Other Times Other Places

Faraway Places: Travel Writing

Is it lack of imagination that makes us come to imagined places, not just stay at home?

Elizabeth Bishop
Travel Writing and Global Change: Lavinia Spalding delivers a Tedtalk about how sharing travel stories can lead to understanding and positive change.

In this section you’ll come to understand the conventions of travel writing, learn a bit about the history of the genre, question why people are compelled to travel – and to write about it – and investigate the overlap between language and literature that exists in the wide and varied genre of travel writing. You’ll read non-fiction texts that feel like stories and see imaginary scenes presented as fact. You’ll learn to decode elements of travel writing and question texts more closely, finding analysis points and learning to evaluate various pieces of writing. These kinds of skills underpin your success in Paper 1 at the end of your course. Begin your study by reading The Travel Narrative from the list of articles below, and then choose one or two more pieces of wider reading to enrich your study:


Class Activity 1: why do we travel?

This title of this story, from the Travel Tales website, suggests the writer has a desire to be informed about a far away place. But the word ‘authentic’ and the picture of a ‘local’ also suggests curiosity about other people.

As you will have learned by now, people travel – and write about the places they visit – for a variety of reasons. the most common are: to find the self; curiosity about the ‘other’; religious or spiritual reasons; to search for one’s roots; to be informed. In this activity, you’ll practice identifying these purposes in travel writing.

Visit Travel Tales, a collection of stories and articles curated and edited by Lavinia Spalding. Slowly scroll down the home page of her site, reading the titles and blurbs of the various stories you find there. Can you infer the purpose of travel from these snippets of information? Refer to The Travel Narrative (above) for more information of the purposes of travel writing.

Class Activity 2: travel writing

Do you love the outdoors yourself? Have you ever grasped the bleakness that exists when the natural world is destroyed? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ opinion columnist Nicolas Kristof, from The New York Times, might strike a chord with you. He has been writing about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for years now and is a prolific and highly respected columnist for the New York Times. Common topics in his columns are the environment, human rights and charity.

Read the small collection of articles curated from his blog ‘On the Ground’ (above) and discuss them with your classmates and teacher. Then, answer these questions:

  1. What arguments does Kristof make about nature, the natural world and hiking?
  2. How does Kristof discuss nature, the natural world, and hiking and why?  Identify 5 different techniques or stylistic elements of his writing and consider their effect on the reader.
  3. Apart from nature, what else does Kristof write about and why?

Areas of Exploration Guiding Conceptual Question

‘Cultural practices’ refers to traditional or customary practices of a particular ethnic, national or cultural group. They can be considered in the same way as symbolism in literary texts; physical manifestations of abstract beliefs and values. One reason we travel is to discover the beliefs and values of different people, as practiced in rites and traditions which have often been passed down from generation to generation. Before you work through the resource below, can you think of any practices that are special in your culture? These may include religious, medical, artistic, culinary, political, family or any other behaviour that reveals underlying beliefs and values:

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. Why is travel writing important? How is it different from other kinds of journalism?
  2. In the twenty-first century, is travel writing still necessary? Given that technology can connect us with people and places all around the world, and we can watch videos, read blogs, and browse the social media of people who live in other places, what is the point of reading first person accounts of travel by outsiders to those places?
  3. Is there a difference between a traveller and a tourist? What makes a person one rather than the other? Is it preferable to be one over the other?

Learner Portfolio

Watch Livinia Spalding’s Tedtalk (above) and, if you have not done so already, visit Travel Tales to browse some of the stories from her collection. Near the end of this talk Lavinia issues a challenge: to write your own literary travel story, inspired by a place you’ve been or a person you’ve met on a journey you have taken. Take her up on this challenge by writing a piece of literary non-fiction about a place you have been ora journey you have taken in your life. Make the purpose of your writing clear: is it to find the self; discover the ‘other’; become informed; search for your roots; take a religious or spiritual journey, experience ‘awe’ – or some combination of purposes?

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: travel writing

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Travel writing is an extremely fluid genre and you could be presented with a text that contains a variety of tropes (such as maps, photographs, itineraries, reported or direct speech, humour, metaphors… the list goes on) and may even share similarities with literary texts. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of Travel Writing and add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Key features of travel writing
  • Viewpoint: travel writing often documents the personal experiences of someone exploring a new place or country so is often first person.
  • Perspective: an outsider’s perspective is common when reading travel writing, particularly if the destination is new, exotic or remote. Alternatively, the piece might be written from an insider’s perspective and is inviting you to visit or share an experience in a different part of the world.
  • Structure: look out for chronological timelines, past – present structures or a linear journey of discovery. Guidebooks will have clear headings and subheadings and will probably include box-outs and the like.
  • Information: travel writing often seeks to be informative and can present you with facts and figures, names and dates, historical or architectural or geographical information and more.
  • Description: if the writer is trying to make the destination tantalising, or to help transport the reader, you might find examples of visual imagery, vivid description, even figurative comparisons, helping you visualise a far-off place.
  • Visuals: photographs, maps, or floor plans of famous locations are all visual features that you might encounter in travel writing, particularly guidebooks.

Body of Work: Alison Wright Photography

Alison Wright: Portraits of the Human Spirit is a National Geographic documentary that delves into Alison Wright’s wanderlust and evaluates the achievement of her photography.

Alison Wright is an author, photographer and speaker who has published several collections of photo-essays including Faces of Hope: Children of a Changing World and The Spirit of Tibet: Portrait of a Culture. Her most recent collection from 2018 is titled Human Tribe. Her mission is to document endangered cultures and traditions from around the world, including raising awareness of human rights and other issues. Alison has won numerous awards and accolades including the Dorothea Lange Award in Documentary Photography for her photographs of child labor in Asia and a two-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award. She was named a National Geographic Traveler of the Year in 2013. Here is a small selection of her photography to use in class, or you can explore Alison’s complete body of work here.

The presentation of beliefs and values through images is a powerful tool that can help preserve minority cultures in the face of globalisation and help to balance historical injustice by educating those who have lost touch with the past or with alternative ways of living. Texts of all kinds – written, spoken, visual – can help protect cultural heritage that might otherwise be lost. Alison Wright’s work can be seen in the wider context of cultural preservation, an important global issue in our increasingly homogenised and globalised world.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Alison Wright’s photography would make a good text to consider using in your Individual Oral. Here are two suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Identity and Community
  • Global Issue: Cultural Preservation
  • Rationale:

Though the colonial era has passed, its legacy lives on in the education systems, laws, political systems and other cultural practices that have displaced indigenous traditions and beliefs. In this context, the reassertion of minority cultures through texts is a powerful tool that can help balance out historical injustices and educate those who have lost touch with alternative ways of life. You could easily pair her work with any literary text that reveals aspects of culture, describes cultural practices, or reflects cultural beliefs and concerns.

  • Field of Inquiry: Beliefs, Values and Education
  • Global Issue: Encountering the ‘Other’
  • Rationale:

An important purpose of travel writing is for us to encounter ‘other’ people and make connections with people who may be very different to ourselves. In a world of suspicion and insularity, it is through building bridges between cultures and learning to understand different ways of life that we can settle our differences peaceably. In this context, Alison Wright’s photography invites us to ‘meet’ individuals from cultures that are very different to the urbanised or westernised cultures a lot of us may be more familiar with.

Sample Individual Oral

Here is a recording of the first ten minutes of an individual oral for you to listen to. You can discuss the strengths and weaknesses of this talk as a way of improving your own oral presentations. Be mindful of academic honesty when constructing your own oral talk. To avoid plagiarism you can: talk about a different global issue; pair Alison Wright’s photography with a different literary work; select different passages to bring into your talk; develop an original thesis.

Possible Literary pAirings
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – you might like to consider the idea that some cultural traditions are worth preserving, while others should rightly be consigned to the dustbin of history and Kadare subtly implies the Kanun is a dying tradition.
  • John Keats’ poetry – In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the speaker tries to imagine what life might have been like for the people engraved on the surface of an urn.
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – the play is awash with peculiar Victorian mores revealing all kinds of beliefs and attitudes about class, poverty, prudery, morality and more. Doolittle’s speeches, Mrs Higgins’ at-home or conversations between Higgins, Pickering and Mrs Pearce could all be passages that you might like to select for this activity.
  • Border Town by Shen Congwen – written just as China was beginning to modernise, and recently rediscovered by a new generation of Chinese readers, Congwen’s novella paints a picture of the lives and traditions of local Miao people in West Hunan, and can be valued as a record of a way of life that has largely disappeared in one of the world’s fastest-changing countries.
  • The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami – these stories are set in a world traumatised by history, and most of the characters are victims of a peculiar kind of ‘collective amnesia’. They seem stuck in the present and can’t move on in their lives. Some critics have interpreted Murakami’s writing as a response to the tumultuous events of Japan’s history – a past that many would like to simply forget. Approaching this activity from this unusual angle would be a challenging, but possibly very interesting, way to pair a literary and non-literary body of work.
  • Charlotte Mew’s poetry – writing at the start of the twentieth century, what does Charlotte Mew reveal about the lives, attitudes and values of the people in her poems? What kind of society did she live in? What was life like for ordinary people – and for women, disabled people and those who were mentally impaired?
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – the ‘civilised’ world’s encounter with the fearsome ‘other’ is a major theme ofCoetzee’s novel and could make an ideal piece with which to compare Alison Wright’s photography.

Towards Assessment: HL Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

If you are an HL student who enjoyed this section of work, and find the topic of travel writing interesting, you might consider this Body of Work to write your Higher Level Essay. You could extend your research beyond Human Tribe to include some of her other published collections. Angles of investigation might include: to what extent you think she is successful in her aim of bridging the gap between different cultures; whether her photography constitutes a modern form of travel writing; to what extent her photography reveals and represents cultural practices; whether you feel the photographs form or impose an identity onto people from an outsider’s perspective. Here are some suggestions for you – but always follow your own lines of inquiry should your thoughts lead you in a different direction:

  • How is colour and composition used to present ideas about identity in Alison Wright’s photography?
  • How does Alison Wright imply a close connection between people and the natural world in her photography collections?
  • How does Alison Wright use metonymy in her photographic work?
  • Explore the symbolism of eyes in Alison Wright’s photographic collections.
  • In what ways does Alison Wright’s photography meaningfully negotiate our encounter with unfamiliar people and places?

Wider Reading and Research

  • Outpost Magazine – a Canadian adventure-travel publication published six times a year, Outpost is known for its long-form adventure narratives from across the world.
  • My Favourite Travel Book – six famous travel writers nominate their favourite travel books.
  • The Most Inspiring Talks on Travel – a selection of the best Tedtalks about travel, including Lavinia Spalding’s talk.
  • The Truth About Tribal Tourism – visit this Rough Guide blog to discover how your sustainable tour may not be as friendly to people or places as you might have thought…

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