Dilemmas of Travel Writing

By on 10-13-2009 in Digital Media

travel needs

picture from Amir K from Flickr

Do travelling writers have to care about theories? In our era, where many of the people we write about in far-flung exotic countries could be as media-savvy as us from the near-flung countries, what are some of the ethical dilemmas facing travelling writers? Can anthropology help?

It took 26 years of travelling for Il Millione to become a hit. And more than 700 years of debating to decide if Marco Polo had been telling us an elaborated piece of fibbery. It could have been (even the intro says that some things ‘he beheld not’), since the book was lines and lines of observations, with no local voices. But back then, the Great Kublai Khan didn’t probably care too much about his image overseas.

Il Millione Marco Polo

A page from Il Millione. Probably one of the earliest examples of mashup; the picture does not actually fit with Marco Polo's description.

Nowadays, no publishers or editors like to wait for 26 years for research. Especially travel bloggers, who must face the pressure of writing very frequently and not wait 26 years (You’re in an exotic country! You must have things to write!). Let alone travel journalists, who often don’t have any other choice but to produce, often in areas they have limited knowledge of. Luckily, there are many tips out there.

But there are things that technical tips cannot help too much with. Together with the pressure to produce, travelling writers must also have the sensitivity previously demanded of, and talked about deeply by, anthropologists. Technological advances and discourses on third world-first world equality have created a situation where writers must be aware of the result of their ‘intervention’ in the daily lives of the people they write about, and the effects of representations of their ‘subjects’ –which critical anthropologists now call ‘interlocutors’.

Same thing, different names?

Does changing the name actually change the way we look at things, or is this just a jumble of theoretical talks? I don’t personally divide practices and theories; writing is thinking. Especially that the object/subject binary does not work any longer when the people you’re writing about are likely to be as savvy as you are with your means of production.

Granted, there are places which reside in the lower plateau of the digital gap. But even in a place like East Timor, one of the poorest countries in the world, kids ran up to me after I took their photos, grabbed my old film camera, then looked at the back of it with the utmost disbelief that their digitally reproduced smiling faces were not there for them to judge my photographic prowess.

Jakarta at night

Jakarta at night. Image from bbcworldservice at Flickr

But there are other manners of countries: a place like Indonesia, for example, where you could encounter the higher ends of the digital gap as well as the deepest hole. It is a country where digital activism is very strong, but where internet penetration rate is only 20%. And where the meeting of different perspectives can have interesting results that will need a degree of cultural and historical knowledge to understand.

It is in experiencing urban centres in countries like Indonesia where things could get interesting. Sitok Srengenge, a prominent Indonesian writer told me that in Jakarta, there is ‘no time to think, because you just have ideas all the time’. Because it is a place where you share with 13 million people, you rarely eat alone (it’s considered rude), where luxury cars transport people from glittering apartments to giant shopping malls standing next to polluted rivers and dirty slums, where democracy is slowly growing but corruptions and discriminations still transport people from poverty to even more abject poverty; you can never run out of ideas to write about in these places (as well as places to charge your laptop). But that’s also where you will be most likely encounter tech-savvy, media-savvy people who will have a word or two when you write about their city.

So be ready for some criticism: “There’s a jump cut even Godard would be proud of”, one would say of your video. “Why did you use that music? It doesn’t fit with your narration”, grumbled the other. “Cool”, says the silent guy, with a tone that belies the word. “I also noted some mistakes in your codes while I was looking at your website so I fixed it –I hope you don’t mind.”

People formerly known as audience and subjects

Yes, these are the people formerly known as the audience, as well as formerly known as ‘subjects’. When you write about their places, you won’t have (only) academics or peers debating your works for a hundred years, but your interlocutors would download it, distribute it, mash it up with other things the day it was published.

This is why I think travelling writers have to write with an idea of conversation in mind, not a finished product. This especially applies for journalists, whose works are traditionally about making conversations. But if in the past it was for conversations in pubs, lifts, and coffee shops, nowadays the conversation is done online, and the journalist is expected to have ownership and be involved.

This involvement means a writer can’t merely give her voice away. In fact, it’s probably more important now for journalists to take a stand and make her voice known, instead of hiding behind objectivitiy. Jean Rouch, a French anthropologist, talked of a shared anthropology in the 40s, where his subjects are co-writers but he doesn’t pretend that he’s not there.

And many of these people you are writing about are also likely to have some forms of expressions online; they are also allowing themselves to be written about in order to learn. Do not play the humble pie, because that will be seen as arrogant. Present yourself with what you know. Some people like to have teachers, some like to teach, some like to have equal friends to have discussions with. But everyone likes to share. So, put your pen on the table and get ready to have some discussions.

And to finish, this is a quote from the master, Jean Rouch, when he talks about what’s probably the ultimate project on critical self-reflection: anthropologists and filmmakers making film about filmmakers in Niger.

“To undertake such a project in Africa is almost acrobatic. There are so many obstacles … Philo Bregstein and Dutch television, no doubt for the first time in the history of world television, have managed to make a successful film…avoiding all the standard traps lying around for Western travelers, thoughtless givers of ‘poisoned presents.'”

Are you planning to write and travel in Southeast Asian countries? Or have you had experiences writing from there? Share your experiences, or your questions, your comments, your hopes, etc. etc. Would love to hear from you.

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