The Empire Travels Back: Troubling the Travel Genre with Shailja Patel

If and when colonialism is acknowledged in mainstream narratives it is often done in the past tense, exposing one of its key functions: forgetting. But more and more, women and nonbinary writers of color are telling stories that disclose the colonial trauma that moves with us from generation to generation, from place to place. Migritude, by Shailja Patel, is one of those stories.

Hey people! Thanks for being patient with me while I moved from NYC to Ecuador to NYC to Montreal. I’m settling in Montreal with my four-legged twelve year-old and tryna catch up with my huge life and workload. If I owe you a message, please be patient! #TravelingWhileDisabled is hell on the body, mind, and spirit.  

The above quote is the lede to my talk with Kenyan poet, performer, and activist Shailja Patel for my series of interviews with women of color authors of travel-ish tomes on On She Goes. Her book, Migritude, is the first one we read in the POC Travel Book Club! (We just wrapped up our talk on I Wonder as I Wander by Langston Hughes, if you’re on the fence about joining…) Our talk touches on so much of what I’m fascinated by and trying to do with my work, so I’ll highlight just two more bites before you go and read the interview in full. [TW: Sexual abuse.]

In your performance of Chapter 10, “The Sky Has Not Changed Colour,” on the Maasai rape victims of British soldiers in military training, you rip out pages from a tourist photo book of the Maasai and hand them to the audience as you say, “They are the noble savages, staring out from coffee table books. Africa Adorned. The Last Nomads. Backdrops and extras for Vogue fashion shoots. Stock ingredients for tourist brochures. The Maasai are a global brand.” What are you asking of the audience in handing them all of this?

First, I’m breaking theater’s fourth wall—the wall between the stage and the audience. That makes them a part of the piece, no longer just spectators. Second, I’m making them complicit in the commodification of a people—by having them consume the images. They’re holding the brand, in their hands. It’s a visual, material object. What are they going to do with it?

Travel media may be getting more ‘diverse,’ but it ain’t getting any less colonial. Here’s where the title of this post originated from:

What do you think would be different about travel writing if more migrant narratives like yours were given space within the genre?

The phrase that comes to mind is “The Empire Travels Back.” I think it would trouble the genre, as it needs to be troubled, by creating critical discomfort in readers and writers, in publishers, reviewers, booksellers. It would force us all to think harder about the economics and geopolitics of what we call “travel”: who gets to define it, to pursue it, to write about it, and how.

Let us trouble what needs to be troubled.

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