Yesterday, as part of the New Yorker Festival, I attended a travel writing panel held at the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) theater on West 57th Street. The panel included Paul Theroux, Gary Shteyngart, Dinaw Mengestu and Elif Batuman. It was moderated by Paul Gourevitch, staff writer for The New Yorker and former editor of The Paris Review.
The theater was dark yet still I managed to take notes. Rather than describe American-born Theroux’s British accent or his condescending forays about his travel being bigger- than-yours, I will merely extract what most resonated with me and what I could make of my scribbled notes after the fact. I’ll start with a couple paraphrased quotes from the panelists:
Theroux: The vulnerability of the writer, their anxiety and nervousness, induces a heightened state of awareness that serves the essay well.
Batuman: There is often the question of how much the writer should let herself stand out. Sometimes the reader might want to see Jacques Cousteau hanging out in his funny scuba suit, but sometimes she just wants to see the fish.
Mengestu: We can’t forget that we are constantly interacting with and relating to an unknown environment. As such, we are automatically implicated by people and places. This is OK.
Shteyngart: Things that are different are often the source of comedy. Once, while in Russia, I was offered a hotel room with a “waiting woman” for $100. I asked how much for a room without the woman and was told $200…because then they have to find another place for that woman to sleep. Take note. This is good stuff. And it’s everywhere.
As (travel) writers we must beware of cliché. We must note the tendency to describe (in boring detail) how we get from place to place. Can we make our mundane struggles interesting?
If things get too comfortable, sometimes we might benefit from giving ourselves an assignment. It refreshes things – make us see things as new again. This advantageous perspective of an outsider allows things to become infused with meaning simply because they are new. Our witnessing gives them a different glow.
Our perception will always present the question of accuracy in detail. Comments such as this called to mind my undergrad in Anthropology during which I was constantly troubled by the impossibility of traditional ethnography without a deceiving cultural spin. I believed that all ethnography was fiction. Travel writing seems to be the link that gives permission to the inevitable sway. This made me happy. I always loved doing enthography but I never believed them to be scientific.
Travel writing ought to be scrupulously truthful (and not embellished). It’s our duty to keep it as honest as it was perceived.
The best travel writing displays the interplay between the traveler an the other. This, of course, requires the self to play a role. And likely it is most successful when it helps the reader live in the traveler’s head while walking in her shoes. This bit reminded me of Chris Abani’s, Kalakuta Republic:
Question: How can a book of poems about being imprisoned in a Nigerian jail personally resonate with a white kid from Southern California?
Answer: Because it’s universally emotional, honestly human, and refrains from overdoing sentimental tendencies. It’s written in a way that allows the writer’s experience to become the readers’.
This isn’t easy to do, but a worthy endeavor nonetheless. And it’s something I am trying to cultivate in my own writing life.