Exploring post-colonial travel writing
Levi-Strauss, in his classic work, 'Tristes Tropique', laments the
disappearance of adventurous travel, and with it invigorating travel
writing, as a consequence of the impact of modernization,
industrialization, globalization. Indeed, this sentiment is consonant
with the theme of loss that activates the book.
However, despite Levi-Strauss' pessimism, travel writing far from
being marginalized, has emerged with a renewed vigor and intensity. A
plurality of factors has contributed to this enthusiasm. First,
globalization and its impact has become an attractive theme for travel
writers. Second, the rise of post-colonial theory and post-colonial
studies, along with the re-imagining of cultural encounters that it has
promoted, have given a new impetus to the investigation of travel
literature in relation to questions of power.
As a student of literature and literary theory, an important facet of
travel writing that I find most challenging is the complex ways in which
narrative and discursive authority is acquired by the writers. It seems
to me that this aspect opens up an interesting window into the textual
economies and rhetorical strategies fueling travel literature.
The concept of narrative authority in travel literature occupies a
contested theoretical space. It is many-sided and raises issues of great
complexity related to textuality, representation, sign, desire, power,
cultural intervention and modes of sense-making. For purposes of
analysis, I wish to focus on ten important questions. First, how is the
self of the narrator constructed and represented in the test? What are
the processes of self-making, self-unmaking, self-remaking involved?
Second, how does the notion of witnessing, a opposed to seeing, operate
in the text and invest it with a sense of legitimacy? How do the powers
of direct encounter and the capacity for reflection enhance this
phenomenon of witnessing? Third, what are the textual strategies adopted
by the narrator for the purchase of authority that in the ultimate
analysis has to be understood as a linguistic and rhetorical effect.
Four, how is a privileged position of knowingness constructed for the
narrator? And how does he or she interiorize what is external? Fifth,
what are the defining features of the subject of articulation? How do
they influence the complex relationship between the observing subject
and the observed object? Sixth, how are readers produced by and in
travel texts? How does the narrative authority forge a community of
readers? Seven, how does the travel writer cope with cultural
differences and issues of otherness? How do powers of cultural
translation and intervention influence this effort? Eight, how do
questions of identity, imagination, reflexivity, irony, self-mockery
shape travel texts and their poetics? What are the sense-making modes
and procedures pursued by the narrator? What models of understanding
does he or she bring to the project of textual production/ tenth, is
narrative authority and the privileged sense of coherence undercut at
any point by the narrative itself? How do ambiguities and fissures in
the text detract from the power of authority?
These are some of the questions that one has to keep in mind as one
moves forward into the analysis of narrative authority in travel
writing. Admittedly, some of them are highly abstract and exceedingly
complex. My focus of interest is post-colonial travel writing. The very
term post-colonial writing compels us to compare this body of writing
with the corpus of colonial travel writing which preceded it, and
against which it is presumed to react in different ways. Colonial travel
literatures were inextricably linked with Orientalism as Edward Said
defined it. Said remarked that, "everyone who writes about the orient
must locate himself vis-a-vis the orient." Clearly, colonial writers
located themselves in a space suffused with superiority. It is evident
that colonial travel writing operates firmly within the discursive
matrix of Orientalism.
As commentators like Homi Bhabha have pointed out, the relationship
between the Western narrator and his Other is characterized by a deep
ambivalence "the Other is both an object of attraction and repulsion at
the same time resulting in the simultaneous generation of narcissism and
paranoia. What we find in colonial travel literature is a narrative
authority acquired and established through the juxtaposition of a set of
binaries" superior culture/ inferior culture, modernity/primitivism,
enlightenment/darkness, scientific world view/ superstition.
Post-colonial travel writings seek to unsettle these binaries.
We must, of curse, be on our guard against seeking to establish a
simple contrast between colonial and post-colonial writing. Colonial
travel is not monolithic any more than post-colonial travel writing is.
There are obvious discrepancies within colonial travel writing as well.
For example, Flaubert is generally regarded as a travel writer of
distinction. However, critics have pointed out that that his texts have
become a site of an ideological split. On the one hand, there is a
desire to transcend the power relations of Orientalism through
non-participation; on the other, the textual display of its
Post-colonial travel writing extends, expands, subverts and
repudiates colonial travel writing, and one arena in which this is
clearly manifest is that of narrative authority. Let us consider the
travel writings of Amitav Ghosh who enjoys a wide reputation as a
novelist of the first importance. His books such as "In an Antique Land"
and "Dancing in Cambodia," At Large in Burma; testify to this fact. "In
An Antique Land" published in 1992 is sub-titled, "history in the guise
of a traveller's tale." This book represents the confluence of travel,
archival investigation, anthropology and fictional recreation.
The author has a remarkable ability to lead the reader forward with
an irresistible narrative flow. In this work, he discusses his field
work in the Nile delta; in doing so, he comes across a historically
significant connection between the Mediterranean, Middle East and India.
This historical investigation combined with the author's travels from
India to Egypt" both Third World countries with a long history. In the
Cairo archives, Ghosh uncovers a narrative of an Indian traveller to
Aden; he is a business employee of a Jewish merchant living in
Mangalore, India. As the author explores the developments of the
twentieth century, he also succeeds in bringing out vividly the close
contact that existed among Arabs, Jews, and Indians through
instrumentalities of trade and travel. In this book, the way history and
anthropology buttress the travel narrative constitutes its defining
Our focus here is on the ways in which travel writers purchase a
sense of narrative authority. There are three important ways, to my
mind, through which the writer has acquired narrative authority. The
first is through the encircling of cultural commonalities and shared
social experiences of the observer and observed. Unlike in the colonial
travel writing, where the observer defiantly occupies a privileged
space, in this text no such asymmetrical relationship exists. For
example, the narrator is described as a "student from India" a guest who
had come to Egypt to do research. It was their duty to welcome me into
their midst and make me feel at home because of the long traditions of
friendship between Egypt and India.
"Our countries were poor, for they had been ransacked by
imperialists, and now they were both trying in very similar ways to cope
with poverty and all the other problems that had been bequeathed to them
by their troubled histories."
The second way in which Amitav Ghosh succeeds in securing narrative
authority is through the purposive display of his sympathetic
understanding of the language, the history, the culture and social
structure of Egypt. Unlike colonial travel writers, and some post
colonial writers as well, who possess little or no understanding of, and
even less admiration for, the cultures they are writing about, Ghosh
intimates to us his profound comprehension of the culture that he is
Third, some of the rhetorical strategies and representational devices
that Ghosh deploys enable him to invest his narrative voice with a
greater sense of intimacy, cordiality, and authority. In the standard
travel narratives as we have come to know them, there is a clear and
unmistakable division between the observer and observed, the writer and
the native informant. This is clearly not the case with Amitav Ghosh's
text; there is almost a role reversal and Ghosh becomes an informant and
the observed, as for example when he ends up as the target of numerous
queries regarding the Hindu culture by Egyptian interlocutors. At one
point, he is forced to defend India against the charges of backwardness
by pointing to its advances in military technology.
Amitav Ghosh's, "In an Antique Land" presents us with some
interesting textual strategies that enable him to retain a firm hold on
his narrative authority. These devices and strategies are in sharp
contrast to those deployed by colonial travel writers. His "Dancing
Cambodia, At Large in Burma," though a slighter work than the former,
repays close reading. Once again Ghosh has succeeded in acquiring a
sense of authority by reinforcing his sympathetic and intimate
understanding of Cambodian history and culture.
Passages such as the following illustrate this point. "I heard one
such from a Cambodian conservation worker called Kongsarith. One
afternoon, he was telling me about some of the legends depicted in
Angkor Wat's magnificent bas-reliefs: the primal myth of churning the
Sea of Milk: the legend of Vishnu in his tortoise-avatar: of the doomed
Abhimanyu trapped in a battle formation that he had learned to enter but
not escape: the death-god Yama ruling over his tormented shades. The
stories were all familiar to me, of course, some in the misty way of
tales told by a grandmother; others in the manner of texts learned under
the threat of a tutor's cane and quickly forgotten."
As we sharpen our analytical interest in post-colonial writing,
travel literature produced by post-colonial writers should stir our
imaginations and promote close study. A number of Indian-born or
Indian-linked writers such as V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh,
Vikram Seth, Pico Iyer have authored travel narratives that are
compellingly readable and offer useful points of contrast with colonial