From a young age I was curious about the wider world. By the time I reached university, I was itching to travel to Europe — this was a rite of passage for many a student in Canada and I carefully planned a juicy, solo summer jaunt.
At this stage I hadn’t discovered travel writing as a literary genre. Growing up I mostly read fiction: if I look back to my teen years, I have memories of novels by Sartre, my sister’s sci-fi collection, fictionalised biographies of the Impressionists that sat on my parents’ bookshelves and the Classics we were force-fed in high school.
It hadn’t occurred to me that one could write and travel for a living. I certainly don’t recall coming across any literary travel narratives in the local library, where the librarian was an unsmiling presence — in fact, English-language books appeared to be an afterthought in Francophone Montreal.
However, of the few travel features I came across in newspapers and read avidly, it seemed none were written by people who were Black, Asian or from another visibly ethnic minority. (The clue was usually in the name or a photo that ran with a byline, or the perspective shared.) Whenever a journalist wrote about how warm and friendly the locals were in a country abroad, especially in Europe, I secretly wondered if the welcome extended to her would have been as warm had she my Indian features.
This was a question I never voiced publicly. Such discussions were unheard of in the mid-eighties. This meant that although I was naturally curious, buoyant and adventurous, some quiet part of me worried about how I might be received when I travelled. Would the locals be friendly? Might I have to deal with – whisper it – racism? And where would I find this information? Nowhere, was the answer.
I went ahead and booked my flight. As it turned out, on my trip, the biggest challenges were homesickness and being a lone woman traveller. I was naturally a little timid and I had to push myself to walk into a restaurant alone at night and ask for a table. At times I felt doubly self-conscious being both a woman and a woman with brown skin. Many of those I met on my travels were curious about my background and I delighted in telling them about it — I was born in the UK, raised in Quebec, to parents of Indian descent from South Africa. These conversations were enriching and eye-opening.
When I returned from that trip it was my good fortune to stumble upon a book by Pico Iyer in a secondhand bookshop, Montreal’s legendary Cheap Thrills. I was astonished: here was a travel writer who was born in Britain, raised in California and was of Indian descent. It was the first time I’d come across a writer with a background similar to mine.
I pored over his Video Night in Kathmandu. ‘Texts read us as much as we do them. And in the different ways that different cultures respond to forces from the West, I hoped to see something of their different characters and priorities,’ he wrote. Here was a man with brown skin exploring Asia, doing so on his own terms.
In my early twenties, I moved to London and started working for a book publisher. Travel books by William Dalrymple, Robyn Davidson and Paul Theroux landed on my desk and I enjoyed them all. But Iyer, it seemed, was an anomaly.
A few years later, I found a now defunct online forum of a popular guidebook. One section of it was entitled ‘Like a Sore Thumb’. This was gold dust: on the forum were people who had the same concerns as me. Each would-be traveller stuck out ‘like a sore thumb’ and here they could read the on-the-ground experiences of people like them. Posting on the forum were those of Indian, Mexican and Haitian descent, people who described themselves as Australian Thai or Canadian Chinese or some other hyphenated blend of Global South and North. Their stories and experiences fascinated me. Each person either wanted to know how a culture might respond to them, or share how it had. I began to wonder, where were the travel narratives that reflected the concerns and experiences and histories I had read about on the forum?
At this point, I began visiting Stanfords, London’s iconic travel bookshop, and scouring the shelves in earnest. I can still recall my delight when stumbling upon Eddy L. Harris’ Native Stranger. I was fascinated: here was a Black American who was seeking to know himself better while roaming in the land of his ancestors. As he put it: ‘There is a line that connects […] the place we come from and the place we find ourselves, those lives and our lives. And I longed to follow that line.’ How his words resonated with me!
I loved Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran. Her experience was not mine, but I understood well that feeling of never quite fitting in. She wrote: ‘Being a Persian girl in California, it turned out, was like, a totally different thing than being a young Iranian woman in the Islamic Republic of Iran.’
Inspired by these and other bookshop finds, I eventually became a travel writer myself. I wrote features for newspapers and magazines to commissioned briefs and I fought hard for the work. However, much as I revelled in the opportunities to explore the world, there was no space to write about the more nuanced feelings I was experiencing on the ground: for example, the disorienting sensation of blending in in India or the hypervisibility I experienced elsewhere, or the fact that sometimes bonds were formed more easily because locals didn’t see me as a threat to their culture — there was no whiff of colonialism, however distant.
When I came to write my first narrative nonfiction book, Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape (Bloomsbury, 2020), I more openly explored my feelings of ‘otherness’. It felt cathartic. I also began to reflect on what is lost when we only read stories about place told through a single or dominant lens. If a full spectrum of nuanced perspectives on cultural interaction and landscape never sees the light of day, entire swathes of human experience end up being glossed over, denied, and rendered invisible. Opportunities for inspiration and insight and empathy remain unbirthed.
We all lose when there are fewer voices in the room: our imaginations and our horizons shrink. Or we feel frustrated, unseen and unheard. Fortunately, travel writing as a genre is gradually expanding to encompass not only tales of exploration, adventure or reportage from the usual players, but equally stories of migration, belonging and exile told by fresh voices.
A decade ago, I read with relish Monisha Rajesh’s debut, Around India in 80 Trains. In the book, she returns to her parents’ homeland to discover where she fits into it. More recently, I stumbled upon the brilliant Spirit Run by Noé Alvarez, a Mexican-American from a working-class background who embarks on a 6000-mile run, a healing journey across stolen lands from Canada to Guatemala. I loved Small Bodies of Water by Nina Minga Powles, of mixed Malaysian-Chinese and white Aotearoa New Zealand heritage. She writes evocatively about the shifting sands on which those who grapple with identity, migration and belonging stand.
Johny Pitts’ Afropean, Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City, and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland – all lauded and critically acclaimed – are further examples of eye-opening, confident, stirring narratives on place and travel that go beyond the narrow confines of genre and tradition. In a troubled world, the cumulative breadth of vision is to be celebrated.
On a personal level, to read such narratives is deeply satisfying, for within them I can recognise aspects of my own experiences. Ultimately, this means I feel emboldened to bring more of my unvarnished self to the page, and to travel with greater confidence. And really, that is all a ‘roaming’ writer can hope for.