At luggage carousels one can question travelling (Donald Horne, The intelligent tourist)
Having just returned from our trip to Hong Kong, I thought this would be a good opportunity to post about some Australian travel writing. Hmm … good idea, but where to start? The first problem is that while I usually enjoy travel literature when I read it, I don’t read it often. And the second one is the focus: should I post on Australians writing about travel or on anyone writing about travel in Australia? I’ve decided on the former, which means that while the writers will be Australian, their subjects will not necessarily be so. Travel writers, as you probably know, are a varied lot: some only write travel, but many are novelists, journalists and other sorts of writers who have, for some reason, written travel books.
To keep it simple, I’ve chosen 3 fairly recent examples that represent different types of travel writing.
1. Robyn Davidson‘s Tracks (1995)
Robyn Davidson has to be the Australian travel writer most contemporary Australians would first think of when asked. Tracks is Davidson’s first travel book and it chronicles her 1,700-mile trek across the central and west Australian deserts using camels. It resulted in her being dubbed “The camel lady”. It also resulted in her developing a fascination for deserts and nomadic life, and in 2006 she wrote an essay titled “No fixed address” for the Quarterly Essay. Her book is an example of what I would call adventure travel literature. There are many more examples of this type – from walkers, sailors, mountaineers and so on.
2. Thomas Keneally‘s The place where souls are born (1992)
Australian novelist Keneally’s book is about the American southwest. It is one of my favourite pieces of travel writing because I lived (and travelled) in the area for three years and fell in love with it, and because Keneally writes about it so evocatively. He matches criticism with reverence, and shares the area’s history and culture with us alongside his own personal reaction to it. What more do we want in travel writing? This book is from Jan Morris‘s Destinations series. Keneally says he considered Sudan (“that bitter, lovely republic”) and Australia before settling on the Southwest. He sees the Southwest the same way I do, as being different (“the space of enormous elevations of mountains, of canyons deep enough to make the brain creep and waver”) from Australia but also similar. He says:
An Australian has to keep on referring to the snow and the heights to remind himself that this is not some town in western New South Wales. It is as if similar passions have run through the earth’s crust and core and made an organic link between the two places.
I’d put this in the category of traditional travel literature – it’s both descriptive and reflective of place and people, and it shows what is individual to the place in question while also revealing the universals. He concludes the book with:
But, in the spirit of the book, it is the chanting [from the Pueblo] we fix on, going away with it more or less in our ears. I take to the road strangely assured that someone is singing for us, celebrating matters we have got out of the way of celebrating for ourselves. The eternity of things. Even of our own spirits.
3. Don Watson‘s American journeys (2008)
Don Watson has impeccable writing credentials. Not only has he written about cant, jargon and weasel words in Death sentence and Watson’s dictionary of weasel words but, with American journeys, which covers his travels in America, post-Hurricane Katrina, he won the Age Book of the Year and the Walkley Award for best non-fiction book. “To journey in America,” he says, “is to journey in language”. While the book is a little repetitive at times – because the same issues keep cropping up as he travels – it captures the paradox that is America. He sees how its wonderful can-do-ism is offset by a focus on individualism that refuses to see that sometimes individualism needs to be over-ridden for the common good, that there are some things that government should do to ensure that all its citizens are well cared for. Katrina ably demonstrated this. Watson says:
… if it is true that private businesses are efficient because it is in their nature to seek and maximise profit – which is to say their self-interest – then the pursuit of the public interest is not in their nature, and one may as well look to a rattlesnake for kindness as to corporations for the rebuilding of a city full of people. It is pointless; and it follows that it’s just as pointless to imagine that a country governed by the principle of private interest is capable of fixing problems in the public interest – be they local, like New Orleans; national, like poverty; or global, like the environment or peace …
He goes on to say that while American churches, corporations and the nation as a whole
do good and selfless works at home and abroad, it is also true that, in these days of culture wars, the idea of government being the principal agent of such works is faded. That is what New Orleans revealed …
Watson’s book is in a category I’d call socio-political travel literature. This sort of writing tries to understand how a society works, what makes it what it is.
The travel writing I like best:
- is generous towards its subject matter, that is, it doesn’t whitewash the negatives but neither does it refuse to understand them
- uses language that captures my imagination
- has a sense of humour (though not necessarily laugh-out-loud funny)
- illuminates place and people – that is, it looks beyond the clichés
In his book The intelligent tourist, Donald Horne (known to most Australians as the author of The lucky country and The education of young Donald), suggests that tourists “give up sight-seeing for sight-experiencing“. This sense of “experience” is what I look for in travel writing – as well as in my own travelling.
Do you have favourite pieces of travel writing?