The Sisterhood of Travel Books

Posted by @ 12:03 pm on September 20th, 2010

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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