Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
This composite term is one of the key items in the postcolonial lexicon and has found wide application in scholarly work on travel writing in recent decades. It derives from one of the most groundbreaking studies in the canon of travel writing scholarship, Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (2008 ). In that work Pratt describes the contact zone as a ‘social space where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination – like colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today’ (7). Broadly, then, the contact zone refers to the space of colonial encounters, although the term's origins are fundamental to Pratt's more nuanced conception of those territories and experiences. Pratt borrows ‘contact’ from linguistics, where it refers to ‘an improvised language that develops among speakers of different tongues who need to communicate with each other consistently, usually in the context of trade’ and where such languages, beginning as pidgins and regarded as improvisational and chaotic, eventually come to be creoles when they engender native speakers of their own (8). Said linguistic origins speak to the intercultural dynamic and struggle as well as the creative, transformational potential at stake in the contact zone. (The etymological roots of the word ‘contact’ itself, from the Latin contactus, meaning ‘touched, grasped, bordered on’, are also resonant here.) If ‘contact zone’ can be synonymous with ‘colonial frontier’, then its ideological implications are nonetheless quite distinct, as they rest on the transactional dimensions of that space where ‘subjects previously separated by geography and history are co-present’ and where they establish ongoing relations and intertwined practices, however coercive and unequal they may be.
Given the importance of Empire to the history and production of travel writing, which in spite of its generic indeterminacy continues to be regarded as ‘an exemplary record of cross-cultural encounters between European and non-European peoples’ (Clark 1999, 2), contact zones have proved to be popular and productive sites for travellers and travel writers. Moreover, also underpinning Pratt's particular conception of the contact zone is a desire to shed light on accounts of conquest previously disregarded or suppressed by the colonial apparatus and to consider the fruits of the process she calls, drawing on germane ideas from cultural critic Angel Rama (1982) and the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz (1947), transculturation.