hey people, i’ve been in reverse culture shock for the past two weeks that i’ve been back in nyc from ecuador and time just flies here. i’ve been eating everything i could get my hands on and partying and meeting up with some awesome folx and eating some more. I also recently got the chance to interview film maker Orlando Pinder for Abernathy Magazine (follow them on Twitter and FB!) He’s the filmaker behind the doc, I, Too, Am B-CC which, like the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign, is a film that features interviews with Black students in predominantly white schools. Click on the image below to read our discussion in full and watch the doc.
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. ■
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IN THE YEARS I’ve spent climbing mountains, descending into canyons, and generally getting into all sorts of adventures, I’ve rarely run into another person of color in the outdoors.
by BANI AMOR June 7th 2013 Originally published on Matador Network. Please comment and share!
Skimming through the travel glossies that so captured my young imagination revealed images of white people doing what society defined as white people things: hiking, camping, climbing. This vague and at once startlingly direct message from travel media and society at large left an impression on me — a Latino city kid — of total exclusion.
Despite the lack of role models in the outdoors industry, I flung myself into it, with hopes that the next generation of youth of color would find a wild world waiting for them if they only were given the opportunity. If they just saw one other person like them doing it, too. It was after hearing about Expedition Denali that I finally felt like this could become a reality.
This June, 100 years to the month after the highest point in North America, Mt. McKinley (Denali), was first successfully ascended, the first team of African-American climbers will attempt the summit. Besides making history, their expedition can pave the way for a new generation of young people of color to get outside and become stewards of America’s wild places. Thanks to the success of their Kickstarter campaign, a documentary film crew will be chronicling their journey, and a book is in the works.
I recently had the chance to speak with team member and 20-year-old alpinist Rosemary Saal, to talk about inspiring diversity in the outdoors with Expedition Denali.
* * *
BA: How long until the expedition now?
RS: “Pumped” is the first word that comes to mind! Nerves are definitely building up a bit as well, but mostly nervous excitement.BA: On other expeditions — comprising mostly white folks — they’ve got to overcome the altitude, cold, physical exhaustion, etc. They’ve got to climb the mountain. But you guys are representing your race and, you know, climbing the mountain. And not just any mountain — a 20,320 foot-high one. Do you feel the pressure?RS: Only slightly, I’ll admit. The media attention is the main source of pressure, just knowing that the entire expedition will be meticulously documented. But then I remember that this pressure-inducing-exposure will greatly help the whole purpose of the project, and my confidence in this team is reassured.BA: You’re definitely following through with what seems to be the goal of the project, to get the word out and inspire other people of color, mostly young African-Americans, to get out ‘into the wild.’ A 2010 survey revealed that over 80% of Americans who engage in outdoor activities are white. Any idea as to why that is?
RS: I feel that many people of color have the mentality that we do not “belong” in the outdoors. When the sport was first being developed and explored, the traditional participant was a white male. For some reason, this image has stuck in the minds of many and in actuality has not changed significantly.
Many people of color [in my life] have even jokingly claimed that my urge to explore the outdoors myself is the “white” side of me, following that up with “people of color don’t do that.”
BA: As a teenager into punk rock, I was branded as being into “white people stuff” by family and friends. Maybe some POC are hesitant about losing their ‘race badge’ or something. Like it’s easier to fully belong to one community than take the initiative to be different and risk not really belonging to any group. Is Expedition Denali trying to change that story?
RS: Absolutely! It is stereotypes and labels such as those that perpetuate the notion that POC do not have a place in the outdoors or the means to embrace nature. We seek to shift that view, or at least begin to.
BA: You’re breaking down all sorts of boundaries. Your team is incredibly diverse — from teenagers to elders from all over the States, many of whom are women and mixed-race folks. You represent a whole range of the Afro-diaspora.
RS: We most definitely do! I am very proud to be a part of the diversity within this team.
BA: It’s very refreshing. On the other end, I was a bit surprised that in James Mills’ Nat Geo profile of you guys, he felt compelled (by an onslaught of ‘post-racial’ rhetoric from the majority white climbing community) to explain the critical necessity of an expedition of this sort. Have you had to answer to comments like that, too?
RS: The team has had to answer to such comments, yes. There are a few skeptics out there who do not see the necessity or significance of this expedition.
BA: What do you say to them? Or is the message of this expedition just not for them?
RS: We simply acknowledge and stress that this expedition aims to change the views of one aspect of the outdoor industry. While there are many issues involving ethnicity, socioeconomic class, etc. concerning the industry, it would be an entirely different story to tackle and make an impact on them all.
BA: They should look at the facts: By 2018 the majority of youth in the United States will be of color. Considering that most of them are not spending much time outdoors, a message of inclusion would seem imperative to any environmentalist or climber.
RS: Absolutely, a message of inclusion and a set of role models.
BA: Considering all this stigma, how did you first get involved in climbing?
RS: My involvement in climbing proceeded quite naturally. I always enjoyed climbing on anything I could get my hands on practically since I could walk. I was fortunate to be exposed to resources in an environment that introduced me to technical and more “official” climbing opportunities before I was really aware of the stigma.
BA: The way it should be.
RS: Exactly! I totally agree. That is one of the reasons I’m particularly excited to spread the message of Expedition Denali to youth of color. Hopefully they can see this story and realize their ability to get outside before being exposed to the stigma surrounding this topic.
BA: Finally, what does it mean to you personally to be a part of Expedition Denali?
RS: Personally, this expedition means a lot to me. On a personal level, it is a huge physical challenge to accomplish…
Most importantly, however, I am really looking forward to being a role model, to going out and providing an example of how POC truly do belong in the outdoors as well. I had wonderful role models and mentors when I was first getting involved in climbing. I wish to be that person, inspiring and encouraging the next generation the way I was inspired and encouraged.
BA: You’re only 20 and about to make history by ascending the highest point in North America in the first afro-centric expedition. No biggie, no presh…
RS: I know right?! It’s absolutely bonkers! I could not be more stoked.
BA: It’s a very vivid, beautiful metaphor. In a way, you’re carrying a lot of folks — folks like us — to the summit with you. It sounds like you see that as more of an honor than a burden.
RS: I really do. I am so incredibly fortunate and grateful to be a part of this movement. How could I see it any other way?
BA: Word. I’m stoked too, and honored that you took the time out of your training to talk today. Say hi to Denali for me! I know you’ll do an awesome job.
RS: Thanks girl! I will most definitely send your regards.
Originally published on Matador Network. Please comment and share!