In Dark Star
Safari (2002), Paul Theroux’s account of his journeys through Africa,
the author travels through Uganda and Kenya, and explores the nations’ sexual
mores and attitudes towards female genital mutilation. His conversations with a
Kenyan man and Western aid workers are interesting and nuanced, but what
strikes me is the lack of any word from the African women at the centre of the
It is a recurring problem
in travel writing, and the inevitable outcome when the genre is dominated by
one demographic group. Although travel itself has always been a universal
endeavour, travel literature was originally the preserve of men of European
heritage who had the time and money to go on international jaunts and establish
the genre in its modern form. Theroux, one of my favourite travel writers, is
not necessarily to blame for not talking to women about FGM. In the case
of issues as fraught as this, it may well be deemed insensitive or
inappropriate for somebody in his position – as an older white man – even to
Sometimes our identities can preclude us from having certain conversations and interactions. The British Asian travel writer Monisha Rajesh (the author of Around the World in 80 Trains) recounted how she was spat at by a Russian man while at a railway station in Moscow. A white author, such as Colin Thubron, might instead have been able to engage that racist Russian man in conversation. Rajesh’s experience and that of a Thubron may differ, but both interactions would reveal something valid and meaningful about Russia. There are advantages and disadvantages to our respective identities, whether we’re Black, brown, white, old, young, able-bodied, disabled, gay, straight.
My identity as a British
Nigerian puts me in an interesting intersectional position in some places. It
allowed me to navigate South Africa’s various social strata with relative ease.
Black people were open with me, naturally, but Afrikaners were also happy to
share their frank opinions because I was a foreigner and British. In China –
I’m currently writing a book about its African community – I could hang out
with Africans yet leverage my Britishness to connect with certain Chinese
people (I was even taken to a Chinese gay male strip club). Also, as an ethnic
Ogoni I played the neutral listener as ethnic Igbo and Yoruba immigrants from
Nigeria complained to me about one another regarding low-quality exports of
Chinese goods (a subject matter a non-Nigerian writer wouldn’t necessarily
appreciate, let alone explore). On the other hand, as an atheist and a woman, I
would get nowhere with certain elderly, conservative Muslim Nigerian men.
The twenty-first century
offers many intersecting identities, with endless and compelling permutations.
As Jini Reddy, the British-born, Canadian-raised, ethnic Indian author of Wanderland,
recently affirmed in a Guardian article: “Travel writing in
book form is broadening to include memoirs of exile, displacement and
returning; explorations of identity and belonging, along with nature narratives
of all kinds”.
This is not to say that
diversity alone brings satisfaction. V. S. Naipaul wrote beautifully but grates
on me with his disdainful comments on Trinidadians in Middle Passage; and in the 1990s the
African American reporter Keith Richburg wrote a woefully simplistic tirade
against Africa. It’s a reminder that writers are individuals first and
foremost, each with a unique take on the world.
Much of the traditional
travel writing by white men lacks a certain intimacy – where are the trips to
the hair salon? Where is the banter? – that can provide an access point to a
wider or more unguarded conversation. Often the author is the analytical
observer, but rarely a participant. I don’t recognize their Africa (Bob Geldof’s Geldof in Africa reads like someone’s gap-year chronicle). I’m not suggesting that outsiders should be dismissed –
far from it. Indeed, to be an outsider is in some ways necessary, as the genre
requires the author to explore, and document, the unfamiliar. Diaspora writers
occupy a unique niche in this respect, combining insider knowledge with
outsider analytical curiosity, as exemplified by Suketu Mehta’s
magisterial Maximum City: Bombay lost and found (2004).
The challenge of travel writing today is to explore humanity on a planet chock full of camera phones, where the internet already provides a window onto other societies and cultures. This hasn’t rendered travel writing redundant, but it is forcing the genre to raise its game. No longer is the writer simply bringing the world to their blinkered readers back home – they are now being observed by their audience as much as they are observing their surroundings. Of course, no single book can please everyone or cover all angles. Readers want different things: some seek enlightenment, others seek confirmation of existing perceptions, and others still want a vicarious adventure through the eyes of an author with whom they identify. The subjectivity of the genre is what makes it exciting; and it is those multiple subjectivities that create a complete picture. That is why we need a plurality of voices.
Noo Saro-Wiwa is the author of Looking For Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, which was named the Sunday Times Travel Book of the Year in 2012