ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
At key moments in his travel sketches, Matsuo Bashō, the renowned seventeenth-century Japanese poet, acknowledges defeat. For instance, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, his most famous travel sketch, upon attempting to describe the islands of Matsushima, Bashō writes, “My pen strove in vain to equal this superb creation” (116). These moments, counterintuitively, seem to sustain his efforts to render his travels in haibun, a distinctive blend of prose and haiku. As with so much travel writing, the aim of Bashō’s sketches is less about charting unfamiliar terrain and more about charting a process of self-discovery that spurs something similar in readers. At the same time, as with so much travel writing, the veracity of his sketches has been scrutinized, leading some to argue that the sketches are best understood as “discursive creations rather than simply transcriptions of experience” (Carter 195). Still, while stretching the truth in some areas, Bashō strives to be steadfastly truthful about his inadequacies. When writing in a genre that permits selective departures from the truth, why acknowledge your inadequacies at all?
More than just a motif signaling his humility, Bashō’s inadequate pen is a rhetorical spark that confronts readers with the highly subjective and carefully constructed nature of his sketches, and reminds us that travel writing is at its most powerful when it forgoes the pretense of objectivity and embraces the beautiful imperfections of human experience. This is the provocation I presented to students in my spring 2019 travel writing course. As I designed the course with the intent of developing students’ critical and practical capacities, I assigned Bashō’s sketches alongside other narratives by Anthony Bourdain and Eleanor Davis to highlight what students can gain as readers and as writers by grappling with truthful inadequacies in travel writing specifically and in creative nonfiction more broadly.
To begin, I assigned travel writing scholarship that helped my class to define the genre and understand its key features. We quickly realized that travel writing’s ambiguous relationship with truth was crucial to cultivating our critical capacities. In the opening chapter of The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing, Tim Youngs outlines that, “[w]hile some travel writers insist on absolute verisimilitude, others readily admit to the manipulation and invention of detail” (4). Whereas Youngs characterizes it as a clear dualistic choice for writers, others frame the issue as more intrinsic to the genre. Casey Blanton puts the relationship with truth at the forefront of Travel Writing: The Self and The World, her historical and theoretical study of the genre. When composing a travel narrative, Blanton explains, a writer must make some fundamental decisions: “By what process, using what models, does the traveler presume to describe, to interpret, to represent people and places who are other to him? What encounter is included, what person omitted? What vistas extolled, what river left behind?” (1). A piece of travel writing, then, is not a straightforward account of movement through the world, if such an account is actually possible; rather, it is an inherently selective rendering.
Blanton’s insight assisted my students in appreciating that, as much as any other feature of the genre, skirting the line between fact and fiction is what permits travel writers to develop idiosyncratic voices and perspectives. The rhetorical spark for travel writing—what makes a particular narrative work and what makes it appealing or persuasive for readers—is closely associated with how creatively a writer skirts this line. With this in mind, we turned to examples of the genre. For me, selecting these texts was the most challenging aspect of designing the course. I wanted students to read a range of authors writing about a range of destinations in a range of forms. Initially, I offered articles from Jada Yuan, a writer selected by The New York Times to visit all the places listed on the newspaper’s “52 Places to Go in 2018” list. Yuan’s dispatches from destinations as diverse São Tomé, Switzerland, and Seattle were short, accessible entry points into the genre. For a less journalistic and more literary approach, I assigned an excerpt from Pico Iyer’s Global Soul, explaining to my students that, along with Paul Theroux and Rebecca Solnit, Iyer tops the list of most widely recognized contemporary travel writers. From this popular example, I turned to examples from writers who are not primarily known for their travel narratives, assigning excerpts from Langston Hughes and Mary Shelley. For some of my students, reading these authors they recognized from high school or college literature courses further validated travel writing as a genre worthy of thoughtful study.
We did not really begin to broach the subject of truth, however, until a few weeks into the semester when we got to our three core texts: Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines, Eleanor Davis’ You & a Bike & a Road, and Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches. Moving from relatively brief articles and excerpts to entire texts allowed for sustained engagement with a single travel writer over a number of class meetings. And, by design, these texts presented my students with three different manifestations of the genre.
The Bourdain text was, admittedly, a sentimental selection. Bourdain, the chef-turned-author-turned-television host, had died the summer before I taught the course, and, as a fan saddened by his death, I was grateful for the chance to share his work with students. Published in 2001, A Cook’s Tour is what one might expect of contemporary travel writing: a connected series of first-person, prose vignettes documenting the author’s travels to places around the world. I selected the Davis text, a 2017 graphic novel about the cartoonist’s bicycle journey through southern portions of the United States, because it breaks with the prose-heavy tradition of travel writing, while also emphasizing the gendered dynamics of travel and how the chosen means of transportation (e.g., by bike) can influence how writers depict their travels. Lastly, the Bashō text was intended to stretch students’ thinking both historically and stylistically. Based on the author’s treks through central and northern Japan in the late 1600s, the sketches are composed in haibun, a style that, for me and my students, proved equal parts novel and challenging. In what follows, I focus on Bashō because, while Bourdain and Davis are worthy of attention in their own right, it was traveling along the Narrow Road that prompted the greatest opportunities for my class to appreciate travel writing as distinct from travel itself and to appreciate, as consumers and producers of the genre, the benefits derived from making the most of this distinction.
Jens Lloyd is a Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of First-Year Writing at Drew University in New Jersey. Specializing in spatial approaches to rhetoric/composition theory and pedagogy, Jens has a particular interest in using both ethnographic and archival research methods to explore the cocurricular dimensions of campus life and how they intersect with rhetorical education. He's also interested in travel writing, place-based writing, and other forms of creative non-fiction that get people thinking and writing about the locations they inhabit. You can read his scholarship in Literacy in Composition Studies, Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, and Reflections: A Journal of Community-Engaged Writing and Rhetoric, as well as in Bordered Writers: Latinx Identities and Literacy Practices at Hispanic-Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2019).