Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Feminism and travel, my two favorite things!

Woman, traveling solo.

So I literally just came in from my backyard, where I finished Erica Jong's Fear of Flying*, and I am feeling all fired up to share this amazing book with you guys.

"But wait," y'all are saying, "that's not a travel book!  That's a novel!"

Truth.  And it's not even a travelogue, or some deep fictionalized cultural exploration.  But it is a damn good book, with something to say about women, travel, and even my favorite topic ever, street harassment.

Before we go further, I want to say that I know this book is about a LOT of subjects.  I mean, seminal feminist texts don't happen by looking at a story one-dimensionally.  So yes, I will be focusing on just a couple of moments in the book -- but you should definitely give it a read, I think there is lots here that will appeal to all folks!

First off, this is the story of a person traveling.  At no point in this book is Isadora, the protagonist, at home (except in her memories as she tells them to us).  That dislocation, written well, is very familiar to me, and there are certain phrases Jong writes that ring true as a bell to me:

"To moon alone over a Coke in a Paris cafe and pretend that those loud people at the next table were not -- though clearly they were -- my parents.  (I was pretending, you see, to be a Lost Generation exile with my parents sitting thee feet away.)"

This quote made me snarf my Lemonheads, because it is EXACTLY what I used to do when I traveled with my family.  On a family vacation to Tuscany when I was eleven, I had my own bedroom (for a little sister, that's luxury!), and I would throw open the windows and "moon" about my room pretending the whole house was mine and I was on some great romantic journey instead of a two-week trip with my Mom and Dad and sister.  I also did this same thing on a trip when I was sixteen, to France even, when it was me, my mom, and my stepdad.  Again, it was the amazingness of having a room to myself, just enough freedom to walk around Rouen in the evening and use my high-school French with strangers.  Thrilling, and so much more high-stakes feeling than it was.

"How little our happiness depends on: an open drugstore, an unstolen suitcase, a cup of cappuccino!"

And this.  This, this.  This is at the end of the book which, without spoiling it, is when I love Isadora the most.  She is at a cafe in Paris, and is relieved to have found tampons (ah, I have been there, my friends).  And I think a lot of us have had moments where we realize just how little we can live on, just how much we can trust ourselves and be secure in our independence.  This little sentence sums that up for me -- there is no mention of other people, or of worry or language barriers or the bazillion things we worry about when we plan a trip.  Just the serenity of having enough.

Fear of Flying also mentions a niggling little matter we have discussed on this site before.  Throughout the book, issues of sexual power come up, whether with people Isadora is in a relationship with, or with other people who she may not even know.  In particular, she talks about street harassment, not in so many words ("street harassment" is, as far as I know, more of a modern term, and this book is from the 70s) -- but we all know it.

"I would not sit there cowering in fear as I had at age thirteen when exhibitionists started unzipping their pants at me on the deserted subway to high school.  I actually used to be afraid that they'd be insulted and take terrible revenge unless I remained rooted to my seat.  So I stayed, looking away, pretending be reading... I always wondered why I felt so sullied and spat upon and furious.  It was supposed to be flattering.  It was supposed to prove my womanliness.  My mother had always said how womanly she felt in Italy.  Then why did it make me feel so hunted?  There must be something wrong with me I thought.  I used to try to smile and toss my hair to show I was grateful.  And then I felt like a fraud.  Why wasn't I grateful for being hunted?"

This passage has a big ol' star next to it in my copy.  I love it because it addresses so many of the issues women internalize with street harassment, so succinctly -- the fear, the desire to remain polite in the face of aggression, the use of sexual attractiveness as a power play, and the obvious answer to her own question:

No animal likes being hunted.

I am an avid reader, and I am so excited whenever I find a book that is able to deal with intersectional issues like foreignness and feminism (plus a whole host of other angles).  I am happy to recommend Fear of Flying, and also am always taking recommendations for the next book you think I should read (I have a goal to read ten books between June and August -- six down!).

Have you read Fear of Flying?  How do you think it relates to travel?  What other travel books do you recommend (think outside the box here, folks!)

*Yup, that link takes you to my local independent bookseller.  They ship!

(image via, under Creative Commons)

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