studies in travel writing

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Experimental Travel Writing

If you were looking for 'experimental travel writing' a search engine might send you to Notes from the Road: a fairly conventional photo-blog, although it does include images of the author's moleskine journals, which are full of drawings, water colours, maps, and beguilingly draw us away from the norm.

But what I have in mind here are published texts which break with the standard first-person narrative of a single journey, while still giving us the pleasures of vicariously inhabiting a particular place at a particular time.

For an excellent discussion of innovative travel writing, see Mobility at Large by Justin D Edwards and Rune Graulund.

Here are ten examples from the last two decades or so. In no particular order:

Hollis Taylor, Post Impressions. The author travels across Australia with fellow violinist Jon Rose not in order to speculate on songlines, but to play and record fences, and to talk with those who live alongside them. A collage of photos, texts and voices, marked by different typefaces, it's not so much a narrative, as a lesson in listening.

Sean Borodale, Notes for an Atlas. Written, as the blurb has it, 'whilst walking through London', this long 370-page poem strips travel writing down to the basics. A sequence of transcribed sense impressions - things seen, heard and read - so random, fragmented and unprocessed that it is almost impossible to recognize the city in which they occur. But its refreshing, sometimes daring, imagery make it a compelling read.

Momus, The Book of Scotlands. A sequence of 156 numbered possible Scotlands ranging from pithy one-liners ('The Scotland in which the monarch is Aslan and the glen is Narnia') to short (and often fantastical and breath-taking) fictions that elaborate alternate histories, often parodying the conventions of guidebook and narrative travel writing.

Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands. Subtitled 'Fifty islands I have not visited and never will', this beautifully-designed book gives each island a double-page spread featuring a map and the recreation of a carefully crafted episode from its history. Imagination and research take the place of first-hand experience but the results are fifty, very different, evocative,and haunting texts about places most of us have never heard of.

Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room. This room is somewhere between The Road and The Beach, travel fictions that take you deep into zones of isolation and mistrust as well as solidarity and friendship. The protagonist 'Damon' is alternately 'I' and 'he', but, tellingly, in the plural, nearly always 'they', camping / hostelling in Africa and India, but never letting us forget the privileges enjoyed by the elite tourist.

Phil Smith, Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways. Neither psychogeography nor situationism, mythogeography demands a different kind of approach. This polyphonic and visually-arresting manifesto practices what it preaches, offering photographs, diagrams, taxonomies, glossaries and found texts including a 'footsteps' narrative written in the third person regarding 'The Crab Man' who walked from Manchester to Northampton looking for trees planted by Charles Hurst, the acorn-casting author of The Book of the English Oak (1911).

Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch, Ten Walks / Two Talks. With a nod to Basho, the authors' document Winter and Spring forays into the streets, parks and cafes of Manhattan, responding to their surroundings and sharing the memories provoked by them. Captured in close-up, deliberately unpolished, they revive the art of flānerie for the 21st Century.

Patrick Boman, Operation Foo-Yong. Over thirty Chinese restaurants in the French capital captured in one-page vignettes that stray from the conventions of the review by dwelling on the very specific occasion on which he dines. Conjuring up not just the food, decor and background music, but the neighbourhood, the weather, the behaviour of the other customers, it's as much about Paris as oriental cuisine.

Mike Westlake, 51 Soko to the Islands on the Other Side of the World. Mimicking the format of Montesquieu's Persian Letters, these fictional missives from four Japanese men, with their unlikely addressees (such as Elton John, Barbara Windsor, Winston Churchill, the editor of the Sun, the people of the Isle of Wight) struggle to make sense of a British Isles they have only ever seen on television.

Colleen J McElroy, A Long Way from St Louie. 'Not a travel book,' she says, but 'travel memoirs': fragmentary impressions organized thematically rather than chronologically. Thus border-crossings, taxis, rivers, markets, guided tours, foreign languages form the subject of chapters, as well as the recurrent motifs of her experiences as a traveller of colour.
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Fri 2 Dec 2011 15:28 GMT+0000


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Studies in Travel Writing (journal)
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