Tag Archives: Orientalism

My Challenge: Composing Travel Narratives when Edward Said’s Ghost is Looking Over My Shoulder :(

I really hate Edward Said.  May he rest in peace.

I love his work.

Orientalism is one of those books, after which you’re never the same again.  As a thinker, I am hugely indebted to it.  But as a travel writer, Said and Orientalism are a bit like disapproving parents, watching me carefully, with my fear of disappointing them sometimes preventing me from speaking at all.

Every time I think about writing or about starting a post about a place I’ve been, or an experience I’ve had while travelling, I have a mini-heart attack.

‘Do I sound like an orientalist?’  I worry.  And stop writing.

I am black, so I didn’t simply understand Orientalism as Said detailed it, I felt it.

Having grown up black in a white space in which everyone is constantly bombarded with images of your blackness as a negative, I know what it means to be defined by people who don’t know you.  Or don’t like you.  And don’t know what they’re talking about.   Who leave you to deal with the consequences.

I know the frustration, the pain, and bristle at the injustice.

So I can write about travel from time to time, but I can’t be an Orientalist.  O the shame if I were!

I’m still idealistic enough that I believe that I can write interestingly about travel while keeping ‘them’ and ‘us’ binaries out of my work.  I can refuse to bow to that still-popular discourse of difference.  It is not required that I fetishise or exoticise the places I visit and the people I meet. And it does matter that I try.  Right?

Where is the Orient anyway?  I once asked.  Geographically, I meant. It was a legitimate question.  Does it include Turkey?  China? Iraq?  Japan? Morcocco?  Mali?  Egypt?  Lebanon? Vietnam? The orient and the occident.  East and West.  Geographical opposites.  Ideological binaries in a spinning spherical world.

What I learned from Edward Said is that there is no such place as ‘the orient’.  It’s not a continent.  It’s not a country.  It’s not even a region.  It’s an entirely imaginary space.  People (yes, nineteenth century Europeans primarily) wanted to describe some cultures and customs more similar to each others’ than to their own – in the Europeans’ version of events – and thus came up with a way of describing them: The orient aka the other.

Among the Europeans themselves there was no consensus of what exactly constituted The Orient.  For the French it included Mali, and Morocco, for the British it sometimes included India and China, but no place in Africa.  They both usually included Turkey, but not always, and the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Prussians, and Italians all had their own versions of the orient presumably.  It was and remains, all very imprecise and rather unclear. Yet the concept remained useful so somehow, it stuck.

Orientalism was all the rage in nineteenth century Europe; learning languages with ‘different’ alphabets, trying out ‘different’ dress modes, learning about ‘different’ customs and religions, this was the height of cool.

This fashion coincided of course with the period of imperial expansion/consolidation of the colonial powers of the day:  thus Orientalists were on the scene as the good guys, enthusiastically learning about the cultures and lifestyles their fellow countryfolk were in the process of dismantling, often quite consciously and for ‘their’ own good ‘they’ liked to say.  A rather interesting marriage from this vantage point.

What Said explained is that The Orient is a euphemism for difference.  A space which is absolutely different, it was never supposed to be real.  It’s a projection of fears and fantasies, a diametrical opposite of all that is presupposed as European, and an authoritative interpretation of someone else’s reality.

Tell that to the news anchors talking about ‘the Middle East’ (le moyen orient in French).  I’m always tempted to ask, so is that east of the middle? Or middle of the East?  Can a spinning sphere even be said to have an ‘East’ and ‘West’?  Cos surely, from say, Sri Lanka, Syria is definitely west?    And from these parts (the Caribbean)  it’s halfway across the world, and as much North East as it is North West.

That’s it’s so hard to define geographically, and ideologically f*cked up, is why I hate to use the words ‘them’ and ‘us’ in my writing.  It’s why I can’t hack the term ‘Western civilisation’ or ‘Western’ anything that’s not tied to a specific geographical entity on my Peter’s Projection map.  It’s why I don’t write ‘from the road’, hesitate before writing about a place I spent a couple of weeks in, and it’s why I sometimes struggle to write at all.

Cos I’d hate to be an orientalist.

Today’s orientalist is a lot like yesteryear’s; someone who becomes an expert on somebody else’s country/culture/customs/language.  And somehow ends up having a louder voice than people who claim the country/culture/customs/language as their own.

Cos that’s the problem with orientalism:  it’s also about power.  It’s not just about one random person spouting off highly debatable ‘truisms’.  It’s about how one narrative is reinforced by other fellow foreigners, until it becomes The Narrative about that place or those people etc etc.

Those people.

Cos that’s what orientalists do.  They specialise in difference.  They highlight how ‘they’ are not like ‘us’ and it’s rarely done from a place of equality.  Where difference is valuable, interesting even; proof of the ability of humans to adapt to their surroundings and realities and be infinitely creative.  ‘Difference’ tends, in the world of orientalists, to be exotic.  Exciting.  For ‘our’ benefit.

Rarely is difference mere evidence of fellow humans occupying another space and organising themselves how they see fit.

Too often, Difference is to be highlighted, prodded at, giggled at, ridiculed, judged, experienced, consumed.  Cos where it suits us, difference offers a space to escape the norms we don’t like in our own societies.

Similarity does not get a second glance in the world of the orientalists.  Poor bugger.

So even though I’ve been up and down of late,  I’ve been struggling to put pen to paper, cos I’m trying to avoid being an orientalist.  It’s also why I don’t write reams about Martinique despite my current perma-foreigner status and the many adventures that brings.

But life has been as exhilarating and chaotic as usual, so as soon I find a way to relay my adventures in a way that doesn’t stamp on the dignity of the people I share them with, you’ll read them here first!

xxx

NB If you think Orientalism sounds interesting, but don’t fancy reading the book, you can check out Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk The Danger of a Single Story on youtube.  I think she’s kinda saying the same thing.

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A Black Brit Hangs with Matinitje aka Martinicans

Madinina, as Martinique is known to locals, is a beautiful place.  It’s very easy, on any random day, to take a picture lifted out of a stereotypically stunning postcard version of Caribbean topography on an average mobile phone.

The Flower Isle

I’ve not done any empirical research on this, but it seems sometimes as if every Caribbean island’s name has a subtitle; Dominica is the Nature Island, St Lucia is Simply Beautiful, Grenada is the Spice Island, Madinina is the Flower Island.

Can you imagine how many flowers you have to be able to see, how frequently, how many varieties and how lovely they have to be for an island to end up nicknamed ‘the flower island’?  Combine the overflow of beautiful flowers in all manner of species and colours, with a terrain of peaks, valleys and more peaks, rivers and waterfalls, a fabulous coastline, rainforest and incredible landscapes.  And that’s just the land mass.

Les Gens

As much as I love walking across the beach after work, or watching the sun dip behind the horizon line spectacularly at dusk, what I really love are the people.  Unfortunately, they have a distorted vision of themselves.  I never knew any one people to be so convinced of their own worthlessness.  And I’m black.  Nothing gets Matinitje (pronounced Mat-in-it-che) more frenzied than talking about the wotlessness of other Martiniquais (pronounced Mar-ti-nee-kay)*.  Seriously.  But I always find the display somewhere between alarming, amusing and disturbing because it has not been my experience at all.

The greatest gift that Africa, with its traditional culture of ubuntu, the Biko quote goes, would give to the world, is a more human face.  Without getting overly sentimental, that’s kinda how I feel about moun matinitje aka Martinican people.  For me, this is an unconditionally giving people.  They give of themselves very naturally and very generously. Continue reading

Schoelcher Snapshot: A Beach-side lunch in Martinique

It’s all been a bit intense around here. I’ve got deadlines, and major headaches accompanying them, not least with a crazy cold.  Feeling stressed, tired and ill seems doubly miserable when the sky is bright blue, the horizon line is well-defined and the sunshine is gloriously skin-tickling warm.  Carnival feels like a long time ago.

I was in the library for hours this morning, trying to talk through an assignment with a colleague, and then complete it.  Nothing especially complicated, but a lot of preparation is required for a lengthy document which I have to produce in French.  So it’s just a little stressful.  Over-enthusiastic air-conditioning did not help matters.

Having anticipated a distractingly sour mood, I had one appointment at least to look forward to.  To clear my head a little, I did lunch with a sister-friend.  We had a lot to catch up on seeing how we hadn’t sat down together for 2 whole weeks!  And catch up we did: we just talked and talked and talked and talked for four straight hours. Continue reading

All Caribbean Men Dress Up As Women: Carnival in Martinique

Notting Hill Carnival 2006 (London, UK)

Notting Hill Carnival 2006 (London, UK) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Soooo…my first experience of Carnival in Martinique takes place the same day that the French government passes a law permitting gay couples to marry and adopt children.  I have yet to see this on a news site but multiple people mentioning it plus a sermon about how God instituted marriage to be between a man and a woman the following day have convinced me that it’s true. In case you didn’t know, here’s links in French (more authentic innit), and in English.

In case you’re wondering about the connection, seeing is believing.  As I’m not planning to be in Martinique for the official two days of carnival next week, I’ve been curious to know what I will be missing.  It’s a curious twist of fate (slash me taking every piece of holiday time literally) that despite two carnival-time séjours in the French Caribbean, and being somewhat religious about participating in London’s annual Notting Hill Carnival (and the biggest festival in Europe fyi) I’ve never experienced Carnival à la Martinique, Guadeloupe or Guyane.

I wonder if, as a Londoner born and bred, it doesn’t feel like Carnival Time.  My whole life, Carnival has been at the end of August, Carnival Monday is a day off work, and regular revellers know to book the Tuesday off to recover.  All summer long you’re outdoors; in the park, having BBQs, celebrating the appearance of sunshine, good vibes are buzzing like unendangered bees, and London is the best place in the whole world to be alive from May – September pretty much.  Carnival is the official closing of summer in London.  The Thames Festival wants to be, but no one’s heard of it (sadly, it’s actually good.  I blame Boris). Continue reading

Christmas Carol Singing – Caribbean stylee!

As a recent emigré, this time of year has the potential to be the hardest.  Despite subjection to some notoriously painful Christmas do’s with colleagues, I love the Christmas season.  Christmas spirit for me is all about quality time, ideally spent at Christmas dinners, drinks and parties; with friends, family, food, laughter and good vibes, all in huge quantities.  A good few thousand miles away from home however, forgive me if I was more than a little slower than usual in getting into the Christmas spirit this year.  Thankfully, round here the Christmas vibes are no different even if the unchanged climate seems unsettling at first.  I definitely enjoy the party; it’s called chanté nwèl, literally ‘singing Christmas’, which conveys the idea of a vibrant, musical personified Christmas perfectly.

Chanté nwèl, is basically carol singing. But that doesn’t do it justice.  Continue reading

I totally related to the sentiments in this post; the tension in being a tourist but ‘not like the other tourists’ and the acceptance that wherever you travel will impact you, and you it and both are altered for the contact. When you travel, it’s not easy to be a tactful tourist. But I reckon the sooner you realise your holiday destination wasn’t actually created by God simply to amuse you, the sooner you will start to hear the heartbeat of the place.

The Road Less Graveled

I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

I’ve been working on writing about my favorite place in the world: Kaua’i. In a way, it is a simple essay to write; the scenery is gorgeous, adventures prolific and the cultural history is extremely interesting.

Words fail me.

This place means so much to me that I find it indescribable. The blend of beauty, power and the socio-economic struggles of this place make it more complex than describing the dysfunctionality of your own family lineage, with a touch of racism and politics on the side. There is so much more than meets the eye.

There’s no doubt about it; Kaua’i is beautiful. Over a million visitors pour into the airports of the Garden Isle each year, mostly congregating to areas such as Po’ipu and Princeville. They drive up to Koke’e to visit the Kalalau lookout, perhaps hike to Hanakapi’ai beach

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Travel = a need not a want

I can’t honestly explain what makes me want to travel.  Where my itchy feet come from I don’t know.  I like to think I am part of a great epic of black women moving by force, by choice, but moving nevertheless.  I sometimes think it is the Brit in me.  Raised as I was at the latter end of the times when it was still okay to idolise the great explorers of the nineteenth century.  To think of them as great rather than the imperialist baddies they were.

While the conscious black person in me always knew how morally repugnant it was, the Brit in me imagined myself with that beige hat on head, and cutlass in hand, big grin on my face as I carve out a new route through some hitherto ‘undiscovered’ place obscured by trees.  It’s such a familiar recurring image that I smile as I write it.

I’m smiling because I’ve been able to write what I’ve never been able to articulate.  The need to see new things, the craving to understand the world.  It’s the black person in me, paradoxically, who knows that if I really want to know, I have to ask the people.

Continue reading