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Travel writing: so much more than a gentleman’s pursuit

Essay | 5 minute read
Travel writing has traditionally been dominated by men but is that changing? A travel writer and editor reflects on her seminal influences and celebrates the female traveller

When I was a little girl, I loved reading the tales of rural life in Kenya by Elspeth Huxley and Isak Dineson. I also adored At One with the Sea: Alone Around the World by Naomi James, and Come Wind or Weather by Clare Francis, powerful accounts of these women’s single-handed voyages on the world’s great oceans. It was their words, at least in part, that carried me into a life of travel writing.

I didn’t really notice that I’d chosen an all-female line-up as inspiration for this career as a journalist, an editor, a travel writer and novelist. Did I borrow these books from the library by chance? Or was I drawn to reading literature written by an author with a woman’s name, or in some cases with a photograph of a woman on the jacket? Perhaps so. I remember staring at the images of the two female sailors in their hi-vis wet-weather gear on deck and wanting to be just like them. I was certainly drawn to Elspeth Huxley’s voice in The Flame Trees of Thika where she wrote about her childhood through the eyes of a little girl.

On reflection though, I’ve probably read more travel literature by men than women. As a teenager I became obsessed with Bruce Chatwin’s merging of travelogue, reportage, memoir and fiction. Backpacking around China by train I carried Paul Theroux, and Eric Newby got me through the Taklamakan Desert. I was also drawn heavily to fiction with a strong sense of place: anything by Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipul, Michael Ondaatje.

I do remember at that time seeking out books by women rather than stumbling upon them. Freya Stark’s legendary A Winter in Arabia. West with the Night by aviator Beryl Markham. Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt on her 1963 solo ride from Dunkirk towards Persia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and into India. It is Dervla Murphy quoted on the jacket cover of Scraps of Wool, a new anthology of travel writing compiled by Bill Colegrave, to which I have contributed. His modus operandi was to ask travel writers of today to select passages that had inspired them to choose a life on the road. When he and I met, I raised the question of the mix of gender, background and race. Colegrave was refreshingly frank.

‘I absolutely made no effort to balance anything,’ he said. ‘I was wholly objective and never considered gender or origin. But when the book was done, I was pleasantly surprised there were writers from eighteen different countries.’ Women are well represented: ‘they’re just as feisty and interesting as the men, if not more so,’ Colegrave says. ‘If I had to choose my six favourite writers in the book, three would be female and three male.’

He does admit the collection is largely made up of Western voices till the middle of the twentieth century but he tempers the self-criticism, too. ‘[The genre] may not be as Anglo-centric as we think,’ he says. ‘Maybe we’re not seeing the writers from India and China because they’re only writing for their own market.’

Of course, some writers, like they do on their journeys, make the transition across borders with their publishing success, such as the Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova, winner of the prestigious Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year 2017 with her book Border (Granta). She was the only woman on the shortlist of seven but took the top prize. The chair of the judges, award-winning travel writer Sara Wheeler says ‘There are a lot of women in the field now and Kapka is a spokesperson, or at least a figure, of that change.’

Twenty years ago, Wheeler co-edited Amazonian: the Penguin Book of Women’s New Travel Writing with Dea Birkett. In their introduction, they reprinted a poem first published by Punch in 1893, a time when a growing number of single Victorian women were heading off to distant lands.

To the Royal Geographic Society 

A lady an explorer? A traveller in skirts?

The notion’s just a trifle too seraphic:

Let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts;

But they mustn’t, can’t and shan’t be geographic.

Might there still be a need for another book such as this? I ask Wheeler. ‘Anything focused on women is a good thing,’ she says, ‘and in some ways, we have the upper hand in this genre. Travel writing is about observing daily life in foreign parts and when we walk into a shack in the Andes, people aren’t as frightened as they might be if it was a man. I’ve learned more at tables in shacks in the Andes with mothers and their children speaking with me than anywhere. I have huge confidence in the future of travel writing and its women who are going to be coming through to sustain it. It would be absolutely fantastic to have more books like Amazonian, to have women coming up behind us, going into libraries borrowing books like this, from all backgrounds.’

More than gender, more than nationality, perhaps class has been the biggest divider. Historically travel writing has been largely the domain of the middle or upper class, the gaze of the privileged, but even that has shifted. ‘I’m nothing special and I did it,’ Wheeler says, ‘so anybody can. You don’t have to hack through the jungle or lose digits in the polar regions anymore. Ordinary life is unbearably poetic, and travel writing is all about observing people in their ordinary lives. I remember going around the supermarket in Chile (while researching Chile: Travels in a Thin Country) watching all these women filling up their shopping trolleys – that’s the poetic glory of everyday life. That will never cease. And that’s what travel writing is all about.’

Michelle Jana Chan’s debut novel, Song, is published by Unbound. She has contributed to Scraps of Wool, a collection of travel writing edited by Bill Colegrave (Unbound).