Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Come See Me at NYC Comic Con!

Hey kids, I’ve been in my writing den for a minute but will emerge with more interviews, articles and projects soon. For now, if you’re in the NYC area, you can come see me speak on the We Need Diverse Books panel on working as writers of color in digital media at Comic Con next Thursday, October 6th! Deets here and Facebook event heredigital-media-nycc-file

If you come through make sure to say hi! I’ll also be at the opening party for the anthology Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity, in which I have an essay on #travelingwhiletrans, on October 10th. I’ll post about that next week. In the meantimes, just wanna shout out to all the new people reading this blog after this salty white dude wrote a whole essay calling me anti-fun, anti-sun, and, gasp, anti-colonialism, all while misgendering me the entire time. I’m officially a tourism killjoy. #StayMad

[Featured photo by Neha Gautam Photography]

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LISTEN: What Does It Mean to Decolonize Travel Culture?

hey people. I hope you’re enjoying your summers as much as possible because #2k16Problems are real as fuck. I especially hope that, if you’re non-Black like me, you’re working on ensuring that #BlackLivesMatter in terms of your actions, projects, organizing, art, community engagement, interpersonal relationships, volunteer work, putting your money where your mouth is, etc. Let’s get our shit together.

With regards to that, I’m working on some BLM-related projects in Ecuador, so stay tooned. But for now, I’m sharing this talk I had* with the ever-dope Amy of Bitch Magazine on their Popaganda podcast about issues around tourism and power, the colonial tradition of travel writing and my feature essay Spend and Save: The Narrative of Fair Trade and White Saviorism that’s in their latest issue. Your engagement here and elsewhere on social media is always welcome (unless it’s a racist diatribe, of course) as are your shares and donations. Don’t forget, I’m running a crowdfunding campaign to help meet my survival needs while I work on multimedia community projects over the summer. Check out the teaser for a documentary about how traveling as a QTPOC writer led me to ask the questions I do in my work, then donate!

*My gender pronouns have changed since the podcast, where I’m referred to as she/her instead of they/them

How Not to do Travel Writing; A Glossary (pt.1) #Dispatch: India Harris

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.

india-harris
India Harris is a 30 year-old Black Lesbian hailing from her mother’s womb in Washington D.C. and currently living in Brooklyn, NY. India works with youth at a religious non-profit in New York City. Her aim is to develop spiritual, socially conscious leaders in and outside of Unitarian Universalism. She cherishes her membership in the Audre Lorde Project, a community organization for LGBTSTGNC people of color in NYC & credits them for developing an intersectional analysis around power, privilege & marginalization. Currently her travels involve learning about the culture, history and lives of people of African descent in each country she visits. Far too often, the contributions/life breath/existence of Indigenous people and people of African descent are erased from the world’s narratives. She’s trying to find an equitable & ethical way to shift resources and access to these communities at home and abroad.

This is the first part in a two-part interview

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Bani Amor: So tell folks who you are and what you do. 

India Harris: My name is India Harris and I’m a Washington DC-born and raised lesbian of African descent currently working for a religious nonprofit in Long Island, NY, but when I’m not working I like to travel in the United States and abroad, mostly for leisure but also for work.

Bani: We came up with the ABCs of fucked up language in travel writing together. Before we get into it, can you share a little on why you think something like this is necessary?

India: Before I went on a backpacking trip in 2013 I went online to do a little bit of research about the countries I would be visiting. I searched for travel blogs by people of color because the majority of blogs that I read were written by white folks from the United States and Europe. They are considered experts by the travel writing industry while the industry simultaneously ignores the voices of people originating from these countries and the impact of tourism on their lives.

Words like ‘authentic,’ ‘exotic,’ ‘g*psy,’ ‘native’ and ‘tribal’ are used in ways that are either exoticizing local people or diminishing their culture. These words are often misappropriated by leisure travelers as monikers or identities to take on which, because of their privilege, is seen as something positive, while nomadic peoples throughout the world face discrimination, systemic violence and have had their lands handed over to settlers. These writings look very similar to the journals/records kept by colonizers otherwise known as ‘explorers’ from the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

shitrichcollegekidssay.tumblr.com
shitrichcollegekidssay.tumblr.com

I think that having these ABCs of f***ed up travel language is important because in most Western nations people would say the rights of the individual, the right to self-determination and the right to sovereignty are vital to a thriving existence, however POC around the world have their human rights violated with impunity, are not allowed self-determination, are not allowed sovereignty. They’re not allowed to narrate their own experiences. Then someone from the outside comes in and projects their own thoughts and norms and biases (informed by white supremacy) on the land, people and culture of which they aren’t a part. Depending on their privilege and access, leisure travelers/travel bloggers are able to have a record of their experiences lifted up through Western media and then that is THE story that is told about a particular place.

Bani: Yes. When I think about decolonizing travel culture with a specific focus on travel writing, and envision what justice in that space would look like, it begins with reclaiming sovereignty over the language used to describe POC, our lands and cultures around the world. So here we go, let’s start with our fav – A for Authentic and Authenticity. Thoughts? 

thetraveltype.com
thetraveltype.com

India: First and foremost authenticity is a social construct. In order for something to be ‘authentic’ it is inherently setting up a standard in which something else will be measured against it. Often, the standard for authenticity for Western travelers is that a place should be the complete opposite of the country that they are from, that it should look something from those outdated primary school textbooks.

Bani: Something out of the white/Western imagination.

India: They will see folks in larger cities in Mexico or Kenya using cell phones and laptops and then say that that is not authentic so then they go to a more remote place, perhaps where the Maasai people are or to Chiapas where there is a large Indigenous population. Yet there is no acknowledgment that in order to remain ‘authentic’ through colonialism the Maasai people and Indigenous people in Chiapas continually face insurmountable violence from the European countries that colonized them. Or even that the tourist gaze is disrupting their way of life and draining ever decreasing resources.

Bani: This sets up what’s wrong with a lot of the words we’ll be discussing – what we recognize as The Standard. White/Western being the default or norm and everything else Othered or Orientalized. The pursuit of ‘authenticity’ is something backpackers preoccupy themselves with a lot, which brings me to B. I bring up backpacking because there is a holier-than-thou thing young white backpackers have against tourists, the traveler vs. tourist thing, which is all very entertaining to me. They’re all tourists.

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India: Yes. This idea that a backpacker wants to set themselves apart from other tourists because they may have an intellectual or humanitarian interest in a given place and are somehow less responsible for the consumerism and inequality enforced by traveler/tourist communities. Yet at the same time engaging in bargaining or price gouging in order to save a buck under the guise of having equal treatment as locals. Yet when you come from a country that is responsible for the economic state of many countries that you travel through, a country that was a former colony of the country that you’re from or simply put, your money is valued higher – it’s not about equity at all.

There are two ways to live in Mexico: like a local, and like a foreigner. The first will see you enjoying the bounties of a low cost of living and an easy pace of life (throw away your watch!), while the latter will see you getting ripped off at every turn, paying three to four times the actual cost of everything, otherwise known as paying the “gringo tax” – Avoiding The Gringo Tax, marginalboundaries.com

Bani: It’s about traveling the cheapest way possible JUST FOR FUN. So this brings us to B for Budget, which usually means cheap for rich people. Everything I’ve read about Budget travel is economically unfeasible for me and pretty much anyone without a well-paying job, no dependants, physical ability and passport privilege. So when I, for example, read travel writing and seek out Budget options, I realize pretty quickly that I’m not being spoken to, that this isn’t for me, my family, friends or community.

India: Different writers have expressed their frustration at the idea of travel being accessible for everyone and money not being an issue because everything is so cheap ‘abroad’ ( i.e. countries in Africa, South America, Asia, the Middle East.) ‘Cheap’ in relation to what? ‘Cheap’ for whom? Yet people are never willing to begin their articles with ‘my target audience is essentially middle class folks from Western nations.’ Instead, they will argue and say that if you believe you can, anything is possible. 

You Don't Have to be a Privileged White Girl to Travel, thisamericangirl.com
You Don’t Have to be a Privileged White Girl to Travel, thisamericangirl.com

Bani: There’s been some talk about POC writing that type of shit. Just say you’re elitist and classist and we can skip the poor shaming.

India: It also highlights that the travel that’s being talked about is for leisure, educational or humanitarian purposes by privileged people from Western nations. It is not talking about how budget or cheap it is for local people to be able to afford groceries or pay their rent or get medical care.

Bani: It’s like the folks who talked shit about Syrian refugees who have cell phones. That leisure travel is the default is bothersome. But where are the resources out there for actual working poor people with families who might want to take a vacation for once?

India: As if refugees could not have been doctors, teachers, nurses or people with any means in the country that they come from.

Bani: Same with poor shaming in the US. Don’t buy that X Box or iPhone or Timbs or you deserve the poverty you’re in. I see this language all over the travel space.

India: They are  resources that most people in the US would say that poor people were not deserving of.  As far as capitalism is concerned in the US if you are struggling economically then it’s your fault and if you are not struggling economically you deserve additional rewards.

Bani: And if you temporarily trade in economic stability for roughing it in poor countries you’re a Life Hacker. Anyway, B is for Best kept secret, which has connotations similar to Columbusing – acting like you discovered shit. See also: off-the-beaten-path and hidden gem. B for Bustling – usually attributed to markets or streets in those ‘overcrowded cities’ i.e. the ‘Third World.’ See also: chaotic/chaos.

In Ecuador, The Frugal Traveler Tries Luxury, nytimes.com

India: What this usually means is that tourists find out about a beach, forest, canyon or sights that locals already knew about, start coming in numbers, and then developers are looking to build resorts and working in conjunction with the government to then begin banning people from the beach and the forests that are near their homes or are in fact their homes.

Bani: Now we’re at C. Similar to main offenders like Authentic and Exotic, the way that we see Cultural or Culture commonly used in travel writing makes me uncomfortable. It’s a term I’ve noticed that gets attributed to my work like a lot…It’s ridiculous.

India: Culture and cultural are usually used interchangeably with the word ‘exotic’ as if people of European descent don’t have culture and wouldn’t be perceived as exotic or different once they went somewhere else. Most are not comfortable with being seen as exotic or different which is why we get back to the idea of being  treated just ‘like a local’ or being seen as a local.

Bani: It’s chasing down this idea of belonging sans struggle. Others revel in it. They want to go somewhere where they’re the first white person to be seen by x person/community and write a book about it. Gross.

India: Which is an affirmation of supremacy. Being seen and treated as the most beautiful, intelligent, skillful, clever, etc. whereas POC are seen and treated as threats who are ignorant and economically dependent in many Western nations.

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Bani: Without caring or thinking about what that experience is like at the other end of the spectrum, with Blackness.

India: Yet globally you will find that people with the darkest skin are treated inhumanely, from being called slaves in Iran to the experience of people of African descent being the majority in Brazil numerically but not having power and being entrenched in poverty.

Bani: I don’t think these folks (and non-Black people in general) understand that that fierce staring happens all over the US, in their own cities and towns. Almost reminds me of Human Zoos. There’s an aspect of voyeurism in tourism that restricts Black presence to either servitude or entertainment. These were the only two ways slaves were able to enter the kingdoms.

India: Exactly. As a POC, one can find that stare in any majority white community in rural, suburban or urban places in the US.

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Bani: C for Colorful – this is often used as a coded term that reminds me of the use of ‘soulful’ to mean anything Black-adjacent by whites/non-Blacks. India and the Caribbean and Latin America (north of Argentina) are all ‘colorful.’ See also: vibrant.

India: That coded language is used to otherize folks the world over – whether in their country of origin or abroad. My last experience in the US in Yosemite National Park was of a white woman walking past me, doing a double take and asking me if I was Hawai’ian. Probably because of my ‘colorful’ skin. Then of course that othering that can lead to policing isn’t included in all of those articles about why POC don’t visit National Parks.

Bani: This. It’s just fucking lazy. So much of travel writing is lazy and racist cause y’all can’t be creative. Like if you engage critical thought in travel writing, it automatically gets labeled as not travel writing.

India: The word creative is a nice segway into our favorite word Curate.

Bani: Take it away, India.

India: My familiarity with the word curate comes from the museum and art world. In order to curate something, you don’t have to actually create that something, you are giving voice to it or creating a narrative around it. You can work with the artist to do this however it is another form of consumption that makes way for large-scale consumption. Giving voice to something makes it an object unable to speak for itself. Travel writing is being used as a medium to objectify people, land and culture.

FanonTourism

Bani: Absolutely. It’s speaking over or speaking for, operating under the notion that people have no will to speak for themselves, bringing us to D for Discover. Must we explain what’s wrong with this?

India: We can always start with the Doctrine of Discovery. Discovery or the act of finding something that you figure no one else knows about even when you find people living there. You find civilization, architecture, music and spirituality yet it isn’t anything like what you would find where you come from so therefore your presence means that this has been ‘discovered’ when it’s been in existence before the written word. The Doctrine of Discovery was used as a justification/confirmation of the God-given right bestowed to Europeans to Colonize land and people across the globe beginning with what is known as the Caribbean (West Indies), South America, Central America, Mexico, the United States and Canada. The Doctrine of Discovery is still used to deny Indigenous people their sovereignty and self-determination in the US.

Bani: I want white travel writers reading this to understand that when they invoke this language they are employing the same logic used to colonize, that what they do when they travel bears resemblance to that colonization in the name of discovery or its close relative exploration. I’m not saying your writing is akin to the slaughter of millions, I’m saying you’re employing the same script that justified (still justifies) those acts, acts that enable you to be a tourist today.

India: Even more so when travelers say they have gone somewhere else to discover themselves. Which is centralizing selfhood in a place that is not your place of origin. I think that folks will have a hard time understanding or seeing their travel writing is akin to anything negative when Christopher Columbus, Pizarro and Cortés are still celebrated throughout Europe and the countries they colonized.

traveloninspiration.com
traveloninspiration.com

Bani: Yes, but those people are not about to read this shit anyway. Yet there are a lot of people who like to think that they’re down yet say, write and do the same shit.

India: I hope they do read it but yes they may not change their minds; that’s the whole idea of not giving up privilege. Why stop doing something you are continuously being rewarded for?

Bani: And it’s not just that word, it’s invoking that history, it’s walking in the footsteps of their ancestors.

India: Walking in the footsteps of their ancestors and constantly denying that they didn’t benefit from the systematic violence that is faced historically and continuously by POC.

Bani: You can’t separate white supremacy from travel writing. Nope.

India: There is no diversity if the stories are being told in the same way but the narrator has a different color skin or is a different gender or has a different sexual orientation.

Bani: Yup, that’s just tokenization wrapped around identity. It’s bullshit. Anyway, let’s do this. E words: Exotic, Ethnic, Explore and Expat. I feel like we covered Explore with Discover.

India: Still for me the difference with explore and discover is that it sounds like you can happen upon something and explore sounds like something more invasive way beyond encounter.

Bani: Like invasion/occupation?

India: I remember reading this story about these two white guys trying to explore a site on Indigenous land in the Southwest US. They specifically acknowledged the site as one of Indigenous resistance through the genocidal violence engineered by settlers. No one but Indigenous people from that particular nation knew about the site and even when these guys tried to get assistance from Indigenous people in order to find it and the Indigenous folks refused, the white dudes went ahead looking for it anyway.

Bani: Of course. Reminds me a of a Spanish dude who made a documentary of him hiring a local guide and searching for an uncontacted tribe in Ecuador! Like what is the point besides basically hunting down the ‘humanity’ of others by further dehumanizing them?11228509_937773979647311_8430381725565608130_n

India: Or not understanding/respecting boundaries.

Bani: Travel is like this race to be the ‘first’ to ‘discover’ ‘explore’ and somehow ‘humanize’ the Other.

India: Humanizing the other without recognizing our impact or the impact of tourism on the environment and on people.

Bani: Having the entitlement to intervene without invitation, consultation or consent. Let’s go to Ethnic. The way this term is usually used is ridiculous, plain and simple.

India: Again the idea of there being a norm and anything outside of that Norm being measured against it, so white culture as the default and anything outside of that is being considered not normal. Everyone has an ethnicity so what makes certain experiences or cultural aspects ethnic and others not?

Bani: There’s whiteness and then there’s everything else. Which brings us to Exotic.

India: Exotic and ethnic are often used interchangeably.

Bani: Sometimes. Though while ethnic is a signifier of identity and is not inherently problematic, exotic is.

India: Even in the dictionary, Exotic is mentioned as something that is not naturalized or acclimatized. Naturalized or acclimatized to what? What is this invisible standard that this imagined foreignness is being measured against?

Bani: We should also mention that the term is almost exclusively gendered in its modern use.

India: Most definitely because a cis heterosexual man is considered the norm.jamaica_woman_0

Bani: The more exotic a woman is, the more fuckable she is. The term  is coded to mean a submissive femininity associated with lighter skin and ‘ambiguous’ racial features.

India: Tourism and marketing are complicit in this. When you see travel ads for Hawai’i or Jamaica or Tahiti it’s usually a woman marketing her goods on behalf of the nation.

Bani: Yes. I recently pitched this as a story, how women’s bodies sell place. Rape and pillage. F is for Foreign. Do readers notice a pattern yet?

India: Especially when a tourist can go to a country and call the people native to that country ‘foreigners.’ No, you would be the foreigner.

Bani: It’s a mindset. This drives home how you can take these words out of the writing but the practice remains the same.

India: The writing is just the documentation of that practice and lifestyle.

Bani: This. Now for every white girl’s favorite word, G*psy. 

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6 Phrases With Surprisingly Racist Origins | Decoded | MTV News

India: The way that I understand the word g*psy is that it’s a slur for the Romani people living in Europe. The Romani are discriminated against and entrenched in poverty.

Bani: The term also has connotations like thievery, laziness, untrustworthiness and unreliability attached to it.

India: I’ve seen articles entitled ‘how to travel like a globetrotting ‘g*psy’ and the g*psies are often displaced or nomadic by choice however I don’t think they are ever referred to as Globetrotters.

Bani: This is ‘cool’ to them.

India: Or ‘how to live like a g*psy without going broke.’ It’s appropriating g*psy which has been used as a slur, not understanding the historical context in which it is used and then identify it with globetrotting which is a leisurely activity. I can’t ever say I’ve seen ‘The Wandering W*tback’ or ‘Nomadic N*gger’ or ‘Traveling Ch*nk.’

Bani: You just said a mouthful. You added Guru to the list; what are your thoughts on it?

India: My understanding of the way that I see people using Guru as an expression to demonstrate that they or someone else is all-knowing. Also another misappropriation similar to ‘griot.’ These terms are being separated from their sociohistorical context. The terms are also used in a way that separate them from the religious value that they have in the communities from which they originated.

Bani: A stripping of history and context. Oh and I want to add a last one – Global Citizen.12065650_890817681009608_8466202809445915161_n

India: I think that global citizen it is really an expression of wanting to connect beyond literal borders but without global accountability or recognizing the power imbalances in your ability to be a global citizen because of access and privilege and another person’s being seen as a global burden.

Bani: It really reminds me of how ‘colorblind’ is used as a faux idealistic term that purposely erases difference. Having unlimited access to other people, lands and cultures. Whiteness itself is a passport.

India: The response to exoticism and making a big deal about difference is to act like difference doesn’t exist at all with common tropes being ‘we’re all human, we’re all the same.’ The thing is those nuances have to be picked up on because that’s where the majority of the world’s people exist – in the nuances. As Gloria Anzaldúa says ‘in the borderlands.’ Real borders with real violent consequences when they’re crossed.

Thanks for reading part 1. Part 2 is coming soon! Tips always appreciated via Paypal.me/BaniAmor

POC Travel Book Club

hey kids, so I was chillin the other morning and thought, a casual online monthly book club focusing on travel books by people of color would be awesome! to gauge interest in such a club, fill out this form and share it with other folks you think might be down. all you gotta do is be a person of color and have an interest in travel writing and social justice.

The Brother from Another Planet

happy 2016 folx! I’m honored to have a narrative photo essay featured as the lead story in AWAY: Experiments in Travel & Telling’s latest issue dedicated entirely to travel writing by people of color! The issue highlights work by VONA/Voices (the only writing workshop for POC in the U.S.) fellows following two years of the travel writing track piloted by Faith Adiele, who also curated this issue of AWAY and hooked us all up. In her introduction to the issue, she says,

As a biracial traveler and the daughter of immigrants, I often find myself ambivalent about mainstream travel/literature. In my Introduction to the Best Women’s Travel Writing 2009, I cited both Robyn Davidson’s “Against Travel Writing” and Jamaica Kincaid’s introduction to the Best American Travel Writing 2005 in which she shares my ambivalence about how the world of those who can travel impacts the world of those who must travel (i.e., migrate, flee). I asked, How do we negotiate the politics of tourism and travel responsibly? How do we negotiate the politics of who gets to travel, that is, who gets to look and then paint the picture for those who cannot? How do we describe foreign worlds when it could be argued that the imperialist origins of travel taint the very language we use to talk about difference?

Speak, Ms. Faith! My story is about an annoying white woman in Ecuador, her sometimes-partner who collects ancient artifacts that wash up on the shores of Playa África, where he lives, and that time he came out to me as an alien from outer space. True story, folks.

It is only fitting that Bani Amor, the only writer to attend the VONA Travel Writing Workshop both years and a major player in the movement to decolonize travel writing, has the lead piece, “The Brother from Another Planet,” an incisive photo essay that showcases her lush writing, fearless spirit, and complicated insider/outsider role in Ecuador.

Read my story here and the issue here and as always, feel free to shoot me your feedback here or on social media.

The Exile Narratives of Trans Women of Color #Dispatch: Gabrielle Bellot

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

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Gabrielle Bellot is a writer from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Her interests include global literature, trying to define exile, and LGBTQIA identities, particularly in raising the visibility of transgender issues in the Caribbean alongside other LGB issues. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, Autostraddle, The Caribbean Review of Books, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. In the past, she has worked as a committee member for Dominica’s Nature Island Literary Festival, an annual event that brings in writers from across the Caribbean and the diaspora for readings, panel discussions, book fairs, and more.

Bani Amor: Can you talk a little about yourself and your work?

Gabrielle Bellot: Sure. Well, to start with, I am a mixed-race transgender woman from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Almost all of my parents’ families live in Dominica, though my grandmother on my mother’s side is from Curacao, and I myself happened to be born in the United States, in Ohio, before returning to Dominica with my parents as a child. Caribbean families can be quite extensive in their national reach, and mine is no exception. I no longer live in Dominica, however. I came out as a queer transwomen in my late 20s–I am now 28–and have not returned to my home out of my fear of receiving a bad reaction due to the unavoidable visibility of my own queerness–the visibility, the physicality, of being trans.

I am a writer, and a lot of the work I have been doing recently involves trying to make transgender issues in the Caribbean, primarily the Anglophone Caribbean, more visible, though my broader interest is in global literature. Although queerness or a kind of non-conformity to gender or sexual norms is difficult to divorce from Caribbean-ness, given that it is difficult to avoid reading queerness into a lot of Caribbean experience, from Carnival costumes to our literature, it is nonetheless something that has been hidden for a long time. Something you do not usually speak of openly, if you want to avoid questions, glares, or worse. And a lot of the discussions in the Caribbean have focused on gay or bisexual men, so I want to make transgender experience more visible, more viable, more unavoidable.

Bani: Have you met a lot of queer and trans Caribbeans since you’ve left Dominica?

Gabrielle: Yes – primarily online, but also in person here and there. Since I came out and began publishing pieces, particularly since I wrote about transitioning in an essay for Guernica in August this year, I have connected with a number of individuals from various parts of the Caribbean who are queer in some way – and I want to clarify, quickly, that I use ‘queer’ here as a shorthand for ‘LGBTQ’ broadly, so I do not distinguish between ‘LGB’ and ‘trans’ individuals unless otherwise specified. Many people wrote to me over social media when I shared something new I’d written.

Some, like a trans woman from Martinique, would not share their name or information out of a radical fear of anyone finding out about their queerness in their island. Others poured out their souls to me, in a way, coming out to me, a stranger, and often telling me that they had been afraid to come out in the islands they had been born in. Some of them, like a young girl from the Bahamas, had been able to be more open about their queerness temporarily when going abroad but had to hide their identity again once they returned to their home.

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Trinidadian trans woman Jowelle de Souza, who Gabrielle talked about in her Guernica and NYT essays

And then I’ve met some queer individuals who have either moved from the Caribbean or who have parents from the Caribbean, most of whom have had reservations about either coming out to their family or friends back home or about travelling to the part of our archipelago they come from or have family in. Of course, some queer individuals can find a happy, healthy life in the Caribbean, and it certainly varies from island to island. But there is undeniably a common thread of nervousness about coming out or returning home, and, while I wish that was not the case, I am happy that my writing has helped at least some people feel a little better, from what they’ve told me, about being open about their identities.

Bani: You touch on exile in every story of yours I’ve read, do you feel like your work fits easily alongside most exile narratives (you’ve read) or nah?

Gabrielle: In some ways, yes. Exile, as a concept, has many rooms, many facets and facades and hidden stairways that seem like they might not lead, at first glance, to where they do. In other words, exile is complicated, and needs to be complicated. People often think of exile in geographic or national terms – the individual or group that has been pushed out of a particular nation by some forces. But you can be in exile while living in the nation, the world you’ve lived in for your entire life, if you feel ostracised within it, if the contours of your identity do not fit with some broader, or even legally cemented, definition of what people from said nation are ‘supposed’ to be like.

The exile can live on the margins of a society or in another society altogether or in a society of no societies. A nation, as Benedict Anderson said, can be thought of as an imagined community – imagined, he said, because it is unlikely we will ever meet all of the citizens in a nation, so for patriotism to work we often have to imagine a kind of false sense of closeness existing between people we have never met. And it is easy to feel exiled when you imagine you do not exist in that imagined community. So many narratives of exile, then, involve a sense of being the Other, of the transnational experience of living on the margins.

To be transgender, and certainly to be a transitioning transwoman of colour, is to always come close to a kind of exile. So many of us have to, at least at first, deal with problems from our families or friends due to our coming out, especially if we live in places where being trans is not something that commonly exists in a national imagination. Trans issues are virtually invisible in too much of the Caribbean, so when I came out to my parents, my mother had to navigate uncharted territory; she had never heard of a transgender person before, could not find any direction on the compass of her senses that pointed to someone like me. As a result, I began to feel distance – exile – from her.

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Freshwater lake in Dominica. Photo by Daryl Durand

At the time I came out, I was already considering never returning home. And it hurt, this additional layer of exile from home, this way that ‘home’ had come to no longer mean something clear if it could no longer reliably mean the home in the mountains I had grown up in. But I had to make a choice. And, for me, it was either to live my life as myself or to buy a passport to the undiscovered country, and I came close to doing the latter, to killing myself. And then there is the struggle of navigating gender when you have not been perceived as a woman but are now not only presenting as one but being perceived by strangers as one.

I learnt how to navigate male harassment on the street, for instance, as well as being talked down to by strangers, and these things have simply become the norm for me – but since most of these people perceive and treat me as if I am a ciswoman, my trans-ness becomes a further layer of distance. Something I fear to reveal. I feel exiled sometimes by my fear that my voice is not the timbre of a ciswoman’s voice, despite my months of voice training on my own. I feel exiled by my fear that I will cause a riot in the women’s restroom one day when some ciswoman finds out, somehow, that I am there, and tells me I do not belong.

I love being me; I am a woman, and I cannot live otherwise, do not want or know how to. But a sense of exile follows me like a shadow.

Bani: Today is TDOR [Trans Day of Remembrance,]; I wonder how it must feel to migrate here as a transwoman of color at the height of all this violence [23 mostly Black transwomen have been killed in the U.S. in 2015, 81 worldwide].

Gabrielle: Yes. It’s a reminder that nowhere is entirely safe for those of us who are trans – particularly those of us who are visible in their trans-ness, unable or unwilling to ‘pass,’ so to speak, as ciswomen. And being queer, broadly, has never been something ‘safe’ to be; safety is always situational, always dependent on a variety of factors. I feel a lot safer and happier in my ability to live openly as a transwoman here in the United States – but I do not, at all, feel safe overall. Tasks that are mundane to many cisgender people sometimes terrify me: going to the grocery store even when I have no food left, making a phone call to a stranger I MUST make. This is because when I am around strangers, I just want, usually, to be seen as any other woman, with no prefix, cis- or trans-, needing to be applied for clarification – but I fear that I may be outed, and being outed can lead to stares, glares, fists, following footsteps, and things that hurt much more.

I often, for instance, get harassed by men when I am by myself, and this harassment, when it leads to you being followed by this man, can be even more frightening when you realise that your outing yourself to him might cause something bad to happen. I once had a taxi driver, who appeared to think I was a ciswoman with a low voice, try to keep me inside his cab before he took me home, telling me he did not want me to leave it and then giving me a card with his number to call. He watched me go into my home, and I remember feeling a sense of terror that he would follow me, that he knew where I lived, this man who had wanted me to stay in his car. 

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Illustration by Micah Bazant: “Drawing this beauty. 22. Beaten and shot in the back, yesterday, on the street, by a whole gang of men. I have no words.”

 

It is often easier to avoid some violence as a transwoman if you ‘pass’ well. You meet less people who wish to hurt you because they ‘read’ you as trans or gender non-conforming at a glance. But passing has its own dangers, too. After all, the men who come up to me to harass or proposition me may react in violence if they find out I am trans because they think I’ve ‘tricked’ them. Because they think of me, suddenly, as a gay male, and here homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia often begin to intersect, forming violence when they do.

So I feel safer here, to be sure. The ability to change my gender marker on my ID in the US has made my life much easier in many situations–buying alcohol, travelling in an airport, being stopped by police, the latter of which is terrifying in of itself already. But violence will follow us as long as anti-queerness and general misogyny do – which is to say that we must always, always be on guard, both as women in general and as transwomen specifically because that prefix, unfortunately, can make a difference in the length of our life’s thread.

Bani: Which stories of exile, if any, did you identify with growing up? And now?

Gabrielle: Growing up in Dominica, I often felt like I had to hide any sign of ‘femininity’ to avoid being called gay, so I identified with narratives of escaping to lonely worlds. I imagined myself on a submarine that travelled the world’s seas like Jules Verne’s Nemo, except I was a girl on a lonely submersible deep below where the blue fades. Sci-fi and fantasy sometimes provided me with a way to imagine myself in another reality, one where I had been born as the woman I knew I was. I still identify with those narratives of distance, so novels like Keri Hulme’s the bone people, which features an asexual woman navigating her own emotional and geographic isolation in New Zealand, resonate with me on some levels. I also understood the feeling of exile in some of Jean Rhys’ novels, some of Earl Lovelace’s books, and in some of Derek Walcott’s poems – a kind of simultaneous racial and national exile, even as these are distinct in each of these writers.

I love being me; I am a woman, and I cannot live otherwise, do not want or know how to. But a sense of exile follows me like a shadow.

In the U. S., I am more likely to be seen as ‘Hispanic,’ broadly, or black, but in Dominica I varied from being ‘white’ to, most commonly, being ‘Shabine’ or a light-skinned mix of ethnicities. Sometimes, this means you feel like you fit in everywhere; other times, it’s like you fit in nowhere. I also enjoyed encountering the exile narratives along both gender and political lines in Nuruddin Farrah’s Maps, the intimate exile in some of Casey Plett’s short stories about trans experience in A Safe Girl to Love, and even just the broader idea of a kind of inexplicable exile in more absurd narratives, like Kobe Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.

Bani: Do you feel like you have a place or community where you feel belonging? Is it conditional? And have you had folks who know you as mixed and/or trans assume you experience some sort of internal conflict with your identities?

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Illustration of Dominican author Jean Rhys (artist unkown)

Gabrielle: I feel like I’m forming a second family–people who you go to when you do not know if you can go to the ones bonded by blood. One of my queer friends told me that coming out means finding a new family when your old family becomes distant, or when your original home becomes a place you may not be able to return to as easily as before. And I think this is true for many LGBTQ individuals – even when coming out goes well, incidentally. I’ve found that being amongst queer individuals in a group makes me feel, suddenly, less different and so much safer at times–like I am suddenly around people who I know will probably understand the language of my experience. It’s a great feeling.

I don’t think it’s the norm for my friends now, but some people have said things to me that make me think they see me as uncertain of either my ethnic or gender identities. I was once asked what race I identify as on an application form in graduate school by a higher-up; I got the sense that anything but Caucasian I said would have been acceptable to that person, that I was a blank canvas to them by my light brown skin. And another person asked me, after I came out, what bathroom I planned to use in my department, a question that implied I might still use a male restroom  -which I never did or will do after coming out – and that seemed to invalidate my gender identity as a woman. I don’t think she realised how demeaning the question came across. People often assume that to be anything other than a simple binary or simple label is to therefore be in conflict with who you are. And I do have conflict with things, but I am more than my conflicts, more than a common narrative of internal fights.

Bani: Damn, I wanna give that last line a standing ovation. So just like with travel media, the white Western gaze of mainstream LGBT (I put this in quotes because they’re really just gay) media tends to paint majority POC countries as broadly intolerant of queer people with little exception, and are usually selectively ahistorical when it comes to where these biases emerge from and how they’re spread. How do you feel about that shit as someone who’s on a lot of sides of that?

Gabrielle: I think there’s a big danger in just giving out single stories, to use Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s term, of places. And this can so easily become a mask for not simply racist generalisations about places, but also for a return to colonialist narratives about countries and continents and regions. A way to speak for instead of speaking to, a way to suggest the way that the benevolent white American is supposed to spend their money – or not spend it by, say, absurd boycotts of countries.

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Image via Queerty.com

For instance, there is a common narrative of certain white Americans suggesting that Jamaica, which has long had a bad reputation for anti-queer attitudes, should be boycotted by tourists as a way to punish the country for these attitudes. This also happened after the Times Magazine published a piece on Belize featuring the painful narrative of a gay Belizean activist, Caleb Orozco; some people suggested that Belize be boycotted as a tourist destination. This happened with my Dominica after an incident with a gay cruise in which two gay white men from the cruise were briefly incarcerated in Dominica after apparently having publicly visible sex while the boat was in the harbour. And I saw at least one person suggest the same, unfortunately, after I wrote my op-ed for the New York Times.

These attitudes are mistaken – boycotting does not help improve LGBTQ people living in the places being boycotted or even those of us in the diaspora. And there is an element, of course, of economic privilege in this decision to boycott, as well as–at times–a kind of single-story racism and a lack of nuance. In my Times piece, I had wanted to be able to provide more nuance about the complex realities of being queer in the Caribbean, since it really does vary, but my op-ed could only hold so many words before its official cut-off point. All the same, I was sad to realise that even a single person had decided to take what I said to mean boycotting a place or even entire region, since I did not advocate that.

When the media paints an entire country or region as being antagonistic to LGBTQ individuals, there may well be large elements of truth in that, but there is also a danger of losing the bigger truth, which is that queer individuals may well live there, may well even thrive there at times. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Individual experience differs. But the old colonialist narratives are easier to tell, and it is sad when the media chooses these broad strokes to brush instead of even suggesting that variance may be the truth instead of a single story–when variance, in all of life, in all the spaces between the silent-loud starfire in our universe, is what describes reality best of all.

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

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