Since I write novels set on the Canary Islands, here are my thoughts on the role of the author when it comes to travel fiction:
When an author chooses to write unreflectively about a foreign country, one not their own, aren’t they just another kind of tourist?
Tourists arrive at their destination with their suitcases and their sunscreen, wanting warm sunny weather, sandy beaches and a small taste of local culture. They come, they stay, they take, and they rarely understand the land they are visiting, or its people. They are happy to view local culture not as lived reality, but as artefacts incarcerated in museums. The tourism industry doesn’t care about preserving local cultures. Its only care is profit. This toxic combination of indifference has devastated communities and fragile environments the world over. The Canary Islands are just one example of local cultures overridden by this hedonistic juggernaut.
When tourism means constructing vast hotel complexes built on protected land, when tourism means more oil-fired power stations to fuel desalination plants to fill private swimming pools and water golf courses, when tourism means allowing off-road vehicles to churn up fragile soils and destroy local habitats, when tourism turns its back on local people, their culture and traditions, their ancient buildings, their basic needs for good housing and secure employment, then tourism has no conscience. It’s amoral.
Literature, at its best, is not.
Literature has always had an educational part to play in raising awareness, albeit in a limited audience, of critically important issues. At the heart of all good fiction is a deeper morality. Literature can be a tool for change, affecting the outlook and attitudes of tourists, at the very least, fostering a shift away from shallow consumptions towards a deeper empathy for visited cultures and environments.
Each country produces its own literature. Much of it will celebrate and criticise, in overt or covert ways, the various strengths and weaknesses of its own land. Some works will be translated into other languages. Most will remain obscure, as most writing fails to reach large numbers of readers. From Gabriel García Márquez to Isabel Allende, authors strive to portray insight into the human condition, or in the Canary Islands, Carlos Guillermo Domínguez, Luis León Barreto and Alberto Vázquez-Figueroa, to name only three.
Resisting the voracious appetite of the tourism industry and trying to instil in holiday makers and tourist operators good ethical habits is difficult, multifaceted and enduring. Local governments may impose restrictions. Activists may campaign to save local sites. Whole communities may rise up in protest, as was seen when the Spanish government awarded oil giant Repsol drilling rights off the coast of Lanzarote. Almost all of these campaigns and policies take place internally, driven by local people, along with a few environmentally aware individuals from other countries, those who have chosen the Canary Islands as their home.
Is it the role of the local author alone to compose works that inform readers, including tourists from other countries, of the issues faced by their community? Can activism ever be that exclusive?
All fiction writers can and must add their weight to the campaign. The foreign author has a moral duty to alert their audience to the complexities of context, not least the setting of their story. Otherwise, the author is appropriating that setting and giving nothing back. They become a kind of literary thief, fulfilling the appetites of the literary marketplace for more crime fiction, more thrillers, more romance, more escapism.
There is a distinct opportunity for fiction writers, whether they are from, or writing about the Canary Islands. Stories set in exotic locations are popular. Readers enjoy stories set where they are spending their holiday. Travel fiction is fast becoming a genre all of its own, ill-defined, a catch all for books with interesting settings. Most of that fiction is pure page-turning fun, but it needn’t be.
It cannot be denied that no matter how much empathy the foreign author may have, their works, inevitably based on limited understandings of local conditions, will always miss the deeper essence and the nuances, the sensibilities of a culture acquired over lifetimes of knowing. For this reason, novels set on the Canary Islands written by foreign authors might be seen as intrusive, appropriating, even insulting, and received with derision over appreciation, rejected as another form of cultural imperialism.
Yet literary activism in the form of raising readers’ awareness has no geographical limits. Works produced in this spirit are driven by passion. Passion is the fire that blazes in the heart of the writer and makes their works vibrant and alive. Passion has no fixed abode.
Literature, like all art, should contribute in raising cultural and environmental awareness in whatever way it can. It has a moral duty to inform and provide insights, challenging stereotypes, educating as it entertains. Otherwise, the author of fiction, even if she is an interloper from another land, is reduced to being an entertainer alone, there to satisfy the same desire for escapism that drives tourists to foreign climes.