Five Favorite Books is a special feature at the LA Books Examiner in which our favorite authors share and discuss their five favorite books within a category. In this edition, Anastasia Ashman, cultural writer and producer, discusses her five favorite historical travel writing books.
Historical travel writing: five favorite books by Anastasia Ashman
Long-term travelers, expatriates and global citizens often struggle to make sense of life’s evolutions abroad, as well as find meaningful access to their new surroundings. As a world traveler and 13-year expat in three countries, I’ve come to crave a certain type of book.
Whether I’m simply passing through, or putting down roots in a place, historical travelogue and portraits of adventurous women travelers who came before me often helps connect me to the land, and remind me of the transformative tradition of female travel.
Since I coedited the anthology Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey, I’ve become convinced some of the most powerful cultural wisdom pools at the intersection of women and travel.
1) Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers, selected by Jane Robinson
In this spunky companion volume to Wayward Women (her book about women travel writers through history), Robinson collects the global travels of 200 women across 16 centuries – from the obscure to better known authors like Lady Mary Wortley Montague, Karen Blixen, Freya Stark and Jan Morris. Grouped by geography with numerous entries for each place which serve as a conversation between the region, the time and the characters themselves, the chapters are bookended by thoughtful selections in “Setting Out””and “Coming Home”” indicating that the act of travel is and has always been a transformative force in women’s lives. Sometimes reputation risking and life threatening, but often culturally redeeming and personally empowering, travel must be intellectually prepared for, and assimilated.
2) Veiled Half-Truths: Western Travellers’ Perceptions of Middle Eastern Women, selected and annotated by Judy Mabro (1991)
A politicized and rigorous survey of the depictions of ‘Oriental’ women in the writings of 18th, 19th and 20th century European travel books, memoirs, and guides about North Africa, Egypt, the Holy Land, and Turkey. It’s fascinating to note the degree to which the writers’ own prejudices about the region, Muslim culture, the veil, the harem — and the place of women in society in general — colored their descriptions and their conclusions. These skewed first-hand accounts then influenced or reinforced the stereotypes being embraced back home, and even though the sources have faded the perceptions endure today.
3) Adventurous Women in South East Asia: Six Lives, edited by John Gullick (1995)
Part of the terrific Oxford-in-Asia series, this easy-reading collection by various scholars examines the lives of 19th century Western women in the Asian tropics – pioneers like Sophia Raffles, the calamity-stricken wife of the British founder of Singapore, and Isabella Bird, the opinionated world traveler seeking to escape from civilization. It helped put into context my own struggling expatriate experience when I was living in steamy Malaysia… I especially appreciated reading about the dark side of these women’s lives, like the widely unknown and checkered past of Anna Leonowens, the famous governess hired by the King of Siam! Illustrated with fine engravings from the women’s own publications.
Read the rest of Anastasia Ashman’s Five Favorite Historical Travel Books at Frank Mundo’s LA Books Examiner.
Read more Five Favorite Books articles.