Female Travel Writers and POC Voices
This is a living list. Last updated July 26, 2020.
The other week, I visited the only travel blog I ever read to find out that Kat Davis had passed away. I’ve never met Kat. We’ve exchanged a tweet, clicked into each other’s Instagram stories. But the thought that her output on the world had come to an end left a gaping hole. Her voice still comes through in two candid podcast conversations – the way she dodges whether she is “fluent in Japanese” with an answer that she had studied Japanese, moved to Japan, worked there, took a proficiency test, could communicate with locals. The answer showed her command of the language and familiarity with the culture that stopped short of an presume fluency. It is the type of answer that walks the tightrope of satisfying uneducated audiences with something to project onto while retaining the integrity of resisting entitelment to make any claim.
Kat Davis and Grace Lee were the two travel writers I’d ever read. Their documentation enabled me to embark on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Their writing isn’t lyrical like some of the subsequent writers I’ve found are. But they both bare an honesty and self-awareness that makes you want to spend time with them.
Since Shikoku, I have hungered to meet people like them on the page. I quickly discovered that non-white cis-male beyond Jack Kerouac and Thoreaux are few and far between. The most famous recent one is Cheryl Strayed, a white cis-woman. Strayed’s accomplishment is to be congratulated, like anyone else who finishes the PCT. Her dramatic backdrop adds appeal for Americans, and then the wider world fantasizing about a life-break-retreat. Most of the world isn’t actually interested in learning about places, which is why The Guardian can have a piece titled “Where have all the female travel writers gone?” appears.
Travelling women are somewhat solitary – at least from their kin back home. The people who travel meaningfully are not doing it to flaunt stories. We do it out of a compulsive mixture of curiosity, appreciation for nature, attraction to more basic preoccupations, misanthropy, and perhaps escapism. If some of us document our travels, we have little impetus to flaunt them. We are not travelling to check boxes, to show off to people back home. After telling one or two stories and seeing eyes glaze over or facing gasps, you stop.
Kat’s writing not only enabled me to go on my own journey, she kept me company throughout. She knew how it felt. Even though we had different language capabilities, skin colour, gear, experiences, reactions, I knew she knew. Her thoughts are the only dialogue I ever needed.
I’ve since looked for many other women to have these conversations with. Ideally, I’m looking for more POC female writers. Most of the ones who write travel are white. I get my POC supplementation from journalists and nature writing.
Nina Mingya Powels winner of the Nan Shepherd 2019 prize
Winners of the new Nan Shepherd Prize
Articles by the late Marie Colvin (1966-2012), a legendary war reporter. A good summary piece is “Marie Colvin’s Private War” By Marie Brenner in Vanity Fair (2012). Emily Ding
Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World Edited by Zahra Hankir
The 1918 Shikoku Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue: An English translation of Musume Junreiki by Takamure Itsue, Translated by Susan Tennant
Where the Indus Is Young by Dervla Murphy After an existenntially traumatic luxury trip to Tibet, I desperately wanted to spend more mental time in the Himalayas, but with the right people. That’s how I discovered Dervla Murphy. She is one of the few prolific travel writers, most known for cycling across continents alone. I haven’t read her other works yet, but I revisit this book often.
Out of Cities and Maybe Nature
The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich
The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd
A Woman’s Walks by Lady Colin Campbell
Beckoned by the Sea: Women at Work on the Cascadia Coast Edited by Sylvia Taylor is incredibly white, reflecting the white lives that dominate this type of life.
Places and Reflections
Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran Khan
Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J Lee
Turning by Jessica J Lee
Annie Dillard usually falls into writing or environment (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). But she writes with good humour.
Bani Amor on decolonising travel. Despite my ambivalence the American-centric dialogue and her rage, I am glad she does it. I feel the same rage and I’m glad she expresses it in a way I rarely allow myself to. She’s in the US - it makes sense she engages with that audience.
I have also read great books by male writers like Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways (a story only he can tell because of social circles only he can access). I have also frequently read pieces by people of colour eager to [re]claim their cultural heritages from the white North American and European mainstream at the expense of the actual places where those cultures were imported from. In other words, many POCs in white societies exoticise places like Asia, the Middle East, Africa and perpetuate Western gazes on these places. Asian American writers fall mostly into this category – few of them are worth picking up for any real insight into Asia, just the perpetuation of the white-washed gaze.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
The Right to be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutier - Inuit in Canada
To Read List
British Summer Time Begins by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid - Black-brown
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers, and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World Edited by Kathryn Aalto « notice how white it is
No Hurry To Get Home by Emily Hahn
To the River by Olivia Laing
Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles
Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea by Charlotte Runcie
The Peace of Wild Things: And Other Poems by Wendell Berry
The Outrun: A Memoir by Amy Liptrot
Other places to look