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Writing

Young performers, Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia, 2006. (Courtesy of the author)

Once a new friend asked me what kind of writing I did, and, tired of the “travel writer” label, I tried something different. “I’m an exoticist,” I told her. Regarding me with a grimace, she asked what that meant. “It means I write largely about cultures other than my own,” I said.

She maintained her grimace.

To this listener, and many other critics of travel writing, proudly stating that I indulged in “exoticism” was admitting an unsavory truth, one with a slightly immoral or uninformed edge — akin to being employed by the tobacco industry or enjoying McDonald’s cheeseburgers. But to me, claiming the label was simply a way to describe my ability to be charmed by the unfamiliar, and my desire to charm others by writing about the unfamiliar.

At its most tacky, exoticism conjures the image of Americans coming home from brief vacations in India draped in saris or from spring break in the Caribbean with a head full of tiny braids.

So, what’s wrong with that?

Perhaps the bitter flavor of exoticism is due to associations with the word rather than the word by its definition. On the academic side, exoticism is often considered synonymous with Orientalism, Edward Saïd’s scathing attack on the “Western” reduction of the “East” to its strange customs, immoral citizens, loose sexuality, and other misguided and ethnocentric judgments of the “Other.”

At its most tacky, exoticism conjures the image of Americans coming home from brief vacations in India draped in saris or from spring break in the Caribbean with a head full of tiny braids. It refers to those who travel seeking out the bizarre allure or strange beauty of a culture, but what they are drawn to are the most superficial of that culture’s elements: clothing, spices, animals, street venders peddling tchotchkes or “typical crafts,” instead of the complicated realities of a life lived within that culture.

I see the problem with that. But what if I go to Cambodia and can’t help being galvanized by the sight of monkeys wandering nonchalantly through the park, the drippy stone temples, and visible effects of the recent genocide?

Most people enjoy being charmed by something outside of their daily experience. It’s why we travel in the first place.

Good writers — travel writers or otherwise — make real and tangible a world that some readers have never inhabited. Just look at the great draw of the bizzaro worlds of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” What turns travel writing into an ethical question that sets it apart from sci-fi or literary fiction is that travel writers take real cultures and erect them for readers who trust them to be loyal and accurate. But the truth is, most travel writers are only passing through.

When “Lonely Planet” author Thomas Kohnstamm asked “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?”, he was admitting to his own shortcomings as a reliable source of practical information. But is there an even deeper hell waiting for those writers who skim the surface of a culture and present it as the whole deal, as John Updike did by titling his mediocre novel set in Brazil “Brazil” or Gustave Flaubert in his writings about Egypt?

If so, the only ethical alternative would be to stop writing about cultures other than one’s own. But that’s no solution to positive cross-cultural communication.

I like to think of exoticism as a descriptor, free of judgment: It’s the presentation of one culture for consumption by another. There are ways to execute it badly — many ways to execute it badly — and there are ways to do it well.

I like to think of exoticism as a descriptor, free of judgment: It’s the presentation of one culture for consumption by another.

Journalist Philip Gourevitch does it phenomenally well by using good old-fashioned investigative methods and by taking lengthy trips to Rwanda and Iraq. Fiction writers, poets, and memoirists who do it well tend to be those who’ve spent a good deal of time in the foreign culture about which they write, as Paul Bowles in North Africa or M.F.K. Fisher in France.

What these writers have in common is a genuine interest in the human element of a culture, and an ability to divorce themselves from their own cultural assumptions. They don’t just know how to write. They know how to travel.

Only some travel writers go to hell. (Thomas Kohnstamm, for example.) But thank goodness for the others. When I was in training as a volunteer for WorldTeach in Costa Rica, one of the staffers took a Frisbee and balanced it on her finger, then used her other hand to tilt it in a circle. “If you’re at the center of a culture,” she said, “everything feels stable and normal. But if you’re on the outside,” she said, indicating the Frisbee’s rim, “you feel every shake, every bump.” Sometimes the outsider’s point of view is where the fresh takes are the most possible.

In the end, the friend who grimaced at the word “exoticist” actually married me, and I dedicated my first book to her, so I assume all was forgiven. Her initial reaction was a strong reminder, though, that with a keen sense of exoticism comes a particular brand of responsibility.

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