Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

In defence of travel writing

The author responds to Robbie Robertson’s recent review of his book, Rising Tide

Tom Bamforth 14 November 2019 251 words

Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Professor Robertson’s review of my book misses the point and misrepresents the text. Travel writing — or creative nonfiction — is a distinct approach to writing. It weaves together stories, narratives, description and encounters into an impressionistic whole that owes much to literary techniques. These “petty plays,” as Robertson terms them, are the point. It is a genre the reviewer fails to grasp. Travel writing is not potted history for the literal-minded. Criticising the approach because it features stories, not summaries, is like dismissing fiction for being “made up.”

For a short review, the degree of misrepresentation is remarkable. On Fiji (clearly his patch) Robertson mistakes a description of the artificiality of a tourist resort for an analysis of race-relations. The chapter’s crucial phrase, however, is that “in the resorts, Fiji worked as it didn’t in reality.” The rest of the chapter offers multiple alternative accounts of Fijian social relations but these are ignored. The chapter on Tonga receives a similarly myopic treatment. The view that I actually think people in Tuvalu use drums to counter the effects of climate change is textual analysis at its most obtuse.

Readers of Inside Story deserve better. The region is in the news and there are few recent accounts of contemporary Pacific life. Regrettably, the book’s stories, characters, humour, irony, descriptions, unreliable narrator, regional perspectives and multiple voices, as well as its accounts of urbanisation, climate change, disasters, nuclear legacies and cultural resilience across ten countries have all but eluded this reviewer. •

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