Tag Archives: relationships

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.

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

A woman who travels : to date or not to date?

Being the foreign chick is not as much fun as one would hope.  For every 10 guys who love your accent, there are 2 that were listening to what you were saying, and only 1 of them understood.  Suitors are far more interested in a foreign conquest than getting to know you.  Which can be tiring when you’re The Foreign Chick that everyone wants a piece of.  Piece.  As in fresh meat.

For the guys that do get to know you, as a person and not a curiosity, if you have different first languages, communication can be difficult if you’re not both bilingual.  Unless one of you doesn’t mind not being properly understood. Continue reading

Loving London

English: Roundel on Goodge Street tube station...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world, a world lives in you.”

– Frederick Buechner (cited in The Shack)

I carry my friends and family everywhere. Although sometimes it seems like my laptap is my best friend and closest confidante, actually, it’s just the main way that I keep in touch with those I call my heart. My heart is the people who love me. It’s the place that nourished my spirit, birthed my dreams, and inspired my adventures. It’s the kindness and acceptance and piss-taking by people who have made my life better in ways they do and do not know. That make me feel human.

Like Sam, who I always call my brave friend. She is also the white person who makes me feel better about being the black late one all the time as she’s usually later. When we were 15 and studying Latin, we had an evening school trip to see Lysistrata at a central London theatre. We were both late, and the group waited as long as they feasibly could (or so they said), before getting on the train without us. Continue reading

Romance in the Rainforest: Dating in Paradise II

Apparently, I’m a romantic.  I don’t think it’s asking too much for a young man to put some thought into how he keeps my attention.  I’m not against a little effort, or being impressed.  It’s not that I’m into insincerity and sweet nothings. I simply believe that if life is to be lived abundantly, then matters of the heart should involve some involuntary fluttering.  And frankly, on a lush tropical island, it is not exceedingly difficult to woo a romantic; breathtaking views are the norm, atmosphere is everywhere and a little creativity can go a really long way at literally no cost.

As a young, single woman with a cute English accent (although I didn’t know that ’til much later) from abroad I was bound to be a curiosity (read: fresh blood) when I moved to the French Caribbean.  And I was semi-mentally prepared for it.  In addition, as with the approach of summer in temperate countries, I had the swinging hips of a woman liberated from her winter wardrobe with suitcases of new light and colourful clothes to enjoy.  Continue reading

Caribbean woman from London? Or Londoner from the Caribbean? How the identity/location shuffle made my head spin

The Early Years

I am a South London girl born and raised and proud of it. Forest Hill, Brockley, Crofton Park, Catford and Lewisham made me the woman I am today.   I had a relatively happy childhood there, and made lifelong friends in those schools and on those streets.  Growing up as young black girl there, it was fairly normal to be asked ‘where you’re from’ as my thick South London accent and use of Multicultural London English quickly gave me away as a local. I therefore grew up describing myself as ‘from Barbados and St Lucia’ and had loads of friends who were Chinese, Ghanaian, Turkish, Jamaican, Trinidadian, also Bajan or St Lucian, Dominican, Montserratians, Greek Cypriot, Sri Lankan, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, from the Indian diaspora (you know, East African, South African, Trinidadian/Guyanese Indians rather than Indian Indians) when you asked, but sounded as English as I did, and were also born in the local hospital.

We were all Londoners, but we were from somewhere else too and the only time there was any tension was during the cricket (well there wasn’t any really, no one except our parents really followed cricket, although all the black kids learned to chant 375 and 501 at appropriate and inappropriate occasions).  And again, no one considered it disloyal to back whichever black team made it to the World Cup, be it the Reggae Boyz, Soca Warriors or more recently, the Black Stars. And Brazil cos they had Pele from back in the day.   It was expected.  Football was where the last vestiges of Pan-Africanism could be found when I was growing up.  This was before the 2002 World Cup, when black players en masse got picked for the English national squad; before that it was Paul Ince, Ian Wright and Sol Campbell only*.  We repped them, but not the team.  But I digress, I was from Barbados and St Lucia growing up, until A-Level Sociology.  There, a friend and I decided to embrace our full identities as Non-Practising Afro-Caribbeans and Black Marxist Feminists. I kid you not.  It was a bit of a mouthful, but we finally had a title which reflected our Caribbean roots, and London-based lives.  And then I moved to Thailand. Continue reading

In Praise of Sunsets

Sunset Koh Chang, Thailand

Sunset Koh Chang, Thailand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’re a romantic who grew up in a Euro-centric culture, you’ve probably heard the expression ‘into the sunset’ on more than one occasion.  To walk, run, ride or drive into the sunset denotes a closing, a happy ending, and hope for the future.  More than one film has closed on a sunset, and many more fairy stories.  But personally, I never really ‘got’ them.  Apart from that iconic moment in Grease 2 when he finally gets the girl and they ride off into the sunset of course…that was classic.  I changed somewhat, when at the end of a week spent slaving away at a national park’s snake exhibit in Phuket, Thailand back in the day, a kindly lady offered to take me to Sunset Point.  She thought it would be a travesty for me to leave Phuket without seeing it.  I was more tempted by the possibility of finally getting out of the park.

What I saw however, blew my mind.  There’s a reason why they call it Sunset Point.  It’s no doubt the place Jay-Z refers to in ‘Can I get a…’  A decade later I can still see in my mind’s eye the panoramic view of the horizon, the endless sky and the most colourful sunset I’ve ever seen. Continue reading