October 7, 2014
Rosalind Black
The journal features photographs, now located in Oberlin’s Special Collections, taken by theologian, professor, and traveler Herbert Gordon May on one of his frequent trips to Palestine throughout the 1930s-60s. Photo credit: Herbert Gordon May

The word “away” takes on an array of meanings, depending on the context: away from one’s desk; away from one’s home; away from one’s country. Laurie McMillin, chair of Oberlin’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition, explores the versatility of the word in a new online journal—a compilation of experimental travel narratives—of the same name, which became viewable online as of September 2014.

The idea for Away came to McMillin on a walk with Jessica Grim, collection development and management librarian for Oberlin College Library, in spring 2014. McMillin mentioned the talent in her Writing About Travel course, and her students’ preference for reading the work of previous students instead of the prominent, published names in travel writing. When Grim suggested creating a journal of the kind of work McMillin’s students found most compelling, McMillin couldn’t think of a reason why she shouldn’t.

Away escapes from the traditional travel narratives begun by Columbus-esque explorers, which often present “away” as “other,” “foreign,” or “periphery.” Instead, Away showcases alternative journey tellings that absorb and respond to the discoveries and experiences of being somewhere or meeting someone new, or just passing through. In the “About” section of the webpage, McMillin describes the journal as “the world of the contact zone, where cultures aren’t so much fixed to places, but rather where people from different places with different experiences come together and interact, where everywhere you go is somebody’s home and someone else’s elsewhere, where we come together, clash, intermix, try to understand and make ourselves heard.”

With an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant intended to allow professors to create digital collections or scholarly works for their classes with the help of librarians and archivists, McMillin and Grim enlisted Logan Buckley ’14 to design the webpage for Away using images from Oberlin’s Special Collections. They also brought on three of McMillin’s former students, now graduated, to fill out Away’s editorial board. In addition to McMillin, the editor-in-chief, and Grim, the assistant editor, Dory Trimble ’10, Zack Knoll ’14, and Matan Zeimer ’14 will participate in the selection and editing process for pieces that will end up in the journal.

For Knoll, editing for the journal is more than just a job. “Because Away is still so new, there is a lot of room for me to figure out how I can bring my skills and interests to the position, which is ideal and exciting for me as an editor and writer,” he says. Knoll, former editor-in-chief of the Plum Creek Review, now an editorial assistant at ABRAMS books in New York City, sees his position at Away as a chance to give little-known authors a platform to share their stories. “I hope Away will always challenge conventional writing (as well as conventional travel writing, which largely comes into existence through white, male, privileged voices), either through the content of our stories, the way they're being told, the voices telling them, or the discoveries made in the process,” Knoll says.

McMillin’s goals for the project are much the same. “Critical scholarship on travel writing has long embraced the ​idea that people ‘travel’ for lots of different reasons—that travel can include emigration and exile as well as grand tours and beach vacations,” she says, even if the publishing world does not agree. “Even thinking about the students at Oberlin College: for some, traveling to Spain for fall break is no big deal, and for others, moving here from Chicago is like entering another world. This journal is open to those kinds of travel as well.”

The first issue of Away contains four works from students in Writing About Travel that McMillin found particularly compelling, in addition to a photo essay by Jabali Sawicki ’00, instructional designer for Zearn.org, whose work McMillin has admired. “Each piece suggests something of the emotional, interpersonal, and ethical issues that travelers frequently confront,” says McMillin. The pieces in each forthcoming issue will center around a range of themes that the editors draw from the work they encounter.

Anyone with a story to tell can submit a work to Away. “We are especially interested in pieces by writers and artists who are aware of the complicated space that writing about travel occupies,” it reads on the submission page. McMillin will reincorporate the works featured in Away into her travel writing course.

“I think our journal exists, in many ways, for the same purpose as travel exists—to learn more about the world we live in, and in the process of doing so, to learn more about ourselves. As writers and travelers and editors, but also as people living on a very big planet with a very small spotlight that doesn't, presently, expose every inch,” says Knoll.

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