BGTW Talks Travel: Decolonising travel writing

On Tuesday 15 July, BGTW member Meera Dattani hosted a panel of expert writers and academics to discuss ‘decolonising travel writing’.

The webinar discussed how modern travel media including writing and photography, either through lazy stereotyping or something more sinister, has given rise to outdated tropes, language and images.

The panellists discussed why we should be addressing this as an industry and how travel media can play its part.

Meera, a freelance travel and culture journalist, co-editor of Adventure.com and guidebook author, wrote a piece for the Telegraph recently on the topic and opened the discussion with the history of modern British travel writing.

The industry really took off during European expansion including the British Empire, with stories usually told from a white, male, Western gaze. In 2020, this viewpoint is no longer as relevant as it used to be, as the industry requires a better diversity of voices.

Travel writing bingo

Monisha Rajesh, author of Around the World in 80 Trains and writer for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Sunday Telegraph and Vanity Fair (@monisha_rajesh), opened by mentioning that much writing is dominated by ‘colonial overhang’.

“‘Colonial’ to British writers conjures up an image of tea on a lovely lawn”

History is always written by the victors, she started, and outlined that colonisation meant a very different thing to people that lived in colonised countries. She mentioned that even the word ‘loot’ is a Hindi word to describe what the British did in the country.

Monisha highlighted a lack of education being the reason that keeps the problematic narrative of “travel writing bingo” going even today, but fortunately contemporary books are starting to address this.

Correcting the narrative

Ash Bhardwaj, a writer, and broadcaster whose most recent trip was a 8,500-kilometre overland trip through former Soviet countries (@AshBhardwaj), opened by saying that many white people still have a ‘blind spot’ to these issues. Travel writers are not being willfully malevolent but are simply not aware of others’ experiences.

decolonising travel writing
Decolonising travel writing: The panellists

Ash commented that having more diverse writers will help to balance the perspectives – and will address the fact that travel writing has become repetitive. By exploring new cultures, like that of the Seto people in Estonia, and new destinations – and not just ‘the region of India where great granddad kept the natives under heel’ – we will redress the narrative.

Honesty above all else

Noo Saro-Wiwa – in 2018, one of Condé Nast Traveler Magazine’s ‘World’s 30 Most Influential Female Travellers’ (@noosarowiwa) and author of Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, added that, if you explore a country, you have to take the rough with the beautiful.

“Exploring the psyche of a nation is what people are looking for”

Noo continued that even facets that might be ‘aesthetically negative’ are important to the social dynamic of a country. The only thing that matters is honesty; a colonial viewpoint means you are selling a message that a country went downhill after the British left, but what these countries have now is an amazing hybrid of cultures including dance, religions and food.

Dissonance in literature

Tim Hannigan, author of three books of narrative history and a PhD student of ethical issues in writing (@Tim_Hannigan), continued that there is a domino effect in our literature. New destinations are dynamic but our laziness or lack of comprehension means we simply fall back on referring to texts we have seen before, which leads to an insidious (albeit unintentional) approach.

He highlighted that the first arrival to a destination such as Bali is nothing like the temples and rice fields you read about – it’s modern and surprisingly similar to our own country. Of course journalists don’t mention this part of the experience, which continues the dissonant narrative.

Note from BGTW Chairman

Discussing the talk, Simon Willmore, BGTW Chairman, commented: “The BGTW was delighted to lead the discussion on decolonising travel writing – which requires a much-needed modernisation of the way we portray destinations.

“Travel writing has become lazy and regularly harks back to the days of the Empire, with outdated language and imagery such as ‘colonial accommodation’.

“The most important webinar of lockdown”

“As many of our members have said, this was “the most important webinar of lockdown” – and this is just the beginning of the conversation. The Guild wants to continue with more talks and initiatives on the subject. If anyone in the industry is interested in participating or holding similar in events, please do email me: simon@bgtw.org.”

Watch the video

Guild members can watch the recording of the webinar at bgtw.org/webinars and non-members who registered will receive a link to the video via email shortly. If you have not received the link, please email benita@bgtw.org.

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