I read with great interest the recent blog post by Antonia Malchik of PerceptiveTravel.com, spotlighting our most recent Traveler’s Literary Companion, South Africa. She offers a thoughtful assessment of whether this type of collection was the best book to take on a visit to South Africa.
Malchik maintains that “novelists are often better writers of ‘place’ than travel writers are” but what our collection brought to the fore for Malchik was that “travel writers can give a deeper sense of context than a native essayist or novelist. Context is so often what the traveler needs.”
I second Malchik’s praise of the travel writer’s perspective. Travelers who have broad knowledge of culture and history, who can capture a strong sense of place, and who are talented writers—Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, to name a few—can significantly broaden our vision of a place, even when we are not physically traveling there. In fact, the perspective of the foreigner can often offer great insight even to native readers (Americans’ longstanding appreciation of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America being a prime example).
Our books are mostly short stories (plus a few excerpts from novels), and they are arranged geographically, much like travel guides. And while there is a brief author bio at the beginning of each story (earlier titles had that info at the back of the book) that may provide some context of the piece in terms of the writer’s life or the country’s literary landscape, our editors do not go into detail to explain how a story points to cultural trends or highlights historical events. There is no hand-holding to ensure that readers take home a predefined knowledge of the place. We specifically decided against such guidance, allowing readers to explore and discover on their own. Add to that the complicating layer of a translation (our Ireland and Australia books being exceptions of course, although Australia does have a glossary), and readers may find the literary terrain to be even more rugged.
We find that our most enthusiastic readers are in primarily two camps: those who are excited about going to a place for the first time and immerse themselves in our book before they travel there, and those who have returned from a place and want to extend and add depth to the experience of traveling. These latter often think of themselves as more than just tourists.
After reading the Traveler’s Literary Companion to South Africa, Malchik compared it to travel writing: “I didn’t feel . . . that I was breathing the place as I read the fiction.” Obviously only Malchik can accurately describe her own experience, but I wonder if by “breathing” she means something a bit more cerebral. I believe that when you read stories about a place written by its natives, you actually come closer to “breathing the place” than when you read stories written by foreigners. At first reading, you may not fully understand or appreciate the complexities of the world you’ve entered—that may come later—but I find that these stories stick with me, and resonate more fully as I get to know the place better.
Malchik also wrote: “to really know a country you need to read its literature; but … travel writing is [necessary] for understanding.” I think this difference between “knowing” and “understanding” is key. One is not superior to the other, but complementary.
So, where does that leave us? To truly navigate, understand, and know South Africa, you may want all three of these books in your carry-on bag: Rough Guide to South Africa (to navigate), Dervla Murphy’s South from the Limpopo (to understand), and South Africa: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (to really know).
What do you take to read when you travel?
Check out Perspective Travel: www.perceptivetravel.com for wonderful travel writing from great writers!