Tag Archives: Dispatches

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

I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bani: It seems like just another form of assimilation

Navdeep: It’s exactly assimilation

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

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

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

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

Navdeep: Haha

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

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

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

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Writing Outside the Mainstream #Dispatch: Elaine Lee

I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.

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Elaine Lee is an avid world traveler, travel writer and media maven. She is the editor of Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure as well as a freelance travel writer who has contributed to numerous national and local magazines, newspapers and webzines. Her travel stories generally address subjects such as African American travel trends, adventure, women’s travel issues, spirituality, solo travel, health, budget travel and travel planning. She has also contributed stories to five anthologies and two books.

Bani Amor: With Go Girl!, did you get the sense that you were doing something radical, even if that wasn’t your intention?

Elaine Lee: At the time that I put together my book I could not find any other travel books geared to the African-American traveler, so I knew it was a novel idea, but never thought of it as ‘radical’, per se. Since my book has come out there have been at least 20 more written on the subject so I feel honored to be a maverick of sorts.

Bani: What kind of response did you get from African-American woman travelers after Go Girl! came out?

Elaine: Spirited. Almost all book signing events were standing room only but I didn’t get as much press as I thought I would. I only sold 5,000 books but had expected to sell the 7,000 published and be in my second edition by now.

Bani: What has your experience with racism been like in the travel media biz, if any?

Elaine: I primarily write for the African-American travel audience and have rarely crossed over to the mainstream. African-American travel does not seem to be of interest to the mass media.

Bani: Was that a choice you made – not to cross over to the mainstream – or was it more circumstantial?

Elaine: Both – I am primarily interested in reaching the African-American traveler but don’t really have any other options anyway.

Bani: If you could change one thing about travel media, what would it be?

Elaine: I wish there was a way that I could produce or host a black travel television show.

Bani: Which people of color have inspired you in your adventures?

Elaine: Bessie Coleman, Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes, Nancy Prince and Ida B. Wells.

Bani: What advice would you give young travel writers of color starting out in the industry?

Elaine: Its a difficult field to break into but folks are carving out niches and succeeding. I was recently invited to audition to host a TV show for The Travel Channel. Even though I didn’t get the job, the fact that they sought me out and considered me means having a black person doing mainstream travel TV is a possibility. Look how well Tracey Findley, Evita Robinson and Rue Mapp are doing!!! There is hope. Follow your bliss and doors will open.

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

I’VE BEEN CHATTING with travel writers, activists and personalities of color about their experiences navigating the media industry and the globe with an intersectional lens, while exploring themes like power, privilege, place, and identity, themes that are rarely touched on in the mainstream travel space. Read previous #Dispatches here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bani: There is hope in food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bani: Wow

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

Bani: Were you hunting before you moved there?

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

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

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Bani: Would you call your work travel writing?

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

Bani: You’re an anthropological traveler.

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

Bani: Fabulous.

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

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

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

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

Bani: Haha, I’m sorry!

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

Bani: You def need some mutton and a kitty.

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

Bani: Which you may have now more than ever?

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

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

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

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

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

Bani: Traveling and writing can do wonders. ■
If you’ve enjoyed this or other #Dispatches, which we work on for free, feel free to donate via Paypal to heyitsbani@gmail.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. 

We Are Everywhere – Imagining Diverse Travel Communities #Dispatch: Nomadness

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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In September 2011 Evita Robinson created the Nomadness Travel Tribe, an online social community for travelers who have the similarity of an urban background and were looking for likeminded travelers to connect with around the world. Based on the success of her business, Evie was named one of Clutch Magazine’s “11 Black Women Inspiring Us To Travel”, and the Tribe’s first ever NomadnessX group trip to Panama was featured in the July 2012 Issue of Ebony Magazine. She now serves as a keynote speaker, crowdfunding consultant, and continues her love of travel photography and seeing the world with Nomadness.

Evita Robinson:  I’m the creator of the Nomadness Travel Tribe. A Crowdfunding Guru of sorts. International Dweller. Why? Passion. I have been lucky enough to recognize and accept the responsibility associated with my purpose in life.

Bani:  How did Nomadness come about?

Evita:  Nomadness started as a blog and video web series of me traveling around the world. Nomadness TV was the first time people heard the brand name. This was back in Feb. 2010 during the last two months of me living in Niigata, Japan. The Tribe came about in September 2011 as an answer to a problem I was having in not finding a diverse travel community I wanted to engage with on the internet. No one in my immediate network and family traveled like me, so it was hard finding people I could relate to in the travel lifestyle.

Bani:  And you were like, why not start my own?

Evita:  Exactly. I’m like that with everything in life. If it isn’t what I want or need, I do it myself.

Bani:  I think we’re living in this age now where creators of color have the tools and access to be able to start brands, social networks and projects themselves and are getting these big audiences because of it. There’s definitely entrepreneurial spirit there but it’s also kind of radical, to create spaces for ourselves where they don’t exist, and should.

Evita:  I agree with that. I also think we are fulfilling many needs that mainstream media simply isn’t.

Photo by Pete Rivera
Photo by Pete Rivera

Bani:  Why do you think mainstream travel media lacks so much diversity? Were you surprised that Nomadness took off and became what it is today then?

Evita:  I think mainstream media is full of fear and grossly out of touch with how diverse the world truly is right now, especially for millenials. Fear in that they are scared to do something different and ‘outside the box’ for them. The world is changing and the risks are being taken by people who approach the industry with nothing to lose. These companies are shook to put it all on the line.

Nomadness surprised me in that I simply didn’t know what I was creating. Didn’t know I was going to be doing trips, have an online store, do an RV Tour, build a conference, have 9000 members…I didn’t know this was what was being created.

Bani:  Word. So I heard you just signed a deal with Issa Rae Productions. Can you tell us more about that?

Evita:  Yea we signed a few months back. It’s a distribution deal so they can broadcast out travel web series ‘The Nomadness Project’ on her Youtube Channel. Issa’s a really great supporter of ours and vice versa. We’ve been having meet ups around the States for her book tour this month. She’s met so many of us.

Bani:  That’s so awesome! So what’s in store for the future?

Evita:  September 2015 kicking ass with our new #NMDN ALTERnative Travel Conference in NYC. Continuing to galavant around the world with the Tribe to show that we are everywhere, and we do this – our way. Strategic partnerships with other innovators and influencers that truly get the concept of pushing the envelope (i.e. Issa Rae). Our own travel television series breaking stereotypes on who travelers are. Moving off of Facebook and creating our own platform that, in itself, is unlike anyone else in our sector.

Bani:  Why is it important to break the stereotype of what a traveler looks like, who they are?

Evita:  Because it is currently invalid. There is a whole, large section of the story missing. Ours.

Bani:  Are there obstacles in the way for folks trying to rectify that?

Evita:  I mean…generic red tape but honestly that depends on which route you are trying to take. Mine involves unique avenues because I have specific goals for Nomadness and myself. But that is going to be something that varies across the board.

Bani:  Well it seems like you’ve been able to avoid a lot of bs, and that’s great.

Evita:  Can’t say I avoid it. We just don’t showcase it. Telling me ‘no’ is the same as telling me ‘yes’. I don’t hear ‘no’. Maybe ‘not now’, but not ‘no’. I also don’t take ‘no’ personally. I am told ‘no’ wayyyyyyy more than I am ever told ‘yes’. That comes with the territory. Fail better. It means you are actually taking chances.

Bani:  Fail better. My new new year’s resolution!

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Photo by Kali Blocker

Evita:  A ‘no’ has just never had the power to stop me. I could hear ‘no’ on Monday, and so many dope ‘yes’s’ pop up on Wednesday and Friday, no one remembers the beginning of the week.

Bani:  Last question: do you think it’s important for poc to have our own travel spaces? Why or why not?

Evita:  I think it’s important for people of color to be an actual part of the conversation more than anything. We haven’t been, so we have had no choice but to create our own spaces. And yes, it is important, because it’s ours. Too many times we give up ownership of our culture and talents too freely. Having something that is ours is so important. I also like that you use the term ‘people of color’ because that’s just it. We are an array. One of the things I love about Nomadness, that differentiates us in this ‘black travel movement’, is that we are representative of all people of color, not just black. We scale about 80% African-American beautifully, but we also have Latino(a), Native American, Caucasian, Asian, Pacific Islanders, the list goes on and on. We more accurately depict the world we live in and travel through.

Bani: And that’s what’s so refreshing about it. Any last thoughts you’d like to add? (btw, an egg account on Twitter wanted me to ask you why Nomadness is elitist!)

Evita: Nomadness isn’t elitist and I addressed this in the #NMDN chat about membership. People frequently misconstrue us having requirements as being elitist. Your job has requirements. I would think your friendships and relationships have to meet personal requirements of yours. Every social media platform you are on have requirements you have to abide by. Nomadness is no different. You have to have one 1 passport stamp to get in. That’s lightweight.

Bani: Agreed.

Evita: Last thoughts are just that we are excited and amped like all hell to get this year in gear. So many amazing things are happening and we look forward to going for it full throttle. We appreciate all the support from the inside and outside the group.

Bani: Word. I think it’ll be a truly incredible year for y’all, and thanks for making it all possible!

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.

Remembering A Forgotten Language #Dispatch: Latino Outdoors

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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José G. González a.k.a the “Green Chicano” is an educator, environmentalist, artist and the founder of Latino Outdoors, an organization which serves as a storytelling platform for defining the ambicultural identity connecting Latino communities and the outdoors, among many other functions. Latino Outdoors exists to connect cultura with the outdoors.

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

José G. González:  I would say I’m Mexican by birth, Chicano by identity, Latino by culture and Hispanic by census count. An educator by training, illustrator by interest, and conservationist by pursuit. I’m very much a mestizo and ambicultural in many ways.

What that looks like now with the Green Chicano identity and Latino Outdoors is to work on the storytelling of what these identities mean/look like and what they say about carrying these identities in relation to outdoor spaces, nature, and conservation.

So when I’m admiring the beauty of Grand Tetons National Park, I’m also thinking about the history and culture of the space in relation to who’s there, who’s not, and why that may be. I look at natural spaces with the eyes of a naturalist, artist, and historian.

Bani:  Amazing. How did Latino Outdoors come about?

José:  Latino Outdoors came about with several threads. During college I was an instructor for an outdoor program specifically for migrant students in CA, mostly Latino and English Language Learners. As a teaching team we traveled throughout the state and saw all these amazing outdoors spaces, from the desert to the redwoods, and I noticed how rare this “work” was in terms of the instructors, the students, and the places we were working. I thought, “Why aren’t there more programs like this?!” Basically, where are all the Latino outdoor professionals in this field and how they connect? How do they know about each other? Because I wasn’t finding them.

That experience further connected me to the outdoors and after teaching for a few years I went to get a Masters in Natural Resources & Environment. And the question was, where are the Latino-led and Latino-serving organizations in the environment and the outdoors? Especially those that are not framed solely around environmental justice. It was then that an instructor from the same migrant outdoor program asked, “José, I want to pursue this as a career, who do I talk to? Who do I connect with?” And I didn’t have a great answer for him, I didn’t have a community to connect with. And it made me think of visiting all these state parks and national parks and remembering how awesome they were but how much of a privileged opportunity they were in many ways/cases.

Lastly, I was asking people to tell me where to find this unicorn of an organization and they would tell me, “Great idea, tell us too!” So I thought, well, let’s do it!. Because there are a lot of stories, travelers, and programs that I know are doing great work, but we don’t really exist in a community or are connecting with a shared identity.

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Bani:  What do y’all do?

José:  We center around 4 things. First, the professional community. We want to identify, connect, and amplify the leadership infrastructure of individuals that exist with this identity. They bring their culture on the trailhead and they use it in positive ways to connect their work as conservationists/outdoorspeople with the community. I’ve found many that say, “I’m the only one doing this work…” and I want to say “You’re not, let’s exist and collaborate in community. Let me share with others the awesome stuff you do.” 

This community is a precious resource that allows us to get to the other three things. 2) The youth. Beyond just getting youth outdoors, we want to show them that there are role models and possible mentors in this field for them so that they can follow in this work knowing that their culture is an asset and that it’s valued in this field. We’re also finding that youth in their 20’s are the ones that naturally want to connect with Latino Outdoors, that they are looking for ways to have their culture be positively represented in the outdoor experiences they already enjoy. 

3) Family. We want to showcase the value of family and community-oriented outdoor experiences because it connects parents with their kids and it naturally taps into how many other communities like to enjoy the outdoors beyond the solitary backpacker. We do this through day hikes, outings, and other events partnering with parks and conservation orgs.

4) Storytelling – we wrap this all together by finding ways to say, “Yo cuento” – to show what the story looks like as a Latino/a in relation to the outdoors – and how diverse that is in terms of identity and experiences. We have “Xicano in the Wilderness,” “Chicano in the Cascadias,” “Chasquimom,” and so forth – people identifying in many ways but highlighting their culture in the outdoors. We’re doing this through interviews, narratives, social media, and just starting with video.

Bani:  Awesome. What are some strategies you’ve found effective in inspiring urban-dwelling Latinos to care about conservation issues and to also get out into the outdoors?

José:  Good question. The “urban Latino millennial” is one demographic that is high on many lists for parks and open spaces. Which is no surprise, since they like to be out in a group with a social experience. It can be shared through social media or at least documented with a smart phone. But we know that it’s also a matter of how the outdoors in your community is viewed and supported. How your local park is a connection to outdoors farther way.

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People can identify with a well-known national park farther away and not know they have a fantastic national wildlife refuge nearby. So one thing is to just go, let the place speak for itself and show each other how accessible all these places are. Then once we’re there, we have the programming be flexible so that we learn as much from the community as we want to share. So it’s a not a lecture about the outdoors or a class in conservation.

I may say it’s like learning English if you only know Spanish. We don’t want you to not know or use Spanish and have it be replaced by English. Same with the outdoors. What is the language you already know about these experiences? Tell us! and we’ll share “new words” to add to that. It makes it challenging, exciting, fun, and so rewarding.

Bani:  That’s amazing. Using that analogy of language-learning, I think that it’s more like remembering a language that we were taught to forget. For me, communities of color being separated from nature is a part of the process of colonialism.

José:  Exactamente! That can be hard for many people and there is a lot of anger and hurt that sometimes comes out, but I keep my hand out to people to say, I understand. Especially if you are “Latino” and you have a history of colonizer and colonized. Many public lands in the Southwest used to be land grants that were taken away from Hispanos and Chicanos. But those lands themselves were carved up from indigenous communities.

Bani:  I wonder how Latinos in the U.S. can connect to the outdoors while also confronting our place as both settlers on indigenous land and displaced mestizos from our own lands across Latin America.

José:  It’s both a complex and simple process but it takes time and understanding. I find that people, and especially young people love to connect to their culture. Especially in college when they take a Chicano studies class or the like and they say, “Wait, how come nobody told me about this?!” I use that frame to share how there are many reasons to be proud of our history, and especially with our traditions and heritage of conservation and the outdoors.

We have it, but often need to rediscover it, and much of it comes from our indigenous roots. So we elevate that as much as it was torn from us or as it has been forgotten. But a reality is that so many of us are mestizo and that has been a process too. Indigenismo did not just happen. People looked into their history and said, wait, there is a lot to culture and tradition here that we tried to get away from thinking that just European values were the way to civilization. 

Bani:  Yup, it goes back to education. We’re kind of forced in this country to adhere to the popular immigrant narrative – we came here for a better life, etc. – instead of learning how we were really, a lot of the times, displaced politically and ecologically. 

José:  So I say, are you proud to be Mexica? Did you know they strived to be a zero-waste society? Yeah.

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Bani:  You came up with this word, “culturaleza.”

José:  Yeah, that’s another example of mestizaje. Connecting cultura and naturaleza to show that the separation of people and environment is one frame and often one that alienates many of the communities that many conservation organizations want to reach. One perfect example is food. Food is a cultural trait that is with us all the time from when mom and grandma made tamales and nopales at home and when we’re looking for the right taqueria.

So if we’re having an outing in the outdoors, instead of me just saying “I’ll bring the sandwiches, or let me run to Trader Joe’s” (which I do anyways, jaja) we try to ask people to make it a potluck and they love bringing something they like and want to share. Some favorite memories of mine are having nopales, tostadas, and mole in the sequoias with moms that love to cook that at home.

Bani:  That’s what’s up. 

José:  People have asked, why “Latino Outdoors”? Isn’t that exclusive? Or, isn’t that giving in to a colonized identity? I say that I intend for it to be an INCLUSIVE starting connective point. It’s to bring in communities and people that maybe we haven’t reached out to let alone just expect them to join in and be valued in this space. And we are open to all “shades” of Latino including those that stress nationality, or being Chicano, Hispano, and so forth. Because one thing that can connect us besides often having shared Spanish/Spanglish language is that we also have a connection to land and space in our roots, and that is important.

Bani:  Word. 

José:  Ah, and to make sure we are kind to each other, because in some of these beautiful spaces are ugly human experiences. Very short: while visiting Grand Tetons National Park, we once stopped at a small town for ice cream and I was given one of the worst looks of “You’re not welcome here” that sticks to me to this day. So yeah. 

Bani:  I know that look very well. Our presence in natural spaces is radical. 

José:  Bien dicho.

A Confluence

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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!

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