No ‘I’ in Travel? Travel writing in the Trump era
‘The Best American Travel Writing 2019' and the schisms currently upending travel journalism
On Amazon, The Best American Travel Writing 2019 holds a 4.3-out-of-5-star-rating, its acclaim ever-so-slightly dragged down by a vocal minority of negative reviews. As this book ostensibly showcased the best travel writing on offer, I wondered about the root of such gripes. One particularly polemical two-star review stated:
I enjoy food and travel writing that makes you think. . . However, this years [sic] compilation has a definite agenda. Which is. [sic] “We hate Trump and his policies.” Whether you agree or not it gets old less than halfway through the book. Anyone who doesn’t agree will not read much of it, and those who do are already on the editors [sic] side, so what’s the point? I want travel writing that takes me there, helps me understand the local customs, and broadens my horizons. This does not do that.
Punctuation errors aside, there was a lot to sort out in this product review. (For instance — how can a person broaden their horizons if one doesn’t engage with viewpoints different from one’s own?) However, this review still raised some intriguing and confounding points about the nature of travel writing in the Trump era.
For one, reading this review mentally primed me to assess whether this anthology was, as the reviewer had decried, ‘too political.’ Had the greater consortia of travel writing adopted a tone as partisan as The New Republic, or was it still just the lukewarm-liberal-and-factual news I was used to getting from The Washington Post and The Atlantic? And can a journalist really be biased when the president’s corruption is demonstrable and quantifiable, and a correspondent is just doing their job by reporting what is actually happening?
What surprised me was that, for the most part, the travel writing was hardly partisan in the sense the reviewer suggested. The reviewer might have been particularly offended by Jason Wilson’s piece, “Journeys in Trump World,” in which The Washington Post reporter reviewed Trump hotels in other countries and reflected on the complicated politics of staying and working at such establishments, especially since most Trump properties are owned and operated by various companies which license the brand name from the Trump Organization (similar to how restaurant franchises function). In his piece, Wilson also wondered whether the U.S., once the Trump presidency is said and done, will fade into the middling status of these properties, assuming the mantle of being “relentlessly mediocre” (336). But still, a hotel critic is expected to express an opinion, and his — shared by many — is that Trump’s properties tended to be pretentious yet average in quality.
Eventually, I realized that what the reviewer considered ‘politicizing lectures’ merely comprised what a journalist would consider a news peg — the so-what component of a story; the reason why a story was even worth telling. If one visited the Rio Grande, or Guantanamo Bay, as Nick Paumgarten and Stephen Benz did in “A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall” and “Overlooking Guantanamo,” respectively, it’s only natural to discuss how the border wall will impact the Rio Grande region and ecosystem, and how American interventions in Cuba and the prison-base have impacted that otherwise peaceful harbor.
One of the reviewer’s more provocative critiques involved a desire to learn about “the local customs,” phrasing that strikes us today as antiquated, betraying travel writing’s origins. Herodotus may have been the first privileged Westerner who traveled around to exotic lands of ‘primitive’ peoples in the East or Global South and offered his first-person perspective. Such a form was resurrected in the Victorian era when wealthy Brits and Americans traveled to the far-flung corners of empire and reported back on the “local customs” and the “civilizing” force of the colonial administrations — Richard Halliburton’s work comprising one of the chief examples of this style.
Intriguingly, the 2019 anthology seemed to respond directly to that archetype — or, at least, respond to attempts to get away from that form of travel writing. In 2018, The New York Times Magazine announced it was ‘reimagining’ its approach to travel writing, as the genre tended to be “full of prejudice and stereotypes, and historically was an instrument of colonialism and propaganda” (xii). As the new Times travel editor Amy Virshup indicated, they planned to address this concern by “using more writers who actually live in the places readers want to visit” (Ibid). The reimagining went even further, as Virshup went on to say, “In general I want to take the word ‘I’ out of our coverage” (xiii).
In the anthology’s foreword, series editor Jason Wilson (the author of the Trump hotel piece) reacted strongly against these views, and the 2019 anthology reflected this pushback. In response to the idea travel writing should be written exclusively by locals, he wrote, “the genre is called travel writing for a reason: it involves a traveler” (xii). Such an outside perspective allows for insight and fresh eyes, he argued; though it is a perilous and challenging task to write about a place one doesn’t truly know, successful travel writing creates “dynamic, tense, thrilling and important stories” that inspire readers to form human connections across cultural boundaries (xiii). “Removing the ‘I’ altogether and doing some faux-objective third person, or even crowdsourced travel coverage feels like a fool’s errand, the Yelp of travel,” Wilson argued, adding, “Can there be true insight if the reader doesn’t know what filter that insight is coming through?” (Ibid).
Wilson threw down the gauntlet when he quoted Virshup, who also said the first person “made more sense when travel was harder, when most people were never going to take that trip to Patagonia or the Australian outback, so the writer was really the reader’s window into a different world” (xiii). Wilson retorted, “That’s a pretty privileged posture for a travel editor to take” — given that most people in the world don’t have the opportunity to travel widely, and if they do, they might only go to a specific place once in their entire lives (Ibid).
The anthologized stories reflected Wilson’s attention to traditional travel writing, but with an eye for situating places in their sociopolitical context. It’s true, some of the stories fall flat — perhaps predictably, these are the stories sourced from Buzzfeed and Airbnb Magazine (yes, Airbnb has a magazine). Matt Gross’ Airbnb-published “How the Chile Pepper Took Over the World” begins as an enjoyable food article, but is ultimately too disjointed to meet its ambitious premise — that Gross will retrace the Chile pepper’s ‘global conquest’ following the Columbian Exchange. Likewise, Rahawa Haile’s “I Walked from Selma to Montgomery” (Buzzfeed) is too stunt-like to land with the political self-importance of its premise — walking the entire 54-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historical Trail. Meanwhile, that article’s aggressive anti-Trump tone might have been the one which set off the Amazon reviewer’s ire. However, a distance of 54 miles is not a terribly lengthy journey for an accomplished hiker, so the gimmick reads as forced.
Where the collection succeeds is when its stories tell us something new about the world through the prism of an intriguing narrator. In Lucas Loredo’s “Mother Tongue,” (from Oxford American), the author plans to travel to his father’s hometown in Cuba under Obama’s relaxed Cuba restrictions, but is immediately met with friction after Trump reversed Obama’s Cuba policies. Ultimately, Loredo tries to uncover his family roots and discern if they really can be recovered — and whether his family actually wants to know how Cuba has changed since they fled.
The same goes for Peter Hessler’s “Cairo: A Type of Love Story” (The New Yorker) an engaging work of nonfiction about two international parents who decide to raise their twin daughters in Egypt — during the Arab Spring. While not exactly travel writing in the traditional sense — Hessler and his wife live in Egypt for five years — Hessler’s musings about raising their daughters, who become inadvertently steeped in Egyptian culture, provides a memoir brimming with cross-cultural appeal, as well as the geopolitical dimension of inhabiting a society in revolt.
Then there’s the more conventional approach taken by Brooke Jarvis’ “The Obsessive Search for the Tasmanian Tiger” (The New Yorker) — a history of the obsession regarding the extinct Tasmanian tiger species. By interviewing tiger hunters alongside ecological experts, Jarvis uses the mystery of the tiger as a vehicle to discuss more pressing issues — the historic ethnic cleansing of Tasmanian aborigines and the preservation of Tasmanian animal species which are still alive and well (for now). Jarvis’ article is the elemental version of travel writing that Wilson espouses, and in many ways, it is an approach that works — and not just in The New Yorker. It can also succeed when it takes on some of the twenty-first century’s worst journalistic impulses and reclaims them with nuance and spirit.
In Alex MacGregor’s “Is This the Most Crowded Island in the World?” from Longreads, MacGregor starts with a simple, click-bait question — is the Caye de l’Est, an isle off the Haiti coast, the most densely populated island in the world? But when MacGregor visited the impoverished island, he demonstrated his consciousness of the privilege he possesses and how his interactions might be interpreted when he met the local leaders:
A man began by telling me he’s very happy to see me here because if “someone like me” is coming to their island, it means I must be planning a project to help. He was keen to know my background and my religion — questions I wasn’t expecting nor eager to answer, knowing full well my answers probably weren’t the ones they were hoping for. ¶ There was that sinking feeling again. If I could have picked any group of people in the world to avoid disappointing, it would have been these people. (161)
MacGregor’s self-awareness in his ridiculous interviewing of this precarious population is a stunning example of how far travel writing has come from the era of the imperialist outsider. As soon as he arrived, he realized his click-bait question was inane and did a disservice to the actual needs of the islanders. Instead, MacGregor used the article to explain how visiting the island made him realize that such statistics didn’t really matter. Rather, it was the people he met and the problems he discovered which had made his trip worthwhile.
Like Wilson suggested in his foreword against Virshup’s reported anti-individualistic position toward travel writing, when done well and conscientiously, the outsider narrative can really shine a light on global issues and bridge empathy between readers and people from around the world who would otherwise never meet. The side effect of that, however, might be that travel writers end up reporting on the negative impacts of Trump Administration policies.
And that shouldn’t be a problem. If journalists are not responding to the situation on the ground, then they aren’t really journalists. And if readers are unwilling to indulge in articles that challenge their blind faith in autocratic-styled leaders, then perhaps all journalistic writing, and not just travel writing, is slated to face a reimagining, whether we like it or not.
Dillon, Frances D. “Political propaganda disguised as travel writing.” Product review, “The Best American Travel Writing 2019” Amazon.com, January 16, 2020.
Fuller, Alexandra (ed) & Wilson, Jason (series ed). The Best American Travel Writing 2019. Mariner Books: Boston, 2019.