In common with many other people, the months of near-lockdown find us reflecting on our previous experiences and work. As scholars working on literatures of mobility, this means thinking in particular about our own and others’ travels, how journeys are written about, and how academics study them. We share the irony noted in recent articles that observe how this period of confinement provokes new standpoints on movement, but we also find ourselves considering afresh how and why journeys are recreated on the page.
Trying to understand better how readers travel vicariously through books, we recall our early imaginative journeys. Our childhood and teenage reading offered a portal to other places and periods. Between us, we read of the ancient Greek myths and of Roman Britain, of other worlds and times through science fiction and fantasy. Discovering literature first written in other languages revealed unexpected perspectives on the exotic and the everyday, suggesting that travel can be translingual as well as transcultural. In lockdown, we have been increasingly struck by the ways in which travelogues continue to teach us new ways of looking at the world. Travel writing has, provided remote access to an elsewhere from which we are suddenly excluded, but also invites a reassessment of our relationship to nearby spaces, re-enchanted (as rediscovered texts such as Xavier de Maistre’s Journey around my room make clear) by the possibilities of microspection and ‘vertical travel’. There is no contradiction in the fact that travel writing speaks so eloquently to our current restrictions. The form has always been a place at which mobility and immobility intersect. What is increasingly apparent, however, is the extent to which it is capacious, allowing reflection on personal engagement with space, but also on the associations between travel and other forms of displacement.
It is important to stress that current limitations on travel are temporary, meaning that conclusions we draw from them should not be overstated. The geographical restrictions linked to Covid-19 are very different from those faced by people whose mobility is limited as a result of disability or whose movement is controlled through incarceration or social or economic status. Those of us studying travel writing have a responsibility to be conscious of the ableist nature of the form we study and of the ways in which access to it has often been rigorously policed. This is not to say that travel writing is necessarily and always the product of privilege. It presents also the voices of marginalised and oppressed people whose journeys respond to physical and socio-economic violence perpetrated against them.
Currently, the Black Lives Matter protests offer a powerful impetus to rethink not only social and economic structures but the relationship of literature to these. With our longstanding interests in African American, Francophone and postcolonial travel writings, the coexistence of Covid-19 with Black Lives Matter and calls to decolonise the curriculum bring home to us even more strongly the fundamental role of travel and travel writing in forming or reflecting, circulating, and challenging conceptions of otherness and dynamics of power that underpin these. Our future projects will include even more emphasis on travel texts that show critical engagement with social issues. Langston Hughes and James Baldwin are increasingly recognised for their contributions as travel writers, as is the Ivorian Bernard Dadié (author of classic texts such as Un Nègre à Paris), who died in 2019 at the age of 103. We turn also to the work of a new generation of authors – Teju Cole, Saidiya Hartman, Johny Pitts, Gary Younge – for whom travel provides a space to reflect on history, culture, politics, race and identity. As for those travel texts that do contribute to negative stereotypes of other cultures (though no more so than novels or films), certain political responses to China illustrate how the attitudes found in them continue to underpin prejudices. And at a time when populism and nationalism combine with health-fears to tighten or close borders, we are reminded of the importance of travel in its potential to confront one’s ignorance and promote exchange.
Finally, we are following travel writers’ and publishers’ responses to lockdown. Contributors to and producers of guidebooks in particular are seeking to understand how travel and their role in guiding it are likely to evolve. (We are mindful too of the effects upon communities whose economy depends upon visitors.)
Will an enhanced ecological awareness lead to more ethical modes of journeying, encouraging further the vogue for pedestrian travel narratives? Will local travel be privileged, and what will be the new cultural forms of engagement with space that emerge? Will past journey accounts become historical curiosities or sources of nostalgia, or new texts offer a source of reflection on the reinvention of diversity, a space in which authors experiment with alternative modes of travel?
Some of what we have read or turned to again in lockdown helps us answer these questions. Emily Thomas’s hybrid text The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad (Oxford University Press, 2020) provides an insight into the dynamics of mobility and immobility, and their respective roles in philosophical thought. Reflection on the peripatetic is assisted by the translation of Torbjørn Ekelund’s In Praise of Paths: Walking through Time and Nature (Greystone Books, 2020) and by Graham Usher’s The Way Under Our Feet: A Spirituality of Walking (SPCK, 2020). Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China (Hamish Hamilton, 1988) reminds us of the complexities of a country currently reduced in the minds of some to an object of blame and fear. Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (Granta, 2017) presents stories of those affected by life at or across borders. Similarly blending the personal, historical and cultural, Johny Pitts’s Afropean: Notes from Black Europe (Penguin, 2019) focuses on the often unnoticed or disregarded Black presence in Europe, insisting on the importance of belonging.