An Introduction to VONATRAVELS
I am thrilled to join the Panorama masthead as Senior Editor for VONATravels, a new section featuring graduates of the VONATravel Workshop. Five years ago, VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts, the USA’s only multi-genre workshop for writers of colour, asked me to design the first writing workshop for travellers of colour in the nation. I leapt at the chance to impact such an important literary form, and from the start, Amy Gigi Alexander was one of our strongest supporters. Once Panorama was born and took the literary travel world by storm, she promoted our workshop and brought its graduates into the fold. We are now truly honoured to partner with Panorama in our shared mission to transform the faces of travel and travel writing to reflect the true diversity and complexity of our world.
I’m fond of saying that folks of colour are the most traveled people on the planet, be it voluntary or involuntary. For those of us residing in the global North, every time we leave our houses, we travel culturally. Those of us residing in the global South cover the most distance in our daily lives and are additionally the most-visited demographic—our homes the sites of the fastest annual growth in tourism. And yet, despite these numbers and the exponential rise in black and brown travelogues in the digital world, travel publishing remains severely segregated.
Much like when I travel, my work in growing the next generation of travel writers is often ambassadorial. I assure folks of colour that their migrations and returns and code-switching and cross-cultural negotiations do in fact ‘count’ as travel. I ask editors and conference organisers where are the diverse voices. As travel literature has immense power and potential to shape our understanding of the globe and its inhabitants, this lack of inclusion is profoundly troubling. How can we possibly hope to get an authentic representation of our world if only a few privileged voices pen the narrative? How can we hope to move beyond recycled tropes and the imperialist origins in travel language? Innovators like Panorama, with its globalist vision, are creating critical space and redefining 21st century travel.
In this, the LOST issue, we are also introducing a new section of Panorama focusing on Travel Journals, one of the oldest and enduring forms of travelogue, stemming back to the 2nd century A.D. Those familiar with my work will recognise the travel journal as a genre near and dear to me. What a guilty pleasure and a privilege it is to peek into the traveller’s diary—the place where it could be argued we live most authentically and vulnerably. The journal is where we record our impressions and ask hard questions, where we shelter identities we often have to keep in check, where we track personal change. Where it is in fact okay to be lost.
It is fitting that the story in the inaugural VONATravels and Travel Journals sections comes from two-time VONATravel graduate Mary Ann Thomas. A travel nurse and cyclist, Mary Ann spent four months in 2017 bicycling from the Himalayas down to her parents’ homeland in South India. I loved her thoughtful, daily Instagram posts, but when my husband and I decided to take a quick trip to Delhi for a wedding, I didn’t bother to reach out. She didn’t have a set itinerary; we only had four days to tour before the ceremony; and India’s 29 states cover 1.27 million square miles. And yet, 40 minutes after my husband and I arrived in tiny, dusty Agra, Mary Ann strolled into the lush garden of our guesthouse.
Over the bottle of coconut rum that, up until then, I’d wondered why I was carting around, she mesmerised us with tales of experiencing India’s great diversity on two tyres. The country doesn’t have a culture of recreational long-distance bicycling, so she, a queer brown Indian American woman, and her queer white male Canadian cycling partner had become minor celebrities, being featured in local media and galvanising bicycle clubs eager to host them. ‘Don’t even wait to write an essay,’ I exhorted her. ‘Someone smart will want to publish those Instagram postings as on-the-road journals!’ In the morning, after spending sunrise together at the Taj Mahal, we left for Jaipur, waving goodbye to Mary Ann, her buddy, and our local guide, who all reconvened that evening for dinner.
Two months later, in another stroke of serendipity—these happy coincidences that convince us travellers this big world is actually quite small—Panorama asked me to edit those very journals. I am delighted to share ‘Every 100 Kilometres a New Country: Bicycling Across India’. Such an auspicious beginning is surely a sign of great things to come.
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