Loney’s travellers close the distance of high-end tourism
Matthew R. Loney is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. As a graduate of the University of Toronto’s M.A. in Creative Writing program (2009) and avid traveler, he has combined these passions into a collection of short stories, That Savage Water.
E Martin Nolan: That Savage Water focuses around traveller-adventurers, many of whom celebrate (implicitly or explicitly) the otherness they encounter. That is not to say those encounters are not complicated (one guy thinks he’s about to find enlightenment by the Ganges, but his spiritual mentor turns out to be less than trustworthy). A lot of literary writers would hesitate to so openly embrace this spirit of adventure, given the complicated history and politics of the postcolonial realms to which your characters journey. Did you wrestle with this tension? How did the history of Western power in these regions weigh on you as you wrote these stories?
Matthew R. Loney: I was aware of the perils of voice-appropriation, the dangers of trespassing on narrative territory that didn’t belong to me, but I found these restrictions, especially when applied to stories set abroad, actually fed into a pro-colonial separation of local and foreigner. Postcolonialism suggests that Western writers shouldn’t even try to write from the voice of a different culture, that when or if we do, it will be self-serving and inaccurate. On one hand, postcolonial history was telling me that all I could write would be romanticized reflections that would serve to fulfill my own nostalgia for counter-Western fantasies, projections of my own desires for the exotic, and therefore I would minimize those people I met into token and reduced caricatures of my own ideals. On the other, backpacker culture is largely about humans educating themselves about the world through the process of travel. Certainly, I did carry with me my own prejudices and discontents, my own longings and historicized gaze, but those are not unique to me as a white man. They are the result of being an outsider encountering what is, to him, strangeness or difference. It is simply a framework of perception that one needs to be mindful of. We should not deny ourselves the awe of travel simply because we are marvelling at an Other. Saris, turbans, elephants on a street corner, seeing five people and a dog crammed onto a motorbike in the middle of Indian traffic: these are undeniably “Other” experiences from a Western perspective. But so is a single file lineup to board the train at Union Station from the perspective of a New Delhian, or food eaten with utensils and not the right hand. Life is vibrantly different everywhere and those differences, those Othernesses, should be written about, celebrated, learned about, until they become familiar threads in a larger, global tapestry. The colonial intent in writing about cultural differences was to use them as justification for oppression and subjugation. The backpacker has no use for this framework.
There is a sense that Western travel narratives are inseparable from the colonial gaze. And certain methods of high-end tourism feed off of the separation of the traveller from those people and places they come to see. Backpacking, however, more closely engages with the host country, as opposed to merely treating the host culture as a consumable product. The backpacker’s lack of money is largely responsible for bringing the world of the foreigner into close contact with the host culture. You must travel in very close proximity to the local people—often you are the only Westerner on an entire bus of local travellers—and so you come into a knowing of these people as other humans. Contrarily, the presence of money when travelling often leads to expensive hotels, private transportation, tourist restaurants, all of which serve to distance the traveler from the host culture. This distance is at the heart of the colonial gaze, and it is a distance that is usually incorporated into a power dynamic.
I think this collection, while retaining a very open gaze of the Other, questions this power dynamic. One character in the story “The Stampede” comments that “India is becoming so difficult to write about these days.” This is me as a writer wrestling with what I felt I could or could not write about, an awareness of the colonial baggage that the Western traveller has to confront. How do you write about the filthy streets of India without it coming across as elitist or reductive? Likewise, how do you write about the startling beauty of the place without coming across as Orientalist? I am fascinated with travel literature for this reason.
What I discovered while travelling is that colonial language or hierarchies are not restricted to White/Non-White relations. Burmese immigrants in Thailand face equally fraught power hierarchies, of which the tourist may not even be aware. Likewise within the Indian caste system. The Western tourist, especially the backpacker, is often the least malignant of these hegemonic forces, at least on street-level. I wanted to write about foreign spaces without the restrictions I felt postcolonial theory wanted to laden me with—a colonial history that I, too, felt was troubling and oppressive. Many of the Western characters in these stories struggle with a similar feeling of being attracted to the sheer strangeness and newness around them, and the difficulties of discovering their own role as the Other, as foreigners in another culture.
EMN: “Les 3 Chevaliers” depicts the particularly troubling tourist desire to visit the sites of past massacres (in this case, in Cambodia). At the same time, the story is told in a non-linear manner. I’m tempted to describe the storyline as “elegantly jumbled.” The story cuts sharply between quite immersive scenes. This creates a tension between the immediacy of the scenes themselves and the murkiness of the narrative structure. How did that story evolve to take on that form? Is there any link between the moral murkiness inherent in disaster tourism and the formal tension of the story?
Travellers to the Killing Fields create an economy for remembering disaster
ML: In this story I wanted to replicate the visceral experience of travelling, but linearity didn’t seem to be working. Travel is so much about collecting memories, or collecting experiences that you foresee becoming memories, that a fractured form seemed the only way possible to write this piece. The plot line of Cambodia’s troubled history also seemed pervasive enough to form a coherent thread between the fragments. Altering the story’s linearity allowed me to represent the series of weeks I spent in this guesthouse overlooking Boeng Lake—the way the days melted into each other, the drug-laden, bizarre procession of fellow travellers, the strange overlap and repetition of the conversations you would hear or take part in. Disorientation buffered by a coherence of tone or motif with a few subtle repetitions seemed like the kindest, maybe sanest, way to write this. It certainly seemed like the most accurate. Strangely enough, this lake has since been drained and filled in as a consequence of a land development scheme. The guesthouses have been demolished and the residents forcibly removed. It’s another fragment of disaster written into this story that I couldn’t have foreseen.
And as you mention, added to this fractured narrative form is the inherent ethical dilemma of visiting locations of disaster. Why are these places often first on the tourists’ itinerary? What makes us think we can know a culture better if we study the most atrocious parts of it? We almost feel a duty to pay our respects at these shrines of insanity and we certainly apply a range of justifications to our decision to visit there. What I found the most interesting was the way in which my eagerness to know about a country’s history—the Khmer Rouge, say, in Cambodia—forced the Cambodians I met to talk about it. They would answer my questions obligingly, but they were so interested in other things, iPods for example, or one day becoming tourists themselves. The tourist presence, in its fixation on the first-hand experience of certain historical narratives, creates an industry, an economy, around these narratives—and so the narrative must survive and be reinforced. It’s not what the people themselves want, but history is steady business. And so there is a strange kind of disassociation that is required of the local who is forced to speak over and over again about the tales of suffering that tourists come and pay to hear. I felt guilty participating in that but couldn’t stop myself, or couldn’t find a way to see places of importance without requiring this of the people I met. In the story, the official narrative of the Khmer Rouge, as told by the film The Killing Fields, overshadows the reality of the poverty and prostitution, the violence and lawlessness that oppress the people of Cambodia today. Our concern, and so our dollars, is skillfully directed by disaster tourism. We can use it to justify ignoring the more contemporary storylines. On the other hand, in coming to learn about these master narratives, the traveller is exposed whether they like it or not to the people living there now. Links are created regardless. I found it somewhat intriguing how I wanted to know all about the Khmer Rouge and these people just wanted to talk about more immediate concerns.
First drafts of the story were far more jumbled and much less elegant. I originally had wanted a reading experience far more disorienting. But over the course of several drafts, the story seemed to want to clean itself up, to tighten where it could. My writing also went through a shift whereby it, too, wanted more clarity, illumination via the sentence, as opposed to obfuscation. Several stories in the collection needed their edges more clearly defined.