Tag Archives: Colonialism

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.)

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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.

The Fine Line Between Writing in Solidarity & Appropriating Struggles (That Aren’t Ours)

Hola, folks. So I had a lot of thoughts today about speaking OVER communities we’re not apart of in the process of trying to write in solidarity with them. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in general and have tons to learn. After I tweeted these thoughts, a lot of different folks jumped in to offer their two cents and a fruitful convo developed, so I’d consider checking out my TL (‘timeline’ for you non-tweeters!) for more, if you’re down. Share your thoughts in the comments!

Disrupting the Dominant Voice of Travel Writing #Dispatch: Brian Kamanzi

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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Brian Kamanzi is a Cape Town-based spoken word poet and staff writer for Abernathy Magazine committed to the social upliftment of his fellow people. He is a budding Pan-Africanist eager to make contributions to the movement and form cross-cultural connections with others in the struggle. Follow his writing online and on Twitter @BrianlKamanzi.

Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work, your identities, and how they interact?

Brian Kamanzi:  My name is Brian Ihirwe Kamanzi, I grew up in town called Mthatha in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. My father is a patriotic Ugandan national and my mother is a South African Indian. My identities lie tied in between that of my parents. I feel an affinity for Uganda; I see myself in the people. At the same time, just by looking at me, you can see that India is represented from the tones of my skin to the darkness of my eyes that I have inherited from my beautiful mother. I have struggled between these identities.

Growing up I never felt like I had ownership of the South African identity. I still have difficulty claiming it for my own to this day. I feel like the gift of my ancestry has shown me just how arbitrary national borders are. I am an African – emphatically so. My work, through writing and  spoken word is an effort to assert myself in a world that denies me.

I write to seize control. I write because I see my story, my feelings tied with those who are denied in their own ways. I hope for my work to form part of a broader project. A Pan-African project that will give voice to the former souls who were denied that choice.

Bani:  Writing, in that sense, is kind of an aggressive act, don’t you think? I think Didion said that. I definitely think of my writing in that context, however, voices that have been historically silenced might not think like that. I think it’s something writers of color try to balance in a way

Brian:  Without question. This is an act of aggression. This is an acutely political act. I can no longer be silenced. I take great strength from the strong people all over the world who share their stories everyday. We needn’t be overlooked any longer. I have to believe that. You know?

Bani:  Def. Marginalized writers tend to have these internalized voices in their heads, the Dominant Voice, doubting that they even have the right to write. Does that make sense?

Brian: Oh yes. That rings so true. In fact I feel that pressure from other marginalised voices as well. There is a sense that you’re not good enough if you’re not a budding Toni Morrison. There is so much doubt. One is afraid to speak about Africa if you haven’t read all the major authors. It’s silencing and it’s a battle to look past it.

There is a fear that we are not good enough and I can’t deny that I don’t feel it but again I take so much strength from seeing the ordinary folk who express themselves through writing. The internet has really been such a gift for that.

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Bani: I struggle a lot with self-doubt and my work and it’s a real killer. You’re about to put pen to page and then this invisible hand stops you. All writers/creators deal with this, but for multiply-marginalized folks, it’s epidemic. Finding work that speaks to me (not at me) is like panning for gold. And what I don’t find in books, I see in social media. It’s rejuvenating.

Brian:  I feel very much the same. There is a raw sense that these are people’s emotions. Virtually unedited. Live. If not alive.  It’s incredibly affirming. It also gives the words so much dimension. I mean take your writing for example. I can only dream of Ecuador but to read your piece and to have an interaction with you about your work is amazing. It makes me feel like I can reach you. It makes me feel like indeed we are connected. Those subtle everyday thoughts from folks on widely different contexts show us that in fact maybe we aren’t all that different.

Bani:  Yup. I didn’t really care about social media until I (recently) realized how much it’s used as a tool for cross-cultural communication, allowing us to engage in conversation with other disenfranchised people, and allowing us to organize across our differences.

Brian:  I really agree on the social media front, the amount of intersectional feminists on Twitter for example is phenomenal and I really enjoy their engagements online. There is so much scope for cross-cultural dialogue.

Bani: I wanted to talk about your creative influences, folks – whether in print or not – who have helped you “find your voice.”

Brian: When it comes to creative writing, there are two figures that really gave me the strength to assert myself – Malcolm X and Steve Biko. Particularly Malcolm. His confidence, tactfulness and almost rhythmic way of speaking & writing leaves me smiling and with a fire in my chest. A fire that makes me want to raise my voice. Be productive.

With Poetry, Mama Maya Angelou is such a muse. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings hit me in places I never knew existed. Talking about Pan-African feminism, Minna Salami who is also a blogger and a writer has been such a great affirmative find as well. Straight talking, direct in a way that makes me feel like she’s talking to me. Encouraging me to do better. It’s amazing.

Bani: Mami handed me her copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X when I was 13…and the rest is history.

Brian:  Haha what an age to read his words! Malcolm is one of those figures that makes you feel uneasy about the way things are. It feels more real. Uncomfortable but closer to the truth.

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Bani:  Let’s get into travel writing. What are your thoughts on the genre?

Brian: I think that particularly in our generation, where things have opened up globally, somewhat, there is a feeling that we are now allowed to dream and have wanderlust for far away spaces and places. Unfortunately many of the stories that, personally, I’ve been fed, are told by travellers who don’t know a thing about my experience. They don’t have the capacity to experience Ghana or India the way that I do. So many stories in travel writing speak from a place of abject objectivity where all else in front of his gaze is granted colour and is sexually exoticised at his will for his aesthetic function.

I see the need for a shift and it is definitely happening. A shift that allows a more diverse array of writers to share their experiences of different contexts that doesn’t feel…let me call it “colonial.”

There is almost an invisible hierarchy of experiences. One goes to Europe for the “culture” and one goes to Africa to self-actualise in Nature. I don’t see myself in either experience. I have no desire to conquer the savanna with trophies of lions. At the same time I see no reason to hail the cultures of Europe above the great multitude that are in front of me right here. At home.

I love reading travel writing, though when it’s done through an appreciative lens. There is really nothing more satisfying than imagining far away lands and different ways of life. It sets the mind on fire. Everyone should be able to experience that. And the next generation of travel writers will open up the doors for experiences that dominant voices will never be able to hear until they check themselves.

Bani:  You touched on the ‘marketing of place’, how we’re sold these concepts of places – Europe=culture, Africa=nature, etc. Travel writing has been and continues to be the way this marketing – branding, really – gets out to the masses. How do we disrupt that tradition? I’m very much a part of the movement trying to get more people of color to share their travel experiences, but how do we do so in a way that is not so colonialist as the genre generally is?

Brian: I think it’s a fundamental problem. When we frame our travel stories as products to be marketed in a conscious manner we are commodifying each others experiences. When writers of colour engage in travel writing we have to resist the trap of emulating the existing trends. As I understand it the goal is not to colour code the status quo – it’s to change it.

The problem is that the broader tourism industry feeds off limited harmful, frankly colonial, perceptions of cultures because at the moment economic and political capital is still very much tied along those lines. Travel writing from writers of colour then must surely act disruptively in that space. We are fighting against the very exploitation of our identities. For many of us we are fighting for a right to exist in the globalised world beyond the exotic tourist depictions that our nations now represent. Travel writers of colour must write to protect spaces like Thailand. Like Zanzibar. Spaces that become overrun by wealthy white folk from across the globe who run off to the 3rd world whenever the exchange rate is low.

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Bani:  Word, word, word. So we’re gonna wrap up. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?

Brian:  Well in closing I’d like to mention the need for coalitions. I think we need to forge strategic connections across the globe and open our homes to one another to break the cycles that are really not working in our favour. In this the age of information there are really all the means and opportunities in the world.

For example, Africans and Latin Americans have so much shared history. We need to arrange more opportunities for us to meet and exchange stories. We need more deliberate attempts to speak to one another. To engage with one another. To welcome one another as the family that we are.

That’s my hope for this generation of writers. Let’s see how things unfold.

Traveling While White, Traveling While Brown #Dispatch: Nandini Seshadri

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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Nandini Seshadri is a freelance writer, short-story author and social media addict. She keeps a blog over at nandinisniche.tumblr.com which she updates mostly when she’s supposed to be working on her novel. Her work is set to appear on Narrative.ly and Mommyish.com soon.

Bani Amor:  Tell us about yourself. How would you describe your work?

Nandini Seshadri:  I’m a fiction writer, mainly. I write short stories and try very hard to write novels. I’m also a longtime blogger, started blogging way back before blogger even existed (2003). But blogging has somewhat fallen by the wayside since I had kids. These days my primary identity seems to be mom.

My work is and has always been very feminist. I am Indian, and it has always been very clear to me how much my society stacks the deck against me. Didn’t hurt to have an openly feminist mother.

Bani:  Feminist moms are the shit (hey ma!)

Nandini:  And also, since I have moved around a lot since childhood, never living in one city (sometimes even country) or one home very long, I also write a great deal about identity, fitting in, and being an outsider.

Bani:  What usually enables and propels you to travel?

Nandini:  Work! (and following spouses or parents for work) I come from a family of immigrants. In the middle-class South Indian community I come from, there is this deeply embedded idea that someone who gets out of India has “made it”. It definitely used to be much stronger when my family first emigrated. I also ended up traveling during college for debating tournaments. I am now in a financial position to travel for pleasure too, and do it happily and eagerly.

One of the first members of my family to go to USA was my cousin (who is actually my father’s age because of the age gap between siblings) in the ’80s. Everyone sang his praises and he has always been considered the pioneering success. But because our family is also middle class and upper caste, there are also all these whispered stories about how he was ‘reduced’ to working as a dishwasher to put himself through college in America, the horror, the horror. Then his parents wanted to go see him in America too, and they went for six months, which was considered a huge deal… but again, whispered stories about how his mother wanted to stay longer, and in order to support herself she had to work as a nanny. That was also considered beneath us.

Photos courtesy of Nandini Seshadri
Photos courtesy of Nandini Seshadri

So I come from a certain subsection of Indians for whom this “going to foreign” deal is a complicated business in terms of power structures. Do we take the prestige and much-needed money from leaving but accept the dishonor of working menial jobs? Or do we stay and keep working “respectable”  but low-paying jobs in poor, unglamorous India?

Bani:  The immigrant’s dilemma.

Nandini:  I also think it’s interesting how we carry our hangups with us when we travel. I have relatives who will rant at great length at their racist experiences. “All the white guys in my office get birthday cards and cakes, but I don’t”, etc., but then again, have no trouble turning right back around and being shockingly racist towards darker skinned people.

And along comes a white liberal American saying how white people are the source of all racism, and I can’t help feeling that’s turning the rest of us into noble savages or people without humanity.

Bani:  It shows a complete lack of global historical context.

Nandini:  To be sure, white supremacy is the source of a lot of racism, but things like casteism or colorism – which are arguably shades of racism – aren’t fiction!

Bani:  I remember moving to Ecuador the first time, five years ago, and it was kind of on the heels of a falling out I had with several radical POC groups I was involved with in the States. It wasn’t until I started living in the South that I realized how white-centric our politics had been. How much of our energy they took.

Colorism, racism, white supremacy – specifically, anti-black racism and anti-indigenous sentiments – run MAD strong here. My concept of what it meant to fight racism completely changed. And I mean, over time. Of course, it’s still changing. Having grown up in the States, I will always be used to a single narrative on what that means. It’s regional.

Nandini:  Regional is exactly it. I’ve always had this idea that people of the same perceived racial group can have very different (and equally valid) reactions to a Supposedly Racist Thing. And you’re right, it all comes down to regional pressure points.

Like, to a person living in India, Gwen Stefani putting on a bindi to make a fashion statement is just complementary and mildly flattering (if they have heard of her). To an Indian-American it is cultural appropriation, right? With real harm done to the Indian-American community. I’d always tried to articulate it as  living in a country where you are the majority and you have the privilege of being secure and unshakably the ruling culture.

Bani:  Also, when you’re an immigrant, you’re reeling from one form or another of displacement. You tend to hold on tighter to your culture, or assimilate. It’s not that black and white, but in my experience, it does seem very extreme. You’re either really offended or don’t understand at all what the fuss is about.

Side story: a friend of mine here is Afro-Ecuadorian. She has a fro. She lives in a artist-traveler-hub kinda house, and foreigners are ALWAYS touching her hair. The way she reacts – positively – has always stopped me from acting on her “behalf” – telling them not to do that. And I honestly have fought the urge to many times. But I thought, who the fuck am I to tell her what to be offended by?

One day, I was watching a video in English, something made by black American women along the lines of “why you can’t touch my hair.” I explained to her what I was watching and she was so pissed! She wondered why anyone would give a shit one way or another.

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Nandini:  But I struggle with all this. I don’t live in India anymore even though I keep going back for visits because my family lives there. It’s easy to point fingers from the outside, right? And not at all productive. And then, my location means that my expressions of frustration fall on white ears more often than not and that is deeply uncomfortable for me too.

Bani:  Oh yeah. When (foreign) white women complain about sexist men in Ecuador, I feel caught.

Nandini:  How do you deal with that?

Bani:  Honestly, I’ve always sided with the men. I say, who are you to be coming here and judging All Ecuadorian Men based on the one or two you’ve slept with? As if white men in their home countries aren’t sexist! Which, really, is not “siding with men”, but unfortunately, it does put me in this #NotAllMen position, you understand, because they’re talking about my family and friends. But you can’t come here for your thesis or your bs volunteer job for a year and claim yourself as an expert on our men.

Nandini:  Oof, that makes me feel a bit like shit. I had such terrible experiences with street harassment and street sexual violence in India that when a white woman complains about it, I feel solidarity more than anything.   I can’t help it. Of course, it often goes off into the “gosh, Indian men!” direction and then I get all outraged and say angry things about racism. I feel caught too.

Bani: Well, notice I didn’t mention street harassment. These were about consensual relationships, not victimization that white women were feeling. I kind of feel like that’s another animal.

Another side story: when I was a teenager, visiting my white, gentrifying friend’s place in Brooklyn, she got hollered at and said something racist to me. I don’t remember what it was, but when I spoke up, she said “I can’t help it if they’re all the same demographic!” I stayed silent.

Nandini: OUCH. that hurts. What does one even do!!

Bani:  As with the white women in Ecuador, I see the uninvited, displacing presence of someone in a place inhabited by a majority of poc. Then there’s the misogyny. Women of color, who are native to certain places, we are caught under all these oppressions – we have to side with someone. But who will side with us?

That #YesAllWomen discussion completely, conveniently left out any discourse on what it means to move around the world as white.

Nandini:  That sounds interesting! Please say more on the “what it means to move around the world as white” and how #YesAllWomen left it out.

Bani:  The implications and repercussions of moving around the world as white. The entitlement, the lack of reflection. Because of white supremacy, whiteness is put up on a pedestal of beauty, and women of color around the world have to deal with this. Here, in Ecuador, there is a rainbow of skin colors, right? But mostly, we are dark-brown. But on TV, in the ads, the media, it’s all whiteness, all the time.

White women are rewarded for this, but when they travel – to neighborhoods of color, to majority non-white countries – there are repercussions.

Nandini:  I was trying to explain this to someone who lives in Vietnam and is tired of dealing with street harassment there – to the extent that she called it racism against white women. This friend of mine is pretty feminist, and I sympathized with her completely about the street harassment but had to really break it down that THIS is sexism and THAT is racism and street harassment ain’t THAT.

Bani: That is some basic shit.

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Finally, I wanted to revisit the convo that linked us up in the first place. We came into contact after I posted Teaching English in China while Black, and felt some sorta way about it. Mostly because linguistic imperialism really saddens me when a person of color engages in it and that person has US privilege and doesn’t take that into account, at all. You responded by rightly pointing out the Orientalism in the article.

Nandini:  Yes, I was wishing she would just come right out and say this is racist and NOT excusable. All through the article, though, she didn’t say that. Which I sympathize with, she was in a tough situation and I think she was trying to acknowledge her first world privilege in this way, by downplaying the fact that these third-worlders had some kind of power over her. It was as if she couldn’t bring herself to believe this is possible, because she was so ensconsed in her view of “I am superior to these people, and I am here to teach them things.”

I wish that when western feminists speak of intersectionality, they would speak more of first world privilege, orientalism, and the global South. I wish we would discuss the ways in which it especially benefits USA to be the cultural center of the world.

As for travelers of color from first world countries, I really do have a lot of sympathy for the impossible bind that many of them find themselves in, and most never suspect they will ever experience these things. There are so many blogs – google “black guy in Japan” – about the utter shock and horror at the racism they experience outside of USA. I feel for them.

But they’re also usually in the business of modern day colonialism. Which they don’t see anything wrong with, and maybe in capitalistic terms they’re right, but it’s hard to sympathize when those who are willingly cogs in the machine of wiping indigenous cultures and languages out. At the end of the day they are still US Americans, and they carry cultural hegemony with them. When they travel somewhere to teach rather than learn, the thing they are teaching is US supremacy.

Bani:  Starting a dialogue on that is tough, because there are many travelers of color, but not A TON, and when we feel empowered to talk on that – I mean a lot of folks my age, on social media – it’s with this double sense of entitlement. I should be able to go where I want, etc. So how do we approach places with the fullness of our identities?

When we travel somewhere, we take all that shit with us. We don’t leave anything behind. Our identities travel with us. I wonder how travel can change our identities, especially what and how we think about them.

Nandini:  That identity bit, right here in the feels. To travel is to lose your fixed identity.

I think as travelers we have a responsibility to read native voices, make ourselves familiar with context and history and culture before any significant travel. As first world travelers we need to be careful not to participate in neo-colonialism.

If first world people traveled for the reasons and with the attitude that third world people do – not for the romance of living an “authentic” noble-savage life, or for the sake of writing a book about how quaint “those people are”, or to teach them how to speak and think and live like first worlders. If, instead, first world travelers went consciously for (responsible) personal pleasure, or to learn something, or to earn a living. We would travel with arms stretched out for alms, conscious that we are in this to take more than we can hope to give, conscious that this means we humble ourselves. I think that would be the first step away from a neo-colonialist mindset. Away from entitlement and towards honoring the people of the places we travel to.