Hey! I have a poem up in the Winter 2017 issue of A Courtship of Winds.
Check out the full issue here: http://www.thecourtshipofwinds.org/issue-5-1
I hate soda but I’m drinking it anyway. Beads of sweat from the glass bottle cool my hands. This club is called Pontoon, and the air is a salty soup of dancing bodies and booze, sweat and sticky floors. It’s a Friday night in Labasa, Fiji, and I just want to flail.
My strategy for dancing in clubs is to find a gay guy or friendly girl to dance with, or just to walk out into the middle of the floor, close my eyes, and pretend I am dancing alone.
This always fails. A guy grabs my hands, my hips, taking my independent, moving body as an invitation to force my focus on one thing: him. I don’t go out for the purpose of dancing with strange, straight men. I dance to free myself.
It veers into uncomfortable territory very quickly.
It’s not my idea to go out, but I do, convincing myself that an Argentine club would have to be relatively tame. Argentine men are gentle, right? Lithe tango dancers? Not aggressive creeps?
Nope. It’s everywhere, this dance club abomination. This lack of respect for my moving body.
The club is tiered. Within five minutes in the black light cave, I’m craving fresh air. I wander alone upstairs to the balcony, on my way to the restroom. A guy pulls at my arm.
“Quieres joder conmigo?”
Angered, he knocks into my shoulders as he drunkenly bursts past. I almost lose my footing and have to grab onto the railing for support.
Tuvalu’s one dance club is in a converted chicken farm. Angie brought me here, insisting that I had to celebrate my last weekend in Tuvalu. Four-foot tall speakers blare the great classics at max volume––“Move, bitch, get out the way” (ugh) and “Turn down for what?”––plus an improbable mix of Latin American pop songs that Tuvaluans sing along to without understanding the words.
I down a beer, make peace with necessary hearing loss, and dive onto an empty floor to dance with Angie. In less than twenty seconds we have a crowd of men vying for our attentions. They grab my elbow, my wrist, and hold fast.
“Stop! Let go!”
This is the first time my “no” has not been respected. I struggle against their grip, but it is futile.
I don’t know whether to feel relieved it has taken this long to be violated (well, I made it for 22 years, that’s not so bad) or just outright afraid.
One guy, Angie’s cousin, seems kind enough. Almost. His lean frame is an inch shorter than my own and he doesn’t grab at any part of my body. It’s a promising start.
We dance for three songs, after which Angie leaves me in his care while she jets home on her motorcycle to check on her one and a half year old daughter.
When she is out of sight, Angie’s cousin grabs my wrist (there, the concealed force. Shit.) and leads me out to the airstrip. I focus on naming the constellations above the tarmac, making up new ones when my knowledge runs flat. A kite unrolling spools of footprints onto the sky. Rock candy. Orion. My whole body tenses.
Is this how I am raped.
I try to calm myself but nothing works. I am hyper alert of shadows on the runway, a pack of wild dogs fucking, couples sitting with their legs intertwined.
The cousin asks where I am from (the states) and if I am married.
I tell him I am not interested in men. He presses.
“Why not? Why don’t you come closer?”
He scooches his bum towards mine on the gravel. I look up at Orion and scooch away.
“I’m just not. Please respect that.” I consider dropping the L-word on him but don’t.
He talks about himself to fill the space. I learn that he works at the Public Works Department, installing water catchment systems on the island’s north end. He is 19. He has two sisters and a brother.
Keep him talking.
He has never heard of Boston. Everything he knows about America comes from Hollywood. He likes action films best.
“Does everyone have a gun in America?”
Angie comes back in time for the three of us to ogle at the rising moon in the east, a waxing gibbous, orange and low on the horizon, open like an eye, staring back.
Dear Dudes Who Feel Entitled to my Body in Dance Clubs,
I prefer to dance in wide-open spaces with no one around. I dance where there is air to breathe. I dance barefoot. I dance without music.
Once, in an hour-long line of cars to enter the USA from Canada, I danced my way across the Rainbow Bridge, mist from Niagara Falls cooling my face.
I only dance when I feel safe,
and it fcking sucks that there are so few spaces where I do.
Devorah is one inch shorter and three years older than me, and I could be her if not for an accident of birth.
“How did you meet Isoa?” I ask. We are in Labasa town on a characteristically hot November afternoon sharing a plate of French fries with barbeque sauce.
“I was seventeen and at secondary and he was twenty-two and at university in Suva,” she sighs, a far-off stare in her eyes.
“I got pregnant and my parents said it wouldn’t look good to have a baby out of wedlock.” Her father is a preacher at the Methodist church.
“So here I am, three kids later.” She shrugs and sops up some of the barbeque sauce with her French fry.
Devorah dreams of going back to Suva. “Everything is better there,” she smiles. “I would live with my family.”
We walk through light rain, veering off of the main road and through a path that bisects a sugar cane farm studded with bleating goats. My shirt starts to soak through to the skin.
Johnny, age two, and Isimeli, who just graduated from kindergarten, are in tow.
“The rain is good for the mangos,” Devorah explains. “We had three months of no rain and everything turned brown. No fruit. But now the rain brings bounty.”
Devorah points to an overgrown mango grove just off the path. We slide through a slick patch of mud and up the small hill to gather fruit there. Johnny and Isimeli throw sticks up at the branches to see what falls. We take the easy fruit first. Then Devorah scales a branch and tosses mangos down to me, one by one. The fruit we have gathered overfills and threatens to tear two plastic bags.
“Try one!” she says, jubilant. “Take a drink.”
The mango is unlike anything I have ever tasted before––leathery green skin hides gooey sweetness. The orange pulp makes a mess of the front of my shirt. I reach for a second, and a third.
“This kind of mango is good,” Devorah says, taking a bite and ripping the skin with her teeth, “because the seed is small and the flesh is soft and sweet.”
I didn’t know that there was more than one variety of mango. This fact hits me like a mango on the head. Of course there are different kinds. I feel very small (and very full of fruit). I will never know the world in its juicy whole.
This is why I travel––for the moments of being overwhelmed, for the sweetness of learning. To be humbled by this planet I call home.
Our conversation turns to plans for tomorrow night––earlier in the day we ran into Devorah’s cousin who invited me to go out dancing in town.
“Come with us!” I plead. “I know you’re a good dancer.”
Devorah laughs. “I would love to, but I’m not free!” She gestures to the kids. Isimeli is throwing rocks against a tree and Johnny has gotten his flip flop stuck in a patch of mud.
Before bedtime I used to ask my mother: “How did I get to be your child?”
“You chose me,” she said, never missing a beat. “You were floating out there somewhere and had your choice of so many mothers, so many lives. And I feel lucky that you chose me.” She punctuated that last sentence with a hug.
Though I doubt I had any agency in the process (or, goodness, did I?) one thing is for certain: if I were born female and Fijian, there is no way I would be living out the trip that I am on.
Financial matters aside (thank you, Harvard funding gods), there is the matter of gender and culture. More than once, a patriarchal figure has lectured me over a plate of cassava and curry: “I just don’t like the idea of you, a girl, being out there all alone. Anything could happen. I wouldn’t let my daughter do what you’re doing. It is not suitable for Fijian women.”
I travel not only for myself, but for all the women who are unable to do so.
Some time ago, Devi Lockwood asked me to write about diversity in literary travel writing. Rather, she asked me to write about the lack of diversity in literary travel writing.
To begin, I should explain two things. First, that I am a travel writer myself, and secondly, that I never had any intention of being one. Originally I had an aversion to being called a travel writer, because I thought it was too narrow of a definition. For although my bookcases were full of the classic travel writers—and I adored them, I found myself frustrated that I did not see my own type of narrative represented very often—it was cast into genres such as memoir, or something annoyingly termed “women’s writing”. Moreover, my local bookstores had slim pickings on the shelves: very few books by women, people of color, or those with different identities of gender. But over the course of this year—with the guidance of my local library, the internet, and an open mind, I’ve come to see things differently, and have embraced the title “travel writer”. Now I see travel writing as a vast vista, unchartered in some places, and in others, full of voices from multiple genres, voices that I’ve discovered just this year (I’ll share some of those at the end of this essay). Travel writing itself is often typecast as being a remnant from a worn out colonialism, but it’s not anymore. It is becoming a cross over genre: bleeding into memoir and fairy tales; creating mini manifestos on gender, politics and social ills; rubbing elbows with fiction and poetry. Travel writing is everywhere.
Before I delve into what I think travel writing is, I’d like to take you back, way back into time, when the world was divided and difficult to move about in. People who traveled from one continent to another were rare. Western thought had just begun its frenetic takeover of the world, but some places were still quite untouched and undisturbed by any outside dominant political and economic forces. There were landscapes few outsiders had seen and ground none of them had walked upon. People did travel: motivated by environment, trade, political strife, nomadic lives, their own desires—but their storytelling stayed within their own cultural narratives, rarely leaving their hearth, unless through their own art, literature, and oral traditions.
We can look at different populations to see what voices and perspectives were represented in that time: who traveled at all, outside of necessity or tradition? Religious leaders and missionaries. Political dissidents and those escaping religious persecution. Slaves and operators who worked in the slave trade. Sex workers, courtesans, and temple prostitutes. The military, merchants, elite classes, artists, and royal households. Therefore travel was defined very narrowly by a handful of populations who had limited ideas about what it meant to be out in the world at large. Some of these “travels” meant moving to other countries, but sometimes they meant moving from one walled-in compound to the next: it’s important to keep in mind that many of these people did not move about freely, and so travel during this time was not about leaving one’s country insomuch as it was about leaving one place for another. There are numerous examples of early travel writing from some of these individuals, who for the most part—if they left a story that we can still find– left it in form of poems, letters, diaries, or oral storytelling that was recorded much later. One of the earliest examples of travel writing is the forty year travel diary of royal household court member, Takasue’s Daughter, (real name is unknown), Sarashina nikki, which was written between 1020 and 1060. She also leaves us one of the first travel tales which weaves love and the duality of exotic places and identity: Mitsu no Hamamatsu, an eleventh-century Japanese monogatari. Leaping ahead, we have the example of the Muslim travel writer Al Hassan Ibn Muhammed Al Wazzan, (renamed Leo Africanus by the Europeans). His diaries and letters tell a travel tale which began with exile as child from Spain, and continued throughout the early 1500’s as an envoy to the sultan of Fez.
At some point, exploration, extreme adventure, and even danger, began to define travel and even travel writing. But what that means today is much different than what it may have meant a few hundred years ago. The first images that come to mind, for me, of that era of travel and the stories I’ve read are of men with icepicks in the Artic; people visiting some tribal group which had never had contact with Westerners, or a sort of around-the-world in eighty days whirlwind for the privileged and wealthy. Perhaps a Victorian rebel, walking around in full dress and bustle in the desert and riding a camel sidesaddle. There is truth to these images, but they only represent an era— they do not define an entire genre. There are quite a few interesting exceptions. Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Letters from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. Margaret Catchpole, imprisoned for prostitution and theft, who wrote Letters from an Australian Prison at the time of English colonization in the 1800’s. Fanny Parks, who was sympathetic to the loss of culture and tradition in Afghani and Indian society, and wrote about it 1850. (William Darymple later republished her work under the title, Begums, Thugs, and Englishmen: The Journals of Fanny Parks.)
From the Victorian era onwards, travel became more popular—and so did travel writing, for a variety of reasons. People in Western cultures were consuming huge amounts of resources, including labor and people. There was an almost obsessional curiosity with what I will call, “otherness”—including people being seen as “others.” The rich had more money and disposable income, and it became desirable to see the world, as a sign of status or intellect. While there were some who were drawn in by the benefits of travel, those benefits were hardly glittering. Those who had the ability to travel within the specific parameters which were socially acceptable within Western society had numerous factors to contend with. Travel was uncomfortable, dangerous, expensive, time consuming, and frankly, not for the faint hearted. Travelers often were people with inheritances, connections in society, shady financial backing, or with political aspirations. A perfect example of this kind of traveler is Freya Stark, whose travels, reportage, and political and financial leanings changed the parts of the world she visited for the worse. But it’s important to remember another larger context for the majority of women travelers of her time: they traveled to create choices for themselves, to have options. As travelers, they could afford to live in other places more cheaply, avoid marriage, explore identities not available as choices at home, and get outside of the constraints of a life devoted to family and duty. Therefore, our frame of reference of what travel is from this period in the past—and what writing came out of it—is very thin, and generally comes from writers of a certain social strata, class, and gender.
There were two main aspirations of the typical Western travel narrative during these years: the ongoing theme of exploration and The Grand Tour, which was typically reserved for privileged people–not people of color or with low economic/social status. There are fleeting glimpses of narratives of fierce survival and independence, however. Ada Blackjack, and Inupiat Inuit, who was left stranded alone on Wrangel Island in Siberia in the 1920’s, had her diaries published. And Juanita Harrison, an African American, traveled the world and wrote about experiencing place as a woman of color in her book, My Great, Wide, Beautiful World in 1936. A few writers broke the mold and managed to swing the traditional Grand Tour, such as Langston Hughes and Caryl Philips. Outside of these rare exceptions, the traditional narrative of these types of journeys—if published as travel writing—rarely captured cultural or environmental sensitivity on a major scale. On the unusual occasion that it did, it was sometimes seen as political or social commentary, not travel writing.
But travel stories began to change when information highways and borders began to open up: no longer were readers dependent on a single writer and their version of events, and this gave birth to a new type of travel writing which included writing about cultures, peoples, and landscapes in more inclusive ways. Moving from the early 20th century, sensibilities morphed into a new modernism of travel writing. While the genre still included the traditional themes of exploration and the pleasures associated with the imprint from The Grand Tour, it also became flush with books and essays that captured this newfound sensitivity with gusto. Topics of sexuality, identity, diaspora, race, politics, and the effects of globalization threaded through unusual narratives, and altered the genre forever. This is illustrated beautifully by Jan Morris, in her book, A Writer’s World: Travels from 1950 to 2000, where she dives into the trial of Adolf Eichmann and race relations in 1950s and 1970s South Africa. Another example is Cebuano writer Lina Espina-Moore, in her book on the Filipino/Cebu experience of identity in The Heart of the Lotus, written in 1970. And exile and the grim realities of war become part of a cultural travel narrative in Dang Thuy Tram’s diaries, written during the Vietnam War and discovered at her death, later published as Yesterday I Dreamed of Peace. And of course, I have to include Nayani Krishnakumari’s unusual travelogue published in the 1980’s of the Kasmir valley, kashmira deepakalika, which almost reads like a poem.
Twenty five years have passed since the beginning of a gurgling quiet revolution in the world of travel writing, and actually, in all writing. We are blessed by writers like Jeff Greenwald, Tim Cahill, Dervla Murphy, Anthony Doerr, Don George, Robyn Davidson, and so many more. But we have the added blessing of a half empty bookshelf, waiting to be filled with all the wonderful writers that are writing devastatingly beautiful travel literature with wildly diverse narratives. I still can’t find many of these authors in my bookstore in the travel section, but I can find them interspersed throughout other parts of the same bookstore, under topics like gender, LBGT writing, fiction, social justice, poetry, politics, feminism, race, commentary, and history. Travel writing seems to be pleasantly showing up everywhere, and someday soon, it’s all going to be together.
Until then, I’m leaving you with a list of some of my favorite travelogues I’ve discovered this year by diverse and interesting writers. My favorite top ten discoveries. Happy reading!
World traveler and explorer Amy Gigi Alexander writes tales of place interwoven with memoir and social commentary. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines, as well as National Geographic India, BBC Travel, World Hum, Lonely Planet, and others. Her award winning travel essays have been translated and published internationally. Her work focuses on being an empowered woman, a solo traveler, and finding the good in the world. Her website is http://www.amygigialexander.com