On the first day of a travel writing workshop I attended back in 2011, I asked the instructor if he knew of any travel books by writers of color.
While he scratched his chin and frowned at the ground in what stretched to almost a minute of uncomfortable silence for everyone in the room, I began to worry about the nonrefundable investment I’d made in the class, the second all-white one I applied for. With an apologetic smile, he finally admitted that he couldn’t think of any.
Though I was a little crushed, I knew that my literary ancestors of color who wrote in the tradition of travel were out there — all I needed to do was look.
Like most other industries, travel writing is dominated by white people. But unlike most other genres, writing travel has a specific history embedded in colonialism, the vestiges of which it hasn’t really attempted to shed.
In my classes and research, the same names were repeated as champions of the tradition: Joseph Conrad, Bruce Chatwin, Jack Kerouac, Bill Bryson, Rolf Potts, etc. And after reading the so-called classics, I was not only bored out of my mind. I was also wondering why today’s travel literature so greatly resembled the colonizer’s field notes of centuries past.
A room, and a literature, of one’s own
“The tradition of travelers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe; it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism,” wrote educator Abena Clarke in 2014.
“Travel writing provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious, or simply ‘other.’ There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.”
Having realized this, I not only wanted to track my literary ancestors down so that I may have a rubric with which to follow; I wanted to launch an intervention and make this project the focus of my work.
No, I didn’t gather together every gatekeeper in travel media and ask them to accept my gift of rehabilitation. But one thing I did do was form a little book club dedicated to reading the work of travel writers of color. This has now extended to a TinyLetter that any person of color is welcome to sign up for.
The problem has never been that people of color don’t travel—my family did not cross from South America to North America for this line to be used as an excuse for whitewashing.
Part of decolonizing travel narratives is redefining what gets to be filed under travel writing and expanding it to include varying forms of migration and the unlimited stories of place and identity this experience produces. The kind of stories we read in the POC Travel Book Club.
I formed the reading group in January of 2016, mostly so I could get others to talk to me about my favorite subjects but also because representation is powerful.
We do what we believe we can do, and we believe what we see. Without seeing anyone else doing it, we can feel isolated or dissuaded altogether. Sometimes, even worse is when writers of color write travel in ways that just follow the same old script instead of forging new styles or connecting to their ancestral modes of storytelling that honor the fullness of their narratives.
When we see ourselves represented, whether it’s someone queer or disabled or an immigrant or whatever, it grants us the tools with which to do justice to our histories, and the power to choose where we may go in the future.
Forming a community
Later in 2016, I conducted a Twitter poll asking users if they had ever read a travel book by a person of color, and 83 percent of 325 voters said no. I wasn’t surprised, but it got more people curious in travel lit by people of color, and more folks to join our little group.
Members send in their recommendations, books they’ve been meaning to read or heard about but haven’t gotten to. Once we choose a book, we read and discuss them over a group video chat at the end of each month. I put together questions that get us talking on everything from race, gender and sex to style, structure and voice, but we laugh a hell of a lot and go off on tangents about our own experiences on the road.
It helps that most of us are writers or aspiring writers who have a stake in the diversification in the industry of travel media, folks who are hungry for inspiration, validation and challenge, aspects that are largely missing from the greater travel space. Langston Hughes, Jamaica Kincaid, bell hooks—these writers penned our classics. It’s time they be honored, even if it’s in an online book club, because there’s revolutionary potential in a small group of nerds sharing ideas.
Later in that writing workshop I attended, the instructor remembered “Running in the Family” by Michael Ondaatje, and sang its structural praises.
I was grateful for the recommendation, and when we were prompted to pitch potential round ups in the class, my first idea was an article called Ten Travel Books by People of Color, a piece I eventually got to realize.
Sure, it was a small step for a young freelancer just getting started in the biz, but I wrote it knowing that one day my own book will join the canon of my literary ancestors, hoping that a few nerds might pick it up, and maybe one of them will write their own. I can’t wait to read it.