I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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!