The Seeing-Eye Girl Sees Bangkok for the First Time

I am doing something I know I should feel shameful about, but I’m not sure how to remedy it. This has been happening a lot, actually, since I started reading critically about the practice of travel writing.

So what am I doing that seems so shameful?

Well, I’m merely looking outside the window of my hotel at the beautiful, haunting Chao Phraya River. I am looking at the boats as they meander across the canal, and I am watching the world come to life at this early morning hour. How could anyone see this as something negative, or, at best, imperial?

This is my predicament. Ever since I read Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation this summer, I have been second-guessing absolutely everything I write, think, and do while I am, as it’s often put in the academy, “engaging with the Other.” This is exceptionally difficult to do, especially since travel writing is so hated and disdained within the walls of the academy for its masculine-centered, imperialist, colonialist roots. Even looking outside of a window of a hotel and “beholding” the view, Pratt claims in her book, is reenacting the “seeing-man” assertive, exoticizing self. As she says, people who behold views from balconies are simply “still up there, commanding the view, assigning it value, oblivious to limitations on their perceptual capacities, their relations of privilege perfectly naturalized” (Pratt 200).

Wow, really? I wonder how much experience Pratt really has feeling in awe that first morning a traveler arrives somewhere new, the possibilities fresh and endless, the excitement dancing around like butterflies in the stomach (an often very hungry stomach from a very long journey!). While I don’t want this to sound critical, and while I certainly want to engage in critical reflection and praxis in everything I do, I have to wonder if Pratt is stretching the limits here. Of course, someone who stands atop a balcony and limits a view to something despicable, gross, or “third-world” can, certainly, be lumped into the category of the “seeing-man,” but what about someone who simply wakes up, pulls open the blinds, thrusts open the door to the balcony, and sees, for the first time, a magical new place to him/her? It’s not a magical new place to the inhabitants who live there (whose home IS a magical new place to them anyway?), but it’s magical to the person lucky enough to see that view for the first time–and feel blessed, excited, and flushed in the cheeks.

I read Pratt’s book so carefully this summer, ear-marking every page and highlighting furiously, trying to understand why travel writing as a complete genre is so disliked in the academy. Her analysis, while extremely detailed, smart, and historically-grounded, still smacks of the disdainful tone I’ve read of so many other accounts of this genre, a genre I believe has the capacity to truly create real change. Engaging in reflection and considering the way we write and think about other people and other ways of life are crucial acts toward gaining a more critical understanding of the complex and diverse world within which we inhabit. Naturally, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accept and be mindful of real differences and discrepancies between peoples of the world, but instead, it means that we need to do real work within this genre.

So I will start here: Yes, I am looking out onto the river, and I am smitten with what I see. It’s foggy, sweaty, humid, and sticky, and I’m giddy thinking about all the things I will learn and write about on this trip. And frankly, I don’t see anything–anything at all–wrong with that. I’m going to reclaim Pratt’s term, then, and move forth understanding that I am functioning here as a “seeing-woman,” all rights and responsibilities herein.

Off to see Bangkok!

Comments

  1. Elizabeth Kwederas says:

    Kristin –
    Of course, I also see the value in “challenging” yourself and your writing, and regarding the historical context of those who have “travelled and discovered” in the past, however, I also disagree with the author you mentioned above.
    There is absolutely nothing wrong with standing on a balcony, being smushed in the depths of a crowded metro station, or gazing out the airplane window and regarding your surroundings with wonderment. Please, NEVER lose that. While writing with that sense of wonderment could sound too “doe-eyed and innocent”, (probably what annoys most people about so-called travel writers), I think your writing gives travelling to new places and experiencing a CULTURE for the first time all of it’s due justice. You know the limits of your personal knowledge of a place, and you aptly acknowledge when you have experienced something new and different. I think you see yourself for who you are, and as a non-fiction writer who accounts her personal experiences, that is the absolute best and brightest way to give us your story. With respect. 🙂
    Looking forward to hearing more about the culture and beauty of Thailand! Cheers!

  2. Wow. Excellent article. Sounds like a thesis statement…:-D

  3. Never ever lose sight of the endless possibilities that lie ahead as you travel across the globe. We need your unique perspectives on lands, cultures and people’s that most of us will never encounter.

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