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7 ways to Decolonise Travel Writing

Insights from the British Guild of Travel Writers webinar

· Travel,Diversity,Events

In July, I attended a great webinar hosted by the British Guild of Travel Writers. Titled ‘Decolonising Travel Writing’, it delved into something I’ve been thinking about for a while – how can we make travel writing more representative? And actually it was broader than that – how can we use travel writing for good? Because the truth is that like everything else, travel writing would benefit from diversity. It makes our societies more cohesive, our businesses more innovative, and our travel writing more informative and exciting.

Utilising the expertise of a diverse range of travel writing experts, the webinar was hosted by Meeri Dattani who was joined by panelists Ash Bhardwaj, Monisha Rajesh, Noo Saro-Wiwa and Tim Hannigan. I learnt a lot from them all and it has made me think about what more I can do to help create positive change.

As a non-member, I paid £5 to attend. If you are interested in this area, they are planning on running future talks on similar themes, so you might also want to consider following them on social media (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram) and maybe even taking out membership (not an ad, promise).

Below is a round up of the main points I took from the session, but the discussion was much wider than this!

7 important things to consider when travel writing
(no matter what your background!)

1. Colonial terminology is lazy

All the panellists agreed that the use of words like ‘exotic’, ‘native’ or terms like ‘colonial charm’ are examples of lazy writing that do not actually inform the reader. Something may be ‘exotic’ to you, but it’s not to the people who live there and it doesn’t really tell someone anything about a place. ‘Colonial charm’ glamourises the colonial era (newsflash: wasn’t that great for everyone), but it also is not specific enough to be informative.

2. The last thing you read is important

Tim Hannigan is completing a PhD on ethical issues in writing and he shared something that, to me, was actually revolutionary in my understanding of why travel writing is the way it is. Research suggests that visitors will fall back on the last thing they’ve read about a place to make sense of it – this is an unconscious action. This is why there are so many romanticised experiences of rural, undeveloped locations that ignore the natural modern development of nations. The example used was an evocative description of a local working in a rice paddy field in a traditional hat, rather than the cosmopolitan experience that was had at the airport. Both can be true, but they are not equally shared and talked about. If we only read one type of writing from one perspective, it influences us, and that is all that we will continue to produce.

3. Be honest

Every community has its good and bad parts – responsible travel writing should be honest. Noo Saro-Wiwa explained that when she wrote her travelogue about her experiences in Nigeria, she shared good and bad stories from the community, including the corruption that frustrated her. Throughout the event there was a consensus that by leaving out the truth about a country, you are actually doing it a disservice because it does not represent the complexity of real life, real countries and real people.

It was also recognised, however, that if you are on a paid trip to capture particular content your ability to do this might be curtailed. Monisha Rajesh also gave the example of a paragraph she wrote about local women travelling on a tourist train being cut from an article by an editor before publication, so there is also work to do in encouraging PRs, brands and editors to allow (and preferably encourage) more depth in the stories being told.

3. Your diversity makes your experience unique

We all know that you can travel with another person and even if you are on the same trip, you can have wildly different experiences. It goes go deeper than that – the way that people interact with you will be dependent on your gender, your race and so many other factors. (Often unseen) societal factors will influence whether a particular type of person is welcome in a place or if someone will open up to you.

Noo gave the example of gender and age in Africa changing how interactions happen. I have had personal experiences in the UAE and Morocco, where being a woman has definitely changed how men have behaved towards me. I can also think of situations where the colour of my skin has actually meant people are more friendly, open and welcoming. My travel experience as a mixed race woman will be different to the traditional white man explorer, but also different from a Chinese woman or a black man or your experience – travel writing would be so much more rich if we heard from everyone. What stories are we missing by limiting who tells them?

4. Diverse perspectives can highlight unseen considerations

Travel writing also has an educational purpose and in-built responsibility, especially if it is designed to encourage travel to an area. The story of Monisha being spat on at a train station in Russia was a great example of being unprepared for a situation, because broader perspectives are not being shared. This would not have happened to the ‘traditional traveller’ we always hear from and, therefore, it’s not common knowledge.

I have also been thinking about this a lot recently in relation to diversity in the outdoors. There are perceived risks for those who have not experienced the outdoor environments – this encompasses being made to feel welcome as someone who is a person of colour, to accessibility requirements for disabilities, to the challenges of not being an expert. Until recently I had never explicitly talked about how welcome I’ve always felt in the outdoor community – on trips and doing activities – and I wonder how these sharing these experiences could help inform the choices of others to spend time in our wilder environments.

5. Don’t forget the photos

Of course, travel journalism is not just about the words and there have been lots of questions over the last few years about the ethics of capturing images and film featuring people to illustrate your stories. Ash Bhardwaj gave some great advice on the ethics of photography when travelling. He says, just like you would expect in the UK, ask first. If they agree then make sure you show them afterwards too.

I have experienced being specifically asked to not film and had requests for photographs refused – this happened to me the most in Morocco. It’s so important to ask and respect refusals, but it can make it tricky if, like me, you prefer unposed photos of people just getting on with their lives.

I have actually been debating switching to quick sketches in places where I don’t feel it’s ethical to take a quick photo and move on. This includes day-to-day life in very poor-quality housing and anything including children. It feels far less ‘grabby’ to sit in a local cafe, spend some money with the local community, and really sit and observe for a few minutes. It also means that its an artist’s impression of a person, rather than a blatant high-res capture of an individual. In my experience, people are far less threatened by a pencil and notebook, than a camera. The success of this is slightly limited by my artistic ability of capturing buildings and moving people, but you get better by doing it more!

6. Ask a local

You’ve travelled, you’ve made connections and interviewed people about their experiences on the way. Avoid misunderstandings and misrepresentations by, where it is possible, asking locals how they feel about a piece you’ve written, how they are represented and its tone. Travel writing is a reflection of your own experience, but it should sit within the context of a place. This obviously has its challenges, especially if you are writing in a different language or a long time after a visit, and some edits (to make people look better or that you know to be untrue) are not ethically appropriate either. But the more information and feedback you can get, the better and more representative you can potentially make your writing.

7. Be kind to yourself

As we neared the end of the session, Tim reminded us that just because we have produced pieces previously that are not perfectly aligned with the principles discussed, does not mean that we are horrible people or support colonialism. This is so important! Don't turn away from travel writing because you made a mistake or beat yourself up about something you wrote before you knew better, it does not mean you that you are a write off. Instead, commit to continue learning and evolving – that’s all any of us can promise to do. I’m definitely not perfect, so I'm here with everyone else just trying to do better at it each time.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn from established travel writers, so I'm very grateful to the writers who took part and shared their insights. The Black Lives Matter movement has given us the platform to publicly discuss diversity, but to create large-scale impact we need to really address how this can happen and exactly what needs to change. This event did a great job at giving actionable takeaways for all writers, so I'm looking forward to the next one!

Further reading:

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