Travel Writing and the American Gaze: The Best American Travel Writing, edited by Anthony Bourdain and Jason Wilson
(Disclaimer: I feel super obsolete writing a review of a 2008 collection. In fact, I even felt obsolete reading this book in public. The downside of including years in collection titles [as opposed to, I suppose, big Roman numerals, or even Arabic numerals; see the “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD series]. I’ll just pretend that 2008 was a good year for wine and travel essays.)
I would never have read this book, but my mom happened to have it and was no longer interested in reading it. My mom regularly checks out plastic-coated hardcovers from the library that some American woman or British man or vice versa wrote about their lovely summer or decade in Tuscany or the south of France or Venice or where-have-you. She thought this would be in keeping with her reading proclivities, but no— the book is instead filled with reporter-at-large type essay dispatches from Chad, Cambodia, northwest Pakistan, Turkmenistan. Full of danger and discomfort; not stories where you necessarily want to trade places with the protagonist. She blamed series guest editor Anthony Bourdain, whose brand is after all titled “No Reservations.”
She thought it would be my thing though. And I guess it kind of is.
The diversity of the stories and the journalistic clarity of the writing (the most-represented major publications here are The New Yorker and Travel + Leisure, with some Harper’s and Slate thrown in) made for consistently interesting, entertaining reads. I’ve never followed travel writing as a genre, but there’s something to be said for getting the opportunity to be thrown into a far-flung place for 6-12 pages at a time, learning minutiae about a country or city or neighborhood you’d maybe never have thought of otherwise, much less visited.
But I have my complaints. And I don’t know if I should lay these complaints at the feet of individual writers and editors, or upon the shoulders of the genre as a whole.
The first thing that struck me, several stories in, was that most of the writers were men. Four out of the twenty-five essays were written by women. It took about ten essays to get to the first woman-penned story, and, lo and behold, it was a super-short, semi-humorous, quasi-poetic reflection on a bathroom hookup with a hot Israeli in a Brazilian youth hostel (“Mr. Tingler,” by Emily Maloney). Not exactly comparable in gravity to, say, the embedded reporters in African war zones (see: “African Promise,” by J. Malcolm Garcia; “The Border,” by Peter Chilson).
I get that this is largely a question of access. While women can and do travel most of the world, there are places and contexts where they aren’t quite as welcome, and spaces that are not as easy to penetrate and move freely in. (Exceptions, maybe, can be found in Kristin Ohlson’s “Kabul Nights,” in which she visits secret restaurants in the Afghan capital, and Annie Nocenti’s “The Most Expensive Road Trip in the World,” in which she and a female documentarian ride along with Qatari princes and real estate magnates on a falconing trip through some of Pakistan’s least hospitable parts.)
This lack of representation makes sense, but it’s still disappointing. It’s like living in a little world where, superficially, women have every opportunity that men do, but then zooming out and remembering that they don’t, that the outside world is even farther from a liberal paradise than America is.
When I went to Lebanon solo (I swear, I’ll shut up about this some day), I felt extra apprehensive because of my gender. My fears proved mostly unfounded, though I definitely attracted strange looks wandering the streets of Beirut by myself, taking pictures. When I arrived in Paris, before my (male) friend met up with me, I was hassled by two separate panhandlers in front of Sacre-Coeur within two minutes; after he joined me, there was no similar incident for the remainder of the trip. When a female friend told me about her solo travels in Eastern Europe, she recommended attaching oneself to older local women to safeguard against creeps. Shit, even here, when I walk home from BART at night, I have my spidey senses on for the entire walk home (it’s generally a pleasant enough suburban neighborhood, but there is the occasional crime in the area and there’s almost no street light, which turns every shadowy passerby into a potential misogynistic psychopath).
So maybe there are problems in other parts of the world, presenting us with a stark dichotomy of gender access, and this isn’t the fault of the authors or editors of any one travel volume. But my other complaint was the way the writers themselves, these American men, talked about the cultures they visited, in particular foreign women, their interactions with them and how they are treated by their countrymen: what I like to call the American gaze.
In particular, two stories rubbed me the wrong way. The first was “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” by Jeffrey Tayler. You might already be apprehensive because of the title. I was too.
“The Woman in the Kuffiya” is a short, three-page personal anecdote originally published on WorldHum.com. In it, Jeffrey Tayler retells a brief encounter he had with an Arab woman in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, in a town called Harran. He is walking along a road by himself, “lost in thoughts about history and the Bible.” Then, the young woman in the kuffiya, or red-and-white-checked Arab scarf, pulls up her horse-drawn cart and offers him a ride. She speaks no English, and he converses with her in his limited Arabic. Her name is Hawa’. He asks if she is married, she is. She offers him fresh baked bread. She complains about the men in her village and how lazy they are.
But mostly, Tayler is captivated by her beauty. When she first releases her kuffiya, it unmasks “a comely, full-lipped mouth and clear bronzed skin.” Aware of the fact that he is in an Islamic country, he tries to avoid staring, but “she was just too beautiful.”
When they reach his destination, he turns to say goodbye, and they share a charged gaze filled with a shared “repressed lust.” Then she readjusts her kuffiya and moves on.
Tayler ends by contemplating the strength of his attraction to this woman. The last two lines:
“The oft-maligned Islamic custom of purdah does much to preserve passion in its most urgent and ineffable form. No topless beach has ever, to me, looked the same after Harran.”
I’m really not sure how to take this. On the one hand, he could be commenting on the paradoxical tendency of sexual repression to perversely promote sexuality and bring it to the forefront of thought, something Foucault wrote about and Russell Brand adapted in a bit to apply to the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings, which I don’t disagree with. But what else is happening here? Is he Orientalizing/fetishizing Islamic womanhood? Is he placing an entire culture and its participants within the context of his own male, desirous American gaze? (“Gee whiz, I don’t really believe in women covering themselves, but now that you mention it, it’s pretty awesome for my libido.”)
Admittedly, it’s a brief, subjective piece, and it’s Tayler artfully, un-self-consciously reproducing the experience exactly as he lived it. But sometimes the way we live things doesn’t deserve to be transferred unfiltered from head to page, where it can sit with an undue sense of its own weight and authority.
The second story was “Looking for Mammon in the Muslim World,” by Seth Stevenson, originally published on Slate.com, about the author’s through-the-looking-glass trip to Dubai. This one I was a little more ambivalent about, because in some ways it feels like it could have been written by the male me. Like “The Woman in the Kuffiya,” it’s more overtly subjective than most of the other essays in this collection, and the dude doesn’t try to hide his insanely American and Western worldview. In fact, he comes off sounding like he’s never even been a travel writer before this moment—there’s a sense of innocent wonder in his story lacking in the work of the other writers, who tend to favor feigned objectivity or, at the very least, wry appreciation.
On the flip side, Stevenson’s naïveté also means he seems to have embarked on this little journey with only the shallowest understanding of Islam and the Arab world, likely gleaned from cable news channels and newspaper headlines. His mission: to understand the bizarre spectacle of capitalism in the middle of the Middle Eastern desert that is Dubai, and to extrapolate that to grandiose statements and solutions on the East-West cultural divide. For him Dubai is confounding: how can the Arab world have its own answer to Las Vegas? How can a religion so often at odds with Western civilization enjoy the fruits of our decadent, consumerist system?
For the most part he tackles these questions with humor and levity, and for the most part that’s fine. But at one point, he goes into a little “aside” in which he lists three bones he has to pick with the way women are treated in the U.A.E. He puts these “bones” in list form, which was such a total me move that I almost liked him for it—but then, the content of this aside was stunning in its ignorance (not me, I hope):
“1. It seems horribly unfair that the men’s dishdashas are white, while the women’s long cloaks (called abayas) are black. I ask you: Which would you rather wear beneath a blazing desert sun? If Arab culture weren’t otherwise so progressive on gender issues, I might say this was a clever means of discouraging women from leaving the house.
2. The unfairness becomes crystal clear when you go to the beach here. The Emirati women keep their abayas on. Meanwhile, their husbands strip down to tight, short bathing suits—exposing their flabby stomachs and hairy backs.
3. I’m fine with the headscarf that covers the hair. (This seems not unlike wearing a yarmulke.) But the face veil is fundamentally different and, in my view, not okay. One cannot happily contribute to society when one has no face. The veil transforms women into a pair of downcast eyes. And again, it seems, more than anything else, like an enticement to stay at home.”
Oh. Kay. So. Many things wrong. Here.
…Let me respond with my own mini-listicle.
1. Seth, you’re speculating. Nothing else in this fun little story gives me any confidence that you’ve studied Arab history, social or sartorial, so I’d be careful about making any bold hypotheses on the development of gender practices, lest you influence a young mind as impressionable as your own. Read: Your one visit doesn’t make you an expert. And that whole “progressive on gender issues” line? Just snarky. Especially because I feel like you’d be one of those people who’d ask me how much I had to cover myself in Lebanon and how hot it was in the desert there. (For those people: No more than here, and Lebanon isn’t desert.)
2. Considering your #1 and #2 make the implicit assumption that these hypothetical beachgoing couples are Arab, your observation on the hairy backs sounds vaguely racist.
3. Oh, so we’re starting from the place where all things associated with Jewish culture or religion are deemed “good” and a Western-sanctioned benchmark as to what types of head coverings are acceptable? Alright, so with that potentially flawed premise, let it be known that Seth is fine with the headscarf, but he draws the line at the face veil (as he calls it). “Not okay,” says Seth. Those women are oppressed, those men are bad, and Seth is standing by shaking his head. It’s just that simple, people.
Anyway. Believe it or not, this wasn’t the part that gave me the most pause. The pausiest part was later, as Seth tries to wrap up all of his uninformed observations and cultural aggrandizement in one neat little bow, if that bow were a horrible anecdote that somehow managed to be offensive to both Western and Eastern sensibilities at the same time.
It happens when he and a friend go to a club called Cyclone, which is full of prostitutes. The scene disturbs him: young, attractive women playing up to old, bald men, as security looks on to make sure “transactions” are made outside of the club and not in. He even notes the “desperation” in the air, as strong as the scent of one of the Hungarian hooker’s perfume. After scurrying out:
“Let it be said: I have witnessed sexual deviance being tolerated—or at least ignored—within the borders of a Muslim country. And I’m declaring it a promising sign. If there’s one thing the West and the Middle East can come together on, it’s a Hungarian hooker.”
Whether or not this was slightly tongue-in-cheek (it may have been, but still ultimately fit with the overall earnestness of his article), this sentiment kind of took me aback. Coming together over the shared notion of women as prostitutes? Hookers as preferable to women wearing veils? Middle Eastern society being viewed as “progressing” no matter what attribute of Western society it adopts/shares? So creepy in so many ways. (And really: you witnessed sexual deviancy in an Arab, Muslim country? Do tell! …This is kind of like the moment when you’re a certain age and you realize your parents had to have sex to have you.)
Note that the entire essay was written from the point of view of someone who clearly deemed himself a progress-minded liberal, who ended his little story by criticizing some British teenagers who called the Arabs backwards. Racist teenagers. Always easy bait. (See: Twitter.)
These were the two stories that I found the most problematic, maybe in part because of my own focus on the Middle East. But there were others, other stories that produced uneasiness about the nature of the white, male, American gaze, activated in a foreign land. “African Promise” by J. Malcolm Garcia, which unquestioningly adopts the ironic phrase of the title. “Dark Passage” by Peter Gwin, which comfortably revisits Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. “Wheels of Fortune” by Peter Hessler, which basically talks about how much everyone sucks at driving in China.
Travel literature by its very nature must be subjective, a reflection of the society the writer represents entering the society the writer visits. For the American traveler, the American gaze is unavoidable. But I wonder—as a newcomer to the genre—can you write around it? Can I take the scribblings in my travel journals of yore, which admittedly contain signs of my own American gaze, and translate them into something I’d be comfortable publishing? Do Americans have to encounter the world this way—so limited, yet so assured?
I’d be interested to know. Because I kind of want to be a travel writer.
Subtitled: America, like it or not it’s beautiful, even if patriotism isn’t in vogue, because I haven’t been patriotic since post 9/11 pickup trucks turned me off the idea ten years ago, but I think I still love America, kinda
Having recently completed a five-day road trip across the American Southwest, I found myself reflecting on the soul of America.
I don’t know how much I, personally, can speak to it, not having been to the Midwest OR the South which are America’s proverbial heart(andsoul)lands. But I’ve been to three corners and three islands of the contiguous country—15 states—besides myself living in the West — so that’s a pretty good chunk of it eh? And not one but two books I’ve recently read—Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, and American Gods, by Neil Gaiman—deal with the topic of traveling the road in America, as does one of my favorite books of all time, Nabokov’s Lolita. And with the American road trip, intentional or not, comes the search for the meaning of America.
Into the Wild is a nonfiction work by outdoors journalist Jon Krakauer that chronicles the life and death of Chris McCandless, self-dubbed Alexander Supertramp, focusing on the two years he spent living out of his backpack in the Western United States in the early 1990s up to his untimely death. He perished in the summer of 1992 after months of living out of an abandoned bus near Denali National Park, at the edge of the Alaskan wilderness. He probably starved.
In terms of what drove him on this crazy quest: Chris was from a fairly well-to-do DC-area family, but had a difficult relationship with his parents, who he seemed to see as Caulfieldian phonies. As an honors student at Emory University he experimented with asceticism and grad-student theory, growing increasingly disillusioned with his privileged lifestyle and fantasizing about throwing all material possessions and former-life connections to the wind, and instead just existing, body and nature and no commitment to the corruptions of modern human society.
A lot of people think he was stupid or crazy, or at least arrogant, and there is definitely an argument to be made in that vein. But Krakauer’s portrait is deeply sympathetic. He interposes a personal story of his own foolhardy attempt to climb a glacial mountain in Alaska as a youth, solo, as well as the stories of many others who have wandered off into the wild for various reasons and, in most cases, not survived. McCandless, Krakauer implies, was not some loony but rather an idealistic young man following the time-honored tradition of looking for meaning and fulfillment in nature.
On my own road trip, my path twice crossed Krakauer’s and McCandless’s, once in the physical sense and once in the narrative sense. McCandless lived and worked for a time in Bullhead City, Arizona, which sits just across the river from “Las Vegas for families” Laughlin, Nevada. We stopped at this hokey casino town on the Colorado River for a very hot, very dry, not entirely interesting night.
Say what you will about Laughlin, but it truly is an American place, down to its classic American origins story of pluck and business know-how. Don Laughlin (b. 1931) worked in Vegas and attended card dealing school, teaching himself all the tricks of the casino trade, before buying an old hotel in this rundown little community across from Bullhead City. This he gradually grew into a mini-gambling empire that was later named for him. “What you’re looking at is the realization of one man’s dream,” the tour boat guide (a recording) told us. The American Dream, right?
For many tourists, it’s a weekend trip from their nearby Arizona, Nevada, or California hometowns; for (less fortunate) others, it’s their vacation destination of the year. For me, it was a pit stop on a road trip and nothing more, a mere geographic location, something that wasn’t made for me and that didn’t really welcome me in the physical or metaphysical sense. For McCandless, it was also just a stop: a stop on his cross-Western journey, where he put in hours at a part-time food service job to help pay for his ultimate destination, Alaska.
“Bullhead City is a community in the oxymoronic, late-twentieth-century idiom. Lacking a discernible center, the town exists as a haphazard sprawl of subdivisions and strip malls stretching for eight or nine miles along the banks of the Colorado, directly across the river from the high-rise hotels and casinos of Laughlin, Nevada. Bullhead’s distinguishing civic feature is the Mohave Valley Highway, four lanes of asphalt lined with gas stations and fast-food franchises, chiropractors and video shops, auto-parts outlets and tourist traps.” (p. 39)
The second time my path crossed McCandless’s was when we browsed a tiny espresso ‘n’ books ‘n’ outdoor gear store near our hotel in Kanab, Utah, a small town located just north of the Arizona border and south of Utah’s grandiose national parks. The subject of several of the display books was young Everett Ruess, one of those other foolhardy youths that Krakauer speaks about in his book.
Everett Ruess (b. 1914 in Oakland, CA– a fellow East Bay Areaite!) left his family and friends at age 16 to hitchhike around the West and live out of his backpack. This he managed to do for a few years, until somewhere between 1934 and 1935, in the Utah wilderness near Glen Canyon Dam, he disappeared. All that was left of Everett were his packs and his mules. They never found out what happened to him; it’s surmised he probably fell off a cliff. Whatever the case, the mystery surrounding his wanderlust-fueled death transformed him into a local legend, if the proliferation of Everett Ruess-themed books in the area gift shops is any indication.
For all the times that McCandless seems like an idiot who didn’t plan ahead—kind of like Aron Ralston of 127 Hours fame, except that dude pulled through—there’s this flip side of empathy because he did what maybe a lot of us have thought about, even just for a brief second. Maybe he lived in a way that none of us ever will: with no earthly connections, existing in nature and outside the bounds of society, being completely self-sufficient. There’s times when I’ve gazed out a car window and wished I could just hop out the door and run out into a particularly beautiful landscape (kind of a comical image, I know) but reason and logic and practicality and fear of bugs and all these other societal values and inhibitions forbid me. Sometimes I want to make snow angels in a dry meadow. Grass angels.
The search for the transcendent, the desire for life to have meaning could undoubtedly be considered universal sentiments. So could the desire for absolute freedom, particularly as the conditional freedoms of technology bind us, as we are ever more connected and ever more restricted by our connectedness. Even more, though, the special brand of McCandless’s search could, I think, be considered an American sentiment: a messy mixture of rugged individualism and self-reliance and reverence for the natural world that McCandless found in American writers like Emerson and London and Muir. (He also loved Tolstoy.) That these values ultimately took precedence over self-preservation (even before his sojourn to Alaska, McCandless put himself in danger several times) says a lot about their power.
For what it’s worth, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who profess or attempt to live lives of utter self-sufficiency. I think it’s a uniquely American fantasy that’s incredibly indulgent, manifested politically in Ron Paul-style libertarianism. The rejection of society—the societal fabric, the society of others—is a lie unless it is undertaken to its utmost extremes (I’m thinking, hermit on an island?), and anyone else who claims it is a hypocrite who doesn’t appreciate that society does so much for them, that society made them.
McCandless was probably indulgent; he was a privileged kid who hadn’t really experienced hardship; he undoubtedly failed to live completely independently, whether or not he thought that he had. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t succeed to a greater extent that most people ever will; and it definitely doesn’t mean there isn’t value in his story. Even as I shake my head at him, I admire him.
(The film version of this book, by the way, is lovely. Sean Penn directed it and Eddie Vedder wrote a perfect, rambling acoustic soundtrack, and Emile Hirsch was a very fitting and earnest McCandless. Ironically, the relationships McCandless made on the road while trying to escape society were unnaturally deep and meaningful for their short duration—he made an impression on everyone he met, and the film captures this beautifully. Most touching is the scene when Hal Holbrook’s character “Ron” [name changed from real life], who lost his wife and kids in an accident decades earlier, asks to adopt McCandless as a kind of grandson. McCandless demurred until he got back from Alaska, which of course he never did. I openly wept. Holbrook was nominated for his first Oscar.)
Into the Wild is compelling because from the very first page we know what happens in the end. Yet despite the inexorable direction of the story and McCandless’s sensational death (I was too young to follow the news in 1992, but my mom tells me it was a big story), the real value of the narrative is the journey– which in an ironic-but-oh-so-expected twist is ultimately and chiefly life-affirming.
I’ll be on the road this week so no bookshelf entries (can’t wait to get back on track though ’cause I’m like 3 books behind!). Please go check out my travel blog in the meantime, where I’ll be writing about this Northern Californian’s first Southwest trip (besides a brief second-grade sojourn to Santa Fe). IT’S GONNA BE AWESOME.