Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Most Travel Writing is Bad: Tokyo on the Seine, by Elaine Sciolino

I sigh at the New York Times often, and especially at the travel section. Two days ago, Elaine Sciolino wrote a ridiculous article on visiting Japanese places in Paris. It includes the phrase "some bistros, like L'Office, have even imported Japanese chefs," as if people were some sort of exotic seasoning ordered from a catalogue and kept in the kitchen. 

This article also illustrates a trend I find somewhat worrying in travel writing, just listing experiences rather than attempting to find or explicate something deeper in the subject matter. There is quite a lot to say about the presence of Japanese culture in France, especially to an audience primarily based in the US, and this article says none of it. Sciolino's article is rife with the usual problems of travel journalism, which mostly spring from cataloguing places rather than really writing about them. Juji-Ya's supermarket section is described as "a hidden gem," which is both sloppy writing and untrue: it's a small Japanese food store on a street with several similar stores and it doesn't have the sparkle of a jewel; the supermarket section is both advertised on the window and seen from the door, making "hidden" quite an exaggeration. It's definitely possible to write about Juji-Ya without resorting to the clich├ęd seduction of the experience that others won't have; it just takes slightly more effort. But if you're writing for the New York Times' readership, shouldn't you try a little harder?

Some of the commenters, though, fill me with just as much despair for humanity. I've just finished reading The Ethics of Sightseeing by Dean MacCannell (which I plan to write more on later), and one issue that I've been contemplating academically is how much credit different researchers give to human beings. At some points, MacCannell implies that his subjects don't think about whether they're enjoying themselves, and just assume that they're having the kind of fun advertisements imply they're having, even when they're actually having an awful time. I do think most people think about their own experience, though. They might go to Disneyland because it's the land of happiness, but they do think about whether it's living up to their expectations.

I give people a bit less credit when it comes to having ethical ideas of what they want from a place (by which I mean: ideas which don't presuppose identities), and I think some of the comments on this article further entrench these expectations of people in my mind. I scrolled down, expecting to see at least some comments on the fact that the author wrote about hiring people as if the people themselves had no agency, and found instead that the readers of the New York Times had a different problem: they didn't want to interrupt their experience of 'Paris' with Japanese culture.

Elaine Sciolino Paris Tokyo New York Times

Elaine Sciolino Paris Tokyo New York Times

This springs from an assumption that Japanese culture is a thing apart from Parisian culture, which just isn't true. Rue Sainte-Anne might not be the Paris that tourists want, but it is "authentic". The city is composed of its contents, its people and its places, and Rue Sainte-Anne and the surrounding streets are a part of Paris's centre. 

One commenter asks why he would "seek out France's interpretation of authentic Japan?" This, again, suggests Japanese restaurants and shops cannot be Parisian and Japanese simultaneously. It implies that the people running these restaurants and shops are a homogenous body, are 'France,' which both ignores individuals as actors more broadly and makes visible an (incorrect) assumption that Japanese migrants are not players within this world.

Elaine Sciolino Paris Tokyo New York Times

There's also an arrogance to this idea of the individual as arbiter of authenticity, which is further played out in the way commenters go on to discuss Mexican food in Paris. These people extrapolate data from their own anecdotes, assuming all Mexican restaurants in Paris match those they've experienced (and if you follow food culture in Paris even superficially you'll know Candelaria isn't like this). There is, of course, the obvious and sadly common problem of people referring to non-western foods as "ethnic".

I know people always say that you should ignore the comments on articles, but to ignore comments is to ignore people. Importantly, though, in this case Sciolino's article leads to these responses. Japan is treated as an aestheticised object, all food and objects and gardens, with even chefs imported rather than recruited. Japan is shown as an other, something that can be separated from Parisian urban life without any real analysis. It is not a part of Paris; it is "Tokyo on the Seine".

There's so much Sciolino could have written about, though, if she'd given her subject more respect. She could have written about the community around the Rue Sainte-Anne, about the way Japanese culture came to be so prevalent in Paris and the links that tie Japanese and French cultures more broadly, but she chose not to do so. She notes "France's fixation with Japan," but says nothing about Japanese interest in France, which has more of a role in the places she discusses, though less tourist cachet. Sciolino, throughout, implies Paris is driven only by the French, and not by migrant communities. 

Sciolino's final paragraph, on the Jardin Albert Kahn, looks at one of the few places that can be seen as a French vision of Japan (though not totally, given research and consultancy). Albert Kahn's intentions -real, rather than touristic understandings of place- go unmentioned, and are jarringly at odds with the writing found in the travel section of The New York Times. Sciolino begins this brief, problematic paragraph by writing that "museumgoing, eating, shopping and beauty care is not all that is Japanese in Paris". But the list is completed by a garden, and people remain invisible (and - also - it's a clunky sentence).

This article is basically a shopping list, and when cultures (by which I mean both Japanese and Parisian cultures) are written about in this way it both strips away their vitality and encourages travelling without thinking, to see places in isolation rather than part of a larger, constructed city and a world where identities are complex. It's an article born of the attitude, or at least illustrative of the attitude, that sees multiculturalism as a means of expanding dinner options.

And, of course, this article isn't singular. It's just the one I clicked on when I had time to write my opinions down. Most travel writing is bad, and I could throw a lot of criticisms at my own journalistic engagement with place, too; it's easier to unpick the existing trends than it is to build a new kind of travel writing, given our current engagement with the wider world is built on centuries of constructions. But we could spend more time deconstructing things, rather than perpetuating them..

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