Traveling While White, Traveling While Brown #Dispatch: Nandini Seshadri

Nandini Seshadri is a freelance writer, short-story author and social media addict. She keeps a blog over at nandinisniche.tumblr.com which she updates mostly when she’s supposed to be working on her novel. Her work is set to appear on Narrative.ly and Mommyish.com soon.

dispatches

Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

Nandini Seshadri:  I’m a fiction writer, mainly. I write short stories and try very hard to write novels. I’m also a longtime blogger, started blogging way back before blogger even existed (2003). But blogging has somewhat fallen by the wayside since I had kids. These days my primary identity seems to be mom.

My work is and has always been very feminist. I am Indian, and it has always been very clear to me how much my society stacks the deck against me. Didn’t hurt to have an openly feminist mother.

Bani:  Feminist moms are the shit (hey ma!)

Nandini:  And also, since I have moved around a lot since childhood, never living in one city (sometimes even country) or one home very long, I also write a great deal about identity, fitting in, and being an outsider.

Bani:  What usually enables and propels you to travel?

Nandini:  Work! (and following spouses or parents for work) I come from a family of immigrants. In the middle-class South Indian community I come from, there is this deeply embedded idea that someone who gets out of India has “made it”. It definitely used to be much stronger when my family first emigrated. I also ended up traveling during college for debating tournaments. I am now in a financial position to travel for pleasure too, and do it happily and eagerly.

One of the first members of my family to go to USA was my cousin (who is actually my father’s age because of the age gap between siblings) in the ’80s. Everyone sang his praises and he has always been considered the pioneering success. But because our family is also middle class and upper caste, there are also all these whispered stories about how he was ‘reduced’ to working as a dishwasher to put himself through college in America, the horror, the horror. Then his parents wanted to go see him in America too, and they went for six months, which was considered a huge deal… but again, whispered stories about how his mother wanted to stay longer, and in order to support herself she had to work as a nanny. That was also considered beneath us.

Photos courtesy of Nandini Seshadri

Photos courtesy of Nandini Seshadri

So I come from a certain subsection of Indians for whom this “going to foreign” deal is a complicated business in terms of power structures. Do we take the prestige and much-needed money from leaving but accept the dishonor of working menial jobs? Or do we stay and keep working “respectable”  but low-paying jobs in poor, unglamorous India?

Bani:  The immigrant’s dilemma.

Nandini:  I also think it’s interesting how we carry our hangups with us when we travel. I have relatives who will rant at great length at their racist experiences. “All the white guys in my office get birthday cards and cakes, but I don’t”, etc., but then again, have no trouble turning right back around and being shockingly racist towards darker skinned people.

And along comes a white liberal American saying how white people are the source of all racism, and I can’t help feeling that’s turning the rest of us into noble savages or people without humanity.

Bani:  It shows a complete lack of global historical context.

Nandini:  To be sure, white supremacy is the source of a lot of racism, but things like casteism or colorism – which are arguably shades of racism – aren’t fiction!

Bani:  I remember moving to Ecuador the first time, five years ago, and it was kind of on the heels of a falling out I had with several radical POC groups I was involved with in the States. It wasn’t until I started living in the South that I realized how white-centric our politics had been. How much of our energy they took.

Colorism, racism, white supremacy – specifically, anti-black racism and anti-indigenous sentiments – run MAD strong here. My concept of what it meant to fight racism completely changed. And I mean, over time. Of course, it’s still changing. Having grown up in the States, I will always be used to a single narrative on what that means. It’s regional.

Nandini:  Regional is exactly it. I’ve always had this idea that people of the same perceived racial group can have very different (and equally valid) reactions to a Supposedly Racist Thing. And you’re right, it all comes down to regional pressure points.

Like, to a person living in India, Gwen Stefani putting on a bindi to make a fashion statement is just complementary and mildly flattering (if they have heard of her). To an Indian-American it is cultural appropriation, right? With real harm done to the Indian-American community. I’d always tried to articulate it as  living in a country where you are the majority and you have the privilege of being secure and unshakably the ruling culture.

Bani:  Also, when you’re an immigrant, you’re reeling from one form or another of displacement. You tend to hold on tighter to your culture, or assimilate. It’s not that black and white, but in my experience, it does seem very extreme. You’re either really offended or don’t understand at all what the fuss is about.

Side story: a friend of mine here is Afro-Ecuadorian. She has a fro. She lives in a artist-traveler-hub kinda house, and foreigners are ALWAYS touching her hair. The way she reacts – positively – has always stopped me from acting on her “behalf” – telling them not to do that. And I honestly have fought the urge to many times. But I thought, who the fuck am I to tell her what to be offended by?

One day, I was watching a video in English, something made by black American women along the lines of “why you can’t touch my hair.” I explained to her what I was watching and she was so pissed! She wondered why anyone would give a shit one way or another.

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Nandini:  But I struggle with all this. I don’t live in India anymore even though I keep going back for visits because my family lives there. It’s easy to point fingers from the outside, right? And not at all productive. And then, my location means that my expressions of frustration fall on white ears more often than not and that is deeply uncomfortable for me too.

Bani:  Oh yeah. When (foreign) white women complain about sexist men in Ecuador, I feel caught.

Nandini:  How do you deal with that?

Bani:  Honestly, I’ve always sided with the men. I say, who are you to be coming here and judging All Ecuadorian Men based on the one or two you’ve slept with? As if white men in their home countries aren’t sexist! Which, really, is not “siding with men”, but unfortunately, it does put me in this #NotAllMen position, you understand, because they’re talking about my family and friends. But you can’t come here for your thesis or your bs volunteer job for a year and claim yourself as an expert on our men.

Nandini:  Oof, that makes me feel a bit like shit. I had such terrible experiences with street harassment and street sexual violence in India that when a white woman complains about it, I feel solidarity more than anything.   I can’t help it. Of course, it often goes off into the “gosh, Indian men!” direction and then I get all outraged and say angry things about racism. I feel caught too.

Bani: Well, notice I didn’t mention street harassment. These were about consensual relationships, not victimization that white women were feeling. I kind of feel like that’s another animal.

Another side story: when I was a teenager, visiting my white, gentrifying friend’s place in Brooklyn, she got hollered at and said something racist to me. I don’t remember what it was, but when I spoke up, she said “I can’t help it if they’re all the same demographic!” I stayed silent.

Nandini: OUCH. that hurts. What does one even do!!

Bani:  As with the white women in Ecuador, I see the uninvited, displacing presence of someone in a place inhabited by a majority of poc. Then there’s the misogyny. Women of color, who are native to certain places, we are caught under all these oppressions – we have to side with someone. But who will side with us?

That #YesAllWomen discussion completely, conveniently left out any discourse on what it means to move around the world as white.

Nandini:  That sounds interesting! Please say more on the “what it means to move around the world as white” and how #YesAllWomen left it out.

Bani:  The implications and repercussions of moving around the world as white. The entitlement, the lack of reflection. Because of white supremacy, whiteness is put up on a pedestal of beauty, and women of color around the world have to deal with this. Here, in Ecuador, there is a rainbow of skin colors, right? But mostly, we are dark-brown. But on TV, in the ads, the media, it’s all whiteness, all the time.

White women are rewarded for this, but when they travel – to neighborhoods of color, to majority non-white countries – there are repercussions.

Nandini:  I was trying to explain this to someone who lives in Vietnam and is tired of dealing with street harassment there – to the extent that she called it racism against white women. This friend of mine is pretty feminist, and I sympathized with her completely about the street harassment but had to really break it down that THIS is sexism and THAT is racism and street harassment ain’t THAT.

Bani: That is some basic shit.

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Finally, I wanted to revisit the convo that linked us up in the first place. We came into contact after I posted Teaching English in China while Black, and felt some sorta way about it. Mostly because linguistic imperialism really saddens me when a person of color engages in it and that person has US privilege and doesn’t take that into account, at all. You responded by rightly pointing out the Orientalism in the article.

Nandini:  Yes, I was wishing she would just come right out and say this is racist and NOT excusable. All through the article, though, she didn’t say that. Which I sympathize with, she was in a tough situation and I think she was trying to acknowledge her first world privilege in this way, by downplaying the fact that these third-worlders had some kind of power over her. It was as if she couldn’t bring herself to believe this is possible, because she was so ensconsed in her view of “I am superior to these people, and I am here to teach them things.”

I wish that when western feminists speak of intersectionality, they would speak more of first world privilege, orientalism, and the global South. I wish we would discuss the ways in which it especially benefits USA to be the cultural center of the world.

As for travelers of color from first world countries, I really do have a lot of sympathy for the impossible bind that many of them find themselves in, and most never suspect they will ever experience these things. There are so many blogs – google “black guy in Japan” – about the utter shock and horror at the racism they experience outside of USA. I feel for them.

But they’re also usually in the business of modern day colonialism. Which they don’t see anything wrong with, and maybe in capitalistic terms they’re right, but it’s hard to sympathize when those who are willingly cogs in the machine of wiping indigenous cultures and languages out. At the end of the day they are still US Americans, and they carry cultural hegemony with them. When they travel somewhere to teach rather than learn, the thing they are teaching is US supremacy.

Bani:  Starting a dialogue on that is tough, because there are many travelers of color, but not A TON, and when we feel empowered to talk on that – I mean a lot of folks my age, on social media – it’s with this double sense of entitlement. I should be able to go where I want, etc. So how do we approach places with the fullness of our identities?

When we travel somewhere, we take all that shit with us. We don’t leave anything behind. Our identities travel with us. I wonder how travel can change our identities, especially what and how we think about them.

Nandini:  That identity bit, right here in the feels. To travel is to lose your fixed identity.

I think as travelers we have a responsibility to read native voices, make ourselves familiar with context and history and culture before any significant travel. As first world travelers we need to be careful not to participate in neo-colonialism.

If first world people traveled for the reasons and with the attitude that third world people do – not for the romance of living an “authentic” noble-savage life, or for the sake of writing a book about how quaint “those people are”, or to teach them how to speak and think and live like first worlders. If, instead, first world travelers went consciously for (responsible) personal pleasure, or to learn something, or to earn a living. We would travel with arms stretched out for alms, conscious that we are in this to take more than we can hope to give, conscious that this means we humble ourselves. I think that would be the first step away from a neo-colonialist mindset. Away from entitlement and towards honoring the people of the places we travel to.

‘Outlaws, Outliers, And a Healthy Distrust of Single Narratives’ Dispatch: Lisa Hsia

dispatches

Winter 2013 filtered summer 2014 (1)

Images courtesy of Lisa Hsia satsumabug.com

Lisa Hsia (Satsumabug) is a writer and artist living in Oakland, California. Find her online at satsumabug.com

Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

Lisa Hsia:  I like to describe myself as a writist and arter. It speaks to the way I see my work — transdisciplinary, with the different disciplines and genres bleeding into each other, rather than interdisciplinary, where you have a solid grounding in multiple disciplines and then put them together. In some ways I see my life as having that kind of slightly mish-mashy quality as well. I thought for a long time that I was going to be an academic, and even though I’m not, I was just thinking the other day that a lot of what I do as an artist looks like what I did as a scholar: read, think, talk, write. Everything is part of the process.

Bani:  Do you reflect on your travels as an artist, a scholar or both?

Lisa:  Definitely both. As an artist, as a visual artist as well as a writer, I’ve had a lot of practice in observation and imagination. Meanwhile, my academic training gave me a much more critically nuanced outlook than I think I would have had otherwise. But both backgrounds prompt me to study everything broadly before picking out individual things that interest me.

I would say, though, about traveling as an artist – I really started to think about the nature of seeing. I like to bring a sketchbook around with me, and I did that during our travels as well, but I noticed that when I first got to a place, I couldn’t sketch. I didn’t want to and it didn’t feel right. Over time I realized that was because I didn’t know yet what I was seeing, when everything was unfamiliar. We often tend to think of seeing as a kind of physical act, like something a camera does, but really it’s an act of interpretation (that’s borne out by the science of seeing too). Our brains are as involved as our eyes are. Stillness is an underrated part of traveling.

As a kid I used to get in fights with my mom when we went on trips, because she is of the go-go-go, guidebook-in-hand school of traveling, and I’d rather sit and take things in.

Bani:  I sometimes feel like a bad traveler because I never ‘see the sights’. I walk around and around and around and end up drinking with teenagers in parks. I’m trying to drink things in. That’s why I stay in places for too long, and sometimes end up moving in. It takes some time for me to get from the ‘witnessing’ to the ‘engaging’ to the ‘creating’.

Lisa:  Haha, I have blog posts about this that I wrote during our travels! When we started traveling I had a lot more angst about being a “bad traveler” – I would imagine some snotty jet-setter type telling me I hadn’t REALLY seen a place because I hadn’t seen the major sights.

Bani:  Apparently, there’s a special place in hell for Bad Tourists.

Lisa:  Ha, well, I can imagine the heaven of Good Tourists, and I don’t think I’d want to go there.

1 Scotland -Princes St, Edinburgh

Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland

Bani: Same. As a POC, specifically as an Ecuadorian-USian living in Ecuador, doing the touristy stuff brings a whole nother level of discomfort. My multiple identities rise to the surface and duke it out for attention. There is an inner conflict that is too messy to detangle in that unforgiving space.

Lisa:  Yes. That’s something I’ve always felt even if I didn’t always articulate it explicitly. It’s not always even super direct. Sometimes it’s just the tourist attitude in general. There’s so much entitlement there, and so much condescension. So much Othering. It’s sad, but it was such a common attitude that it kinds of blends into the background, like people wearing cameras around their necks. Oh! Well, here’s one that made me feel really uncomfortable.

We were in Istanbul for a month, staying in a pretty local neighborhood, meaning not where all the tourists hang out. There are cats all over Istanbul, street cats and pet cats. There was a mother cat and her kittens living outside our apartment building, and there was a white woman who lived nearby who had taken it upon herself to look after the welfare of these cats. Not a bad thing, in and of itself. The first time she saw us admiring the kittens she told us what she’d named them, and she said, “This one is Neko. You know why?” She pronounced it like NEE-ko. I said no, I don’t know why. And then she got a little flustered and said she’d assumed we were Japanese; neko is the Japanese word for cat. But it’s not pronounced NEE-ko; it’s more like neh-ko.

Bani:  Ugh

Lisa:  That’s not a huge deal, but I didn’t like it. And then another time, she got really frustrated because people were leaving food out for the cats that isn’t Western-style cat food. Stuff like pasta or bread. And she kept talking about how “these people” don’t know how to feed cats, they were going to kill the kittens, etc. She even posted a sign in English and Turkish admonishing people on their treatment of the cats. I’m not sure whether she wrote the Turkish part of the sign. Somehow I had an impression that she didn’t speak Turkish, even though she’d been living in Istanbul for several years.  I think she was an English teacher.

Bani:  Figures.

Lisa:  But the way she said “these people” and the way she presumed to tell them how to treat their street cats…It felt like she had a lot more respect for the cats than the people. Of course I am also judging her, because I don’t know anything about her except for these interactions, and for all I know she could be a pillar of the community. But her attitude didn’t strike me that way.

There was also a white New Yorker in Reykjavík who told me all about how Maine lobster is better than the langoustines they serve in Iceland. That was weird.

Bani: So that woman assumed you were Japanese. Was your nationality ever put into question by locals or other travelers?

Lisa:  Totally. There was a waiter in Paris who asked where we were from, and when we said “California,” he just shook his head and said, “Non.” A lot of restaurant touts in Istanbul would call out “Konnichiwa” to us.

Bani:  !

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Le Palais de Tokyo

Lisa:  Actually, some of them would go, “Konnichiwa. Nihao. Anyonghaseyo!” Which, besides being annoying/insulting, was just bizarre to me, because it made me want to go to their restaurants less, and I can’t imagine that ever being a successful marketing strategy with me. But then I think, it has to work with a lot of tourists, because otherwise why would they do it?

There’s definitely a big difference in the way people read things as condescending or helpful. This might be a little off-topic since it doesn’t have to do with travel, but I’ve noticed this with immigrant parents versus their US-born kids. Things that offend the kids will read as perfectly okay, or maybe even good, to the parents — like depictions in movies, that kind of thing.

Bani: That sometimes has to do with desensitization. Sometimes, cultural cues are offensive AND helpful. And that’s confusing when you’re 2nd gen.

Lisa:  Yeah, definitely. And as a US citizen, fluent in English and with lots of education and resources, I have a kind of international security that my parents, as immigrants, don’t have. Or don’t have to the same extent.

Bani:  Speaking of this: Were there instances where your ethnic background helped you to ‘blend in’ to some places you’ve traveled? Are there positive and negative aspects to that fluidity?

Lisa:  So much yes, to both those questions! The blending in is a very strange thing. I found that I both craved the ability to blend in, and resented it. Which I think is reflective of my own sense that I don’t quite fit in anywhere. There was a sense of extreme relief when I could pass as a local, which happened in places like Japan or Singapore, or in London or Toronto. But on the other hand, I was a foreigner in all those places, and sometimes I wished people could see that.

That might actually say more about the loneliness of traveling than about anything else.

I think a lot of the negative was about loneliness, now that I think of it. I’d enjoy the feeling of blending in with people or feeling like I’d found “my people” somehow, but that would never actually be true. Which is something I’ve struggled with in my regular life, too, and actually I think the traveling helped a lot with that.

Bani:  Is it hard to build alliances on the road? The find community?

Lisa:  I feel that being able to claim membership in a group can be a really comforting thing, but sticking out can also lead to real connections with other people who also feel slightly at odds with the group.

Bani:  Maybe, as POC in the U.S., we feel at home with feeling at odds with the dominant group? We want to be visible in our difference but not ostracized for it? Queers are like that sometimes.

Lisa:  That’s true, but as someone born in the US, I also think I have a level of ease in the dominant group that I didn’t fully appreciate until I left the US.

Again, that’s part of the loneliness and feeling marginal — encountering other Americans on our travels was more often alienating than not. Part of me would want to reach out to them, but part of me didn’t, because of the many ways I feel at odds with US American culture.

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Reykjavík, Iceland

Bani: Yes – traveling abroad dislodges that thing that says ‘I belong’. I guess I didn’t realize how much I didn’t belong until I started leaving the States.

Lisa:  Yeah, I would say that traveling made me feel both my belonging and my not-belonging that much more strongly. But I would see that play out with different people in other countries, and that was reassuring in a way. Everywhere you go, you find people who don’t quite fit in, and that can be comforting.

Bani:  Outlaws looking for outlaws.

Lisa:  Outliers looking for outliers. It was also interesting for me, in talking to other outliers, to see how our sense of not-fitting-in was both similar and different.

This isn’t exactly on the topic of what I just said, but coming from the US, I was fascinated with racial/ethnic homogeneity in other countries, and how that affected the racial consciousness of people living in those countries — either people who fit the dominant group, or immigrants or minorities.

I was talking with several New Zealanders with Māori heritage, and although their struggles in some ways mirror the difficulties faced by Native Americans in the US, the Māori are much more visible in NZ than Native Americans here. One of the people I spoke to said she thought it might just be a “numbers game” — in a country with fewer people, you know your neighbors a little differently.

On the other hand, someone I spoke to from Hong Kong — a well-traveled person who has actually lived in the US — made really overtly racist remarks about African Americans. Lack of diversity makes it really easy for people to engage in the worst kinds of Othering.

Bani:  Meaning that they lived in a part of the States where there weren’t many African-Americans? I hate that excuse (even though I get it). I mean, how much diversity do folks need to not be racist? What’s the quota?

Lisa:  Actually, no, and this is what made me furious. She lived in LA.

Bani:  Ughhhh

Lisa:  Yeah. And I agree, lack of diversity is not an excuse. It’s a kind of explanation that I do understand, but still. But I think it’s easier to be racist when there’s nothing in your society to challenge that view.

Bani:  Reminds me of my family – immigrated to New York in the 60s, moved to Florida in the 90s. Really anti-black. Haven’t changed much.

Lisa:  And the myth of colorblindness is so alive and well in this country, it’s no surprise that it’s even stronger in more homogeneous countries.  I met an Italian exchange student who said her family’s comment on her studying in the US was, “Don’t come back with a Black boyfriend.” She said they were kind of joking, kind of not.

Bani:  I grew up with that ‘advice’. Living in Ecuador, I understand the kind of society that fostered their thinking. Well I don’t ‘understand’ it, I just witness it and can make more sense of it as an adult.

Lisa:  Which is another part of that feeling of multiple identification — I feel really comfortable in Asia for many reasons, but there’s a lot of (often latent) racism there that I refuse to identify with.

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Kyoto, Japan

Bani:  This is all leading up to my last question! Travel can force us to reflect on place and belonging – you’re in a new place and trying to find some footing, your community. When have you felt most ‘at home’ in your multiple identities, in your travels?

Lisa:  Ooh, that’s an interesting question. I would say there were two separate ways that I felt this.

One was when I was art-making. I don’t want to be glib about this, but there are ways in which art (visual, performance — anything non-verbal) speaks all languages, or perhaps transcends languages. Drawing, painting, and sketching were a kind of “home” for me that I could call up no matter where we were, and that was so comforting. I think many artists understand this feeling of art being both a reflection of ourselves and something separate from ourselves, and when people got my art, I felt like they could see or accept me in a way that was different than connecting on a more personal (meaning, me-the-person) level.

The other was when I got to know other people who were also outliers. I felt like we were able to see and acknowledge the complexity of each other’s multiple identities, and in that sense, finding each other was also finding a “home” or a people. Immigrants and the children of immigrants, racial/ethnic minorities (especially if they were also of mixed racial or cultural heritage), queer people, and also just anyone who felt at odds with the expectations of the dominant culture.

I think a lot of us with multiple identities know the relief of finding such fellow-travelers (pun intended) — there’s a sense of being able to let down some protective walls. And of not having to explain/justify certain things that are integral to our existence.

And on that note – being an outlier also means feeling freedom to critique the mainstream, which could be REALLY comforting in a foreign place.

Bani:  Hmmm

Lisa:  As a traveler I want to be really respectful of the place and culture and people, but sometimes I also want to say “WTF?!” and it felt easier to do that with people who were not fully identified with the majority.

Or I felt I could ask questions about things that confused or bothered me and get a thoughtful, nuanced answer and not just a textbook kind of reply. For instance, I got really cool New Zealand history lessons from new Māori friends, who told me things that I wouldn’t have found in a guidebook or in museums.

Bani:  Oh right. I thought you meant you felt comfortable asking other foreigners local questions

Lisa:  Yeah, not that.

Bani:  The truth always takes some searching, and everyone has a different version of it. In this way, it’s truly rewarding to get ‘off the beaten track’.

Lisa:  Yes! And I guess what I’m saying is that I feel like some people stop searching at an earlier point than other people, and I connected more with people who searched more deeply. And that was often because of their multiple identification.

Bani: A healthy distrust in the system can go a long way.

Lisa:  And a healthy distrust of single narratives. I think sometimes people just don’t know. Like people in the US not knowing Black history, or the history of Chinese immigrants, etc.

Bani:  Yes. But we act like we DO know. And don’t even ‘know’ it, we’re familiar with it, with the dominant narrative. For me, and this is a very generalized statement, but I feel being of color, queer, all these things, prepared me for the discomfort of the ‘unknown’ of travel. It doesn’t really scare the shit out of me. I’m used to and somewhat comfortable with being the Other. I know that I’m the one that’s foreign, not the place.

Lisa:  Hmm, I think it might have been the opposite for me — I think I was a little more afraid of travel because I thought I might stick out too much in some places. But I’ve come to more of that feeling you describe, of feeling paradoxically comfortable in lots of places/communities because I’m so often an outlier anywhere.

Bani:  It wasn’t immediate, it took some evolving. I’m just used to sticking out. Everywhere.

Lisa:  I think this is so interesting, because, circling back to what we were talking about at the beginning of this convo, when travelers who aren’t as marginal/multiply-identified go around the world acting so entitled, not to excuse that behavior, but I think that’s their way of coping with the unfamiliar — instead of feeling “foreign” everywhere they just act like they own everyplace. ;b

Bani:  Very true. They’re trying to balance out the power (even though it’s inherently imbalanced!)

Lisa: These are two really, really different styles of traveling and of just being, in general. I’d be interested in hearing more about this evolution of yourself as a traveler.

Bani: I’m writing a book about it! Thanks again for chatting with me tonight, Lisa.

Lisa:  Thank you! I really appreciate these dialogues you’re creating and like I said in my earlier email, I so wish all this had been on my radar when we first started traveling.

Bani:  I’m def no pioneer – there are lots of resources (poc travel blogs/critical thoughts on travel, neocolonialism, etc.) that I can direct you to.

Lisa:  Well, I think in a way we’re all pioneers just for not staying quiet.

Bani: Truth.

Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been) Dispatch: Moving Black

Hey people! Here’s my really belated interview with Abena Clarke of the blog Moving Black. Because of our traveling ways, our exchange took place over e-mail, over two weeks, in different time zones, in Accra, California, Ecuador, New York, Kenya and maybe London. It also took a while because I was reveling in VONA lyfe in California, and then my laptop broke! All complications aside, we managed to have a really straight up discussion on travel writing’s ‘bloody’ relationship with people of color, and how we might be able to approach a future together. Read on and get schooled!

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MsMovingBlack (aka Abena Clarke) is a Caribbean-based London-born teacher, writer, historian and armchair activist. She currently lives in Martinique but of all the countries and continents she’s visited, she’s most at home in the centre of a dance floor.

Photos courtesy of MsMoving Black

Photos courtesy of MsMoving Black

Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

I would describe my blog, Moving Black as the place where I record my adventures, conversations and thoughts on travel, identity, stories past and present and the interplay between them.  I try and provide an alternative discourse on the places I visit, and describe my experiences as a black British woman in them.

For me, the most easily accessible travel writing seems to be by white people and for white people. I am not white. I have a bunch of white friends, but I also have a big black family and a bunch of black friends and when we travel, we experience the very same places differently. I try and reflect that in my writing. In addition, the places we and I choose to visit and the museums I choose to go to are not necessarily those which your average white person my age would select. I try to contribute information about those places that do exist and are of interest to people like me but which are difficult to find information about.

In South Africa, for example, I wanted to visit Ginsberg in the Eastern Cape province, because it’s the spiritual home of the Black Consciousness Movement and the physical place where Steve Biko grew up and did amazing work as part of the Black Community Programmes in spite of being ‘banned’ by the apartheid government. The Steve Biko Foundation has an amazing community centre there, with a Heritage Trail and a museum, library, bar and restaurant (not to mention snazzy conference facilities) but when I was looking for information about the place, all I found was backpackers saying, “Spend one night if you must – there’s nothing to do here.”

When I went to Haiti, same thing. I was reading a lot about how dangerous it was and how I’d be crazy to go out at night. But as a black woman, this was not my experience. I dress simply and blend in a black crowd and was perfectly safe out alone at night in Jacmel and Cap Haitien for the most part.

Munich, Germany

Munich, Germany

There are a lot of black people who don’t get to the historical sights when they visit the Caribbean, or get past the safaris of Africa for one reason or another. I’ve got nothing against beaches or animals, but I think the black adoption of traditionally white modes of travel is problematic. No holidaymaker should be engaging in Orientalism when they travel in 2014 or beyond. But ‘point and stare’ tourism is still the standard because ‘difference’ and ‘exotic’ remain unconnected with a full humanity. ‘They’ are not like ‘us.’  Rome is still marketed as the birthplace of ‘civilisation.’ Like, really. I hope my blog contributes to black people, particularly those keen on independent travel, thinking carefully about their holiday destination choices and the role they play in those destinations in maintaining power relations.  It’s not sexy, but I try and make it light-hearted in my writing!

Oh – and you asked me about myself.  When I was the only black person in our group of 15 British kids sent to teach English in Thailand at 18, I prepared myself mentally.  I was British too, but I was not white from a semi-rural nor a privileged background.  All the same, I was still flabbergasted when in our second group meeting after we’d been in in our respective schools a few months, a girl admitted that she was having difficulties settling in and with colleagues because “They all look the same!”  Once it was said out loud, the group expressed their collective woes borne of differentiating between one Thai person and another. Seriously.  This was at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

I grew up in a different world from those kids. A happy multicultural politically-progressive area in 90s London, whereas these guys were from small towns and villages where black people were spotted at bus stops and Portuguese people were dark-skinned and ‘foreign-looking’. And I realised, these were the people travel literature was written for: upper-upper-middle class white people on an adventure with more-than-colonial undertones. One of them even went on to study ‘South-East Asian studies’. I fell in love with backpacking that year, but I fell out of love with mass-produced nonconformity, and learned quickly that travel and travel writing are not progressive unless you consciously make it so.

The Malcom X and Betty Shabazz Center, New York

The Malcom X and Betty Shabazz Center, New York

​How can travel media change to become less of a white boy’s club?

Short answer:  “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Chinua Achebe

LONG answer: Travel media can’t change unless the world changes. As long as travel media continues the tradition of denying people the opportunity to talk about their own hometowns, and instead pays foreigners to report back on someone else’s country, and no one sees anything wrong with that, it will continue to be a white boy’s club. Even if there are more people of colour in that club, travel writing will remain essentially an orientalist endeavour.

Stories about ‘them’ and ‘us’ and the essential insurmountable differences between humans and their collective groupings will abound. George W Bush’s cabinet had 2 people of colour in important positions – Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell. It was lauded as the most diverse cabinet in US history in some quarters if I remember correctly. But it was not a progressive cabinet in political terms because, to paraphrase Angela Davis, diversity which doesn’t produce change is meaningless and BECAUSE it looks progressive, can get away with being reactionary, i.e. backward!

The problem with travel media, for me, is really a more broad discourse. Who has the right to speak? Who has the power to be heard? Who sets the terms of the discussion? Who and what subjects are included? Who and what are excluded?

Travel writing has a troubled history. The tradition of travellers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe, it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism. Travel writing, like early anthropology, provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious or simply ‘other’. It played a key role in creating a popular imagination in which people are sufficiently characterised as so different, their lifestyles and cultural practices so alien, that they’re not fully human, and thus, with their humanity diminished bit by bit, story by story, you arrive at a world where brutal barbaric invasions are romanticised as bringing civilisation! Cruel, inhumane exploitation is barely thought of as unfortunate because it also involved ‘modernity’ or ‘Christianisation’. There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.

I don’t think I’ll make any friends but here’s my two cents: Travel media can’t change to become less of a white boy’s club unless it, by some unusually effective process of reflection, looks at itself and asks how it became one in the first place.

'Grafitti Street', Fort-de-France, Martinique

‘Grafitti Street’, Fort-de-France, Martinique

White boys didn’t invent the movement of peoples or travel for pleasure. If necessity is the mother of invention we know that travel has historically been very closely linked to trade. Where some people go to trade, other people follow to travel.  The link between the US ban on travel to Cuba for nationals following the trade embargo is one example. The place of Timbuktu in popular imagination is another. Our conceptions of geography itself are wedded to our political realities; how else do you explain that ‘everybody’ has heard of the Caribbean islands – Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas – but few people would place Cuba, Haiti or the Bermuda triangle in that same geographical region? How many people have heard of Martinique or Guadeloupe?  Let alone place them firmly in the same archipelago as St. Lucia or Trinidad if you gave them a map?

How is it that lots of contemporary travel writing is still so keen to present a place of wonder, relaxation or exploration for the traveller or tourist, and not as someone else’s home? Filled with all the stresses and joys of life for the people who live there?  What is it about the way we travel, that makes the realisation that the ‘unique’ transportation we’re taking in an ‘exotic’ destination is somebody else’s oh-so-mundane ride to work, a bit of a buzz kill?  Why are we so determined to talk about Jamaican beaches and landscapes, with reference to Jamaican crime, and not Jamaica and the IMF? Why is an authentic African adventure one which features seeing African wildlife and not one which features meeting African people, on their turf, as equals, or better yet, with them as the experts?

If I throw the question back at you, do you want travel media to become less of a white boy’s club, or all media? Travel is not a white boy’s club and never has been. We can’t talk about who gets to travel and whose lands are turned into ‘destinations’ – and whose aren’t – without talking about history and power. Well, I can’t!

 

Breaking Night

The virtue of travel is that is purges life before filling it up.” Nicolas Bouvier

All I wanted was to go back home. After spending a dope month in the East Bay for a writing workshop, I had to catch a plane to New York to pick up the rest of my stuff before hopping on another flight to Ecuador, where I live, the next morning. But after layovers in Las Vegas and Detroit, my flight was cancelled. That blasphemy of an airline, Spirit, got me on a plane to New York two days later, effectively making me miss my Ecuador flight, which cost an arm and a leg to reschedule. I had 2 days in the Clarion in Romulus, Michigan to kill, in which I fought and pleaded with airline officials and subsequently downed a case of Angry Orchard in the bathtub.

The only gleaming nugget to come out of that pile of shit was that Avianca, who were flying me to Ecuador, upgraded me to business class, and, as Joan Didion would (probably never) say, the term that came to mind was: BALLIN’. I’ve got a bad back that keeps me from sitting for too long and it’s made flying a nightmare, but my business class seat transformed into a twin bed and I was gifted with a real blanket and pillow, lots of wine and plenty of other free shit.

 

In the morning I had a layover in Bogotá. In the morning I had an intense migraine and a sinus thing that flared up the whole right side of my face in pain. In the morning I had some sort of muscle relaxer hangover and could barely function. My luck comes in spurts and then reverts back to its default state: shitty.

In the morning, our plane curled skyward like a rebellious strand of hair. The sun was still rising, and we flung ourselves right in the middle of its performance, impressionist strokes of coral and orange, as lucid and dreamy as a Monet landscape. The flight was short, and we were soon descending into a heavy swell of clouds, thick and amorphous, as if all the shadows in the world had been sucked into a mass in the sky. After a bit of turbulence, a dark city emerged on the underside, glittering in the civil twilight, surrounded by the crooked spine of mountains that make up the Andes. I tried to look for my home amongst the lego-like squares, and then realized, with no surprise whatsoever, that I thought of Quito as home. The words that came to mind were: worth it.

California Love

As I sit around a discounted hotel room in Romulus, Michigan, waiting for a storm in New York to abate so that I could fly in, pick up some stuff and head back home to Ecuador, it’s hard to believe that one of the best months of my life has just passed by. My travels in the East Bay for the VONA/Voices travel writing workshop for writers of color were blessed by new friends, old ones, sunshine, Pride, solidarity and love. I wanna say thanks to all the folks who made it possible: (Hover cursor over photos for captions; click to enlarge)

 
First of all, to Faith Adiele for educating and inspiring the shit outta me, for taking me to a Russian bathhouse when I really needed some healing, for having my back/preserving the sancitity of the workshop experience from day one. To Djoser Imhotep (and Justin), Austin Pritzkat (and Carlos), Mish, Dreu Oko & the Chestnut house for being gracious-as-fuck hosts. To Jake Salt & Kelly for skipping the march and spending Pride Sunday chillin in a kiddie pool with sangria, watermelon, weed and barbeque on the sunniest day of my stay.

To Giovannié Núñez-Dúeñas for smoking me out pretty much every day, to Alan ‘FthemPapers’ for spinning me across the dance floor, rings flying everywhere, while we brought the house down with our salsa dancing at VONA’s quinceñera party (afterward, Junot Díaz gave me two thumbs up and a big smile; who does that?) and to the Ecuadorian crew for representing: Fernanda Snellings, Sonia Guiñansaca, Julie Quiroz and Emilia Fiallo. Mad love to my VONA travel sisters Anu Taranath, Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, Adriana Páramo, Marie-Francoise Theodore, Lizzetta, Monique Sanchez and the Doctor, Sriram Shamasunder and especially to my affinity allies Celeste Chan and Cristina Golondrina Rose for being Everything. Finally, I wanna thank Kira Allen for them hugs. Really.

Not only was the VONA/Voices workshop a life-changing experience, but one I got to share with lots of beautiful folks in a truly gorgeous setting. I have my work cut out for me.

What mainstream travel media are still getting wrong

What up folks! Check out my interview with @Fly Brother Ernest White II on race, travel and travel media, What mainstream travel media are still getting wrong, which was republished by Matador Network yesterday. Please share and get some comments up there! The interview was a part of our Dispatch series, a bunch of conversations I’m having with writers of color on topics of race, place and adventure. Check out past Dispatches with artist Miyuki Baker and journalist Aliyya Swabby, and look out for next week’s Dispatch with Ms Moving Black on Monday. If you’re interested in getting involved in the project, let me know here. I’ll also be in New York City next week. If anyone’s into doing an interview in person, hit me up!

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‘3rd World Writing, 1st World Gaze’ Dispatch: Negrisimo

Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure is a series of interviews I launched in conjunction with a successful Indiegogo campaign I did to get to VONA/Voices workshop for writers of color this June. Even after reaching my crowdfunding goal, I wanted to keep the conversation going, and this week we’re featuring a talk I had with international journalist Aliyya Swaby, who keeps the blog Negrisimo. We chatted about her work in Panama’s black communities, the frustrations of tryna make it as a journalist in today’s media landscape, and how not to be another shitty first world writer. Read on!

dispatches

Aliyya Swaby is a newly minted freelance journalist currently chasing stories and adventure in Panama. After graduating from Yale last May, she received a Parker Huang Travel Fellowship to report on race, gentrification, and Afro-Panamanian culture. She uses her writing to explore the local effects of urban development. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Ozy and Racialicious. Check out her blog at aliyyaswaby.com and tweets at @AliyyaSwaby

Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

Aliyya Swaby:  I’m a freelance reporter, at least for now, reporting in Panama on a travel fellowship from Yale, my alma mater. My project here explores social and cultural issues in Afro Panamanian communities, obviously a very broad topic.

I’ve used it to explore parts of Panamanian culture that mainstream US media isn’t covering. I think a lot of articles in major publications talk about the steep growth rate of the country. Fewer talk about the positive and and negative effects of this growth on everyday people, especially low-income and minority groups.

I’d like to think that my writing is very grassroots oriented. I think the most interesting topics are the ones that are the most local. But that doesn’t help me get published. So I’ve been working on finding a balance.

BA:  Right on. Why did you choose Panama as the setting and the Afro-Panamanian community as the subject of your reportage?

AS:  I’d been awarded Yale fellowships before and used them to research similar issues in Latin American indigenous communities (specifically in Ecuador and Peru). I majored in environmental studies, and I wanted to learn more about the dynamics of forest conservation and indigenous rights in the Amazon. But I felt uncomfortable doing that sort of research. I’m not indigenous and ultimately my few months of reporting/research didn’t really give much back to those communities.

I chose to report on Afro-Panamanian communities, because it felt more personal. My parents are from Jamaica and Trinidad, and many black Panamanians are of Caribbean descent.

I’ve learned a lot about the West Indian diaspora being here in Panama. Actually, I have an article coming out soon about Marcus Garvey in Central America — not too many people know that he was inspired to start the UNIA after traveling and working in Panama and Costa Rica.

BA:  I didn’t know that!

AS:  Yeah, I spoke to my dad about it — he’s well read on West Indian and black American history — and he didn’t know either. I feel like there are millions of stories like these being passed over constantly. I love stumbling across them.

BA: Exactly. Those are exactly the kinda stories I wanna read.

AS:   It’s sad that there aren’t too many places to publish them.

BA:  Tragic, really. But then I think about the pre-internet age, and how folks went about distributing stories and information themselves because the mainstream didn’t provide a place for them.

AS:  Right. And it seems like you take advantage of different media outside of the mainstream to publish your work. I really admire that. I’ve enjoyed keeping a blog throughout this fellowship — though it’s still online, I feel less powerless having a self-curated space. At the same time, I’ve been trying to force my way into mainstream media. It seems backwards, but I think many people only have access to certain publications. Maybe they lack the connections or time or resources to search for alternative news sources. I want my work to be widely read. (And I want to be paid for it.)

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Photos courtesy of Aliyya Swaby

BA:  The thought of bending my words to fit into mainstream travel writing kinda freaks me out. While it’s very important, crucial even, that certain stories get attention through a mainstream audience, it’s just not the type of attention my work needs. I don’t know. I’m still trying to carve out my own space and find my own voice. You’re coming from this academic, journalist background, and I can def see how that needs a different kind of attention. And you should get paid for it!

AS:  That makes total sense. I don’t know how far I’d be willing to bend my writing to fit it into certain slots. So far, I’ve mostly been published in smaller online magazines. I haven’t had to give up much. But I’ve definitely researched and pitched way more ideas than I’ve been able to publish. I do think, though, that there should be more opportunities available for this kind of writing than exist.

BA:  It’s part of the game, people say. But I notice which editors turn down which pitches, and I’m like, really?

AS: Also, we talked a bit before about the term “travel writer”.

BA: Yes, I wouldn’t corner you into that genre. That’s just me.

AS:  I just think it’s interesting. I’ve shied away from the term and that kind of writing. But reading your work is making me think about it differently. There’s definitely something to be said for creating your own path and your own definition or brand of travel writing.

It’s just been really frustrating throughout this fellowship to see a bit more of the behind-the-scenes of the journalism industry. There’s a lot of opportunities for uninformed diatribe.

BA:  It’s endless.

AS:  But not much for carefully researched articles on local issues. Or for writers who have a different audience in mind.

BA:  Speak, speak. It’s the truth. But I do think there’s a place for your work to be read by a wide audience, and that’s how I stumbled onto your writing, through your Racialicious piece, ‘Western Privilege and Anti-Black Racism in Panama’.

AS:  That’s true! I just was going to say: It’s hasn’t been all bad or frustrating. Racialicious is a great example of a publication with a LOT of very informed readers who are interested in hearing different voices. I’m really grateful to have been published there. The exposure was priceless. And I actually have been contacted a few times by editors who have read it and were interested in hearing what else I was working on.

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BA: That’s awesome. Also, I related to something you touched on in that article. For me, I’m Ecuadorian-Guatemalan-American, I live in Quito, and a lot of non-Ecuadorians (mostly white expats) feel like they can confide their anti-Ecuadorian sentiments/complaints in me, because I’m ‘exceptional’. This idea, that you are exceptional, is interesting to me.

AS:  Yeah, that definitely happens. In the article, I wrote about a journalist who told me how black people in Colon are just lazy freeloaders. And it happened to me in Peru and Ecuador, but it was a different dynamic because I actually didn’t see very many people like me in the capital cities.

BA: I’ve seen African-American expats in Ecuador treated very differently than Afro-Ecuadorians, for instance. When it’s convenient for folks.

AS:  Yeah, that makes sense. It’s a weird space to be in. I have a lot of white European friends here who don’t like that they stand out so much. I definitely can pass through certain areas more easily than they can. But also standing out, for me, is a good thing because otherwise I’d be treated poorly.

BA:  I’m so over white travelers complaining about how they stick out. Have fun being the ‘Other’, for a change.

AS: Yep, it’s a hard thing for white people to deal with, especially if it’s their first time in a “black” country. In a way, Panama is a black country.

BA:  There’s just a lack of reflection when white people complain about it, which leads me to my next question. In that Racialicious article you mention trying to be careful about framing other people’s stories in your gaze as a an American journalist. I’m going to go ahead and say that most travel writers and journalists are definitely not reflecting on Western privilege when they report abroad.

AS: Right. And that’s a problem, for sure. But it’s also a really difficult thing to do.

BA: How so?

AS:  First of all, as we talked about earlier, certain angles are going to be published more often in mainstream media than others. Too often, those angles replicate common misconceptions about global south/Third World countries or follow similar trends. For example, there were a few articles criticizing the news cycle surrounding the Boko Haram kidnappings.Articles on violence are readily published.

BA: Yup.

AS: Articles on local artists/cultural pioneers are not, for example. I think I’ve been lucky in finding publications interested in some of my ideas. And then I was able to do the research necessary to make sure I wasn’t presenting misinformation or an incorrect angle. But there are so many steps in the process and so much competition.

Many people don’t want to think about privilege, especially if there’s nothing forcing them to. That’s why I think there needs to be more space for people who do think about it. Those perspectives should be valued and should be adequately compensated to make sure that they stay in journalism. A problem right now is that many would-be journalists can’t afford to be. And freelance work is becoming less and less lucrative.

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BA:  Absolutely. Mad writers can’t just get fellowships, can’t get funding to travel, can’t afford to be an unpaid intern, etc. A space needs to be made for them.

AS:  Definitely. Diversity in mainstream media is at the root of many problems in the industry. Like anthropology, it’s the sort of medium that’s always been “white man’s thoughts on x other group” And it shouldn’t be like that anymore. But factors like unpaid internships and lack of pay for freelancers really keep most people out of the business. Some radical change needs to be made, but newer sites like Vox, for example, have been criticized for the same lack of diversity as older historic publications.

BA: So what advice would you pass on to those of us who do manage to stay in the game and are pursuing this kind of work,  how not to be just another privileged foreigner who pops in, takes what they need, and leaves? For travel writers and journalists reporting abroad, I mean.

AS:  Well, really, I need this sort of advice. I’ve only been freelancing for eight months — I don’t feel qualified enough to give any definitive rule or plan. But one thing that has helped me during my time here is focusing on building real relationships with the people I meet, whose groups I’m reporting on.

There’s a fear in journalism that being too chummy with your sources leads to biased reporting. But I think journalists should be more afraid of the opposite — that they won’t get deep enough into understanding a new culture or community to be able to represent it well in writing. And I think doing that well takes a lot of energy, effort and time. I’ve decided to stay in Panama longer than my allotted fellowship time, because I don’t think I’m done here. I’m learning how to make these connections and how I fit into this culture. I need more time to do it.

BA:  That’s awesome! I know you’ll make the best of your time there.

AS:  I hope so!

‘What Mainstream Travel Media Still Gets Wrong’ Dispatch: Fly Brother

Hey People, we’re 2 weeks into my Indiegogo campaign to help fund my trip from Ecuador to California for the VONA/Voices workshop for writers of color. I’m so happy to have been accepted into their travel writing track in Berkeley this June, now I just gotta pay off my tuition and buy my plane ticket! I’m in Ecuador receiving treatment for my disability, which hinders my ability to write for work, and thus, pay these fees by myself. If you could donate even just a lil’ bit I’d be uber-appreciative! If not, please share with your comrades via social media.

Click here to donate <

In conjunction with the crowdfunding campaign, I launched the interview series Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure. Our first conversation was with Miyuki Baker. Our next is with Ernest White II, aka Fly Brother. Read on, folks.

dispatches

Fly Brother (aka Ernest White II) tackles international travel in unabridged, unapologetic, full and complete color.  He is a former assistant editor of Time Out São Paulo whose writing has appeared in Time Out London, the Orlando SentinelEbony, TravelChannel.com, American Airlines’ Black Atlas, Travel by Handstand, TripAdvisor, Viator, Jetsetter, World Travel Guide, and Matador. He has also been featured on The Root, The Huffington Post, and the Montreal Gazette Online, and has appeared as a host on the Travel Channel’s Jamaica Bared and Destination Showdown, which aired this past summer on the Travel Channel.

Ernest White II - Berlin - large

Bani Amor: Tell us who you are. How would you describe your work?

Ernest White II:  Well, my name is Ernest White II, and I’m a writer and educator from Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve lived in five countries and traveled to almost 40. I’m a huge aviation geek and history buff with an affinity for house music and old school movie-musicals (my most obvious gay trait).

I feel like my two professional strains – writing and education – are constantly influencing one another. I think my writing offers a bit of knowledge to the reader, whether it’s a personal travel narrative, a how-to guide, or a piece of fiction. Conversely, the way I interact with my students is by incorporating literature, film, history, and (of course) travel as a part of my teaching methodology (which is easy to do when you’re teaching English, history, or social sciences, as I do).

I guess I must also mention that my work as a writer is driven by my desire to connect people of color – particularly black Americans – to the world outside our immediate communities.

Be that through highlighting a specific cultural connection or collection of influences, or something more universal to the human experience.

BA:  So thinking about Place and Identity is pervasive in all your work.

EW: I absolutely feel that place and identity are pervasive in my work. We as people are greater than the sum of our parts, but where we’re from and the identities that stem from that, as well as the identities that we craft on our own, are two of the largest constituent parts to who we are.

BA: Truth. What came first: writing or traveling? Was becoming a travel writer inevitable?

EW:  Traveling definitely came first, because I’ve had a love for geography, cultures, and languages since elementary school. My first inclination was to  be a novelist, but I think considering my absolute compulsion to travel (which can severely impair novel-writing time) pushed me towards the inevitable.

BA:  Your ‘Why Fly Brother?’ mission statement (and all the comments that follow) is probably one of my favorite things on the internet. You say, “People want to know what being black means outside of the US.” Do you have an answer for that?

EW:  Thank you! I think that statement can be read two ways: as indicating a curiosity that (black) Americans may have about their own potential experiences abroad, and as a curiosity about non-American folks in the African Diaspora worldwide. I certainly don’t have a singular answer to that curiosity because, to my mind, there are infinite ways to be black inside and outside the US.

BA: Of course.

EW: I could also say something like “It means people copying your dance steps, music, and speech patterns and you get arrested with greater frequency,” but that would be a bit cynical, wouldn’t it?

BA:  You’re talking to Cynic Numero Uno, you’re safe here.

EW:  I know you feel me.  ;  )

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BA: Just a few years ago, a search for ‘black’ or ‘POC travel blogs’ wouldn’t bring up many results. Now, there are tons of folks doing it. What’s changing?

EW:  First, I think it took a minute for people of color to get into the blogging game in general, and specifically, travel-related blogs. I think that as a demographic, again, speaking generally, we spent more of our computer time focused on money-earning endeavors, and it was only when we began noticing the dearth of writing out there that spoke to our particular experiences, that we began to write in earnest.

BA:  Yes, sometimes folks wait around for a hero, someone with guts. It speaks to representation.

EW:  I absolutely agree that sometimes people need to see someone else take the plunge first, which I understand. I can be pioneering in some ways and a total wuss in others.

BA:  Word. It helps not to be The Only One doing a thing.

EW:  But that also reflects the historical relationship of people of color to travel, especially those of us from backgrounds that don’t include recent immigration from another country. Just as travel was seen as a luxury item, I think we tended to view blogging about it – at first – as somewhat of a waste of time.

BA:  Interesting, but do you think that’s a direct result of the active exclusion of POC by the travel industry?

EW:  I do think there was some active exclusion of people of color in travel up until the late 1960s, at least in the US. You still had segregated airports, bus terminals, buses, trains, beaches even. Then, there was the prohibitive cost of air and sea travel. Couple that with the very real need for steady employment within the community, and you can see a built-in reticence to just drop it all and travel.

Once, I was profiled on a black news website about my travels and forgot to mention something about how cheaply I travel during the interview. Sure enough, one of the commenters mentioned that I must have a trust-fund or something. Even now, the idea that travel is prohibitively expensive still exists.

BA:  It can be seen as “privileged” or something “white people do” within communities of color.

EW:  Absolutely.

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BA:  Any thoughts on how race is handled in travel media today?

EW:  Generally, I don’t feel that non-white people are treated in the same exoticized way as you’d see in travel media (mostly personal narratives, magazine articles, travel posters, and tour brochures) up through the early 20th century. Nowadays, there’s an atmosphere of cultural sensitivity up to a point, and then it just gets ignored as an issue too big to address.

BA:  In travel media, anything is up for grabs if it sells. Indigenous communities turn into destinations to be consumed, bought and sold, reinstating imperialism altogether.

EW:  Well, you know what, this speaks to the larger problem. I think when it comes to indigenous communities and tourism, the exoticism has never gone away. Lord, it’s depressing. And STILL ignored by mainstream travel media.

BA:  I don’t expect much from mainstream travel media, but even the other stuff is full of this kind of rhetoric. I think travel writers just copy what’s out there. I was literally told the same in travel writing class. Just do what the mainstream folks are doing, and you’ll get in. And as long as a white majority is still steering these conversations, this kind of content will go unchallenged.

EW:  That advice kind of disgusts me, nahmsayin? ::sigh:: preachin to the choir

BA:  That’s why a lot of that glossy travel mag stuff is so trashy! Not that it’s all bad. There’s hope, people.

EW:  It goes unchallenged all the time. I just read an essay in a major travel publication by a very famous writer who has made questionable statements regarding race before. If we’re being honest, there is some, shall we say, tongue-biting that must be done if we want to have some semblance of success in the industry.

BA:  Which is to say, if you don’t wanna go broke.

EW:  We have to play along somewhat until we get into a position to be completely true to our voices. It means sometimes taking the slower road to success; subversion.

At what price do you end up “selling out?”

I will say that there isn’t any amount offered that would make me feel good about misrepresenting my people or anyone else for that matter. Not with my name attached.

BA:  Preach!

‘Stay True to Your Roots’ Dispatch: Miyuki Baker

dispatches

Hey people! Last week I launched my Indiegogo campaign to help get me from Ecuador to California for the VONA/Voices writer’s workshop this June. Good news is I’m already 26% funded. Better news is you still have 43 days left to contribute! Please consider donating (even if it’s just a few bucks) and get zines, original artwork, writing services and excessive thank yous in exchange.

> Click here to donate <

In conjunction with my Indiegogo campaign, I’m lauching Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color on Race, Place & Adventure, and plan to incorporate the interviews into a zine to give to donors once it’s through. Just think of the bulk of travel writing out there, think about your editors, your colleagues, your writing coaches/teachers, your competition. Most of this industry is very white (and male, and straight, etc.) So I’d like this site to be a space where the rest of us can converge and plan our takeover. Haha jk (not really). If you think you’d make a good subject, just get in touch via e-mail (heyitsbani at gmail dot com) or via the Work With Me page above.

Our first dispatch comes from artist, activist and explorer, Miyuki Baker. Read on folks:

India Zine

Miyuki is a resident of the place where circles overlap. As a queer, multi-racial/lingual female mixed-media artist, she is happiest when working with people who embrace intersectionality and creativity. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 2012, she received the Watson Fellowship to travel the world in search of queer artists and activists and made 8 zines highlighting what she learned under her publishing house Queer Scribe Productions.  She is a freelance artist, journalist, barber, translator, seamstress, lecturer and performer. Contact her at heymiyuki at gmail dot com.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe what you do?
Miyuki Baker: I’m a queer woman of color artist, activist and explorer.  I make things and tell stories in the hopes that they will shed light on our shared humanity.

BA: How does place influence/factor into your work?

MB: Since I’ve been on the road since May 2012, I’d say place influences my work quite a bit. I feel like the work of documenting and chronicling what I see and experience in new places is heavily affected by the fact that I’m parachuting in and then leaving a couple of months later. It forces me to make intense connections quickly and try to minimize the feeling of dislocation for myself.  It makes me think about the outsider/insider perspective a lot and to be sensitive to/respectful of the local politics of the place I’m in.

BA: Tell us about Queer Scribe Productions and the International Art/Activism Zine Project.

MB: In May 2012, I started a 14 month trip around the world to make zines about queer art and activism. I ended up going to 15 countries and making zines about 8 of them which you can see in full color at queerscribe.com I was particularly interested in finding how the local culture, politics, history, geography etc. affected the media used by artists and activists in queer communities. For example, the opening of a queer film festival in Bangalore, India has encouraged many more locals to try their hands at film making.

I also performed in most of the countries I visited as a way to give back to communities, but most of the time I was trying to meet as many different kinds of queer artists and activists, attending events, lectures and festivals.

Singapore

BA: Did you encounter any challenging conditions while traveling with your project?

MB: Initially it was that I had my camera, laptop and cell phone stolen within the first couple of months of my trip. I’d say I got over each episode pretty quickly but there were moments where I wanted to put more into the zines but couldn’t because I didn’t have a personal computer. I made all of the zines on borrowed computers or in internet cafes. Ultimately, it was because I didn’t have an electronic barrier that I was able to jump into more social situations so it was a blessing in disguise.

Other than that, my first couple of weeks in Buenos Aires were rough because despite how overt gay culture is there, it felt extremely commercial and not at all what I was expecting. It took me a lot longer there than anywhere else to find any radical queer activists who welcomed me.

BA: What did you learn about international queer communities, if anything?

MB: I’d hope that I learned something about international queer communities after 14 months of focusing on it ;) It’s almost too daunting to say anything in such a small space but I’ll say that I learned the importance of both staying true to your roots (or revitalizing your roots/indigenous traditions) and also adapting. Things are always in flux but I found the sticky tentacles of colonization contaminating most places. In those situations you just have to find a happy medium! And many vibrant queer communities around the world were doing just that :)

BA: Why did you choose zines to be the medium for your project? How would it have been different otherwise?

MB: I specifically chose zines for their DIY and low-budget nature (except the time when I printed in color–eek!). I wanted a medium that wouldn’t be pretentious and could be easily/cheaply distributed.  I found that performing was great on site, but to share different stories, I can’t imagine using anything other than zines.

BAWhich QTPOC* artists/writers/projects inspire your work? What would you like to see more of?

Aami Atmaja, Tania de Rozario, Louise Chen, Elisha Lim, Aryakrishnan Ramakrishnan…
I’d like to see more collaborations!

BA: Anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?

Subscribe to my illustrated blog at heymiyuki.wordpress.com where I draw and write about travel, art and food every week :)

Also, I’m raising funds to become a yoga teacher. Visit my campaign at igg.me/at/miyukiyoga to see my amazingly edited (just kidding, I did it on iMovie) film and support me in exchange for zines, custom portraits, prints and more!

Germany The Queer Edition
* QTPOC – Queer and/or Trans People of Color