Listen to This, Listen to That: Travel Writing

by Dan Froid

Filed under: Blog, Listen to This Listen to That |

Travel writing is a genre that dates back to Herodotus—he of the tome Histories, which tells you all you ever wanted to know about life in fifth-century Greece, Asia, and Africa. What probably aren’t that old are all of travel writing’s associated complications. At any rate, I’m not aware that Herodotus considered the ethics of the genre as he went about his work. Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who, according to her website, “has mingled with the Russian Mafia, polished Chinese propaganda, and danced with Cuban rumba queens,” has published several books that detail her experiences in Moscow, Beijing, Havana, and elsewhere. In Episode 9 of Air Schooner, Griest discusses her ambivalence about the “tremendous ethical landmines” of working in this genre. While she loves travel writing and its history, travel writers must avoid condescension or a sense of cultural superiority. They must, as she puts it, “trust that people have become who they’ve become for a reason”; her job is to figure out why. 

Those concerns linger in my mind as I listen to Joan Baez’s song “Where Are You Now, My Son?” Less a song than a kind of sonic collage, it intersperses her own searching lyric with recordings from a trip she made to Vietnam—including the sounds of U.S. bombs as they fall on the city. It’s a haunting, uncomfortable listen. Baez balances a somewhat self-satisfied spirit of charity—she notes the “gift” she’s been given—with an awareness of the horrors her culture has caused: 

Oh people of the shelters what a gift you’ve given me 
To smile at me and quietly let me share your agony  
And I can only bow in utter humbleness and ask  
Forgiveness and forgiveness for the things we've brought to pass 

The black pyjama’d culture that we tried to kill with pellet holes
And rows of tiny coffins we've paid for with our souls
Have built a spirit seldom seen in women and in men  
And the white flower of Bac Mai will surely blossom once again

I’ve heard that the war is done  
Then where are you now, my son? 

This song is certainly a fascinating artifact of its time—it was released in 1973, toward the end of the Vietnam War, and Baez’s career as a musician has always been inseparable from her commitments to pacifism and social justice. And it demonstrates well the questions Griest raises in the podcast. Travel writing is never, after all, simply an account of a journey somewhereHere Baez demonstrates an earnest effort, like Griest, to understand why the people of a place have become who they’ve become. 

Perhaps travel writing is less fraught when the focus is less on reportage than on subjective experience. Daniel Wallace, who lived for many years in Syria, records both in his essay “Syria Before” his time spent there before the current political climate took hold. He attempts, as Scott Winter says, to get  “underneath the veneer of a place.” Wallace describes his time there writing and studying, but he also gives us a sense of what Syria used to be like, both its politics and its peopleHe tells us, for example, of a boy who asks Wallace to call his crush from England: the foreign phone number would convince her to pick up, and Wallace could then report to the boy on how she feels. 

Joni Mitchell’s Hejira demonstrates Mitchell’s typically stunning approach to, well, everything. Specifically, the eponymous album concerns a restless, solitary journey Mitchell took by car from the East Coast to CaliforniaIn Hejira, the centerpiece, the epic, Joni, who is  porous with travel fever, unfurls a painful thread of neuroses and anxieties and self-absorption. She scrutinizes all that she sees, but it all seems to take on her own sorry shape. We travel as far out as the starsWe’re only particles of change, I know, I know / Orbiting around the sun—and then back to her crummy little car, where she keeps driving, and thinking.  Maybe thats another pit-fall of travel writing, a too-tight focus on the self, rather than the place. Still, there exists no better summing-up of one strain of travel writingtraveling, and writing about the journey, to escape ones own head—or, not to put too fine a point on it, even the whole enterprise of writing about oneself, as this: 

I know no one’s gonna show me everything 
We all come and go unknown 
Each so deep and superficial 
Between the forceps and the stone

Well I looked at the granite markers 
Those tributes to finality, to eternity 
And then I looked at myself here 
Chicken-scratching for my immortality 

This song is just gorgeous. But I think I have to end on a slightly lighter note. Check out, finally, Björk’s surreal “Wanderlust, (including its accompanying video, which is really more of a trippy short film) and then, sometime this weekend, get out of your house and go somewhere else, even if it’s only  traveling to the park. Björk will tell you why: 

Lust for comfort
Suffocates the soul 
Relentless restlessness 
Liberates me
Sets me free