Centuries old, travel writing has been instrumental in crafting perceptions of the world we live in; journeying authors have wielded significant influence over immobile audiences who have wanted to ‘see’ beyond their own square mile of existence.
For the most part, modern travel literature has celebrated a luxurious recreational movement very few could actually afford. Fair to say, in this regard, the modern world has been largely defined through a narrow lens. But historically the genre had a more multicultural past.
Noted travel writers in the millennia leading up to the middle ages included not just Greeks and Romans but also Persians, Arabs, Asians and North Africans, such as the legendary Ibn Battuta. Over the last 400 years however, travel literature has been dominated by western colonial and post-colonial viewpoints (which in turn have been dominated by the upper and middle classes) that have contributed to the larger lens through which places like Africa are viewed globally. Awareness of the consequences of this, including the creation of skewed ‘truths’ that have often governed cultural and racial relationships, is certainly not anything new. In 1978 Edward Said’s Orientalism unapologetically alerted and unpacked these arguments to pretty good effect. But how much has really changed?
While mainstream travel writing has since become more self-aware (with less carelessly Eurocentric narratives), the genre has altered very little when it comes to greater representation within its authorship, especially where African representation is concerned. As the 21st century gets into its full stride, what opportunities are there for widening the narrow source of this quietly influential genre? Is there any room in particular for an African Diaspora whose post-colonial migratory patterns have contributed to some of the fastest global social convergences human history has ever seen?
Aside from their unique viewpoints on both ‘new’ and ‘old’ homes over the last sixty years, periodic visits to parental homelands and an increase in travel for work and recreation offer new discourses on identity and agency for exploration. In the continent itself, where intra-African travel has already been re-defined by the creation of new nation states in the last century (and where national identities themselves continue to gestate), new modes and routes of movement within the continent have also led to fresh encounters.
Yet much of this experience is not properly documented, shared; nor has there been a realization of its potential to influence how Africa is viewed globally. While a democratisation of travel amongst African and African Diaspora communities themselves has begun to occur, these broadened opportunities have yet to be reflected in a significant body of travel literature penned and owned by them.
In contrast, travel literature from Asia and its Diaspora has increasingly included commercially successful work by individuals journeying through their own nation state and regions. While the unmitigated success of Trinidadian Asian author V.S. Naipaul is well known, others of Asian descent are also finding a Western, and sometimes global market for their travel writing: in the best-selling Red Dust, Beijing journalist Ma Jian recounts extensive travels across a fast changing 1980s China; similarly, north Indian Pankaj Mishra has published critically acclaimed travel writing on the sub-continent. So, what of Africans and the Diaspora?
At a South Bank event in July last year, Noo Saro-Wiwa, the author of Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, was asked by the host why she had chosen to deliver a piece of travel literature on Nigeria rather than a work of fiction, given the success of Nigerian story tellers over the years. The question rankled a little.
Saro-Wiwa’s book – albeit not embraced by everyone – was a much needed push by an African Diaspora writer into the genre. For years, one of the only notable exceptions on the average mainstream bookstore shelf was the work of Gary Younge, a Black Briton whose travel writing has incorporated discourses on identity that might have otherwise gone unrecognised without the inclusion of this Diaspora perspective.
So, as a recent commercial success, what does the entry of Transwonderland herald, if anything? The cynical response might be: not much. After all, the eyes of Noo Saro-Wiwa on Nigeria, as the daughter of executed Ogoniland activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, were always going to offer the kind of tale that a Western-led publishing industry was interested in digesting….once in a while.
And in many ways this view then leads to more difficult questions. Do the observations of a second generation Ghanaian or Ugandan from South London on their travels through the Baltic States or the Basque region hold any real currency for the publishing industry? Going further, would there be a readership for a Kenyan or Malian author who had spent a couple of years living and working in Cambodia or Peru? African Diaspora writers wishing to capture perspectives of the West itself through travelogues of European countries and other parts of the global north face the challenge of convincing readers that they have other stories of to tell of being Black in the West, beyond the often semi-autobiographical fiction of the inner city landscape and its associated urban discord.
Similarly, For African Diasporans keen to pen travel writing about the African continent itself, do the majority of Western audiences – upon whom even the most feted African fiction writers still arguably rely for commercial or literary reasons – want to see the continent through African eyes when they indulge in this genre? Is there space to follow the recent Asian successes and create a critical mass that changes the face of the genre for good? Or must we accept that the success of travel writing in the West is partly due to the escapism it offers readers who only really want to shadow the shoes of those whose opinions remain the most familiar and the most respected: predominantly male, predominantly white, and predominantly middle class?
Perhaps precisely because of the challenges this genre presents, I would argue that the need to create a space for African eyes within travel writing is crucial in the world we now live in (and the more gloriously heterogeneous those eyes, the better). Apart from the literary edification this would provide, the dynamics of influence, agency, and empowerment that are at play here cannot be ignored, particularly in a century where the African continent remains at the heart of hotly contested discourses in economic and human development, and deep issues of global inequalities remain unresolved. Images of the world – whether painted by the photographic lens or the writer’s pen – are power. African Diaspora eyes in the realm of travel writing that document the African continent and the rest of a fast moving 21st century world have never been more needed.
Fatimah Kelleher is a writer based in London.