Tuesday, October 12, 2010


This summer I set out to Ghana with an idea.  An experiment.  A crazy out there theory based project that I struggled to describe in one single sentence.  I wanted to know more about the nature of experience and the authenticity of travel documentation.  It was frustrating to see how European explorers like Henry Morton Stanley and Joseph Conrad had contributed to the stereotype of a “dark continent” of Africa based off of their limited interpretations of their experiences.  As a writer myself, I understand the desire to experience and the need to try to express these experiences as a personal kind of truth.  Still, how often do we consider the nature of how we experience a world foreign to ourselves, or the “truthfulness” or consequential effects of these accounts in regards to their cultural authenticity?  Whether these truths are more “truthful” than what really happened, we could find a copious amount of arguments stemming as far back as Aristotle’s Poetics, but truth was not what I was questioning here.  I was more interested in authenticity.   These questions were the fuel of my project proposal.  A lot has happened since I wrote my objectives, but I have been pleased to see that my project was a success.  Our experiences are indeed significantly subjective based on the way we see the world and the mediums we chose to record it in. 

Clifford Geertz, a well-acclaimed anthropologist, has a lot to say about subjective interpretation in his book, The Interpretation of CulturesHe says that all “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations” and “second to third ones to boot” (15).  We cannot be native or express a native point of view because of our lack of context is critical for ethnography, travel literature, and any document that attempts to translate a foreign experience outside of the original context.   In order to encourage readers to rethink how they perceive the authenticity of travel narrations in the context of creative nonfiction, cultural accuracy, and in the fallacy of having an “original” experience, I divided my personality into five different avatars.  Five different ways of actually seeing the world to show how different my experience could be.


Recognizing that not only does our lens change our interpretation of our experience, I also chose to look at how the different ways that I documented the experience mediated it.


In conclusion, I hope that by creating this blog I have challenged the nature of our experiences and the authenticity of our expressions by showing how varied it can be in just one persons perspective.  I also hope that it will be beneficial to the academic world by inviting more skepticism of creative non-fiction genres to diminish common stereotypes, such as “the dark continent,” that have been attributed throughout history because these narratives were regarded as something more than personal interpretations and subjective truths.  Because we interact with the world with little, if any, access to an “original” experience, we need to understand that any medium we choose to mediate our experience is undergoing a translation process that leaves the authentic component behind when it is rendered through various editing and cropping techniques on the road to these polished final products.  By generating these cleaned up, cohesive travel narratives, we are taking many steps away from the original experience and its authenticity, and this is the behind the scene process that should be recognized and incorporated into our understanding and interpretation of creative nonfiction and our experiences abroad.


Photo credit kawkawpa on flickr

Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in Late Twentieth Century. London: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993. Print.


  1. Rachel, you're brilliant! I love what you've done with this research. I was thinking as I read about the way that we are largely bound to textual transmission of ideas--all of your mediums save photography were written. Is it less authentic because it must be expressed in written English?

  2. Kristen,

    Yeah I definitely think that constraining yourself to one medium of expression, especially in one particular style of written expression, is an issue with authenticity. While I do not think we can have that purely authentic and original experience, I do think that doing something, like my project, would land us closer to the target. So much to think about. I'm supposed to be making a claim about it here soon too!

    Okay, we are doing lunch! I am so sorry. I got a job and things have been so crazy. Are you planning on going to India this upcoming summer?