Turismo y Literatura: El rol de los escritores protegiendo la cultura local

¿Cuando un autor elige escribir de manera irreflexiva acerca de un país extraño, uno que no es el suyo, no es ella otra clase de turista?

Los turistas llegan a destino con sus maletas y su crema para el sol, deseando tiempo tibio y soleado, playas arenosas y algo de cultura local. Ellos vienen, se quedan por un periodo de tiempo, y observan raramente entendiendo la tierra que estan visitando o su gente. Se sienten felices de ver la cultura no como una cosa viva sino como un artefacto encarcelado en museos. A la industria turística no le interesa preservar las culturas locales. Sólo le interesa la ganancia. Esta tóxica combinación de indiferencia ha devastado comunidades y ambientes frágiles en todo el mundo. Las Islas Canarias son un ejemplo de cultura local desalojada por ese gigante hedonismo.

Cuando el turismo significa más generadores de poder alimentados de petróleo crudo para desalinizar el agua que llenará piscinas privadas y agua en los cursos de golf, cuando el turismo significa dar permiso a vehículos para andar fuera del camino y destrozar suelos fragiles-aniquilado habitats locales, cuando el turismo da la espalda a la gente local, su cultura y sus tradiciones,  sus edificios antiguos, sus básicas necesidades de buena vivienda y empleo seguro, entonces el turismo no tiene conciencia. Es inmoral.

La Literatura en su mejor exponente no lo es.

La Literatura ha tenido siempre un rol educativo para despertar la conciencia de la gente. Aunque limitada a una pequeña audiencia de lectores es crítica respecto a importantes temas. En el corazón de toda buena ficción yace una más profunda moralidad. La Literatura puede ser un agente de cambio, afectando la manera como los turistas miran, observan y sus actitudes, por lo menos operando un alejamiento del superficial consumismo hacia una más profunda empatía por las culturas visitadas y su medio ambiente.

Cada país produce su propia Literatura. La mayoría celebrará o criticará abierta o soslayadamente los puntos fuertes y debiles de su propia tierra. Algunos trabajos serán traducidos a otros idiomas. La mayoría permanecerá en la oscuridad por no alcanzar a un gran grupo de lectores. De Gabriel Garcia Márquez a Isabel Allende, los autores se esfuerzan por dar un retrato de la condición humana-o en las Islas Canarias Carlos Guillermo Domínguez, Luis León Barreto y Alberto Vázquez-Figueroa para nombrar solamente a tres.

Resistir el voraz apetito de la industria turística e intentar despertar en El Turista buenos hábitos éticos es difícil. El gobierno local puede imponer restricciones, activistas mobilizarse para salvar lugares locales. Enteras comunidades pueden unirse a la lucha de protección y protesta como se vió cuando el gobierno español otorgó al gigante petrolero Repsol los derechos de perforación frente a la costa de Lanzarote. Casi todas estas canpañas fueron llevadas a cabo por gente local acompañada por unos pocos conscientes individuos desde el exterior y otros preocupados por el medio-ambiente que llegados desde el exterior han elegido a las Islas Canarias como su hogar.

¿Es el rol del escritor, del autor local solamente componer trabajos que informen a los lectores incluyendo turistas de otros países, de los temas que confronta su comunidad? ¿Puede el activismo ser tan exclusivo?

Todos los escritores de ficción deben adherir su peso a la campaña. El autor extranjero tiene el deber moral de alertar a su audiencia de las complejidades de contexto, no menos que de donde se desarrolla la acción. De no ser así, el autor estara apropiando de ese lugar de escena sin dar nada a cambio tornandose así en una especie de ladrón, llenando así los apetitos del mercado Literario con más ficción de crimen, más acción, más romance, más escapismo.

Hay una definitiva oportunidad para los escritores de ficción en las Islas Canarias, ya sea por locales o escribiendo acerca de ellas. Los lectores disfrutan historias que tienen lugar donde ellos estan de vacaciones. Travel-fiction (ficción de viaje) se esta transformando en un género por si mismo. Malamente definido como lectura para llenar el ojo y pasar la página de libros con lugares interesantes-no necesita serlo.

No puede ser negado que irrespectivo de cuanta empatía el autor extranjero pueda tener, sus trabajos inevitablemente, basados en un limitado entendimiento de las condiciones locales, siempre perderá la más profunda esencia y algunos matices, las sensibilidades de una cultura adquirida a lo largo de una vida de conocimiento. Por esta razón, las novelas que se desarrollan en la Islas Canarias escritas por autores extranjeros pueden ser percibidas como intrusas, apropiadoras, y recibidas con burla o sarcasmo sobre aprecio, rechazadas como otra forma de imperialismo cultural.

Aún asi el activismo literario como la forma de elevar el conocimiento de los lectores no tiene límites geográficos. Los trabajos producidos en este espíritu son el resultado de la pasión. La pasión es el fuego que arde en el corazón del escritor y hace sus trabajos vibrantes y vivos. La pasión no tiene residencia fija.

La Literatura como todo arte, debería contribuir a la elevacion cultural y del medio ambiente en cualquier forma posible. Tiene el deber moral de informar y proveer profundo conocimiento, desafiando estereotipos, educando tanto como entreteniendo. De otra forma el autor de ficción, aún si es alguien que no pertenece al lugar, visitante, se reduce a ser sólo alguien que entretiene para satisfascer el mismo deseo de escapismo que lleva a turistas a climas extranjeros. (Artículo traducido por Miriam Valli)

 

¡ahora en español!
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Tourism and Literature: The role of authors in protecting local culture

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.

 

 

Picking up the breadcrumbs

Yesterday we took a tour of the island’s north, where the malpais (bad land) fans to the coast, the legacy of eruptions of a chain of volcanos about 5,000 years ago, two of which form the view from our farmhouse, to the west and the north. It is the route Ann took in the first chapter of The Drago Tree, only in reverse.

We set off, heading north to Ye, passing through a narrow valley between La Corona, the largest volcano in the chain, and the rounded peaks of the massif. The road is narrow and edged with low dry stone walls. Beyond, the fields of black were alive with euphorbias, the lichens on the rocks bright splodges of white, yellow and orange. Wild grasses and flowers everywhere, the result of recent rain. Usually, there is little green save what the farmers plant and tend.

Orzola

Ye is the same as I recall. A tiny village forgotten by the developers. A string of farmhouses, a few ruins, paradise for someone like me.

We reached an intersection and headed right, skirting La Corona, the sloping plain to the ocean coated in a lava river, onces a tumbling fury, now a landscape of rugged basalt. For 6 kilometres we drove, taking the narrow lane to Orzola, twisting down between the rock, feeling the weight of it. A primordial scene, vast pillars of basalt protruding from the mass, nature’s standing stones. Everywhere a dance of colour, the lichens and euphorbias that have secured their grip on the landscape burdgeoning. The whole a sight at once painterly and alien.

And far more impressive than I recalled. No wonder Ann drove slowly, ‘consumed by what she saw.’

We arrived at the small fishing village of Orzola, which seems today to survive on passing trade to fill its string of restaurants, as tourists take the ferry to the island of La Graciosa nearby.

Orzola

We parked beside a restaurant overlooking the harbour and took a short walk around the block. It was as if I had entered my only story, for Ann had been here, had gazed at the mountains and the cliff, had pointed out features to her companion, just as I was doing with Michelle.

Orzola

And like Ann, we didn’t hang around. Instead, we headed to a remote beach to the west of Orzola, sandwiched by the cliff of El Risco. We pulled up halfway along a narrow track and walked the rest of the way. It was a walk like no other, each step bringing us closer to the barren massif, rising steeply, about 400 metres high, baring striations of rock, the jagged razorback of El Risco silhoutted against the sky, the whole a vast wall. The beach itself arcs to the cliff base, the creamy white sand strewn with basalt pebbles of all sizes. We stood in awe watching couples scattered here and there as they also stood in awe. Two guys were ignoring the warning signs and out on surfboards.

Walking to the car was strange. I wanted to walk backwards, to watch the cliff recede a little with each step. As if to say goodbye.

From Orzola we took the coast road to Arrieta, carved along the fringe of the lava flow. Small pebble strewn beaches appeared here and there. Beaches not for swimmers. For paddlers. For those wanting to stand and stare, at the ocean, the malpais, La Corona and the massif. For hours.

It’s a shared sentiment. Where I recalled when I was last here no human life other than me, there were cars and people. Not many. Not an amount to disturb. But to be thoroughly alone would mean either luck or a trek into the harsh rock of the malpais.

We found a small car park at one beach and stopped briefly, and walked to the shore, and I found a small pebble, the size of a bean, and pocketed it. I was being Ann, for she had done the same. It was as if I was walking in her footsteps, a bizarre feeling.

Orzola

We completed our adventure with lunch beside the little wharf in Arrieta, choosing a restaurant with Spanish-speaking diners. We didn’t speak much. Both of us watched the ocean break on the low cliff to the south, sending up gushes of spume. Although I did comment on the fish I ordered, for it was the best fish I have eaten in a long time. And Michelle tells me her mussels were fine.

ArrietaArrieta

As if life were in agreement that I must return to this island, and stay not for weeks but months, I found a cheap apartment to rent, just metres from where we had sat on the wharf. It was Michelle’s doing. She wanted to check out the clothes in a boutique nearby, and as she browsed I took the chance to speak Spanish to the owner. How glad I am that I did! The woman spoke slowly and encouraged my efforts and when I explained my wish she told me of her apartment, of the cost, the location, and I knew that what I have been feeling for so long, a profound sense of belonging, was not an illusion, it was just me following life’s trail, picking up the breadcrumbs.

 

And the wind it blows

Well I cried on touchdown. It was the sight of the barren forms of the mountains of Los Ajaches, Lanzarote’s southern massif, and the villages of La Quemada then Puerto Calero coming into view, then the sprawling mass of white cubes that is Puerto del Carmen and the villages in its hinterland. Michelle had the window seat so didn’t notice my tears, but the woman seated to my right, who had been reading a Joanna Harris all flight, couldn’t have missed them. So I turned to her and said, ‘It’s my age.’

Lanzarote

I hadn’t spoken to Bernie for the duration of the 4 hour flight from Gatwick, but once she had put down her book, I struck up a conversation, asking her where she was staying and the like. When she returned the inquiry, I hesitated. But the moment I mentioned I was an author and that I had written a novel, The Drago Tree, set on the island, she took note of my name and the title and said she would buy my book straight away. Thanks Bernie!

I didn’t tell Bernie that Michelle was my publisher. That she was so inspired by The Drago Tree she’d come with me from Australia, a country where almost no one has heard of Lanzarote, to see the island for herself. It would have sounded like bragging. But Michelle has given my book the greatest endorsement any author can hope for, prepared to travel all that way with a woman she’d never met before, to see for herself why Lanzarote is so special.

Michelle designated herself as driver. What a relief! I’m a good navigator so we managed to find our way round the capital, Arrecife, and on to the northern road with ease. And I could take in the mountains, the calderas, the ocean. The first thing that struck me was the size of the calderas, made all the greater by their closeness, something lost in a photograph. When I was researching for The Drago Tree I’d spend many hours touring the island on Google maps, dredging up memories of when I lived here more than two decades before. But I could never capture that elusive depth of field. Many times on that drive north I wanted us to pull over so I could be still and stare and stare and stare. But we needed food, so we pressed on.

Lanzarote

According to my Internet searches all the supermarkets are closed on Sundays save for those in the tourist south. And since we had driven past all of that and were in open country, our only hope seemed to be a petrol station for some basic supplies. And we hoped to find something open before we reached our destination, a farmhouse on the very edge of the village of Máguez.

When we neared the fishing village of Arrieta, I suggested we take a look. And there on the corner of the main road in, was an open supermarket! And down a narrow alley, the ocean…

Lanzarote

Parking was fun, Michelle forced to drive down the narrow streets so typical of Lanzarote, bereft of pavements and lined with low-rise dwellings, all whitewashed. She was doing well, having mastered the gear box, the indicators, the strangeness of finding herself on the wrong right side of the road.

Stepping out of the car and breathing in the cool ocean air, I could scarcely believe I was here.  I was consumed with a sense of familiarity and belonging, which is hardly surprising since I’ve carried the island around inside me ever since I first visited in January 1988. Back then I fell instantly in love and by November of that year, I was living here.

Arrieta hasn’t changed that much and I knew my way around. The supermarket was well-stocked and had several aisles and a deli at the back. We bought locally grown produce, cheese, bacon cut to order on a meat slicer, wine, both local and Spanish, and other bits and pieces. It was all so inexpensive, so familiar to me. Atun (tuna backwards), champu (if you don’t know what that is, I can’t help you), leche semidesnatada (nata is cream), the whole experience of intuiting meaning came back to me. And my sense of belonging grew all the stronger.

At the checkout I tried out my Spanish, with my usual apologetic caveat about having not spoken the language for twenty-six years. Imagine the thrill when the woman smiled and chatted and I understood and she saw that I did, and we had a conversation. At the end she told me there was nothing wrong with the way I spoke. And there I stood; I’d come home.

I’ve come home to the mountains, the ocean, the wind, the ever present wind, to the picón, the lava, the buildings and the people.

We loaded up the car and headed up the steep sided valley to the little plateau nestled in the mountains, the location of Haría, and Máguez. More narrow streets, this time a warren, but with the caldera of La Corona ever present in the north, it was easy to find our way.

Lanzarote villa Lanzarote villa

It was when we opened the front door we both knew it had been more than worth the trek, not only across the globe, but the island too, for the house we are renting for the next few weeks is magnificent. Ten foot ceilings, walls of stone two foot thick, spacious rooms, and just for us.

Lanzarote villa

So I’m seated here at the large table, with Michelle opposite, the tin of Chocodates Michelle bought in Dubai open between us, with the cool wind howling through the shutters, the scudding clouds releasing flurries of light rain, with all of our two week stay ahead of us, happy and fulfilled. Yet already with an ache in my heart, knowing that once again, I’ll have to leave.

To purchase a copy of The Drago Tree, here’s a link to Amazon.