Place is just place. When we ‘make more’ of it (or less), when we appropriate others’ struggles or culture as our own, when we reduce people and places into symbols or abstractions or commodities, when we pretend to speak for others, we disrespect those whose lands and homes and cultures we’re fortunate enough to pass through. Writing at Ground Level is a way of showing respect.
Author’s note: This essay was delivered at TBEXEurope 2010 by Lola Akinmade.
*The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.