Tag Archives: Decolonize

Sky’s the Limit: On Bourdain, Memoir, and the Pitfalls and Potential of Travel Lit

Hey People,

Happy Pride! I’m here, I’m queer, let’s get into this new update.

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Bustle is running a series called Have Books, Will Travel, featuring essays by non-normative travel writers on the genre, so of course you know I had some things to say. I wanted to focus on how this genre is crafted in such a way to weed out commentary that isn’t 100% sunny, as in, of a leisurely or commercial nature, and how that can suppress certain necessary stories and voices. Writing memoir should seemingly rectify that, since it’s all about being vulnerable, having perspective, and being reflective of one’s actions. But let’s be real—we can do better.

Travel writers lie to themselves and their readers when they front like visiting a place makes them authorities on it, because the average white American doesn’t know many people from that place, but does have a few friends who went there once. They lie when they add a touch of self-deprecation to their stories, because humility seems smart in hindsight, and because all those people who witnessed them being annoying tourists are still in that place far away and can’t attest that these tourists haven’t learned sh*t. And too often, travel writers lie when they write like race, gender, and class are foreign concepts that exist outside of the scope of travel writing when they’re actually located at the heart of it.

I originally wrote the paragraph above using “we” instead of “they” but it was changed, and now I wonder if the hate I’ve gotten for writing this would be less so if those who are allergic to conversations about race and travel had read the original. But I immediately know the answer is no. Race is just one aspect of this dialogue and this essay isn’t even about whiteness or racism so if for some reason you feel personally attacked, figure it out I guess.

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So I was on the radio the other day and was asked about Anthony Bourdain, may he rest in peace. I thought about him in relation to this essay because it’s about honesty, about being real about your positionality in a place and as a person writing about it, even when you’re unsure about what that is, or feel uncomfortable about it. I feel that as travelers and travel writers, people who are always foreign somewhere, what we do is all about getting comfortable with the unknown. Bourdain didn’t always have easy answers or perfect politics, but he did always seem—to me, at least, and I started watching from the very beginning—to be honest about this. To ask questions he didn’t have the answers to, and to tread into other people’s homelands and homes ready to be schooled, to learn. We need more of that. And that’s all I’m tryna say here.

I try to identify the colonizer in my writing in an attempt to reach a deeper truth about how I move about the world, because from a different perspective, I have the normative voice, and I’d be a liar, and thus, a sh*tty writer, if I didn’t acknowledge that.

There’s so much revolutionary potential in writing stories about what is lost and gained in the process of migration to adhere to outdated story structures that deny the depth and complexity of our experiences. I think the way to write decolonized travel narratives is to pursue our truths, the truth, so doggedly that it leads us off the path of tradition and into terra incognita. From there, the sky’s the limit.

So what travel writers or books do you think get this right, or close to it? What do your manuscripts look like? Have you thought about any of this stuff while writing or reading travel? Do tell in the comments. You can read the essay in full here.

 

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White Women Don’t Speak for All of Us: On ‘Safe’ vs. ‘Dangerous’ Travel Destinations

OK, so it’s been forever and a day since I’ve updated this here blog and I’m sorry for the radio silence. If you’ve been following me on social media you’d know I’m still alive and kicking and have simply gone the way of many bloggers before me who…fail to update their blogs.

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There’s so much I gotta share with y’all but I’ll start off with this essay published at the beginning of the year on racist conversations on safety in travel culture that erase women and trans people of color’s voices and experiences with harassment and gendered violence. And really, those listicles on ‘safe’ travel destinations for women are a whole heaping mess of bias, assumptions, and feelings over facts. Cis white women’s feelings, to be specific. Here’s the premise:

Travel safety is simply more of a concern for women, trans men, and nonbinary travelers. But these conversations around safety have long been dominated by white Western women with class and race privilege who color their “advice” with a not-so-coded streak of racism. Safety for white women travelers is not the same as safety for women and nonbinary travelers of color, and when travel media fails to even acknowledge that we exist in these narratives, they strengthen the conditions that make this patriarchal world unsafe for those most vulnerable.

Unless you’ve managed to delude your racist ass into believing you’re ‘colorblind,’ then you’ve noticed that listicles on ‘safe’ travel destinations for women are not only written by white women but primarily list majority-white countries in what’s referred to as the ‘developed world’. You can call them former colonies, the ‘first world,’ whatever, but we all know how they got their wealth and which citizens they guarantee ‘safety’ for. So clearly this conversation needs to be complicated, because,

those are relative notions shaped by power, and not a one-size-fits-all deal.

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There’s a lot to parse through here, but I want to highlight two main points.

  1. These conversations rely on unexamined stereotypes of Black and brown men as not only criminals, but hypersexual beings who prey on white women
  2. These conversations completely erase how Black, Native, and other women of color are often hypersexualized in predominantly white places while also being hyperpoliced, making them unsafe in spaces white women deem ‘safe’

“Whether . . . in a long, flowing skirt or in jeans and a peacoat, there are just some regions of the world [where people] see black skin on a woman, and assume that the only way I was able to afford to get there and stay there, was by way of selling my body to a local.” – Gloria Atanmo, The Worst Part About My Travels As A Solo, Black Woman

So when a cis white woman with the privilege to travel the world advises you on where you should and shouldn’t travel, just assume that she’s only speaking for herself and women just like her, a global minority overrepresented in travel culture. It’s tired as hell.

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We all experience the world differently, and if we are to advise others on how to navigate it, we need to be aware of and address those differences. When the mainstream travel culture—dominated with white voices—deems what’s safe or unsafe, they largely frame themselves as victims and people of color as predators because they are doing so without an analysis of power in mind.

Read the essay in full here.

Literary Ancestors: On the Significance of Travel Writing by POC

Hey people,

Popping in for another random-ass update about a month overdue. Over a year ago I started the POC Travel Book Club to get other nerds to talk to me about travel-ish books not written by white people. Now we have around 150 members who are getting ready to discuss An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, edited by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. I wrote about our lil’ club as well as the legacy of whitewashing in travel literature and the significance of reading travel by POC for CNN Travel!

Shout out to Abena Clarke of MsMovingBlack blog for this gem:

“The tradition of travelers’ tales is deeply rooted in the period of imperial expansion in Europe; it is closely linked to colonialism and ‘scientific’ racism.” Travel writing provided evidence of white superiority through its representation of the exotic as barbaric, or lascivious, or simply ‘other.’ There is a lot of blood on the hands of travel writing. Then and now.”
Though it wasn’t linked to in the piece, this quote is from our talk Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been) from back in ’14. My CNN piece includes a photo gallery of all the books we’ve read together so far, so while the club is for POC only, white folks are welcome (and encouraged) to read along on their own.

 

Part of decolonizing travel narratives is redefining what gets to be filed under travel writing and expanding it to include varying forms of migration and the unlimited stories of place and identity this experience produces. The kind of stories we read in the POC Travel Book Club.
Head here to join us. If you’re already a part of the club, then I’ll be seeing you December 10th at 2pm EST over Hangouts.

Pray For [Blank]: Climate Disasters & The Narrative of Place

I can hear the water trickling back up through the pipes. It’s been off all day, probably ‘cause it rained like a motherfucker last night. They don’t call it a rain forest for nothing. We generally don’t realize how precious water is until our access to it gets interrupted, which brings me to today’s topic. My essay, A Country Within A Country: Climate Change, Privilege, and Disaster Survival was published in Bitch Magazine last year but I’m only now just getting around to sharing it with y’all, and, unfortunately, it’s relevance hasn’t waned in the slightest.  This Sunday will mark the one year anniversary of the major earthquake that devastated Ecuador last year, the event that sparked this series in the first place. It brought me to write this:

The disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina and its mismanagement were broadcast across international media for all to see, and while the hurricane took many lives and will impact the Gulf region for generations to come, the media spectacle showing the hurricane’s effects didn’t translate into solidarity. New Orleanians were abandoned, almost as an example for what we, the underprivileged in the most privileged place on the planet, have to look forward to.

With #45 and a bunch of dudes who get rich off of shit like this in office, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve got a lot more Katrinas on the way. But the focus of this piece is how the narrative of climate disasters (and tragedies in general) shift based on where they happen and who they happen to, and particularly how this plays out on social and mainstream media. For example:

“If you turned down the sound on your television, if you didn’t know where you were, you might think it was Haiti or maybe one of those African countries.” – Soledad O’Brien’s reaction to Katrina on CNN. Then there’s Nancy Gibbs in Time magazine: “These things happened in Haiti, but not here.”

If Katrina taught us anything, it’s that those things do, in fact, happen here. They continue to happen and they will not stop. So can we retire this awful tendency of comparing tragedies on US soil to ones in “those African countries”? And what do they reveal to us about the myth of American exceptionalism? I turned to author Edwidge Danticat’s incredible essay, Another Country, to try to answer this. From her work:

“It’s hard for those of us from places like Freetown or Port-au-Prince, and those of us who are immigrants who still have relatives living in places like Freetown or Port-au-Prince, not to wonder why the so-called developed world needs so desperately to distance itself from us, especially at times when an unimaginable disaster shows us exactly how much alike we are.” Let’s be real: This kind of rhetoric is a coded way of saying, “We deserve better. They don’t.”

Nope, the US isn’t disaster-proof, and being shocked that it isn’t operates from a flawed understanding of how shit works here. Because those folks in New Orleans probably have more in common with people in “those African countries” than they might with the wealthy hotel owners downtown in the French Quarter. Did we really believe that the resources the US has looted from the rest of the world, a primary driver of climate change, were equally distributed among the people of the US? That Tio Samuel is really gonna have our backs when disaster strikes?

I don’t think people like O’Brien or Gibbs consciously believe this, though. I think this is the message the United States sends to the rest of the world on a daily basis, from the events and ideals at its foundation, to its current foreign policies, to the way it treats migrants of all kinds right here in the god-blessed U.S. of A. I think people like O’Brien and Gibbs represent so many in the American public who feel the need to help craft a revisionist fairy tale about their country to boost its self-esteem and to swallow the reality that one in eight households here live in hunger (or “food insecurity”) according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They treat the Story of America like a child crying home to his parents because the kids at school called him racist. The revisionist consoles the child, saying, “Now now, son, tell them you aren’t racist, you’re alt-right.”

Nothing will bring you back to your senses like a climate disaster. They lay bare the ugly reality of how things work here, and since we’re going to be seeing a lot more of these, we have to be real about who’s going to be hit the hardest, and why. (Hint: it’s race.) We’ll need more than Facebook filters that are usually reserved for majority-white victims of tragedies, more than a fake story about a shitty dream to unite us; more than a flag. Because what use is all of that when you don’t even have water?

Read the full essay here.

Going Beyond the Binary

Hey folks,

A few months ago an essay of mine, Beyond Binary, was published in Archer Magazine’s THEY/THEIRS issue dedicated to non-binary gender identities. It’s the first time my travel photography has been published in a print magazine, and an internationally-circulated Australian one, at that!

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Archer Magazine Issue #7

It is when I’m moving in between places that I feel the most pressure to be pinned down. As a travel writer and diasporic person of color I spend a lot of time in transit, and it’s this condition that reveals to me time and time again that places, like identities, are always in flux, and that borders aren’t as binary as they’re made out to be. Borders, like the gender binary, cut right through me, through so many of us. They attempt to neatly and quietly delineate difference no matter how much it continues to overlap, intersect and blur. It is between the constructed binaries of place, language and gender that I feel the most at home and most under attack, for it is these in-between spaces that are the most heavily policed.

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Get your copy of the magazine here or see where it’s stocked around you here.

Getting Real About Decolonizing Travel Culture

Hey denizens of everywhere,

I wrote an essay on decolonizing travel culture as the introduction to Muchacha Fanzine’s Decolonize Travel issue and just published it on Medium. Give it a read, print it out and fold it into your passport books, critique and analyze it, share or shade it, or comment below. A slice:

How we move through the world, whether it’s how we or our ancestors came to be where we are now; a trip to the bodega as a visibly trans woman of color at night, or to countries we have no connections to but are guests in, varies phenomenally from person to person, but those journeys are all informed in some way by capitalist imperialist cishetpatriarchal white supremacy.

In “getting real” about this topic, I wanted to reiterate some points that I see getting lost in posts and such about “decolonizing travel” that are necessary to the discourse. I don’t want this to be some sort of trend or shorthand for “diversity.” Central to this is…

If communities don’t have sovereignty or the self-determination to shape how they want their cultures to be consumed or communicated, their economies to be governed and their environments to be treated, then tourism and travel culture are only a continuation of imperialist practices.

Read the essay in full here.

Article 71: From Ecuador to Standing Rock, Water is Life

(Image of Nélida Ayay Chilón via Vimeo)

“Drop by drop, the world is ending.” While Indigenous water protectors were being attacked in Standing Rock Sioux territory from Spring into Winter, fighting to keep the Dakota Access Pipeline from being built through their lands, the folks at Apogee Journal were curating a folio of literary and visual artwork in solidarity and resistance. The result is a staggering compilation of over 20 voices (including mine) entitled #NoDAPL #StillHere: Native and Anti-Colonial Craft Against Dispossession. It is a must-read, a must-see and a must-share! And it is more timely than ever. An excerpt from my contribution, Article 71, on page 1:

I was hunched over a cup of instant coffee, half-awake after pulling a night shift at the hotel, when I saw half the street in front of the breakfast spot fill with protesters marching, mostly elder campesinxs, Pachakutik flags in hand. Most foreigners confuse them with gay pride flags, since they both weave together the colors of the rainbow, but they’re the flag of the left-wing political party that many Indigenous Ecuadorians see as sellouts, though they can still be seen waving triumphantly across the country. Perhaps this is an ode to the time Pachakutik rallied to change the constitution in 1998, making Ecuador the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature, or Pachamama, amongst other progressive wins. Being queer and mestizx, the Pachakutik flag hangs in my room as a testament to my both-and-neitherness.

Article 71 focuses on Indigenous water struggles in Ecuador and throughout the Andes, my personal experiences with water and some film critique on the issue. Apogee gave me the freedom to transgress genre a bit and I’m honored to have the piece included among so much vital and powerful work, mostly by Indigenous artists. Know that the struggle at Standing Rock is not over. Know that water is life, and must be protected at all costs.