On the Road

Travel Writing and the Art of Telling Stories of Diversity

Writers are usually liars.

Watching Chimamanda Adichie talk about the danger of the single story reminded me why we founded Road Junky. The age of political correctness serving up paper-thin stories of travel and world culture for mass consumption sickened us. We wanted to shatter the two dimensional picture of the world that the travel industry had put into a neat frame by telling the stories that didn’t fit politically correct dimensions. To present images and voices that were harder to swallow, harder to grasp because they didn’t meet the single story many have only heard until now.

Every writer knows how easy it is to lie. The complexity of reality is almost impossible to squeeze onto the page and so most storytellers choose to tell a convenient fiction, a digestible single story. Road Junky itself sometimes infuriates readers when we talk about ignorant Israelis when there are in fact hundreds of thousands of Israelis who understand the hypocrisy of the occupation. But to deliver a powerful message it’s necessary to focus on a single aspect, while still hopefully acknowledging the diversity.

Modern media doesn’t usually attempt to inform or educate, however. Its only ambition is to sell. Readers of liberal newspapers want to hear about oppression of the unfortunate. Conservatives want to hear about the abuse of time-honoured institutions. The audience wants to be told a story that reinforces what it already believes.

I had a friend who worked as a tour guide in Jerusalem. One day, during the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, he saw a Spanish TV crew pay some Arab youths to start yelling and throwing rocks. They were short of news and so had to fabricate what their viewers wanted. Had their reports showed more than one side of the story their audience might have defected to another network that showed more and greater images of unrest and Israeli brutality.

And beyond the economic pressures of making the audience happy, there’s the simple problem of the stories we can tell, the perspectives we can offer that are more convenient to us than others. As travel writers we can fall back on easy gags about inscrutable Orientals, excitable Arabs and snobby French, but we’re lazy and dishonest if we do.

There are a myriad of truths in the world and some of them even contradict others without disproving them. What’s important is that there should be a balance of truths, a balance of stories showing the diversity of places where humans stand across this world, not just those that pass over the wire at Reuters and CNN.

Not everyone likes Road Junky. We get called all kinds of names for the things we say as our articles push all kinds of buttons. But if no one pushes them then the old lies will continue to blind people to the amazing diversity of the world we live in.

And that’s reason enough for us to continue flying the pirate flag.