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For about a year now, at home or on the road, I have explored dozens of second-hand bookshops in search of travel narratives written by women. This 3rd Edition of the series "4 Travel Books For Your Summer" is in line with that search. To know more about it and the question of gender inequalities in travel writing, you may read this piece I wrote in Matador Network.
I am uncomfortably conscious that this selection is very Western, and very white. It reflects the geographical and cultural contexts in which I found my copies. Projects like 4WD are attempts to change such biases. Meanwhile, I hope you'll appreciate these books, written by women from different backgrounds, and who traveled down different roads.
Mary Morris's Nothing To Declare
In the 1980s, Morris leaves New York, her life and its ghosts, and ends up in San Miguel, Mexico, near the US border, with a writing grant. The book is about her temporary life there, her trips around Central America and the people she met on the way.
In 2016, I held my copy, standing in a second-hand bookshop in Whitehorse, Yukon. I clenched my teeth, as I felt negative anticipation. Under the title, I could read "Memoirs of a woman traveling alone". This badly sounded like a book in which a privileged white American woman seeks adventure in an exotic country, conveniently cheap and located nextdoor to her home country. But I gave the book a chance. And what I found in its pages, is nothing short of spectacular writing.
Nothing To Declare is raw sensations. It is unfiltered subjectivity, which makes it unique, precious. However, this also made it very irritating to a substantial amount of readers.
Morris weaves her travel experience into a narrative. She writes about events and people exactly as she felt about them, unapologetically, and sometimes in an ethereal, dreamlike, "detached" manner that reflects her personal style of writing — but that may have been interpreted as insensitivity. On the other hand, Morris develops a special relationship with her neighbor Lupe. Thoughout the book, it is clear they both know of the cultural and social gap that exists between them. And yet, their "womanness" binds them together, resulting in reflections on what it is to be a woman: a woman lost, a woman found, a woman traveling alone out of her privileged comfort zone.
I truly loved this book for its literary qualities, its "indirect feminism", and the deep love of traveling it conveys. I thought it was beautiful travel writing, and I didn't find it insensitive at all. I thought it was straightforward, honest, reckless, and personal. Morris is traveling for herself, to find herself, to write for herself. The fact that she is a woman may have fed different "expectations" in the audience. Maybe did we expect more modesty, caution, and motherly care? Well, tough luck.
Cheryl Strayed's Wild
Including in my 2017 selection this international best-seller, later made into an acclaimed movie, may look like an act of pure laziness. Well, quite the contrary: if you have not read that book, I advise you read it. I stumbled upon my copy while crossing Montana, during a lunch stop in Helena. I held it and thought, excited: "It's about time I read you!" And just like with Morris's book, I was literarily smitten.
Wild is luminous prose. Strayed is lost, in a spiral of romantic failures, addiction, traumatic childhood memories, and grief over her mother's sickness and untimely death. She throws herself onto the Pacific Crest Trail, physically unfit and materially ill-prepared. Wild is her story, based on her trail journals. Like Morris, she received very harsh reviews from readers, for her unconventional recklessness and unapologetic way of being straightforward about her life, inner feelings, lusts, and doubts. And yet crucially, in my book, this is exactly what makes her writing so powerful.
Anyone who has ever considered the trail as solace, or redemption, or a way to find peace, should lose themselves in that book. As for armchair travelers, they will meet face-to-face with adventure, wilderness, unfiltered humanity; life.
Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of the regrettable things I'd done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I'd been skeptical about, I didn't feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me.
Brianna Karp's The Girl's Guide To Homelessness
Ellensburg, WA. I grabbed the quirky copy, with its surprising cover design, its "Harlequin" logo at the back and its thick pages with their ragged edges. The snob in me hesitated. I read the synopsis and it told me the author had really been homeless. I had previously read Lars Eighner's Travels With Lizbeth. It had been odd, chaotic, and yet engaging. The fact that it had sounded very foreign to me at the time, had made me feel guilty about my own middle-class privileges.
This time, the author was a woman. And I can't say I was "literarily smitten". Karp writes a rugged, unadorned account of her experience. Her story involves many traumas: abuse, mental illness, poverty, unemployement. Sometimes, the reader will wonder in disbelief if some events really happened or if Karp is totally making them up.
When I finished this book, I sat a while in front of it, in silence. I had been surprised, engaged, appaled, face-palming, weirded out, skeptical. But it dawned on me: this was not about literature, reason or truth. This was about humanity. Voices like Karp's are rarely heard. Who listens to the transient, the mentally-ill, the abused, the unstable, the poor, the delusional, the ones who someday, for any reason, find themselves struggling?
Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out
How I cherish this copy! I found it a five minutes' walk from my current home in Lyon. It still has its Hogarth Press paper cover, designed by Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell. The Voyage Out is a fiction, but it still deserves to be part of this annual selection. It is Woolf's first novel, and tells the story of Rachel, a woman who sails from London to South America where she discovers wild spaces, freedom, and intellectual stimulation.
This fiction is the occasion for Woolf to discuss, among other social issues, the place of women in private and public spaces. The Voyage Out, which you'll find in most bookshops, is much less outspoken than its earlier version, titled Melymbrosia. Woolf had to edit it, because it was not acceptable for women writers at the time to get so political and critical of Edwardian England.
As in many of Woolf's novels, the author's voice is heard in the mouths of different characters, sometimes men, sometimes women. I read on like in a dream, and listened to all of them. They mirror Woolf's family, friends, and literary circle. Through travel, they speak out. And today still, their voices resonate.
Just consider: it's the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life. Of course we're always writing about women — abusing them, or jeering at them, or worshipping them; but it's never come from women themselves. I believe we still don't know in the least how they live, or what they feel, or what they do precisely. If one's a man, the only confidences one gets are from young women about their love affairs. But the lives of women of forty, of unmarried women, of working women, of women who keep shops and bring up children, of women like your aunts or Mrs. Thornbury or Miss Allan — one knows nothing whatever about them. They won't tell you. Either they're afraid, or they've got a way of treating men. It's the man's view that's represented, you see. Think of a railway train: fifteen carriages for men who want to smoke. Doesn't it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I'd blow some one's brains out. Don't you laugh at us a great deal? Don't you think it all a great humbug? You, I mean — how does it all strike you?
Read last summer's edition!