Keynote Speakers

Introducing our keynote speakers and visiting travel writers, and their topics.

Keynote speakers

Churnjeet Mahn is Chancellor’s Fellow in English at the University of Strathclyde. Her research covers travel writing and heritage, and studies of race and sexuality. Her publications include British Women’s Travel to Greece, 1840-1914: Travels in the Palimpsest (Routledge, 2012). More recently she has worked extensively on queer travel writing and tourism, especially in the context of race and faith. Since 2016 she has been a co-investigator on the AHRC Large Grant project Creative Interruptions, investigating creativity at cultural margins. She was also the lead on a 2015 AHRC-funded project on creating LGBTQ spaces in a refugee organisation in London.

Keynote title: Queer at the Border: Travel Writing, Race and Resistance

What might it mean to decolonise the study of travel writing? This keynote examines the non-fiction work of contemporary queer writers who use their personalised accounts of travel in the Middle East and across the Muslim world to variously reinforce or challenge the Global North’s perceived monopoly on ‘progressive’ LGBTQ rights through activating dialogues between localised histories of (non-)heteronormative lives and practice with the contemporary politics of global, or universal, LGBTQ rights. The spectre of Orientalism and reality of contemporary Islamaphobia is a recurring theme that seeps into the characterisation of non-Western queer sexualities, namely, that they are prone to more extreme state-sponsored and cultural homophobia.

This is a discussion which seeks to disaggregate some of the layered assumptions and histories which constitute non-white queer bodies in contemporary travel writing through using a longer view of homoeroticism’s central importance in Orientalism and empire to ask why, and how, some of the most sexually ‘permissive’ and progressive places in the world have come to be represented as some of the most homophobic and repressive to queers. How have Morocco, Afghanistan or India changed from being some of the queerest of places for travellers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to some of the most dangerous for same-sex encounters?


Graham Huggan is Professor of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Leeds. His research spans the entire field of comparative postcolonial literary/cultural studies, and he has a long-established interest in travel writing. His many publications include Extreme Pursuits: Travel/Writing in an Age of Globalization (University of Michigan Press, 2009), Nature’s Saviours: Celebrity Conservationists in the Television Age (Routledge, 2013) and Colonialism, Culture, Whales: The Cetacean Quartet (Bloomsbury, 2018). He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Postcolonial Studies (Oxford University Press, 2013). More recently, he has headed Land Lines, a two-year research project exploring British nature writing.

Keynote title: Underground, overground: Wombling free with Robert Macfarlane

The Cambridge-based author Robert Macfarlane is probably best known as a ‘new nature writer’, deliberately placing himself in a post-Romantic transatlantic tradition that follows in the wake of such celebrated figures as William Wordsworth and Henry Thoreau. The ‘new nature writing’, in this and other ways, is not new at all, but rather continues a tradition of Anglophone loco-descriptive writing that is not necessarily environmentalist in inspiration, but certainly attentive to the altering, often damaging effects of human interactions with the so-called ‘natural world’. Paradoxically, Macfarlane, who has done more than any of his contemporaries to champion the cause of the ‘new nature writing’, is arguably not a nature writer at all, but a travel writer interested in inscribing himself on the often challenging places through which he travels––carefully fashioned environments that are at once material and symbolic, textually over-determined, very much literary worlds. In this paper, I will use Macfarlane’s work to re-assess some of the misleading distinctions that continue to be made between nature writing and travel writing, focusing on his latest book Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019), which represents a characteristically risk-filled set of physical and imaginative encounters with subterranean worlds.


Visiting travel writers

Rory MacLean is an acclaimed travel writer and the author of more than a dozen books, including Under the Dragon (1998), which won an Arts Council Writers’ Award, Magic Bus (2006) and Berlin: Imagine a City (2014). In recent years he has collaborated extensively with photographer Nick Danziger on a series of projects documenting human stories of poverty and conflict. In October 2019 Bloomsbury will publish his latest travel book, Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe, which retraces the route of his bestselling debut, Stalin’s Nose (1992), three decade on, in reverse – from Russia through Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Germany.

Rory will be speaking at a special event at Leicester’s main public library at 7pm on Thursday 4 July, open to all.


Sara Wheeler is a prize-winning travel writer and biographer. Her books include the international bestseller Terra Incognita. Other books include The Magnetic North, which won the Banff Adventure Travel Prize, and Access All Areas: Selected Writings, 1990-2010. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a Contributing Editor of The Literary Review, and former chair of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award. Her work been translated into many languages, and Terra Incognita was made into a chamber opera in the US. Her latest book, Mud and Stars, will be published during the week of this year’s Borders and Crossings.

Sara will be speaking at a special event to close the conference, on the University of Leicester campus, at 1.30pm on Saturday 6 July; the event will be open to the public.