peep the new site design! in lieu of doing anything fun or even leaving my place this weekend, i stared at this screen for hours on end and re-worked the website entirely. i’m especially proud of the shiny new Photography page and the re-worked #Dispatches page. there’s still a few sub-pages i want to work on but for now, this is it. whatchu think?
hey people, i’ve been in reverse culture shock for the past two weeks that i’ve been back in nyc from ecuador and time just flies here. i’ve been eating everything i could get my hands on and partying and meeting up with some awesome personalities and eating some more. so i haven’t been doing much writing, but i did get the chance to interview director Orlando Pinder for Abernathy Magazine (follow them on Twitter and FB!) He’s the filmaker behind the doc, I, Too, Am B-CC which, like the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign, is a film that features interviews with Black students in predominantly white schools. Click on the image below to read our discussion in full and watch the doc.
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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Primero The First: big thanks to Juliana Britto Schwartz at Feministing for profiling my shit in her article, Women of color travel too. Check it out.
the past month has been pretty fucking intense. I lost my health insurance, my house, and I turned 27. I took a few trips around the country and scoured the city for a new place to live. I’ve had frustrating appointments with the social insurance plan and my private insurance company and fights with previous landlords and roommates. and I’m done. after another year here, I’m throwing in the towel and trying somewhere else. I’m leaving quito and going back to nyc. I’m extremely sad about this turn of events but feel that it’s the only (and best) decision for me right now.
so my question is, what the fuck is home? in the past 6 years i’ve moved back and forth between these two cities maybe 4 times, and I can never really tell whether I’m going home or leaving home. as james baldwin wrote in giovanni’s room, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” Ecuador has been home for me even before I ever got here, but Quito and I have always been at odds. living here has been a constant struggle since day one and it’s been pretty fucking impossible to find my footing here. something would come through, then I’d receive a blow in another arena. it’s been absolutely draining.
I’m taking all of this as a sign that I don’t belong in this city. I tried though – that I did – and I’ll always come back (my future trips back are already planned.) but it’s time to bounce. now I’ve got two weeks to say goodbye and maybe try to kinda prepare for the culture shock awaiting me back “home.”
Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure is a series of interviews with travelers and travel writers of color where we discuss navigating the writing industry and the globe as people of color. Read previous #Dispatches here and get involved here.
Brian Kamanzi is a Cape Town-based spoken word poet and engineer by trade committed to the social upliftment of his fellow people. He is a budding Pan-Africanist eager to make contributions to the movement and form cross-cultural connections with others in the struggle. Follow his writing online and on Twitter @BrianlKamanzi.
Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work, your identities, and how they interact?
Brian Kamanzi: My name is Brian Ihirwe Kamanzi, I grew up in town called Mthatha in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. My father is a patriotic Ugandan national and my mother is a South African Indian. My identities lie tied in between that of my parents. I feel an affinity for Uganda; I see myself in the people. At the same time, just by looking at me, you can see that India is represented from the tones of my skin to the darkness of my eyes that I have inherited from my beautiful mother. I have struggled between these identities.
Growing up I never felt like I had ownership of the South African identity. I still have difficulty claiming it for my own to this day. I feel like the gift of my ancestry has shown me just how arbitrary national borders are. I am an African – emphatically so. My work, through writing and spoken word is an effort to assert myself in a world that denies me.
I write to seize control. I write because I see my story, my feelings tied with those who are denied in their own ways. I hope for my work to form part of a broader project. A Pan-African project that will give voice to the former souls who were denied that choice.
Bani: Writing, in that sense, is kind of an aggressive act, don’t you think? I think Didion said that. I definitely think of my writing in that context, however, voices that have been historically silenced might not think like that. I think it’s something writers of color try to balance in a way
Brian: Without question. This is an act of aggression. This is an acutely political act. I can no longer be silenced. I take great strength from the strong people all over the world who share their stories everyday. We needn’t be overlooked any longer. I have to believe that. You know?
Bani: Def. Marginalized writers tend to have these internalized voices in their heads, the Dominant Voice, doubting that they even have the right to write. Does that make sense?
Brian: Oh yes. That rings so true. In fact I feel that pressure from other marginalised voices as well. There is a sense that you’re not good enough if you’re not a budding Toni Morrison. There is so much doubt. One is afraid to speak about Africa if you haven’t read all the major authors. It’s silencing and it’s a battle to look past it.
There is a fear that we are not good enough and I can’t deny that I don’t feel it but again I take so much strength from seeing the ordinary folk who express themselves through writing. The internet has really been such a gift for that.
Bani: I struggle a lot with self-doubt and my work and it’s a real killer. You’re about to put pen to page and then this invisible hand stops you. All writers/creators deal with this, but for multiply-marginalized folks, it’s epidemic. Finding work that speaks to me (not at me) is like panning for gold. And what I don’t find in books, I see in social media. It’s rejuvenating.
Brian: I feel very much the same. There is a raw sense that these are people’s emotions. Virtually unedited. Live. If not alive. It’s incredibly affirming. It also gives the words so much dimension. I mean take your writing for example. I can only dream of Ecuador but to read your piece and to have an interaction with you about your work is amazing. It makes me feeling like I can reach you. It makes me feel like indeed we are connected. Those subtle everyday thoughts from folks on widely different contexts show us that in fact maybe we aren’t all that different.
Bani: Yup. I didn’t really care about social media until I (recently) realized how much it’s used as a tool for cross-cultural communication, allowing us to engage in conversation with other disenfranchised people, and allowing us to organize across our differences.
Brian: I really agree on the social media front, the amount of intersectional feminists on Twitter for example is phenomenal and I really enjoy their engagements online. There is so much scope for cross-cultural dialogue.
Bani: I wanted to talk about your creative influences, folks – whether in print or not – who have helped you “find your voice.”
Brian: When it comes to creative writing, there are two figures that really gave me the strength to assert myself – Malcolm X and Steve Biko. Particularly Malcolm. His confidence, tactfulness and almost rhythmic way of speaking & writing leaves me smiling and with a fire in my chest. A fire that makes me want to raise my voice. Be productive.
With Poetry, Mama Maya Angelou is such a muse. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings hit me in places I never knew existed. Talking about Pan-African feminism, Minna Salami who is also a blogger and a writer has been such a great affirmative find as well. Straight talking, direct in a way that makes me feel like she’s talking to me. Encouraging me to do better. It’s amazing.
Bani: Mami handed me her copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 13…and the rest is history.
Brian: Haha what an age to read his words! Malcolm is one of those figures that makes you feel uneasy about the way things are. It feels more real. Uncomfortable but closer to the truth.
Bani: Let’s get into travel writing. What are your thoughts on the genre?
Brian: I think that particularly in our generation, where things have opened up globally, somewhat, there is a feeling that we are now allowed to dream and have wanderlust for far away spaces and places. Unfortunately many of the stories that, personally, I’ve been fed, are told by travellers who don’t know a thing about my experience. They don’t have the capacity to experience Ghana or India the way that I do. So many stories in travel writing speak from a place of abject objectivity where all else in front of his gaze is granted colour and is sexually exoticised at his will for his aesthetic function.
I see the need for a shift and it is definitely happening. A shift that allows a more diverse array of writers to share their experiences of different contexts that doesn’t feel…let me call it “colonial.”
There is almost an invisible hierarchy of experiences. One goes to Europe for the “culture” and one goes to Africa to self-actualise in Nature. I don’t see myself in either experience. I have no desire to conquer the savanna with trophies of lions. At the same time I see no reason to hail the cultures of Europe above the great multitude that are in front of me right here. At home.
I love reading travel writing, though when it’s done through an appreciative lens. There is really nothing more satisfying than imagining far away lands and different ways of life. It sets the mind on fire. Everyone should be able to experience that. And the next generation of travel writers will open up the doors for experiences that dominant voices will never be able to hear until they check themselves.
Bani: You touched on the ‘marketing of place’, how we’re sold these concepts of places – Europe=culture, Africa=nature, etc. Travel writing has been and continues to be the way this marketing – branding, really – gets out to the masses. How do we disrupt that tradition? I’m very much a part of the movement trying to get more people of color to share their travel experiences, but how do we do so in a way that is not so colonialist as the genre generally is?
Brian: I think it’s a fundamental problem. When we frame our travel stories as products to be marketed in a conscious manner we are commodifying each others experiences. When writers of colour engage in travel writing we have to resist the trap of emulating the existing trends. As I understand it the goal is not to colour code the status quo – it’s to change it.
The problem is that the broader tourism industry feeds off limited harmful, frankly colonial, perceptions of cultures because at the moment economic and political capital is still very much tied along those lines. Travel writing from writers of colour then must surely act disruptively in that space. We are fighting against the very exploitation of our identities. For many of us we are fighting for a right to exist in the globalised world beyond the exotic tourist depictions that our nations now represent. Travel writers of colour must write to protect spaces like Thailand. Like Zanzibar. Spaces that become overrun by wealthy white folk from across the globe who run off to the 3rd world whenever the exchange rate is low.
Bani: Word, word, word. So we’re gonna wrap up. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?
Brian: Well in closing I’d like to mention the need for coalitions. I think we need to forge strategic connections across the globe and open our homes to one another to break the cycles that are really not working in our favour. In this the age of information there are really all the means and opportunities in the world.
For example, Africans and Latin Americans have so much shared history. We need to arrange more opportunities for us to meet and exchange stories. We need more deliberate attempts to speak to one another. To engage with one another. To welcome one another as the family that we are.
That’s my hope for this generation of writers. Let’s see how things unfold.
hey peeps, so unless you’ve stumbled onto this blog for the first time today it’s news to no one that i’m an Ecuadorian-American living in Ecuador and have been for the last few years. my latest for Paste Travel – Ecuador Time is Like…Whatever – is about adapting to life here on some of those first days. check it, share it, shout it from the rooftops. click on the image to read the article in full.
hola people, my article on travel bloggers of color (ok, it’s technically a listicle) went up on Paste Magazine the other day and I urge y’all to check out every single blog on the list. subscribe to their sites, bookmark them, share them, follow them on twitter, send them a donation, comment on their posts, you get the pic. just support them and show them love. click on the image to read the full article.