Tenets of the Postmodern Writer/Traveler

  • Truth is relative.
  • There is no eternal belongingness: static identities based on allegiance to a race or gender or class belie the complexity of a globalized world.
  • Today’s truths exist between contexts, between the false opposites of colonizer/colonized, oppressor/oppressed, Me/Not Me.
  • Culture is anxious, confused, in constant dialogue with itself. There is nothing static enough to romanticize.

So what does this mean for this American, economically privileged writer? When I travel, I occupy an ancient cultural trope: the outward journey into uncharted jungles, the return home with stories of strange people and interesting places. Mine is a classic tale: girl seeks adventure far from home, experiences world, discovers self. Is there any way to write from this place of privilege without replicating the very colonial systems I want to see undone? What do I have to say? Does it make a difference if I announce my position as part of the trope of the writer-as-cultural-explorer? What if I tell stories of the way my own identities shift and become relative, the way my self-understanding is called into question by the navel-gazing culture I temporarily inhabit?

Yesterday we ten American girls attended a lecture on the history of the Cato Manor township, and then we took a tour of it by van. I gazed out the window at the shifting landscape of corrugated tin shacks and government-sponsored cement houses, at my fellow humans hanging clothes and sitting in the shade and doing car-fixing things underneath cars. We got out of the van a few times, but did not talk to anyone. What was this experience supposed to mean? Was I supposed to witness great poverty and feel gratitude for everything I have? Should I have been ruminating on what the South African government’s policies and budget is doing to increase access to social services for the residences of Cato Manor? I did a little of both these things. I did not, however, relinquish any of the power of my position. I did not make myself vulnerable to new ways of being. I sat in my air-conditioned van and wandered circles in the familiar roads in my own head. Therefore, anything I have to say on this experience is, post-modernly speaking, irrelevant.

Or maybe the experience wasn’t supposed to mean anything, and that was the point. Maybe meaning itself is irrelevant in a world where there are no borders strictly delineating anything. After all, at this point, meaninglessness may be the only universal experience. Maybe our true unity lies in our common experience of having nothing in common at all. (This is all inspired by Andrew Smith’s “Migrancy, Hybridity and Postcolonial Literary Studies” in Postconial Literary Studies, edited by Neil Lazarus. 2004, Cambridge University Press.)

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One thought on “Tenets of the Postmodern Writer/Traveler

  1. You bring the reader face to face with things in life most of us would prefer to pretend either don’t exist or are not as bad as we think. You are a gifted writer because you make your audience really think!

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