dea birkett   The Prying Pen  
photo of dea birkett

  In a distant village in which I once lived, two sisters shared a husband. Everyone in the village knew this, although it was never uttered out loud. The village was an intensely religious community, and such behaviour broke all boundaries of acceptable behaviour. So the villagers turned a blind eye, and the sisters and their shared husband were influential and popular.

I had travelled thousands of miles to that village to write a book about it. Yet back home, sitting at my desk with a blank page in front of me, I battled with what I had learnt about the sisters. Should I include this salacious saga of a menage-a-trois? Should I use this excellent example to illustrate how a seemingly conservative community was writhing with unorthodoxy underneath?

I would be horrified if anyone wrote a book which exposed my sex life. But as a travel writer, I have done just that to other people. I have watched my hosts get up and get dressed in the morning, noted the folds and flaws in their bodies, seen when and how they use the toilet, recorded the niggling arguments they had with their spouse. I have even written about the length of a man's penis.

What gives me permission to do this? Why can I pry and prod and write about, in graphic detail, things that even your best friend doesn't know? Because I entered these people's home not as a personal acquaintance nor a paying tourist, but as a travel writer.

Travel writing is about inhabiting a middle ground between insider and outsider. If you identify with your hosts too much, you cannot explain; if you remain too removed, you cannot understand. You strive to belong--but retain fresh, wide eyes. You want to have temporary, associate membership of that tantalizing club--another culture.

To do this, a travel writer can take on many disguises--guest, honorary daughter, shadowy figure in the corner. But disguise is not the same as deception. You do not pretend to be anything other than a writer. And a travel writer, unlike a journalist, hangs around for a while, and after a while people forget why you are there. They gossip, argue and pick their noses in front of you. And after living for several months in someone's home, it is absurd to inquire at the end of every conversation, 'Can I quote that?'

But all the time the travel writer is relentlessly recording what she sees. And it is the everyday aspects--from how someone urinates to what they eat--which enthrall her. This is the detail from which she can build her brutal, honest portrait of a people. This is how she makes them real. Only then can we break free from the stereotypes which once dogged travel writing (drum-beating Africans, obliging Asians, smiling South Sea islanders...) to present fallible, complicated, human beings.

But am I right to sacrifice other people's intimacies to achieve this? Have I abused my hosts' hospitality and trust? Do I have the right to make public people's most private lives? I still don't know. And that is why--even now--I cannot bring myself to give you the name of that village.
author's page
Bold Type
Copyright © 1997 Dea Birkett.