One of the refreshing aspects of Australian travel writing is the candour of Australian writers as they express the fear, discomfort, ill-health and neurosis many travellers feel when out of their familiar environments.
Not one of the thirty-three writers in the new Australian anthology Travellers’ Tales, published by the Central Queensland University Press and edited by Michael Wilding and David Myers, displays the false confidence or narrow world view of the brash American, or snobbish British colonist, while travelling.
No, these Australian writers are vulnerable, challenged, unsettled, humbled and downright scared as they travel to the exotic locations that are the focus of the anthology. The editors wanted to combine the talents of a group of gifted writers to “evoke the crazy challenges of exotic travel”, allowing readers to escape from the cage of humdrum daily routine and “encounter the shock of the unexpected and the other”.
This mostly conscious, but sometimes unconscious, awareness of the way the West often conceptualises the East as “other” is characteristic of Travellers’ Tales.
Edward Said uses the concept of “other” to support his massively influential concept of “Orientalism” in the book of the same name.
Orientalism is: “an enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage - and even produce - the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period”. Said’s concept of Orientalism includes stereotypical depictions of “Oriental” despotism, cruelty and sensuality. His theories have gained significant purchase in a world searching for answers post 9-11.
It’s clear from reading Travellers’ Tales that many Australian writers still view the East through a prism of Orientalism. But many of the writers in this collection are at least conscious about their “otherising” of the East and other exotic locations and perhaps more frank about this than many English or American scribes.
In his story about searching for Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Laurie Hergenhan feels an affinity with Istanbul “along with my conception of it as other”. His attempt to meet Pamuk has a quirky outcome, and along the way he is deeply moved by the citadels, flowering vines and rising orange moon of Istanbul.
John Dale’s fear of the East balloons into full-blown paranoia in Turkey where the delusional traveller is convinced he’s being followed and everyone eyes him suspiciously. He hooks up with a female traveller even more paranoid than he and they watch each others’ backs while sleeping. This portrayal of the East as a place of inherent danger is a minor theme of the book - perhaps that is part of the excitement of going to “exotic” places.
Dave Wellings is seriously "wierded out" during a trip on a rudimentary double-decker barge lashed to a river boat on the Nile. When Welling’s intrepid Dutch travelling companion disappears, he imagines the Dutchman was either accosted by Idi Amin’s “drunken baboons” in Uganda or eaten by crocodiles. Welling’s piece is pierced throughout by a sense of real and present danger.
There is no danger in Bolivia where Desmond O’Grady goes for a conference and writes about his vertigo, torpor and diuretic pills while staying in a high rise, nor does David Myers’ lecturer character ever feel unsafe during his lecturing tour of Japan, but both these stories are about Australians having the “Lost in Translation” experience.
What is refreshing about these accounts though, is that there are no comparisons with “the way we do things at home”. There is none of the “flexible, positional superiority” Edward Said accuses Western writers of indulging in when talking about the East. When confronted with sea urchin and orange caviar for lunch, a university chancellor who lightly grabs his balls by way of greeting, and a computerised toilet with a saluting lid, Myer’s Australian academic in Japan is taken aback, but makes no judgments.
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