© Julie Bolitho 2018

A Taste for Travel: On Teaching Travel Literature

19 Nov 2017

 

In 2012, I was asked by Saint Clare's College to teach an undergraduate literature course entitled, A Taste for Travel. While the prospect was exciting to me, I was also deeply apprehensive. It was the first undergraduate course I would be teaching officially and when I thought of travel writers, I mainly thought of writers working for the likes of Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and global newspapers. At the time, in my own writing, I was mainly a poet who dappled in nonfiction narrative essays. The question loomed for me: how could I make a travel writer out of myself and my students? Certainly, we had all travelled and I was blessed to have travelled extensively at that. (Now at 33, I find myself having visited 34 countries of this world, and I hope to always keep that number one year ahead of my age--exploring at least one new culture for every year of my life--we shall see if I remain so blessed.)

 

While recreating the syllabus for the course (as the previous instructor's syllabus greatly differed from my own ideas of what a combined writing and literature course should entail), I began to realize that while Lonely Planet is great (and the Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing has one of my favorite essays of all time, "Wangara's Cross" by Joshua Clark), so much writing in our globalized world can exist under that swooping umbrella of "travel literature." 

 

At the time, in 2012, I indulged my students in books like Emergency Sex, a compelling book written by three former UN aid workers who experienced the "golden age" (if one could even call it that) of western aid, having lived and worked through the '90s in places like Bosnia, Somalia and Cambodia, countries that at the time were ravaged (or recently ravaged) by conflict.

 

I had them read Dave Eggers What is the What , a book that proposes that ever-present (and ever-unanswerable) question of "What is nonfiction?"(Eggers' book retells the story of a Sudanese refugee who receives asylum in the United States, though Eggers, who was not the refugee, writes in first-person.)

 

As much as possible, I politicized the course so as to not allow it to be a wishy-washy look at how to write a good restaurant review in a foreign city (skilled as that may be).

 

The course seemingly went down well, though may, in many ways have been before its time. The migrant crisis in Europe hadn't yet fully exploded and travel literature still seemed, at least in cultural memory, to either harken back to bygone times of Hemingway on African safari or to those skilled restaurant and hostel reviews. In many ways, it was hard to psychically justify it as an undergraduate literature course, particularly with a happy name like A Taste for Travel, implying the students and I would take a lovely literary excursion to Paris where we would eat baguettes and find a local artisan beret maker. Instead of dreamy Parisian afternoons, the students were dropped mainly into war zones (though were occasionally given breaks in places like Mexico, running with the Tarahumara and Christopher McDougall's brilliant Born to Run).

 

The course, however, hasn't run since 2013; though it has regularly been on offer, there has been no uptake. Instead, I've been teaching a course in Dystopian Literature and a course in Fantasy Literature (a course for which Oxford literally offers a plethora of fertile soil, having played host to the likes of Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Philip Pullman). I believe that dystopian and fantasy literature, and their wider counterparts in the cinematic world, are popular in part because of the dystopian times in which we live. Both branches of literature offer frightening insight into our current global predicaments, while also offering the escapism that literature provides (we live in a world full of paradox.)

 

Yet, to my great joy, there are four students in the winter term desiring to take A Taste for Travel again. Of the three courses I teach, this is by far my favorite. (Fantasy and Dystopian Literature were never a particularly strong interest of mine as a student or even now as a contemporary reader, though I enjoy teaching both genres immensely given the previously mentioned implications of said genres.) So, this afternoon, after quickly redrafting my Fantasy Literature syllabus for next term, I set to work updating the syllabus for A Taste for Travel. I currently embody the stereotype of a literature tutor in that there are books scattered everywhere around me (some are open, others are stacked on top of each other, some have ripped multi-colored/multi-meaning post-it notes poking out from the edges). On the table, there is also a half-empty cup of tea, a few pens, notes on scrap sheets of paper and on the floor to my left, there is a very loyal, fluffy companion dog. The haphazard nature of the scene is reflective not of mental convolution, but of excitement. The world, for better or worse, has changed dramatically in the past five years since I first drafted the syllabus. Europe, in particular, as any knowledgeable citizen would know, has been in the grips of a migrant crisis, polarizing the political landscape and begging questions about what it means to be human. The stories of these migrants have yet to make it meaningfully through any big publishing houses as the crisis is still so fresh and so immediate. Memoirs of Holocaust survivors and their progeny, I believe, are increasingly prevalent (and increasingly being published) given the nature of current global, political rhetoric.

 

Now, with global travel, whether it be for pleasure (which for many is more affordable than ever) or for immigration or for forced migration, travel literature is an increasingly relevant, valid branch of study; the times seemingly demand it. The same books I provided students 4-5 years ago will take on different meanings in the current global landscape despite being the same texts, and the same words by the same authors. This truly is the beauty of literature. Writers and authors would like to think that work is timeless, a piece of immortality, but the truth is that books have journeys based on a myriad of factors beyond anyone's control: books come and go, and rarely do they stay, but they also sometimes return. Depending on the times, a book's meaning and relevance could change entirely. It seems like an obvious point, but it is one so often forgotten.

 

While updating the syllabus for the course, my only grievance is that I don't have more than fourteen weeks to work with these students. The list of travel memoirs worthy of reading is exponential and every time I speak to a friend or colleague about the course, I'm given yet another book recommendation to consider for the course (if only I had enough time to read and write everything I wish in a day/week/lifetime).

 

Possible titles for inclusion in the course are as follows:

-Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (1975)

-Ghost Train to Easter Star by Paul Theroux (2006 - the repeat of the same journey as taken in the 1975 narrative)

-Emergency Sex by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson (2005)

-What is the What by Dave Eggers (2007)

-The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1998)

-Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin (2006)

-The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2017)

-Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (1995)

-Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006)

-The Fruit Hunters by Adam Leith Gollner (2008)

-Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (2010)

-Fried Butter by Abe Opincar (2006)

(Excerpts from the Best of Lonely Planet Travel Writing are a given.)

 

I realize that including something like Eat, Pray, Love is going to be met with rampant criticism by some. Gilbert's book is polarizing not for fact that it is particularly offensive, but I believe, in large part, because she is a successful female author who was met with world-wide acclaim after being given the privilege to travel on her publisher's bill for one year in exchange for a book that helped make her worth over $20 million. This book offers not only ripe discussion for young writers as to structure and voice in travel writing, but it also offers ample space to discuss the female travel author and memoirist (to which I'll happily supply some academic reading on the this subject of the female travel writer) and the way in which gender affects readers' perceptions. (It also gives the students a break from the heartbreak of war and conflict.)

 

Overall, this post has little point other to express the surprising ways in which literature continues to validate itself over time, as well, I suppose, as to express my deep and ever-increasing love of teaching.

 

I'm currently writing my own memoir, which includes, in large part, sections of travel (thanks, Universe, for that synchronicity this winter) and this past week, like most writers do while writing a book, I panicked. I panicked deeply and thoroughly. As my friend Katy Darby, author of The Unpierced Heart, said to some of my students in Cambridgeshire last year, "When you're writing a book, at some point, you realize you're climbing a fucking mountain, and the worst part is that you created it yourself." 

 

Writing the memoir has been an equally satisfying and terrifying journey thus far, and this is mostly for another post, but what I want to say about it now is this: while discussing this panic with my wise friend and colleague, Tes Asfaw, with whom I've been teaching on writing courses for the past five years, he asked me about my role as a teacher versus that of a writer. A soft light lit in my heart when he asked about teaching. Years ago, I wrote to my poetry professor from undergrad, and I said to him, "What is so beautiful is that your teaching will live on longer than you or I. I teach my students in the ways that you taught me and some of them will go on to share and expand upon those lessons with their own students one day. Teaching, to some degree, allows for an immortality that was never desired in the first place." So, upon Tes's question, I quite simply stated what lives in my bones: teaching for me will forever be more satisfying than any accolades, awards, book or film deals. How grateful am I to have this lesson presented to me to calm that storm that was rising within my heart about my memoir. How blessed am I to be immersed in teaching memoir at a time when I am writing my own. How blessed am I that I get to do what I love nearly every day of my life. I hope my students will quickly be as excited as I am to begin our literary adventure together this January.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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