In late 1974, the thirty-four-year-old Bruce Chatwin departed New York to begin a journey through Patagonia. He was engaged upon a postmodern quest: a voyage to a place tellingly named “Last Hope Sound”, where, he hoped, he would find some last remaining relics of the long-extinct Mylodon, or Giant Sloth. Inside his grandmother’s Victorian house in Birmingham had been a “cabinet of curiosities”; of its many treasures, a small, bristly piece of Patagonian Mylodon skin—said to be Brontosaurus, and sent from South America by a distant cousin—was that which most fascinated the young Bruce, who “set it at the center of my childhood bestiary.”
In 1977 Chatwin’s account of his journey, In Patagonia, was published. The book, it would later be said, redefined travel-writing. The irony was that this apparently revolutionary book was drawing on a tradition as old as literature itself: that of the quest, in which a young man embarks on a journey in pursuit of a fixed goal.
Chatwin was on the trail of a long-dead creature from a primitive past. Tim Hannigan’s own quest in his new book The Travel Writing Tribe is not dissimilar: for Hannigan is journeying in search of the remains of the genre of travel-writing itself.
In the wake of postcolonial critique, the genre developed a slightly grubby reputation,
In the late 1970s and early 80s, Chatwin was but one of a constellation of stars in the travel-writing firmament. There was Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose A Time of Gifts also came out in 1977; Paul Theroux; Colin Thubron; Jonathan Raban. The Winter 1983 edition of Granta formalized membership of this exclusive—and very male—club, while the next generation of travel writers who followed in the late 80s and early 90s, led by writers such as William Dalrymple, Sara Wheeler and Philip Marsden, seemed set to establish the genre as a popular and profitable fixture in bookshops.
Yet, in the subsequent three decades, travel-writing has seen its shelf space diminish, squeezed out by nature-writing and memoir. At its best, literature of travel opens doors into previously unconceived places, making the world more intelligible and whole. But in the wake of postcolonial critique, the genre developed a slightly grubby reputation: this was a body of literature, after all, founded on white, upper-middle-class men, mostly British and often Eton-educated, setting off to pin down in prose, like butterflies in a case, the peoples and places they encountered. (Dervla Murphy, who published her Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, in 1965 is one of a handful of exceptions). Consequential ethical issues were compounded by increasing noise around the genre’s approach to truth-telling (Chatwin himself, when challenged on this matter by Paul Theroux, famously retorted that he didn’t believe in coming clean on the factual details of his journeys).
“Travel writing is fundamentally about the encounter between self and other,” Hannigan observes in response to my queries about the ethics of the genre. “At base, everything external to the self is other—very much including the natural environment,” he says. “As soon as that otherness manifests as other people, other cultures, there are fraught issues of representation, often compounded by the influence of existing traditions and discourses.” And what of questions of truthfulness? “I think that’s more just interesting than problematic,” he says. “I don’t think many of us—readers, writers, scholars—think about it as much as we should; the more you think about it the more interesting travel writing becomes.”
In part, The Travel Writing Tribe, in which he travels to meet practitioners of the dark art of travel writing, is a search for some form of absolution: a way of making it possible to write and read about travel without drowning in the ethical quagmire. Hannigan has a usefully broad perspective on the art of the travel book: he has written guidebooks, narrative non-fiction and scholarly studies of the genre. What are his conclusions, I ask, about how modern travel writing might shake off its troublesome reputation?
‘“I’ve sort of developed a tentative rubric which I think helps get past at least some of the stumbling blocks,” he says. “As you travel and then as you write, question yourself: what do you look like to others? Audit your own cultural baggage: how have the things you’ve read about a place informed your perception of it, even when you also have first-hand experience there?” Hybridity, he observes, must also be an important element of twenty-first travel writing: “Hybridity of form, certainly, but also of authorial identity, which should foster the self-questioning that helps travel writing avoid its pitfalls.” And, he adds, offer the reader insight into the creative process: let them see the sausage being made.
Some of the writers he meets during his journey—particularly those from earlier travel writing generations—are briskly dismissive, or blithely unaware of the critical scrutiny the genre has been subjected to in recent decades. But a new generation is also emerging who, often by virtue of simply occupying a different social or global position when compared to their (often) public-school-educated, (often) privately-wealthy forebears, are remaking what travel writing can be. During his travels, Hannigan meets with Kapka Kassabova, author of Street without a Name (2008) and Border: a journey to the edge of Europe (2017), Samanth Subramanian (This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan Civil War) and Monisha Rajesh (Around the World in 80 Trains). These authors, and their contemporaries, are reforging travel writing, and redefining who can write it, freeing the genre from some of the unwelcome burden of its past. As Hannigan notes of Rajesh’s book, this is travel writing
supremely unbothered by any sense of belatedness. There was no melancholy hankering for the past, no narrowly defined search for “authenticity” and I couldn’t remember ever reading another travel book so entirely at ease with the practical realities of modern travel.
Hannigan started his travel writing odyssey as a young reader in Cornwall with literary aspirations. Does he still, despite everything, love the genre, I ask? “I do, absolutely!” he says. “Again, that was one of the questions I was trying to answer for myself in the book. Do I—or maybe can I—still like travel writing? In the end I’ve ended up much more relaxed about it than I was. I don’t think it’s particularly healthy to study a literary genre that you hate!” he jokes.
Hannigan concludes the book with a visit to the 10th-century chapel in the Greek Mani where Bruce Chatwin’s ashes are buried. Here, wrestling with the legacy of the writer who, perhaps more than other, represents the twin triumphs and pitfalls of the genre, he reaffirms his commitment: not as practitioner, or as scholar—but simply as travel writing reader: “the thing I’d been before all else,” he writes. “That was what I wanted to remain forever.”