Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing

Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing

Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing

Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing


Edward Said's oft cited claim that Orientalists past and present have spun imaginary geographies where they sought ground truth, has launched a plethora of studies of fictive geographies. Representations often reveal more about the culture of the writer than that of the people and places written about. Yet the study of imaginary geographies has raised many questions about Western writers' abilities to provide representations of foreign places.

Writes of Passage explores the interplay between a system of "othering" which travelers bring to a place, and the "real" geographical difference they discover upon arrival. Exposing the tensions between the imaginary and real, the contributors focus primarily upon travelers from the 18th and 19th Centuries to pin down the imaginary within the context of imperial power. With essays covering the regions of Africa, South Asia, and Europe, this book presents a unique historical exploration of issues of place, space and landscape and contemporary studies ontravel writing and migration. Writes of Passage represents a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on travel writing.


The closing decades of the twentieth century have witnessed a double explosion of interest in travel writing. On the one side, bookstores whose travel shelves were once confined to atlases, guidebooks and maps—to nominally ‘factual’ and ‘objective’ accounts—now include sections devoted to personal, avowedly imaginative accounts of travel. The style varies dramatically (even in the same book): from lush and lyrical to comic and picaresque, evoking a nineteenth-century tradition of exploration, enacting the ironic stance of late twentieth-century postmodernism. Many critics agree that the work of Bruce Chatwin, Pico Iyer or Redmond O’Hanlon—to name just three prominent authors—maps not only new landscapes in a still markedly various world but also new spaces within contemporary literature. They have driven travel writing beyond itself—some reviewers claim that they have even re-invented travel writing, giving it both a new popularity and a new critical respectability—by their determination to press new possibilities of finding the terms for—of coming to terms with—other cultures and other natures.

This sense of re-imagining the world through its re-presentation, describing spiralling circles between home and away, here and there, and reworking the connective between ‘travel’ and ‘writing’ gives much of this work a decidedly critical edge. At its very best, it raises urgent questions about the politics of representation and spaces of transculturation, about the continuities between a colonial past and a supposedly post-colonial present, and about the ecological, economic and cultural implications of globalizing projects of modernity. It is in this spirit, for example, that Appiah (1997) draws attention to the radically unsettling quality of O’Hanlon’s account of his journey with James Fenton, Into the Heart of Borneo (1984):

The real secret of O’Hanlon’s success is that he subverts the conventions of this [natural-history] genre of imperial travel-writing by refusing utterly to take himself seriously. The imperial travellers—the explorers and naturalists— announced the difficulties of their journeys in order to record their triumphs over them. What they saw with their omnivorous eyes, they named ‘properly’ . . .

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