Nowhere Need Be Foreign

What should travel writing look like in a world where the global and local are more indistinguishable than ever?

By Pico Iyer

The Travelling Companions, by Augustus Egg, 1862.

The Travelling Companions, by Augustus Egg, 1862. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.

Travel writing in English has always been a byproduct of Empire: the servants of Victoria scattering across the exotic corners of the globe, notebook in hand, with a sense of having been born to rule. These travelers went in the manner of gentleman farmers riding out to the farthest expanses of their estate so that they could see how their subjects were, and how they might even extend their terrain a little. Up until around World War II, only people of means could travel for fun, and travel writing had the feel of a holiday diary or a scientist’s log, documenting the strange climates in which someone found himself—it was usually a he—and the curious ways of the natives that he met there. 

Take Graham Greene’s 1939 book, The Lawless Roads, his record of a five-week trip to Mexico, during which he was sued by Twentieth Century Fox on behalf of Shirley Temple (he had accused the nine-year-old of “dimpled depravity” and “dubious coquetry” in his review of Wee Willie Winkie). Greene’s one big previous exotic trip—into the jungles of West Africa—had been, explicitly, a journey into fear and discomfort and the subconscious, since he looked upon the continent as a kind of diagram of the human heart. Later in his life, Greene would become something of a patron saint of travelers for his candor and intensity—he would speak on behalf of the oppressed, in Haiti and Vietnam and South Africa, with conviction and understanding—but in Mexico, as a thirty-three-year-old working in the travel form that his friends (like Evelyn Waugh) and his contemporaries (like Aldous Huxley), helped develop, he was essentially a man of privilege holding his nose in an alien place.

Greene’s initial impression was of “dirt and darkness.” He confides, “There was a large cockroach dead on the floor of my room and a sour smell from the water closet.” He goes out to lunch and finds it “awful... tasteless... repellent,” before, rather speedily, concluding, “All Mexican food is like that.” He visits a market and finds it “far more squalid than anything I had seen in the West African bush.” Of course he is visiting some of his self-dislike on everything he sees—in San Antonio his main stop is a freak show and he declares, “You get used in Mexico to disappointment”—but the sour smell of his own displacement never relents. Burying himself in Cobbett and Trollope while surrounded by astonishing landscapes, he notes, “And one did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country.” 

See one promontory (said Socrates of old), one mountain, one sea, one river, and see all.

—Robert Burton, 1620

When Greene worked up his notes of revulsion about Mexico into a novel, however—The Power and the Glory, published one year after The Lawless Roads—it became a landmark of compassion and fellow feeling, his breakthrough work, precisely because he was writing with a sympathy and tenderness that his earlier novels about England, such as The Man Within and Brighton Rock, had lacked. To read the novel and the travel book together is to see the limits of the latter. It feels like a holiday genre, in which the traveler leaves real thought, engagement, and even curiosity and conscience behind. As a travel writer, Greene registered everything grimly in Mexico, including beggars “like mangy animals in a neglected zoo”; as a novelist he could home in on the one issue—being a fugitive believer—that set his soul atremble, and could extend the reader’s sympathy by entering, rather than merely judging, the people that he saw. 

There were exceptions to the rule of Empire, of course: D.H. Lawrence traveled as if out of necessity, and his “savage pilgrimage” across several continents found him in the bittersweet position of someone searching for salvation, with a soul that ruled such possibilities out. He was alive—at white heat—wherever he found himself, first infusing Ceylon, America, Australia, even Greene’s Mexico with the unrealistic hopes he had for them, and then quickly yielding to his inevitable sense of disappointment. But Lawrence is an exception to every rule, and the more typical travel writer of the times was Evelyn Waugh; his account of going to Abyssinia to see the coronation of Haile Selassie, Remote People, ends with, “Why go abroad? See England first.” W. Somerset Maugham likewise observes toward the end of his first travel book, In the Land of the Blessed Virgin, “It is much better to read books of travel than to travel oneself; he really enjoys foreign lands who never goes abroad.” Though he didn’t seem to follow his own advice—he emerged as one of the most adventurous travelers of his generation—Maugham continued to note again and again, as he does in the story “Honolulu,” that, “The wise man travels only in imagination.”

 

As empires shift, however, so do the forms that reflect them—and sing them into being and share their insecurities. As London began to give way to Washington in the wake of World War II, traveling and travel writing began to assume the good-natured, anxious aspects of the American Empire. The Briton’s insouciant call of “Hate me if you dare” was replaced by the American’s plaintive, “Love me, please, as I love you.” Travel became a thing for the young, the idealistic, the unformed—for America, in short—and it acquired a conscience and a concern for the “local,” who now could no longer be called a “native.” It was the anti-patriot who arrived in India or Peru craving the “authentic,” the simplicity, the traditionalism, and—though it often goes unsaid—the difficulty that developing countries provide, which are said to speak for a wisdom that has been misplaced at home. Embarrassed about their privilege, the new travelers wanted to be “responsible,” “ethical,” “eco-friendly.” In many countries, the locals, able to read the writing on the checkbooks, responded eagerly to the casting call and provided the earnest, uncertain wayfarer with just the right amount of ancient wisdom. Not many Indians were familiar with Ayurveda forty years ago.

The emblem and in no small part the vehicle of this new paradigm of travel were the Lonely Planet guidebooks. They may have been the offspring of Tony and Maureen Wheeler—an Englishman and Irishwoman who live in Australia—but the guidebooks have become a companion and a gospel for the new, more democratic travelers taking off across a newly open world, following in the footsteps of the American hippies who traveled overland to Istanbul or Kathmandu in the ’60s. Compare their sensitive suggestions with the terse appraisals of the very British South American Handbook, long edited by an employee of Lloyds Bank International—read their patient paragraphs on cultural “Dos and Don’ts” next to a Baedeker—and you realize you have left Robert Byron and his Road to Oxiana far behind. 

Eighty years ago, the British traveled the world and found it almost entirely a source of satire and contempt. Now many a traveler (from Seattle, let’s say) is hungry to go to the Amazon, to Tibet, or the darkest parts of Africa, and find it a source of veneration. Here is life unspoiled; here are the “dirt and darkness” that Greene had been so eager to deplore. The sojourner, now as likely to be a woman as a man, knows she should pass no judgment on the people. She comes as a student, not as a ruler. And yet, of course, she passes judgment in the scrupulous way she notices that indigenous ways are good, that the materially dispossessed are the spiritually advanced, that Africa or Tibet has a soul that’s lost in the developed world. This is a good-hearted and a humble way of approaching things, as befits self-questioning, eternally unsettled America—compared with regally self-assured imperial Britain—but it is a form of coercion nonetheless. 

Graham Greene laid this all out for us in one of the many novels that arose out of his travels, The Quiet American, published in 1955. We recoil from his narrator, the jaded, middle-aged English journalist Thomas Fowler, who takes pride in remaining uninvolved. Yet when the titular young American, Alden Pyle, arrives on the scene, his idealism proves even deadlier. He is determined to save the Vietnamese by killing them—to reform their ancient culture with the latest fads of Harvard Yard and to turn its people into good all-American democrats. He sets about trying to rescue Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, with his innocence and chivalry, failing to see, as Fowler often reminds him, that she may be after something more substantial than ideas or ideals. Bread and a roof over her head are what a Vietnamese woman—or anyone—needs, more than the latest communiqués from Washington.

Star chart with the route of the 1764 comet, by Charles Messier, 1764.

Star chart with the route of the 1764 comet, by Charles Messier, 1764. 

To this day, across the developing world, foreigners sacrifice their lives and energies, often heroically, in order to help the locals attain a better life. Yet frequently in the process they try to protect the places they visit from the very technology, freedom of movement, and material plenty that they have enjoyed in getting there. They want the local to honor the spiritual purity and postcard ancientness that they have gone to find—not Britney Spears, McDonald’s, and MTV. The travel writing of the American Empire may sometimes be possessed by feminist concerns or anti-capitalist impulses, seeking nature more than art, the jungle more than museums, the raw above the cooked, but that is still colonialism by a different name. However self-lacerating and respectful, its approach can be as hostile to real exchange as overweening arrogance and imperial condescension are. If the old form of travel writing said, “Look at these laughable people different from ourselves,” the new one advises, “We should listen to and learn from the greatness of these people so other than ourselves.” In both cases the final emphasis is on “ourselves.” The idea that the traveler is always right is simply replaced by the idea that the traveler is always wrong. The song remains the same. 

 

It has been my prejudice and hope ever since I began reading and traveling that what we need now is a travel writing that reflects a larger world and a much more complex order, one in which a post-national empire is almost everywhere, and the American Empire is fading from view as the British and the French ones did before it—though, thanks to the acceleration of the times, it has worked its way through the cycle at record speed. We have too much exposure now to other cultures—at home and abroad—and they are too intertwined for us to be able to start ascribing good or evil to any one of them. We are likely to see El Salvador, Ethiopia, and India in our neighborhood, in our beds, even in our bloodstreams. The Other is inside us now, and we are—as V.S. Naipaul was one of the first to show—a confounding mix of conqueror and conquered (though Naipaul decided to make himself up so as to side mostly with the former—the consequences of his divided self seep out in his habitual talk of pride and humiliation).

We have entered a world in which an American writes about a Chinese visitor to Beverly Hills so deftly that, were it not for the name—or the author photo on the inside flap of The Dissident­—you would not know whether Nell Freudenberger was Chinese or Californian. Americans like Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, and Bill Buford, turn a classically British eye on the quaint customs of Great Britain. French and Japanese who have visited America for all of two weeks hold forth against the land of the free and home of the brave. The clarity of empire has been replaced by a swirling, ever-shifting anarchy in which ideas about “right and wrong” are sometimes as beside the point as distinctions like “East and West” or “high and low.”

I call, therefore, for a travel writing that doesn’t care where it comes from and doesn’t get fussy about what it’s addressing (The Mall of America and John F. Kennedy International Airport are scenes as worthy of scrutiny as the Great Wall of China or the Pyramids of Giza ever were). A kind that, as in the best of Greene, blurs to some degree the issue of nationality in favor of something more human. Our hybrid world makes a mockery of saying that Kenyans are all savages, or that Laotians or Tibetans are all saints. The Kenyan is now an upper-class girl from Edinburgh; the Laotian is working in a hospital in Sacramento; the Tibetan is busy setting up a shop in Paris with his Breton wife. Writing about travel becomes a matter of writing about confusion and mixed identity and the snares of cultural transformation. Amitav Ghosh reports on the recent tsunami in Asia as a teacher at Harvard University who writes for The New Yorker and lives in Brooklyn. But he also sees and feels the event as someone born in India, growing up in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and later residing in Egypt. Nowhere need be foreign to him. 

More and more of us these days are living outside the old categories of “here” and “there,” and far from the classic notion of “nation states.” When I, for example—born in England to parents from India, raised in California, and now living in Japan—go to England, India, or California (or to Ethiopia, Paraguay, or Easter Island for that matter), I find that each one of them contains both large sections of the familiar and the foreign. Almost anywhere I go is a form of travel, and travel writing becomes in part a matter of piecing together the different cultures inside me—to make a stained glass whole.

There is no shortage of accomplished observers taking the measure of the globe right now, and some of the more interesting practitioners in the field inflect the classic forms in novel ways. Colin Thubron is very much a traveler of the old school: educated at Eton, a descendent of John Dryden, and distinctly British and upper class in his diffidence and command of culture and language. A few generations ago, he might have been administering Khartoum. But he travels not only with a real sympathy and affection for the people he visits, and not only by roughing it (Thubron seems to travel, in his late sixties, as scrappily as a backpacker, learning the language, hitching rides, taking third-class trains), but also with a quiet responsiveness and attention to detail that speak for neither raillery nor romance. The only landscape missing (which he addresses in his fiction) is the interior one. 

Paul Theroux on the other hand puts himself into his travel books in such a gleefully unbuttoned and impenitent way that he almost gives the old British form a botoxed American makeover. He is as full of quick judgments as any civil servant for the Raj, but in his best moments—which are, I would say, his most American moments—he turns all these on himself, reminding us that he is also a former Peace Corps volunteer and a surreptitious liberal. He takes, in fact, the British models he inherited from Waugh, Greene, and Maugham and adds to them psychology and sex. Most of his deepest travel he reserves for his fictional memoirs, such as My Other Life and My Secret History, in which he fearlessly pushes into his own dark fantasies, as if Philip Roth were writing in and about Singapore, Malawi, and Honolulu.

Beyond both of the old powers, England and America, however, the most exciting new works of travel today come from those who are children of the global empire, and bring some of the liberating fusions of Salman Rushdie and the expanded possibilities of magical realism into the domain of nonfiction. When Suketu Mehta, longtime resident of New York, describes in Maximum City the Bombay in which he grew up, he writes neither as a horrified visitor nor as a knowing local, but as both—a mongrel, global creature taking the measure of a global city. What used to be a simple transaction between a privileged master and an “exotic” subject is now a much more complex exchange between multinational soul and multinational place.

The global and local are indistinguishable for more and more of us now, and today’s media can bring much of the sensory strangeness of geographically distant cultures into every household. Twenty years go, a traveler could go to Bali and justify the trip by bringing back the sights and sounds of a place that few readers ever experienced for themselves. Nowadays, when nearly everyone can access Bali on their laptops, the travel writer has to map those places that no video camera or tape recorder could ever capture. The models for the twenty-first-century travel writer are increasingly such explorers of the inner terrain as Henry David Thoreau and Marcel Proust.

The really lasting works of travel, after all—the ones that transform the field from within so that many readers would not even recognize them as “travel”—are the ones that are so deeply driven by personal questions that all talk and thought of empire falls away. As in any conversation, each party is trying to figure himself out through the other, and the ones most open to transformation are the ones most honest about their own wounds. What we get from any place, as Emerson always told us, is only what we bring to it.

I am thinking here of the late 
Ryszard Kapuściński
, who covered the convulsions of the developing world as a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency for decades. Traveling out of an oppressed Communist Poland, Kapuściński omitted from his dispatches the mad parables and cautionary tales he would later put into his books, but he could not fail to tell the story of dictatorship and its discontents. Whether in Ethiopia or prerevolutionary Iran, he was always covertly sending his Polish readers coded reports of home. Jan Morris writes in the style of the great British servants of Empire, but she writes as a woman—indeed, as a former he (James Morris), who underwent a sex-change operation in 1972who is effectively chronicling in her stately prose the fall of the British flag at outposts across the globe and the rise of a bounding new power that she can’t help falling in love with, America.

Morris has lived so long that she has begun to find—in places like Singapore, Toronto, or Hong Kong—the outlines of what will remain after someone has played the last requiem for the American Empire and acknowledged that America defines the world only insofar as it is made up of people from everywhere. And her great counter and near-contemporary, V.S. Naipaul, has never tried to disguise the fact that he has been watching the fall of empire, and the emergence of something more rootless and indecipherable, with the eyes of a boy for whom empire was everything—the answer to the disheveled, unhistoried places he’d grown up among, in Trinidad and its Indian communities. Remaking himself as an Englishman and then going to England to find that the club that he so longed to join is now closed (even if it might not have accepted him in the first place), and that the city is full of other fugitives from the West Indies and India are what give the great melancholy and even rage that power his best books. Reading him, you never feel that the divisions between order and chaos, between an old history and a coming anarchy, are something external.

If you hunger for foreign reports on how the Afghans live, you can still find them—often offered by Britons who write in the Victorian mode (as Rory Stewart, of Eton and Oxford, of the British army, and of Britain’s diplomatic service, in his The Places in Between); if you want an American narrative of sensitivity, learning, and reflection, there are few better books (let alone better guides to contemporary China) than the deeply literate, graceful narratives of Peter Hessler. The Queen’s Guard and the Peace Corps will never be done entirely. But insofar as the genre has a future in a world in which so many hundreds of millions are traveling—American kids to Phnom Penh and Cape Town, Cambodians and Africans to the suburbs of LA—it can only be one in which the old imperial fixities have crumbled. This will not be Thomas Fowler’s book, you could say, or even Alden Pyle’s. It will be written by Phuong, the young Vietnamese woman who has seen empires come and go and, perfectly and shrewdly attuned to the moment, decides in an English she will remake in the process how she will make a fresh future among them.

Related Reads