At Long Last, A New Dawn in Travel Writing
How exciting to see the new dawning of a new day at Panorama in a moment when travel and travel writing are undergoing a long-overdue reckoning. When it launched, Panorama journal was ahead of its time. The magazine was truly global and not just in its destinations. It wasn’t interested in rehashing the usual travel tropes from the usual travel writing suspects. It dared to suggest that travel writers could and should be people of the global majority and that we could write not only about our own corners of the world but also look back at the USA, Australia and Europe, the very centers that had dominated travel writing and publishing and thereby defined the “foreign”.
I joined the Panorama masthead in 2018 as Senior Editor for VONA Travels, a new section featuring graduates of the VONA Travel Workshop (since renamed Traveling While BIPOC). Several years prior, I had been tasked by literary non-profit VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts with designing and launching the first writing workshop for travelers of color in the USA. The workshop shared with Panorama a mission to transform the faces of travel writing to reflect the true diversity and complexity of our world. Both organisations were also committed to broadening the very definition of what has traditionally been considered travel writing.
We saw that editors and publishers seemed to want the same few travel tropes by privileged, leisure travelers, thereby creating a segregated world, literally. While more democratic and accessible to marginalised writers, the alternative – social media – was also problematic. In the explosion of travel bloggers, travel influencers and various so-called travel movements, travel writing and literature has become commercialised and interchangeable with travel “content” (listicles, service pieces, vlogs, Instagram stories and posts).
Though Panorama and VONA, and now a weekly column for Detour: Stories in Black Travel, and a forthcoming craft book, I’ve been working to re-define travel writing to include any genre concerned with cultural encounters or (meta)physical journeys. To me, travel writing includes the stories moving back and forth between language and culture, roots tales, road trips, the road to recovery, climbing from working to middle class, leaving home, study abroad, dropping out of college, pilgrimages/spiritual quests, adventure, research junkets/reportage, international aid/volunteerism/witness, escape, exile, and e/migration. It welcomes involuntary travelers (e.g., exiles, refugees, migrants). It investigates how the traveler’s identity and reason for traveling can be used to problematise the Western fantasy of travel as freedom and self-actualisation. It commits to exploring the complex, hierarchical relationship between traveler and native.
We all like to talk about how travel and travel writing have the potential to make us better global citizens, but that’s not necessarily true. In fact, the exact opposite is often true. Other than the spiritual pilgrimage, the point of most historical travel in the West was to acquire and rename. If contemporary travel is an extension of the colonial project, it only makes sense that the very language we use to speak about travel, encounters with other people and places, and difference carries with it the imperial imperative. Despite our best intentions, our vocabularies—and therefore the way we conceptualise the act and purpose of travel—reinforce power imbalances. We are the center and every other place is “foreign,” filled with the strange and “exotic” or “simple” ways of life.
As Holland & Huggan pointed out nearly twenty-five years ago in Tourists With Typewriters: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing, “Contemporary travel writing may well be attempting to find a new way to encounter the world, based on less exploitative and hierarchical relations than those enacted in earlier periods, but traces of imperial endeavor haunt the very vocabulary, grammar, form, and subjectivities available to the Western traveler.” They go one to identify collective global blindspots called “zones” that have been so mythologised, demonised or romanticised in the West that travelers can’t even see them clearly, never mind write about them. These include the Amazon, the Far East and Deepest Darkest Africa.
People of color/global majority peoples are uniquely positioned to see through zones and complicate the dynamics of travel and place; however, instead of being encouraged to leverage this superpower, the few of us who break into the industry are encouraged to buy into travel tropes, written and visual. Though the shape of our travel stories is often more complex, we are constrained by travel writing’s settler-colonial origins in the teaching, editing and publishing processes.
In their classes and writings on decolonising travel culture and disrupting coloniality in travel writing, travel writer and decolonial expert Bani Amor (a two-time graduate of VONA Travels) explains that “decolonising” travel is not reforming tourism, a capitalist endeavor, not diversifying travelers, not touting so-called sustainable, ethical or eco travel, certainly not glibly acknowledging one’s privilege with a wink. It involves looking deeply at land and power and narrative. Not only is decolonising travel a moral imperative, but it’s an opportunity to have a much deeper, more authentic experience (and not in the acquisitional way the term authenticity is tossed around in “we’re travelers not tourists” circles in the never-ending quest to “discover” so-called “untouched” “paradises” where travelers can unplug and have “an experience” with friendly natives).
I’m known for saying that BIPOC/global majority folks 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. So how can travel writing tell a true story, if a minority of white leisure travelers from the USA, Europe and Australia define the genre (and by extension, the world)? And what good does it do to diversify travel writers, if the language of travel writing retains travel’s colonial and imperialist DNA? How can we come together as a global travel community to craft responsible, anti-exploitative, anti-racist, decolonial travel tales? How can Panorama help shift the center? Those are some of the questions we plan to ask in this renewed partnership with Panorama and in the online travel writing classes we’re planning. Welcome back!
Faith Adiele is a Senior Editor at Panorama.