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10
Sep 04

Is travel writing inherently imperialist?

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Is travel writing inherently imperialist?

Chinua Achebe seems to think so. Here’s his take on The Artist Abroad from Home and Exile:


Diverse as their individual situations or predicaments were, these children
of the West roamed the world with the confidence of the authority of their
homeland behind them. The purchasing power of even very little real money
in their pocket set against the funny money all around them might often be enough
to validate their authority without any effort on their part.

The experience of a traveller from the world’s poor places
is very different, whether he is travelling as a tourist or struggling
to settle down as an exile in a wealthy country. One could give a
whole lot of time to that subject but I am not going to. Let me just say
of such a traveller that he will not be able to claim a double citizenship like
Gertrude Stein when she said: “I am an American and Paris is my hometown”.

It’s certainly a worthwhile observation that I, as the swaggering American traveller Achebe describes, have no experience to contradict. Though there are a million apocryphal and plenty of real immigrants who would probably disagree with him. I’d love to see some examples of travel writing written by people of “the world’s poor places” that expand on this idea. There’s plenty of fiction about dispossesion (In A Bend In The River, which Achebe actually attacks in the same essay, Naipaul deals with similar themes), but I can’t think of any travel writing that tackles the subject.

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