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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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  • D

    Exociticism is not free from judgment if you’re the one being judged. Good writers can find another word.

  • samuelpepys

    “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.”

    A good editor would have intervened over this juxtaposition. But it’s interesting to imagine what motivated the immediate slide from genocide to being “charmed” by the foreign. That kind of slide is exactly what those who want to restore the dignity of people long stared at by scientists and tourists mean by the word “exoticist.” It’s a word for an attitude that maintains other people, their cultural mores and historical experience, as objects of aesthetic consumption rather than persons who might teach us something about another world, persons we might fall in love with.

    • Fred Dalzell

      “It’s a word for an attitude that maintains other people, their cultural
      mores and historical experience, as objects of aesthetic consumption
      rather than persons who might teach us something about another world,
      persons we might fall in love with”:

      I guess I grasp the distinction here, but are these mutually exclusive responses? We see, we marvel a bit: we are struck by unfamiliar sights. We grow curious. We are reminded of the variety of our wide world. We re-appreciate the idea that persons living in different landscapes might indeed have things to teach us….

  • Denise Falbo

    This is exactly why I don’t like to travel as a tourist. The few times I have spent 3 or 6 days in a foreign land, when I don’t know anyone who lives there, always made me feel like an exploiter (of poor places) or a skimmer (of more developed places). Add to that the horrible experiences and high carbon usage associated with air travel, and you know why I’m now dedicated to exploring places I can reach in a good old road trip.

  • Fred Dalzell

    Love this piece!

  • maxdaddy

    By the arguments advanced here, the author could as easily write about, say, Roslindale or (gasp!) Prides Crossing. She needs to explain why her exoticism has to be abroad.

  • Mande2013

    Here’s a good rule, or some good rules to live by. Whenever you visit a major city in another country, never spend fewer than seven nights in that city, whether it be Istanbul, Berlin, Paris, Shanghai, Lima, Mexico City, Rio De Janeiro or any other city, even if there isn’t enough in the way of solid “sightseeing” to consume seven full days. Secondly, “live off the land”. Also, don’t feel like you have to rush to a site or a monument every morning when you wake up. Don’t sleep in, but imagine you’re waking up as if it were a weekend back home and just chill, even if you only remain within walking distance of where you’re staying, even if you’re not in particularly “touristy” area. In other words, just “live” in the city for a week.

  • Mande2013

    even if you’re not in a particularly “touristy” area*

    Admittedly I stand guilty, as I only spent about 48 hours in Lima cumulatively when I was there and haven’t yet been to Rio or Mexico City, but I’ve been to Berlin, Istanbul, Paris, and Shanghai. I currently actually live in one of the four aforementioned cities, and “lived” in the other three for short periods of time and they were very rewarding experiences. ;)

  • Mande2013

    Ultimately, don’t force a place down your throat like those people who feel compelled to film every last crevice of Versailles with their camcorder.

  • Lisa Feder Larson

    As a cultural anthropologist who generally moves to places that others might deem “exotic,” I’d have to agree with Alden. Once, The Gambia seemed exotic to me. Once, the Amazon seemed exotic to me…now when I go to either place, I have friends that know me well. Is it still exotic? Well other people-my American friends- definitely think so. So who’s exoticism are we talking about?
    In general, “exotic” is alluring, attractive. Not bad, just has historically bad connotations that are well warranted. But to say that because I was allured to these “exotic” places, I cannot act morally, is ridiculous, in my eyes. My self-designated role as an anthropologist is to make the exotic more familiar in order to assist the people of the so-called exotic culture to use their exotic music, crafts, what-have-you, to make an environmentally and culturally sustainable living in the global arena.
    Yes, we must be aware of the negative connotations of the word, but do we have to be limited by it?

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