Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure is a series of interviews with travel writers and personalities of color where we discuss navigating the writing industry and the globe as people of color. Read previous #Dispatches here and get involved here.
Paula Young Lee is the author of several books, including Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat (2014 Winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Book Award, Society of American Travel Writers). She splits her time between Maine and Massachusetts. We started our conversation with her asking about my back problems, which I won’t bore you with, but she quipped back with a powerful statement.
Paula Young Lee: Your body is a foreign country: foreign to you, unintelligible to others. You may find resolution by narrating it. The first novel, The Princess of Cleves, was written by an aristocratic woman who discovered the now-expected convention of the interior voice. She was writing about her thoughts, the miracle being that she had some. Now, I think the task is to narrate our bodies, not as colonizers but native inhabitants. It sounds odd because “of course, we inhabit our bodies!” But increasingly, with avatars and the internet and media projections of our perfected selves, we don’t.
I have been thinking about female body as a territory to be claimed, but one that women have difficulty claiming as their own, even when it is their own body! Narratives, reflexive gazes, these get in the way. But pain exposes the junctions.
Bani Amor: Yes, girls grow up with distorted visions of themselves.
Paula: Exactly. So what is a girl supposed to look like, be like, act like? One of the advantages of traveling is that it shows you how others perceive you. It lifts the veil of one culture and tosses out and shrouds you with another…but just for a split second, you get to see behind the curtain. If you are paying attention.
Bani: I feel like, as a person of color or second generation immigrant growing up in the States, I’ve always felt like a foreigner, always aware of how others perceive me.
Paula: It can feel like a hall of mirrors trying to sort out self-perception from others’ perceptions of you. I’ve always felt like two people in one body. But I don’t think it’s a consequence of growing up a minority in a very white state. It is just the way my mind works.
Bani: I grew up in this hardcore multicultural neighborhood in New York City, very queer too. It wasn’t until we moved to Florida and then began traveling around the United States and Canada that I realized how “othered” people perceived me as. It just can feel uncomfortable not seeing those mirrored images of yourself in others, in your community. In parts of the U.S., it was downright violent. I think it enabled me to be able to travel to other parts of the world and stick out and be OK with that.
Paula: I tend to respond to the emotional states of others, without expectation of help or harm. When I think about it, I have had quite a few harrowing experiences, traveling alone, but those stories aren’t the ones I want to tell. Danger and safety aren’t my focus. I’m more interested in finding out it there is hope in the world. Also, food.
Bani: There is hope in food.
Paula: I think so. Or, at least, there can be. There is also a great deal of truth. Bullshit tastes bad. Because I like getting back in the kitchen, I have made friends around the world. There is a real difference between expecting to being served, even as a traveler, and being a person who asks you to show her how to make it herself.
Bani: That seems like the low-impact way of traveling. Food is one of the first worlds to be affected in a tourist economy.
Paula: That’s what happens when you’re poor! Can’t take your universe with you…must adapt to the way the regular folks live. One of my dreams is to be on a cooking show that lets me travel around the world, get into home kitchens, and cook with ordinary people at home.
Bani: And you were vegetarian for a while, how did that affect the way you ate on the road?
Paula: I was vegetarian for a very long time, and I am allergic to all seafood. Every time I visited a new country, I would end up with a whole new set of food allergies. So I mainly ate rice. Which isn’t sustainable over time. This is partly what prompted my interest in wild food. Traveling widely also impresses you with the importance of culinary diversity. This is the opposite of the food mall, which is actually the reverse: a monolith masquerading as a motley assortment.
A bee sting will kill me. This is probably the reason why I don’t much care to dwell on danger, because if I did, I would never leave the house. My allergies ensure that I cannot take my relationship to food, or to nature, for granted. So I think about these negotiations all the time, and then wonder how to translate them for people who don’t have similar obstacles preventing them from living carelessly on this earth.
Bani: So how did you go from traveling in Europe to hunting in rural New England?
Paula: The mechanism was online dating! I was in Paris, France, trying to find a suitable man for my friend in Boston. As I was looking, I stumbled across John’s profile — no photo, two sentences describing a bourgeois life that didn’t interest me one bit. But I felt a tingle up the back of my neck that I have never felt before, and it wouldn’t go away. So I sent him a message. He replied right away. And that was that.
Paula: The trick is being confident in yourself and trusting your emotions. At first, my friends were appalled because he’s a Republican who wears a suit and tie to work. Now they all want to know where they can find one like him. For them, it was a lesson in looks that deceive. Having preconceptions about people that later proved wrong. So eventually, a few years in, we bought a house together in Paris, Maine. The house is the subject of the next memoir.
Bani: Were you hunting before you moved there?
Paula: No. In the memoir, I tried to convey a sense of the patience that hunting requires. Between John and myself, it took years of me running away, leaving the country, going off and doing my own thing, and him being willing to wait. (For my sister, this period remains a source of much hilarity because she likes to remind me how hard I made him work.) The dynamic is much like that between a hunter and the quarry, which is not the predator/prey axis so often touted by lad mags. The quarry is not passive, and hunters must be honorable, setting the highest ethical standards in order to land the one they want. That one is not interchangeable with others that might happen to be bopping around. Distilled, the underlying sentiment is both profoundly romantic and incredibly raw.
John says he can hear me when I think. I suspect that animals can too. You have to empty your mind. This happens when on a hard hike, for example. You can’t plot your novel, worry about the bills, or think about recipes. You end up focusing entirely on where to place your feet and moving ever forward. Sometimes I think this is how wild animals function. Feet, food, sleep, poop.
Bani: Would you call your work travel writing?
Paula: Not in the conventional sense of the genre. But as a short and round woman of color, it is sort of impossible for me to adhere to the conventions, yes? My perspective is just too different. I don’t so much travel as I take up residence, in the manner of a hermit crab, and snap at passers-by trying, literally and figuratively, to pick me up when all I want to do is hide quietly and study the local fauna.
Bani: You’re an anthropological traveler.
Paula: Yes, I would agree with that. So in Deer Hunting in Paris, I basically inverted the genre by observing, then writing about white rural Americans as if they were a curious tribe practicing strange customs.
Paula: The construct of leaving the country, then coming back to the state where I grew up, is a way to describe the disconnect between two forms of self — the one shaped by culture (Paris, France), and the one born of nature (Paris, Maine). White rural America is where I was raised, yet it is a struggle to call it my home.
I was instantly comfortable in France. At the time, being in Paris fed many needs. However, I wrestled with the idea of moving to France permanently, as had many of my friends — some of whom got married to a French person, others who just stayed illegally. My reluctance to take either step was evidence enough that it wasn’t for me. The city was ultimately too restless, jostling with seekers.
Bani: What are the challenges of living in Paris, Maine?
Paula: The renovations to the old house have turned it into a giant construction zone which feels as if it will never be done. The next memoir was supposed to be an American version of a Year in Provence. Unfortunately, it is starting to turn into a Decade in Paris (Maine).
Bani: Haha, I’m sorry!
Paula: It’s okay. It is a minefield for situational humor. I want a cat and John hates them. There is the woodpile to stack, wood to split, and the plan to hopefully set up for sheep. But all of this while a pain, is also fun and good. I want to keep doing this until I am too old. The people who used to supply our mutton were in their 90s before they finally retired from sheeping.
Bani: You def need some mutton and a kitty.
Paula: I think so! They make me happy, but like everything else, they require a commitment to staying in place.
Bani: Which you may have now more than ever?
Paula: Yah, my relationship is rock solid and everything, now, builds up from it. So, on some level, going out into the world on my own made me throw out the superfluous bits, forcing me to figure out the core values I carried everywhere instead of things. He’d gone through something similar due to his divorce. So we were both very aware of and honest about who we were, and what we wanted. Which isn’t the same as having a blueprint for the future. More like quality ingredients for a potentially fantastic dish that you have to make up on the spot.
Bani: Amazing analogy. I think we’re going to wrap up soon, do you have any final thoughts?
Paula: My usual advice is this: be honest with yourself about who you are when you are all alone, in the dark, and the rest will follow. It’s not very deep, I realize, but it’s surprising how far it can get you.
Bani: It brings it back to what we started talking about, the way we see ourselves, and how easily that can be distorted by external eyes, but being honest is definitely the first step to anything and everything, including healing those distortions.
Paula: Yes. Sometimes we think we are seeing ourselves through our own eyes, when it turns out we’re still seeing (and judging ourselves) through our mother’s/teachers’/society’s eyes. That’s the episteme in operation, to use a big SAT word. Part of being a woman of color is having to fight through the insecurity that comes from constantly feeling as if you don’t have the power to assert yourself or your opinions inside a whitewashed space. Leaving the country helped me develop a thicker skin and to rid myself of those kinds of doubts. Now I am trying to shed the armor of my intellect. Which is why I am now writing novels.
Bani: Traveling and writing can do wonders. ■
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