EESE 1/1999

'Turning the Telescope in the Other Direction':
Four Interviews with Post-Colonial Travel Writers.
Pico Iyer, Frank Delaney, Dan Jacobson, and Dervla Murphy

Kati Stammwitz (TU Chemnitz)

Anyone interested in the genre of travel writing will easily have noticed that travel literature has become more popular in recent years. The increasing number of new publications within the genre itself as well as the growing academic interest in travel literature is convincing evidence of this trend. Travel writing - which by some has consistently been viewed as either 'dead' or not meeting the standards of literature at all - has become a major source of material for analytical studies, especially for scholars looking at the representation of culture(s) in literature.

Whereas travel books from most periods of English literature - and, more particularly, those produced under the aegis of the British Empire - have repeatedly been subjected to analysis with regard to various aspects such as colonial representation and discourse, 'post-colonial' travel writing has largely been neglected.1 This comes as a surprise, given the interest in post-colonialism as such and the aforementioned popularity of cultural studies.

My research project, in the context of which these interviews should be seen, is an attempt to give an introduction to travel literature produced by writers of a post-colonial background and to find out whether there is a subgenre of travel writing that could be seen as specifically post-colonial. For this purpose, post-colonial authors of travel books with origins ranging from India and Ireland to Canada and the Caribbean will be studied in order to show the variety of production in the genre, its diversities and similarities against a shared post-colonial background. One part of the project consisted in interviewing some of the writers whose books are included in my corpus of primary texts. Since these interviews proved illuminating and stimulating for the purpose of my study and appear relevant for anyone interested in travel writing and/or post-colonialism, it seems only appropriate to publish them, thereby making them accessible to a wider audience. Preceding the transcripts of the interviews themselves, a short introduction to the project sets out to explain the choice of authors, the questions posed to them, and the course taken.

Prior to my analysis of the texts, the field of research was restricted to those travel books that were produced after the decline of the British Empire, i.e. roughly after World War II. In terms of scope, it was decided to include only those travelogues that deal with travels in/to former British colonies or travels in/to the Mother Country by authors coming from former colonies.2 As can be seen in the choice of interviewees, this also includes authors from the Celtic Fringe of the British Isles. However, the fact that two of the four authors interviewed are Irish should not be seen as an expression of preference; rather, it reflects the fact that not all of the authors initially contacted responded to requests for interviews.

There can be no doubt that British colonialism has left its mark on formerly colonized countries, whether in terms of architecture, flora, place names, education or economics. Post-colonial authors travelling in the former Empire show a keen interest in the effects of colonialism on the countries visited. This is manifested in their accounts of such travels, and tracing the authors' particular interests and attitudes forms a major part of the project. How are colonialism and its remnants perceived by the traveller? How does s/he present to the reader the changes British imperial domination has brought about in individual countries? What, in some cases, was/is the part of the traveller's native country in the colonization process and how does s/he position her/himself with respect to this?

Travelling usually means leaving familiar surroundings and going places that are, in one way or another, different. Experiencing difference, however, may pose a threat to one's identity in that it questions one's concepts of Self and Other. The issue of identity is a crucial one for post-colonial writers/travellers, who (as post-colonials) often lack a stable sense of Self due to colonization and displacement. How does the traveller perceive her/himself with regard to this situation? Is one's sense of identity threatened, strengthened, or possibly left unaffected by the experience of Otherness? Can travel be a means of discovering or recovering one's (post-colonial) identity?

Ever since the beginning of mass tourism, travellers have taken great pains to set themselves apart from tourists, emphasizing the difference of perception and experience between the two groups. However, tourism and travel seem to be drawing closer together. On the one hand, a traveller nowadays can hardly avoid meeting tourists. On the other hand, s/he might want or be forced to use tourist facilities, sights being as interesting to travellers as they are to standard tourists. What are some of the attitudes post-colonial travel writers have with regard to tourism and tourists? What differences or similarities do they perceive in their approach to the countries and people visited? Are post-colonial travellers more aware than others of the negative sides of tourism, especially as far as its neo-colonial tendencies are concerned?

When looking at travelogues by post-colonial authors one finds that they repeatedly make reference to other literary texts, especially to imperial travellers and their travelogues. Some writers deliberately follow 'in the footsteps' of their predecessors, re-tracing journeys and comparing experiences. What motivates post-colonial travel writers to include such (intertextual) references? How do they use the material they include, especially when they draw on imperial pre-texts? How does their own (literary) education determine the perception of what they see?

In what follows Pico Iyer, Frank Delaney, Dan Jacobson, and Dervla Murphy have tried to answer some of these questions. I am greatly indebted to their kindness, patience, and hospitality and grateful for their permission to publish these interviews.

Interview with Pico Iyer (letter dated 13 November, 1997)

PICO IYER was born of Indian parents in Oxford in 1952. He was educated both in Britain and the United States and presently works for Time. Iyer has travelled widely, especially through Asia. His books Video Night in Kathmandu (1988) and Falling of the Map: Some Lonely Places in the World (1993) are accounts of his experiences during these travels. Iyer lives and works in California but also spends much of his time in Japan.

K.S.: One of the aspects that figures prominently in post-colonial literature - and therefore in travel writing, too - is the question of identity. Many authors of 'post-colonial' travelogues acknowledge the difficulties they have in positioning themselves. However, there seems to be a younger generation of travel writers that do not make such a point of their search for an identity. Apart from Vikram Seth, you are one of the authors who suggest that the aspect of globalization is more important to them than the fact of a post-colonial existence. Do you see yourself as a 'post-colonial,' or would you rather say that such categories tend to lose some importance in view of globalization? Does that focus bring about a concentration on your observations in a country instead of a concentration on the results of the journey for you as a person?

P.I.: I think I would agree with you that those who travel around the world, at some distance from the cultures around them, can either feel estranged everywhere (as someone like V. S. Naipaul seems to do), or feel at home everywhere (as a Nabokov, say, does). I do prefer to take the latter option and feel that I'd rather enjoy the blessings of growing up post-national, than complain about the challenges. And I do feel less 'post-colonial' than simply 'international,' or unaffiliated, with no particular relation to India or America or Britain, but, perhaps, the ability to look at all of them with something of the warmth of an insider and the discernment of a visitor. This sense of partial estrangement does, of course, have its dangers, but I think it opens up new possibilities that a whole world of 'global villages on two legs' is just beginning to experience, in its lives and in its words.

I wouldn't necessarily link this, however, with a freedom from introspection: I don't think it makes one question any less, but rather, makes one entertain a different kind of question. The old traditional values - Where do I belong? What is my tribe? How do I see around my partisanship and provincialism? - get replaced by a wholly new set: Where can I most happily not belong? How do I define and establish myself in the absence of a tribe? What are the costs of detachment and non-affiliation? Those of us of the trans-national age suffer less the blindness of those always in one spot than the vertigo of those always on the move.

So I think the search of identity persists, but now, often, it is a quest for multiple identity, or mongrel identity, the recognition apparent in many multi-national writers (from Rushdie to Ondaatje and Mukherjee and Caryl Phillips) that our identities may be polymorphous, many-stringed, as crowded and cacophonous as a cafeteria in the United Nations. We may be free from traditional empires, but we're all part of the new empires of 'post-colonial' culture, and globalism itself, for example, exports its props quite as extensively as the Raj ever did.

The difference, perhaps, is that, in the old days, a travel writer from England, say, would survey India with a very firm sense of who he was and how far he'd come: he was a European inspecting a strange foreign culture. These days, when someone like me goes to India, I am perhaps better able to try to take it on its own terms, to travel light, and to bring to it assumptions that aren't necessarily - or limitingly - British or American or Indian. I'm a mongrel citizen inspecting a mongrel world, and definitions all dissolve. So the old dialogue of self and other becomes a more porous, floating exchange between two bodies who overlap and merge in some ways, and separate in others.

K.S.: You seem to be a traveller who does not have too many problems with the role of the 'normal' tourist. As you are probably aware of the fact that many (earlier and contemporary) travel writers have made great efforts to set themselves apart from the ordinary tourist and the phenomenon of tourism, it would be interesting to know how you see yourself with regard to tourism. My impression is that your position is somewhere in-between, you both criticize tourism and use the advantages it brings, you go sightseeing and watch tourists at the same time. Would you say that this is perhaps part of the role play one goes through while travelling and meeting all kinds of people, so that your specific reaction is the result of the experiences you have and the responses you get in a given situation?

P.I.: I would agree with you that I don't subscribe very much to the now fashionable distinction between the 'tourist' and the 'traveler.'3 I might say that the tourist is someone who stays in a horrible hotel, while the traveler is one who stays in a horrible hotel and finds something beautiful or diverting or curious about it; that the tourist sees places through the lens of his camera where the traveler tries more to disappear into the scene himself. But ultimately I think it remains a dangerous distinction. Sometimes the tourist is just a person who complains, 'Nothing here is the same as at home,' while the traveler is one who grumbles, 'Everything here is the same as it is in Kathmandu (or Cuzco, or Cairo).'

For myself, I can't deny that I am a tourist everywhere (sometimes even in the country where I was born), and in my writing I try to record the impressions and feelings and experiences of what I regard as a typical tourist. I don't speak the language in most of the places I visit, I'm certainly not an expert on any of them and I deliberately try not to speak to experts or officials or the other sorts whom journalists typically interview. I travel on tourist visas, talk to the people (hoteliers, trishaw drivers, English students, bar girls) that a tourist typically meets and try just to see the country as it appears to someone visiting it for two weeks with open eyes and (I hope) an open heart, but no grand design on it, and no special background. I watch other tourists, but only in the knowledge that their behavior and transgressions and absurdities probably mirror my own.

I also believe, unlike many people, that tourism is in fact a blessing in many parts of the underdeveloped world, and that it helps to generate new traditions even as it threatens some of the old ones and actually awakens a respect for certain crafts and customs that may have fallen into disrepute.

K.S.: Post-colonial literature in general has often been described as a 'writing back' to the literary traditions of the colonizer. With regard to travelogues, my impression is that there isn't really a 'post-colonial' travelogue in the sense of a rewriting of the genre by using different literary techniques etc. The travelogue (as a typically imperial genre) seems to have been taken up by writers of post-colonial backgrounds and used as one form of literary expression. However, there are a number of features in such travelogues that remind one very much of their imperial forerunners, such as the theme of exploration or the mode of travelling in general. Would you agree with that or do you see any features that render travelogues by post-colonial authors specifically 'post-colonial'?

P.I.: By and large I think I would agree with what you say and go on to say that nowadays, instead of colonizer looking at colony, we have, perhaps, global soul looking at global world: the world the traveler describes is as post-national and mixed-up as the traveler himself.

At the same time, I think there is a quality of Empire writing back even in the travelogue genre. The English, for example, have traditionally trained sardonic and sceptical eyes on all the other cultures of the world; now their former possessions are doing the same on the English. In particular, writers from the former colony of America, say - Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson and Bill Buford - have all written classic travel books on England, turning eyes just as unillusioned and scathing on England as England has traditionally turned on the world. In that sense, they are using the great imperial genre of travel writing against the traditional forces of Empire, turning the telescope in the other direction. Meanwhile, writers in India, for example, are bringing out books called The Inscrutable American and, in novels like Rushdie's especially, bringing to England the withering glance it has always brought to the world.

But your overall point is a good one: travel writing as such hasn't partaken of this as much as other genres have, and writers like Naipaul or Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh (in his In An Antique Land), or, for that matter, me, though all of Indian origin, are looking at the world as Indians trained in England, or raised overseas, or, in one way or another, bringing international eyes to the world we see (even if it is India!).

Interview with Frank Delaney, London, Brown's Hotel, 18 February 1998

FRANK DELANEY was born in Ireland in 1942. After a career as a banker and journalist he moved to the BBC to work as a correspondent first in Belfast and later in London. Delaney has made numerous contributions to radio and television programmes; he is also the author of a number of novels. His travel books include James Joyce's Odyssey: A Guide to the Dublin of Ulysses (1981), Betjeman Country (1983), and A Walk to the Western Isles: After Boswell and Johnson (1993). He currently lives in Somerset.

K.S.: Would you describe yourself as a post-colonial writer?

F.D.: Yes. I mean, it's somewhat surprising. I was born in 1942, 20 years after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and therefore 20 years after the troops marched out of Dublin. And my parents talked almost every day about life under the Crown. I had a very clear picture of what their lives were like. I knew as a child, growing up, that my parents had known what it was like to be colonized. And I became fascinated by what the people who had occupied us were like. The Anglo-Irish Protestants living around us seemed to be rather nice and people to whose lives I actually aspired, and this subsequently led me to ask questions, such as whether the condition of all post-colonials isn't aspiration - aspiration to what the colonial had, to what the Anglo-Irish Protestants had.

First of all, my family, my parents, were caught up in the post-colonial spirit and the sense of observation of the departed state. Secondly, my religion, growing up, was expressed in a way that was political, political in relation entirely to the people who had colonized the country, and therefore post-colonial. And thirdly, culturally, we ingested from the BBC all the time. We listened to BBC News all the time. Of course, we listened to the local station as well, the Irish broadcasting station. But we listened mostly to the BBC. We took English newspapers from time to time, we certainly took English magazines. You can even say the language aspect is a post-colonial matter as well. So I had a triadic sense of the post-colonial. There was the social and domestic, there was the religious/political, and then there was the cultural.

K.S.: A prominent feature of travel is the leaving of a given environment to encounter other people, to see other countries, etc. This encounter always has a certain effect on the traveller's identity; it may be questioned, confirmed, or completely destroyed and replaced. However, post-colonial existence so-called is repeatedly described as lacking a sense of coherent identity and therefore suffering from a kind of identity crisis. Although this has often been said to be especially valid for people in the so-called Third World, it also seems to apply to people in settler/invader colonies. In what way does travel influence your identity, or your lack of one, as a post-colonial individual?

F.D.: The thing I find most about myself, seeing myself as a post-colonial, is the more I travel - particularly among the English, or especially among the Europeans - the more I see myself not as an Irishman but as a European. As if we had leapt across England. I identify far more with the French, the Germans, the Italians. So in terms of identity, I am very much an observer of the English. I see them as 'over there.' I'm looking at them all the time. They, contrariwise, observe me, they don't assimilate me; and because my accent is Irish they cannot trace what class I am. I could be a pauper, I could be a nobleman, and they can't tell, because my accent is middle-of-the-road Irish. They can't tell what I am, so therefore they have a rather different view of me. Travel also influences identity - it has certainly influenced mine in that it has made me less Irish, although all my friends here in Britain say that I am deep down Irish the whole way through.

When I first came to England, I was aware of observing 'them.' I live here, in a sense, in order to observe 'them.' You could say that my preoccupation with colonists is such that I came to live among them. And that wouldn't be untrue. What would certainly be true is that I am endlessly fascinated by watching 'them,' and that I spend a lot of that fascination thinking about their connection to my own country, about their colonization of my own country. I actually love 'them' as a people, I love being among 'them.' I find 'them' marvellous people to deal with. I find their acceptance of me very rewarding. And there's a kind of cachet here as well to be Irish because you are thought to be passionate, you are thought to be romantic, you are thought to be a whole lot of things that you may or may not be. And for a writer, being a post-colonial, living in the society which had once colonized you is a wonderful position, it is the ultimate outsider.

K.S.: Ever since the development of mass tourism, travellers have taken great pains to emphasize their being different from the 'normal' tourist. Even post-colonial travellers often claim to be different, better, more qualified/interested/etc. Nevertheless, there are certain features that travel and tourism have in common. Apart from that, tourism is now a global phenomenon, there is hardly an opportunity to escape from the busloads of tourists. How do you position yourself? How do you perceive tourism and its effects on the countries visited?

F.D.: Much of tourism in Ireland is derived from the displaced family, the biggest tourism industry in Ireland having been from America; it was American-Irish returning. The more interesting question to me is how do I, as a traveller, differ from a tourist. I differ because I have a notebook and a pen. I never go on a coach, but I do stand and watch them alight. And I also, when I go abroad, if I am a tourist, I always try and find the Irish connection. If I go to Padua, I am looking for Oliver Goldsmith. If I were to find an Irish connection in Venice - which I haven't found yet - I would be enormously excited. In Bath I saw not long ago a plaque on the wall to Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Irish playwright. So, in that sense, in this country, I've never ever been a tourist. It's always observation.

K.S.: A great number of post-colonial authors of travelogues quote from other texts, especially travelogues, and refer to former travellers and travel writers. Interestingly, many of the books quoted are books written at the height of the British Empire and therefore often incorporate the very essence of Britishness, imperialism, and colonialism. In your three travel books, you more or less retrace the footsteps of literary Englishmen/Irishmen. What were your reasons for dealing with the people and texts that you chose?

F.D.: Johnson fascinated me because he represented everything that I had been brought up to reprehend. He was a high Tory, he was a monarchist. He was dismissive of the Irish in the crudest way, and yet, this was a man who was capable of great feats in literature. And I come from a tradition in which great feats of literature are greatly admired. I started off from a position of dislike, and I ended up in a position of intense liking, I fell completely in love with him as far as you can with a man who died 200 years ago. He had a lovely view, and I share his view, he had a romantic approach to the world. But it was his English autocracy, or the autocratic-ness of his Englishness, that I found immensely absorbing; it was challenging and completely antipathetic to everything I believed in. He was the kind of man who could have become the governor of a district [in Ireland], for example, who might have supported Cromwell's campaign of genocide in Ireland. And yet, as I said, there was this wonderful literary side of him. The English have a big conflict of interest, and here in Dr. Johnson was this conflict of interest. And I learned an enormous amount about the English colonial mind from reading him and from writing about him, and from watching what he was like in a Celtic country, that is to say Scotland. He went there because he wished to see life as it had been 300 years earlier. He almost succeeded. Had he gone to Ireland he would have seen life as it was 500 years earlier. Ireland was much more repressed. But to follow in his footsteps, observing what he observed, was just massively illuminating.

I write these 'travelling in the footsteps' books with the intention of their becoming guide books. The reason I wrote the Joyce book was that I - like so many people - as a younger man tried to read Ulysses and failed. And I thought there must be millions of people who have tried to read Ulysses, and sure enough, there were. The book went to No. 2 in the bestsellers list, quite extraordinary. I still can't believe it. So I thought I will write a book about how difficult it is to read Ulysses, I'll write a guide to Ulysses, and, of course, eventually it became a guide to the Dublin of Ulysses. Actually, if you look at it, it's a guide to the text itself.

The Betjeman book came about because the publishers wanted it. The reason I wanted to do it was because I thought, if one really wants to observe the English, here was a quintessentially English modern poet who was the best-selling living English poet ever; he sold more books in his lifetime than any other poet ever had in a lifetime. And I began to analyze him, and then I realized that this man is a travel writer. So basically, if I go and inspect the places about which he had written I would come to understand a great deal about England. And I did. Betjeman's England was the England I knew about as a boy. It was the England of the BBC, it was the England of the Times, it was the England of the Times crossword. It was the England of a list of publications. And therefore to go in search of it, to search and to trawl through the points for that England was a most interesting experience. The book is still in print, because that is the England that has endured, that has prevailed. And there is a middle-class England that he represents, and those were the officers who were officers in Ireland. I met them, people who had served in Ireland, in Northern Ireland. But as a post-colonial writer the experience was much more heightened for me than it would have been for an English writer. It gave it an edge for me, because I was watching them as one watches creatures in the zoo. I was like someone visiting a primitive tribe. I was observing them, always observing their behaviour. I got into their houses, got into their golf clubs, got into their yachting clubs, into their churches, their cathedrals, met their priests, their bishops. There is a definite sense of a kind of cultural anthropology going on in me all the time. I don't believe that would be the case were I not a post-colonial child. I'm certain that's the case.

K.S.: Post-colonial writing has often dealt with established genres of the colonizer's literary heritage, re-writing great works of English literature from a post-colonial perspective. Do you think that there is such a thing as a post-colonial travelogue, travel writing that 'turns the genre on itself' and also includes new techniques, language, etc.?

F.D.: I suppose Betjeman Country is a post-colonial travelogue: the writing replaces military rule. And the English have done that. I'm doing the opposite. I'm turning it on them, looking at them all the time. The English love reading about themselves. And one day I will do a book about them, but I don't know yet what it will be. It will no longer be as an Englishman, say, visits a country in Africa, it will be the child of former colonials looking at the former colonists. I find that very attractive, I suppose in a sense that is true subversion, which is what writing should be about. It's subtle, long-grain subversion. What doesn't work for me is the English observing themselves or the Irish observing themselves, because it's never the same. You see, when you come from outside a culture and work within a cultural arena, you observe things about them that they don't observe themselves.

Interview with Dan Jacobson, London, Merton Lane, 23 February 1998

DAN JACOBSON was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1929. He grew up in Kimberley and later moved to London where he still lives. Apart from his profession as a writer, he worked at University College as Professor of English. Jacobson is the author of several novels as well as travel books. The Electronic Elephant: A Southern African Journey was published in 1995. Heshel's Kingdom, a new travel book about his experiences in Lithuania, the country of his maternal ancestors, has been published recently.

K.S.: First of all, could you say a few words about how you perceive your situation with regard to post-colonialism and especially to South Africa? What do you find most interesting about this position?

D.J.: I was interested in the curiosity you expressed earlier in our conversation about settlers, about those travellers who are also settlers, or derived from settlers, because, of course, I felt that did apply to me in some sense. The use of the word 'settler' about the whites in South Africa has a political charge to it. One of the black parties fighting apartheid government had a slogan: "One settler, one bullet." And this meant that they thought of settlers as extraneous, not as belonging in any sense to the country. In The Electronic Elephant a sense of both, being part of the country, of being very intimate with it and yet being estranged from much of it simultaneously, is a strong one. In my own case that feeling, which derives from my childhood, is reinforced yet again by the fact that I left South Africa and came to live in England, though I used to visit it frequently while my parents were alive.

K.S.: How does that affect your view of what you saw during your travels and described in The Electronic Elephant?

D.J.: Well, it affects it in the very structure of the book, because I write about places which actually were not new to me. And I don't just mean Kimberly, my hometown, but places on the road which I had visited, however briefly, or passed through before. I had never explored this territory in the way I did when I was writing the book, nor had I explored its history; rather, its history is something I'd just grown up with. In effect I was revisiting, visiting far more thoroughly than ever before, something that had been sufficiently familiar to me to have aroused my curiosity. I had always had the sense of this vast domain to the north of us which I had kind of cursorily looked at. I knew it had a history but I didn't know the history properly. I'd thought of writing the book for a long, long time. But I couldn't do it until apartheid was finished. I made the journey before the election - before Mandela became president - but it was already clear that apartheid was kaputt, over, done with. This set me free to do the book, because whenever I'd thought about it previously I'd realised that I didn't want to write yet another book about apartheid and the frozen, congealed situation it had produced.

I think that South Africa, or Southern Africa, certainly can today be put into the category of the post-colonial, but it's post-colonial, so to speak, on its own terms. It's not a paradigm case of post-coloniality - if there is such a thing anywhere. People said, why are you going there, to that part of South Africa, which they think of as barren, empty, boring, even ugly. And in many respects it is. Scenically it's not what people would regard as an attractive country, although I think it does have its own attraction, which I hope the book indicates powerfully. But of all the people whom I told I was going to Mafikeng, Vryburg, Griquatown, etc., only one person said to me, "Oh, the missionary road" - and that was my brother. One person only. This amazed me, and it showed me how far the whole conception of the missionary road, which had once been so important to all the individuals and groups involved with it, had vanished from people's consciousness.

K.S.: Travel is still, in many respects, very much a First-World activity. Would you say that you belong, in some sense, to a kind of elite, a 'travelling class,' to use Doris Lessing's term, with regard to means of travel, especially in comparison with the countries or people you visit?

D.J.: No question, that's absolutely the case. And I was very conscious of it. I was conscious of it in my dealings with some of the whites, too, it must be said. Like that girl who asked me, "Have you ever seen Princess Diana?" But you feel it especially acutely with the black people: that you are financially in an immensely privileged position. And, of course, you are privileged in a way which is of concern to me in another sense, and which worries me about all travel writing, and that is that the people you speak to don't know that you are using them as material. And my own word for this - and it's true of the book I've just published now, Heshel's Kingdom about Eastern Europe, about Lithuania, where my mother's family came from - my word for it is there is something vampiric about the relationship between the travel writer and the country he travels through and the people he meets. You appear to meet them on equal terms, allowing, of course, for this gulf in economic circumstances we were speaking about. But there is another disparity: the fact that you have a hidden agenda which they don't know about and which they might take great offence at. Or they would certainly speak to you in a different way if they knew of it. You go among them masked. This is a great advantage for the writer in many ways, because it means that, on the whole, people don't adopt the attitude they adopt to those whom they know to be writers. I mean, it's like one of those ridiculous things you see on television or in newspapers: the reporter goes along and he says, "Well I'm from the Times - and here I am in the streets of Baghdad - tell me what you feel about the threatened American bombing raids?" or, in South Africa, "What is your attitude towards apartheid?" And of course, whatever answers they give are cast in the very cliché terms in which the questions are posed. If I had said, "I'm here to write a book about ..." - and even if I'd explained to people the whole business of the missionary road - I would have heard the statements they would think I wish them to make. At the same time, being masked means there is a certain 'bad faith' in your pretending you are just passing through. It's very difficult to avoid some kind of falsity. Maybe the falsity of simply not showing your hand results in more genuine dialogue with them than if you did show your hand. That's how complex these situations are. I've never said before what I've just said, quite honestly.

K.S.: You are probably aware of the fact that a number of travel writers tend to set themselves apart from the tourist, implying a different quality of experience and intercourse. However, to some degree, a traveller could be seen as not so very different from a tourist, visiting places, using means of tourist transport, staying in hotels, and sending postcards. What are your views on this?

D.J.: A very interesting question. I would say two things. I've written two 'travel books': The Electronic Elephant and my more recent book about Lithuania. They are both about areas generally where tourists don't go. I mean, nobody goes to Griquatown for tourism, or to those places in Botswana, or Shabani in Zimbabwe. Where I hit upon the tourist trade was at the Victoria Falls, and also in Maun, Botswana. Oddly enough I wanted to be a tourist in Maun, I wanted to get onto one of these parties that go into the Okavango Swamps. And I failed, they were all booked up. And that failure actually turned to my advantage. But of course the Victoria Falls has long been a place for tourism, and I believe it's become much, much worse in the years since I was there in 1992, it's just packed now, and they've got bungee jumping and paragliding, all sorts of things now. I suppose what I try to do in the book is to make the tourist himself or herself a part of the 'natural' scene there. It was a very striking contrast to most of the travelling I had done so far. Elsewhere there were no tourists, the other visitors I met seemed always to be on business, or else visiting family. People in such places are on the whole very incurious, I mean they welcome a new face, but then they are reticent, a bit shy. But the Falls was different, and I daresay that too would have been my experience if I'd actually succeeded in going on one of those four-day camps to the Swamps. Anyway, what I did was - I hope without patronizing the tourists - just treat them as part of what I was observing. This is another form of life. These people in their T-shirts and their cameras made up a form of life that was as much open to being written about as anything else I encountered.

The other point you make is very true, I was conscious of the fact that, had the Okavango Swamps not been a major tourist attraction, I wouldn't have been able to walk into the office of Botswana Air, or whatever it was called, and say, When is the next flight to Maun? (I just squeaked onto it, actually.) I was back in the tourist world. And as you said, I had to use its facilities - and I was very grateful for them. There was a hotel in Maun I could go to, where I met the man who was stuck there because he had this so-called electronic elephant to look after. You know, a travel writer has to be opportunistic, and I don't use the word as a bad word. A travel writer has to be able to turn to use whatever he comes across. He can't know beforehand whom he is going to meet - and he has to be able to use the unexpected. And you just can't predict what will be of real interest. I was bitterly disappointed when I couldn't get onto one of those flights into the Swamps, but it turned out to my advantage. There's no question that the travel writer - given the vast scope of the tourist industry - is bound to have a symbiotic relationship with it. You don't have to regard it just with contempt or hostility. You can acknowledge it and write about it.

There is one other important difference between the travel writer in the sense we're talking about and the tourist. And that is - we are going back to the question of the hidden agenda - that the tourist is there as a holidaymaker, it's an interruption in his life of work (unless he's so wealthy that he never does anything else). The fact is that, as a writer, you are there to work, and that does give you a different feeling about yourself being there. (I wouldn't be here if I didn't have this objective, if I didn't have this particular curiosity which I am going to satisfy not merely by visiting the place, but by writing about it.) That does, I suppose, give you the confidence that you're not just a time-waster - even when you do use all the facilities that the time-wasters have made available. I suppose also that a lot of writers, somebody like Evelyn Waugh, for example, who went to British Guiana at a very unhappy stage of his life, distinguish themselves from the tourist by the fact that they put themselves through considerable discomfort or danger. They make difficult or dangerous journeys. Even perverse journeys.

K.S.: What you do, and what a lot of post-colonial authors of travel writing seem to do, is include quotations, references from 19th-century travel writing in particular. What are your reasons for doing this?

D.J.: In fact, in The Electronic Elephant I went further. I had been a university teacher for 20 years, but this was the first time I'd actually done archival research; I actually read and transcribed and incorporated into the book passages from missionary letters which had never been published before. In my own case, I did it for ironic contrast really. I was travelling along what had been called during the 19th century the missionary road, and much of what I quoted was from either the missionaries' letters or from books like those Moffat or Livingstone published. The contrast I was drawing was that they too travelled again with a purpose, but a purpose which they believed was of truly eternal significance - they were saving souls. And I quote Moffat saying, "To think of all these people hastening with unknowing steps towards eternal damnation." That is what they felt. They were saving, or trying to save, these people. Of course, the explicit contrast is between that and my manner of travelling along. I'm a Jew by background, a non-believer by conviction, and one of the things that attracted me to this route - nevertheless, or therefore - was precisely the sense of my predecessors' faith. That made me curious to see the places in which they sought to establish it. Something of the same sort applies when I quote Cecil Rhodes and the other imperialists. They were so full of their own self-confidence - which was of a very different kind from that of the missionaries - related to the conviction that they were bringing history to this 'history-less' place. And here I am at the other end of the historical epoch from theirs, when the whole imperial dream begins to seem like a bizarre self-infatuation on the colonizers' part.

So once again, I encountered a kind of faith and a kind of abandoned faith which history has disallowed, though I do make one strong distinction in the book. I say in it that when all the other belief-systems - Marxism, Black Nationalism, Afrikaner nationalism, imperialism, and so on - have gone, the Christianization of Southern and South Central Africa has been irrevocably achieved. Even if some of the forms of Christianity which I observed in the African churches, Zionist churches, as they are called, are not those which Moffat would have wished to see. That has not gone, and I find it very interesting, actually, how much more powerful it's been ultimately than a doctrine like imperialism that came armed with all the power of empire, in actually affecting people's minds and to this day consciously being part of people's lives. I think the other doctrines also affected them: they helped build railways and introduced new languages and created states, that's also been of momentous significance. But in terms of the convictions about themselves that people now have there is no comparison. Christianity has won, so to speak, in the way that these other dogmas and ideologies just haven't. The effect is not merely one of irony; there can also be a kind of pathos to it. Of course, pathos and irony are not necessarily opposed, they can flow into one another. And there is also, and certainly I felt this about Livingstone, a kind of regard, respect, even awe, for the power of personalities involved, and their writing. Some of what I quote, even from someone like Moffat, who is not as gifted a writer as others, seems to be worth putting in front of a present-day audience and saying, "Look at this." Nobody thinks of them as writers, that's not what they are famous for.

K.S.: A special form of travel writing consists of travelogues where people follow the footsteps of someone who has 'gone before them.' Frank Delaney, for example, has done that with Boswell and Dr. Johnson in Scotland. Would you say that, in a broader sense, you did the same thing, not exactly following Livingstone or Moffat but following the missionary road? Would you see your text as a kind of a re-writing of a colonial 'pre-text'?

D.J.: That's absolutely right. Literally so. I followed that road because it wasn't merely a 'private' route, so to speak. It actually was a political and ideological fact, and one that was fought over and contested by the various parties. Who was going to control that corridor? That was a major part of its interest for me, and in writing about it I was indeed re-writing the colonial text and the colonial experience. But not, I would hope, with the effect of implying how stupid or ignorant or self-assured or cocky or self-infatuated they were compared with us, who have moved into an era of understanding and enlightenment denied to them. The book is very much preoccupied - and my new book, Heshel's Kingdom, even more so - with how absolutely opaque the future always is to each of us. One of the impulses of The Electronic Elephant, if it has an ideological impulse, is an anti-Marxist one. It is not an anti-ideological tract but it does contain a kind of polemic against any ideology which purports to determine the future, which thinks that it can determine the future by knowing how the future is bound to play itself out. And this is true of Marxism; it was true also of imperialism. Rhodes was going to build a British dominion from Cape to Cairo, you see, the sun was never going to set on this empire, and so on. The Thousand-Year Reich was another such ideology. I hate it, quite simply. I hate it because it leads people astray, it causes untold suffering usually for nothing. Because nobody knows what the future is going to be, nobody knows. In the bus last night, somebody asked me about Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist. And I found myself thinking about the title of one of her novels, one which I actually rather liked, The Late Bourgeois World. I believe the phrase comes from one of the Marxist theoreticians, I know it was taken up later by an American critic, Fredric Jameson. Anyhow, Nadine Gordimer used it as the title for her novel. And I thought, what impertinence, how does she know that this isn't the early bourgeois world. Who told her, or Jameson, or Gramsci, or whoever, that we are living in the late bourgeois world? Implicit in the phrase is this notion of a pre-ordained unrolling of history. Bourgeois society simply has to be succeeded soon by some other social and economic order, the outlines of which we can already discern. It's rubbish. Maybe the bourgeois world, if the concept is worth using at all, is in its infancy - what do we know?

K.S.: Even though you have lived in Britain for quite some time, there still seems to be the question of belonging or estrangement, which is also frequently surfacing in your work, for example in your discussion, in The Electronic Elephant, of the origins of mankind. How do you perceive your own position as a white South African, as a post-colonial, in terms of 'home' or native country?

D.J.: I believe that actually we all began there because I'm told about it by scientists whose good faith and authority I accept. That on the one hand. On the other hand there is also a passage, much later in the book, when I talk about power and how power has to flow downhill, so to speak, otherwise it doesn't know that it's power. And there's no question that the power which came to reside in the West was immensely greater than whatever power the indigenous Africans could master. And therefore, in some way or another, they would have been 'inundated' by the West. Both these things seem to me to be true. But power is never stationary. And that again brings me back to my idée fixe, the unpredictability of the future. Who is to say, in a hundred years, or two hundred years, whether people will not be marvelling at our failure to foresee that China would be master of the universe? But we can be sure that equivalent surprises will be in wait for their descendants too!

Interview with Dervla Murphy, Lismore, 6 July 1998

DERVLA MURPHY was born in County Waterford, Ireland, in 1931. She has travelled widely, both in Ireland and in other countries, and has regularly published the accounts of her travels since 1964. Murphy usually travels by bicycle; in that way she has been to places in Africa as well as Asia, Transsylvania, and Northern Ireland. Her travel books include A Place Apart (1978), Tales from Two Cities (1987), The Ukimwi Road (1993), and Visiting Rwanda (1998). Dervla Murphy, when she is not travelling, still lives in County Waterford where this interview was conducted.

K.S.: The term 'post-colonial' has not only been applied to countries and regions like India or the Caribbean but to Ireland as well. However, not all writers who share such a background also see themselves as 'post-colonial.' Do you think of yourself as a post-colonial writer?

D.M.: I do not see myself as a post-colonial subject or writer. I see myself as Irish, or probably European. Maybe this is a question of generation, because a writer like Frank Delaney, for example, is much younger than me and therefore perhaps more aware of the 'post-colonial condition.' I travel in the awareness of my belonging to a Western culture, a European culture; I think of myself as a European woman.

K.S.: What does this position, this self-image, mean for your travels?

D.M.: Of course, my background influences my travels. I am a Westerner going to another country. However, there is no real connection in the 'post-colonial sense' between my background and the places I go to. I mean, I do not choose the country I go to according to its colonial history or its connection with either Ireland or the British Empire. I see the world as growing together, the sense of globalization is very strong wherever I go.

K.S.: Even as a traveller one can nowadays hardly avoid contact with tourism in one form or another. This is also obvious in your travel writing, where you repeatedly relate your meetings with tourists or deal with the effects of tourism. What is your opinion on tourism, especially in countries of the so-called Third World?

D.M.: Tourism can, especially in the places you referred to, certainly become a form of neo-colonialism. And I am, of course, aware of belonging to what Doris Lessing has called the 'travelling class.' I am conscious of my elitist position in relation to most of the native people and their means of travel. Even when you go by bike as I do, you can still afford to do so, which is more than most of the people you meet on the way can. However, I see myself as a traveller, not a tourist, meaning a travel writer - a job. Every journey I make is turned into a book. I almost always travel on my own. I work every day, writing my diary entries which have to be kept up, even when I am exhausted, or annoyed, or ill. Of course, I am visiting sights tourists would also visit, but on the whole I am really trying to avoid the 'beaten track.'

Apart from that, travelling as part of my job also implies to me that there is not so much escapism in my intentions as there is in tourists', especially the backpackers' "getting away from it all." Also, going by bike brings me much closer to the country and the people and gives me a chance for real contact with cultures and individuals. It also helps to avoid the tourist paths.

Perhaps an additional expression of my 'otherness' is the inclusion of descriptions of food and lodgings, a reaction to the recurring 'What was it like?' questions back home. I am in that way trying to 'cater' for those who have not been to the places and want to get a non-touristy feel for them.

K.S.: In your travel books you make use of other texts such as, for example, imperial travel books. Why and how do you use such references in your own writing? Would you say that your (literary) education has shaped your perception of things you encounter on tour? I am thinking of such examples as the phrase 'Mountains of the Moon,' which you use in The Ukimwi Road to describe the Ruwenzori Mountains. Using English names instead of indigenous ones could be seen as an indication of colonial discourse still prevailing, as it is strongly reminiscent of the colonial practice of naming and in that way taking possession of things.

D.M.: For me, textual references (such as Speke in The Ukimwi Road) are a means by which I can compare my own impressions, difficulties, and the situations I am in, to those of an earlier traveller. Moreover, references to imperial travellers are a way of emphasizing their different approach to the country in comparison to my own. In that respect, it would of course be correct to call myself a 'post-colonial' travel writer. However, especially with Speke, I use texts for comparison, but not with the intention of showing 'otherness' or difference. The question of the connection between my own literary education and the resulting reaction on something I encounter on tour is one I have not really thought about much. To me, 'Mountains of the Moon' has a much more romantic appeal than the African name. It is connected to childhood memories and reading - though I have forgotten where exactly I read it - and simply emphasizes the kind of impression the mountains made on me. Nevertheless, I agree that especially the naming of things is strongly connected with imperial discourse and colonization, ignoring indigenous traditions and cultures up to the present. Even the word civilization itself seems nowadays still largely to imply Western civilization, as it did in the nineteenth century.

Works Cited:

BRANTLINGER, Patrick. "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent." Critical Inquiry 12 (Aug. 1985), 166-203.

BRANTLINGER, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1988.

BUZARD, James. The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to 'Culture,' 1800-1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

COCKER, Mark. Loneliness and Time: British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century. London: Secker and Warburg, 1992.

DÖRING, Tobias. "Discovering the Mother Country: The Empire Travels Back." Journal for the Study of British Cultures 4.1-2 (1997): 181-201.

KORTE, Barbara. Der Englische Reisebericht: Von der Pilgerfahrt bis zur Postmoderne. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1996 (English version forthcoming).

KOWALEWSKI, Michael, ed. Temperamental Journeys: Essays on the Modern Literature of Travel. Athens, GA and London: U of Georgia P, 1992.

PRATT, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.


1 In the English version of Barbara Korte's Der Englische Reisebericht: Von der Pilgerfahrt bis zur Postmoderne (1996) there will be a chapter on "Postcolonial Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century." Döring (1998) also deals with a number of postcolonial travel writers, whereas Kowalewski (1992) or Cocker (1992) do not mention this subgenre at all.

2 The reasons for these restrictions are complex and cannot be explained here in detail. They lie mainly in the problems of defining 'post-colonialism' as such and in the necessary limitation of corpus texts, as well as in the fact that 19th- and early 20th-century travel writing has frequently been an object of research. See Pratt (1992), Buzard (1993), Brantlinger (1985, 1988), and others.

3 The American spelling convention was adopted from Mr. Iyer's letter.