On travel writing

Travel literature by its very nature must be subjective, a reflection of the society the writer represents entering the society the writer visits. – My Beautiful Bookshelf, 9 March 2013

This Lena Dunham travelogue is significant. The backlash against her recount of her visit to Japan led to the removal of this essay from her memoir, Not That Kind Of Girl.

The writing style was casual. The tone was humorous. However, people took offence to what were considered unhelpful stereotypes about Japanese society and culture (bring some hot buttered popcorn and read Maya and Nonbunaga73 go at it in the comments section).

Some claimed that the onus is on Lena, in her privileged position as someone with an impressionable and international fan base, to be more respectful and nuanced.

Others countered that the impact of these observations are null and void. To what extent was an offence actually being committed (if at all) and what was the offence? Are we being too politically correct  and censoring people’s first impressions of a new place, their unfiltered innocent view of the interactions occurring around them.

While I think there’s little that Lena can do to improve Sayanora now that the essay has been published and dissected, the discussion that followed was warranted. However much you may personally disagree with how commenters like Maya disliked the ‘Orientalist’ tone, these points of view are important as they reveal much about the sensitivities of others’ lived experiences.

Also, I don’t think anything about travel writing is unfiltered. The act of observing, thinking and writing (meaning making) is loaded with bias and prejudice. We are the repository of our lived experiences and privilege (or lack thereof) and preferences up until this point. We process and claim to understand any new country or environment based on the limitations and expanses of what we know already,

…Sometimes (sic) the way we live things doesn’t deserve to be transferred unfiltered from head to page, where it can sit with an undue sense of its own weight and authority. – My Beautiful Bookshelf

What does all this waffle have to do with my blog?

Before I post anything else, I am currently feeling an immense pressure not to fetishise or sentimentalise what I am seeing around me. Nepal is considered exotic, unknown, imbued with mysticism (Eat Pray Love?). I’m worried that a Facebook profile picture of myself outside the majestic 18th century World Heritage listed Basantapur Durbar  is more in line with what people are expecting to see of Nepal than me standing outside the squeaky clean Adidas store front or downing a glass of rum punch in Sam’s bar.

The profile picture in question

How should my essays on topics I want to write about – Nepali friendliness for example- come across? Am I allowed to take pictures of people on the streets (without their permission) and plaster these nameless, contextless faces on Facebook as my claim to some kind of higher truer authenticity (this is what life in Nepal is really like y’all!) Even The Sartorialist, Scott Schumann couldn’t get away with that in his recent photographic series on India.

Is a beware the dog sign in Bagmati any more interesting, special or exotic than a beware the dog sign in Canberra, simply because the words are in Sanskirt (correction: Devanagari) script ? I am only using this as an example as I took a picture of such a sign because I really liked the illustration of the German Shepherd!


I am writing this because I am trying to understand what I’m feeling – this sense of hesitation. I tried to google if any other bloggers had written about contemporary travel writing or offered tips on the tone that we (foreign outsiders who are privileged in determining what gets said and unsaid) should take. I only found a post from the My Beautiful Bookshelf blog, which I have quoted extensively.

…the dude doesn’t try to hide his insanely American and Western worldview. In fact, he comes off sounding like he’s never even been a travel writer before this moment—there’s a sense of innocent wonder in his story lacking in the work of the other writers, who tend to favour feigned objectivity or, at the very least, wry appreciation. – My Beautiful Bookshelf

According to this billboard, the New Fresh Meat Center sells ‘French Fry’ (wry appreciation?)

Reflection, sadly, seems to have stopped at the start of the twentieth century. Cool beans, let’s pick on the European travellers in 1850 who still thought hysteria was a genetic defect of women and people of colour needed saving as they were uncivilised.

But what about now? Where does the gap in understanding on how to write about travel leave the myriad recreational backpackers, amateur bloggers and photojournalists, who continue to document and filter their experiences?

As I navigate the complex terrain that is reflecting on my own observations of Kathmandu, I am hoping to rely on you dear reader to call me out when I start to fetishise what are essentially banal, everyday activities in Nepal or when I start to make grandiose statements about Nepali culture (guess that rules out my post on Nepali hospitality?)

I’m glad to get this off my chest, not because it will excuse any faux pas I make in the future, nor will it help me reliably move beyond the heuristics that help me process unfamiliar surroundings and practises. It was just that these were the thoughts that were niggling at the back of my mind over the last 42 hours that I wasn’t going to ignore.


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