Reading While Traveling
I have this fantasy that certain lady writers of Los Angeles all hang out together, swilling martinis and telling dirty jokes. I don’t know if this is actually the case, though there are some links between writers like Hillary Carlip, Jill Soloway and Francesca Lia Block that involve a whole lot less than six degrees of separation. But what do I know? It’s easy to fetishize the west coast at this time of year, in the unstable, indecisive weeks before winter turns into spring here in New York. The west coast has this whole sparkly exuberant crazy magic going on, at least in my head, and it’s on full display in Queen of the Oddballs, LA native Hillary Carlip’s new memoir.
This little daydream of mine is the kind of thing that happens when a girl starts itching for a break from home. So it made sense that I read Carlip’s book on a plane to Guatemala, getting away from New York for a few days on a work-related trip, glad to be heading somewhere that promised less gray and more sky. Carlip’s breezy, confessional stories about her encounters with celebrities were a sweet companion to a day spent in international transit. Her writing immediately recalled Soloway’s recent Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants, a common love for (and defensiveness of) LA shining through. Neither of these is meant to be great literature, but there’s something compelling about their shared style. The frenzied pace can be exasperating, but it also becomes infectious.
Having ploughed through Queen of the Oddballs and most of my New Yorker back issues on the plane, I got to Antigua disoriented to find that -- for once -- I hadn’t brought enough to read. In an attempt to be geographically appropriate, my coworker was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. While I like the idea of immersing yourself in a place right down to your reading material, I hadn’t planned well enough. So I went to a used bookstore near our hotel, where the sparse stock consisted of the vacation lit that travelers before me couldn’t be bothered to haul back home with them: dog-eared romances, Dean Koontz, the OJ Simpson biography (in hardcover). In this company, Tobias Wolff’s In the Garden of North American Martyrs was an easy choice, if not exactly thematic. My copy had originally been purchased in California in 1988, according to a receipt I found tucked between the pages.
As I walked around in the perfect 70-degree weather, taking in the bright colors and casual ruins, I thought maybe I could move to Central America for a while. I thought about learning Spanish for real, spending more time wandering these cobblestone streets and looking past them up at the mountains. And I thought about a book long excised from my shelves, Travelers’ Tales: Women in the Wild, given to me by a well-meaning guy I was seeing the summer before college. He proudly presented it to me right before I left on a trip to Seattle, my first. In the years since, I’ve thought about the book a lot, and haven’t really been able to explain why it felt so… wrong.
There’s a whole cult and industry built around women traveling, and countless books -- mainly anthologies -- devoted to telling the supposedly very particular stories of our adventures abroad. If you’re a woman who travels, a whole string of adjectives get attached to you: words like gutsy, adventurous and independent. Women’s travel is associated with finding empowerment in every “journey” (that being the preferred lingo), from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to laying bikini-clad on some beach. There’s this expectation that we are questing, searching for something, that we travel with intent to “find ourselves.” Books devoted to helping us accomplish this -- and then to documenting our experiences afterward -- are numerous, and kind of exhausting. On the flip side, there’s a whole sub-genre of humiliation, books specifically dedicated to the disasters women encounter on the road and trail. Sort of like the “most embarrassing moment” feature moved out of the pages of teen magazines, but with the drama kicked up a few notches. Here it’s, “I got my period while wearing white pants.... and backpacking through Tibet!!!!!!!!!!”
It’s impossible not to notice all the books devoted to chronicling calamity. There are three separate volumes edited by Jennifer L. Leo as part of the Travelers’ Tales series: Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures, Whose Panties are These? and The Thong Also Rises. The feminist publisher Seal Press pumps out a steady stream of women’s travel books, including anthologies like The Risks of Sunbathing Topless and The Unsavvy Traveler: Women’s Comic Tales of Catastrophe. Even the illustrious Ayun Halliday has a book about her travel disasters.
My own interactions with the decidedly triumph-focused Women in the Wild were limited to uncomfortably glancing at the spot it occupied on my bookshelf. I let myself be disturbed by the cover, which featured a woman standing under a waterfall soaking wet, her mouth open and arms raised in elation. I guess people crave travel stories, and they definitely enjoy embarrassment. Maybe the combination is irresistible. I brought my own authentic travel story back from Central America with me: It involves being stricken with food poisoning in the middle of the rainforest, in the presence of my coworkers and a gorgeous Guatemalan agronomist. It’s gross and humiliating, and my friends can’t hear enough about it. Maybe I’ll pitch a special edition, “Traveler’s Tales: Shitting Off the Beaten Track.”
By the way: if you want to read about the complications of history and privilege that follow American women wherever we travel, about falling in love with a place and the adventures you don’t expect and may not want, there’s Jessica Abel’s graphic novel La Perdida. Abel’s beautiful book is interested in conflicts that are a much more real and difficult part of traveling than a yeast infection or losing your map. I picked it up right when I got back, still flush from my own brief love affair with Guatemala, and put it down understanding that empowerment and embarrassment are not so distinct as many other books would have you think.