Sky’s the Limit: On Bourdain, Memoir, and the Pitfalls and Potential of Travel Lit

Hey People,

Happy Pride! I’m here, I’m queer, let’s get into this new update.

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Bustle is running a series called Have Books, Will Travel, featuring essays by non-normative travel writers on the genre, so of course you know I had some things to say. I wanted to focus on how this genre is crafted in such a way to weed out commentary that isn’t 100% sunny, as in, of a leisurely or commercial nature, and how that can suppress certain necessary stories and voices. Writing memoir should seemingly rectify that, since it’s all about being vulnerable, having perspective, and being reflective of one’s actions. But let’s be real—we can do better.

Travel writers lie to themselves and their readers when they front like visiting a place makes them authorities on it, because the average white American doesn’t know many people from that place, but does have a few friends who went there once. They lie when they add a touch of self-deprecation to their stories, because humility seems smart in hindsight, and because all those people who witnessed them being annoying tourists are still in that place far away and can’t attest that these tourists haven’t learned sh*t. And too often, travel writers lie when they write like race, gender, and class are foreign concepts that exist outside of the scope of travel writing when they’re actually located at the heart of it.

I originally wrote the paragraph above using “we” instead of “they” but it was changed, and now I wonder if the hate I’ve gotten for writing this would be less so if those who are allergic to conversations about race and travel had read the original. But I immediately know the answer is no. Race is just one aspect of this dialogue and this essay isn’t even about whiteness or racism so if for some reason you feel personally attacked, figure it out I guess.

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So I was on the radio the other day and was asked about Anthony Bourdain, may he rest in peace. I thought about him in relation to this essay because it’s about honesty, about being real about your positionality in a place and as a person writing about it, even when you’re unsure about what that is, or feel uncomfortable about it. I feel that as travelers and travel writers, people who are always foreign somewhere, what we do is all about getting comfortable with the unknown. Bourdain didn’t always have easy answers or perfect politics, but he did always seem—to me, at least, and I started watching from the very beginning—to be honest about this. To ask questions he didn’t have the answers to, and to tread into other people’s homelands and homes ready to be schooled, to learn. We need more of that. And that’s all I’m tryna say here.

I try to identify the colonizer in my writing in an attempt to reach a deeper truth about how I move about the world, because from a different perspective, I have the normative voice, and I’d be a liar, and thus, a sh*tty writer, if I didn’t acknowledge that.

There’s so much revolutionary potential in writing stories about what is lost and gained in the process of migration to adhere to outdated story structures that deny the depth and complexity of our experiences. I think the way to write decolonized travel narratives is to pursue our truths, the truth, so doggedly that it leads us off the path of tradition and into terra incognita. From there, the sky’s the limit.

So what travel writers or books do you think get this right, or close to it? What do your manuscripts look like? Have you thought about any of this stuff while writing or reading travel? Do tell in the comments. You can read the essay in full here.

 

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White Women Don’t Speak for All of Us: On ‘Safe’ vs. ‘Dangerous’ Travel Destinations

OK, so it’s been forever and a day since I’ve updated this here blog and I’m sorry for the radio silence. If you’ve been following me on social media you’d know I’m still alive and kicking and have simply gone the way of many bloggers before me who…fail to update their blogs.

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There’s so much I gotta share with y’all but I’ll start off with this essay published at the beginning of the year on racist conversations on safety in travel culture that erase women and trans people of color’s voices and experiences with harassment and gendered violence. And really, those listicles on ‘safe’ travel destinations for women are a whole heaping mess of bias, assumptions, and feelings over facts. Cis white women’s feelings, to be specific. Here’s the premise:

Travel safety is simply more of a concern for women, trans men, and nonbinary travelers. But these conversations around safety have long been dominated by white Western women with class and race privilege who color their “advice” with a not-so-coded streak of racism. Safety for white women travelers is not the same as safety for women and nonbinary travelers of color, and when travel media fails to even acknowledge that we exist in these narratives, they strengthen the conditions that make this patriarchal world unsafe for those most vulnerable.

Unless you’ve managed to delude your racist ass into believing you’re ‘colorblind,’ then you’ve noticed that listicles on ‘safe’ travel destinations for women are not only written by white women but primarily list majority-white countries in what’s referred to as the ‘developed world’. You can call them former colonies, the ‘first world,’ whatever, but we all know how they got their wealth and which citizens they guarantee ‘safety’ for. So clearly this conversation needs to be complicated, because,

those are relative notions shaped by power, and not a one-size-fits-all deal.

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There’s a lot to parse through here, but I want to highlight two main points.

  1. These conversations rely on unexamined stereotypes of Black and brown men as not only criminals, but hypersexual beings who prey on white women
  2. These conversations completely erase how Black, Native, and other women of color are often hypersexualized in predominantly white places while also being hyperpoliced, making them unsafe in spaces white women deem ‘safe’

“Whether . . . in a long, flowing skirt or in jeans and a peacoat, there are just some regions of the world [where people] see black skin on a woman, and assume that the only way I was able to afford to get there and stay there, was by way of selling my body to a local.” – Gloria Atanmo, The Worst Part About My Travels As A Solo, Black Woman

So when a cis white woman with the privilege to travel the world advises you on where you should and shouldn’t travel, just assume that she’s only speaking for herself and women just like her, a global minority overrepresented in travel culture. It’s tired as hell.

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We all experience the world differently, and if we are to advise others on how to navigate it, we need to be aware of and address those differences. When the mainstream travel culture—dominated with white voices—deems what’s safe or unsafe, they largely frame themselves as victims and people of color as predators because they are doing so without an analysis of power in mind.

Read the essay in full here.

Literary Ancestors: On the Significance of Travel Writing by POC

Hey people,

Popping in for another random-ass update about a month overdue. Over a year ago I started the POC Travel Book Club to get other nerds to talk to me about travel-ish books not written by white people. Now we have around 150 members who are getting ready to discuss An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, edited by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. I wrote about our lil’ club as well as the legacy of whitewashing in travel literature and the significance of reading travel by POC for CNN Travel!

Shout out to Abena Clarke of MsMovingBlack blog for this gem:

“The tradition of travelers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe; it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism.” Travel writing provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious, or simply ‘other.’ There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.”
Though it wasn’t linked to in the piece, this quote is from our talk Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been) from back in ’14. My CNN piece includes a photo gallery of all the books we’ve read together so far, so while the club is for POC only, white folks are welcome (and encouraged) to read along on their own.

 

Part of decolonizing travel narratives is redefining what gets to be filed under travel writing and expanding it to include varying forms of migration and the unlimited stories of place and identity this experience produces. The kind of stories we read in the POC Travel Book Club.
Head here to join us. If you’re already a part of the club, then I’ll be seeing you December 10th at 2pm EST over Hangouts.

NYC: Let’s Talk Tourism in Literature

Hey people. It’s been a minute ’cause I’m trying to keep up with this bitch called Life in 2017. I just wanted to pop in to invite those of y’all in NYC to this dope event on tourism in literature this Thursday, October 12th at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, a space I love!

Travel writing is a genre rife with fantasies of escape, luxury, and finding oneself through an experience in an unfamiliar place—in other words, colonial tropes. Is it possible to write about travel while decolonizing the narrative? What can contemporary literature tell us about the relationship between tourists and service workers, and can it provide more authentic ways of knowing places that have been branded to Western tourists as pleasure zones? Join us for a reading with Canadian writer Farzana Doctor, who joins us for the US launch of All Inclusive, her book written from the perspective of a worker at a Mexican resort, queer travel writer and activist Bani Amor, writer and professor Tiphanie Yanique, whose debut novel, Land and Love of Drowning chronicles the changes in the US Virgin Islands over the 20th century and who recently wrote “Americans in a Battered Paradise” about the devastation of Hurricane Irma in The New York Times. They will be joined by Julia Hori, a graduate student who researches the colonial underpinnings of tourism in the Caribbean.

We’ll all be reading then taking part in a Q & A with the audience. It’s free ($5 suggested!) but it would be helpful if you reserved your seat through Eventbrite or Facebook. Come over and say hi; you’re likely to find me drinking in a corner.

Resisting Coloniality in Travel Writing with Faith Adiele

Travel writing [is] a particularly colonized genre desperately in need of a full-frontal attack. Not only do we have to fight against the master travel narrative—an extension of the colonial project—and redefine the definition of travel, but we spend a lot of time educating POC about what travel literature is. Folks weren’t valuing their journeys as the stuff of literature, and they were letting the white gaze determine and define the world. As I always say, POC are the most traveled people on the planet; every time we leave our houses, we travel.

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    Photo by Jackie Graves

    Hey people! I’m excited to finally share my talk with the one and only Faith Adiele. She’s the award-winning author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun and The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems, and teaches what I’m 99.9% sure is the only travel writing workshop exclusive to people of color at the VONA/Voices workshop, which I’ve written about here, here, and here. A bite:

Travel memoirs in the hands of women and nonbinary writers of color in particular can be a revolutionary thing. While traditional story structures often fail to accommodate the ample stories of hyphenated people with “complicated” identities, it also provides an opportunity to complicate the project of memoir in new and exciting ways. It’s what Faith Adiele calls a “superpower.”

Click pic to read the interview in full

For my series of interviews with WOC authors of travel-ish books for On She Goes, Faith and I talked about writing against the trope of Westerners seeking spiritual enlightenment in the East, finding relief abroad from the racialized binary of the US, and why teaching travel writing to people of color is such vital work. When I asked her about writing her first book, Meeting Faith, (which we read in the POC Travel Book Club!) she said:

I see POC and others trying to cram themselves into the old structures that don’t represent the way we view time, the multiple codes we speak, the shapes of our families and lives. I knew that one of the reasons I had ended up shattered in northern Thailand is the pressure I experienced at college to choose between being female (a white project) or black (a male project), which felt like a choice between my arm or my eye, so I certainly wasn’t going to let narrative rules do the same kind of damage.

Every Spring, I press folks I know, readers who reach out to me, and strangers on the street, that if they are of color and interested in writing travel, to apply to work with Faith at the VONA/Voices writing workshop. It will change your life! Read our talk in full here.

[Header image by Sailor Holladay.]

My Favorite Black-Owned Restaurants in Brooklyn

Y’all might have heard of that restaurant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn that boasted about the bullet holes in their walls (which turned out to be fake) and sold 40oz bottles of Rosé in brown paper bags, because it’s a new low for gentrifiers, and a lot of people rightly got pissed. I used to live in that neighborhood, on its edge at least, and today, find it unrecognizable. But this isn’t about the politics of uninvited guests, it’s about good food! And supporting Black-owned businesses whose food cultures are under threat! But also, food!

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Via OnSheGoes.com Oh, and that’s Soleil Ho’s article in the corner, go read that too!

I highlighted some places I drop by whenever I’m in that borough, and, as is often the case with food writing, was salivating as I wrote it. Check out the guide in full here.

Unsettling Tourism: On the Colonial and Patriarchal Gaze of Travel Media

Hey people, I’m still settling into my new base in Montréal – the land of pâté, poutine, and other things I’ll never understand. Popping in between the cat emergencies and Facebook pleas for free furniture to share my latest essay for Bitch Magazine for their series on Fragility.

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Illustration by Subin Yang

The use of women’s bodies—and specifically, the promise of sex—to sell any and everything under the sun has long been the subject of beef between feminists and the advertising world, but what happens when the product being sold is a place? The marketing of women’s bodies, namely, those of color, as destinations to be consumed, lands to be penetrated, or as accessories to the (masculine) tourist experience has remained a largely uncontested norm in travel ads, from vintage depictions of the Hawaiian feminine to the mainstream pimping of Brazilian women’s bodies from brands like Adidas and Kia Motors during the 2014 World Cup.

In this long-ass (I believe the proper term is ‘longform’) piece, I attempt to answer the questions:

  • What does tourism’s dehumanization of women of color tell us about the fragility of the western traveler?
  • What role does patriarchy play in selling place? And,
  • What does—or doesn’t—constitute a feminist travel narrative?

There are a ton of sources mentioned within the essay for folks to follow-up on, from academic shout-outs to literary ones. (I go into a lil’ more depth on these sources in this Twitter thread.)  But this line from Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other gets to the root of it all:

It is as if everywhere we go, we become someone’s private zoo.

Read the essay in full here.

decolonizing travel culture

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