yo, people. so by some strange turn of events my latest piece, about class and passport privilege in Ecuador, ended up on Jezebel’s Flygirl section today (excuse the Jezebel-y title). click on the image below to read the story in full.
The dining room’s Incan walls looked quilted in the candlelight, like the padded cell of an asylum. Magda sat at the head of the table beside a few aging white guests, promptly introducing me as an American travel writer of Ecuadorian lineage—“So she has the best of both worlds,” whatever that meant.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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. ■ If you’ve enjoyed this or other #Dispatches, which we work on for free, feel free to donate via Paypal to email@example.com or by clicking on the ‘Donate’ button on the top right column of this page. If you’d like to donate using something other than Paypal, get in touch.
Hey folks! Things have been quiet around here ’cause I’m busy fighting the Disabled Industrial Complex in Ecuador and I’m working on some new exciting writing projects. Have no fear – #Dispatches: Conversations with Travel Writer of Color will be back and be BOMB in 2k15. In the meantimes, check out my latest piece, A Confluence which was just published over on Amy Gigi Alexander’s stunning site as part of her Stories of Good series. It’s the heartfelt story of a 24 year-old bipolar Bani Amor on the edge of a manic attack in the city of Montreal. Highlights include: queer adventures, daydrinking, weed smoking. Read on!
SAMO Is Dead
I was born at home in a Brooklyn ghetto. After arriving late, our Taína midwife passed this Nigerian belief to my Ecuadorian mother: wherever the placenta be buried, there would my soul return after death. Uncertain of where to inearth my eutherial twin in the pits of East New York, she stowed it in a freezer until the summer of ‘88, when Jean-Michel Basquiat OD’d, a riot went on in Tompkins Square Park and the Burkina Faso filmmaker Gaston Kaboré shot Zan Boko, ‘the place where the placenta is buried’, about a farming family’s resistance against urbanization from the wealthy of Ouagadougou. Then came the blackout.
Imagine the stink of afterbirth three days into a power outage in August. A moving bruise making its way from the kitchen in waves. Naturally, my moms ended up chucking that shit down the tenement chute, Tupperware and all. Knowing that I’d be dawdling away the whole of eternity in a Brooklyn landfill with my other half, pursuing a life of long-term travel in my corporeal days seemed like the thing to do. Soon after turning 15, I ran away from the studio apartment where my older sister, younger sister, her father, my mother and I all slept on two mattresses on the floor divided by a three-panel ‘Chinese’ partition, leaving behind a note that read ‘’I’M DONE WITH CAPITALISM, I’M MOVING TO CANADA.’’ Then Portland, then China, then Ecuador.
Then back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn. Brooklyn.
Basquiat grew up middle-class in Park Slope and East Flatbush. He is almost always classified as ‘an American artist’ even though his moms was a black boricua from the BK and his father a Port-Au-Prince native with Ivorian roots. He sends a drawing of a gun to J. Edgar Hoover the same year his mother is institutionalized. By the age of 11, he could fluently speak, read and write French, Spanish, and English, and synthesized all three into the written language he so famously coded into his paintings, teasing the globe like a Rubik’s cube.
Jean-Michel spent his early teens in Miramar, Puerto Rico, where he becomes the victim of rape. Soon after returning to Brooklyn, his father catches him having sex with another guy and, after trying to kill him, kicks him out. He’s 15. Basquiat is arrested in Washington Square Park and brought back home, but after throwing a cream pie in his high school principal’s face two years later, drops out and lives on the streets full-time. He hustles: sleeps with men for money, loads up on All of the Drugs and sells postcards to tourists. He sleeps in parks, boys’ homes and girlfriends’ beds and forms one half of the street art project SAMO (Same Old Shit) along with City-As-School friend Al Diaz. “I thought I was going to be a bum the rest of my life,” he once said. His noise band, Gray, plays at the Mudd Club a lot.
At 20, he is invited to join Anina Nosei’s SOHO gallery and works in a studio for the first time. Artforum runs Rene Ricard’s The Radiant Child, an interview which brings Basquiat to international acclaim. While achieving maximum success in the great white art world, he becomes a millionaire. A junkie millionaire, actually; two important requisites if you’re looking to get paranoid. At 25, he takes his first and last trip to Africa for a show in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and befriends Ivorian painter Ouattara Watts. They plan a trip back to the country together for a shamanic ceremony meant to save Basquiat’s soul from addiction, but he backs out at the last minute. After dying of a heroin overdose at age 27, he reaches legendary status.
In Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Phoebe Hoban writes about the late artist’s Brooklyn burial, where a CitiBank spokesman delivered the eulogy:
Blanca Martinez, Basquiat’s housekeeper, was struck by the alienated attitude of the mourners. “They were all standing separately, as if it were an obligation,” she says. “They didn’t seem to care. Some looked ashamed.” People began to leave the cemetery before the body was buried. Ignoring the objections of the gravediggers, Martinez tearfully threw a handful of dirt onto the coffin as they lowered it into the grave.
Boom For Real
I wasn’t a good Ecuadorian girl. Simple stuff like getting out of bed and readying for school were always quantum tasks that earned me the belt each time. Getting whipped across the back to the tune of that old NY1 theme song (with the sax) was my morning routine for years. Mami really blew up when I turned 12 and totally refused to return to school, leaving algae-colored bruises all up and down the right side of my body like I’d passed out on a lakebed somewhere. Her guilt eventually worked in my favor and I was permitted to stay home most of the year under the condition that I care for my new baby sister. By now I know I’m gay but think nothing of it.
We lived like nomads in Jackson Heights, Queens, moving every time rent became beyond unaffordable for my single, working, immigrant mother of three. When it got real bad, we were sent to live with our grandparents in Orlando, Florida, shuffling between the two states annually for the next couple years. The summer house had plenty of cubbyholes to hide from my grandfather’s wandering fingers, but results in an all-consuming claustrophobic. After getting into art school down south, I drop out and move back to New York.
The Lower East Side became my stomping grounds, when we all still called it Loisaida. I’d wander around talking to strangers in Tompkins Square Park, checking out the free punk matinees at ABC No Rio and reading zines at Bluestockings or St. Marks Bookshop. I knew no one my age. Finally, I drop the anti-capitalist Canada bomb and hitchhike upstate, starting at the Co-Op City projects in The Bronx where I’d been crashing. It is illegal to drop out at 15 or something and the cops are after my moms for neglect. After court, I’m forced back into high school in the hood, but take the train into the LES instead. When a blank report card arrives home, I’m kicked out. The thing about sleeping in Washington Square Park is them damn sprinklers.
We try homeschooling, then City-As-School, an alternative set up where you accumulate credits through internship programs around town, though a few hours of class a week is mandatory. My poor record disqualified me for fall enrollment so summer school became the only option – half in class, half at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx. I never went to class, but always showed up to the garden on time, eager to dig like I had a hot date with the earth. I take up graffiti, get arrested a few times, join a band and move away.
A new shopping mall, two apartment complexes and a park are built on a 297-acre landfill in East New York, Brooklyn. It is home to retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, Marshalls, the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Boulder Creek Steakhouse, Target, The Home Depot, and BJ’s Wholesale Club. But it turns out that the landfill in question – Fountain Avenue – ceased receiving refuse three years before my birth, meaning my soul will probably be rerouted to Fresh Kills in Staten Island.
Went on a ‘work vacation’ to the cloud forest to clear my head and get a ton of writing done. Instead, the village was flooded by perpetual storms with almost 100 people evacuated and rolling power outages. Also, I left my bank card back home and had to have cash wired to me. When it finally was, I got word that my cat was sick and had to rush back to the city and deal. Anyway, I got stoned and wrote the following, ’cause there wasn’t much else to do. Happy full moon!
The way the rain falls straight down: like bullets, like millions of beads rolling toward an indeterminate horizon; brushing the cloud forest canopy – windless – a vertical current. You could smell the wet.
I love looking out of my hotel room doors and writing, with blonde strands of light shooting through the stained glass at dusk.