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This critical study examines the theme of interpersonal encounter in a range of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century travel writing written in French and Italian. Structured typologically, each chapter focuses on a typical activity that brings traveller-protagonists into contact with other people. Drawing on literary critical studies of travel writing, sociological and anthropological approaches to tourism, as well as research in French and Italian area studies, 'Interpersonal Encounters in Contemporary Travel Writing' locates the concept of encounter within the context of modern tourism.
About the Author
Catharine Mee is an independent researcher. She completed her DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2009, writing her thesis on French and Italian travel writing.
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Interpersonal Encounters in Contemporary Travel Writing
French and Italian Perspectives
By Catharine Mee
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2014 Catharine Mee
All rights reserved.
ENCOUNTERING, TRAVELLING, WRITING
Sergio Ramazzotti collects beer bottle labels as travel souvenirs, as he tells his Chinese interpreter Celia, in La birra di Shaoshan: '"Le incollo in un libro, come in un album di fotografie. Ogni etichetta è un incontro ('I stick them in a book, like a photo album. Each label is an encounter'). He prefers beer labels to photographs because they oblige him to reconstruct the person's face and voice from memory (Birra, 60). The label represents an encounter, and the collection of labels or encounters is both the sum of the journey and the part that Ramazzotti chooses to keep as a souvenir. Throughout his journey in China Ramazzotti strives to understand the country, always searching for something, without knowing exactly what he is seeking. His frustrated encounter with China becomes an encounter with Celia instead, whom he attempts to relate back to China: 'Celia [...] era la piccola Celia ed era tutti i cinesi e forse la Cina stessa' (79; Celia [...] was little Celia and she was all the Chinese and perhaps China itself). The tension between traveller and interpreter is constant: he is alternately impressed and disappointed by her; he lectures her, she protests. He attempts to circumvent the formality of their acquaintance, but she insists on the economic basis of their relationship. He is undecided whether or not he desires her physically, while she attempts to navigate his vague quest and vocal preconceptions, all the time worrying that his questioning and criticizing of her country pose a threat to herself and her family. The beer labels of Shaoshan prove elusive, adhering stubbornly to their bottles, and besides, Celia doesn't even drink beer. Eventually Ramazzotti renounces his attempts to comprehend China and thinks he has won Celia over because she toasts his decision. He contemplates burning his whole collection of beer labels: a symbolic gesture to cease representing and symbolizing and leave past encounters to memory. Then they are both arrested; China finally confirms his expectations and Celia leaves him with a defiant beer label for his album, an instruction to represent her, perhaps. Ramazzotti set out to visit China, but the principal subject he chooses for his account of that journey is his awkward, unresolved, troubled encounter with this individual Chinese woman, Celia.
Ramazzotti's choice to prioritize the encounter is shared by other travel writers, who populate their narratives with characters met during their journeys. Some highlight encounters from the outset: Gianni Celati dedicates Avventure in Africa 'a quelli che abbiamo incontrato' (to those whom we met), Olivier Weber declares in the opening sentence of Voyage au pays de toutes les Russies that 'Ce ne sont pas des chapitres, mais des hommes rencontrés' (These are not chapters, but men encountered). Others reflect back at the end of their journeys: Bernard Ollivier thinks of the many characters who have kept him company on his 'longue marche' (long walk) across Asia as he completes the final kilometres: 'On s'émerveille que j'aie pu faire ce chemin en solitaire, mais j'ai rarement été seul' (People are amazed that I could do this journey on my own, but I have rarely been alone). Encounters form the backbone of many travel narratives, which become collections of portraits and interactions. Nicolas Bouvier's L'usage du monde is, in his own words, a 'gigantesque ménagerie' (vast menagerie) of characters. In FrançoisMaspero's Lespassagers du Roissy-Express encounters are collected as so many photographs, reproduced alongside the text, while Tiziano Terzani's Un indovino mi disse catalogues a long series of meetings with fortune-tellers. Not all encounters are brief; some travellers establish lasting relationships, for example with their guides, as in Corrado Ruggeri's Farfalle sul Mekong, or their hosts, as in Nicole-Lise Bernheim's Saisons japonaises, or their travelling companions, as in Jean-Claude Guillebaud's La colline des anges. Such examples demonstrate the importance of interpersonal encounter in contemporary travel, a fact already noted by Franco Trequadrini in 1980, writing about twentieth-century Italian travel literature: 'Nel nostro secolo il viaggio serve un'esigenza di riscontro, di dialogo, di testimonianza' (In this century travel meets a need for comparison, for dialogue, for personal stories). The statement is echoed twenty-five years later by Olivier Hambursin, in his study of French travel literature of the same period: 'L'Autre est un personnage-clé de la littérature voyageuse du XXe siècle' (The Other is a key character in twentieth-century travel literature).Despite the significance of interpersonal encounter in travel and its narratives there is a lack of critical attention to the subject, a failing that this study aims to address by analysing encounter in a range of contemporary travel writing. The meaning of the term encounter is not as straightforward as it might appear, and the first task is to clarify its uses in the context of travel.
In her study of Italian travel literature, Gaia De Pascale suggests that the principal motivation of voluntary travel today is contact with 'l'altro da sé' (the self's other), but she recognizes that 'altro' is not necessarily a person; it can refer to landscape or place. When encounter is evoked, in both travel writing and studies of travel, it often denotes a general experience involving a vague confluence of place, culture and people as a collective. This is encounter between the traveller and the other as a concept, often idealistically elusive or mystical, rather than an individual person. The exotic appeal of unknown people(s), as much as unknown places, is a long-established motivational trope. Encounter in this evocative sense seems attractively easy; gathering a collection of strange and colourful others could be as simple as peeling off beer labels and sticking them into an album. Experience often belies ideals, and Ramazzotti, like every traveller, is confronted with the reality of the person facing him, in his case Celia. Italian anthropologist Marco Aime observes that tourist advertising emphasizes encounter with nature, history or tradition, but he draws attention to the fact that 'a gestire quella natura, quella storia o tradizione sono individui, persone' (managing this nature, this history or tradition are individuals, people). Even when travellers purposely seek encounter with places and concepts, they must constantly deal with actual people; Ramazzotti travels to encounter China, but his narrative is dominated by his encounter with Celia. Travellers spend a considerable amount of time meeting and contending with people as concrete individuals and it is interpersonal encounter in this sense that is the theme of this book.
A travel encounter occurs every time a traveller comes into contact with another person. It involves two particular individuals, at a particular location in space and time. Verbal interaction is not always necessary; the exchange of a glance or a gesture, the faintest mutual acknowledgement can constitute an encounter. Sometimes the most remarkable encounters last a few moments and are prolonged no further, while others develop into relationships. An encounter is significant; it constitutes an event, as indicated by the writer's choice to include the encounter in the travel narrative. Any encounter that is selected for representation, regardless of whether it is fact or fiction, is consequently endowed with significance. Encounters are as essential to travel as place; they shape and define journeys in ways that we will explore throughout this study. Exotic fantasies dissolve when faced with the practicalities of interacting and negotiating with individuals. Travel writing might evoke the appeal of the utopian other, but it constantly narrates specific encounters, between individuals, in particular contexts. Before elaborating on the particularities of these contexts, I will tackle the thorny question of vocabulary and address the 'other' problem.
Travellers encounter such an array of individuals in such varied circumstances that no single term embraces them all adequately. While the traveller is the self at the centre of the text, whose perspective provides the filter through which the reader glimpses the other, 'O/other' is a rather inhuman term, implying distance and difference that are rarely reflected in narratives of interaction. Other also carries the exotic and mystical connotations that I wish to avoid. 'Local' is an improvement on 'native', but implies assumptions about identity and immobility that are often belied; those encountered by travellers may not be any more local than the travellers themselves. 'Interlocutor' appeals for the emphasis on interaction and communication, but is rather technical and, besides, conversation does not always take place. I therefore use these terms sparingly, and opt by preference for a fourth: 'travellee'. Travellee was coined by Mary Louise Pratt to make a pairing for traveller to correspond to colonizer and colonized. As she explains: 'This clumsy term is coined on analogy with the term "addressee." As the latter means the person addressed by a speaker, "travelee" means persons traveled to (or on) by a traveler, receptors of travel.' Travellee is clumsy but useful because it circumvents assumptions about identity in terms of cultural, national or racial affiliations. Instead of merely designating the inhabitants of a place, it encompasses everyone who comes into contact with the traveller, regardless of their identity. Applying a term that defines the travellee solely in terms of his/her relation to the traveller runs the risk of neglecting individual identities, but since the traveller remains the focal point of the text, to whom all incidents happen and other characters relate, the travellee's presence in the text is always conditional on his/her encounter with the traveller.
Travellee does have its disadvantages. It implies an active traveller, perpetually acting upon a passive travellee: observing them, photographing them, conversing with them, translating them and finally writing about them. Yet encounters are reciprocal and the traveller is also acted upon by the travellee, who, despite the grammatical implications of the term, is far from being a passive, 'travelled all over' character. Bouvier's much quoted reflection on travel applies here: 'On croit qu'on va faire un voyage, mais bientôt c'est le voyage qui vous fait, ou vous défait' (Usage, 82; You think you're going to make a journey, but soon it's the journey that makes you, or unmakes you). The English translation of faire encompasses both 'to make' and 'to do'. Travel certainly makes the traveller – it is an eminently self-forming activity – but it also does something to the traveller, or rather things are done to the traveller, not only by the journey, but also by the people the traveller encounters along the way. The traveller is driven, fed, guided, misled, interpreted for, hosted, stared at, accosted, arrested, befriended, insulted, accompanied, seduced, suspected, welcomed and so much more. The agent of all these helping and hindering actions, which make a journey and make a traveller, is the travellee. In order to reflect this and with the aim of countering the grammatical passivity of travellee, the chapters that follow are entitled with active verbs, taking the travellee as subject and describe the actions s/he performs to or for the traveller.
When two individuals encounter each other, they meet at a particular place and time, in a particular context, brought together by particular circumstances, concerned with particular hopes and desires, inscribed with particular personal histories and identities, distracted by irritations and preoccupations particular to the occasion. Nationality, race and gender are three fundamental attributes of identity, which naturally receive considerable attention, but there are many other aspects of identity and context that come into play when individuals encounter each other. Others include, but are not limited to: age, social status, education, class, linguistic abilities, the dynamic of the relationship (employer–employee, chance acquaintance), the reason or cause for the encounter, the influence of other people (employer, mutual acquaintance), state of health (fatigue, pain, illness), comfort (extreme temperatures, (in)adequate clothing, (un)comfortable mode of transport), expectations (preconceptions, prejudices, stereotypes), motivations and desires, mood and disposition, personality (sociability), cultural habits (manners, social norms), wealth, religion, mobility (dwelling or travelling, right to free movement), personal history and life experience, the state of the weather, and other contemporary concerns (anxieties, preoccupations). All of these factors combine to create a unique situation. Some of them will be conscious, others unconscious, some shared, others private, some forgotten. Some are known to both parties, some to only one, some to neither, and each has varying relevance depending on the situation. When the encounter is rendered into a written narrative some aspects will be emphasized, others exaggerated, some will be forgotten, others edited out, many will be fictionalized, so the reader will also have an incomplete picture of the encounter. The relevance of some of the factors listed may seem obscure, such as the weather or a person's state of health, yet travellers suffer when they are ill-adapted to unfamiliar climates and are vulnerable to illness or accident, circumstances that affect their emotional state, their mental availability, and therefore their interactions with others. The emphasis on such key aspects as nationality, race and gender is understandable, but they should not obscure all others completely. Clearly I do not propose to take account of every factor in every encounter, but I do examine issues such as relative wealth, the dynamics of interaction, linguistic abilities, freedom of movement, expectations and circumstances, in order to clarify some of these more neglected features of travel encounter.
The combination of all these different factors and contexts creates tensions between the encountering traveller and travellee. Aime recognizes that one of the reasons why types of tourism that prioritize encounters are not mass phenomena is this complexity and difficulty of meeting people, compared to gazing at monuments or scenery. People are harder to visit and represent than stones and landscapes. They rarely stay put for a start, making them more difficult to locate; scheduled encounters do not happen, others stumble into a journey by chance. People have minds of their own, they do not always conform to expectations, they can be awkward and intimidating, they can answer back. Encounter is hard work: 'An encounter with Others is not a simple, automatic thing, but involves will and an effort that not everyone is always ready to undertake.' The tensions between Ramazzotti and Celia result from their different preconceptions, expectations and desires, from the dynamics created by the monetary exchange that is the basis of their relationship and the disparate linguistic skills that render the traveller dependent on his interpreter. Their different ages and sexes also contribute to the tension, as well as the discomfort of staying in a hotel without hot water (e.g., Birra, 12–13, 16,50).
The following chapters examine many of these tensions and contradictions, as well as moments of agreement and harmony. Each chapter takes as principal context a common practical activity that brings travellers into contact with travellees: guiding and interpreting, hosting, staring and photographing, challenging and finally accompanying. Within these contexts tensions emerge between, for example, the practical or functional reason for the encounter and the desire for more meaningful contact, the need for time to create lasting connections and the pressures of constant movement, interacting with a travellee during a journey and representing that interaction in a text addressed to a distant reader. Travellers and travellees constantly encroach on each other's personal spaces, limit each other's freedom, contravene each other's conventions. Encounters disrupt journeys in unexpected ways, they shape journeys, are integral to them, generate the narratives that retell them, and are therefore a rich subject for the study of those narratives. The remaining sections of this chapter outline the corpus of this study, by clarifying my definition of travel writing, its relation to travel practices and its contemporary manifestations in French and Italian.
Travel Writing and Tourism
It can seem meaningless to define a narrative as a travel narrative, since the word travel encompasses such a wide range of practices, from beach tourism, to political exile, to commuter journeys, to religious pilgrimages, to business trips, to military manoeuvres to name but a few. Travel writing also overlaps with other genres, especially ethnography, journalism, autobiography and the novel. While the breadth of the field is its richness, classificatory boundaries are necessary to a critical study and although I do not intend to launch into a detailed definition of the genre here – not least since this has been done thoroughly by others – I will set out the key features of the texts that will be examined in this study.
Excerpted from Interpersonal Encounters in Contemporary Travel Writing by Catharine Mee. Copyright © 2014 Catharine Mee. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgements; List of Abbreviations; 1. ENCOUNTERING, TRAVELLING, WRITING: 1.1 Encounter; 1.2 Travel Writing and Tourism; 1.3 Voyage/Viaggio; 1.4 Chapters; 2. STRATEGY, AUTHENTICITY, ETHICS: 2.1 Strategy; 2.2 Authenticity; 2.3 Ethics; 3. GUIDING: 3.1 Authenticity and Mediation; 3.2 Translation and Voice; 4. HOSTING: 4.1 Hospitality and Authenticity; 4.2 Freedom; 4.3 The Nature of Encounters; 5. STARING: 5.1 The Stare of the Travellee; 5.2 Photography and Encounter; 6. CHALLENGING: 6.1 Economic Power; 6.2 Justification: Rickshaw Riders; 6.3 Distancing: Prostitutes; 6.4 Dilemma: Beggars; 7. ACCOMPANYING: 7.1 Absent Friends; 7.2 Alter Ego or Mirror?; 7.3 Chance Companions; 8. CONCLUDING; Notes; Bibliography; Index
What People are Saying About This
‘This book brings together some of the best known names of the French and Italian postwar traditions with a new generation of writers whose work is still waiting to be discovered in the Anglophone world. It illuminates aspects of travel writing which go well beyond any specific writer or national context.’ —Loredana Polezzi, University of Warwick
‘Mee’s thoughtful study details how writers working in French and Italian depict interpersonal encounters. Their difficulty, she rightly concludes, shows us “what makes a journey a story”. ’ —Stacy Burton, University of Nevada, Reno