Kawika Guillermo’s Stamped: An Anti-Travel Novel and Kate Harris’ Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road Seek to Change the Travel Writing Genre
Travel writing has a notorious history of exoticizing, sentimentalizing, or patronizing the “foreign,” not to mention profiting from the same. Too often, it tells the story of a (usually White) stranger making superficial judgements about land and people as they pass through. But at its best, travel writing brings the world to people unable to physically venture far from home. It records outsider perspectives on the familiar, and it describes the effects of being a visiting stranger on the traveler’s psyche. Today, with better emphasis on cultural sensitivity and more awareness of the dangers of appropriation, travel writing is a genre that must be handled with extreme care.
Into this complex tradition, two very different books have arrived with a common goal: To question, subvert, and expand the rules of travel writing. Kate Harris’ Land of the Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Dey Street) is a memoir of the author’s cycling journey (accompanied be her friend Mel) over the Silk Road, while Kawika Guillermo’s Stamped: An Anti-Travel Novel (Westphalia) is a multi-voiced work about a diverse cast of ex-pats traveling across Asia.
Harris describes herself as “a writer with a grudge against borders and a knack for getting lost.” She is from a small town in Ontario, Canada, and she’s a Rhodes scholar who now lives off the grid with her wife in British Columbia. Her academic background is in science. Guillermo’s bio includes two descriptions, one of Guillermo, which notes that he “writes stories of travel, speculation, memoir, and whatever else he can sneak into ‘The Literary.’” Like one of the characters in Stamped, Guillermo uses “Kawika” as an alternate name. In this case,“Kawika Guillermo is the Hawaiian/Filipino name for the much more mundane, mixed race (and mixed up) academic, Christopher B. Patterson, who spends his days patronizing big chain coffee-shops to pen neatly assembled tracts on literature, creativity, and video games.” Lost Borders is Harris’ first book, and Stamped is Guillermo’s first novel. (As Patterson, he published an academic work, Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific from Rutgers UP.)
As a White woman, Harris has to fight the Eat, Pray, Love and Wild marketing that seems to follow all women’s travel writing. Writing on the ex-pat experience, Guillermo, too, contends with a formidable literary tradition in which characters (or memoirists) “find themselves” by living in another country. Both authors subvert expectation from the beginning, Guillermo by presenting ex-pat life through the eyes of characters diverse of class, gender, and ethnicity and Harris by constantly hearkening back to an earlier tradition of travel and travel writing.
In her very first chapter, Harris writes, “I was born centuries too late for the life I was meant to live.” She wishes she could have lived in a time when explorers like Marco Polo and Ferdinand Magellan were “discovering” lands that had not been visited by Europeans before. She writes of her younger self, “After studying all the atlases I could find, I’d concluded with a sense of panic that I was wilder than the world in all directions,” and she worried that “by the time I’d saved enough money to see Tibet for myself, it would be as tame as Ballinafad.”
I’m Mvskoke (Creek), a citizen of a nation “discovered” by the Spanish much to our detriment, so of course all my red lights began to flash when I read her raptures on “discovering” the untamed, however sincere. But it’s 2018. Harris understands the problems of romanticizing the age of exploration, and throughout the book she attempts to reconcile her desire to be the first and only person in uncharted territory with her position as an upper class, educated, White Canadian who benefits from “explorers” who considered themselves “discoverers” of the Indigenous people of her own country. To her credit, she does not constantly apologize for either her position or her desire to explore. However, because so much of the book describes her intellectual history and weaves in research (all of which is fascinating), the actual narration of the journey sometimes suffers — and her descriptions sometimes portray people she meets as part of the scenery or cast them as milestones on her own journey rather than as people in their own right, an insidious and problematic element of the Euro-American travel writing tradition.
Stylistically, while Harris’ poetic writing can sometimes veer close to the edge of “too much,” overall it is stunning, and there are many passages that require a second reading just for enjoyment of language. The memoir is extremely smart, and she consciously works to make it as vast in scope as travel writing from an earlier age but without the cultural problems of those eras. She makes a valiant and beautifully-written effort without being overly apologetic, which is crucial to keeping the book balanced on the line between culturally sensitive and patronizing.
Of course, neither Harris nor the characters in Stamped cast themselves as “tourists.” Nobody ever does. Harris writes, “Much fuss is made of the distinction between tourists and travellers, particularly by those who insist, perhaps a little too strongly, that they fall in the latter, supposedly less superficial, category of foreign experience.” Harris continually works to define herself as an “explorer” in the older sense, an intellectual with a restless soul rather than a woman who travels to heal from something, while the characters in Guillermo’s novel sardonically describe themselves as “flaneurs,” as defined by the character Winston in this passage:
“‘…It means travelers who think, who go through shops just to observe, who pierce through the social ignorance of our glorious empire.’
The travelers looked at each other, crass smiles.
‘Flaneur?’ the woman said. ‘Sounds like rich man with too much time doing nothing.’…
‘To be a flaneur means not making immediate judgments. You observe, try first to understand, and if you feel enough outside of yourself, then you start to empathize. Think beyond good and evil.’”
The characters in Stamped are definitely not rich, but they do spend quite a bit of time seemingly “doing nothing” since to do “something” might give the appearance of trying to make meaning of their travels. They chide each other about “finding themselves” through travel, yet all of them contend with expectations imposed upon them by their families, America, and the countries through which they travel. Having been a Native American living in Europe, I identified with the characters’ shock at being viewed as “American” in foreign countries after considering myself a Mvskoke citizen all my life. Perhaps the best part of Stamped is how it deals with this double exile, especially in the case of the characters Skyler/Kawika (Filipino-American genderfluid character who goes by Skyler when presenting male and Kawika when presenting female), Sophea (Cambodian-American), Connie (Korean-American), and Winston (Ghanian/Brazilian/Japanese/Filipino-American). The White characters, Arthur (who is married to a Chinese woman who abandons him there) and Melanie are less well-drawn, sometimes given to unrealistically stereotypical “clueless White person” dialogue and behavior, which is disappointing in a novel that is otherwise full of subtly perceptive dialogue and observation.
In a book that constantly questions language and labels, I wondered if the subtitle was sarcastic, but I don’t think it is. Stamped succeeds as an anti-travel novel partly because it doesn’t tie up any loose ends (even ones I wanted tied) and constantly defies finding “meaning” in travel or in any specific place. The characters persist in speaking of their friendships as meaningless or casual, even after all they experience together, yet as a reader-outsider looking in, that denial seems meant to convey a fear of emotional depth and/or chaos, whether personal, cultural, or generational. In a blogpost, Skyler writes in second-person of the decision to leave America, “You’re not a traveler, just an escaped convict. You ran when you knew that the next time someone crossed you, called you a fag or a sissy or tried to nudge you into their religion, their fragrant white fantasy, you were either heading to jail or you would be found killed. You became so certain of this that on the way to the airport you closed your eyes.” In another passage, Sophea tells Skyler, “Most travelers can be separated into three groups…Sexpats, drugpats, and ecopats. Then there’s a fourth group. The people who were rejected from their country, and everywhere they go too. They can’t stop moving, rejecting every city before it can reject them. You and I, we know where we fall.”
One by one, the characters encounter the depth of the personal, cultural, or generational pain that led them to travel, and emotional self-preservation leads them to become flaneurs to prevent being overcome by it. By the end, no satisfying “healing” takes place, which is significant.
People of color are not always well-represented in travel writing. For a long time, travel writing tended to be White Person Goes to Exotic Locale (a genre that Harris must work to avoid). When people of color write travel, there can be pressure to find connection to “original” culture and healing in ancestral land to convey (perhaps especially to White readers) that all is now well in the “post-colonial” world, which of course it is not. This book resists such easy answers but also resists easily-dismissable bitterness. The result is an important sense of discomfort that benefits the genre.
Travel writing reflects changing attitudes about boundaries, borders, and ownership of culture and story. Both Lost Borders and Stamped work toward making travel writing more honest and accountable, and they mostly succeed. Certainly both authors take several steps toward shaping travel writing into a genre that insists authors be aware of their position of power and wary of perpetuating a damaging and trite doctrine of discovery, whether of foreign cultures and lands or of the self.