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In this interview, Alton asks Lavinia about The Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, the nebulous speculated futures of travel literature – in particular, travel writing by women – and the very people we become when we are on the (metaphorical and literal) road.
Alton Melvar M. Dapanas: You’ve been asked about your literary influences in travel writing in your other numerous interviews. So I’m going to ask you: who are the travel writers and what are the collections and anthologies of travel essays and travel memoirs that have caught your attention as of late?
Lavinia Spalding: First, Marcia DeSanctis’s A Hard Place to Leave, which came out last year, is breathtaking. It’s a memoir-in-essays about a life of coming and going and the places that hold us, and her writing is luminous – I think it’s essential travel reading. In the anthology category, Letter to a Stranger, edited by Colleen Kinder, is also extraordinary, filled with short epistolary essays by a diverse roster of voices. The collection grew from a column in the online literary journal Off Assignment, with each essay following the prompt, ‘Write to a stranger who haunts you.’ I had the honour of contributing a letter to the anthology, along with such writers as Leslie Jamison, Lauren Groff, and Pico Iyer. Speaking of Pico, I just taught alongside him in August at the annual Book Passage Travel Writers & Photographers Conference – a conference I strongly recommend all aspiring and veteran travel writers attend. He’s one of my favourite writers (and the kindest, most gracious possible person). Pico’s new memoir, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, is one of the last books I read. It’s a lush, gorgeous meditation for the traveller’s mind and heart. I’m currently reading Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s The Man Who Could Move Clouds. Though it wouldn’t necessarily be categorized as travel memoir, the book focuses on the author’s homeland of Colombia and includes a journey back there, and her writing is incandescent. I always love Suzanne Roberts’ writing, which is at turns poignant and hilarious, and she has several books I recommend, including two essay collections, Bad Tourist and Animal Bodies. In the category of books I’m excited to read are Maggie Downs’ Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, about the author’s mission to complete her mother’s bucket list, since her mother was unable to do it herself; The Slow Road to Tehran: A Revelatory Bike Ride through Europe and the Middle East by Rebecca Lowe, which I’ve heard is outstanding; and South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry. (Since I moved to New Orleans seven years ago, I’ve been collecting books that help me better understand the South.) I could go on and on. There are countless travel writers doing really admirable and inspiring work right now. My to-read list is much too long and grows only longer.
Dapanas: With the folding of The Best American Travel Writing after more than twenty years of canon-making in the genre, a lot of people within travel writers’ coteries have been alarmed with the so-called ‘end of an era’, or worse, ‘the death of travel writing’. On the perennial question ‘Is travel writing dead?’ what is your take?
Spalding: It’s a fair question. That said, you can surmise from my last answer that I don’t believe travel writing is ‘dead’. Yes, I think we’re seeing the end of an era, but aren’t we always? Consider the genre’s origins – in a time when most people weren’t able to leave home, travel writing was pure documentation, hardly more than a means to help the homebound imagine the world ‘out there’. Most of it was pretty damn dry, and devoid of personal reflection. Today’s travel writing bears little resemblance to that, and it is perpetually shifting.
Also, would the end of this era be the worst thing to happen? Not really. In many ways, it’s an appropriate and necessary response, considering our climate crisis and the fact that a lot of the travel writing of the past was based on outdated and problematic notions and penned by a dominant culture. I’m certainly not the first travel writer or editor to bring up the point that travel writing is fraught. I’ll confess I was thrilled when one of my essays was a notable in The Best American Travel Writing, and that I felt disappointed when it folded, but I think we can all agree that many aspects of this era should just go ahead and end.
That said, I’ll agree that the industry has changed in some discouraging ways. Far too many first-rate travel publications have folded. It’s a gut punch every time, but again, travel writing has reinvented itself numberless times, and I suspect – and hope – we’re seeing yet another iteration: an iteration of reckoning, in which the pieces being published are more thoughtful and respectful, with a heightened awareness of the writers’ privilege and implicit biases. An iteration in which the pieces are also more interesting, as we hear from marginalized writers willing to interpret meaningful experiences and encounters in a way we might not have previously considered. I see many colleagues increasingly committed to caring for our fragile planet and preserving vanishing places and cultures. I see far more conscious-tourism and environmental-impact pieces and fewer surface impressions and extractive narratives. And I’m reading more articles in which residents are treated with dignity and invited to speak for their own culture. Perhaps we’re moving into an ethical iteration, an era in which places aren’t as exoticized and commodified. So, no: I’m not alarmed about the death of travel writing. It isn’t going anywhere, because people are still going … anywhere. The desire to learn firsthand about the world – and find out how we can grow and improve ourselves from global cultures – is as prevalent as always (or maybe more prevalent than ever). There’s just more focus now on a component largely overlooked before – actually supporting those cultures and giving back to them, or at least connecting with them in a significant, more authentic way. The other reason I don’t think travel writing will ever die is because storytelling is a basic human need. We have to tell stories and we have to hear them. And the very best stories emerge when we’ve stepped outside of our comfort zones and activated our sense of wonder. So, I guess my take is that I’m curious about the direction travel writing is headed, and I’m hopeful.
Dapanas: A lot of reimagining of travel writing has been happening lately, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Where do you think it has led us? And where do you think are we headed?
Spalding: I’m definitely seeing more intention and inclusivity infused into the genre as we read more writers within underrepresented cultures. This is as it should be, and it’s an exciting development. With that, I’m seeing more expansive views and extensively researched ‘thought pieces’, and fewer ‘go-here, do-that, conquer-this-destination’ narratives. Editors seem to want deep dives into ecological and cultural conservation. And of course, with AI in the mix now, who knows what will happen, but I imagine publishers may use AI for more straightforward service writing such as listicles and round-ups, while human travel writers will continue creating what AI could never produce: excellent longform work that explores the ways in which a certain place moves us and changes us; contemplative essays about engaging with communities and learning from the people we meet, while considering the impact of our travels and how we can be of benefit, or at least minimise harm.
Dapanas: In your introduction to the eighth volume of The Best Women’s Travel Writing, you disclosed quite an intimate story:
‘When I was little, we didn’t travel. My parents couldn’t afford airplane tickets, and we were never one of those road-tripping-skiing-camping-fishing-s’mores-by-the-bonfire families. We were a stay-indoors-play-monopoly-read-politely-on-the-sofa people.’
Spalding: I don’t recall travelling with my family, or even going camping, with the marked exception of a three-week road trip in 1980, when we moved from New Hampshire to Arizona in a refurbished school bus. I was ten, and those three weeks opened my eyes wide to what lay beyond rural New Hampshire. My first airplane flight was at age seventeen, when a high school friend invited me to accompany her to California, and I still remember, viscerally, the way my stomach flipped when the earth released its hold on us and we were in the air. But it wasn’t until I backpacked around Europe at age twenty-three, the summer before my senior year of college, that it became clear I’d been missing out and needed to make travel a significant part of my life. How I’d accomplish this was a mystery, though, since I didn’t have any money (I’d paid for the Europe trip with student loans – no regrets). Then at the end of my senior year, travel landed in my lap in the form of a job teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Busan, South Korea. I was a writer – I had always been a writer of fiction and poetry – and suddenly I was a traveller, too. But a travel-writing career never occurred to me. I became a travel writer only because I was a writer who travelled, and because I finally came to understand that the real world and real people were more interesting than any of the fictional worlds or people I’d been trying to create in my mind. With the money I earned teaching in South Korea, I backpacked extensively, and I began publishing travel essays and articles, and eventually, books.
This path has shifted as I’ve moved into parenthood and middle age, though. I have an eight-year-old son who needs me at home more, so it’s become harder to step away for long stretches. And I no longer have the time or energy to travel the way I did when I was young: going everywhere and seeing everything and collecting endless adventures and experiences. I prefer now to familiarise myself with one place, one tiny neighbourhood even, and I feel outrageously grateful whenever I get to use my passport. I’m still travelling, just not the way I used to. And I know that as my son gets older, the path will continue to change. My husband and I have already discovered that the world smiles upon a child – he’s a terrific ambassador and ice-breaker – and I look forward to seeing more of the world through his eyes.
When I do travel without my family these days, it’s mostly to teach writing workshops. This has become my favourite way to travel. I’ve taught in places like Costa Rica, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, and Peru, and I have two upcoming workshops this spring, in Yelapa and Sicily. I really love helping writers understand a place more fully, and guiding them through a nuanced articulation of their impressions. I teach online classes as well, and I’ve been writing a lot about New Orleans, where I’ve lived for the past seven years. I’m finding it so valuable to lean into this fascinating city – to be open and vulnerable to its complex history and rich culture as it slowly accepts me and lets me in. It’s an honour to gain intimacy with a place as important and iconic (and mythologized) as New Orleans.
Dapanas: I’m curious why a handful of the travel essays you wrote for magazines are set in South Korea. Is there a certain connection you feel towards the country?
Spalding: South Korea is the geographical love of my life. When I moved there after college to teach ESL, I planned to stay for a year, but I fell so wholeheartedly for the country and its people and culture that I ended up living there twice, totalling about six years. I learned the language, studied Tae Kwon Do, took cooking lessons, began my Buddhist path, and forged friendships that are to this day some of my most treasured. My six years as an expat in South Korea were foundational – they challenged and shaped me, not only as a traveller and writer, but as a woman and human. In 2019, I returned to Busan after 17 years away to write a feature for Westways magazine, and it was one of the greatest assignments of my life. That was such a homecoming for me. I’ll always consider South Korea one of my homes.
Dapanas: In her introduction to Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers (1993), Mary Morris asserts that ‘women’s literature from Austen to Woolf is by and large a literature about waiting, usually for love.’ How has the women’s movement within contemporary travel writing questioned this assigned trope? Can you give us examples of these counter-discourses?
Spalding: Mary’s complete sentence is ‘While the latter part of the twentieth century has seen a change of tendency, women’s literature from Austen to Woolf is by and large a literature about waiting, usually for love.’ The context is the late John Gardner’s assertion that there are only two plots in literature: you go on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Mary posits that because women were historically denied of opportunities to travel, ‘…they were left with only one plot in their lives – to await the stranger.’ She is of course speaking of women’s literature in general here, and as she notes, that tendency has changed in the latter part of the twentieth century.
I don’t think women’s travel writing has much, if anything, to do with this ‘assigned trope’, as you so eloquently put it. In fact, it’s the opposite. Women have always travelled, usually as a way to escape the constraints of social limitations and domestic expectations, and they’ve risked all sorts of physical peril and punishing perceptions about them – but in doing so, they’ve excavated unknown regions of the mind and heart. While editing six editions of The Best Women’s Travel Writing, I’ve read several thousand travel essays (I received 1,300 submissions for the most recent edition alone), and the subjects are as varied as you can possibly imagine. The vast majority has absolutely nothing to do with romantic love. We all know that men long dominated the travel and travel-writing world because women weren’t afforded equal opportunity. But throughout the ages, women have proven again and again that this planet holds countless topics to write about, and from what I’ve observed, ‘awaiting’ anything – including love – hovers near the bottom of the list.
Dapanas: If you were to teach a course on travel literature by women (which you probably did), what formative texts and travel writers from antiquity to contemporary times would you include in the syllabus – apart from the usual suspects like Jan Morris, The Travels of Egeria, Catalina de Erauso’s La Monja Alferez, and Lady Sarashina’s As I Cross The Bridge of Dreams? Who and what have you read that we should know about?
Spalding: I’ve actually never taught a course in women’s travel literature! I lead craft workshops, and though I always include women writers in my curriculum, I tend to draw much more from contemporary lit (especially essays published in The Best Women’s Travel Writing, since I know the collections so well and can explain precisely what made a particular essay stand out from the rest). But if I were to teach a course, I’d likely include some Beryl Markham and Willa Cather – my earliest travel writing inspirations – along with some of the usual suspects and plenty of contemporary badasses. Yes to Jan Morris! Also, Freya Stark, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jamaica Kincaid, M.F.K. Fisher, Mary McCarthy, Dervla Murphy, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Wheeler, Rebecca West, Kira Salak, Maya Angelou, Cheryl Strayed, Faith Adiele, Susan Orlean, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rosemary Mahoney, Xiaolu Guo, Mary Morris, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Noo Sara-Wiwa, Frances Mayes, Nikki Gemmell, Blair Braverman, and everyone else I mentioned earlier (Marcia DeSanctis, Colleen Kinder, etc.). That’s just the tiniest start. There are hundreds of important and exciting women writers I could add to this list.
I’d also include those not known as ‘travel writers’ but whose writing on place are some of our finest models: Terry Tempest Williams, Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a must-read for any travel writer), Gretel Ehrlich, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Katherine Boo, Arundhati Roy, Harriet Doerr, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Dorothy Allison, Jasmin Darznik, Min Jin Lee, and Sarah Broom – again, just for starters. I love writing – whether it’s non-fiction, fiction, or poetry – that extends far below the surface of a place, and the relationship these women have to place is profound.
I always thread a good deal of poetry through my workshops, since poets are unparalleled in their capacity to describe a place with fresh language and help us notice the miraculous in the ordinary, the sacred in the mundane, which are vital practices in good travel writing. So I’d sneak poets into my syllabus, too. I am forever reading Mary Oliver to my students. (Because who in their right mind doesn’t love her?) And some other women poets who evoke place exquisitely are Naomi Shihab Nye, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Molly Fisk, Anna Elkins, Rachel Carson, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, Maggie Smith, Ellen Bass, Ada Limón, Adrienne Rich, Camille T. Dungy, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. And again, of course, this is just a start. I read at least one poem every day to enrich my relationship with language, and I encourage all the travel writers I work with to take up the same practice. Because if we’re going to make it our life’s work to write about something as complicated and heart-breaking and wondrous as the world we live in, then we should do so with the most beautiful, poetic words we can possibly summon.