Myths of the Female Travel Writer
Updated: Feb 10
The genre of travel writing has traditionally been dominated by the male voice. With the recent cult-like success of contemporary female-authored travel memoirs such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, it has become popular to denounce the novels as light-hearted ‘chick-lit’. Although both works deal with difficult subject matters such as grief, addiction, divorce and abuse, they are often criticised for being self-indulgent. Unfairly, these women are condemned for writing their own stories in their own memoirs. In a 2013 New York Times Magazine article, Gilbert explains her frustration with being told she could attract a “better grade of readers, meaning male readers,” instead of the predominantly female audiences drawn to her novels.
She further explains, “I want to say: ‘Go [expletive] yourself! You have no idea who the women are who read my books.”
The selected travel memoirs were chosen in aim of debunking common myths perpetuating around female travel writing. The three intrepid travellers and writers provide an insight into varying areas of the globe, as well as their own personal journeys.
A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird (1879)
The overwhelming amount of historical travelogues written by men promotes the belief that women were not travelling throughout earlier centuries. Despite facing stricter societal boundaries, records show a surprising amount of female travel writers emerging throughout the Victorian Era. One of these writers was Yorkshire born Isabella Bird. As a child, her doctor prescribed her ‘a sea voyage’ to help cure her poor health. After taking the voyage to America, Bird became a regular and bold traveller. Her first published travelogue, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains became extremely popular with readers at the time of publication. Written in the style of letters to her sister in England, Bird recounts her exploration of the Rocky Mountains and her climb to the top of Long’s Peak. Although gender politics have greatly progressed since the 1800’s, today’s female travellers are still warned about the dangers of travelling alone. Yet Bird casually describes climbing to the top of Long’s Peak in a skirt, sleeping with a pistol under her pillow and beginning a romance with a man from the mountains. Considering Isabella Bird undertook her voyage in an era where women were treated as inferior to men, her confident navigation of the largely male dominated landscape is all the more admirable. Bird’s bravery pays off when she later becomes the first woman to address a prestigious meeting at The Royal Geographic Society, and subsequently the first elected female fellow.
Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria, by Noo Saro-Wiwa (2012)
Noo Saro-Wiwa describes a journey of solo female travel in a country that she is both tied to and estranged from. Nigerian by birth, Saro-Wiwa was brought up in a middle class borough of London. As a university student she attended the prestigious King’s College and considers the city to be her home. Dividing her from a seemingly typical British existence was her father’s status as a Nigerian political activist and the yearly summer trips the family took back to Nigeria. During these trips, a young Saro-Wiwa despised the perpetual heat and unfamiliarity of a country where she was expected feel at home. When Noo Saro-Wiwa was eighteen, her father Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested and executed by Nigerian officials. Despite this traumatic event Saro-Wiwa journeys back to Nigeria in order to begin unraveling her complicated and emotional relationship with her birth country. Throughout her journey, she traverses both the sprawling city of Lagos and the quieter villages set within countryside of Nigeria. She documents her interactions with the Nigerian people she meets, speaking from the unique position of being both a Nigerian and a foreigner. The memoir also engages with many of the issues her father fought against, such as the environmental impact of Shell’s oil pollution. White writers still largely dominate the travel writing section of a bookshop and the genre has a problematic past with an orientalist narrative. Noo Saro-Wiwa is one of the many women of colour changing how this genre is produced and consumed. Travel writing is shifting to a space where voices of diversity can tell their own travel narrative, and are no longer positioned as cultural objects in the white explorer’s story.
South and West: From a Notebook, By Joan Didion (2017)
Joan Didion is an American novelist, essayist and literary icon. In the 1970’s, Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne took a road trip through the southern American states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabamba. South and West is a collation of sharply observant excerpts taken from Didion’s notebooks during this trip. Her impressions on the south are set against a shorter section of writing on her home state of California. These two sections form an eloquent commentary on the cultural landscape of the United States. Many female travelogues are criticised for an over emphasis on the writer’s inner journey. Didion’s writing style uniquely permits her to step back as a character and foreground her observations on the places she travels through. The reader is able to fall under the spell of her evocative descriptions of the French quarter of New Orleans, summer thunderstorms and polished suburban housewives. Yet the alluring veneer of southern life is dispelled when Didion describes her uneasiness on the colonial views still existing within the small, conservative communities. Her comments on the southern states are now more relevant than ever with these communities largely contributing to the election of Donald Trump. South and West is a book not to be read in one sitting but to be picked up and thoughtfully considered across a period of time.