Monday, April 11, 2016

The Way to the Heart is through the Stomach (or How Travel Narratives lean on Domestic Visions for Authenticity and Connection)


I've been reading An Anthology of Women's Travel Writing, an edited compilation by Shirley Foster and Sara Mills, which seeks to address how men and women write with “discursive constraints” or the “‘rules’ and systems of representation and meaning within which writers negotiate in order to write what they wish” (5). Most interesting is how Foster and Mills understand that all travel writing is produced with these “discursive constraints” as they are “structuring frameworks which determine that certain elements are perceived as noteworthy, and that they are classified in certain ways,” so even the most innocuous entry describing a passing panorama, for example, is filtered through the popular judgments and norms of what a panorama should look like.



The obvious and popular generalization in this discussion is how male travel writing often centers on the adventure and the hero's journey through strange and foreign lands while the female travel journey focuses on domestic experiences in such a journey: the cooking, the caring for families, the washing, etc.

While some females did try to veer off of this expectation, the vast majority stuck to the script in order for her to feel, perhaps, that she was allowed to write, allowed to have an opinion on the travel journey, etc. As Foster and Mills explain: “The narrator’s femininity, however, had to be guaranteed in order for her work to be appropriately authenticated in gender terms. Indeed, most women travel writers themselves were acutely aware of the textual constraints imposed on them by gender appropriateness. Many of their narratives are prefaced by apologia, protesting their inability to treat matters other than the social (or even trivial), in comparison with the political and scientific orientation of male texts” (10).


But with this in mind, women travelers of the 19th century were able to use their sphere of influence to become master observers of foreign culture through their domestic focus, a technique that is most used in popular travel narratives today (think travel narratives à la  Anthony Bourdain). Foster and Mills describe how “Women’s naturally superior knowledge of human nature and domestic affairs brings to travel writing its greatest interest; for [female diarists like Elizabeth Rigby (1845)], the female vision, inherently different from the male one , is in fact that which best suits the genre” (10). For example, Harriet Martineau, traveling in 1837 writes: “I am sure, I have seen much more of domestic life than could possibly have been exhibited to any gentleman travelling through the country [North America]. The nursery, the boudoir, the kitchen, are all excellent schools in which to learn the morals and manners of a people” (Martineau qtd. in Foster and Mills 10-11). This idea is one that repeatedly receives attention in female travel writing criticism, but recently I noted how modern travel narratives (through pop-culture media) also rely on this focus to create a more real travel experience for the viewer, yet the traveler is not female.


I've been watching Bourdain, an ex-chef from NYC, for about a decade now, and his latest show, Parts Unknown, is a show I could watch for hours, days...weeks on end, undisturbed...seriously, slip food under the door, several bottles of wine in a stash under my bed (Riesling preferably and a Petite Sirah perhaps) and this is my idea of "unplug"... watching Bourdain eat his way across the world.

Although his show is on CNN, it seems to lean, and even more now in recent seasons, on food and cooking. Perhaps even CNN's choice for Bourdain speaks of how much people speak, understand, internalize, connect with other cultures via food. Often, Bourdain handles touchy topics (politics, war, colonization, gender) over a bowl of local street food, bridging the cultural gaps with slurps and "wow, now that's good". Even more helpful is how Bourdain refrains from being an "expert" on anything, always entering a country as a curious learner, even admitting his traveler's sins from time to time.
Focusing on local cuisine, local customs of family and child rearing in order to hint at the larger political discussion is what female travel writers have been doing for centuries, and they are pretty brilliant at it. Food and family was a safe, yet extremely intimate, starting point for a woman writer in the 19th century, as they did not have the societal permission to comment on politics, government or science. Many of these diaries were mailed back home and now there was a larger audience internalizing cultural commentary they otherwise would not have had.

As I read travel-lit theory, I have to confront several questions like: what is a traveler? what is travel? what is a tourist? what constitutes truth in travel writing? and many more interesting yet headache-plagued questions. The relevance of this is leads me to think of how the public now consumes travel narratives- through shows like Parts Unknown. Shows like Bourdain's are motivating the arm-chair traveler for authentic, off-the-beaten-path travel experiences... people-based travel vs. landmark-based, photo-op experiences (Bourdain notably does not visit the pyramids while in Egypt). While the show is not perfect and sometimes steps into problematic territory of emphasizing cultural expectations and stereotypes, it often does so through post-modern self-referential terms as when Bourdain will mention, "Oh, I guess we have to get this shot, huh?" It seems audiences are in flux: desiring the authentic, real "tastes" of another culture, sprinkled with the comfort of cultural expectations of the "other" from time to time. This combination draws audiences in because it is both surprising and familiar, and it is making a large impact on how Western society understands sub and foreign cultures which leads to larger conclusions about major ideas like politics, money and war. Not to mention, the opinions and perceptions help shape why, where and how people travel, just as travel writing has always done. Significant indeed.


Works Cited
Foster, Shirley & Sara Mills. Introduction. An Anthology of Women’s Travel Writing. By Foster & Mills. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002. 1-12. Print.

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