In the internet age, writes Adrianne LaFrance in The Atlantic, travel features are shared far and wide—and they aren’t always well received back home.
The little transgressions are the forgivable ones. Local knowledge in any place is earned with time. So it’s understandable why someone who is only visiting Hawaii might think to describe poke as “sashimi salad,” for example, though that’s not quite right.
But then there are the big transgressions, the characterizations of a place that are so unmoored from a sense of history that it’s almost shocking. Almost. But Hawaii has seen it all before.
“The Hawaii Cure,” a feature published March 21 by The New York Times Magazine, treads a well-worn path of colonialist tropes as a writer indulges his escapism fantasies with a trip to Hawaii. That’s nothing new. Yet in the internet age, a lighthearted essay can travel quickly back home and elicit a scathing response from the people who live in the place it depicts.
Dozens of Hawaii people I know from when I lived on Oahu responded to the essay—in text messages, online chats, and Facebook comments, to me and to one another, with messages like: “Not today, Satan,” and “I like that you have the print version so you can BURN IT,” and a keyboard-smashing “owfi;ds’pfwePDKFMQE;LFSGKDFJ.” Let’s just say the emoji responses were not kind either.
The travel essay, as a form, is particularly fraught in places where indigenous groups were displaced by colonialism.
Theodore Roosevelt’s writings on Africa, for example, were deeply influential in shaping global perceptions of a place that he described as having “the spectacle of a high civilization all at once thrust into and superimposed upon a wilderness of savage men and savage beasts.”
Travel writing is traditionally concerned with the writer’s sense of belonging, or lack thereof—the spectacle of being somewhere new, the sense of displacement one feels. Focus on your own sense of self in a place where questions of belonging are at the heart of local politics and culture, however, and you risk misunderstanding the place entirely. Escaping is not a form of understanding, anyway.