I wrote my first book, Stories I Stole, fifteen years ago. It was collection of stories about the country of Georgia – a mix of short story, travelogue, memoir and reportage. At the time travel writing seemed to be stuck in a colonial age: a series of incidents strung out along a road or a railway line, a few glancing encounters with the natives. I didn’t want to ‘follow in the footsteps of’ or go on ‘a quest’, or sit in a cafe reciting Herodotus. I didn’t want to write about a journey, I wanted to arrive and inhabit. I lived in Georgia for two years and wrote about life around me, people and episodes. To my chagrin the book still ended up in the travel section.
My next book was about an Iraqi general in the time of Saddam. Booksellers remained nonplussed, it was shuffled between travel and current affairs and biography; Hatchards in Piccadilly put it in fiction. When I wrote a book of stories about the Egyptian revolution during the Arab Spring, I was not surprised to see it relegated to the basement stacks under Middle East History.
Travel writing has been an anachronism since the invention of the jet engine. We no longer need emissary writers to go to foreign places and return with tales of adventure, sand dunes, khanates and bandits in the mountain passes. There are probably more exotic odyssey stories along the Edgware Road than in the tourist lanes of Marrakech or Istanbul. What is travel writing today? Descriptions of walking tours along routes already forged by Freya Stark or Wilfred Thesiger or Robert Byron. Or aspirational paeans to a ‘grass-is-greener’ life in some southern sunny landscape. Peter Mayle’s sojourn in Provence seemed to only graft a new branch on to the format of a series of unfortunate delays sprinkled with amusing local characters. Bill Bryson doubled down on the humour, wink wink: how quaint, how backwater, how bygone.
I have spent my working life in foreign places writing about foreigners. (I live in Paris now; perhaps my toughest self-assignment since Tehran.) Our globalised world of easyJet and Google Translate does not seem to have fostered any greater understanding between peoples. I still write stories to describe and explain the other to others. I still think it’s relatively helpful to try, despite the opprobrium of cultural appropriation. But I will retain my mistrust of genres, travel writing among them, as I continue to subvert and defy the categorizations of bookshops. I have just written a novel about journalism.
Image © Meg