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, your identities, and how they interact?
Brian Kamanzi: My name is Brian Ihirwe Kamanzi, I grew up in town called Mthatha in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. My father is a patriotic Ugandan national and my mother is a South African Indian. My identities lie tied in between that of my parents. I feel an affinity for Uganda; I see myself in the people. At the same time, just by looking at me, you can see that India is represented from the tones of my skin to the darkness of my eyes that I have inherited from my beautiful mother. I have struggled between these identities.
Growing up I never felt like I had ownership of the South African identity. I still have difficulty claiming it for my own to this day. I feel like the gift of my ancestry has shown me just how arbitrary national borders are. I am an African – emphatically so. My work, through writing and spoken word is an effort to assert myself in a world that denies me.
I write to seize control. I write because I see my story, my feelings tied with those who are denied in their own ways. I hope for my work to form part of a broader project. A Pan-African project that will give voice to the former souls who were denied that choice.
Bani: Writing, in that sense, is kind of an aggressive act, don’t you think? I think Didion said that. I definitely think of my writing in that context, however, voices that have been historically silenced might not think like that. I think it’s something writers of color try to balance in a way
Brian: Without question. This is an act of aggression. This is an acutely political act. I can no longer be silenced. I take great strength from the strong people all over the world who share their stories everyday. We needn’t be overlooked any longer. I have to believe that. You know?
Bani: Def. Marginalized writers tend to have these internalized voices in their heads, the Dominant Voice, doubting that they even have the right to write. Does that make sense?
Brian: Oh yes. That rings so true. In fact I feel that pressure from other marginalised voices as well. There is a sense that you’re not good enough if you’re not a budding Toni Morrison. There is so much doubt. One is afraid to speak about Africa if you haven’t read all the major authors. It’s silencing and it’s a battle to look past it.
There is a fear that we are not good enough and I can’t deny that I don’t feel it but again I take so much strength from seeing the ordinary folk who express themselves through writing. The internet has really been such a gift for that.
Bani: I struggle a lot with self-doubt and my work and it’s a real killer. You’re about to put pen to page and then this invisible hand stops you. All writers/creators deal with this, but for multiply-marginalized folks, it’s epidemic. Finding work that speaks to me (not at me) is like panning for gold. And what I don’t find in books, I see in social media. It’s rejuvenating.
Brian: I feel very much the same. There is a raw sense that these are people’s emotions. Virtually unedited. Live. If not alive. It’s incredibly affirming. It also gives the words so much dimension. I mean take your writing for example. I can only dream of Ecuador but to read your piece and to have an interaction with you about your work is amazing. It makes me feel like I can reach you. It makes me feel like indeed we are connected. Those subtle everyday thoughts from folks on widely different contexts show us that in fact maybe we aren’t all that different.
Bani: Yup. I didn’t really care about social media until I (recently) realized how much it’s used as a tool for cross-cultural communication, allowing us to engage in conversation with other disenfranchised people, and allowing us to organize across our differences.
Brian: I really agree on the social media front, the amount of intersectional feminists on Twitter for example is phenomenal and I really enjoy their engagements online. There is so much scope for cross-cultural dialogue.
Bani: I wanted to talk about your creative influences, folks – whether in print or not – who have helped you “find your voice.”
Brian: When it comes to creative writing, there are two figures that really gave me the strength to assert myself – Malcolm X and Steve Biko. Particularly Malcolm. His confidence, tactfulness and almost rhythmic way of speaking & writing leaves me smiling and with a fire in my chest. A fire that makes me want to raise my voice. Be productive.
With Poetry, Mama Maya Angelou is such a muse. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings hit me in places I never knew existed. Talking about Pan-African feminism, Minna Salami who is also a blogger and a writer has been such a great affirmative find as well. Straight talking, direct in a way that makes me feel like she’s talking to me. Encouraging me to do better. It’s amazing.
Bani: Mami handed me her copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 13…and the rest is history.
Brian: Haha what an age to read his words! Malcolm is one of those figures that makes you feel uneasy about the way things are. It feels more real. Uncomfortable but closer to the truth.
Bani: Let’s get into travel writing. What are your thoughts on the genre?
Brian: I think that particularly in our generation, where things have opened up globally, somewhat, there is a feeling that we are now allowed to dream and have wanderlust for far away spaces and places. Unfortunately many of the stories that, personally, I’ve been fed, are told by travellers who don’t know a thing about my experience. They don’t have the capacity to experience Ghana or India the way that I do. So many stories in travel writing speak from a place of abject objectivity where all else in front of his gaze is granted colour and is sexually exoticised at his will for his aesthetic function.
I see the need for a shift and it is definitely happening. A shift that allows a more diverse array of writers to share their experiences of different contexts that doesn’t feel…let me call it “colonial.”
There is almost an invisible hierarchy of experiences. One goes to Europe for the “culture” and one goes to Africa to self-actualise in Nature. I don’t see myself in either experience. I have no desire to conquer the savanna with trophies of lions. At the same time I see no reason to hail the cultures of Europe above the great multitude that are in front of me right here. At home.
I love reading travel writing, though when it’s done through an appreciative lens. There is really nothing more satisfying than imagining far away lands and different ways of life. It sets the mind on fire. Everyone should be able to experience that. And the next generation of travel writers will open up the doors for experiences that dominant voices will never be able to hear until they check themselves.
Bani: You touched on the ‘marketing of place’, how we’re sold these concepts of places – Europe=culture, Africa=nature, etc. Travel writing has been and continues to be the way this marketing – branding, really – gets out to the masses. How do we disrupt that tradition? I’m very much a part of the movement trying to get more people of color to share their travel experiences, but how do we do so in a way that is not so colonialist as the genre generally is?
Brian: I think it’s a fundamental problem. When we frame our travel stories as products to be marketed in a conscious manner we are commodifying each others experiences. When writers of colour engage in travel writing we have to resist the trap of emulating the existing trends. As I understand it the goal is not to colour code the status quo – it’s to change it.
The problem is that the broader tourism industry feeds off limited harmful, frankly colonial, perceptions of cultures because at the moment economic and political capital is still very much tied along those lines. Travel writing from writers of colour then must surely act disruptively in that space. We are fighting against the very exploitation of our identities. For many of us we are fighting for a right to exist in the globalised world beyond the exotic tourist depictions that our nations now represent. Travel writers of colour must write to protect spaces like Thailand. Like Zanzibar. Spaces that become overrun by wealthy white folk from across the globe who run off to the 3rd world whenever the exchange rate is low.
Bani: Word, word, word. So we’re gonna wrap up. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?
Brian: Well in closing I’d like to mention the need for coalitions. I think we need to forge strategic connections across the globe and open our homes to one another to break the cycles that are really not working in our favour. In this the age of information there are really all the means and opportunities in the world.
For example, Africans and Latin Americans have so much shared history. We need to arrange more opportunities for us to meet and exchange stories. We need more deliberate attempts to speak to one another. To engage with one another. To welcome one another as the family that we are.
That’s my hope for this generation of writers. Let’s see how things unfold.