Travel writing, as its name suggests, would seem to require travel in order to be effectively produced. After all, how can one write about your experience of visiting foreign lands if you’re unable to travel to them in the first place? Yet, that is precisely the situation that an entire community of academics and writers who work on the literature of travel have been placed in as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions on global, and in some cases even local, travel. This has raised a daunting question. How can you be a travel writer or study travel writing if you’re unable to even leave your house?
That is precisely the question that Anthem Press’ new volume Travel Writing in an Age of Global Quarantine seeks to answer. This volume includes contributions from an international cast of researchers and travel writers. It was written within the context of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns, social isolation that it occasioned. Contributors to this volume were given a simple yet uniquely challenging task: to visit foreign lands without ever breaking their quarantine, to travel while in isolation and write about it. They weren’t asked to go alone, however. Each of our contributors has been asked to take a historical counterpart as a travelling companion. Reading their historical counterpart’s account of visiting a place, contributors will explore their own memory of having visited that place in the era before lockdowns and quarantines. Examining their own personal memory of a place alongside the cultural memory of that place contained within their historical account, they will create a composite image of that place, all from the comfort of their own homes. They will visit Cornwall with Wilkie Collins, travel with the Bedouin in the company of Freya Stark, and explore the Highlands with Emily Dickinson.
This exercise is not simply being conducted as a curiosity. Rather, it is designed to tap into and examine one of the key debates surrounding the literature of travel: that being, the extent to which someone’s written record of their visit to a foreign place actually represents an accurate representation of that place. Travellers are not distant, dispassionate observers of the places they visit. They bring all manner of prejudices and expectations with them when they travel abroad, and these inevitably colour their experience of that place. When you read their account of a place, your own experience of that place is mediated through these prejudices and expectations. Rather than shirking away from this limitation of the medium, Travel Writing in an Age of Global Quarantine actively embraces it. It invites writers to ditch the conceit that they are accurately describing the material reality of the place that they are ‘visiting’ and, acknowledging the influence of cultural and personal memory on their experiences, generate an account that embraces and exposes the mercurial and subjective nature of travel writing. In asking them to produce accounts of places without being able to visit them, it calls into question the reliability of travellers’ accounts and explores whether the boundaries between travel literature and fiction are as firm as they often purport to be.