September 20th, 2010 / 12:03 pm
Power Quote

The Sisterhood of Travel Books

I’m in the midst of writing research proposals for grants in a discipline I know next to nothing about, and so, naturally, I’m reading a lot. Naturally, I’m also procrastinating by writing this blog. (Brief back story: I’ve just started working on my PhD in Geography, which is only funny if you know me, because if you know me, you know I have no sense of direction. Up until five months ago, I thought Lake Champlain was a great lake. But of course, this has no real bearing on my Geography degree. I’m studying human geography. But either way, my training as a fiction writer has given me little insight, little preparation for grant writing.) The basic premise to my project is “imagined” geographies, that is, how second generation immigrants imagine a homeland they’ve never been to and how this imagining impacts development.

Naturally, considering the premise of my project, I’m reading folks like Benedict Anderson, Edward Said, Foucault (Jesus, people love Foucault), and Agamben.

I’m reading Said for probably the third or fourth time (each reading offers something new, of course), and this time, I found this gem:

Many travelers find themselves saying of an experience in a new country that it wasn’t what they expected, meaning that it wasn’t what a book said it would be. And of course many writers of travel books or guidebooks compose them in order to say that a country is like this, or better, that it is colorful, expensive, interesting, and so forth. The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can always be described by a book, so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes. (93)

This is particularly interesting as a writer of books. Even if I am “only” writing fiction, there is something to be said about the authority of the book to eclipse the authority of experience. That is, even if I read a fiction book about a real place, my conception of that place changes. It molds to fit the book, and even more sinister, it imprints itself into my general conception of the place as a whole. For instance, my idea of France is influenced greatly by Perec and Proust and the Modernist ex-pats, etc. I’ve never been to France, and I reckon the place is quite different from what I imagine, and yet, and yet, it’s what I insist upon, consciously or not.

This becomes increasingly true with the explosion of media. I’m from Texas. I remember traveling as a teenager—to Germany and Australia—and the Germans and Australians I met had a very decisive idea of Texas, and it had nothing to do with the place itself. Even now, for many Americans, Texas is a land of tumbleweeds and oil rigs, or, in the worst case, a state full of George W. Bushes and conservative moronic ideologues. Whereas Texas does have tumbleweeds and oil rigs (it’s true! I saw them! Once, when I was eighteen. I nearly pissed my pants, I thought they were made up!), and whereas Texas does have a lot of Bush-esque conservative moronic ideologues, that was hardly my experience growing up there.

And we all do it. I have this very romantic idea of New York, city not state. Even though I’ve been there, my conception is still very much so rooted in books and film, something closer to 1930-40s soapbox sermons than anything real.

To tie this back to my project (I’ve had too much coffee this morning, I’m scattered, apologies), when I finally went to Vietnam last February, I expected to see what my parents had described, what books and film told me, etc. What I saw was something entirely different, and still, to this day, I can’t quite make the connection between my experience and my expectation.

Said has given me a way to access this large gulf between imaginings though. Through this one—arguably very simple, almost pedestrian—paragraph, he’s allowed me to understand why I can’t connect these disparate images.

I mean: as a reader and a writer, I know—and have always known—the power of books, but that power was always constrained to the imagination in a very abstract way. Said grounds that imagination, makes palpable what was once only ether.

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  1. Craig Davis

      Have you read those two Cela travel books? If you haven’t you should check them out. They share some of your concerns. Especially “From Minho to Bidasao”.

  2. lily hoang

      I haven’t, but I’ll look them up shortly. To the library!

  3. letters

      What do you think of Agamben? I thought ‘Infancy and History’ was sort of interesting, but I don’t understand the hype.

  4. lily hoang

      I haven’t read enough Agamben to make any decision. I’m working through Homo Sacer and Language & Death now. I tried to read Profanations last fall, but then I got side-tracked with Proust, so… He’s dense, which some mistake as profound, but many people I truly respect really dig him. I’m giving this a go, you’ll probably hear either my moans or praises of Agamben soon enough.

  5. letters

      A friend of mine thought about doing a Dr. Bronner’s soap bottle label with lines from Agamben’s ‘The Coming Community’ in place of all the Bronnerisms.

  6. JimR

      Your project sounds really interesting, Lily. I hope you will blog about/link to it in the future.

  7. deadgod

      “The idea [of travel literature and literature of travel] is that people, places, and experiences can always be described in a book, so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”

      Is it true that ‘description’ necessarily manufactures an imaginary totality? – an irresistibly compelling narrative that trumps “even” direct experience?

      Or does “even” a credulous imagination have some skepticism, some empirical tensility, such that projection and experience co-exist in a rational person?

      I think Said is appealing, for polemical reasons, to a determinism that would rule out his own capacity to be able to compare ‘description’ and “actuality”.

      Lily, in the case of human geographies – this is especially clear in vigorously contested ones, like “Texas” and “second-generation American” – , representations both concretely indicate them and indicate them incompletely, provisionally, in a way subject to ineluctable empirically-determined revision. To me, the fact that one discovers-despite-imposition is a cardinal delight of being a stranger – “even” at home.

  8. lily hoang

      Deadgod: Whereas I agree completely that the descriptions housed within a book are always incomplete, necessarily incomplete, the function of the reader is to fill in what lies in the incompletion. That is, the reader completes. The reader, by virtue of the hints and cues and often clear descriptions, imagines what is only written. If the written word is always incomplete, the reader always finishes, creates in her imagination a full picture, but that picture is based on the words, as well as what she knows. If the reader is an American and has known only America and the book is about Egypt, she will create an image of Egypt that is partially what the writer describes and partially what she knows of Egypt from other books and media and her own experience. (This could be some mixture of her own neighbourhood, insofar as Egypt is NOT her neighbourhood, insofar as Egypt is NOT her city, her town, her zone of comfort. It is foreign, both arbitrarily and concretely so.)

      I don’t necessarily believe that preconceived notions of geography based on books trump experience entirely, BUT think of how much first impressions color your overall idea of a person. Multiply that by whatever exponent you want, given the credence books demand.

      Said is flawed, yes, absolutely, but there is value in what he says. Even today, decades later, it’s still exciting. At least to me.

  9. lily hoang

      Thanks, Jim. I’ll do my best not to disappoint.

  10. jackie wang
  11. deadgod

      Lily, agreed that “[t]he reader completes”, in a way. I’d scare-quote “complete”, though; the reader adds and changes – fills in, erases, imagines – and only credulously might presume that her or his ‘description + interaction’ is “complete”. Reading is, as they say, ‘constructive’ – not from nothing but the reader’s projections, but also not, as they also say, ‘innocently’.

      For me, the sticking point with Said isn’t whether foregrounding ‘projection’ is a useful, accurate process of historical or social analysis, especially analysis of cultural appropriation – sure it is – , but rather, whether his combating of ‘appropriation’ isn’t self-congratulatorily naive.

      Take the case of “Texas”. Europeans do indeed believe crazily anti-empirical stories about “Texas” – or rather, the data many Europeans have about “Texas” doesn’t comport with the place people who’ve been there experienced empirically. But rather than comparing the “Texas” of Europeans to the home that Texans know, why not compare that home as a fictively objective place to the “Texas” of Texans themselves. Don’t you know people from your hometown who believe things you think are crazy about the people and place that you both understand to be ‘home’?

      I mean that to take Said’s skepticism of travelology seriously is to realize that, whatever the reality of the actual Texas is, all “Texas”es are discursive, fictive productions of the confluence of cultural pressures.

      – which is cool . . . epistemologically difficult, but ok. How, then, to de-privilege a travelogue, or the ‘romance’ of an armchair traveler? These discursive worlds are not more “actual” than the real places they would represent, but then, such narratives are not less close to actual places than no knowledge of them at all would be! To put it too simplistically: in order for you to have gone to the actual Vietnam as Vietnam, there had to be a, or several, “Vietnam”s mapped notionally for you.

  12. lily hoang

      Jackie, First off, thank you for yr generous epistolary review. It was an unexpected and delightful surprise. I love the idea of reviews written in epistolary form. I love letters in general, the time it takes to write and receive, the waiting. We are not a culture of waiting anymore. I’m going to post on this later this afternoon (once I finish writing this grant proposal, which continues to loom over me), in relation to the Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait” plus its cutting-edge interact video, the rupture created between the lyrics and visual experience. But enough of what’s to come. I only meant to say: what you’re talking about on yr blog and in this comment excite me!

      I’d be curious to hear how living in China changed yr perception of China, what yr pre-conceived notions of China were before, how you imagined the geography, etc. Furthermore, was it comforting to be one of many, esp considering how “unique” Asian-ness is in the States, even in Asian communities? I had this conversation with my partner the other day about how even among Asian Americans, there’s still a tendency to exoticize their Asian-ness. Maybe you’ll disagree with me. More later. I’ve yet to have coffee and I didn’t sleep last night at all… if only I had Ambien on hand.

  13. Jeff From Kingston

      You know, there was a campaign to make Lake Champlain a Great Lake back in the day.

  14. lily hoang

      Was that some kind of strategic move like moving the capital from Kingston to Ottawa? (The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming! Get the canons ready!) Ok, now I really have to write this grant proposal. Disciplines are lame. Apparently, you CS people didn’t have to apply to the tri-council like I have to. (And since I’m American, I can’t actually apply for tri-council, which means Vanier or bust for the Missus Kob.)

  15. jackie wang

      regarding living in china…i lived in kunming (southwest china, yunnan province) with my aunt. she wasn’t from kunming. her/my dad’s family actually grew up in taiwan and their parents were from hangzhou, near shanghai… by the time i lived in china i didn’t believe in the myth of asian women as passive…but by the end of my stay i reaally didn’t believe it–she was the most outspoken, brutal, and wild person i’ve met. living in china definitely made me aware how the monolithic category “asian” doesn’t really hold up while in a specific place in asian. the lines were definitely drawn around specific nationalities…some chinese people resented japanese people, the south koreans felt culturally similar to the japanese but not to the chinese, southeast asians were markedly different from han chinese. the province i was living in has the highest population of ethnic minority groups in all of china, so it was strange going from a context where chinese were minority (america) to a place where chinese were the dominant and there were other subaltern ethnic groups. my aunt–han chinese–had an elitist attitude and would tell people that they were stupid cause they ate too many potatoes (??). she thought of kunming as the redneck part of china. there was this epcot-like them park called “minority village” containing pavilions of all the ethnic groups. even though there were huge divides between these groups, in an american context they would probably all be lumped together.

      yeah, i think there is this trend among children of immigrants reclaiming their asian-ness but in the form of self-exoticization…like the azn pride movement (is it a movement?) i think once “asia” was demystified for me, i felt less of this.

  16. lily hoang

      Deadgod: I think there’s a lot of value in what you’re saying, and as I’ve thought about things more, I agree completely that imagined places are plural, constantly evolving, never static. This does not undermine Said’s argument though. I think there is room for all three of us to agree on 98%, but that 2% difference, we’ll fight to the death over. Well, it’s easier to rumble with a dead guy–less easy to spar with a deadgod, pun obviously intended–there being limited arguments he can make from the grave.