Ten or 15 years ago, it seemed as if women travel writers might have become an extinct species. Manuscripts submitted by women were subjected to a special set of rules. Editors expected their accounts to include record-breaking feats, promotional gimmicks or at least the use of some eccentric mode of transport before their work could be seriously considered for publication. Titles like “On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers” or “To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair,” both written by redoubtable Victorians, are authentic early examples of the genre.
Several well-known contemporary writers have taken this route. Some of the results, such as Dervla Murphy’s bicycle trip to India, recounted in “Full Tilt,” Christina Dodwell’s odyssey in Eastern Turkey and Iran, “A Traveller On Horseback,” and Lucy Irvine’s year on a desert island, described in minute detail in “Castaway,” have been original and engaging. Others are little more than advertising stunts. Books have been written on subjects that include hand-gliding across Jordan, walking from Tibet to Shanghai and taming tigers in Bengal.
The writers who fill the pages of “Amazonian,” a recent anthology of contemporary women’s travel writing published by Penguin, generally eschew the intrepid-traveler label. Nonetheless, most of them stoically refuse to be fazed by the dangers and depressions that haunt the road. There are plenty of opportunities for them to test this resolve. Ginny Dougary subjects herself to the icy rigors of Canada’s high Arctic; Lesley Downer is frog-marched into a police station in rural Ghana on trumped-up charges of spying; Lucretia Stewart arrives in Phnom Pehn the day after a bomb has killed 19 people; Mary Russell negotiates postwar Bosnia by public bus; Shena Mackay’s contribution, “Tinsel and Kalashnikovs,” describes a meeting with a nationalist Pakistani armed to the teeth.
A degree of combined bluff and bravado, which colors the prose itself, helps these women out of numerous predicaments. “A lippy and lewd bunch of women” is how one of the writers describes a group of professional female explorers she comes across. And so they are. Casting off “the blessings of a good stiff corset,” as one Victorian writer described the most useful item in her travel wardrobe, a new breed of women travel writers has been let loose on the planet.
These keenly observed accounts inevitably touch on women’s issues. In addressing these issues, however, the writers have sensibly opted for the objectivity espoused by war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, who once wrote that her method for dealing with human atrocity and grief was to face them “with a warm heart and a cold eye.” Sara Wheeler steers this wise course when describing the dismaying levels of violence she saw practiced against women in Bangladesh — where, we are told, it is common practice for men to throw acid into the face of former girlfriends or fiances because they “can’t stand the idea of other men taking up with women they once thought of as their property.”
Every account in this singularly well-written collection concentrates as much on the inner journey as the outer. “It doesn’t make any difference where you go,” the editors contend; “it’s your interpretation of it that matters.” The result is a palatable blend of travel memoir, biography — even, perhaps, a dash of fiction.
Not all the journeys involve the ordeals of long-haul travel. Dea Birkett’s defection from London to Folkestone involves a distance not much longer than a typical daily commute to the office. Distance is measured instead in the sea changes that take place within the writer herself. “I had shed the skin of the city,” she writes of this pleasant, nondescript English seaside town. “Folkestone made me feel sexy, like a fresh affair.”
The book also sets off other, interesting trains of thought, one being the differences between male and female travel. Is a woman’s body, for example, a more important factor in travel than a man’s? If “Amazonian” is anything to go by, clearly it is. “Tampons were in such short supply in the first weeks,” one writer grieves, “that they were bartered in exchange for food.” Another writer confesses to loneliness, that she would like to be hugged as she is used to physical contact with her boys and husband. She later confides to feeling “puffy and overweight.” Men, we are forced to conclude, are able to put their bodies on hold for the duration of a journey. Women’s bodies, on the other hand, are constantly interfering with the smooth running of the itinerary.
The claim is often made that writers like Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Margaret Drabble have succeeded where their male counterparts have failed in interpreting the emotional lives of women. Have contemporary women travel writers also taken the emotional, and, by inference, the moral high ground? There is certainly a strong confessional vein running through all the travel pieces in “Amazonian,” a more self-conscious search for the right stance, a more unabashed wringing of hands, than we are used to from male travel writers. “Will I feel uncomfortable,” Mary Russell asks herself as she approaches the broken city and people of Sarajevo, “to be among them, yet surreptitiously looking at them?”
Some readers will find the combatively open manner in which these women write about their travel experiences refreshing; others may find it embarrassing or abrasive. One thing is certain, however: Few men have ever tried to write like these Amazonians.