When Travis Jeppesen, 37-year-old writer and art critic, spotted the ad offering a one-month study program in North Korea, he didn’t hesitate. Not that he was any wide-eyed naif: he’d visited four times before. But he was done with package tours, with being shuttled from monument to tedious monument. If he were to return to the DPRK (the country’s official name, i.e. the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”), it would have to be for a different sort of trip.
Travel-writing can sometimes seem like a genre stuck in the past. Writers are forever setting out in the “footsteps” of more illustrious predecessors, or embarking on journeys focused on the history of person, place or thing. According to some scholarly critiques, this tendency is symptomatic of travel-writing’s fundamental “belatedness”. It is, the argument goes, a genre ill at ease in the modern, globalized, postcolonial world; the figure of the travel-writer is fundamentally anachronistic. As far as critical scholars are concerned, it is in its attempts to overcome this belatedness that travel writing is sometimes guilty of echoing—unconsciously or otherwise—a colonial attitude. There is the endless quest for the “authentic” and “unchanged” in an effort to fix the places described in an exotic past; or alternatively, there is a melancholy nostalgia and a frantic hunt for the last traces of “tradition” before the shopping malls take over.
“This book,” starts the introduction, “was written by a man who did not exist. Despite this obvious handicap, Alfred Raquez was extraordinarily prolific.” Raquez was in fact a man on the lam: his real name Joseph Gervais, a lawyer from Lille, who got into a spot of bother—fraud, it seems—and decamped to the Orient, as it was then called, to avoid arrest and prosecution.
“I saw my first dead body on November 9, 2013. He was five. He was lying in the rubble of a demolished church that had entombed eight of its faithful in Tacloban City, the ville-martyr of this impoverished region in the Philippines where a violent typhoon had hit only a day before.”
As a place that doesn’t fit any of the world’s standard pigeon-holes, it seems fitting that Taiwan would have an unconventional book such as Formosa Moon written about it. Not a travelogue nor a memoir but both, Formosa Moon is about what happens after Joshua Samuel Brown, a longtime Taiwan expat moving back from the US, brings his girlfriend Stephanie Huffman to Taiwan for the first time.
If you live in a foreign country for any length of time, it’s inevitable that some of its customs and culture will rub off, whatever you do to try and avoid it. On the other hand, however well you “adjust” to the new culture, you will never be part of it.
A few years ago, Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim edited a much-needed and generous selection of Evliya Çelebi’s Seyhatname or Book of Travels. Evliya (1611-1682) spent the better part of forty years traveling around the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia Minor; he’s perhaps the best-known of all Ottoman explorers and travelers, which is not to say a great deal, because non-European travel-writers are still sadly under-represented in English translation.