Here’s a list of the best travel memoirs. They all happen to be written by women.
1. The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam
I remember picking up The House on Dream Street at a bookstore in Washington DC when I was 24, in my first year of graduate school at West Virginia University. My best friend drove down to meet me and then we drove to DC together. At this point in our trip we were annoyed with each other. I forget why. I needed a book to lift my spirits, and hoped this one was worth the 16 dollars it cost—not a small sum of money back then on my graduate teaching stipend.
And it was wonderfully worth it. The memoir had everything: descriptions of the new and strange about Hanoi, Sach’s utter frustrations and small triumphs, her attraction to and impossibly falling in love with a Vietnamese man, and her ultimate decision. Would she stay in the life she loved and most likely remain single, or go back to the US and find a partner? I still remember the vicarious feeling of being torn between these two options. And I thought about The House on Dream Street again as I wrote my own travel memoir. I aimed to give readers the same experience from my own story set in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
2. Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain
Told through a series of thirteen essays, Morano lovingly describes her year teaching English in Oviedo, Spain. Through innovative essay techniques and structures, we learn about the intense friendships she forms, her long distance relationship with a man back in the US, and what it means to her to be part of her new friends’ lives, if only for a short while. She reveals the way in which living abroad gives us new perspective on our lives at ‘home’, and gives us the chance to try on new identities. One of her essays, The Queimada, reminded me strongly of my own feelings when I spent a semester abroad studying in Bath, England:
Now, as I settle into the fullness, I think it is for this that I travel, for this that I sold all my belongings and took off for a place I didn’t know. These moments, walking through a park eating chestnuts, sitting at this table where by now no one is speaking, are why I have liked myself in Spain more than I have ever liked myself before. I am less encumbered here, more receptive to experience. And more appreciative of the texture of daily life.
3. The Woman Who Fell From the Sky: An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth
I was attracted to this book because it is about Yemen, set in the city of Sana’a. I devoured the story because the narrator’s voice is so engaging and relatable. I was surprised by how similar Yemeni culture is to Emirati culture, even though the Emirates were blessed with more oil wealth and rulers who were keen to share it among the locals. Much of her descriptions of her female employees resonated with my experiences as a university lecturer for many local students.
Steil decides to take up a chief editor position at the Yemen Observer, and describes her triumphs and frustrations working within a culture that does not cherish critical thinking, objectivity, or respect female workers. She has an uphill battle, and fights it with humility, grace and an inexhaustible level of persistence. Yet even despite or perhaps because of all of these obstacles, Steil’s love for Sana’a is present throughout.
4. Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman
One summer day in Boston, before I left for my grand adventure to live and work in London, I sat in the grass on the Boston Commons reading ‘Without Reservations.’ My mom had just finished it, and firmly pressed her copy into my hands.
Even though I was 21 when I read this book, and Steinbach began her travels as an older woman, I instantly admired her writing and her story. Everywhere she went, Steinbach seemed to meet incredible new friends almost immediately. Recently divorced, she even found a Japanese boyfriend to visit her around the world.
As I sat there on the grass overlooking Beacon Hill, I wondered why I didn’t meet more people, as Steinbach did. Here I was in my ‘home’ city, and I was all out of friends. Everyone I knew was away for Memorial Day, and I was all alone, wandering, reading in parks. What was wrong with me?
Just then, a young man came up to me. He apologized, but said that he had noticed me sitting there alone, and, well, could he talk to me? Normally, I would have made a polite excuse and walked away, but under the influence of Without Reservations, I said sure.
What followed was not a story out of Steinbach’s book. We did not go on to become great friends and / or lovers. He was simply one of those men who saw a woman alone and felt it was his duty to intervene. He told me how great it was to meet me and how he had watched me sadly reading by myself. He wanted to exchange numbers and stay in touch always. I told him I was expected somewhere. Still, he wanted to walk me to wherever I was going. I told him no. He said, ‘Oh, I see. You’re worried someone will see us together and tell your boyfriend.” I nodded. Yes, of course, that was it.
I didn’t learn the art of meeting new friends from Without Reservations, but I did start to think about myself as an independent traveler, and all that entailed, like standing up for myself, and telling men who bother me while I’m reading by myself to get lost.
5. The Men in My Country
This is a beautiful book lovingly and carefully narrated by a young American woman who moves to Matsumoto, Japan. In a series of essays, we learn the pull of this city, the sensory details that drawn her in, and the relationships that inspire her to stay, and eventually leave. After her initial attraction to the new and unfamiliar details of the city, she longs to go deeper, and manages to form messy, thrilling, chaotic romantic relationships. Abildskov also writes about what it means to go back and forth between the two worlds of America and Japan, the ways we try to have the best of both worlds, but never can.
I use excerpts from this book often when teaching travel memoir writing. My students are uniformly blown away by Abildskov’s writing, her gorgeous, detailed images and careful reflections. A student of travel memoir could learn a lot from this book.
6. Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey
I read this book before I moved to Abu Dhabi, and it reinforced my wish to not simply believe stereotypes and or listen to inexperienced opinions about an entire region and people. Wearing goes to Iran with a male friend under the guise of a honeymoon trip. She discovers what you would expect her to: that there is more to the lives of Iranians than Islamic fundamentalism. Her journey and storytelling reveal another important aspect of travel memoir: to not just discover or heal the self, but encounter and represent the other with fairness and compassion.
7. Single White Female in Hanoi
Australian writer Shine deftly tells the stories of her attraction to and frustrations with life in Hanoi. She teaches English, and performs in a band, has an affair with a local driver, and tries desperately to help a homeless woman. She is charismatic and passionate, a fine writer. This book is full of perfectly timed, often short vignettes of her experiences with students, expat friends and locals. But mainly, she writes about the tiny neighborhood where she lives, the comings and goings of her landlords and their family, and the random visitors she often receives.
Shine’s story reveals the darker side of living abroad. She doesn’t fall in love with this place. She is frustrated by the injustices and inefficiencies she witnesses. The other expats she meet seem similarly ‘stuck’. Shine shows us that the experience doesn’t have to be perfect in order to discover something new, to change, or to write beautifully about it.
8. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Strayed is not an expat in this book, but she does go on an extended journey that changes her forever. She hikes the Pacific Coast Trail on the west coast of the United States. Her goal—to hike more than one thousand miles from the Mojave Desert to Portland, Oregon—seems insurmountable, her preparations totally inadequate, her backstory as fascinating as it seems debilitating. Yet she persists. Strayed reads poetry by night, desolate and alone, and forges strong connections with fellow hikers along the way. We learn about her mother’s young death, Strayed’s marriage and its dissolution, her dabbling with drug use and casual relationships. She presents her contradictions—an intellectual, deep reader and thinker, a fickle party girl who charms all the boys. She is all of those things. On her months-long hike, she reveals and contends with all these parts of herself. By the end of the journey we know that her life will never be the same.
9. Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan
Written in present tense, this is a beautiful book by a Canadian author who truly does fall in love with a place. In this case, that place is Bhutan. Zeppa leaves behind a relationship in Canada to take up a teaching position at an elementary school in Bhutan. In the second half of the book, she moves on to teach at a university, where she falls in love with one of her students. Their union is presented with such beautiful inevitability. She reveals once again the way that travel changes you, the way that wanting to be part of the country so much causes you to fall in love.
10. The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country
In the grand tradition of year-of memoirs, Russell sets herself the project of ‘Living Danishly’. That is, being happier by doing as the so-called happiest people in the world do. Throughout each month of her year-long stay, Russell focuses on one or several of the related hypotheses as to why Danes are so happy: their strong sense of social belonging, their easy access to art and culture, subsidised childcare and schooling, free healthcare, and more abstractly, the ordered routine of Danish living and creating a feeling of hygge at home, a sense of warmth and comfort. Russell goes after her worthy project with zeal, weaving in numerous studies to support her findings, and interviewing as many experts as she can find. Plus, she provides her entertaining personal story as well.