Tag Archives: VONA

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.

Telling It Like It Is

What up folks,

It’s been a while since we’ve had a legit one-on-one. In the meantimes, I’ve been working hard to deliver you the #Dispatch interview series with travel writers of color, our last one of which featured writer Nandini Seshadri in the talk Traveling While White, Traveling While Brown. Meanwhile, our talk with Abena Clarke, Travel Is Not A White Boy’s Club (And Never Has Been) was recently republished by Matador Network. The comments on there remind me how important this project is and I’m pumped to keep bringing you this suff. If you are someone you know would like to be interviewed, get in touch at heyitsbani@gmail.com.

Also also, Nathan Mizrachi over at Life is a Camino interviewed me about traveling on the cheap in his masterpost – Not Rich, Just Savvy: 9 Travel Bloggers Share Their Budget Travel Tips. Actual quote – “Sell all your shit, travel light and go far.” – Me.

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Finally, if reading about canines in space, Colorado’s trans community or James Baldwin’s exile floats your boat, you better check out my Legends and Expats series over on Nowhere Magazine, which focuses on diaspora.

And if you’re into showing love, do it with your dollar bills! Click on the Donate button over on your right ’cause I’m cute and broke.

California Love

As I sit around a discounted hotel room in Romulus, Michigan, waiting for a storm in New York to abate so that I could fly in, pick up some stuff and head back home to Ecuador, it’s hard to believe that one of the best months of my life has just passed by. My travels in the East Bay for the VONA/Voices travel writing workshop for writers of color were blessed by new friends, old ones, sunshine, Pride, solidarity and love. I wanna say thanks to all the folks who made it possible.

First of all, to Faith Adiele for educating and inspiring the shit outta me, for taking me to a Russian bathhouse when I really needed some healing, for having my back/preserving the sancitity of the workshop experience from day one. To Djoser Imhotep (and Justin), Austin Pritzkat (and Carlos), Mish, Dreu Oko & the Chestnut house for being gracious-as-fuck hosts. To Jake Salt & Kelly for skipping the march and spending Pride Sunday chillin in a kiddie pool with sangria, watermelon, weed and barbeque on the sunniest day of my stay.

To Giovannié Núñez-Dúeñas for smoking me out pretty much every day, to Alan ‘FthemPapers’ for spinning me across the dance floor, rings flying everywhere, while we brought the house down with our salsa dancing at VONA’s quinceñera party (afterward, Junot Díaz gave me two thumbs up and a big smile; who does that?) and to the Ecuadorian crew for representing: Fernanda Snellings, Sonia Guiñansaca, Julie Quiroz and Emilia Fiallo. Mad love to my VONA travel sisters Anu Taranath, Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, Adriana Páramo, Marie-Francoise Theodore, Lizzetta, Monique Sanchez and the Doctor, Sriram Shamasunder and especially to my affinity allies Celeste Chan and Cristina Golondrina Rose for being Everything. Finally, I wanna thank Kira Allen for them hugs. Really.

Not only was the VONA/Voices workshop a life-changing experience, but one I got to share with lots of beautiful folks in a truly gorgeous setting. I have my work cut out for me. [Hover cursor over photos for captions; click to enlarge.]

3rd World Writing, 1st World Gaze #Dispatch: Negrisimo

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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Aliyya Swaby is a newly minted freelance journalist currently chasing stories and adventure in Panama. After graduating from Yale last May, she received a Parker Huang Travel Fellowship to report on race, gentrification, and Afro-Panamanian culture. She uses her writing to explore the local effects of urban development. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Ozy and Racialicious. Check out her blog at aliyyaswaby.com and tweets at @AliyyaSwaby

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

Aliyya Swaby:  I’m a freelance reporter, at least for now, reporting in Panama on a travel fellowship from Yale, my alma mater. My project here explores social and cultural issues in Afro Panamanian communities, obviously a very broad topic.

I’ve used it to explore parts of Panamanian culture that mainstream US media isn’t covering. I think a lot of articles in major publications talk about the steep growth rate of the country. Fewer talk about the positive and and negative effects of this growth on everyday people, especially low-income and minority groups.

I’d like to think that my writing is very grassroots oriented. I think the most interesting topics are the ones that are the most local. But that doesn’t help me get published. So I’ve been working on finding a balance.

BA:  Right on. Why did you choose Panama as the setting and the Afro-Panamanian community as the subject of your reportage?

AS:  I’d been awarded Yale fellowships before and used them to research similar issues in Latin American indigenous communities (specifically in Ecuador and Peru). I majored in environmental studies, and I wanted to learn more about the dynamics of forest conservation and indigenous rights in the Amazon. But I felt uncomfortable doing that sort of research. I’m not indigenous and ultimately my few months of reporting/research didn’t really give much back to those communities.

I chose to report on Afro-Panamanian communities, because it felt more personal. My parents are from Jamaica and Trinidad, and many black Panamanians are of Caribbean descent.

I’ve learned a lot about the West Indian diaspora being here in Panama. Actually, I have an article coming out soon about Marcus Garvey in Central America — not too many people know that he was inspired to start the UNIA after traveling and working in Panama and Costa Rica.

BA:  I didn’t know that!

AS:  Yeah, I spoke to my dad about it — he’s well read on West Indian and black American history — and he didn’t know either. I feel like there are millions of stories like these being passed over constantly. I love stumbling across them.

BA: Exactly. Those are exactly the kinda stories I wanna read.

AS:   It’s sad that there aren’t too many places to publish them.

BA:  Tragic, really. But then I think about the pre-internet age, and how folks went about distributing stories and information themselves because the mainstream didn’t provide a place for them.

AS:  Right. And it seems like you take advantage of different media outside of the mainstream to publish your work. I really admire that. I’ve enjoyed keeping a blog throughout this fellowship — though it’s still online, I feel less powerless having a self-curated space. At the same time, I’ve been trying to force my way into mainstream media. It seems backwards, but I think many people only have access to certain publications. Maybe they lack the connections or time or resources to search for alternative news sources. I want my work to be widely read. (And I want to be paid for it.)

BA:  The thought of bending my words to fit into mainstream travel writing kinda freaks me out. While it’s very important, crucial even, that certain stories get attention through a mainstream audience, it’s just not the type of attention my work needs. I don’t know. I’m still trying to carve out my own space and find my own voice. You’re coming from this academic, journalist background, and I can def see how that needs a different kind of attention. And you should get paid for it!

AS:  That makes total sense. I don’t know how far I’d be willing to bend my writing to fit it into certain slots. So far, I’ve mostly been published in smaller online magazines. I haven’t had to give up much. But I’ve definitely researched and pitched way more ideas than I’ve been able to publish. I do think, though, that there should be more opportunities available for this kind of writing than exist.

BA:  It’s part of the game, people say. But I notice which editors turn down which pitches, and I’m like, really?

AS: Also, we talked a bit before about the term “travel writer”.

BA: Yes, I wouldn’t corner you into that genre. That’s just me.

AS:  I just think it’s interesting. I’ve shied away from the term and that kind of writing. But reading your work is making me think about it differently. There’s definitely something to be said for creating your own path and your own definition or brand of travel writing.

It’s just been really frustrating throughout this fellowship to see a bit more of the behind-the-scenes of the journalism industry. There’s a lot of opportunities for uninformed diatribe.

BA:  It’s endless.

AS:  But not much for carefully researched articles on local issues. Or for writers who have a different audience in mind.

BA:  Speak, speak. It’s the truth. But I do think there’s a place for your work to be read by a wide audience, and that’s how I stumbled onto your writing, through your Racialicious piece, ‘Western Privilege and Anti-Black Racism in Panama’.

AS:  That’s true! I just was going to say: It’s hasn’t been all bad or frustrating. Racialicious is a great example of a publication with a LOT of very informed readers who are interested in hearing different voices. I’m really grateful to have been published there. The exposure was priceless. And I actually have been contacted a few times by editors who have read it and were interested in hearing what else I was working on.

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BA: That’s awesome. Also, I related to something you touched on in that article. For me, I’m Ecuadorian-Guatemalan-American, I live in Quito, and a lot of non-Ecuadorians (mostly white expats) feel like they can confide their anti-Ecuadorian sentiments/complaints in me, because I’m ‘exceptional’. This idea, that you are exceptional, is interesting to me.

AS:  Yeah, that definitely happens. In the article, I wrote about a journalist who told me how black people in Colon are just lazy freeloaders. And it happened to me in Peru and Ecuador, but it was a different dynamic because I actually didn’t see very many people like me in the capital cities.

BA: I’ve seen African-American expats in Ecuador treated very differently than Afro-Ecuadorians, for instance. When it’s convenient for folks.

AS:  Yeah, that makes sense. It’s a weird space to be in. I have a lot of white European friends here who don’t like that they stand out so much. I definitely can pass through certain areas more easily than they can. But also standing out, for me, is a good thing because otherwise I’d be treated poorly.

BA:  I’m so over white travelers complaining about how they stick out. Have fun being the ‘Other’, for a change.

AS: Yep, it’s a hard thing for white people to deal with, especially if it’s their first time in a “black” country. In a way, Panama is a black country.

BA:  There’s just a lack of reflection when white people complain about it, which leads me to my next question. In that Racialicious article you mention trying to be careful about framing other people’s stories in your gaze as a an American journalist. I’m going to go ahead and say that most travel writers and journalists are definitely not reflecting on Western privilege when they report abroad.

AS: Right. And that’s a problem, for sure. But it’s also a really difficult thing to do.

BA: How so?

AS:  First of all, as we talked about earlier, certain angles are going to be published more often in mainstream media than others. Too often, those angles replicate common misconceptions about global south/Third World countries or follow similar trends. For example, there were a few articles criticizing the news cycle surrounding the Boko Haram kidnappings.Articles on violence are readily published.

BA: Yup.

AS: Articles on local artists/cultural pioneers are not, for example. I think I’ve been lucky in finding publications interested in some of my ideas. And then I was able to do the research necessary to make sure I wasn’t presenting misinformation or an incorrect angle. But there are so many steps in the process and so much competition.

Many people don’t want to think about privilege, especially if there’s nothing forcing them to. That’s why I think there needs to be more space for people who do think about it. Those perspectives should be valued and should be adequately compensated to make sure that they stay in journalism. A problem right now is that many would-be journalists can’t afford to be. And freelance work is becoming less and less lucrative.

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BA:  Absolutely. Mad writers can’t just get fellowships, can’t get funding to travel, can’t afford to be an unpaid intern, etc. A space needs to be made for them.

AS:  Definitely. Diversity in mainstream media is at the root of many problems in the industry. Like anthropology, it’s the sort of medium that’s always been “white man’s thoughts on x other group” And it shouldn’t be like that anymore. But factors like unpaid internships and lack of pay for freelancers really keep most people out of the business. Some radical change needs to be made, but newer sites like Vox, for example, have been criticized for the same lack of diversity as older historic publications.

BA: So what advice would you pass on to those of us who do manage to stay in the game and are pursuing this kind of work,  how not to be just another privileged foreigner who pops in, takes what they need, and leaves? For travel writers and journalists reporting abroad, I mean.

AS:  Well, really, I need this sort of advice. I’ve only been freelancing for eight months — I don’t feel qualified enough to give any definitive rule or plan. But one thing that has helped me during my time here is focusing on building real relationships with the people I meet, whose groups I’m reporting on.

There’s a fear in journalism that being too chummy with your sources leads to biased reporting. But I think journalists should be more afraid of the opposite — that they won’t get deep enough into understanding a new culture or community to be able to represent it well in writing. And I think doing that well takes a lot of energy, effort and time. I’ve decided to stay in Panama longer than my allotted fellowship time, because I don’t think I’m done here. I’m learning how to make these connections and how I fit into this culture. I need more time to do it.

BA:  That’s awesome! I know you’ll make the best of your time there.

AS:  I hope so!

When Community Comes Through

hey folks,

Thanks to all your support, I’ve reached my Indiegogo campaign goal and will be attending VONA/Voices workshop for writers of color this June! Plane tickets are purchased and tuition is paid. Thanks to everyone who donated, shared the link, reblogged, retweeted or sent good vibes. Your perks will be in the mail early to mid-June when I’m back in the States. Thanks for coming through!

The Indiegogo campaign doesn’t close for another 19 days, so if you’re feeling generous, all extra donations are going directly to health insurance costs. > You can donate here. <I’m also keeping the Dispatches: Conversations with Writers of Color of Race, Place & Adventure series going, and our next talk – with journalist Aliyya Swaby of Negrisimo – will go live next week.

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I’ll leave you with two super relevant links that some of you might have missed: MFA Vs. POC by Junot Diaz via The New Yorker, and The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media by Gabriel Arana via The American Prospect. Important!

Stay True to Your Roots #Dispatch: Miyuki Baker

 

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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Miyuki is a resident of the place where circles overlap. As a queer, multi-racial/lingual female mixed-media artist, she is happiest when working with people who embrace intersectionality and creativity. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 2012, she received the Watson Fellowship to travel the world in search of queer artists and activists and made 8 zines highlighting what she learned under her publishing house Queer Scribe Productions.  She is a freelance artist, journalist, barber, translator, seamstress, lecturer and performer. Contact her at heymiyuki at gmail dot com.

Bani Amor: Tell us about yourself. How would you describe what you do?

Miyuki Baker: I’m a queer woman of color artist, activist and explorer.  I make things and tell stories in the hopes that they will shed light on our shared humanity.

BA: How does place influence/factor into your work?

MB: Since I’ve been on the road since May 2012, I’d say place influences my work quite a bit. I feel like the work of documenting and chronicling what I see and experience in new places is heavily affected by the fact that I’m parachuting in and then leaving a couple of months later. It forces me to make intense connections quickly and try to minimize the feeling of dislocation for myself.  It makes me think about the outsider/insider perspective a lot and to be sensitive to/respectful of the local politics of the place I’m in.

BA: Tell us about Queer Scribe Productions and the International Art/Activism Zine Project.

MB: In May 2012, I started a 14 month trip around the world to make zines about queer art and activism. I ended up going to 15 countries and making zines about 8 of them which you can see in full color at queerscribe.com I was particularly interested in finding how the local culture, politics, history, geography etc. affected the media used by artists and activists in queer communities. For example, the opening of a queer film festival in Bangalore, India has encouraged many more locals to try their hands at film making.

I also performed in most of the countries I visited as a way to give back to communities, but most of the time I was trying to meet as many different kinds of queer artists and activists, attending events, lectures and festivals.

BA: Did you encounter any challenging conditions while traveling with your project?

MB: Initially it was that I had my camera, laptop and cell phone stolen within the first couple of months of my trip. I’d say I got over each episode pretty quickly but there were moments where I wanted to put more into the zines but couldn’t because I didn’t have a personal computer. I made all of the zines on borrowed computers or in internet cafes. Ultimately, it was because I didn’t have an electronic barrier that I was able to jump into more social situations so it was a blessing in disguise.

Other than that, my first couple of weeks in Buenos Aires were rough because despite how overt gay culture is there, it felt extremely commercial and not at all what I was expecting. It took me a lot longer there than anywhere else to find any radical queer activists who welcomed me.

BA: What did you learn about international queer communities, if anything?

MB: I’d hope that I learned something about international queer communities after 14 months of focusing on it 😉 It’s almost too daunting to say anything in such a small space but I’ll say that I learned the importance of both staying true to your roots (or revitalizing your roots/indigenous traditions) and also adapting. Things are always in flux but I found the sticky tentacles of colonization contaminating most places. In those situations you just have to find a happy medium! And many vibrant queer communities around the world were doing just that 🙂

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BA: Why did you choose zines to be the medium for your project? How would it have been different otherwise?

MB: I specifically chose zines for their DIY and low-budget nature (except the time when I printed in color–eek!). I wanted a medium that wouldn’t be pretentious and could be easily/cheaply distributed.  I found that performing was great on site, but to share different stories, I can’t imagine using anything other than zines.

BAWhich QTPOC* artists/writers/projects inspire your work? What would you like to see more of?

Aami Atmaja, Tania de Rozario, Louise Chen, Elisha Lim, Aryakrishnan Ramakrishnan…
I’d like to see more collaborations!

BA: Anything you’d like to add before we wrap up?

Subscribe to my illustrated blog at heymiyuki.wordpress.com where I draw and write about travel, art and food every week 🙂

Also, I’m raising funds to become a yoga teacher. Visit my campaign at igg.me/at/miyukiyoga to see my amazingly edited (just kidding, I did it on iMovie) film and support me in exchange for zines, custom portraits, prints and more!

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* QTPOC – Queer and/or Trans People of Color

Help Me Get to VONA!

hey folks,

so today is the first day of my Indiegogo campaign, which I’m launching to help me get to VONA this June!

Click Here to Donate!!! 

About Me

I’m a queer, disabled, mestiza travel writer, photographer and editor from Brooklyn by way of Ecuador who has been transient for about 11 years. I fund my adventures by crafting non-commercial indie travel media at the crux of race, place and adventure, but for the past 3 years, all my cash saved from dead-end jobs has gone to paying for my extensive medical care.

About VONA

VONA/Voices is the nation’s only multi-genre workshop for writers of color, and I’m lucky to have been accepted to join in this June! I come from a single-parent, working-class, immigrant household in New York, and opportunities like this are rare, Even if I had finished high school and gone to college, I still wouldn’t have gotten a writing coach of color who focuses on travel! Spaces like these are really important for people like me in this white, straight, male-dominated industry.

The Gist

Since 2011, I’ve been struggling with chronic pain in the right side of my body, emanating from tears in my shoulder. Without access to health insurance in the States, I’ve been traveling back and forth to Ecuador (where my family is from) for treatment, and underwent surgery last Fall. Though it was unsuccessful, I still owe over $1,000 for it, and continue to pay out of pocket for medical expenses. Since the pain has expanded toward my right hand, writing for more than 30 minutes a day (as well as basic functions) has become impossible, meaning I can’t work for a living. I’m stuck in a situation where I can’t pay for my healthcare and can’t get better without it. Lame!

But I’m not asking for help with my medical costs. A flight from Ecuador to California runs about $700 (with luck) and though the fine folks at VONA have fronted half of my tuition in financial aid, I still owe them $300. I’m asking for at least $900 to help with these costs – but anything at all would be mad mad mad appreciated!

In exchange, I’m offering my zines, photos and writing services as perks!

The Deal

Guess what: being super critical of the tourism industry and writing weird travelogue-type creative non-fiction does not have me rolling in dough. I’m ultra-niche – queer, mestiza, broke, disabled, female; I travel the world alone and give no fucks. I’m pretty shameless about the way I live my life, but recognize when it’s time to ask for some help!

What’s important to remember is that voices like mine are squelched every single day, that there aren’t many folks doing what I’m doing. Things can and should be different. This is where you come in!

Other Ways You Can Help

Let’s be real – I’ve seen a lot of campaigns like this that I couldn’t afford to support due to lack of funds, but there are other ways you can help. Share, like and comment on Facebook, follow me on Twitter and Tumblr, purchase a zine on Etsy, follow, like, comment and reblog my stuff on WordPress, or shoot me an e-mail at heyitsbani at gmail dot com. Shout out and connect!

Click Here to Donate!!!