Foreign Policy Blogs

Paul Theroux's "When We" Problem

I have always had a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the travel writings of Paul Theroux. On the one hand he is (usually) a graceful writer and an intrepid traveler. The best travel writing transports the reader to a place he or she has never been and may never be, or provides new insights to a place he or she may have been but never has seen in the way the writer conveys. Good travel writing is some of my favorite writing, and over the years Theroux has provided me with a great deal of satisfaction and probably will continue to do so.

And yet . . . there is also something that bothers me about much of his writing. I suppose the first issue I have is with the smug sense of self satisfaction that underlies so much of his work. And beyond that, because he sees it as the job of the travel writer to address uncomfortable truths (I do not disagree, by the way) he sometimes plays the role of provocateur, depicting his subjects in an unflattering light that also just happens to make himself look fearless and astute. But too often the recipients of his “courageous” truth telling are poor, dispossessed, and, well, brown.

Furthermore, I tend to think that Theroux (and probably most travel writers — myself in my modest attempts at the genre as well, I’d imagine) tends to rely on the ignorance of his audience. I first really noticed this when I read his book Dark Star Safari in which he recounted his trip from Cairo to the Cape. In some ways it is a fine book. But at the same time I noticed something that set off alarms in my head: The further south he went, the more I found Theroux writing things that were misguided or simply wrong. And I would suspect that it is no coincidence that my own expertise as an Africanist expands the further one goes from north to south. In other words, the more I knew, the more I realized just how much Theroux did not know. And while there is the possibility that this was mere coincidence, I had the sneaking suspicion that other Africanists who focus on other regions would find the same shortcomings in Theroux’s writings about their regions of strength. Over at zunguzungu Aaron Bady confirms these suspicions and then some.

Now some of this can be attributable to academic nitpicking and the travails of the generalist. And I am sympathetic — while my scholarly work focuses on southern Africa with particular strength in South Africa, when I put on my pundit’s hat, when I write this blog, say, I am also something of a generalist, albeit (I’d like to think) an informed one. Nonetheless, the further my wring strays from the Limpopo and Orange Rivers, the more true specialists on topics I’ve covered somewhat extensively — Kenya, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, say — might be able to step in and point out my own shortcomings.

And yet there is something in Theroux’s tone that vexes. Part of it is that he places an awful lot of faith whenever he returns to Africa (and he does tend to see the continent as a whole) in having lived on the continent several decades ago, an authority that is not insignificant, but that is also not the appeal to authority that he thinks that it is, especially for those of us who travel there regularly. All of us who write about Africa, of course, will fall back on our experiences there, and that’s fine. But if I had never returned to South Africa after having first lived there in 1997 I doubt many people would give much credence in 2011 to having lived there fourteen years earlier. Why then would we give excess interpretive power  to someone who lived there in the 1960s? Change over time is the domain of the historian, to be sure, but that domain is filled with actually engaging in that change through historical work and not simply through a reliance on the awesomeness of our own personal observations over the transom of time.

In effect Theroux’s writings too often have the air of the colonial in them. He reminds me of the “When We” phenomenon in South Africa by which Rhodesians who moved to South Africa after Mugabe came to power seemed to begin every wistful reflection on their once-glorious past with “When we were in Rhodesia . . .”.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid