“I’M NOT THE FIRST person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel,” novelist James Salter told The Paris Review. Whether exploring the world or cultivating one’s observational awareness — the sense that you’re a tourist in your own city — the writer is constantly honing her powers of examination and description. But writing from elsewhere can also come with perils and pitfalls.
Jessa Crispin, founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut and Spolia, was not unaware of these risks when she began writing her own travel memoir, The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats & Ex-Countries, an account of two years spent traveling the world and reading up on some of her favorite artists and writers. As she tells us in a previous essay on travel writing for Boston Review, her friends warned her not to be Elizabeth Gilbert — author of the best-selling travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love — who has been criticized for navel-gazing, for having a white savior or imperialist mentality, and for her retrograde marriage-plot ending. “Gilbert has inspired a whole niche of faux travel writing by women,” Crispin believes, in which “the focus of attention is the self, and the beautiful locale becomes the backdrop of the real action, which is interior psychodrama.” This Gilbert-inspired wave of travel writing might be applauded for infiltrating traditional, masculine tropes — witnessing, conquering, explaining — but it “overcorrected in a serious way; these writers are experts only on their own selves […] they obey their gender codes: men go on adventures, women on journeys of self-discovery.”
Yet Dead Ladies is, understandably, many parts “psychodrama” as well; despite her criticisms, Crispin finds herself leaning on the transformation narrative. Seemingly aware of the “risk [of] becoming Elizabeth Gilbert,” she emphasizes her independence and self-sufficiency, frequently and outright: “I am […] here in Trieste under my own steam, with train fare that came from my earnings.” She complains about helpless “lost girls” — women who rely on male support and attention — and she compares herself to Richard Francis Burton. And yet, she tells us, “I could use healing, that wonderfully vague word, another stupid story we tell ourselves about our lives. Recovery. Healing. A Journey of Self-Discovery.”
The book’s premise sets us up for just such a story: Crispin is depressed. “Is this really my life,” she wonders, “or did someone else choose it for me? Is any of this really me at all?” In search of guidance, Crispin packs what she can into a couple of suitcases, gives the rest of her belongings away, and embarks on what will become a two-year journey. “It was the dead I wanted to talk to,” she writes. “The writers and artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night: I needed to know how they did it.”
The book is narrated in 10 chapters, each titled after a city as well as a dead creative who spent time there: “Berlin/William James,” “Galway/Maud Gonne.” Crispin, who can be witty and is obviously well read, considers Rebecca West in Sarajevo and Margaret Anderson in the South of France, reads up on W. Somerset Maugham in St. Petersburg and Jean Rhys in London. The result is a mix of light history, excerpted biography, and memoirist musing and observation about the places Crispin visits, yes — but also notably about her own state of mind.
In her essay in the Boston Review, Crispin speaks of travel writing without distinguishing the various modes within this large category — from the long-form memoir to Travel & Leisure to nonfiction reporting. Is she right that women abroad are more likely than men to write about their thoughts and feelings, or is it that “psychodrama” is rarely recognized for what it is when a man is writing? And is it necessary to ask these tired rhetorical questions every time a woman writes a memoir?
Crispin laments the lack of ecological description in Wild, for instance; but should Cheryl Strayed’s memoir even be characterized as travel writing? And how about Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which chronicles the lives of people living in a Mumbai slum? It makes little sense to compare, as Crispin does, either of these works as examples of “travel writing” to Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. The fact that memoir is more marketable than nonfiction reporting may be lamentable. But Gilbert’s is a book unapologetically about self-discovery through travel. It’s one thing to criticize it for its missteps — even for its premise — and quite another to credit it with ushering in a wave of “faux travel writing” in which women “obey their gender codes” by writing about themselves.
The formula Crispin builds up (and attempts to reject for herself) is that women look inward, only writing about their feelings, while men — and the few exceptional women who dare to subvert stereotypes — write with a more extensive perspective. In calling attention to this false dichotomy, she positions herself in opposition not so much to gendered travel writing as to other women.
An interesting foil to Crispin’s book is Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. No doubt Crispin would dislike this comparison: “if the pretty people now get the word ‘spinster,’” she tweeted, “I am comfortable switching over to ‘hag’.” But both books are organized by chapters devoted to dead figures — 19th- and early 20th-century writers and artists — who serve as guides for how to live. And Crispin herself alludes to spinsterhood when she describes feeling permanently displaced, without a home, without a tribe. She muses as she travels: about what sort of a life best suits her (what mix of flux and stability, solitude, and community); about her own on-again-off-again relationship with a married man (who by the end of the book has left his wife); about a few flings and fleeting attractions. Her uncoupledness is explicit and thoughtful: “I have seen the worst of wifedom and on that basis I have condemned the entire pursuit.” Later, she writes, “Let’s not forget: facing down spinsterhood for the satisfaction of demands is its own kind of bravery.”
Specific discussions of spinsterhood — historically gendered — occur within a broader consideration, and defense, of the solitary life. Larger contemporary issues of technology’s bid on every inch of our solitude inform this conversation around choosing a solitary life, more so for each coming generation. The constant connection enabled by our phones, though fodder for endless op-eds about the failings of the anti-social “millennial,” nevertheless has real consequences. Living (or traveling) alone is a way of acknowledging solitude as necessary for development and creation (of the self, of art, of life’s greatest challenges and considerations).
Crispin’s celebration of her own independence seems often to be predicated on other women’s neediness. Though she loves the novels of Jean Rhys, after reading her biographies Crispin characterizes Rhys as a “Lost Girl,” a cultural archetype that women act out by playing the innocent, dumb, helpless victim. Crispin says she begins to recognize this performance in Rhys’s novels. “These girls are poison,” she writes.
The girls for whom men lay out their money, the girls who get out of every bad situation of their own creation on the back of someone else. As I walk through this world, I collect these girls like sticky burrs, and once recognized they have to be removed.
Crispin bases her disdain on her discovery, in London, that Rhys was “never really without a man” and performed a feminine passivity to attract them: “She had no awareness that this behavior reinforces the paternal, patronizing aspect of men, that this view of life is deeply cynical and toxic.” Crispin describes the performance required for playing the “lost girl” and concludes, “being that girl is just another way of being a monster.” She then shares an anecdote about a particularly helpless female friend who, while traveling alone for the first time, asks Crispin to help with airline re-bookings even though she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself. “I’ve just had too many interactions with these real-life girls to want them in my fictional material too,” she writes. Seemingly blinded by her own focus on this “particular archetype” of the “lost girl,” in Rhys and in her own life, Crispin compromises the rigor of her own critique.
She goes on to speculate that “[m]aybe my animosity toward Jean Rhys is simply misplaced animosity toward this nineteen-year-old version of myself.” She identifies, she writes, with the rejected “hag” of fairytales, the “ugly creature” who is,
forever trying to mess with the bride. No wonder she says, “Fuck you little girl, here have a poisoned apple.” To just have the world on offer rather than fighting for it.
We know, of course, that to trade feigned helplessness and beauty for male attention is not really to “have the world on offer”— is not true power at all — but Crispin seems to have forgotten.
“Maybe I would be more forgiving of this behavior if I didn’t understand it so well,” Crispin writes. “This very feminine weapon, this weakness, the insistence on playing the role of the victim.” Her understanding, however, does not manifest itself as compassion. And why should it? Patriarchy’s endless traps are infuriating and demoralizing.
But Crispin’s resentment is continually, and tiresomely, misdirected. Her essay “Wounded Women,” parts of which are paraphrased in this Jean Rhys chapter, is similarly focused. She argues that bestsellers like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams portray women “as inherently vulnerable” and their “woundedness” as “biologically determined.” But Jamison is clearly grappling with the often-debated issue of how we might represent suffering (a human inevitability) as it is specifically experienced by individuals, without falling into the trap of romanticizing female victimization. In “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” Jamison asks, “How do we represent female pain without producing a culture in which this pain has been fetishized to the point of fantasy or imperative?”
This is not a promotion of the idea, as described by Crispin, that “if you are wounded, everything you do is brave and beyond reproach.” Crispin’s misreading of Jamison is puzzling at best; at worst it’s a disingenuous attempt to position herself as one of the few women to rise above the clichéd fantasies and cultural imperatives Jamison herself attempts to examine.
The most interesting aspect of Dead Ladies comes of the fascinating and humanizing details about the lives of intellectual legends, and introductions to lesser-known figures of interest. For example: Yeats’s obsession with Maud Gonne (and, after Gonne rejected him a sufficient number of times, with her daughter); details from Nora Barnacle’s trying relationship with James Joyce, and from W. Somerset Maugham’s abusive marriage; a section about Claude Cahun, writer, artist and unconventional activist, and her creative life of gender-subversion and Nazi-resistance.
But Crispin’s engagement with the histories of the places and people she visits often feels uninspired. In Serbia, noting her own “unfair” unconscious reaction to Serbs as “aggressors,” Crispin writes,
We all occupy space on top of one atrocity or another, blood has coated every square inch of this earth. We can never live somewhere pure […] If I ever had to account for the particular evils in my genetic code, the trial would last for centuries […] [But] understanding the violence of our history does not mean we refuse to condemn atrocity when we see it because we resign ourselves to its everywhere existence.
The issues she considers — the politics of remembrance; art and the demands of the marketplace; identity and privilege — are important ones. But she often only skims the surface, oscillating herself between memoiristic musing and moments of historical and literary analysis, in what feels in the case of the latter like a bid not to be taken for the kind of woman who writes only of her interior.
“I am acutely aware of my need not to be that person, the civilized touring through the uncivilized. The expert who reduces the chaos to something understandable,” she writes, describing the “colonial mindset” in Rebecca West’s writing. However, the “colonialist mindset” is not something the traveler either has or does not have; instead it’s bound to be a process of constant negotiation. Acknowledging one’s position as an observer and as an interloper is important, but is it enough? (Dead Ladies evades the problem Crispin has elsewhere described of the “obnoxious white lady in brown places” by avoiding “brown places” altogether.) Crispin takes issue, too, with West’s gross generalizations about whole nationalities (“Turks are …,” “Muslims are …”).
I can’t help but feel the same about Crispin’s emphasis on categorizing women, accusing them of spinelessly playing their “lost” and “wounded” roles as assigned — again and again, her vitriol strikes me as transparent self-positioning.
There may be no satisfying way to balance our need to be known with our need to be alone. It’s an ever-shifting negotiation — the inner and outer lives never quite aligned, yet never entirely distinct. The travel memoir, if not always a try at self-transformation, is very often an attempt to step out of one’s own life for the clarity of distance and perspective. But Jessa Crispin might agree about the difficulty in getting there: “I’m growing out of one story,” she writes, “but I haven’t figured out the new one, not yet.”
Lucy McKeon (lucymckeon.com) is a writer and photographer based in New York City.