A year of Reading Female Travel Writers

This post is the conclusion of my year-long quest in 2017 to read only female-authored travel writing. Find out more about it on the project’s main page.

Reading Female Travel Writers - the books

Throughout 2017, I read only female-authored travel writing. Specifically, I read twelve books, one a month, which were all travelogues written by women. The full list of the books, along with an overview of the project, is here.

It was a fascinating experience – my reasons for undertaking it are outlined here – and this post is an attempt to sum up my thoughts and observations from this.

I have seven main thoughts I’d like to share.

1. I enjoyed the discipline of a reading project

I’ve never committed to a project like this (at least outside formal study), reading things according to a plan I have set myself. And I very much enjoyed the motivation and discipline of it. I don’t recall ever reading twelve books in a single year (or at least trying to – I failed to finish two, one due to length, the other due to quality), but I do feel better for having done so.

In an age when it is easy to be distracted by the internet and to read only short articles or things shared by social media, to force myself to make time to read actual proper books was a very rewarding thing to do. It’s not that I don’t read books generally. I do. But certainly the pace and quantity of my reading wasn’t previously what it has been this past year.

I am not going to set myself another reading challenge for this coming year, largely because I have a huge list of books to read – which I am adding to as a result of this project (see points 4 and 5 below). However, I am hoping that the momentum and discipline from this year’s set list will continue naturally into the coming year’s reading. You can judge how successfully that happens by the frequency of book reviews I publish on this website.

2. Ebooks are a great way of reading

This is another observation related less to the subject matter – which I am getting to! – and more the act of reading. I’ve long been a fan of ebooks and was a quick convert, and I only read physical books if I need to. This year, for instance, I bought physical books from my reading list where ebooks were prohibitively expensive or not available.

But specifically related to this reading mission, and to the reviews I wrote, ebooks absolutely come into their own in terms of shaping thoughts and comments. In a physical book, you need to write down your thoughts as you go and then assemble them into a review later. With ebooks, I could just highlight words or phrases and write in my own comments and then, from the desktop computer Kindle app, merely copy extracts or comments and paste them directly into the blog post as I wrote my review. It was a quick and easy process. Writing reviews of ebooks was immeasurably easier and more satisfying with, I think, a better review at the end of it.

I can’t imagine changing my stance on this, and will continue not to buy physical books if fairly priced ebooks exist.

3. Travel writing is a fuzzy concept

A major question that has arisen this year, somewhat to my surprise, concerns what exactly travel writing is. As I have frequently pondered in my reviews and previews throughout this mission, I am unsure what counts as travel writing and what doesn’t.

Definitions of travel writing are not desperately easy to find, nor consistent.

Oxford Dictionaries says that it is

A genre of writing in which the author describes places they have visited and their experiences while travelling.

That’s not bad, I suppose, encapsulating neatly the idea of writing a story about a journey. But Wikipedia at the time of writing says

The genre of travel literature encompasses outdoor literature, guide books, nature writing, and travel memoirs.

…which is somewhat broader and potentially contradicts that first definition. After all, a guide book isn’t really a description of the author’s experiences, but a more technical overview of a place to enable others to more easily visit it. This is why I find the interminably snobby phrase “travel literature” sometimes more incisive in that it distinguishes first-person narratives about places from reports or overviews of them that are provided by travel journalism or travel guide writing.

But another point worth lingering on is Wikipedia’s reference there to outdoor literature and nature writing. This is something I’ve struggled with this year, with Ghost Trails (my September title) or December’s The Living Mountain straying very much into those disciplines. Meanwhile April’s Skating to Antarctica saw Jenny Diski mix travel with conventional memoir, and Tell My Horse (October) featured considerable amounts of historical and cultural documentary.

Perhaps this is inevitable, and possibly even unavoidable, that authors should write about a place while also writing about themselves or the social, historical, political and environmental context in which their journey happens. Though strangely I don’t remember being so confused about the definition of travel writing before. Maybe it’s because this year I am thinking in a more formal and critical way about the nature of the genre. Maybe I’ve read very narrowly in the past, never straying outside what might be termed conventional or traditional travel writing. Maybe it’s because women are more rounded writers and do not naturally fit into genre boxes? I’ve no idea.

And ultimately, I suppose, it doesn’t matter. I’m not restricting myself to travel writing in the coming year, and am now liberated to read whatever I like. That will heavily feature travel, as it always has, but if titles stray into other genres too, then so be it.

4. Women write magnificent travel literature

This is an unremarkable observation. Of course women can be good travel writers. They can be good anythings. There was no chance I was going to finish this mission with any other conclusion. But it needs to be said. In my main page for the mission, I wrote that

my aim was to to find out what I’ve been missing and to reflect on what women can and do contribute to travel writing as a genre.

So it is only fair that I reflect on my answers to that.

What have I been missing? Well, I’ve been on some amazing adventures with this year’s authors. I’ve cycled from Ireland to India, through Japan (well, at least in part until I got bored) and through wintery Alaska. I’ve road tripped through Spain and Portugal, climbed the Cairngorms, and travelled through various means in Pakistan, Haiti, Nigeria, Lebanon and a whole host of other places. I’ve travelled in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but also gone back to the 1800s (thanks to January’s anthology).

I’ve laughed, cried, winced and nearly died with my author companions. I’ve learned about everything from Mormonism to Shinto, from Balkan history to Voodoo, and from the American radio industry to Nollywood. For all my choice of books this year was a difficult and imperfect one, it was certainly diverse, engaging and inspiring. Nearly all the women I read wrote superbly, and I am glad to have shared in and learned from their adventures.

And what do women contribute to travel writing? Well, on one level all the same things men do – poetic and evocative writing, humour, perceptiveness, an ability to read and portray people, places and situations, a good eye for detail, and a passion for their subject. So far so obvious.

But on another level, simply by being a woman the authors I’ve read this year have brought a new dimension and perspective to books. They write not necessarily in different ways, but from different experiences and through different situations. One theme never desperately far from the surface in the year’s books was sex and sexual assault. Frequently, authors are perceived differently or unfairly by men simply because they are women.

In some instances this is innocuous and innocent, when for instance our narrators are asked why they are not married, at home, travelling with a man and so on (though in January’s anthology, many of the historical extracts are indeed by women who are travelling with men – in one instance, I recall, to the author’s virtual anonymity).

In other instances it is more threatening. More than a few of my authors find themselves in uncomfortable situations, and danger rears its head from time to time. Though as the narratives, and indeed the authors’ own reasonings at times, explain, our authors were usually more at risk from exhaustion, the elements or traffic accidents. All of them keep sexual assaults (or the risks thereof) in perspective. They all remain committed to their journeys and neither contemplate abandonment nor put out negative messages to other female would-be travellers. And tellingly, as I said in my review of January’s Virago Book of Women Travel Writers, the editors of that first book of the year’s mission somewhat, to my mind, overplayed the danger to women in their introduction, at least compared to the frequency and extent to which it came up in the collection itself.

Though the question does occur, of course, as to why they should just put the moments of danger to the side and bravely carry on. They deserve to be angry. They deserve to rail against patriarchal and misogynistic cultures that treat them differently, limit their rights and objectify them. But simply by writing about them, they are committing an act of defiance. By saying “look, this is what happens” they are putting the nature of the danger right into the reader’s face and forcing us to ask ourselves why it might happen to a woman but not a man. What can we do? And how, especially given the authors experience it in Europe as well as elsewhere, can we – can I – help change this culture?

There are much wider political, cutural and social factors at play here beyond the narrow world of reviewing travel writing. But women writing about their experiences of discrimination and abuse on the road should make more people (specifically, more men) aware of the dangers and reflect on what it is about culture, power and sex that causes such oppression. At the same time it should also inspire women to hit the road and write about their adventures aware of the risks but empowered accordingly. Those are two huge reasons for there to be more women in travel writing and more people reading them, publishing them and supporting them.

And there is a wider observation to make there about how the author being a woman reveals things that we wouldn’t have otherwise learned. As I said in my review of Jill Homer’s Ghost Trails, perhaps the surprise hit of the mission for me, the way she suffered and confronted her physical and emotional endurance of her cycle race was differently experienced and described as a result of her being – uniquely in that year’s race – a solo woman. The power and intensity with which she described her feelings and emotions was unlike anything I had read by a man and thus the book made such an impression on me.

Similarly for Kathleen Jamie’s Among Muslims, the author being a woman means she reaches places and situations (mainly Pakistani women in the home) that a male equivalent would almost certainly never get to observe and write about.

So yes, women can write travel literature just as well as men. But at times they do it refreshingly, differently, powerfully better.

5. I will definitely read more female travel writers

The result of all that is that I will happily and urgently read more female travel writers. There are two particular actions here that I can think of.

Firstly, I have reading I want to pick up on as a direct result of this year’s reading mission. Most obviously, I did not finish August’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon due to its huge size. I loved what I had managed to read of Rebecca West’s enormous classic, and love the Balkans about which she writes. So I will pick it up again this month and try to finish it over the course of this year.

And there are other things this year’s authors have inspired me to do. I’m definitely going to read more of my two favourites, Jill Homer and Dervla Murphy. I am going to read Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography having found Tell My Horse such an unusual and fascinating book. And although I had my reservations about Skating to Antarctica due to it not entirely being travelogue, I loved Diski’s powerful writing so will cast aside the shackles of this year’s quest and hunt down her other travelogue-meets-memoir where she travels the US rail network. I’ll also flick again through January’s anthology to remind myself of the names I was particularly drawn to and try to find their wider bodies of work.

Secondly, I am going to read other female travel writers who I did not cover in this mission. One title I didn’t include this year was Zora O’Neill’s All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World. I dismissed it when compiling my list thinking it was more language than travel, though I’ve since learned that’s not true (and hey, I’m not limited by genre any more), she’s a great follow on Twitter, and the Arab world is a important region we all should know more about.

Other titles recommended to me for this year but which didn’t make the cut but which I might look again at include Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler and Vodka Tears And Lenin’s Angel: A Journalist On The Road In The Former Soviet Union by Jennifer Gould.

Another book I’ve seen a few mentions of on Twitter lately (I think this mission is making me better notice female travel writing around the place) is Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Bulgarian-born, Scottish-based Kapka Kassabova about journeys in the borderlands between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. It’s been positively reviewed and is an interesting part of the world, so hopefully later this year I will get round to it.

So I will not be short of reading material for the coming while! But do nonetheless post below if there are other female-authored titles I’ve missed either in this year’s mission or the above names.

6. I will be more diverse generally in my reading

Two of my standouts this year were Tell My Horse and Transwonderland (and see the preview of Tell My Horse for why and how I chose them). They stood out not just because they were fantastic reads, but because as books written by black women they had a different perspective from the others. With Zora Neale Hurston writing about Voodoo from the viewpoint of a black woman, and with Noo Saro-Wiwa revealing Nigeria through the eyes of an exile, I gained insights I might not have done from a white woman with few personal or ethnic connections.

My realisation that I’d never read any female travel writers led to this mission. And until these two titles, I’d only ever read one black-authored travelogue. I’m not going to commit to a formal reading project like this year – at least not right now – but I cannot think of any other travel writers, men or women, who are not white.

And thinking about other aspects of diversity, such as disability, sexual orientation and so on, I could do with hearing more about voices in travel writing that don’t traditionally get the exposure that they should. Just as with the need to have more female voices out there, so similarly it will benefit us all if the travel writers being read are reflective of the world they explore.

I will certainly do my best to hunt down and read travelogues by non-white, disabled or LGBT authors, but as with my above point about more female travel writers I’ll be grateful for suggestions in the comments below.

7. There is more I can do as a travel writer

Although I’ve approached this mission from the perspective of an enthusiastic reader of travel writing, I have been thinking throughout the year about what the process and my reflections on it might mean for my own writing.

I can’t claim to be a very high profile travel writer, nor, due to other commitments in life over the past couple of years, a very prolific one. But I have been wondering if there is anything I can do in my own approach to travel writing to learn from the female authors I’ve been so enthralled by this year.

Firstly, I think I can give more time and space to women I encounter in my travels. If their voices are being excluded from travel writing, they are no doubt being excluded from other arenas too. If I happen to be aware of that when visiting a place, writing a post about it, or indeed writing a future book, can I be more aware and accommodating of gender issues when talking about a place or the people I encounter? Hopefully, by simply looking and listening more carefully, I can indeed do this. I’m not sure if I’ve been bad at this in the past – readers of my three books and followers of this website will judge more objectively than me – but of course there is always more than can be done.

Secondly, I can do more as a travel writer to promote those women (or indeed any other writers at the wrong end of structural or societal discrimination) whose work I enjoy. It starts here, I suppose, with the promotion of the authors I’ve read this year. This mission in itself is an act that I hope helps raise their profiles, but as I talk about and recommend the authors in conversations I will be continuing to do what I can to support them. I am also happy to spread the word of any other female travel writers I read, and I will certainly review those I mention in point 5 above that I manage to read.

And if any female travel writers – or those who support their work – want to let me know of any titles I’d enjoy or can send me review copies, then please just get in touch.

Finally, I should remember that this whole mission has its roots in a series of travel writing workshops I ran at my local prison. The reading list I developed for it was entirely male. That is a personal failing I hope I have begun to rectify this year. Should I have the opportunity to do anything similar again in the future, it’s certainly a mistake I won’t repeat.

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