Saturday, May 31, 2014

Week Four: Divergence

Stories about the same group of people or the same country diverge in all sorts of interesting ways. Newby includes excerpts from a variety of travelers whose explorations of (in this case) North America include encounters with unknown landscapes, animals, Native Americans, and "the white man" (432-4), and includes more contemporary Anglo-American perspectives, including those in the 19th century that offer advice as to how to live well on the eastern seaboard at the turn of the last century (429-30), and a description of New York City in the 1940s (437-8). What's interesting about these multiple perspectives is the way in which different authors focus on different aspects of the same landscape.

Divergence is central to these literary interpretations; different writers focus on different aspects of the same culture based on their own experiences, although bias and prejudice would color their points of view, too, based on experience. (This is sometimes frustratingly circular; bad experiences lead to bias, which can lead to further bad experiences.) Columbus' Eurocentric views of religious conversion are central to his narrative, and as a means of demonstrating friendship, he provides what are (to his mind) snazzy clothing (383-4). Similarly, Cartier's sixteenth-century descriptions include a dismissive attitude towards Native American theology, and include descriptions of the apparently hearty disposition of the Hurons (385-7). These stories are not necessarily dissimilar; rather, they include multiple narratives that could be seen as confirming a stereotype. Cartier's narrative especially has almost a tone of an outsider with his descriptions of indifference to cold and "very bad customs" of placing the daughters in the tribe, when they reach a certain age, into a brothel. Of course, these are just two examples, and not necessarily fully representative of what we might consider an ignorant mindset.

If these travel accounts were written today, I would consider them a form of willful misunderstanding, and would I not consider any one example more authoritative than another. I would not ignore these narratives, though, either, because they provide insight into a Eurocentric mindset such that we could analyze how travelers and their writings have changed. Perhaps they're as important to the growth of travel writing as a genre because they allow us to compare how our attitudes have shifted towards different cultures; I've come to think of early travel writing as foundational. We "listen" to whatever stories are interesting to us and use them as a source of comparison to develop our own opinions about another country. These multiple stories fill in the gaps and offer different perspectives that we might not have otherwise considered.

More recently, stories from journalists who cover war-torn areas add a different dimension of understanding that we miss if we limit ourselves to news sources or more typical investigative journalism. Chilson's “The Border” is a good example of one journalist whose article examines movable borders, both geographical and cultural, while incorporating multiple viewpoints from those on different sides of the war in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali. In this case, authority is tied to Chilson's credibility; multiple attitudes are prevalent throughout the piece, leading to a deeper understanding of the complexities of the trying to negotiate multiple types of boundaries.

Authority can be misleading, though: Credibility can be suspect, and can be culturally defined in terms of both geography and history. Definitions of what women are capable of, for example, has changed, but remains culturally inconsistent. Schribner provides examples of the ways in which women traveling was considered dangerous, with the potential of wreaking domestic havoc, a danger to social structure, order, and system (27). Clearly, women were seen as delicate creatures who needed the protection of men. In western cultures, and in many eastern cultures, this thinking is now suspect and not credible (dare I say incredible). When I hear stories that indicate that women are to be protected, under a man's care, that women should not have educations or be allowed to drive, I am exasperated. I belittle this line of thinking in the same way I might have been belittled a century ago.

The story that we truly listen to is the one that resonates, or is one that comes from a person with whom we feel connected. I wish I had been a bit braver in talking to the native Icelanders in whose midst I spent nearly three weeks last summer. The waiter who taught me how to pronounce "Eyjafjallajökull" was very funny and very friendly; Sigurbjörg, the woman who led my husband and me on an elf tour in Hafnarfjördur was also very friendly and obliged me by answering my (probably ridiculous) questions. Sigurbjörg was authoritative on Icelandic elf culture, and it was a wonderful insight into Icelandic fairy culture. (Ireland has a similarly strong fairy and fairytale culture, and since I grew up being told Irish fairytales, going on this elf tour appealed to me.)

(The above picture is of a troll rock - the troll was turned to rock when the sun came out - at Hellisgerdi Park on the Hidden World Walk tour. If you look carefully, you can see a big forehead and a nose; the face points to the left.) 

Something about first-hand insider accounts lend credence and authority. In this particular case, I was able to relate Icelandic culture to my own heritage, and allowed me to briefly connect to another culture. 

No comments:

Post a Comment