Other than the recurring image of a van traveling around the states, I didn’t have a solid idea what travel writing was before this week. So when TYWI’s nonfiction camp theme was announced, I was confused to say the least. How could I possibly write about travel if I’ve rarely left my city? Thankfully, I’ve come to learn more about it with the help of daily prompts and discussions. But, that also involves the murkier side of travel, just in general. So, I'll be passing on everything I’ve gathered about the wide world of travel writing. Stick with me, it’ll be worth your time.
So, what is travel writing?
This is a bigger question than you might think. Nonfiction camp counselor Asha Swann describes it as involving, “the idea of travel or the physical act of going from one to another, or the implication of travel.” That’s a large genre to tackle, and from that explanation, it’s fair to say travel writing is an umbrella term that covers a variety of genres under it. Anything can be considered travel writing if it involves the focus of culture around a narrative. Yes, that means travel writing isn’t strictly nonfiction and can cover fiction and graphic novels too. That also means you don’t necessarily have to travel anywhere to write travel.
I think a good way to demonstrate this are the daily camp prompts. Wednesday’s prompt in particular was, “Write about your cultural dishes. How do other cultures react to them? What do you wish people knew?” This doesn’t require the need for traveling outside as it’s a reflection on your own culture, so it’s more of a memoir if anything. This reflection of cultures aligns with the idea of travel, as some people don’t live where their culture originates. Monday’s daily prompt was another good one, “You’re traveling abroad for a month but can only pack the few items that can fit in your school backpack. Where do you go? What location can you thrive in with only a few items?”
This is a hypothetical situation that allows you to “travel” away from your home. You’d need some knowledge on another place (temperature, geography, maybe main tourist destinations) to answer this which absorbs itself into your writing. This shows how diverse travel writing can truly be as it’s a fictional scenario that hasn’t happened, but you’re writing as if it has. Both of these prompts don’t require the need for any travel, only research and some background knowledge. While you’re not physically traveling anywhere, these prompts promote the idea of travel. And, say you were writing in fiction, you’d likely transform the story to physically take the narrative somewhere.
Although it sounds like it, travel writing isn’t perfect. There’s a lot of discourse that arises from this genre around colonization, authenticity, and romanticization. These problems don't stem from the writing itself, but rather travel.
Misconstrued ideas of countries are often perpetuated by the tourism industry of previously colonized areas. Think of those all inclusive resorts in the Bahamas, it’s no more than a result of European colonization. Travel writers that go to these resorts to experience the Bahamas oftentimes are only experiencing the resort and not the actual country. Like that scenario, the privilege of travel is reflected in the writing.
A travel graphic novel, “Palestine” written by Joe Sacco, documents his experiences in the Gaza Strip. While it was certainly a good thing to narrate what’s going on in Palestine, there is controversy over his experiences as it was, “his experiences.” On an interview with Joe Sacco on Al Jazeera, Sacco explains, “I heard torture stories that were unusually harsh, but I decided not to use those kinds of stories, and instead something less shocking, something more of an “everyman” experience.” Maybe it’s the nature of a graphic novel that he decided to do this, but it still shows immense privilege over the people of Palestine, who he was writing about.
His isn’t the only example of this but It was a story talked about in the nonfiction camp. This leads to a problem because it’s now editing the stories of what’s happening and portraying a different picture to the public reader.
This goes to show that travel writing, while wild and varied, can be difficult to accurately represent the people and countries that are being discussed. An umbrella term for many stories underneath, travel writing holds the opportunity to write and experience culture in an in-depth way. The travel bus that I imagined at the beginning is travel writing, but it’s also so much more than that.
is a high school sophomore with aspirations for digital storytelling. She always seemed to understand things better if she could read it, versus videos or lectures, so English and History quickly became her favorite subjects. She volunteers for both Juven and The Meraki Organization to tell stories.