Category Archives: Dispatches

Traveling While Disabled: A Rountable

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.

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Jay Abdullahi bucks the stereotype that you have to be white, wealthy and from a developed country to travel. At 27 years old, she has traveled throughout North America and Europe while having polio, focusing her lifestyle around making her trips work for her and inspiring others with physical disabilities through her journey and blog, Jay on Life.
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Mama Cax was born in Brooklyn in 1989 and was raised in Montreal & Haiti. At the age of 14 she was diagnosed with bone & lung cancer and given three weeks to live, but beat the odds with an experimental drug and luck. Surviving cancer came with a price; she had her right leg ampuated. Today, she walks with a prosthetic leg along with two forearm crutches. She traveled to Costa Rica at 17 and has never been able to get rid of the traveler’s bug. Since then, she has been to 20 countries throughout 5 continents. (Photo by Gillian Laub)
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The founder of this blog, Bani Amor, lives with chronic illness, chronic pain, and (what is designated in Western medicine as) mental illness. They have been traveling with disabilities as a queer person of color of little means for years and believes it’s high time we talked about this shit. Join our conversation online with #TravelingWhileDisabled and #DisTravel.

Bani Amor: Yay! So introduce yourselves however you like.

Jay Abdullahi: I’m Jay and I’m a disabled woman of color who has a travel blog called JayOnLife about traveling with a disability and all that that entails. I focus on the race aspect as well as the disability aspect.

Mama Càx: I’m Cax, most know me as Mama Càx. I’m a travel/lifestyle blogger and also work as a program manager at the Mayor’s office here in New York. I hope to one day work in international development focusing on disability rights.

Bani: That’s dope! I love how social media can connect us and uplift us in these ways that didn’t seem possible just a few years back. Travel blogging by POC, especially WOC, *especially* disabled Black+non-Black WOC was just not around when I got into it.

Jay: Yeah, true talk. At the risk of sounding like a Dramatic Debbie it did seem like it was just me. Although, as I have polio, it’s mostly just me and a bunch of old people. Polio is pretty much wiped out and I was the lonely one just chillin’. But in terms of travel blogging, when I decided to start up, all I saw were white folks climbing mountains, skiing, and saving starving African babies (with the obligatory hug photo of course – pics or it didn’t happen!) And in terms of Black people traveling, they were never disabled, and the disabled travel bloggers were always white. Then lil’ ol’ Black cripple me came along.

Cax: I sometimes find myself getting hesitant to even call myself a blogger. You guys have probably been doing it for a long time but for me I just wanted an online journal. I figured if my friends are reading they’ll be expecting updates and frequent posts so it was a way to hold myself accountable and push myself to write more. But then people started messaging me saying they’d never seen a woman of color with a prosthetic leg before. So my blogging became more about showing people who I am through my travel and that I do the same things they do. And I agree with Jay; I felt the need to join women or POC travel blogs but they were clearly not inclusive.

Jay: That’s so poignant, Cax, cuz I feel like the issue I have with my blogging is that I don’t get deep enough, as I rarely delve into how I FEEL about my polio and how it actually affects me from the day to day, to when I travel.

Bani: I was once invited to speak on a ‘diversity’ panel at a travel conference. It was all POC, but the LGBT and disabled panels were all white. I am all of the above. So these status-quo-led diversity (groan) convos seem to only be available for one ism at a time, effectively erasing us at the intersections. Seeing content out there for disabled Black+nbWOC travelers is just rare. How do you conduct your trip research? Did either of you search for other disabled travelers?

Jay: Yeah, I definitely agree, Bani. I started a couple of posts about this on my website as the disabled famous people I could think of were always white. Like, ALWAYS.

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Photo via JayonLife.com

Cax: There’s 3 parts to it:

  1. Knowing if I’m safe as a woman and that resources are available to women
  2. Knowing if I’m safe as a dark Black person
  3. And seeing how accessible things are

I’m very mobile. I have a heavy prosthetic leg and two crutches but I get around. From climbing to three-hour walks, I can push myself physically but there are days that I just can’t. For example when I traveled to the Ivory Coast recently I wanted to know if there was electricity 24/7 since my leg requires battery. In all, if I feel safe everything else is secondary. I’m more of an off-the-beaten path traveler which poses additional challenges for someone with a disability. I mostly look into general blogs and guide books while keeping in mind my added hurdles (gender, race & disability).

Jay: Nine times out of ten I legit have no clue and I believe I take such a careless attitude because I do not have a wheelchair. I can do stairs. They’re annoying and tiring as hell, but I can do them. In my search for disabled travel bloggers, I found one white guy in a wheelchair. Then another white guy in a wheelchair. Then a different white guy and girl in a wheelchair.

Bani: I feel you. The great majority of ‘is x country safe for women?’ content is by and for white women.

Jay: At the risk of sounding completely obtuse, I have never seen the point in such posts. Cuz let’s be real, you could die anywhere. I went to Jamaica and people told me to be careful out there. The people were nothing but lovely. Same with South Africa. Beware, it’s so dangerous etc. I felt nothing but loved. And I recently came back from Brazil and had the best time. Like, stop trying to scare muhfuggers. I know that traveling as a disabled woman of color is not the easiest. And sometimes, I have felt a bit iffy…

Cax: Yes, but I think everyone has a different experience. Some countries like Jamaica are hot spots for tourism so they know how to deal with foreigners. But someone who is LGBTQIA+ will not be welcomed and it can even be dangerous for them.

Jay: I get what you mean about the sexuality comment, Cax. While being disabled can suck and does leave me vulnerable. Unless someone has bad intentions, they are more willing to help, and go above and beyond, if you know what I mean. But I can’t even begin to imagine what some people in the LGBTQIA+ community have to go through. There’s like a deep hatred which I can never understand. Like, mind your fucking business.

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Photo by @jeroen_van_ee on IG

Cax: I’ve had different experiences traveling in Christian countries vs. Buddhist countries, not to the point that I felt unsafe but that the attitude is different. The former people pity you and want to pray with you (I hate it) and the latter…it’s almost as if you don’t matter because you brought this upon yourself a.k.a. “Karma.”

Jay: 😠 I have had people trying to pray for me, only ever Christians, but I never noticed the Buddhist-Karma-thing. Maybe I just wasn’t focusing.

Cax: And unfortunately in some places my disability overshadows my race or even my gender. Other Black travelers get treated badly but I’m seen as this disabled fragile thing. I’ve noticed it outside of big cities.

Jay: Yes, the way that different cultures around the world consider disability can be very ableist. Do you get the feeling that people think you’re going to fall over and break any minute?

Cax: Oh yeah, the carefulness and offering help every two seconds…of course it’s always up to me to stand my ground. Once I let it be known that I’m a grown-ass woman and can take care of myself all becomes well. They all thought they cured my cancer through vodou and prayers.

Jay: Well, growing up in a religious African home, they’ve been trying to pray the disability away for some time now. Also random helpful Christians I don’t know. It’s always infuriating, Cax. At the risk of sounding like a creeper, but from the photos I’ve seen of you, you’re much taller than me. So I feel like they would sooner listen to you than me. Nobody is trying to acknowledge 5’2 baby face me. Like, leave me alone, I’m okay😅

JAY

Bani: Let’s talk accessibility. What are the biggest challenges when traveling?

Cax: For me it’s the physical environment. Hills, sand & ice are not easy to maneuver.

Jay: I am a victim to the weather. Rain makes life harder, and ice is just a no.

Bani: That presents more challenges of course. What do you do when the conditions aren’t optimal? Stay in?

Jay: But I have found that sometimes I think I am okay with a building or whatever, and I am not allowed to complete it because of people that work there, such as the Eiffel Tower. But I do try to push myself as hard as I can. Sometimes too hard, like I’ll climb to the top of a hill and have no idea how I’m getting back down (haha). That has happened one too many times, but I have killer upper body strength!

Cax: If the conditions aren’t ideal I work with it. Sometimes that means leaving my prosthetic leg in my ho(s)tel. I may complain but when I look back, overcoming those challenges is what ends up making my trips so special to me.

Bani: How do y’all navigate and feel about disability inspiration porn?

Cax: What’s that? I’m on a work computer I won’t be googling hahaha!

Jay: I think it’s looking at folks like us for inspiration.

Bani: No there isn’t any actual porn (well there is but that’s a topic for another day!), just a figure of speech.

Cax: Oohhhh, got it hahaha

Bani: Lol!

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Bani: cane, crutches, brace

Jay: I personally think it’s stupid, but if folks want to adore me, I’m not about to stop them. That’s on them, not me. Worship away. But I will counter to say that I can kind of see where they may be coming from. You have no idea what you can do until you have no other option.

Cax: Oh boy I get that a lot. People stopping me to say how I inspire them or shouting out [amen!] and of course I try to be polite but I hate it. I don’t see how I can inspire you if you don’t personally know me. Someone once told me I inspire them to wake up and conquer the day as if my whole existence is enough. As if because I have one leg I should be sad, depressed and if I’m not then I’m special.

Jay:  I’ve had polio since I was a baby so I don’t know any different. But for others, it’s a bit much to wrap their heads around.

Cax: I agree with you. Many in my situation would have fought like hell and moved on. We are humans, we fight for survival. But alas, when I hear [you inspire me] I respond with a thank you…I can’t go out and educate everyone. In that sense it gets too tiring. Thank you is shorter and ends the conversation.

Jay: Nah, who has time for that? Just smile, nod and keep it moving.

Cax: Some guy once told me, “Even though you’re cripple, I’d still fuck you.”

Jay: WHOA. Are you serious?! He actually said that out loud?! To you?!

Cax: Yes he did. I’ve heard several fucked up comments…

Bani: I’m sorry. That’s beyond fucked up. Yet that mentality is all around us.

Jay: Fucking shit. Should have whacked him with your crutches.

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“When your leg finds its home • At least 5 people made it a point to tell me that one of the leading prosthetic makers in the world (Össur) is in Iceland – maybe I should pay them a visit.” @Caxmee on IG

Bani: Have you found some places more hospitable, convenient or accessible than others? And have you faced any kind of discrimination in some places more than others?

Cax: In some countries people tend to stare and keep their comments to themselves where as other countries people are intrusive with their questions.

Jay: I have found some places absolutely amazing especially in terms of transportation: Lisbon, Athens, Stockholm, Berlin, Rio. I agree with the intrusive comment. In some places people are polite about their wonderings. Whereas in Istanbul, some dude who I was not even next to, had no dealings with, just said, “What happened to your leg?” Like, really? In my head I always come back with “What happened to your face?” But I just say [polio] and keep walking.

Bani: Ugh.

Cax: I love big cities because people tend to be more educated in that sense and they have exposure to diverse people and therefore more opportunities to learn about different people. For example, in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, people stared, but in a coastal town like Sihanoukville people were touching and rubbing my skin and seemed to be amazed that my brown wasn’t rubbing off.

Bani: As people who aren’t white, aren’t men, aren’t ‘able-bodied’, what does it mean (to you) to travel? And write about it?

Jay: I just like to get my thoughts out there. But I do have issues getting deep. Like, there was an incident on my birthday while abroad. And I am still trying to wrap my head around how I feel about it.

Cax: I understand how the world works and that some people only see dark-skinned people on TV.  It’s simply ignorance. So as a traveler you just brush it off. As a Black woman who happens to have a disability, traveling and sharing my stories with others means someone else who fits that same criteria knows that they shouldn’t set boundaries for themselves and that they can do the same. I always like to be transparent about the challenges as well because the same world that has kind people that make my day and help me through my journey also has mean-spirited, uneducated and ignorant people.

Jay: But I love traveling and seeing the world and letting the world see me. I am a sight to behold, damn it.

Cax: I just hope that when I get old and am no longer able to go on adventures I can relive the beautiful times through my blog posts and pictures. I do it for myself first and foremost.

Jay: Totally agree. The body, whether disabled or otherwise has a time limit and I intend on enjoying it while I can.

Bani: I hear that.♦

How Not to do Travel Writing; A Glossary (pt.1) #Dispatch: India Harris

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.

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India Harris is a 30 year-old Black Lesbian hailing from her mother’s womb in Washington D.C. and currently living in Brooklyn, NY. India works with youth at a religious non-profit in New York City. Her aim is to develop spiritual, socially conscious leaders in and outside of Unitarian Universalism. She cherishes her membership in the Audre Lorde Project, a community organization for LGBTSTGNC people of color in NYC & credits them for developing an intersectional analysis around power, privilege & marginalization. Currently her travels involve learning about the culture, history and lives of people of African descent in each country she visits. Far too often, the contributions/life breath/existence of Indigenous people and people of African descent are erased from the world’s narratives. She’s trying to find an equitable & ethical way to shift resources and access to these communities at home and abroad.

This is the first part in a two-part interview

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Bani Amor: So tell folks who you are and what you do. 

India Harris: My name is India Harris and I’m a Washington DC-born and raised lesbian of African descent currently working for a religious nonprofit in Long Island, NY, but when I’m not working I like to travel in the United States and abroad, mostly for leisure but also for work.

Bani: We came up with the ABCs of fucked up language in travel writing together. Before we get into it, can you share a little on why you think something like this is necessary?

India: Before I went on a backpacking trip in 2013 I went online to do a little bit of research about the countries I would be visiting. I searched for travel blogs by people of color because the majority of blogs that I read were written by white folks from the United States and Europe. They are considered experts by the travel writing industry while the industry simultaneously ignores the voices of people originating from these countries and the impact of tourism on their lives.

Words like ‘authentic,’ ‘exotic,’ ‘g*psy,’ ‘native’ and ‘tribal’ are used in ways that are either exoticizing local people or diminishing their culture. These words are often misappropriated by leisure travelers as monikers or identities to take on which, because of their privilege, is seen as something positive, while nomadic peoples throughout the world face discrimination, systemic violence and have had their lands handed over to settlers. These writings look very similar to the journals/records kept by colonizers otherwise known as ‘explorers’ from the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

shitrichcollegekidssay.tumblr.com
shitrichcollegekidssay.tumblr.com

I think that having these ABCs of f***ed up travel language is important because in most Western nations people would say the rights of the individual, the right to self-determination and the right to sovereignty are vital to a thriving existence, however POC around the world have their human rights violated with impunity, are not allowed self-determination, are not allowed sovereignty. They’re not allowed to narrate their own experiences. Then someone from the outside comes in and projects their own thoughts and norms and biases (informed by white supremacy) on the land, people and culture of which they aren’t a part. Depending on their privilege and access, leisure travelers/travel bloggers are able to have a record of their experiences lifted up through Western media and then that is THE story that is told about a particular place.

Bani: Yes. When I think about decolonizing travel culture with a specific focus on travel writing, and envision what justice in that space would look like, it begins with reclaiming sovereignty over the language used to describe POC, our lands and cultures around the world. So here we go, let’s start with our fav – A for Authentic and Authenticity. Thoughts? 

thetraveltype.com
thetraveltype.com

India: First and foremost authenticity is a social construct. In order for something to be ‘authentic’ it is inherently setting up a standard in which something else will be measured against it. Often, the standard for authenticity for Western travelers is that a place should be the complete opposite of the country that they are from, that it should look something from those outdated primary school textbooks.

Bani: Something out of the white/Western imagination.

India: They will see folks in larger cities in Mexico or Kenya using cell phones and laptops and then say that that is not authentic so then they go to a more remote place, perhaps where the Maasai people are or to Chiapas where there is a large Indigenous population. Yet there is no acknowledgment that in order to remain ‘authentic’ through colonialism the Maasai people and Indigenous people in Chiapas continually face insurmountable violence from the European countries that colonized them. Or even that the tourist gaze is disrupting their way of life and draining ever decreasing resources.

Bani: This sets up what’s wrong with a lot of the words we’ll be discussing – what we recognize as The Standard. White/Western being the default or norm and everything else Othered or Orientalized. The pursuit of ‘authenticity’ is something backpackers preoccupy themselves with a lot, which brings me to B. I bring up backpacking because there is a holier-than-thou thing young white backpackers have against tourists, the traveler vs. tourist thing, which is all very entertaining to me. They’re all tourists.

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India: Yes. This idea that a backpacker wants to set themselves apart from other tourists because they may have an intellectual or humanitarian interest in a given place and are somehow less responsible for the consumerism and inequality enforced by traveler/tourist communities. Yet at the same time engaging in bargaining or price gouging in order to save a buck under the guise of having equal treatment as locals. Yet when you come from a country that is responsible for the economic state of many countries that you travel through, a country that was a former colony of the country that you’re from or simply put, your money is valued higher – it’s not about equity at all.

There are two ways to live in Mexico: like a local, and like a foreigner. The first will see you enjoying the bounties of a low cost of living and an easy pace of life (throw away your watch!), while the latter will see you getting ripped off at every turn, paying three to four times the actual cost of everything, otherwise known as paying the “gringo tax” – Avoiding The Gringo Tax, marginalboundaries.com

Bani: It’s about traveling the cheapest way possible JUST FOR FUN. So this brings us to B for Budget, which usually means cheap for rich people. Everything I’ve read about Budget travel is economically unfeasible for me and pretty much anyone without a well-paying job, no dependants, physical ability and passport privilege. So when I, for example, read travel writing and seek out Budget options, I realize pretty quickly that I’m not being spoken to, that this isn’t for me, my family, friends or community.

India: Different writers have expressed their frustration at the idea of travel being accessible for everyone and money not being an issue because everything is so cheap ‘abroad’ ( i.e. countries in Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East.) ‘Cheap’ in relation to what? ‘Cheap’ for whom? Yet people are never willing to begin their articles with ‘my target audience is essentially middle class folks from Western nations.’ Instead, they will argue and say that if you believe you can, anything is possible. 

You Don't Have to be a Privileged White Girl to Travel, thisamericangirl.com
You Don’t Have to be a Privileged White Girl to Travel, thisamericangirl.com

Bani: There’s been some talk about POC writing that type of shit. Just say you’re elitist and classist and we can skip the poor shaming.

India: It also highlights that the travel that’s being talked about is for leisure, educational or humanitarian purposes by privileged people from Western nations. It is not talking about how budget or cheap it is for local people to be able to afford groceries or pay their rent or get medical care.

Bani: It’s like the folks who talked shit about Syrian refugees who have cell phones. That leisure travel is the default is bothersome. But where are the resources out there for actual working poor people with families who might want to take a vacation for once?

India: As if refugees could not have been doctors, teachers, nurses or people with any means in the country that they come from.

Bani: Same with poor shaming in the US. Don’t buy that X Box or iPhone or Timbs or you deserve the poverty you’re in. I see this language all over the travel space.

India: They are  resources that most people in the US would say that poor people were not deserving of.  As far as capitalism is concerned in the US if you are struggling economically then it’s your fault and if you are not struggling economically you deserve additional rewards.

Bani: And if you temporarily trade in economic stability for roughing it in poor countries you’re a Life Hacker. Anyway, B is for Best kept secret, which has connotations similar to Columbusing – acting like you discovered shit. See also: off-the-beaten-path and hidden gem. B for Bustling – usually attributed to markets or streets in those ‘overcrowded cities’ i.e. the ‘Third World.’ See also: chaotic/chaos.

In Ecuador, The Frugal Traveler Tries Luxury, nytimes.com

India: What this usually means is that tourists find out about a beach, forest, canyon or sights that locals already knew about, start coming in numbers, and then developers are looking to build resorts and working in conjunction with the government to then begin banning people from the beach and the forests that are near their homes or are in fact their homes.

Bani: Now we’re at C. Similar to main offenders like Authentic and Exotic, the way that we see Cultural or Culture commonly used in travel writing makes me uncomfortable. It’s a term I’ve noticed that gets attributed to my work like a lot…It’s ridiculous.

India: Culture and cultural are usually used interchangeably with the word ‘exotic’ as if people of European descent don’t have culture and wouldn’t be perceived as exotic or different once they went somewhere else. Most are not comfortable with being seen as exotic or different which is why we get back to the idea of being  treated just ‘like a local’ or being seen as a local.

Bani: It’s chasing down this idea of belonging sans struggle. Others revel in it. They want to go somewhere where they’re the first white person to be seen by x person/community and write a book about it. Gross.

India: Which is an affirmation of supremacy. Being seen and treated as the most beautiful, intelligent, skillful, clever, etc. whereas POC are seen and treated as threats who are ignorant and economically dependent in many Western nations.

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Bani: Without caring or thinking about what that experience is like at the other end of the spectrum, with Blackness.

India: Yet globally you will find that people with the darkest skin are treated inhumanely, from being called slaves in Iran to the experience of people of African descent being the majority in Brazil numerically but not having power and being entrenched in poverty.

Bani: I don’t think these folks (and non-Black people in general) understand that that fierce staring happens all over the US, in their own cities and towns. Almost reminds me of Human Zoos. There’s an aspect of voyeurism in tourism that restricts Black presence to either servitude or entertainment. These were the only two ways slaves were able to enter the kingdoms.

India: Exactly. As a POC, one can find that stare in any majority white community in rural, suburban or urban places in the US.

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Bani: C for Colorful – this is often used as a coded term that reminds me of the use of ‘soulful’ to mean anything Black-adjacent by whites/non-Blacks. India and the Caribbean and Latin America (north of Argentina) are all ‘colorful.’ See also: vibrant.

India: That coded language is used to otherize folks the world over – whether in their country of origin or abroad. My last experience in the US in Yosemite National Park was of a white woman walking past me, doing a double take and asking me if I was Hawai’ian. Probably because of my ‘colorful’ skin. Then of course that othering that can lead to policing isn’t included in all of those articles about why POC don’t visit National Parks.

Bani: This. It’s just fucking lazy. So much of travel writing is lazy and racist cause y’all can’t be creative. Like if you engage critical thought in travel writing, it automatically gets labeled as not travel writing.

India: The word creative is a nice segway into our favorite word Curate.

Bani: Take it away, India.

India: My familiarity with the word curate comes from the museum and art world. In order to curate something, you don’t have to actually create that something, you are giving voice to it or creating a narrative around it. You can work with the artist to do this however it is another form of consumption that makes way for large-scale consumption. Giving voice to something makes it an object unable to speak for itself. Travel writing is being used as a medium to objectify people, land and culture.

FanonTourism

Bani: Absolutely. It’s speaking over or speaking for, operating under the notion that people have no will to speak for themselves, bringing us to D for Discover. Must we explain what’s wrong with this?

India: We can always start with the Doctrine of Discovery. Discovery or the act of finding something that you figure no one else knows about even when you find people living there. You find civilization, architecture, music and spirituality yet it isn’t anything like what you would find where you come from so therefore your presence means that this has been ‘discovered’ when it’s been in existence before the written word. The Doctrine of Discovery was used as a justification/confirmation of the God-given right bestowed to Europeans to Colonize land and people across the globe beginning with what is known as the Caribbean (West Indies), South America, Central America, Mexico, the United States and Canada. The Doctrine of Discovery is still used to deny Indigenous people their sovereignty and self-determination in the US.

Bani: I want white travel writers reading this to understand that when they invoke this language they are employing the same logic used to colonize, that what they do when they travel bears resemblance to that colonization in the name of discovery or its close relative exploration. I’m not saying your writing is akin to the slaughter of millions, I’m saying you’re employing the same script that justified (still justifies) those acts, acts that enable you to be a tourist today.

India: Even more so when travelers say they have gone somewhere else to discover themselves. Which is centralizing selfhood in a place that is not your place of origin. I think that folks will have a hard time understanding or seeing their travel writing is akin to anything negative when Christopher Columbus, Pizarro and Cortés are still celebrated throughout Europe and the countries they colonized.

traveloninspiration.com
traveloninspiration.com

Bani: Yes, but those people are not about to read this shit anyway. Yet there are a lot of people who like to think that they’re down yet say, write and do the same shit.

India: I hope they do read it but yes they may not change their minds; that’s the whole idea of not giving up privilege. Why stop doing something you are continuously being rewarded for?

Bani: And it’s not just that word, it’s invoking that history, it’s walking in the footsteps of their ancestors.

India: Walking in the footsteps of their ancestors and constantly denying that they didn’t benefit from the systematic violence that is faced historically and continuously by POC.

Bani: You can’t separate white supremacy from travel writing. Nope.

India: There is no diversity if the stories are being told in the same way but the narrator has a different color skin or is a different gender or has a different sexual orientation.

Bani: Yup, that’s just tokenization wrapped around identity. It’s bullshit. Anyway, let’s do this. E words: Exotic, Ethnic, Explore and Expat. I feel like we covered Explore with Discover.

India: Still for me the difference with explore and discover is that it sounds like you can happen upon something and explore sounds like something more invasive way beyond encounter.

Bani: Like invasion/occupation?

India: I remember reading this story about these two white guys trying to explore a site on Indigenous land in the Southwest US. They specifically acknowledged the site as one of Indigenous resistance through the genocidal violence engineered by settlers. No one but Indigenous people from that particular nation knew about the site and even when these guys tried to get assistance from Indigenous people in order to find it and the Indigenous folks refused, the white dudes went ahead looking for it anyway.

Bani: Of course. Reminds me a of a Spanish dude who made a documentary of him hiring a local guide and searching for an uncontacted tribe in Ecuador! Like what is the point besides basically hunting down the ‘humanity’ of others by further dehumanizing them?11228509_937773979647311_8430381725565608130_n

India: Or not understanding/respecting boundaries.

Bani: Travel is like this race to be the ‘first’ to ‘discover’ ‘explore’ and somehow ‘humanize’ the Other.

India: Humanizing the other without recognizing our impact or the impact of tourism on the environment and on people.

Bani: Having the entitlement to intervene without invitation, consultation or consent. Let’s go to Ethnic. The way this term is usually used is ridiculous, plain and simple.

India: Again the idea of there being a norm and anything outside of that Norm being measured against it, so white culture as the default and anything outside of that is being considered not normal. Everyone has an ethnicity so what makes certain experiences or cultural aspects ethnic and others not?

Bani: There’s whiteness and then there’s everything else. Which brings us to Exotic.

India: Exotic and ethnic are often used interchangeably.

Bani: Sometimes. Though while ethnic is a signifier of identity and is not inherently problematic, exotic is.

India: Even in the dictionary, Exotic is mentioned as something that is not naturalized or acclimatized. Naturalized or acclimatized to what? What is this invisible standard that this imagined foreignness is being measured against?

Bani: We should also mention that the term is almost exclusively gendered in its modern use.

India: Most definitely because a cis heterosexual man is considered the norm.jamaica_woman_0

Bani: The more exotic a woman is, the more fuckable she is. The term  is coded to mean a submissive femininity associated with lighter skin and ‘ambiguous’ racial features.

India: Tourism and marketing are complicit in this. When you see travel ads for Hawai’i or Jamaica or Tahiti it’s usually a woman marketing her goods on behalf of the nation.

Bani: Yes. I recently pitched this as a story, how women’s bodies sell place. Rape and pillage. F is for Foreign. Do readers notice a pattern yet?

India: Especially when a tourist can go to a country and call the people native to that country ‘foreigners.’ No, you would be the foreigner.

Bani: It’s a mindset. This drives home how you can take these words out of the writing but the practice remains the same.

India: The writing is just the documentation of that practice and lifestyle.

Bani: This. Now for every white girl’s favorite word, G*psy. 

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6 Phrases With Surprisingly Racist Origins | Decoded | MTV News

India: The way that I understand the word g*psy is that it’s a slur for the Romani people living in Europe. The Romani are discriminated against and entrenched in poverty.

Bani: The term also has connotations like thievery, laziness, untrustworthiness and unreliability attached to it.

India: I’ve seen articles entitled ‘how to travel like a globetrotting ‘g*psy’ and the g*psies are often displaced or nomadic by choice however I don’t think they are ever referred to as Globetrotters.

Bani: This is ‘cool’ to them.

India: Or ‘how to live like a g*psy without going broke.’ It’s appropriating g*psy which has been used as a slur, not understanding the historical context in which it is used and then identify it with globetrotting which is a leisurely activity. I can’t ever say I’ve seen ‘The Wandering W*tback’ or ‘Nomadic N*gger’ or ‘Traveling Ch*nk.’

Bani: You just said a mouthful. You added Guru to the list; what are your thoughts on it?

India: My understanding of the way that I see people using Guru as an expression to demonstrate that they or someone else is all-knowing. Also another misappropriation similar to ‘griot.’ These terms are being separated from their sociohistorical context. The terms are also used in a way that separate them from the religious value that they have in the communities from which they originated.

Bani: A stripping of history and context. Oh and I want to add a last one – Global Citizen.12065650_890817681009608_8466202809445915161_n

India: I think that global citizen it is really an expression of wanting to connect beyond literal borders but without global accountability or recognizing the power imbalances in your ability to be a global citizen because of access and privilege and another person’s being seen as a global burden.

Bani: It really reminds me of how ‘colorblind’ is used as a faux idealistic term that purposely erases difference. Having unlimited access to other people, lands and cultures. Whiteness itself is a passport.

India: The response to exoticism and making a big deal about difference is to act like difference doesn’t exist at all with common tropes being ‘we’re all human, we’re all the same.’ The thing is those nuances have to be picked up on because that’s where the majority of the world’s people exist – in the nuances. As Gloria Anzaldúa says ‘in the borderlands.’ Real borders with real violent consequences when they’re crossed.

Thanks for reading part 1. Part 2 is coming soon! Tips always appreciated via Paypal.me/BaniAmor

The Exile Narratives of Trans Women of Color #Dispatch: Gabrielle Bellot

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.

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Gabrielle Bellot is a writer from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Her interests include global literature, trying to define exile, and LGBTQIA identities, particularly in raising the visibility of transgender issues in the Caribbean alongside other LGB issues. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, Autostraddle, The Caribbean Review of Books, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. In the past, she has worked as a committee member for Dominica’s Nature Island Literary Festival, an annual event that brings in writers from across the Caribbean and the diaspora for readings, panel discussions, book fairs, and more.

Bani Amor: Can you talk a little about yourself and your work?

Gabrielle Bellot: Sure. Well, to start with, I am a mixed-race transgender woman from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Almost all of my parents’ families live in Dominica, though my grandmother on my mother’s side is from Curacao, and I myself happened to be born in the United States, in Ohio, before returning to Dominica with my parents as a child. Caribbean families can be quite extensive in their national reach, and mine is no exception. I no longer live in Dominica, however. I came out as a queer transwomen in my late 20s–I am now 28–and have not returned to my home out of my fear of receiving a bad reaction due to the unavoidable visibility of my own queerness–the visibility, the physicality, of being trans.

I am a writer, and a lot of the work I have been doing recently involves trying to make transgender issues in the Caribbean, primarily the Anglophone Caribbean, more visible, though my broader interest is in global literature. Although queerness or a kind of non-conformity to gender or sexual norms is difficult to divorce from Caribbean-ness, given that it is difficult to avoid reading queerness into a lot of Caribbean experience, from Carnival costumes to our literature, it is nonetheless something that has been hidden for a long time. Something you do not usually speak of openly, if you want to avoid questions, glares, or worse. And a lot of the discussions in the Caribbean have focused on gay or bisexual men, so I want to make transgender experience more visible, more viable, more unavoidable.

Bani: Have you met a lot of queer and trans Caribbeans since you’ve left Dominica?

Gabrielle: Yes – primarily online, but also in person here and there. Since I came out and began publishing pieces, particularly since I wrote about transitioning in an essay for Guernica in August this year, I have connected with a number of individuals from various parts of the Caribbean who are queer in some way – and I want to clarify, quickly, that I use ‘queer’ here as a shorthand for ‘LGBTQ’ broadly, so I do not distinguish between ‘LGB’ and ‘trans’ individuals unless otherwise specified. Many people wrote to me over social media when I shared something new I’d written.

Some, like a trans woman from Martinique, would not share their name or information out of a radical fear of anyone finding out about their queerness in their island. Others poured out their souls to me, in a way, coming out to me, a stranger, and often telling me that they had been afraid to come out in the islands they had been born in. Some of them, like a young girl from the Bahamas, had been able to be more open about their queerness temporarily when going abroad but had to hide their identity again once they returned to their home.

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Trinidadian trans woman Jowelle de Souza, who Gabrielle talked about in her Guernica and NYT essays

And then I’ve met some queer individuals who have either moved from the Caribbean or who have parents from the Caribbean, most of whom have had reservations about either coming out to their family or friends back home or about travelling to the part of our archipelago they come from or have family in. Of course, some queer individuals can find a happy, healthy life in the Caribbean, and it certainly varies from island to island. But there is undeniably a common thread of nervousness about coming out or returning home, and, while I wish that was not the case, I am happy that my writing has helped at least some people feel a little better, from what they’ve told me, about being open about their identities.

Bani: You touch on exile in every story of yours I’ve read, do you feel like your work fits easily alongside most exile narratives (you’ve read) or nah?

Gabrielle: In some ways, yes. Exile, as a concept, has many rooms, many facets and facades and hidden stairways that seem like they might not lead, at first glance, to where they do. In other words, exile is complicated, and needs to be complicated. People often think of exile in geographic or national terms – the individual or group that has been pushed out of a particular nation by some forces. But you can be in exile while living in the nation, the world you’ve lived in for your entire life, if you feel ostracised within it, if the contours of your identity do not fit with some broader, or even legally cemented, definition of what people from said nation are ‘supposed’ to be like.

The exile can live on the margins of a society or in another society altogether or in a society of no societies. A nation, as Benedict Anderson said, can be thought of as an imagined community – imagined, he said, because it is unlikely we will ever meet all of the citizens in a nation, so for patriotism to work we often have to imagine a kind of false sense of closeness existing between people we have never met. And it is easy to feel exiled when you imagine you do not exist in that imagined community. So many narratives of exile, then, involve a sense of being the Other, of the transnational experience of living on the margins.

To be transgender, and certainly to be a transitioning transwoman of colour, is to always come close to a kind of exile. So many of us have to, at least at first, deal with problems from our families or friends due to our coming out, especially if we live in places where being trans is not something that commonly exists in a national imagination. Trans issues are virtually invisible in too much of the Caribbean, so when I came out to my parents, my mother had to navigate uncharted territory; she had never heard of a transgender person before, could not find any direction on the compass of her senses that pointed to someone like me. As a result, I began to feel distance – exile – from her.

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Freshwater lake in Dominica. Photo by Daryl Durand

At the time I came out, I was already considering never returning home. And it hurt, this additional layer of exile from home, this way that ‘home’ had come to no longer mean something clear if it could no longer reliably mean the home in the mountains I had grown up in. But I had to make a choice. And, for me, it was either to live my life as myself or to buy a passport to the undiscovered country, and I came close to doing the latter, to killing myself. And then there is the struggle of navigating gender when you have not been perceived as a woman but are now not only presenting as one but being perceived by strangers as one.

I learnt how to navigate male harassment on the street, for instance, as well as being talked down to by strangers, and these things have simply become the norm for me – but since most of these people perceive and treat me as if I am a ciswoman, my trans-ness becomes a further layer of distance. Something I fear to reveal. I feel exiled sometimes by my fear that my voice is not the timbre of a ciswoman’s voice, despite my months of voice training on my own. I feel exiled by my fear that I will cause a riot in the women’s restroom one day when some ciswoman finds out, somehow, that I am there, and tells me I do not belong.

I love being me; I am a woman, and I cannot live otherwise, do not want or know how to. But a sense of exile follows me like a shadow.

Bani: Today is TDOR [Trans Day of Remembrance,]; I wonder how it must feel to migrate here as a transwoman of color at the height of all this violence [23 mostly Black transwomen have been killed in the U.S. in 2015, 81 worldwide].

Gabrielle: Yes. It’s a reminder that nowhere is entirely safe for those of us who are trans – particularly those of us who are visible in their trans-ness, unable or unwilling to ‘pass,’ so to speak, as ciswomen. And being queer, broadly, has never been something ‘safe’ to be; safety is always situational, always dependent on a variety of factors. I feel a lot safer and happier in my ability to live openly as a transwoman here in the United States – but I do not, at all, feel safe overall. Tasks that are mundane to many cisgender people sometimes terrify me: going to the grocery store even when I have no food left, making a phone call to a stranger I MUST make. This is because when I am around strangers, I just want, usually, to be seen as any other woman, with no prefix, cis- or trans-, needing to be applied for clarification – but I fear that I may be outed, and being outed can lead to stares, glares, fists, following footsteps, and things that hurt much more.

I often, for instance, get harassed by men when I am by myself, and this harassment, when it leads to you being followed by this man, can be even more frightening when you realise that your outing yourself to him might cause something bad to happen. I once had a taxi driver, who appeared to think I was a ciswoman with a low voice, try to keep me inside his cab before he took me home, telling me he did not want me to leave it and then giving me a card with his number to call. He watched me go into my home, and I remember feeling a sense of terror that he would follow me, that he knew where I lived, this man who had wanted me to stay in his car. 

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Illustration by Micah Bazant: “Drawing this beauty. 22. Beaten and shot in the back, yesterday, on the street, by a whole gang of men. I have no words.”

 

It is often easier to avoid some violence as a transwoman if you ‘pass’ well. You meet less people who wish to hurt you because they ‘read’ you as trans or gender non-conforming at a glance. But passing has its own dangers, too. After all, the men who come up to me to harass or proposition me may react in violence if they find out I am trans because they think I’ve ‘tricked’ them. Because they think of me, suddenly, as a gay male, and here homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia often begin to intersect, forming violence when they do.

So I feel safer here, to be sure. The ability to change my gender marker on my ID in the US has made my life much easier in many situations–buying alcohol, travelling in an airport, being stopped by police, the latter of which is terrifying in of itself already. But violence will follow us as long as anti-queerness and general misogyny do – which is to say that we must always, always be on guard, both as women in general and as transwomen specifically because that prefix, unfortunately, can make a difference in the length of our life’s thread.

Bani: Which stories of exile, if any, did you identify with growing up? And now?

Gabrielle: Growing up in Dominica, I often felt like I had to hide any sign of ‘femininity’ to avoid being called gay, so I identified with narratives of escaping to lonely worlds. I imagined myself on a submarine that travelled the world’s seas like Jules Verne’s Nemo, except I was a girl on a lonely submersible deep below where the blue fades. Sci-fi and fantasy sometimes provided me with a way to imagine myself in another reality, one where I had been born as the woman I knew I was. I still identify with those narratives of distance, so novels like Keri Hulme’s the bone people, which features an asexual woman navigating her own emotional and geographic isolation in New Zealand, resonate with me on some levels. I also understood the feeling of exile in some of Jean Rhys’ novels, some of Earl Lovelace’s books, and in some of Derek Walcott’s poems – a kind of simultaneous racial and national exile, even as these are distinct in each of these writers.

I love being me; I am a woman, and I cannot live otherwise, do not want or know how to. But a sense of exile follows me like a shadow.

In the U. S., I am more likely to be seen as ‘Hispanic,’ broadly, or black, but in Dominica I varied from being ‘white’ to, most commonly, being ‘Shabine’ or a light-skinned mix of ethnicities. Sometimes, this means you feel like you fit in everywhere; other times, it’s like you fit in nowhere. I also enjoyed encountering the exile narratives along both gender and political lines in Nuruddin Farrah’s Maps, the intimate exile in some of Casey Plett’s short stories about trans experience in A Safe Girl to Love, and even just the broader idea of a kind of inexplicable exile in more absurd narratives, like Kobe Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.

Bani: Do you feel like you have a place or community where you feel belonging? Is it conditional? And have you had folks who know you as mixed and/or trans assume you experience some sort of internal conflict with your identities?

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Illustration of Dominican author Jean Rhys (artist unkown)

Gabrielle: I feel like I’m forming a second family–people who you go to when you do not know if you can go to the ones bonded by blood. One of my queer friends told me that coming out means finding a new family when your old family becomes distant, or when your original home becomes a place you may not be able to return to as easily as before. And I think this is true for many LGBTQ individuals – even when coming out goes well, incidentally. I’ve found that being amongst queer individuals in a group makes me feel, suddenly, less different and so much safer at times–like I am suddenly around people who I know will probably understand the language of my experience. It’s a great feeling.

I don’t think it’s the norm for my friends now, but some people have said things to me that make me think they see me as uncertain of either my ethnic or gender identities. I was once asked what race I identify as on an application form in graduate school by a higher-up; I got the sense that anything but Caucasian I said would have been acceptable to that person, that I was a blank canvas to them by my light brown skin. And another person asked me, after I came out, what bathroom I planned to use in my department, a question that implied I might still use a male restroom  -which I never did or will do after coming out – and that seemed to invalidate my gender identity as a woman. I don’t think she realised how demeaning the question came across. People often assume that to be anything other than a simple binary or simple label is to therefore be in conflict with who you are. And I do have conflict with things, but I am more than my conflicts, more than a common narrative of internal fights.

Bani: Damn, I wanna give that last line a standing ovation. So just like with travel media, the white Western gaze of mainstream LGBT (I put this in quotes because they’re really just gay) media tends to paint majority POC countries as broadly intolerant of queer people with little exception, and are usually selectively ahistorical when it comes to where these biases emerge from and how they’re spread. How do you feel about that shit as someone who’s on a lot of sides of that?

Gabrielle: I think there’s a big danger in just giving out single stories, to use Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s term, of places. And this can so easily become a mask for not simply racist generalisations about places, but also for a return to colonialist narratives about countries and continents and regions. A way to speak for instead of speaking to, a way to suggest the way that the benevolent white American is supposed to spend their money – or not spend it by, say, absurd boycotts of countries.

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Image via Queerty.com

For instance, there is a common narrative of certain white Americans suggesting that Jamaica, which has long had a bad reputation for anti-queer attitudes, should be boycotted by tourists as a way to punish the country for these attitudes. This also happened after the Times Magazine published a piece on Belize featuring the painful narrative of a gay Belizean activist, Caleb Orozco; some people suggested that Belize be boycotted as a tourist destination. This happened with my Dominica after an incident with a gay cruise in which two gay white men from the cruise were briefly incarcerated in Dominica after apparently having publicly visible sex while the boat was in the harbour. And I saw at least one person suggest the same, unfortunately, after I wrote my op-ed for the New York Times.

These attitudes are mistaken – boycotting does not help improve LGBTQ people living in the places being boycotted or even those of us in the diaspora. And there is an element, of course, of economic privilege in this decision to boycott, as well as–at times–a kind of single-story racism and a lack of nuance. In my Times piece, I had wanted to be able to provide more nuance about the complex realities of being queer in the Caribbean, since it really does vary, but my op-ed could only hold so many words before its official cut-off point. All the same, I was sad to realise that even a single person had decided to take what I said to mean boycotting a place or even entire region, since I did not advocate that.

When the media paints an entire country or region as being antagonistic to LGBTQ individuals, there may well be large elements of truth in that, but there is also a danger of losing the bigger truth, which is that queer individuals may well live there, may well even thrive there at times. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Individual experience differs. But the old colonialist narratives are easier to tell, and it is sad when the media chooses these broad strokes to brush instead of even suggesting that variance may be the truth instead of a single story–when variance, in all of life, in all the spaces between the silent-loud starfire in our universe, is what describes reality best of all.

I do this series for free; if you wanna tip me – or Gabby – a few bucks, you can do so via Paypal to heyitsbani@gmail.com or click on the Donate button on the left-hand column (and specify if donating to Gabby or get in touch with her directly.)

People of Color with Western Privilege #Dispatch: Pooja Makhijani

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.

Pooja Makhijani writes children's books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at poojamakhijani.com.
Pooja Makhijani writes children’s books, essays, and articles, and also develops educational media and curricula. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, The Rumpus, Serious Eats, Paste Magazine, Quartz, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach, and The Los Angeles Book Review (forthcoming). Find her online home at poojamakhijani.com.

Bani Amor: Tell us where you’re from, where you are now, and how you got from one to the other.

Pooja Makhijani: I’m a South Asian American woman, born in New York City and raised in suburban New Jersey, now living in Singapore. My partner and I moved here in 2010 when he was offered an opportunity in Asia; I continue to write, edit, and teach — my background is in early childhood education and children’s media — here in Singapore.

Bani: Would you consider yourself an expat, or is that term unavailable to people of color?

Pooja: As an American (Westerner), I think, in some instances I may be considered an “expat” in Singapore. And my Western privilege allows me to claim it should I want to. I definitely think the term is less, if at all, available to my friends and colleagues from other Asian countries (Philippines, China, India, etc.). However, I agree, generally, “expat” in the Singapore context is a term reserved for professional white Westerners and professional Japanese and, *maybe*, professional Korean workers in Singapore. That being said, we are not immigrants to Singapore and we intend to return to the United States. I suppose “economic migrant” is the best term for people like us.

Bani: These distinctions always seem implied in media and everyday language. Recently I’ve noticed more journalists writing about the importance of making distinctions, questioning implicit bias or at least agreeing that the current vocabulary to name our place in these migrations is insufficient.

Pooja: Yes! I always remember this exchange between two of my favorite writers. Both Cole and Lalami address exactly these language contortions in their works.*

Bani: I decided a while ago that to be an expat means to hold privilege in the trifecta of class, race and place. Acknowledging that to be POC does not mean there isn’t a racial hierarchy at work with us (obvs).

Pooja: I totally agree! But my “place” — as evidenced by my U.S. passport and accent — gives me such incredible power and proximity to whiteness in a way that I would never have conceived of had I not moved overseas! As I detail in this essay, it has given me tremendous advantages over other people who “look like me” but hold different passports and/or have different accents.

For example, it is very common — and legal — for landlords to advertise empty rental units with the words: “no Indians, no PRCs [People’s Republic of China]”, sometimes followed by the word “sorry”. We have been asked where we were born, where our families live, whether we had an arranged marriage (WTF?), etc. But the minute we were able to produce our passport and to show that he (my partner) held a position in a U.S. company, the micro- and macroagressions ceased and we were able to find a roof over our heads.

I’ve heard story after story from Indian friends from India who are rejected from apartment after apartment, despite their privileged class. Another example: if I walk into a swanky bar/restaurant/retail space, I am sometimes ignored by staff. (I’m a t-shirt/jeans/flats/no makeup/no jewelry kinda gal). But if I put on my best loud, friendly American twang, I received better service. I hadn’t traveled much outside of the U.S. until my mid-20s, and then only to to Europe, so I had no idea of this concept—Western privilege.

“Some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants; and some simply as migrants. It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat … Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.” Who is an expat, anyway?’ WSJ

I’m also glad that U.S. activists of color, e.g. Son of Baldwin, etc., are finally talking about Western privilege and the interconnectedness of various social justice struggles. It’s weird to go to into a world with “proximity-to-white privilege” when you’ve never been on that side of the fence before!

Bani: Yup, which is why a lot of USian POC can’t conceive of this privilege yet, and often deny that they hold any privilege at all.

Pooja: Yes. Totally.

Bani: But I wanna back it up. In your article you mentioned, you talked about being radicalized and embracing POC community in the age of Bush, and in relocating to Singapore, there was an excitement about moving away from “white systems,” but once you got there, you were like, “Oh.” Something James Baldwin said comes to mind: “I found myself…alchemized into an American the moment I touched French soil.”

Pooja: Yes, that Baldwin quote! I really need to go read him again now that I live overseas! I think USian POC are taught to only think of their struggles in the context of white supremacy in the U.S., which is, in and of itself, problematic because it doesn’t examine U.S. imperialism and our complicity in so much global oppression. It’s good ol’ American Exceptionalism at work, and even progressive folks like me are sometimes so unaware of these entrenched biases. My experiences thus far had led me think that I would only experience “real” discrimination in majority-white settings, and my education had not prompted me to question this provincial world view.

“An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (‘out of’) and patria (‘country, fatherland’).” Wikipedia

Bani: I wonder if you’ve found balance in acknowledging your US privilege but also facing some discrimination for your ethnicity in Singapore.

Pooja: I think about this all the time. I’m not sure. I’m more aware of the ways in which I *can* wield my “power,” but actively choose not to. As I’ve written, people completely shift in their interactions with me when they hear my accent! They are kinder and more obsequious often. I’ve been referred to as “not that kind of Indian.”

Bani: Right. That’s real.

Pooja: Because, again my proximity to whiteness has somehow “civilized” me. Without which, I would be a “savage,” right?

Bani: You and I and the folks you’ve brought up in this talk have all come to acknowledge western privilege only by spending a considerable amount of time outside of white majority or ‘first world’ countries. How do we get others who don’t (can’t) leave to acknowledge this, or is it necessary for them to?

Pooja: Yes, it’s absolutely necessary. How else can we (POC) understand the interconnectedness of various global social justice struggles and find true solidarity against white supremacy? And I think we fail our progressivism if we aren’t willing to point out that we have the *same* power to oppress depending on the circumstance.

My personal challenge is now finding meaningful actions. How do I use this knowledge and power in the service of those without? Writing is all well and good, but I’m an “action” person!

“Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.” Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The Guardian

Bani: Have you met a lot of other expats (or economic migrants, refugees, immigrants, etc.) of color in Singapore?

Pooja: Yes. Of Singapore’s 5.2 million residents, 3.7 million are Citizens or Permanent Residents (PRs). Non-residents (economic migrants of all classes) are working, studying or living in Singapore on a non-permanent basis. The large number of non-Citizens here has become a huge political issue for a country as small as Singapore. Foreigners are, as they are in other countries, accused of diluting national identity, “taking away jobs,” etc. Local activists continue to be be alarmed by the surge of racism and xenophobia in recent years. The issue is complex, but here is *some* background by a friend. So, in short, yes, I do know lots of foreigners in Singapore, and many Westerners of color. I do know a lot of non-White (I hate that term!) expatriates in Singapore as well.

Bani: Do they share the same politics as you?

Pooja: I suss out people who share my politics, I think. I will say that many of my close USian friends in Singapore are POC. Many of us have had similar experiences. On the flip side, my Chinese American acquaintances benefit from both racial and place-ial privilege in a city like Singapore. Some of them are quite aware of this, especially those who are fluent in Mandarin, for example, but others aren’t.

There was data recently collected – by WSJ, I think – about the races/ethnicities and nationalities of “expats” in Asia. The data concluded that what people generally think of as “expat” – white, male, on a company package, in company housing, with company car – doesn’t hold true as it used to. And that new migrants tend to be younger and either from other countries in Asia and/or Asian Westerners. As the world moves in this way, I think these ideas of Western privilege deeply come into play. And we have to talk about it.

“Want to make friends? Move to another country. Maybe somewhere third world. Expats tend to be adventurous, to be risk-takers. After all, they’ve already left their friends, their homes, their comfort zones and probably most of their possessions in another country to begin a new life abroad. That takes guts. It’s only a certain type of person who’ll do that.” What we could all learn from expats Traveller

Bani: Of the people of color who spend a considerable amount of time outside white majority ‘developed’ countries who acknowledge and question relationships between power and place, they usually come from a place of already having politics that challenge white supremacy. But the majority of poc who travel from these white majority countries for leisure or study or savior tourism or as expats, don’t seem to give a shit.

Pooja: Do you think they revel in their newfound privilege? I seem to think so now.

Bani: There seems to be a kind of aspiration to taste that place privilege for as long as possible, without examining power dynamics in adopted countries. When you talk about Asian Westerners, do you recognize that?

Pooja: Absolutely. And there are definitely people willing to examine those power dynamics, and those who will happily oppress despite knowing.

Bani: I think the latter is enjoying a moment right now. When I do see these nuances in privilege and place addressed with some justice it’s almost exclusively in literature, mostly novels. Even outside the travel space with personal essays and memoir that touch on this, it seems to be very superficial. I was wondering where you go to to see these issues fleshed out.

Pooja: I agree that travel and “expat” media is still centered around whiteness and Westernness, and so far from addressing privilege and place. I like social media—Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook as that is where so many social justice conversations are happening (at least in English)—and try to follow activists who are involved in actions in their parts of the world. I think, as you rightly note above, novelists like Laila Lailami and Teju Cole are addressing some of these issues in their writing. Where do you go, Bani?

[noted white guy whiteguysplains it all:]

“It is much easier for someone from the United States to work or retire in Costa Rica than for someone from Costa Rica to do the same in the United States. But that’s because the US government created this obstacle for Ticos by requiring a visa, which Costa Rica doesn’t require of US citizens. It isn’t an “outdated supremacist ideology” which labels white people living in a foreign country as expats and all others as immigrants; it’s governments. Simple as that.” The difference between expats and immigrants? It’s passports, not race PanAm Post

Bani: This is why I started this conversation series, because I don’t see it addressed, not with this language or analysis in this space or context. Like we’ve both said, social media and literature (and the academy, perhaps) are where these issues are being deeply examined.

Pooja: Even online (in English social media), I find the conversation often centered around U.S.-specific concerns. Global hashtags tend to be U.S.-created; when was the last time you saw U.S. activist POC en masse advocate for a foreign social justice struggle?

Bani: It’s true. So how do we extend the dialogue?

Pooja: For one, we—U.S.ian POC who have this power—need to listen and not dominate the conversation. We tell white people *exactly this* all the time; we need to walk the walk. I’ve seen, online, U.S. POC get defensive and or derail conversations or talk about “intent” when they are called out for their biases, instead of apologizing and sitting with their thoughts. We have to do better.

Bani: Absolutely.

*Tweets used with permission by both Lalami and Cole

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The Link Between Tourism & Settler Colonialism in Hawai’i #Dispatch: Maile Arvin

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.

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Maile Arvin is a Native Hawaiian feminist scholar who writes about Native feminist theories, settler colonialism, decolonization, and race and science in Hawai‘i and the broader Pacific. She is currently a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethnic Studies at UCR and will be officially joining the department as an assistant professor in July. She is part of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association working group and a member of Hinemoana of Turtle Island, a Pacific Islander feminist group of activists, poets, and scholars located in California and Oregon. You can find some of her academic writing here.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself, the work that you do, and how your identities play into that work.

Maile Arvin: So I’m Native Hawaiian, and my family is from Waimanalo, a small town on the windward side of O’ahu. I’m an academic – I research and teach about race and indigeneity in Hawai’i, the larger Pacific and elsewhere. Being Native Hawaiian grounds my work, motivates me to write about Native Hawaiian lives and histories in complicated, respectful ways.

One of my current projects is working with Hinemoana of Turtle Island, a group of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander feminist women, many of whom are also academics but also poets, activists, artists. We support each other in the academic world and are accountable to each other. We talk to each other a lot about current issues that affect Pacific Islanders, usually in news that erases the existence of Indigenous Pacific Islanders altogether, and sometimes write up responses on our blog, muliwai. We’re currently working on a response to the movie Aloha. Or maybe more about the criticism of the movie that is entirely focused on Emma Stone’s casting.

Bani Amor: Word. That leads me to my next question: I often find that travel media and tourism are complicit in settler colonialism, in that it still purports an archaic, false image of indigenous peoples as smiling caricatures who are ready, willing and able to serve at the beck and call of the (white) tourist. Any idea why this is especially the case for Hawai’i?

Maile Arvin: For Hawai’i, because it is actually a U.S. state, there is this incredible sense of entitlement that white Americans in particular feel to being at home in Hawai’i. Since World War II in particular, and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, there was this narrative of Hawai’i as being the place that militarily makes the rest of the U.S. safe. And along with that, there is also a need to justify and naturalize U.S. military occupation of these islands that are over 2000 miles Hawaii-postcard--OTRCAT.comaway from the U.S. continent. So Hawai’i becomes this feminine place in need of the masculine U.S. military to safeguard both Hawai’i and the rest of the U.S. And Native Hawaiian women in particular become these symbols of a happy, paradisical place, a place where white military men will have fun, will get their own Native Hawaiian girl.

Then there’s just the economic situation of Hawai’i. The two biggest industries are the military and the tourism industry, so a lot of Native Hawaiians have to work for one or the other. So there will be a lot of Native Hawaiians working as performers, staff, etc. in Waikiki hotels. And they are asked to project a certain image, which is in line with this old but also current colonial idea of Hawai’i as a carefree place, a vacation place for white people.

I think there is also sometimes a sense that the U.S. has “helped” Hawai’i and Native Hawaiians, through “civilization” and through conferring statehood status on Hawai’i. So Native Hawaiians are supposed to be grateful to white Americans for those things. Which actually signify settler colonialism and genocide.

Bani Amor: Right! Travel media – mainstream and “indie” alike – seem to hold on to this theory that the tourist presence = savior presence, that indigenous people somehow *need* tourists to better their economy, keep things “civilized,” i.e. colonization is progress. In Hawai’i, does the tourist presence ever feel like another form of occupation?

Maile Arvin: Absolutely. Which is not to say that Native Hawaiians hate all tourists. But just that tourism is this structure that furthers U.S. occupation of Hawai’i. One example is that Waikiki, the site where most hotels are clustered on O’ahu, can often be actively hostile to Native Hawaiians who look out of place there. The City Council keeps passing these resolutions to ban anyone from sleeping or lying on the sidewalks. Which is a blatantly anti-homeless measure that forces Native Hawaiians out of sight of most of the tourists.

0245df7f927adca0db31a24729f65474I live in California, and a lot of people who live here go on vacations in Hawai’i. Sometimes they ask me where to go, or they just want to tell me about where they went. And usually they go to outer islands, not O’ahu where I’m from, to Moloka’i or Kaua’i islands, where I’ve actually never been. I’m glad many people love Hawai’i, but it’s hard not to feel upset sometimes when it seems like my Californian neighborhood has seen more of Hawai’i than I have. But then again I wonder what they really see, and think about how much they must miss.

For Native Hawaiians, it’s really important to try to have a relationship with the places you visit, or at least to acknowledge the relationships that other people from that place have with that land. So it’s not really about just seeing as much of Hawai’i as possible but having relationships, honoring responsibilities to places.

Bani Amor: Yes, and it’s hard to communicate that to (white) people who want to visit our lands. It took me 21 years to be able to get to Ecuador, where my fam is from, and leading up to that time white people would like to tell me how many times they’d been there, what they did, what I should see when I finally go. It was torture! And when I’m living in Ecuador (white) people are always talking about the Galapagos, a mostly inaccessible place for actual Ecuadorians. I’ve never been, nor has 99% of my family.

Maile Arvin: Yeah! It’s really hard to get people to truly acknowledge how much privilege structures their ability to travel places. To not just try to explain it away, but to sit with that however uncomfortable it may be. It’s also hard to get them to see the ways their comments are often structured by the expectation that Indigenous peoples are tour guides or that there is one authentic Indigenous experience that they can casually ask for and receive.

Bani Amor: Yup, it’s a transaction. Places are sold to tourists as brands and their consumption of place forces indigenous Hawaiian_rights_activists_line_Kuhio_Highway_alohaanalyticspeople to become culture hustlers, in a way. Getting back to perceptions of tourists – do you feel that there’s a sentiment that some or many Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiians have towards tourists that the media is intentionally erasing?

Maile Arvin: I definitely think the media (local or national) does not see Native Hawaiians as a primary audience, and so even when there is reporting on Native Hawaiian issues, it is often very shallow and tries not to make any non-Native person uncomfortable.

For example, the best coverage around the Kanaka Maoli protectors of Mauna Kea blocking the road to the summit where a thirty meter telescope is proposed to be built has largely come from international media outlets or just from folks using social media to get information out. Local and national media often tries to present “both sides” in ways that are disingenuous and don’t acknowledge power dynamics. Then Native Hawaiians get called out for being “uncivil” for disagreeing with the priorities of Western science.

Mauna Kea is a very sacred site within Hawaiian epistemologies. It is the piko, or umbilical cord, signifying the birthplace of our people. But the protectors are not fighting simply to preserve the site for Native Hawaiians. They are also fighting to stop environmental destruction, and the possible poisoning of the water aquifer that would effect everyone who lives on Hawai’i Island. But the media rarely acknowledges that, they represent the “Native Hawaiian side” versus everyone else, which is a false binary.

mauna-keaBani Amor: So often, the consequences of tourism directly lead to environmental racism, is complicit projects that natives actively fight against. I’m wondering how that binary is false though, can you clarify?

Maile Arvin: I just mean that the media often treats Native Hawaiian views as this specialized, boutique kind of opinion which is relevant only to a very small number of people. When actually the knowledge Native Hawaiians have to share, and the struggles Native Hawaiians are engaged in, often impact everyone. Especially in regards to the environment. So it seems false to me to tokenize Native Hawaiians into this one box that is sometimes acknowledged, but is set up as necessarily being against the needs/desires of the larger public, when that isn’t even always the case. Does that make sense? Maybe false binary isn’t the right phrase for it.

Bani Amor: Yes, thanks for clarifying. Seems like the media has done a lot of work to invalidate those “boutique” opinions. My final question is just about getting some resources up in here so that people can do work that continues after this conversation ends: For folks looking to balance their perceptions of Hawaii, can you name drop some Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian activists, groups or creatives that are working towards decolonization?

Maile Arvin: Gladly! This is a really wonderful blog, He Kapu Hehi Ale, written by a group of Native Hawaiians and others in Hawai’i. It covers a lot of current issues in the Pacific, including Mauna Kea, and it is really creative and just great writing. To keep up to date on Mauna Kea, you can follow Sacred Mauna Kea Hui on Facebook. Another blog I love is by Teresia Teaiwa, an academic and activist working in Aoteraroa/New Zealand. And finally Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet and activist from Micronesia who has a blog. Also she gave a killer speech/poem to the UN recently.

Bani Amor: Awesome, thank you!

I run the #Dispatches series for free. If you wanna support or show solidarity and all that good stuff, consider the Donate button in the left column or tip me a few bucks directly to heyitsbani@gmail.com via paypal.

Racial Segregation and Assimilation in Travel Blogging: #Dispatch: Navdeep Dhillon

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.

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Navdeep was born in England, raised in East and West Africa, the Middle East, and the United States, but he is a Punjabi boy at heart. He served in the U.S. Navy for eight years, taught ESL in China for two, and traveled extensively throughout South East Asia, including a six month honeymoon in India. He runs the travel blog, ishqinabackpack.com with his wife, Sona Charaipotra, author of Tiny Pretty Things and one of the founders of CAKE Literary, a book packaging company focused on integrating diversity into high concept stories. He is a VONA/Voices alumni, holds an MFA in fiction, and writes about books, parenting, and diversity on his own blog, NavdeepSinghDhillon.com

Bani Amor: Aight, so tell folks who you are, what you do and why

Navdeep Dhillon: I run the travel blog, Ishq In A Backpack with my wife, Sona Charaipotra, a novelist and entertainment reporter. We began the site in 2007 just to document our honeymoon to Mexico and India in the days before Facebook, so we could let our families know we hadn’t been kidnapped. Then we had kids and kept the site going because it was fun. It quickly became more of a platform to discuss overt and subtle racism to counter the over-representative white narratives from travel books to blogs to experiences, as though white people are the only ones who travel. We would often be asked pretty ridiculous questions about identity and diversity as though People of Color are new to this whole travel thing. So, it’s our little space of the internet.

Bani: You were asked questions about identity and diversity by other travelers or from people who read your site or..?

Navdeep: Mostly from people who were reading our site, who would ask questions about how Indian travelers feel about Europe, like we’re representatives from Mars. And our Indian identity is very complicated since neither of us have ever lived there. Or questions about religion as though we speak for more than just ourselves, and from travel media organizers about how to create better token diversity. It also comes from other travelers and our experiences traveling abroad, where many things are discussed through a very white lens, such as being treated like a celebrity in China or how easy it is to get a teaching job there. I taught English there and loved it there, but nobody went out of their way to take photos of me or touch my hair or skin.

Bani: How do you respond to travel media organizers who try to enlist you to create token diversity?

Navdeep: It’s complicated and really depends on the event. Most of the time, if it feels like complete tokenism like one panel on diversity in a sea of white, we’ll say no thank you politely. But there are some situations where we have attended because we saw a greater good coming out of it, a conversation to potentially be part of a small change. The travel blogging industry is a particularly toxic form of whiteness because there is very little room for any real change in its current climate. Best 100, or whatever arbitrary number of travel blogger lists are consistently and thoroughly white, book lists are white, and there isn’t a collective of POC who can really incite change because the few POC who get any privilege in the system start supporting that system by saying things like, “well, there just aren’t enough POC blogging,” or “the quality of the content isn’t up to par with the “mainstream,” or, “it’s all about the numbers and we just don’t have them.”

IshqInABackpack.com: Sona and Navdeep Spiritual Journey to Vaisno Devi

Many conferences are completely white, from its panelists to its organizers to its teacups,and nobody sees anything wrong with it enough to say something publicly. Sona is involved with the We Need Diverse Books campaign that began with a twitter conversation between two writers over the pure whiteness of Book Con last May, and now it is fully funded and making power moves. Hopefully something like that could happen in travel.

The New York Travel Festival had a great initiative they just started this year with a part of it devoted to diversity with some wonderful panels and panelists. I am of two thoughts about that. On one hand, I think it’s great because these conferences need a diversity 101 course, even if the room is filled with other POC. I facilitated a workshop there and it was interesting to see how everyone didn’t even want to use the word, “white,” and a lot of the vocabulary to talk about these concepts of white supremacy are stripped away and it’s important to talk about them. But how much change this actually helps bring about is debatable. If the only thing these conferences have is a diversity section and nobody is invited to the table for discussions on craft, where you can organically talk about race and travel, it is a form of ghettoization.

The dilemma always comes down to a very difficult choice: either attend as tokens and engage in some discussion of diversity or there will be no discussion of diversity. It’s a tough call and one that can be very frustrating when neither option is what you want.

I feel like we have more impact writing unfettered on our blogs than we do at these panels because there are a lot of restrictions placed in the conversations that we obviously don’t have to adhere to on our blogs. But then the question becomes about the objective and there is a great divide on that. If you remember the Outbounding panel we were both on, one of the things I was a little taken aback by was that the loudest voices in support of the system came from other people of color.

Bani: That excuse for exclusion – that the quality of travel content by POC isn’t up to par with the mainstream – is particularly funny because the quality of the content in the mainstream is crap! I’m sorry but the standard is low, to me

Navdeep: There’s a lot that I like, but there’s so much wading through mediocre-to-complete-rubbish blogs that are littered with top ten things to do here, top five places to see, etc, that have no soul. I’m all for mediocrity with POC. We can be just as rubbish as the “mainstream.”

Bani: It seems to me that when some POC enjoy some success in whatever field they’re in, they think, well it must not be that bad, look at me!

Navdeep: We love individual stories of those few people of color who made it. Not of communities. And the burden of these individuals is that they are never safe. If they start calling out the racism, they could lose their position. In many cases it’s more that to keep what little privilege they have, it involves walking the line and strengthening the myth that hard work and perseverance are the key ingredients.

Bani: It seems like just another form of assimilation

Navdeep: It’s exactly assimilation

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Bani: It’s also sad that POC travel brands have to market themselves as apolitical to be successful

Navdeep: I agree. They have a great platform, but when the immediate aim is money and not primarily cultural shifts, race is going to be low to non-existent on their talking points. Most of the POC travel brands I have heard of seem focused on bridging the gap between corporate white america and black travelers, not from an ideological standpoint, but from a monetary standpoint: there is money to be made. It’s a difficult thing combining the two.

The book industry is just now getting comfortable enough to have these conversations without dancing around the real issues. Authors, particularly Young Adult, Middle Grade, and kid lit authors feel empowered to say things at panels or on twitter because they know there are other people who feel similarly, but more importantly there is an organization that supports them. Travel doesn’t have that and we’re still at panels dancing around the issues because we’ve tied ourselves too closely to brands.

Bani: Yeah, travel writing is like the suburbs of literature lol

Navdeep: Haha

Bani: My last question: is there hope? Where?

Navdeep: Haha, Yes, I think there is definitely hope. It’s important to recognize the problems, but it’s more important to work towards creating change. The internet has changed a lot of things and given POC the ability to have their voices heard. We use our site to write about things like the White House Travel Blogger Summit last year on diversity, where they invited mostly white people, including one couple from Australia. Or diverse book lists. And there are many travel bloggers who are changing the landscape like Oneika The Traveler, who isn’t afraid to integrate race into her travels because it’s a part of traveling, of life. Keeping the conversation happening, and addressing the issues is a step, and when organizers especially put in the initiative to start a conversation, it’s something that should be encouraged because a lot of people genuinely want to know what they can do to actively change things.

There are plenty of travel memoirs by people of color out there and lots of bloggers of color from around the world. Real change in the travel writing industry will come from the people.

Your Body Is a Foreign Country #Dispatch: Paula Young Lee

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.

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Paula Young Lee is the author of several books, including Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat (2014 Winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Book Award, Society of American Travel Writers). She splits her time between Maine and Massachusetts. We started our conversation with her asking about my back problems, which I won’t bore you with, but she quipped back with a powerful statement.

Paula Young Lee:  Your body is a foreign country: foreign to you, unintelligible to others. You may find resolution by narrating it. The first novel, The Princess of Cleves, was written by an aristocratic woman who discovered the now-expected convention of the interior voice. She was writing about her thoughts, the miracle being that she had some. Now, I think the task is to narrate our bodies, not as colonizers but native inhabitants. It sounds odd because “of course, we inhabit our bodies!” But increasingly, with avatars and the internet and media projections of our perfected selves, we don’t.

I have been thinking about female body as a territory to be claimed, but one that women have difficulty claiming as their own, even when it is their own body! Narratives, reflexive gazes, these get in the way. But pain exposes the junctions.

Bani Amor: Yes, girls grow up with distorted visions of themselves.

Paula:  Exactly. So what is a girl supposed to look like, be like, act like? One of the advantages of traveling is that it shows you how others perceive you. It lifts the veil of one culture and tosses out and shrouds you with another…but just for a split second, you get to see behind the curtain. If you are paying attention.

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Bani: I feel like, as a person of color or second generation immigrant growing up in the States, I’ve always felt like a foreigner, always aware of how others perceive me.

Paula:  It can feel like a hall of mirrors trying to sort out self-perception from others’ perceptions of you. I’ve always felt like two people in one body. But I don’t think it’s a consequence of growing up a minority in a very white state. It is just the way my mind works.

Bani: I grew up in this hardcore multicultural neighborhood in New York City, very queer too. It wasn’t until we moved to Florida and then began traveling around the United States and Canada that I realized how “othered” people perceived me as. It just can feel uncomfortable not seeing those mirrored images of yourself in others, in your community. In parts of the U.S., it was downright violent. I think it enabled me to be able to travel to other parts of the world and stick out and be OK with that.

Paula:  I tend to respond to the emotional states of others, without expectation of help or harm. When I think about it, I have had quite a few harrowing experiences, traveling alone, but those stories aren’t the ones I want to tell. Danger and safety aren’t my focus. I’m more interested in finding out it there is hope in the world. Also, food.

Bani: There is hope in food.

Paula:  I think so. Or, at least, there can be. There is also a great deal of truth. Bullshit tastes bad. Because I like getting back in the kitchen, I have made friends around the world. There is a real difference between expecting to being served, even as a traveler, and being a person who asks you to show her how to make it herself.

Bani: That seems like the low-impact way of traveling. Food is one of the first worlds to be affected in a tourist economy.

Paula:  That’s what happens when you’re poor! Can’t take your universe with you…must adapt to the way the regular folks live. One of my dreams is to be on a cooking show that lets me travel around the world, get into home kitchens, and cook with ordinary people at home.

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Bani: And you were vegetarian for a while, how did that affect the way you ate on the road?

Paula:  I was vegetarian for a very long time, and I am allergic to all seafood. Every time I visited a new country, I would end up with a whole new set of food allergies. So I mainly ate rice. Which isn’t sustainable over time. This is partly what prompted my interest in wild food. Traveling widely also impresses you with the importance of culinary diversity. This is the opposite of the food mall, which is actually the reverse: a monolith masquerading as a motley assortment.

A bee sting will kill me. This is probably the reason why I don’t much care to dwell on danger, because if I did, I would never leave the house. My allergies ensure that I cannot take my relationship to food, or to nature, for granted. So I think about these negotiations all the time, and then wonder how to translate them for people who don’t have similar obstacles preventing them from living carelessly on this earth.

Bani: So how did you go from traveling in Europe to hunting in rural New England?

Paula:  The mechanism was online dating! I was in Paris, France, trying to find a suitable man for my friend in Boston. As I was looking, I stumbled across John’s profile — no photo, two sentences describing a bourgeois life that didn’t interest me one bit. But I felt a tingle up the back of my neck that I have never felt before, and it wouldn’t go away. So I sent him a message. He replied right away. And that was that.

Bani: Wow

Paula: The trick is being confident in yourself and trusting your emotions. At first, my friends were appalled because he’s a Republican who wears a suit and tie to work. Now they all want to know where they can find one like him. For them, it was a lesson in looks that deceive. Having preconceptions about people that later proved wrong. So eventually, a few years in, we bought a house together in Paris, Maine. The house is the subject of the next memoir.

Bani: Were you hunting before you moved there?

Paula:  No. In the memoir, I tried to convey a sense of the patience that hunting requires. Between John and myself, it took years of me running away, leaving the country, going off and doing my own thing, and him being willing to wait. (For my sister, this period remains a source of much hilarity because she likes to remind me how hard I made him work.) The dynamic is much like that between a hunter and the quarry, which is not the predator/prey axis so often touted by lad mags. The quarry is not passive, and hunters must be honorable, setting the highest ethical standards in order to land the one they want. That one is not interchangeable with others that might happen to be bopping around. Distilled, the underlying sentiment is both profoundly romantic and incredibly raw.

John says he can hear me when I think. I suspect that animals can too. You have to empty your mind. This happens when on a hard hike, for example. You can’t plot your novel, worry about the bills, or think about recipes. You end up focusing entirely on where to place your feet and moving ever forward. Sometimes I think this is how wild animals function. Feet, food, sleep, poop.

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Bani: Would you call your work travel writing?

Paula:  Not in the conventional sense of the genre. But as a short and round woman of color, it is sort of impossible for me to adhere to the conventions, yes? My perspective is just too different. I don’t so much travel as I take up residence, in the manner of a hermit crab, and snap at passers-by trying, literally and figuratively, to pick me up when all I want to do is hide quietly and study the local fauna.

Bani: You’re an anthropological traveler.

Paula:  Yes, I would agree with that. So in Deer Hunting in Paris, I basically inverted the genre by observing, then writing about white rural Americans as if they were a curious tribe practicing strange customs.

Bani: Fabulous.

Paula:  The construct of leaving the country, then coming back to the state where I grew up, is a way to describe the disconnect between two forms of self — the one shaped by culture (Paris, France), and the one born of nature (Paris, Maine). White rural America is where I was raised, yet it is a struggle to call it my home.

I was instantly comfortable in France. At the time, being in Paris fed many needs. However, I wrestled with the idea of moving to France permanently, as had many of my friends — some of whom got married to a French person, others who just stayed illegally. My reluctance to take either step was evidence enough that it wasn’t for me. The city was ultimately too restless, jostling with seekers.

Bani: What are the challenges of living in Paris, Maine?

Paula:  The renovations to the old house have turned it into a giant construction zone which feels as if it will never be done. The next memoir was supposed to be an American version of a Year in Provence. Unfortunately, it is starting to turn into a Decade in Paris (Maine).

Bani: Haha, I’m sorry!

Paula:  It’s okay. It is a minefield for situational humor. I want a cat and John hates them. There is the woodpile to stack, wood to split, and the plan to hopefully set up for sheep. But all of this while a pain, is also fun and good. I want to keep doing this until I am too old. The people who used to supply our mutton were in their 90s before they finally retired from sheeping.

Bani: You def need some mutton and a kitty.

Paula:  I think so! They make me happy, but like everything else, they require a commitment to staying in place.

Bani: Which you may have now more than ever?

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Paula:  Yah, my relationship is rock solid and everything, now, builds up from it. So, on some level, going out into the world on my own made me throw out the superfluous bits, forcing me to figure out the core values I carried everywhere instead of things. He’d gone through something similar due to his divorce. So we were both very aware of and honest about who we were, and what we wanted. Which isn’t the same as having a blueprint for the future. More like quality ingredients for a potentially fantastic dish that you have to make up on the spot.

Bani: Amazing analogy. I think we’re going to wrap up soon, do you have any final thoughts?

Paula:  My usual advice is this: be honest with yourself about who you are when you are all alone, in the dark, and the rest will follow. It’s not very deep, I realize, but it’s surprising how far it can get you.

Bani: It brings it back to what we started talking about, the way we see ourselves, and how easily that can be distorted by external eyes, but being honest is definitely the first step to anything and everything, including healing those distortions.

Paula:  Yes. Sometimes we think we are seeing ourselves through our own eyes, when it turns out we’re still seeing (and judging ourselves) through our mother’s/teachers’/society’s eyes. That’s the episteme in operation, to use a big SAT word. Part of being a woman of color is having to fight through the insecurity that comes from constantly feeling as if you don’t have the power to assert yourself or your opinions inside a whitewashed space. Leaving the country helped me develop a thicker skin and to rid myself of those kinds of doubts. Now I am trying to shed the armor of my intellect. Which is why I am now writing novels.

Bani: Traveling and writing can do wonders. ■
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