Ambivalent journeys: Writing travel as the feminist stranger in Desert Places

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Fullagar, Simone
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Pritchard, A
Morgan, N
Ateljevic, I
Harris, C
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2007
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Abstract

This chapter offers a textual analysis of Robyn Davidson's book Desert Places (1996) which tells of her travels with the Rabari people in north western India on a year long migratory cycle that traced ancient nomadic paths threatened by changing farming practices. Robyn Davidson became a famous international figure in the 1970's when she first travelled with several camels across outback Australia. The journey was sponsored by the National Geographic and later published as the book Tracks in 1980. The lone figure of a woman desiring closeness to the otherness of nature and indigenous cultures - to paraphrase Simmel - is the feminist stranger, an emergent figure in western travel writing (Pratt, 1995). Her traversal and writing of the desert country contested the masculine myths of conquest and mastery that historically inhabit the white Australian landscape and identity (Schaffer, 1988). Yet, Davidson cannot escape her own whiteness as a western woman and while she travels through a desire to encounter otherness, these journeys are characterised by profound ambivalence. Throughout this piece of travel writing there is an ambivalent desire to overcome a contemporary experience of disconnection; an estrangement between self and world, self and other. Always the stranger, she moves with a sense of not 'being at home' anywhere. And yet, travel becomes a search, a journey towards a place in which she might belong for a while; the elsewhere of a western subject's imagining. I draw upon French feminist Julie Kristeva's (1982, 1991) notion of abjection to think further about the ambivalent nature of journeys into different cultures and how otherness is constituted as an inter-subjective encounter. For example, what does the ambivalent relation between Davidson and India suggest about the ways in which the traveller can know difference and communicate with the other? Through Kristeva's work I explore the possibility of an inter-subjective relation that is both near and far, as a mode of being with others. Narratives of travel have more recently become the focus of textual analysis that seeks to undo the opposition between the real and the fictional, emphasising instead the ways in which our experiences of otherness are always mediated by language, myth and culture. A post-structuralist 'reading' of travel narratives via Hegel's (1977) theory desire and insights from cultural theory, offers a deconstructive approach to examining the ambivalent relation between the western subject's identity and an idealised otherness. Within contemporary literature on travel and tourism there has been a curious lack of theory that attempts to unravel the complex formation of our desires to know otherness. In response this chapter engages with several key theorists in order to develop a means of analysing the 'universal' journey of selfhood written through the 'singular' travel narratives of the western feminine subject Robyn Davidson. In this way Davidson's narrative is irreducible to either register and is not simply positioned as a liberatory tale of the feminist traveller's freedom to move.

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Tourism and Gender: Embodiment, sensuality and experience
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© 2007 CAB International Publishing. The attached file is reproduced here in accordance with the copyright policy of the publisher.Please refer to the book link for access to the definitive, published version.
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