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Food, Photography and Cartography in the Travel Memoirs of Ondaatje and Shopsin

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This paper analyzes and compares both postcolonial and postmodern travel writing about the Asian subcontinent countries of India and Sri Lanka. The postmodern travel memoirs Running with the Family (Michael Ondaatje) and Mumbai New York Scranton: A Memoir (Tamara Shopsin) are analyzed using three critical travel writing elements including food, photography, and cartography. These elements are often neglected in scholarly research. The research here will show how these critical elements support postmodern travel and memoir writing while challenging Orientalism.
postScriptum: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Literary Studies
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Volume II Number i (January 2017)
Whatley, Harlan D. Food, Photography and Cartography ...pp. 62-73
Food, Photography and Cartography in the Travel Memoirs of
Ondaatje and Shopsin
Harlan D. Whatley
University of Texas
The author holds an MFA in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College of the City University of New York. He
has taught communications and media courses in China, the UAE and the United States. Whatley has published
and presented his academic research in academic journals and conferences, including CINECRI '16/3rd
International Film Studies and Cinematic Arts Conference in Istanbul, Turkey and the 1916, Cinema and
Revolution International Conference (2016) in Galway, Ireland. Currently, he resides in the Chihuahuan Desert
in West Texas and is completing his M.A. in English at the University of Texas at the Permian Basin.
Abstract
Travel writing first evolved with Pausanius, a Greek geographer from the 2nd century AD (Pretzler). In the
literary genre known as “Youji Wenxue,” authors such as Fan Chengda and Xu Xiake weaved geographical and
topographical information into their writing while using narrative and prose. During the Song dynasty, Su
Dongpo, a government official and poet, wrote about the Yangzi gorges and other remote southern places in
China. In the Asian subcontinent, Sake Dean Mahomed published his travel book in 1794, The Travels of Dean
Mahomed, which presented for the first time the idea of England from an Indian immigrant's point of view and
altered the “Orientalist” outlook of early Western travel writings about the East. Graham Huggan expounds on
how travel memoirs “supply their audience with the wonders, thrills and scandals of other times and other
places.
This paper analyzes and compares both postcolonial and postmodern travel writing about the Asian
subcontinent countries of India and Sri Lanka. The postmodern travel memoirs Running with the Family
(Michael Ondaatje) and Mumbai New York Scranton: A Memoir (Tamara Shopsin) are analyzed using three
critical travel writing elements including food, photography, and cartography. These elements are often
neglected in scholarly research. The research here will show how these critical elements support postmodern
travel and memoir writing while challenging Orientalism.
Keywords
travel writing, memoirs, India, Sri Lanka, Orientalism
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Introduction
Travel writing first evolved with Pausanius, a Greek geographer from the 2nd century
AD (Pretzler). In the literary genre known as Youji Wenxue‖ (‗Travel Record Literature‘),
authors such as Fan Chengda and Xu Xiake weaved geographical and topographical
information into their writing while using narrative and prose (Ward 13). During the Song
dynasty, Su Dongpo, a government official and poet, wrote about the Yangzi gorges and
other remote southern places in China (Wills 197). In the Asian subcontinent, Sake Dean
Mahomed published his travel book in 1794, The Travels of Dean Mahomed, which
presented for the first time the idea of England from an Indian immigrant's point of view and
altered the ―Orientalist‖ outlook of early Western travel writings about the East (Satapathy).
Graham Huggan expounds on how travel memoirs ―supply their audience with the wonders,
thrills and scandals of other times and other places‖ (121).
This paper analyzes and compares both postcolonial and postmodern travel writing
about the Asian subcontinent countries of India and Sri Lanka. The postmodern travel
memoirs Running with the Family (Michael Ondaatje) and Mumbai New York Scranton: A
Memoir (Tamara Shopsin) are analyzed using three critical travel writing elements including
food, photography, and cartography. These elements are often neglected in scholarly
research. The research here will show how these critical elements support postmodern travel
and memoir writing while challenging Orientalism.
Critical Elements of Travel and Memoir Writing
Food
―Food often serves as a powerful signifier both of cultural self-definition and of
cultural difference‖ (Thompson 181). Moreover, the nexus of food and identity are a
powerful means to both delineate and transmit culture (Dursteler 144). Food descriptions can
be found in early Ottoman travel literature, 17th century French travel accounts and 19th
century travel writings of the Balkans by British writers. In Madhur Jaffrey‘s Climbing the
Mango Trees (2005), a childhood memoir of India that ―rewrites the dislocation of diaspora
and migration into a rooted sense of place‖, she is representing her ―culinary otherness‖
(Black 1). Food is often associated with ethnicity as ―gastronomic metaphors are often
invoked as metonyms for culture‖ Overall, food is a critical element in memoirs and travel
writing as it establishes cultural identity.
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Photography
In regards to the use of photographs in memoir writing, S. Leigh Matthews comments
―Hinz notes that photographs ‗constitute a major component‘ in many works of life writing,
providing a sort of visual gallery whose pictures ‗dramatize‘ descriptions of people and
places‖ (353). The nineteenth century travel writer and photographer, Lady Annie Brassey,
challenged the norms of Orientalism by representing the Middle East in non-traditional ways
by not photographing sphinxes and peasant women drawing water. She chose other
representations and featured them in A Voyage in the Sunbeam, our Home on the Ocean for
Eleven Months (Micklewright). While Pierre Bourdieu‘s hierarchy of expression questions
the cultural legitimacy of photography, compared to literature, in the genre of family memoir
writing, photography has a legitimate place.
Cartography
Originally, the world was unmapped. Through exploration and travel, the earth
became knowable and discovery became an integral part of the travel process as it also
became a pivotal motif in travel writing (Leon 5). According to Susan Bassnett, ―The history
of travel writing is linked to the history of mapping and surveying. Nor was mapping
restricted to geographical features: the process of mapping the natural world, of labeling flora
and fauna, ran parallel to the process of mapping territories‖ (231). Moreover, Pedri proffered
Once maps are understood to be narratives conditioned by the cartographers agency, it
becomes possible to see in them the pictorial marks of the author's identity‖ (43).
The Asian Subcontinent
India
In the mid-eighteenth century, British writers began a long tradition of writing about
their experiences in India. John Keay provides an Orientalist‘s view of India from two
centuries ago:
Two hundred years ago India was the land of the fabulous and fantastic, the
'Exotic East.' Travelers returned with tales of marble palaces with gilded
domes, of kings who weighed themselves in gold, and of dusky maidens
dripping with pearls and rubies. Before this sumptuous backdrop passed
elephants, tigers and unicorns, snake charmers and sword swallowers, peddlers
of reincarnation and magic, long haired ascetics on beds of nails, widows
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leaping into the pyre. It was like some glorious and glittering circus-
spectacular, exciting, but a little unreal. (13)
Conversely, a non-Orientalist view of India comes from the French naval officer and writer,
Pierre Loti, who in 1899 and 1900 visited India and in 1903 wrote L'Inde (sans les anglais)
(India (without the English)). While in India, Loti avoids anything about the effects of British
imperialism and colonization while providing his own preconceptions of what India should
be like (Turberfield 114).
After obtaining independence in 1947, we began to see written expressions of India
that exposed a different Indian identity. Other postcolonial writers include the Scottish writer
William Dalrymple and his book City of Djinns (1994). Having lived in Delhi for six years,
Dalrymple writes about India, from India. Dalrymple comments on his writing style: When I
wrote City of Djinns I was interested in Delhi, not in following some tradition of English
travel writing that may or may not be Orientalist (Dalrymple & Joshi 16). Dalrymple‘s book
uses his established style of historical digressions, coupled with contemporary events and
several anecdotes. Some historians have claimed it is a novel masquerading as a travel book
(Kaul).
Sri Lanka
―It was in the year 1845 that the spirit of wandering allured me toward Ceylon; little
did I imagine that I should eventually become a settler‖, said Samuel Baker, an English
explorer and Orientalist, in his 1855 book Eight Years' Wanderings in Ceylon (1). During the
British colonial period, Sri Lanka was visited by explorers, missionaries, pilgrims and
merchants. They have been replaced with artists, journalists and novelists seeking inspiration
and content for their writing.
In the 1950‘s, the Australian artist and diarist, Donald Friend, spent five and a half
years in Sri Lanka, living with other expatriate creative types. In addition to finding an island
paradise of serendipity, he experienced the rise of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and the riots
that erupted in 1958. He wrote about them in his book, The Diaries of Donald Friend,
Volume 3 (Perera 84). Despite Friend‘s voice as having Orientalist qualities, he is cognizant
that many of Sri Lanka‘s modern problems derive from many centuries of colonial
domination (Perera 87). Additionally, Friend openly describes his homosexual diversions
with local young men in his diary (Aldrich 137). This is another example of an expatriate
writer who embedded himself into the country‘s culture for several years. Let us look at some
of the critical elements found in Tamara Shopsin‘s postmodern travel memoir.
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Shopsin’s India in Mumbai New York Scranton: A Memoir
When Tamara Shopsin first arrives at the Mumbai airport, she says, ―The air smells
like burning garbage‖ (1). Nearly a century before, in ―The Edge of the East‖, Kipling said,
―It is at Bombay that the smell of All Asia boards the ship miles offshore, and holds the
passengers nose till he is clear of Asia again‖ (38). In over one hundred years, some things
never change in Mumbai. Kipling‘s quote is very post-colonial whereas Shopsin‘s is more
modern and simple.
Food
The food described by Shopsin in the India portion of her book (1 139) is, like her
writing - simple and not fancy. Most of the food and meals that Shopsin shares in India with
her husband, Jason, are basic snacks, cookies, oranges, coffee, juice, bottled water, idli and
vegetarian plates. This seems unusual considering that Shopsin is a cook in her father‘s
restaurant in lower Manhattan and grew up in a house full of ―foodies.‖
When Shopsin first arrives in Mumbai, she says ―Jason brought me oranges. I eat
them all right away‖ (5). Later, they have lunch at a place that only serves ―veg meals‖ which
she describes as ―rice served with a bunch of condiments and a few heavily sauced stewed
vegetables‖ (8). While walking on the street, they drink coconut water from the shell and the
vendor cuts it up for them and hand them ―the shell holding the loose tender meat‖ (13). As
she travels through India, Shopsin‘s food choices are very simple and economical.
For breakfast, Shopsin eats idli, ―a white steamed UFO of fermented lentils‖ with
coconut chutney as it is ―fluffy and easy on the stomach‖ (16). In Ernakulum, Shopsin gets
―something mushy steamed in a banana leaf‖ that ―comes with a bread called appam‖ (25).
She loves the appam so much that she includes an illustration of it in the book along with
dosa and idli (Shopsin 25). Idli is ―a fermented mixture of rice and black gram dhal which is
then steamed‖ while appam is ―a pancake soaked in sweetened or coconut milk‖ (Achaya
80).
Shopsin describes the coffee from room service in their hotel: ―Coffee in India always
comes piping hot and premixed with milk and sugar. This is good because we can‘t drink
cold milk, but bad because it is always too sweet‖ (28). Interestingly, they are often drinking
coffee in pseudo-Starbucks cafes like Café Coffee Day (90, 102), even though India is a tea-
drinking culture.
While in a hotel courtyard restaurant, a heavy rainstorm breaks out and Shopsin and
her husband turn to her bag full of snacks that include ―cashews, oranges, and two grunt bars
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(aka energy bars)‖ that they wash down with ―two sodas in glass bottles‖ (29). She expounds
on her husband‘s ―get it while you can‖ rule for traveling:
―If you like something, you have it as many times as you can. No guilt for not
trying something else. I think it originated in Texas when he was trying to
justify eating BBQ for every meal. We enact the rule. I order appam with
coconut chutney and Jason gets the veg meal‖. (40)
At breakfast the following morning, ―the idli at our hotel is the best so far‖ (45). At dinner
that night, Shopsin is craving salad, but because the lettuce is washed with tap water, it is
unsafe. Jason suggests she try ―a side of boiled vegetables‖ which he deems as safe.
Other than drinking ―lychee spritzers‖ in Ooty (54) and eating ―mutter paneer‖, a
North Indian dish of peas and paneer in tomato sauce (115), appam, and idli, they are mostly
eating snacks and drinking coffee. Shopsin and her husband do not drink alcohol while in
India.
They visit a restaurant called Annalakshimi where they have ―the best meal we‘ve had
in India‖ (105). Unfortunately, Shopsin does not bother to describe the meal for her readers.
At the end of the trip, at a café in Mumbai, Shopsin has tea that is ―boiled ginger with honey
but it‘s tasty‖ (126). For one of their last food experiences in India, they eat roasted mini-
peanuts from a street vendor. Shopsin adds ―Peanuts taste better hot and from a paper cone‖
(127). Overall, much like her writing style, Shopsin‘s food is simple and not pretentious and
often consists of coffee, fruits and snacks. Seldom does Shopsin and her husband eat in a
traditional restaurant.
Photography
―There are 62 photos in the book by my husband Jason Fulford. I tried to pick photos
that informed the text rather than illustrated it‖ (tamarashopsin.com/mumbaifaq). Most of the
photographs are of India. Shopsin seems to favor peculiar signs such as a sign that reads ―Use
me‖ and that she captions as ―Trash can plea‖ (66), a sign that reads ―Architecture‖ and is
captioned ―Reentry‖ (123). All the photographs in India that include people are of men. There
of no photographs of women in India. There is a snapshot of Shopsin and her sister, Minda,
when they were babies, which is used twice in the book (151, 159).
A lot of random objects such as a golf ball-shaped motorcycle helmet on the head of a
rider in Mumbai that is captioned ―Traffic‖ (19), a mobile made of switch plates captioned
―Switchplates‖ (86) and their laptop with the newly purchased USB keyboard captioned
―Jury rig‖ (137). Also, she likes interior shots of their hotel rooms including ―The Grand
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Hotel‖ (4), ―Before the storm‖ (26) and ―The cove‖ (41). Shopsin does include some
traditional architecture photos such as ―Mumbai Central‖ (12), ―Ernakulam‖ (24) and
―Monkey House‖ (75). There are very few photographs of New York City and Scranton,
Pennsylvania in the book. There is one photograph of Shopsin on the last page of the book
(278). Overall, these are not the kind of photographs found in traditional travelogues.
However, they tend to be representative of Shopsin‘s minimalist style of writing and
postmodern voice. Even though her husband is a professional photographer, the images have
a ―snapshot‖ simplicity and candidness to them.
Cartography
Unfortunately, in line with her minimalist style, Shopsin does not include any maps or
surveys in her travel memoir. This would have been helpful to the reader as Shopsin and her
husband visit several obscure locations in India, other than Mumbai, such as Mamallapuram
and Ootacamund.
Ondaatje’s Sri Lanka in Running in the Family
―In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts" (Ondaatje 206)
Food
Cuisine, food and drink references are found throughout Ondaatje‘s family memoir.
Ondaatje begins his journey from Canada to Sri Lanka with dancing, balancing a wine glass
on my forehead and falling to the floor twisting round and getting up without letting the glass
tip, a trick which seemed only possible when drunk and relaxedI knew I was already
running" (22). Once in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje is treated at the Jaffna home of his Aunt Phyllis
to ―this lazy courtesy of meals, tea, her best brandy in the evenings for my bad stomach‖ (25).
They sit in wicker chairs on the porch and drink ―ice cold palmyrah‖ toddies with ―juice
drained from the flower of a coconut that smells like rubber‖ (26). This is followed by a
lunch of ―crab curry‖ with rice that he eats with his hands, followed by ―fresh pineapple‖
(26). These are indigenous Sri Lankan specialties. In this passage, Ondaatje is using his
sharing of drinks and a meal with his family as a link to his emotional and familial memories
of his childhood in Sri Lanka. Barbara Frey Waxman adds that food is associated with
―cultural identity, ethnic community, family, and cross cultural experiences‖ (363).
Alcohol is prevalent throughout the book as Mervyn Ondaatje suffers from a form of
alcoholism known as ―dipsomania‖ (58). His father drank ―gin‖ and ―methylated spirits‖
(58). In fact, ―most Ondaatjes liked liquor, sometimes to excess‖ (57). Champagne seems to
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be the preferred drink of the Ondaatje family. This reflects their privileged status and
European roots. When Mervyn‘s family arrives at Cambridge, he offers them champagne
(32), which is later mentioned in connection with Percy Lewis de Soysa (50). After the horse
races in Ambalangoda, oysters, wine and champagne were consumed (51). At Michael‘s
grandfather‘s funeral, ―imported champagne was drunk surreptitiously from teacups‖ by the
women mourners (57).
In 1932, during Mervyn and Doris‘s honeymoon, ―a bottle of beer cost one rupee‖
(37). Francis de Saram, a close friend of Mervyn, ―lived on gin, tonic-water and canned
meat‖ (46). The olive was introduced to Ceylon by Dr. William Charles Ondaatje, who was
the Director of the Botanical Gardens (67). An odd ritual of eating a ―thalgoya tongue‖ as the
meat of a ―banana sandwich‖ is described in the book (74). Spices such as cardamons,
pepper, ginger, mustard oil, tamarind and cinnamon are referred to as ―a perfumed sea‖ (81).
―Coconut‖ and ―rice‖ are found in the poem ―High Flowers‖ (87). Food references are
random and obscure in Running in the Family, but sensually and visually add to Ondaatje‘s
writing style.
Photography
There are eight photographs in Running in the Family. Most of them are family
photographs of the Ondaatje family. At least two of them are historical photographs of old
Ceylon. At the beginning of the ―Asian Rumours‖ chapter on page 19, there is an old
panoramic photograph of Ceylon. On page 39 there are two portrait photographs of
Ondaatje‘s parents before they were married. One is of Mervyn Ondaatje, Michael‘s father, in
a suit and tie looking very handsome and the other is of Doris Gratiaen Ondaatje, wearing a
fashionable white dress while holding a parasol.
The fourth photograph in the book, on page 61 at the beginning of the chapter ―Don‘t
Talk to Me About Matisse‖, is of Ceylonese people in the 1947 Nuwara Eliya flood and is
courtesy of Dr. Wickrema Weerasooriya (Ondaatje 207). On page 103, at the beginning of
the chapter ―Eclipse Plumage‖, is a photograph of the family in traditional dress. The photo is
taken outdoors with palm trees in the background. On page 131, at the beginning of ―The
Prodigal‖, is a photograph of an old train locomotive racing through the mountains of Sri
Lanka near Sensation Rock. The vista of the valley is in the background and the photo is
credited to Cave‘s Book of Ceylon (207).
In the chapter ―Photograph‖ (Ondaatje 161 – 2), Ondaatje describes ―the photograph I
have been waiting for all of my life‖ (161). He gives a detailed description of ―the only
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photograph I have found of the two of them together (162). The comical photograph of the
newly married couple appears on page 163. At the beginning of ―The Ceylon Cactus and
Succulent Society‖ shows a photograph of a young Michael Ondaatje and his siblings.
(Ondaatje 183). Unlike Shopsin‘s photos, the photos Ondaatje‘s book are more familial.
Cartography and Maps
Maps are a critical element in Running in the Family, as Ondaatje devotes an entire
chapter to them, which gives an interesting history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka and his family. On
quiet afternoons in Toronto, Michael ―spread maps onto the floor and searched out possible
routes to Ceylon‖ (Ondaatje 22). Maps are later described in the book by Ondaatje in the
chapter ―Tabula Asiae‖:
On my brother‘s wall in Toronto there are false maps. Old portraits of Ceylon.
The results of sightings, glances from trading vessels, the theories of sextant.
The shapes differ so much they seem to be translations by Ptolemy,
Mercator, Francois Valentyn, Mortier and Heydt growing from mythic
shapes into eventual accuracy. Amoeba, then stout rectangle, and then the
island as we know it now, a pendant off the ear of India. Around it, a blue-
combed ocean busy with dolphin and sea-horse, cherub and compass. (63)
Ondaatje adds further that ―the maps reveal rumours of topography, the routes for invasion
and trade, and the dark mad minds of traveller‘s tales‖ (64).
An actual map of Sri Lanka appears in the book on page eight in the frontispiece (Fig.
1). It is a simple map depicting all the cities, towns, rivers, national parks, lakes and
mountains in Sri Lanka. The map is unaccredited but does provide the reader the lay of the
land in Sri Lanka. Although the map is simple, it serves its purpose of identifying the key
places in the memoir and reinforces the imagery Ondaatje uses to describe Sri Lanka.
Conclusion
Although neither writer is a gastronome, the food commonalities between the travel
memoirs of both Ondaatje and Shopsin assist in creating an identity of both India and Sri
Lanka. These are not food memoirs in the vein of Madhur Jaffray‘s Climbing the Mango
Trees or Nigel Slater‘s Toast. Neither work features any sort of haute cuisine or fine dining
but features examples of common dishes and foods indigenous to both India and Sri Lanka.
While alcohol is prevalent in Running in the Family, it does not appear in the India segment
of Shopsin‘s work.
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Moreover, photographs are used cleverly in both memoirs, allowing readers to form
more of a connection with the country‘s identity and the people that appear in each memoir.
However, Shopsin has nearly eight times more photographs than Ondaatje. In this
comparison, Ondaatje is the minimalist, not Shopsin. Also, Ondaatje‘s photos feel more
historical than Shopsin‘s memoir. It is worth noting that in many of his works, Ondaatje
skillfully uses photography. Reviewing the critical elements of travel writing, in regards to
cartography, only Ondaatje‘s book includes a map. Moreover, Ondaatje discusses the
geography of his native land of Sri Lanka. The map in Ondaatje‘s memoir conveys ―a tale of
the exploration, management, and exploitation of land and, remarkably, identity‖ (Pedri 54).
Personally, I felt that Shopsin‘s travel memoir could have used a map for readers to better
identify some of the smaller cities near Mumbai that they visited and create a closer identity
to the lesser known cities in India that she toured. Perhaps her rationalization for not
including a map was that it does not flow well with her minimalist style of writing? Both
writers offer creative and unique travel memoirs of the Asian subcontinent in a postmodern
style that avoid the ―Orientalist pattern of in seeing the Orient as incapable of defining itself‖
(Said 300).
Fig. 1. Map of Sri Lanka, Running in the Family (1982)
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During the early modern era foodways were an important signifier of identity. This is evident in the extensive body of literature produced by the growing number of Europeans who ventured into the Mediterranean, especially the lands of the Ottoman Empire. These travelers commented at length on the foods they encountered, their preparation, and how they were consumed. They drew on widely known classical models, as well as their own familiar foodways, to produce culinary geographies that delineated stark boundaries between East and West, Islam and Christianity, and that inscribed alterity and barbarity onto Ottoman culture. Ottomans ate undercooked bread, adulterated with seeds and spices, and meat prepared in an unrefined fashion that was barely removed from its natural state. They consumed this food while seated on the ground and without the benefit of civilized utensils, and hypocritically washed it all down with large quantities of wine. In the early modern Mediterranean world who you were was defined, at least partly, by what you ate and how you ate it.
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Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, was long known to travellers for its luxuriant landscapes, colourful temples and friendly inhabitants - the island once named Serendip. This book explores the sojourns of gay visitors from the late 1800s to the modern day, providing a history of homosexuality, travel and cultural encounter on the island. The book offers profiles of major figures in Sri Lankan culture and of homosexual visitors, both famous and infamous, to the island. It discusses the experiences of sojourners including the Victorian social reformer Edward Carpenter and the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel, such British and American writers as Paul Bowles and Arthur C. Clarke, and the Australian painter Donald Friend. It also pays particular attention to Lionel Wendt, one of the most important modernist photographers outside Europe. For these figures, an erotic appreciation of young men whom they encountered mixed with interest in Sinhalese art, Buddhist and Hindu spirituality, and the flora and fauna of the island. Their experiences influenced modern writing, art and dance. Cultural influences moved in both directions, however, and Sri Lankans also found inspiration from abroad. The book argues that homosexuals played a major role in the transmission of cultural influences from Sri Lanka to the rest of the world, and from the wider world to this Indian Ocean island. Providing an original analysis of gay cultures in Sri Lanka from Victorian encounters to the present day, this book is the first study of Sri Lanka as a site of gay travel. An excellent study of trans-national cultural exchange, sexuality and the relationships between them, it will be of interest to academics in the field of Asian Studies, Colonial History and Gay and Queer Studies.