In Other Words

Travel Writing Lives!

The nostalgists are wrong -- in fact, travel writing is better than ever, and it's got more to tell us about our globalized world than dry policy writing does.

In 1946, the famed English novelist Evelyn Waugh — a writer, like many of his generation, who funded his literary life by scribbling bemused accounts of overland treks to the Empire’s far reaches — predicted, "I do not expect to see many travel books in the near future." Waugh made his prediction at a time when Europe’s old empires were crumbling and jet aircrafts, it seemed clear, were about to end travel as he knew it. But even in a century marked by dozens of famously false literary pronouncements, his forecast stands out as supremely wrong. Not only did a new generation of writers after Waugh — from Ryszard Kapuscinski to V.S. Naipaul to Jan Morris — prove that travel books still had a place in a post-imperial world, their prose was far more empathic and penetrating than anything that had come before. Their best books didn’t merely breathe new life into an old genre, but provided accounts of our tumultuous age far more vibrant and lasting than any work of dry policy writing or historian’s tome.

For decades, travel writers and foreign-policy types have had it in for each other. Foreign-policy writers dilate on grand structures, statecraft, and power imbalances, viewing themselves as lofty, farsighted visionaries. Meanwhile, travel writers, in search of minute daily texture in the places they visit, aren’t necessarily looking to make broader political arguments. For travel writers, policy wonks are divorced from global life as it’s lived, the reality of the street; for the wonks, travel writers seem naive or small-bore.

Of course travel writing has never been separated from politics. Herodotus himself, among the West’s seminal thinkers on international relations, was also his era’s travel writer par excellence. The roots of the modern literary genre lie in early explorers’ logs — from Marco Polo’s accounts of the spice road to Walter Raleigh’s Guyana diary — which played key roles in shaping how Europe’s states engaged the world. British travel writers of the interwar years like Waugh and Graham Greene may not have seen their accounts of "remote" places so explicitly tied to imperial policies. But much of their books’ unique frisson derived from flirtations with an old colonialist worldview: describing colorful lands and colored denizens with a mix of revulsion and attraction, pitched to repressed Brits on their moist isle.

More recently, the world has been forced into the realization — long understood by the best travel writers — that what’s geographically distant can’t be ignored or held away as "exotic." The signal geopolitical event of our time — 9/11 — was enabled by globalization’s emblematic technologies (the Internet, jetliners) and carried out by a small group of individuals raised in "remote" cultures. Increasingly, it’s an obvious truth that choices made by peoples and nations everywhere may transform the planet’s societies in cataclysmic ways. And so the traditional domain of travel writers — the texture of everyday life; cultures, belief systems, and personal climes — has suddenly become interesting to a whole new audience.

Eliza Griswold’s recent book The Tenth Parallel, which describes a journey along the eponymous line, 10 degrees and 700-odd miles to the equator’s north, that religious demographers have long cited as the globe’s "center of gravity" for confrontations between Christianity and Islam, stands as a strong example of travel writing for the 21st century, one that marries the best of narrative adventure to an explicit jab at geopolitical relevance.

Griswold’s book isn’t shelved in the travel section but in "current affairs": It’s a work consciously aimed at addressing issues of keen geopolitical import — the roots of religious conflict, climate change’s shadow impacts, the linked future of two of the world’s great faiths. But it is also a work based in an understanding of our world as a place where "the tiniest change to the air currents in Nigeria … may create chaos seven thousand miles away in North America," a place where distances are shorter than we think and a microscopic understanding of distant places is more crucial than ever. The desertification of Nigeria’s grasslands, caused by the burning of fossil fuels in far-off Asia and America, can fuel conflicts there over water — conflicts, in turn, that exacerbate local religious tensions threatening to erupt on a global level. In the crucial task of understanding how such stories play out and interrelate, work like Griswold’s — which 50 years ago would’ve been shelved under "travel" — has a lot to tell us.

To see how this truth has caught on, one need look no further than to the many members of the foreign-policy elite — perhaps responding to former Council on Foreign Relations president Les Gelb’s challenge that "U.S. foreign-affairs experts don’t know anything about foreign countries" — who’ve taken to employing travel narratives in their books: approaches like Parag Khanna’s in The Second World or Nicholas Schmidle’s inside-out look, in To Live or to Perish Forever, at "the most dangerous country in the world." In No god But God, Reza Aslan used a journey through the Muslim world to show how Islam — pace Samuel Huntington’s depiction in The Clash of Civilizations of a great monolith bent on Christendom’s fall — is neither a monolith nor singularly bent on the West’s destruction, but rather a "rapidly expanding and deeply fractured faith" undergoing an epochal reformation. Robert Kaplan has filigreed his paeans to American might, in books like The Ends of the Earth and Eastward to Tartary, with travel reportage from the Philippines to Azerbaijan.

Of course, as foreign affairs writing and travel writing converge, the results are not always pretty. Journeys abroad — as Kaplan’s critics have long noted — can sometimes serve to reinforce old biases or facile claims, rather than complicate or subvert them. For Thomas Friedman, famously, a visit to Bangalore occasioned not an exploration of how and why that old Indian city’s people have transformed their lives by embracing — or resisting — its new economy, but a trite anecdote meant to bolster his thesis that the "world is flat."

But the best travel writers are still doing what they do: using surface color to explore deeper structure. Peter Hessler’s acclaimed Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory is nominally an account of driving through China, enlivened by finely drawn encounter
s with people and places. It is also a book that poses and gives implicit answer to the big questions about China’s modern rise: How is China’s use of fossil fuels affecting its countryside, its people, its neighbors, the world at large? And what is China’s astronomic growth going to mean for everyone?

Suketu Mehta’s modern Mumbai masterpiece, Maximum City, and Rory Stewart’s timely account of traversing Afghanistan by foot, The Places in Between, have a similar effect. While performing the traditional travel writing tack of illuminating difference, they gain their merit as literature by the brilliance with which their authors’ respond to the epigraph from Kapuscinski with which Griswold starts her Tenth Parallel: "What in him is of human being?/and is he." For readers aiming to understand daily existence in an impoverished megacity of the sort a majority of humans will soon call home, or the rich internal life of a nation now at the heart of our politics, these should be among the first titles on the shelf.

Travel books, as Evelyn Waugh knew them, may have died long ago. But the ways our best writers have found to narrate the experience of journeying through our world have never been so alive.

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