facebook1 twitter1 sllm2a

witslogo1 17

Wednesday, 01 October 2008 02:00

The Best American Travel Writing Series

By  Arja Salafranca

Take one short story writer and teacher of creative writing and show him Dubai. Send him on assignment for GQ magazine, send him on a ubiquitous press trip, and the result is George Saunders' wonderful piece: "The New Mecca". Published in the 2006 issue of The Best American Travel Writing Series, the volume edited by travel writer Tim Cahill, this piece alone makes the price of the book worthwhile and is just one of the reasons I love this series.

I discovered this series way back in the 1990s when a branch of Exclusive Books stocked two Best American Essays. I was hooked on the great writing, the thought and care that went into these pieces, and the room in which US writers were given to move around in. It served as an introduction to some of the best journalism I have ever read. We just don't nurture or provide the kind of space in South Africa for this kind of writing, in general. Maverick and Empire magazines are certainly giving space to some thought-provoking, challenging and sometimes personal pieces, and thank god for that, but we need more space.

The Best American series collects the best of the previous year's essays, travel writing, short stories and journalism in a number of volumes. The first travel series was guest edited by travel funny man Bill Bryson, with other notable travel writers editing other editions. We're talking guest editors of the calibre of Paul Theroux, Frances Mayes and Pico Iyer. Series editor Jason Wilson reads hundreds of travel stories published in US journals and newspapers, and the guest editor then makes a final selection of around twenty-five or so pieces. Some volumes are, for my money, more successful than others. I loved the 2006 one edited by Cahill, but I raced through 2004 volume edited by Iyer, bitterly disappointed at the fare within. Oh, there were a couple of gems, but just not enough.

So, returning to that sterling volume of 2006, let's go back to Dubai with Saunders. He's somewhat more naive than the average South African – hands up who doesn't know where Dubai is by now? His luminous portrait of this place begins, "If you are like I was three weeks ago, before I went to Dubai, you may not know exactly where Dubai is. ...You might also not know, as I did not know, what Dubai is all about, or why someone would want to send you there.... Dubai, is quite possibly the safest great city in the world. It is also the newest great city in the world.... the entire city has basically been built in the last fifty years."

And so starts Saunders' delightful, wide-eyed journey through this great, safe city. Who knew an assignment could be such fun, or yield such pertinent pithy observations. From observing construction crews, and the foreign imported labour force that is making Dubai so big, so great, to staying in more than five-star luxury, Saunders puts his finger on the button when he asks, "At whose expense has this nirvana been built, on whose backs are these pearly gates being raised? Dubai is, in essence, capitalism on steroids." Saunders also experiences what life is like for the have-nots when he has trouble with his credit card, GQ can't be reached and there in the midst of luxury, he's treated as some kind of pauper. Saunders brings Dubai, with all its contradictions alive in a way that a dozen articles inspired by press trips simply do not. For an exercise on how to go somewhere on someone else's money and produce high art, read this piece.

But there are, of course, other gems in this collection. in "The Mother Load" journalist and author PJ O'Rourke takes a trip to see the new A380 Airbus. He looks at the logistics involved in putting the aircraft together, as well as some of the issues and people involved in its construction and marketing.

Caitlin Flanagan's "The Price of Paradise" takes a look at travelling to a themed hotel in Hawaii with two children and her husband. The trip is somewhat challenging, but Flanagan's prose is fresh, funny, and extremely well-written.

In "XXXXL" Michael Paterniti visits the Ukraine where he meets Leonid Stadnik, a man who, at eight foot or so, is classified as a giant. He lives a simple life at home. He has tried to shun the limelight, and get on with living and farming. But life isn't that easy for a giant, and writer Paterniti has written a timeless piece about this experience.

Meanwhile In "The Joy of Steam" Tony Perrottet realises that searching for the vestiges of the ancient Roman world has its compromises. And in "The Selling of the Savages" Michael Behar takes a look at a company that sells trips which are billed as authentic encounters with Stone Age tribes in West Papua, Indonesia. It's said these tribes have never seen Westerners before – but just how true is this claim?

This is travel writing that takes you beyond place – and beyond mere description. These pieces illuminate the places visited by looking beyond tourist clichés and descriptions, by looking at the people and the issues that inform these geographies, or by looking anew at places travelled to previously. There are pieces which shine a spotlight on personal experiences, mixing the personal with the place, and there are pieces which mine the conundrums that face all of us as tourists, travellers or guests passing through.
The 2008 collection, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, is due out in October, is edited by Anthony Bourdain, who produces travelogues spiced with his search for good and unusual food. It features writers such as Bill Buford, David Sedaris, Paul Theroux, Calvin Trillin, and others. With Amazon no longer delivering posted items to our shores, I'd recommend ordering the Best American volumes from online retailers such as www.loot.co.za
Read 2130 times
Login to post comments