Outside looking in: 10 travel writers tackle complex realities
Travel writing interweaves history, culture, politics and personal experience with the complexity of being an outsider in an established community. And the best travel writing comes from writers who are honest about the sometimes challenging realities of travel, and who revel in the joy and growth that comes with it.
Here’s where to start:
“An African in Greenland” by Tete-Michel Kpomassie
“An African in Greenland” tells Tete-Michel Kpomassie’s journey from his childhood in Togo, where he first read about Greenland, to his eventual journey, through luck and the kindness of strangers, to the remotest parts of that country. It’s told with such earnestness and joy that you can easily see how Kpomassie managed to charm so many strangers along the way.
It also frees the reader from the conventions of so much travel writing that rely on crafted novelty or tour-guide knowledge, replacing them with awe and sincerity.
“Blind Spot” by Teju Cole
Through photography and writing, Teju Cole curates a voyage through about 20 countries. Ranging from broad cityscapes to up-close portraits, objects and scenes, Cole’s photos and short essays give snapshots of place. Cole seems preoccupied with what exists outside of these photos — how little we see, how blind we are even when we’re traveling to expand our worldview.
“Catfish and Mandala” by Andrew X. Pham
Born in war-stricken Vietnam, Andrew Pham escaped to the U.S. as a boy, then returned to Vietnam many years later as an Americanized young man. Pham finds Vietnam very much changed, and himself as much of an outsider as he was in the U.S.
He travels along blurred lines of identity, seeing shades of his own family history and ripping away much of the exoticism through which Vietnam is often viewed by Western travelers — all while realizing he is now very much a foreigner in the place where he was born.
“Lose Your Mother” by Saidiya Hartman
Saidiya Hartman traced her own family’s journey from the hinterland in Ghana to the Atlantic coast, where they would have been sold as slaves destined for the United States. Like many black Americans descended from slaves, Hartman admits that she hoped to find a sense of belonging in the country her ancestors came from. Instead, she finds herself an outsider there.
She returns to the U.S. having discovered little about her family, but with a new understanding of how thoroughly the Atlantic slave trade devastated families on both sides of the Atlantic.
“A Long Way From Home” by Claude McKay
A poet by trade, Claude McKay always told it like it was. Throughout his career, he was sometimes criticized for the cutting honesty of his portrayals of the communities he wrote about, but he never held back. “A Long Way From Home” is an unfiltered take on his travels from Jamaica to Harlem to Europe to post-Revolutionary Russia and back again.
When he describes the many people urging him to visit the illustrious Gertrude Stein while in Paris, he writes, “I never went because of my aversion to cults and disciples.” McKay resists the urge to romanticize that marks so much of travel writing, and instead boldly denounces, criticizes and lays bare the realities of the people and places he encounters.
“Low Visibility” and other essays by Bani Amor
Bani Amor is among the contemporary travel writers bringing some necessary change to the genre. They highlight the experiences of queer and nonbinary travelers in essays like “Low Visibility” in the anthology “Outside the XY,” and in a piece for Bitch magazine’s travel issue, on “spiritual tourism” and its effects on indigenous communities.
Amor addresses these issues through the sudden mainstream popularity of ayahuasca, a plant-based drink with hallucinogenic properties long used by Amazonian healers. In all their pieces, Amor writes beautifully but sternly, insisting that we take responsibility for the effects we have on the places we travel to, and highlighting the different, often problematic, ways we move through the world.
“Notes From a Trip to Russia” by Audre Lorde
In her essay collection, “Sister Outsider,” Audre Lorde recounts her travels through Russia in the essay “Notes From a Trip to Russia.” She is the ultimate observer, finding remarkable comparisons between Moscow and New York and Tashkent and parts of West Africa.
But as a black woman, she cannot just quietly observe. As she recalls being questioned about her blackness by locals, she perfectly captures how traveling as a person of color is often to be both the curious and the curiosity.
“I Wonder As I Wander” by Langston Hughes
Hughes is a poet, and he remains very much the poet as he writes of his travels over seven years through many different countries — Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Russia during the implementation of the second “5 Year Plan,” the U.S. during the height of segregation and the Depression, Cuba, Haiti, Japan, Paris …
Traveling as a black poet in the 1930s, Hughes seamlessly infuses art and social issues with his personal experiences of varying degrees of freedom and racism. “I Wonder As I Wander” is artful, fun and often deeply serious, depicting the places Hughes visited as much more than “destinations.”
“The Motorcycle Diaries” by Ernesto “Che” Guevara
OK, so you’ve probably read this one, but maybe not as “travel writing.” Che Guevara was a 23-year-old medical student when he and his best friend set off on a motorcycle journey from Argentina to Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and all the way to Miami. They returned home forever changed by the people and the poverty they encountered along the way.
What began as a quirky idea for a year off medical school quickly became a personally and politically transformative journey, as Guevara traveled and gained a stronger understanding of the region he’d long called home, and the struggles that unite people across borders.
“Equal in Paris” and “Stranger in the Village” by James Baldwin
No review of travel writing is complete without James Baldwin’s travel essays from “Notes of a Native Son.” In “Equal in Paris” he describes a Paris in which he is poor and uncertain of how to navigate race.
“None of my old weapons could serve me here,” he writes. “I did not know what they saw when they looked at me. I knew very well what Americans saw when they looked at me.”
In “Stranger in the Village,” Baldwin is regarded as a novelty in a small Swiss town where he is the only black man. Treated as such, he arrives a stranger and leaves a stranger, meditating all the while on how places where a black man is so strange a sight will soon no longer exist.
“The world is white no longer,” he writes, “and it will never be white again.”
Crystal Paul is a Seattle Times writer.