Literary Spotlight: Hidden Compass

’Our publication sees travel as exploration rather than vacation,’ say the editors of this in-depth travel magazine.

Hidden Compass co-editors
Sabine Bergmann and Sivani Babu, co-editors/co-founders of Hidden Compass.

The website homepage for the travel magazine Hidden Compass features a manifesto of sorts. Editors Sabine Bergmann and Sivani Babu explain, in a piece titled “The Age of Audacity,” how they grew up pretending to be astronauts at space camp and launching rockets in their backyards, thrilled by possibility in the wake of the Space Race.

“We want it back,” they write. “We want to live in a world where the names of astronauts, explorers, scientists and inventors roll off our tongues as easily as the names of the Kardashians. We’re willing to bet that we’re not alone.”

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When Bergmann and Babu founded Hidden Compass in 2017, they wanted to create a travel magazine different from those that report on perfect vacation spots and how to take a cruise. “We’re not afraid to bring in other genres and topics like science, history, and art,” Bergmann explains. “We publish historical pieces that take place in different eras, stories that include analysis of a particular painting. Our writers and photographers geek out on very specific and scientific things.”

Tone, editorial content

The editors gravitate toward first-person journalistic travel stories that blend reportage with personal experience – stories like “You Should Be Dancing” (8/3/17), which appears in the inaugural issue of the quarterly magazine. It’s an essay by marine biologist Russell Bradley about his time spent on Laysan Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands studying albatross. “It’s very much a travel story, but there’s a lot of science in there as well,” Babu explains.

Bergmann has worked as an editor at other publications that separate journalistic pieces from first-person travel narrative, and she’s eager to showcase stories that include both – pieces like Annelise Jolley’s “Trick of the Light” (11/8/18), about sex workers in Thailand.

“We want to live in a world where the names of astronauts, explorers, scientists and inventors roll off our tongues as easily as the names of the Kardashians.”

“She describes the state of sex work in Thailand but also how she meets a lot of the girls and lady boys and goes out clubbing with them,” Bergmann explains. “Travel journalism is at the frontlines and frontiers of human exploration, and this really comes through when you have a narrator taking you by the hand and leading you to these great places.”

Contributors

Photographer Kim F. Stone has a photo essay titled “The Great Basin Buckaroos” in Hidden Compass (2/1/19), which explores the lives of cowboys in Oregon’s Alvord Desert. Originally from Maine, Stone has spent the past decade handling and doctoring cattle in the desert.

She writes: “Even on the hardest days – when the swirling, roaring wind stole the warmth of the sun, and we found calves sick with pneumonia, in desperate need of attention, fighting for their lives and for that of the ranch – I felt at home among the buckaroos.”

The editors love how the photo essay explored a region close to their California homes – an area and culture that people know little about. “This is a culture steeped in history, a culture that’s disappearing,” Babu explains.

They also appreciate Yasaswini Sampathkumar’s piece about turtle conservation in India (Autumn, 2019), which describes the volunteers who patrol beaches and dig up turtle nests, transporting the eggs to a hatchery and then releasing the babies into the ocean. “What’s really fascinating about this story is that volunteers from all over India have no idea if what they’re doing is making a difference, but they do it anyway,” Babu says.

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“The writer draws a parallel between the volunteers’ efforts and the turtles laying eggs without knowing what will happen to the little hatchlings,” Bergmann adds. “It’s an act of faith that’s been going on for hundreds of millions of years, replicated now by humans.”

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The Autumn 2019 issue also includes “Vacant Lot Vineyard” by Barbara Barrielle, about a man who plants vineyards in abandoned vacant lots in Detroit. “It’s a story about going home and working to rebuild in the face of economic catastrophe,” Bergmann says. “It’s such a weird juxtaposition, with all the hope and excitement around the wine industry and Detroit’s economic collapse. It’s exciting to see how these subjects mesh in the same place.”

Advice for potential contributors

Bergmann and Babu look for submissions that contribute to a global conversation and include a well-developed story arc. “When we evaluate a piece, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this interesting? Why do we want to call for everyone’s attention and tell them to stop whatever they’re doing to read this piece now?’” Babu explains. “When we get a piece that feels important, that’s really exciting.”

The editors urge potential contributors to read archived stories on the Hidden Compass website and to study the writers’ guidelines to better understand the magazine’s aesthetic. “Our publication sees travel as exploration rather than vacation,” Babu says. “Other magazines will help you to take your best vacation. Ours examines how to go out into the world and explore.”

“We’re a literary travel magazine that loves first-person travel journalism,” Bergmann concludes. “We get to publish the weird stories.”

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