Saturday, May 1, 2010

My Project Proposal

Rachel Rueckert
April 2, 2010

The Problem with Travel Narration:
Questioning the Nature of Experience and Challenging the Authenticity of Travel Documentation

Objective and Purpose

    You may have heard people say things like “the world exists to be written about” or “I’m going here so that I can say I have been there,” and various other adventurous notions that have struck writers since storytelling and exotic travels were first anciently explored.  This is of particular interest in the continent of Africa, where writers like Henry Morton Stanley and Joseph Conrad have contributed to the stereotype of a “dark continent” based off of their 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?  With a post modern theoretical framework, my objective is to create a self-reflexive creative narrative that encourages us to reconcile with the difficult nature of documenting and expressing our travel experiences by looking at themes of replication, translation, and the fallacy of the original within my own mediums of mediating and documenting my experience.  I will be compiling a travel narrative of my time in Wiamoase Ghana that presents my materials in a way that problemetizes the typical view of travel narration.  I will accumulate these materials from trying to mediate my own experience abroad in order to present the difficulty of translating these experiences within a postmodern theoretical perspective.

    Simultaneously, in order to encourage experience making, generate material, and create opportunities of interaction, I will be looking at attitudes towards written expression and other mediums of expression among Ghanaians, particularly within the secondary school system, seeking to understand different mediums that they use to mediate and come to terms with their own experiences.  While self-expression among the Ghanaians is an interesting and viable research topic, my project will not claim to take that approach.  Rather, this population was selected in terms of my own interest in experiencing Wiamoase and how the African Literary Renaissance is perceived on a local level.  Ultimately, my project focuses on my personal experience in Wiamoase with the narrative I write about it. 

The purpose of this project is to better understand the nature of travel narratives by exposing themes of authenticity in subjective interpretation in order to recognize that we experience the world through a process of translating experience into our own contexts.  I will show the importance of this kind of project by looking at relevant literature, the population, location and events of my project, my methods, desired outcomes, limitations and ethical concerns, a budget and schedule, and conclude by emphasizing the value of rethinking our understanding of “authentic” creative nonfiction and travel experience. 

Relevant Literature

    Relevant literature for this project could be daunting and endless since it cuts across several disciplines.  For this reason, I have chosen to take a detailed focus on the mediums where I will be attempting to mediate and interpret my time in Wiamoase, Ghana that problematize the nature of experience and expressions about that experience.  I will talk briefly about the medium of writing by commenting on the ethics and nature of creative nonfiction and travel narratives, while also looking at ethnography and photography as mediums that we use to reconcile experience.  These disciplines will make up the lens that I will utilize to interpret my experience among the school children in Wiamoase in order to show the significance of thinking about authenticity.  I will also remark on the reason I have chosen the population I am working with to generate my experience. 

    First, let us reconcile with what creative nonfiction entails.  It is a fairly new umbrella term that began in the late sixties to categorize literary and the aesthetic, and though it is a sticky line to draw, it is said to incorporate autobiography, memoir, narrative, dairies, journals, the essay, and even the new journalism.  To get what I mean, consider the surprise when Becky Bradway received her lyric essays on life in rural Illinois only to discover the Library of Congress cataloged it as “F” for “History: America.”  Anyone shelving books in Barnes and Noble, or even me, the student constantly running between Floor 5 (Literature) and Floor 1 (History and Anthropology) in the library for travel narratives knows the unclear distinction in classifying what goes where.  Bradway is joined by Kathleen Stocking and Eddy L. Harris who received an “F” instead of a “P” for “Language and Literature” on their essays and memoirs, and Krakauer’s Into Thin Air got a “G” for “Geography.” Even Marc Twains’ Roughing It is sometimes found among “Q” for “Science” (Hesse 237-238).  Are you seeing the same problem I am seeing?  How creative nonfiction is placed has significant implications for interpreting writings in both creative and non-creative genres, and it is evident that creative nonfiction works are generally understood and placed outside of their nature, their nature being a personal portrayal of their own personal truth, and only one personal truth.  No matter how truthful you are to your story (if, of course, you assume that life flows like an easy plot structure) you are bound to get the “it wasn’t quite that way” and “it didn’t happen that way at all’s” from the other perspectives.  Joan Didion in “On Keeping a Notebook” states that it is always about “how it felt to me” and no matter how “dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I”’ (Bloom 278-279).  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 is not what I am questioning here.  I am more interested in authenticity.  

    My travel narrative falls innately in this category of creative nonfiction.  So, if “the implacable I” means that I will insist on my own perspective in contrast, maybe even in opposition, to the other interpretations or the details I cannot possibly account for, “so be it?”  (Bloom 279)  Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged not to censor too much because you can lose your story, but is it only your story?  No  matter how faithful you are to the factual stream of events, you are still only representing one perspective.  My travel narrative of Wiamoase will not attempt to draw the line or answer for truthfulness, but it will try to expose the problems with authenticity in the nature of creating a travel memoir.  It will insist that intimate contact with the original experience is impossible, due to the nature of cultural translation processes and the absence of prior context, in order to encourage readers to understand works of creative nonfiction to be just what they are, a one sided story.  “How it felt to me.”  (Bloom 278).  A truth?  Perhaps, but not necessarily authentic. 

    There are plenty of travel narratives in creative nonfiction where this nature is manifested that stream back as far as the Greek Historian Herodotus (Clifford 2).  However, James Clifford is a modern voice interested in connecting ethnography with travel literature in a postmodern world, and his articles in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography give us modern opinions of what it means to write about a foreign experience.  While there are hundreds of examples of less-than-authentic creative nonfiction narratives, The Life of Black Hawk is a well-known example of problematic authenticity because it has been translated through multiple enigmatic voices (Hotz 112-135).  The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is also an interesting text to consider, given that despite its important seat in literature and history there are many credible arguments against the authenticity of some of Equiano’s recorded life and travel descriptions.  Writers like Herman Melville, Samuel Clemens, John Smith, and Jack London, are all also viable travel narratives to draw from to understand the romantic nature of the travel narrative, especially within the American tradition (Brown 2-9).  No matter how factual one is to the events of a travel adventure, the processes of translating that experience into your own context, and then skimming it down and editing it into something readable and aesthetic, innately inhibits a travel narratives ability to be truly authentic. 

    Now that we understand some of the problems of authenticity with creative nonfiction and travel writing, let us explore these themes in ethnography.  Claude Lévi-Strauss, often considered the "father of modern anthropology,” brings out some of the problems of writing in his Tristes Tropiques, a book where he thinks about his traveling in search of anthropology.  In this narrative he questions whether meaning is found in academic work or in the personal experience while incorporating both, helping us understand the impossibility of separating the two.  He goes so far as to state that in the past “the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery,” and that we need to use writing “for disinterested purposes, and as a source of intellectual and aesthetic pleasure” only as a secondary motive (Visel).  Looking at these statements, it is interesting to see to what extent written ethnography is still the primary one-dimensional medium we use to express anthropological findings.  Perhaps it is time to acknowledge  some of these limitations. 

    Clifford Geertz is another well-acclaimed anthropologist I want to look at in terms of ethnography, and his book, The Interpretation of Cultures, further establishes the subjective interpretative nature of all ethnography when experiencing a culture apart from our own cultural context.  His first chapter “Thick Description” encompasses the idea that having several layered meanings and interpretation is what gives ethnography a dimensional richness, and doing ethnography is like “trying to construct a reading” of a foreign, faded, incoherent, manuscript (Geertz 10).  He bluntly states that “we do not understand the people” because we are not natives, and says that all “anthropological writings are themselves interpretations” and “second to third ones to boot” (15).  This idea that 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.  

    A.L. Becker’s Beyond Translation likewise contains important insight into translating cultures when we are looking at ethnography.  He teaches us that translation lies in the context and in the prior texts from living and growing up as a native, and that this translation of language is impossible if you only factor in syntax and vocabulary.  The difficulty in translation, even among common cultures, is also discussed, and has contributed to understanding the difficulty in writing up an ethnography (Becker 235-378).

    The book When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography is also important to the ethnographic component of my project because it gives attention to native’s feelings and objections to some of the ethnographies conducted by famous ethnographers, such as Margaret Mead among the Samoans (Brettell 4).  This book discusses the selection of representation in the creation of text and the myth of objectivity by showing some of the responses of some of the misinterpreted natives.  With this other perspective, we can easily identify some of the overwhelming limits of ethnographic research, especially within the medium or writing.

Lastly, photography is a medium that I would like to use in conducting this creative project.  Walter Benjamin is a great resource for understanding the history of photography and how it has altered the world of art and assisted in a push towards postmodernism by its lack of relationship with an original.  In his book Illuminations we get a clear feeling from him that photography is a medium that problematizes the notion of an original because it is created solely for reproducibility.  He states that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” and that the translation has no regard or relationship to the original (Benjamin 220).  Edward Cadava in his Words of Light further comments on Benjamin and adds more modern commentary into the photography phenomenon, adding a wider range of possible applications, especially in the new digital world.  Both of these theorists contribute to the understanding that there is a translation process going on in photographically documenting experience, and that there is some kind of gap, and even damage, that takes place in the process of translating an experience out of the original context through this limited lens.  Now imagine trying to translate your mediated interpretation into something that can be relayed to someone else.  It is projected into another context, undergoing yet another step of translation, and a step farther from authenticity. 

What is the value of thinking about these ideas of authenticity in experience and documenting an experience within writing, ethnography, and photography?  By recognizing that having an original and authentic experience is a kind of fallacy we can begin to identify the layers of translation necessary to draw it into our own cultural context, which we in turn try to mediate and translate again into some form of understandable expression.  This inevitably leaves something edited and cropped in a way that takes away its authenticity.  By presenting a postmodern reading of my experience I am hoping to expose these ideas from my own experience to encourage the reader to exercise a little more skepticism in creative nonfiction.  This could diminish the affects of something like “the dark continent” stereotype of Africa that was attributed by earlier travel writings by explorers like Henry Morton Stanley if these ideas were appropriated into the general understanding travel documentations. 

As far as my selected population, little attention has been paid to written literature in Ghana despite the abundant amount of writings and research about the country.  Most West African countries seem to live under the literary shadow of Nigeria, but much of this is attributed to Ghana having only one-seventh the population of its neighbor Nigeria (Pribe 395).  Still, little has been found on the subject.  Several prominent writers, such as Chinua Achebe, have remarked that African literature needs to be written in English, while others such as Kenyan Nigugi wa Thiong’o, state that Africans should only express themselves in their native tongues rather than the languages imposed upon on them (Spillman xiv).  I would like to go and see for myself what the local secondary school children think about all of this, and what their attitudes towards written expression in general are amidst an African Literary Renaissance. 

Population, Location, and Events

    My population will be 2-3 classes of students studying English and literature in general.  They will be selected form the Okomfo Anokye Secondary School in Wiamoase, Ghana.  The population will consist of students of both genders from the ages of 15-22, and the events I am looking at are the after school focus groups held in an empty classroom after school.  When class is in session, I will use participant observation and writing prompts at the beginning of class.  This is discussed in detail in this next section of my proposal.


    The methods I will be using in order to ensure that I am going out to experience and interpret my time in Ghana will be through photography, journal writing, and creative writing for my self-reflexive travel narrative.  I will have daily expectations exploring different mediums of expression and their limitations to ensure that I will capture the material I need to generate my creative project.  For my population I will be focusing my time on the secondary school students who are taking English or literature study classes, and I will do a classroom announcement as my form of recruitment.  I will be observing their expressions by looking specifically at their attitudes and perceptions of written expression.  The methods I will use to access my population will be through focus groups, informal interview, participant observation, and literary analysis.  The total time of individual participation will be 90 days.

I will hold voluntary focus groups 1-3 times a week after school where students can come and get involved with creative writing activities, lasting to up to an hour each session.  We will do workshop writings, generate and practice new forms of creative writing, read African poetry and other short excerpts from African writers, and hold general discussion.  Sample readings from African writers will include Achebe Chinua, Ama Ata Adoo, Kofi Anyidoho, Tsitsi Dangarembaga, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Amos Tutuola.  Also, short poetry exercises like the sonnet, limerick, and haiku will be practiced in order to generate material.  I will take notes and simultaneously participate in these activities in order to create material for my narrative.  I will record the findings on these focus groups through jotted notes, and since photography is an important part of my project, I will also bring it along for still image documentation of our focus groups. 

In addition to focus groups, I will be using informal interviewing techniques to get a basic understanding of attitudes towards written expression, or other types of expression if they are more applicable to the secondary school children.  These interviews will be very informal, and will be documented with jotted notes.  I will ask up to ten questions.  These questions will consist of the following:

·    Do you like to write? 
·    What do you like to write?
·    Do you like to read? 
·    What do you like to read?
·    What language do you prefer to write in?
·    Why and what do you usually write?
·    How do you feel about writing?
·    Will you use writing in your future?
·    Is writing a useful activity?
·    What other ways do you like to express yourself?

These informal interviews will be documented by taking notes, and though there can be some problems associated with this method, it will be most appropriate for an informal interview, and the findings are not intended to answer specific research findings.

I will also be doing participant observation of the classroom attitudes towards written expression in both English and Twi.  I will do jottings on these findings as well, noting the attitudes and behaviors during the lectures and during our focus groups. 

Literary analysis within post colonialism with a theoretical framework in postmodernism will also be a method that I will utilize to make sense of the material I am collecting from my personal experience in the field.  I will bring each child a notebook to keep, and at the beginning of class periods I will begin with writings prompts, if the teacher permits, that will be generated based on the current class topic and lesson or current local event.  The prompts will be relevant to the classroom topic to ensure class time is not wasted.  I will collect these at the end of class and try to identify common themes, attitudes, and thoughts from the children’s entries about written expression. 
I will recruit research participants by making a classroom announcement.  I will need to ask the permission of the teachers to utilize the beginning of class time for some writing prompt exercises, but the majority of the time will be spent in after school, outside of class, activities.     

Desired Outcomes

     My end product will be a travel narrative that challenges the authenticity of travel documentation and questions the nature of the way we experience the world.  I will accomplish this by juxtaposing a traditional narrative with an alternative perspective that incorporates different mediums that inevitably dictate our viewpoint and our experience abroad in a cohesive, yet nontraditional way.  By doing this, I hope to show how mediated and edited the writing process and travel experience really is.  I will gather this data through exploring different writing styles, alternative personas and characters, journal entries, creative writing exercises, and photographs.  The photograph will be essential to my project for a number of reasons.  Not only does it add a rich visual dimension for a unique interaction that only the visual arts can accomplish, but it also invites these concepts to be applied across disciplines to contribute to the discussion of benefits and limitations of mediums such as visual anthropology.  It is also advantageous to my particular project because it will expose some of the down sides to the writing process and simultaneously reveal the limitations of photography, a medium becoming vastly popular to mediate experiences abroad. 

The purpose of this presentation is to encourage the reader 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.  It is hoped that by showing the many different layered interpretations and cropped viewpoints that go into a final travel narrative, this outcome will be accomplished.  It is not meant to discredit experience and the importance of writing, but it will attempt to expose the inability to have an experience that is not translated and reproduced in some dimension.  Conferences, presentations, and formal writings for publication could be long-term options for the BYU Inquiry Conference. 

Author and Mentoring Faculty Qualifications

I am an avid reader and a prolific writer.  I have kept a journal my entire life, and this drive, coupled with my foundational education at BYU, has contributed to my desire to do this project.  My university ENGL 218R (Creative Writing) taught me creative writing skills, while ENGL 251 (Fundamentals of Literary Theory) exposed me to literary theory, and ENGL 291 and ENGL 292 (British Literary History 1 and 2) gave me a background for important movements and emerging genres.  ENGL 293 (American Literary History) also exposed me to important names and movements, including the American travel narrative as a genre. 

    My Anthropology minor has also given me a foundation for the ethnographic skills to access my population.  ANTHR 309 (Language, Culture, and Society) taught me about the nature of translation across culture and ANTHR 206 (Contemporary Theory) exposed me to important contemporary theorists.  IAS 360R (International Field Study Prep) class has also familiarizing me with research skills and helping me organize my creative project.  For photography, ART 212 (Introduction to Photography) helped me understand how to represent culture and express meaning with my lens.

    My faculty mentor, Gideon Burton, is a Professor of English who specializes in the history of rhetoric and the rhetoric of new media.  He maintains several academic blogs and websites, including Silvia Rhetoricae: The Forest of Rhetoric and The Mormon Literature Database, and is interested in incorporating new media into our understanding of literature.  Professor Burton graduated from Brigham Young University in 1989 and went on to receive his Master of Professional Writing (MPW) degree from the University of Southern California in 1955.  He later received his Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Linguistics, and Literature in 1994 from the University of Southern California.   Professor Burton’s qualifications will compensate for my lack of experience.  Completing a field study to India himself, he has gone on to oversee many other students field studies student projects that have come before me.  His interest in incorporating other mediums into literary studies suits my project where other mediums, such as photography, will be used in conjunction with a narrative to question the authenticity and nature of experience. 

Ethical Concerns and Project Limitations

    Ethical concerns are minimal, although I do recognize that I am working with a vulnerable population.  While the focus of my project is on my own personal expression of my experience, facilitating focus groups may lead to psychological risk if the participants are to engage in expression that deals with personal issues that are difficult to talk about in their expression.  It will be my job to ensure that each students knows that he or she does not have to turn in or share any piece of writing they are not comfortable sharing, and they are more than able to stop participating at any given time.  Deception will not be instigated, and I will be upfront and open about what it is I am doing, since I will be simultaneously expressing myself all the while with them.  The pretense of a camera can be uncomfortable for some people, and while written permission will be present in the consent form, I will also ask for verbal permission before snapping a picture to ensure that personal wishes are respected if the timing is sensitive.  Overall, risks will be minimal, seeing that most of what I will be doing will be in terms of voluntary after school activities and observation of what they would be doing day to day anyway.

    My project is limited because of time restraints and potential problems with access to the secondary school system.  My camera could also be stolen or break while I am out there.  To combat these concerns, I have thought about secondary populations, such as village artisans and seamstresses, who I could work with and observe if the first plan fails.  If I have problems with my camera, I am also a painter, and I might be able to utilize that as the alternative artist representation of my experience.  No matter what problems could arise, my project is focusing on the interpretation of my experience and the narrative I write about it, so any unforeseen problem will not void out my ability to conduct this creative writing project. 


       Airfare ($1,900)
       BYU tuition (ten credit hours/semester, covered by scholarship)
       HTH Travel Insurance ($120 non-refundable due upon acceptance)
Passport and Other Travel Costs ($100–200)   
    Vaccinations ($100–300)
    Living Expenses ($100–250/month)   
In-country Travel ($150–250)
Application Fee ($25)
Acceptance Fee ($100)

    As far as budget goes, I do not have means to pay my informants, but I can offer my time, friendship, and service in whatever way I can to ensure that their time and efforts for my project are valued and appreciated.


    Each week I will be spending 4-5 days focusing on forms of expression in the secondary school systems with 2-3 classes studying English and literature.  After school I plan to hold 1-3 focus groups (up to an hour each session) where we will explore various poetry forms, discuss certain exerts of African writings, workshop, and free write.  Sample readings from African writers will include Achebe Chinua, Ama Ata Adoo, Kofi Anyidoho, Tsitsi Dangarembaga, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Amos Tutuola.  Also, short poetry exercises like the sonnet, limerick, and haiku will be practiced in order to generate material.  I will be simultaneously participating in the activities with them in order to generate material for my own self-reflexive travel narrative.     

    The following timeline shows how my project will be conducted over a three-month period from May 14, 2010 to August 15, 2010 to show how I will be using my time in the field:

    Week                        Activities

  1. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, building paradigm and finding population.      
  2. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using building paradigm and finding population.      
  3. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  4.  Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  5. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  6. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  7. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  8. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  9. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  10. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  11. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  12. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, 1-3 focus group(s), 1 informal interview, and participant observation.        
  13. Daily write ups about particular medium of expression I am using, preparing to leave.   


    In conclusion, I hope that creating a travel narrative that challenges the nature of our experiences and the authenticity of our expressions 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. 

Works Cited

Becker, Alton L.  Beyond Translation: Essays Toward a Modern Philology.  Ann Arbor:     University of Michigan Press, 2000.  Print.
Benjamin, Walter.  Illuminations.  New York:  Schocken Books Inc., 1968.  Print.
Bloom, Lynn Z.  “Living to Tell the Tale:  The Complicated Ethics of Creative Nonfiction.”      College English 65.3 (2003) 276-289.  Web. 20 Feb. 2010
Brettell, Caroline B.  When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography.  New York:     Bergin & Gravey Paperback, 1996.  Print.
Brown, Sharon Rogers.  American Travel Narratives as a Literary Genre from 1542 to 1832. 
Cadava, Eduardo.  Words and Light.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1997.  Print.
Clifford, James.  Routes:  Travel and Translation in Late Twentieth Century.  London: Harvard     University Press, 1997.  Print. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993.  Print.
Geertz, Clifford.  The Interpretation of Culture.  New York:  Basic Books, 1973.  Print.
Heese, Douglas.  “The Place of Creative Nonfiction.”  College English 65.3 (2003) 237-241.      Web.  20 Feb. 2010
Hotz, Jeffry.  Divergent Visions, Contested Spaces:  The Early United States Through the Lens of     Travel.  Florence: Routledge, 2006.  Print.
Priebe, Richard.  “Special Issue on Western African Popular Culture.”             Research in African Literatures 9.3 (1978) 395-432.  Web.  20 Feb. 2010
Spillman, Rob.  Gods and Soldiers.  New York:  Penguine Books, 2009.  Print. 
Visel, Dan. (2010, Mar 25).  This Progress.  Message posted to  (2010, March 13).  If: book: A Project of the     Institute for the Future  of the Book.    

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