Reading against the grain | Daily News

Reading against the grain

The darker side of travel writing

Much to the delight of the coffee-table-book author and the travel connoisseur, Sri Lanka is not only rich in natural beauty, but also equally well-endowed with ornate, detail-laden travel accounts of Westerners encountering its landscape for the first time. The series of publications by the National Trust of Sri Lanka, for instance, or books on her national parks often quote from and excerpt this language.

Where does this language come from? At its zenith, the British Empire covered roughly one-fifth of the globe, allowing the associated network of officers, sailors, soldiers and administrators to traverse the thirteen million square miles under its control and write accounts of their time. Time spent in Asia coupled with the requisite Eton-Oxbridge educational combination, lent itself well to the writing of lyrical, evocative prose about the colonies.

Take, for instance, one description from in 1860 given by James Emmerson Tennent, the Irish-born lawyer and statesmen who served in various capacities in Sri Lanka.The laudatory paragraph concludes: “Ceylon, from whatever direction it’s approached, unfolds a scene of loveliness and grandeur unsurpassed, if any land in the universe rivals it.”

What prose, what praise. Perhaps it is no surprise that contemporary writers of travel, heritage and nature books continue to recycle such quotations in their books, essays and Instagram posts.

But writing is never neutral, never apolitical.

Conventions of writing

Particularly from the nineteenth century onward, English travel writing (and European travel writing in general) was an established genre with particular conventions; the writing was closer to fiction than to contemporary reporting. Accounts were stylized and ornamented, written to allow Western audiences to partake vicariously in adventures in far-off lands.

In the wake of Edward Said’s seminal 1978 work, Orientalism, and other schools of philosophy that focus more on language (such as semiotics), scholars are more alert to how language shapes meaning, cultural attitudes and affect.

Today, centuries after these Victorian travel accounts were recorded, the object has become the subject as Sri Lankans themselves read and recycle these accounts written about them.What should we be alert to when reading? How does one “read against the grain,” that is, read from the vantage point of not taking everything that is written for granted, uncritically, but instead read them with historical awareness and criticism?

A simple recipe might be to watch out for eroticization, the trope of the primitive-ideal and selective excerpting.

Paradise myth

Beauty can be dangerous. The scholar Melanie Murray’s has argued that the construction of a “paradise myth” on islands allowed for colonizers to foreground the aesthetic of the places they visited and ignore local humanity. Paradise, after all, relies on oversimplification. Life cannot be messy or complicated in Eden. Characters with ‘too much’ humanity, intellect or complexity would detract from a story of pristine island peoples untouched by the corruptions of the West.

As such, the appreciation of Sri Lanka often relied on an immutable, native, primitive beauty. The scholar Valerie Packenham’s survey of the experiences of Edwardian British citizens (such as Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s husband) travelling in the colonies, remarks on the way in which, despite Westerners’ disparaging remarks about local customs, “almost every ‘Northerner’ disliked even more what they saw as the consequence of trying to ‘Europeanize’ and ‘Christianize’ the natives.”

For example, the American author Mark Twain wrote Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World in 1897, narrating his travels around the British Empire three years prior. The text contains one chapter on Ceylon, recounting his visit in 1890. Twain waxes a lyrical about the island’s natural beauty: “Ceylon present. Dear me, it is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical, as to character of foliage and opulence of it…an oriental charm and mystery, and tropic deliciousness—a line that quivers and tingles with a thousand unexpressed and inexpressible things, that haunt one and find no articulate voice.” Twain’s account is strikingly beautiful, and many of us may feel that it conveys adequately and articulately the wonders of the island.

Elsewhere in the text Twain writes: “I can see it to this day, that radiant panorama, that wilderness of rich color, that incomparable dissolving-view of harmonious tints and lithe half-covered forms, and beautiful brown faces, and gracious and graceful attitudes and movements, free, unstudied, barren of stiffness and restraint…“ However, this appreciation of the “beautiful brown faces” (especially those of the women), is removed if the women appear to any extent European. In his account, the “attitudes and movements” of the locals is defined in opposition to something presumably European, “stiffness and restraint.”

Writers’ dissonance

Twain’s disgust at the un-exoticized native is expressed in his description of the following incident when he sees a group of local schoolgirls: “Just then, into this dream of fairyland and paradise, a grating dissonance was injected. Out of a missionary school came marching, two and two, sixteen prim and pious little Christian black girls, Europeanly clothed—dressed to the last detail, as they would have been dressed on a summer Sunday in an English or American village.”

Here, Twain’s distaste for the “grating dissonance” between the locals in Western dress and his ideal of “fairyland and paradise” is made explicit. This dissonance, however, is articulated by Twain, and not the locals. The “black girls” cannot be clothed in the way of an “American or European,” is “masking” some inherent primitive truth. Twain exclaims in disgust that the girls’ clothes were “unspeakably ugly!/ugly, barbarous, destitute of taste, repulsive as a shroud.”

Twain might be accused of racism, but Twain was also a member of the Anti-Imperialist League, a Boston-based group of intellectuals and public activists begun in opposition to the American annexation of the Philippines. How do we square his apparent conception of locals with his anti-imperialist convictions? The paradox is a vexing one, but one which is it worth calling attention to. Perhaps the lines between savior and oppressor are not so easily drawn.

A second example we might consider are the letters of the English writer Anthony Trollope. Trollope visited Ceylon in 1875 and wrote of his travels in the British magazine The Liverpool Mercury.

Writing about Peradeniya, Trollope repeats the familiar refrain that “Eden was in Ceylon.” He describes “It is a land of loveliness, surrounded by the most perfect scenery which the mind can imagine.” However, this conception of the “most perfect,” almost “Edenic” scenery does not require fully realized individuals.

In one letter, for instance, he recalls: “All along the road, though we were travelling by night, we found natives awake and swarming in numbers. In all the cottages there were faint lights, and whenever we stopped there were slight, half-naked creatures looking at us. In the dark it was almost impossible to see whether these were men, women, or children…” These types of impressions, un-gendered, un-individuated, are all too common in travel accounts.

Habit of excerpting

A further problem with travel writing is that the descriptive portions of the texts are often only pieces of a larger whole. Our modern habit of excerpting, or taking out the “loveliest” portions of text leaves out the less-than-palatable portions. Both the Chilean writer Pablo Neruda and the Russian playwright Chekhov left beautiful accounts of Ceylon. But they are also accounts which contain worrying narrations of relations between local women and foreign men visiting the island.

Neruda’s memoirs offers: “One of [the women] told me about her visits to the “chummies.” That’s what they called the bungalows where young Englishmen, clerks in shops or firms, lived together in groups to save on money and food. Without a trace of cynicism in her voice, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she told me that she had once had sex with fourteen of them.” Neruda expresses his indignation and horror at this story but concludes, “She was not a prostitute. No, she was just another product of colonialism, a candid and generous fruit off its tree…”

Anton Chekhov visited Ceylon in 1890. The visit took place on Chekhov’s return from a tour of the island of Sakhalin, where a Russian prison camp was located, about which he wrote The Island of Sakhalin (1893-94). After Sakhalin, Chekhov travelled through British Hong Kong, Singapore and Ceylon. His account of Ceylon is captured in a letter addressed to a friend, Alexei Suvorin, on December 9, 1890, from Moscow. Chekhov wrote that Sakhalin was hell but Ceylon was paradise, drawing once again on the paradisiac island trope.

Women’s racialized bodies are connected to Chekhov’s rhetorical construction of paradise. The woman becomes racialized, reduced to her ethnic and physical features of dark eyes and Hindu ethnicity. David Spurrhas argued that the “absence of individuation” is a defining feature of the colonial discourse. By obscuring the woman and the landscape, and reducing her to a set of physical features, Chekhov robs the local woman of her individuation.

Needless to say, these are not the portions that are reprinted when their writing is used to demonstrate the “beauty of Lanka.” The lure of travel writing is understandable. It gives us prettified, descriptive prose accounts of Sri Lanka. But perhaps it is also a far warning, especially for local readers, to read against the writing, to read instead for nuance, mutability, complicated categories of localness that cannot be so easily defined, circumscribed and described. Read, but do so against the grain.


James Taylor with a group of tea pluckers.

A village family.


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