BOOK REVIEW: The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11 – True Stories from Around the World Edited by Lavinia Spalding

BOOK REVIEW: The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11 – True Stories from Around the World edited by Lavinia Spalding

Travelers’ Tales, Incorporated
May 2017
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Travel & Holidays / Travel Writing

7/10

The Best Women’s Travel Writing has been taking readers on journeys into the great unknown since 1995 when it was first released as A Woman’s World. Since then it has become an annual series and volume number 11 continues to build on this strong foundation. Editor Lavinia Spalding gathers together 31 different personal essays from mostly American authors who have traversed the globe and home soil in order to bring us stories with as many themes and facets as there are people.

To select the 31 essays for The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volume 11, I read nearly five hundred. The job was more challenging than ever, as this was the deepest pool of submissions I’d ever stepped into. I dreaded having to pass on literally hundreds of wonderful stories, many by friends I adore and writers I admire.
I based my decisions on answers to the usual questions: Was the piece well written and developed? Original? Personal? Did it evoke a strong sense of place? Were there complete characters? Did something happen? Did it surprise me? Move me? When at last I chose the finalists, I began putting my table of contents in order, reading and sorting, re-reading and re-sorting, careful as always to separate essays that were similar in theme.

Spalding is no stranger to travel writing. She has published various articles about travel as well as a book where she extols the importance of keeping a journal (it’s something that she believes can be used as inspiration for the kinds of essays found here.) She also delivered an interesting TEDx talk where she discussed travel’s positives – at the very least, it broadens people’s minds and makes them grow and feel a greater sense of connectedness with their fellow human beings. Zora O’Neill certainly discovered this when she holidayed in Greece and Turkey and found herself travelling along the same route that was being followed by Syrian refugees escaping the war:

When I’d boarded my plane from New York, the American media had just begun to cover the situation. There’d been no mention of Izmir as one of the hubs of the crisis, or of the commercialism that had developed as a result. The cash-for-gold shop was packed. A clothing store had outfitted its mannequins with life jackets. A black market for second-hand clothes and household goods had sprung up, consisting mostly of items sold off or jettisoned to speed the trip across the Aegean on an overcrowded rubber dingy under cover of darkness. My family crossed to Chios in daylight, in an hour and a half, on a regularly scheduled ferry.
More refugees were gathered around the boat harbour when we arrived. Here, people slept on benches or sat staring at the sea. Chios was the end of one trip—out of Syria, across Turkey, and officially into Europe. But it was also a tiny rock in the sea with a free-falling economy and surging unemployment. So it was the starting point for another, even longer journey as well, to the mainland and then farther north, to more prosperous countries such as Germany and Sweden.

In this collection the writers vary in terms of their level of publishing experience. There are some who are highly-accomplished, award-winning authors who have been published in the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc. For others, this volume – or one of the earlier collections – may have been their first ventures into travel writing or getting published in print. This can mean that the quality of the writing is not uniform but is rather eclectic and uneven in nature. That said, travel itself typically fails to fit into neat or tidy boxes just as this book shows.

Catherine Watson, Mexico: The Spanish verb “esperar” means “to wait” as well as “to hope.” A fellow traveller in Latin America once told me that you couldn’t really understand the verb until you’d waited for something so long that you gave up hope. That night, we came close to understanding the verb.

In her foreword, Spalding states that she received some 500 entries for this compilation. She whittled this number down to 31 by choosing the pieces that featured great characters and where the story either surprised or moved her. The result is a collection featuring some highly personal and intimate tales which often look at the growth and transformative nature of travel for the person as they venture out into the wider world.

For Holly H. Jones, water is the subject of a Sufi fable that illuminates her days in Pakistan at a time when some consider the country to be the most dangerous place on Earth. In the fable, a stream making its way down the mountain overcomes every barrier. But when it tries to cross the desert, it dries up…
I reflect on this again and again after reading Jones’s essay, and come to the conclusion that to be good travellers we must embody the qualities of water: its beauty, strength, mutability, fluidity, and determination. We need its capacity to ebb and flow to permeate the most hidden and unreachable places; to soften and smooth what it moves against; to carve a path through seemingly impenetrable obstacles; to change form, and allow itself to be changed.

The stories vary in length and some of the shorter ones may leave readers hungry for greater depth and detail. It can be highly intriguing and almost voyeuristic to take a passenger seat on this ride through these exotic worlds and places. These anecdotes are all about women who are venturing off the beaten track like the one who slaughtered a pig in Hungary or the other who played Pro basketball in the Czech Republic. Let’s not forget the visit to a witchdoctor in Mexico, the discovery of filial piety in Singapore or that one time our intrepid writer thought she’d angered an Ethiopian nun. These stories are certainly not the kind you’d find in your bog-standard travel blog or brochure but they did actually happen. These tales are richer and more vivid then your Lonely Planet guide and they are captured by authors with a keen eye for observation and awareness.

Maxine Rose Schur, Iran: Every day for a week, the ceremony was exactly the same: the immediate welcoming, the whacking of the sugar, the two cups, the saucer, the spoon, the spoon handle, the tacit apology and assurances, the prayer, the smiles, the sighs, and the silence. The big wordless embrace of silence.
The ritual was infused with the peace that comes from a complete language barrier. It held the simple, satisfying communication of people who cannot speak to each other. By not attempting talk, we avoided those pocket-dictionary-size conversations replete with non-sequiturs, embarrassing words, obligatory smiles, head nodding, and hand gesturing. For the trouble with knowing a little of a language is that you’re restricted to talking only of things for which you’ve remembered the vocabulary. But in those afternoons in Iran we were forced to acquire a rapport rather than to express ourselves.

The Best Women’s Travel Writing is a collection of 31 diverse globe-trotting essays from some enthusiastic and predominantly American voices who have learned, loved, and lived during their holidays. This volume is an energising and uplifting book in which at least one story should resonate with every reader. This volume may ultimately be a little rough and raw in places but at the end of the day this just serves as a reminder about what makes us gloriously human.

BOOK REVIEW: The Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 11 - True Stories from Around the World Edited by Lavinia Spalding

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