Discovering Asian Travel Writing

After a brief hiatus, during which I have been attempting to finish a few overdue texts and begin the new term with a modicum of organisation, I’m back. In keeping with the slightly informal and serendipitous nature of this blog’s content (anything more organised is beyond my capacity for the time being), I want to make a brief entry regarding some material that I ran into quite by chance a few days ago at the library of my home institution, El Colegio de Mexico. My hope is that this will add to the manner in which I want to start to set up my reflections regarding the nature, role and direction of some themes in anthropology which touch on my own experience.

book cover

Here I want to refer to a book on travelers from Central and South Asia who were active between the 14th and 18th centuries, and who left materials which have largely remained within the purview of specialists (the title, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400-1800, by Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Cambridge UP, 2007).

What on earth has this kind of material to do with a blog about anthropology?

As I explain in my brief profile, I am also a historian. Specifically, since the year 2000 I have been carrying out research – parallel to my PhD and contemporary interests – having to do with the first culture contacts that took place between the European and Oceanic worlds in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (For further details, you can look at the summary about my approaches to ethnohistory in my website.) I have especially been interested in the nature of culture contacts between Early Modern Iberians – which is to say Portuguese and Spanish – and Oceanic peoples, and the way in which each regarded the other.

The study of the way in which European travelers constructed images of Asian and Oceanic others has experienced something of a revival in recent years, with a compilation by Daniel Carey (Asian Travel in the Renaissance, 2004) being of particular interest for its attempt at recovering the study of genres and narrative styles amongst Iberian travel writers in the late sixteenth century Asia-Pacific.

The book by Alam and Subrahmanyan that I recently picked up is, however, in a class of its own, given that it offers a real feast of travel-narratives in an effort to “explore different aspects of the view of India as seen by visitors from Central Asia, the Ottoman domains and Iran”. To go further would really be to abuse of this space by turning my comment into a full-blown review.

The point I want to make, though, is that this is a real gem of a book, which seems to me to establish new standards for the study of travel writing by enormously expanding the scope and possibilities of this field while demonstrating that travel writing never was nor has been exclusively about Western impressions and concerns, many of which lie at the heart of Euro-American notions of identity and worldview. That this book does so by presenting some really superb translations of excerpts from travelers who most of us will have never heard of makes this reading all the more compelling. I hasten to add that their intention is not simply to dislodge stereotypes, but to explore a whole world of medieval and early modern travel narratives that have largely been sidelined in the academic literature.

In order to cut short my stream of consciousness (apologies, but I am an amateur blogger, and begin to realise that one can get carried away), I will simply close this comment with a quote that really does nothing to reveal the contents of this tome, but refers to how travel writing offers a particularly interesting window into some of the underlying ideas and practices that lie at the heart of Euro-American self-representations…including, yes,the work of anthropology. This may leave you wondering what all the brouhaha is about…but I will undoubtedly come back to specific issues and contents in the near future, as soon as I am done reading this lucky find! (again, part of the intention here is simply to throw ideas out to the wind in the hope of stimulating personal reflection or perhaps even a reply, so no great ambitions yet…I am, after all, just warming up).

The quote that I have chosen has to do with the authors’ reply to the “ineluctable conclusion [of many scholars, regarding] an Oriental lack of enterprise and curiosity [regarding travel writing]”

“To whom does the medieval and early modern travel-account really belong then? The reader astride the twentieth and twenty-first centuries may be forgiven the presumption that such accounts are above all the products of the Western pen, setting down what has been seen by the roving Western eye. The search through bookstores and even libraries of today confirms this primarily Occidental leaning of the popular travel-account, and is crystallised in the typical photograph of the author-traveller that accompanies the text: usually a man, dressed in rugged outdoor clothes, he stands squinting against the harsh sun of a distant (and often either tropical or mountainous) land where he finds himself. In view of the association, moreover, of travel and anthropology that has become very nearly a cliché since Claude Lévi-Strauss penned his Tristes tropiques first published in 1955), the Occidental vocation of even the erudite travel-account is neatly confirmed by author after author. Less academically, one can equally run the gamut from Frédéric Sauser (1887-1961), better known by his nom de plume of Blaise Cendrars, whose celebrated and suggestively titled book, Bourlinger (with its implicit image of an errant sailing ship), sums up the genre with elegance and multi-layered irony, to the hyper-Occidental V. S. Naipaul, each casting his picaresque or jaundiced eye on people and places in various incarnations of both Occident and Orient.”

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