Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Internationalizing Women's Rights: Travel Narratives and Identity Formation

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Internationalizing Women's Rights: Travel Narratives and Identity Formation

Article excerpt

Introduction

In the last ten years, the number of women writing travel narratives has increased dramatically. Contemporary women's popular travel writing produces a modern, hybrid narrative that melds travel writing with the genre of the bildungsroman (or coming of age story) to create a striking narrative of what I am calling the "middle-age narrative." For the purposes of this discussion, I want to look at three best-selling travel memoirs by U.S. women: Alice Steinbach's Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, published in 2000; Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman, published in 2001; and Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, published in 2006. Thus, in middle age, these women are traveling to new physical landscapes but also psychological ones, as they cope with defining their middle years. They seek adventure in order to learn about a new self, not unlike the traditional bildungsroman, yet they write not as adolescents, but as mature women. Judith Butler posits the interesting notion that gender is not only a social construct, but that individuals perform gender, thereby acting out prescriptive gender narratives. I suggest that in middle age, women question and rebel against these conventional gender performances. Why are so many middle-age women writing travel narratives, and what compels the popularity? These traveling authors create narratives that teem with irony, wisdom and humor, offering to their readers a new vista of life at middle age ; the travelers return home renewed and triumphant, and the readers participate in the optimism of the new, modern, middle-aged woman.

Alice Steinbach's Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman is Steinbach's middle-aged passage narrative. A Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, the middle-aged Steinbach looks at her life in sum. Divorced, her two sons grown, she wonders "[w]hat had happened ... to the woman who loved art and jazz and the feeling than an adventure always lurked just ahead, around some corner? I hadn't seen her in quite a while." (1) This middle stage at middle age is complex; Steinbach explains:

   By 1993, however, I was entering a new phase of my life, one that
   caused me to rethink its direction. My sons had graduated from
   college and were entering new adult lives of their own; ... the
   house felt quiet and empty.... At times I felt my identity was
   narrowing down to one thing--being a reporter. What you need to do,
   a voice inside me said, is to step out and experience the
   world.... After fifteen years of writing stories about other people,
   you need to get back into the narrative of your own life. (2)

Now that Steinbach is no longer performing motherhood in the active sense, nor a wife or significant other in any sense, she wonders what possibilities this new life might hold for her. Steinbach's situation both resembles and does not resemble the classic bildungsroman, where a boy "goes out into the world seeking adventure and learns wisdom the hard way." (3) Unlike an adolescent, Steinbach knows the ways of the world, but like the teen, this is the first time since she herself was quite young that she has been unencumbered by traditional gendered narratives. Indeed, in "The Female Bildungsroman: Calling It into Question," Carol Lazzaro-Weis points to the complication of unraveling female identity as a singular "I" when "women play multiple roles as part of the strategy to subvert the self imposed upon them from the outside and to move toward the development of an autonomous female identity." (4) I would argue that men participate in multiple societal roles as well, such as father, husband, and so on, but western society, in particular the twentieth and twenty-first century, the roles of husband and father come second to the role of occupation; while for women one's work constitutes only one of the main three narratives. …

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