Bani Amor is working to change the face of travel writing. Amor sits down with Culture Trip to discuss their book club and their hopes for the future of travel memoirs.
Bani Amor is a travel writer. Frustrated by the lack of recognition for the work of people of color within travel writing, they set up an online book club for people of color focused on the genre. Through the book club and their own essays, Amor has built a community of writers who are challenging the status quo.
Culture Trip: I wanted to start off and ask a bit about your book club. Where did you start? What was your mission?
Bani Amor: It started in January of 2016. We talk online via video chat once a month after we vote from three different books I put out. I try and keep it pretty diverse. We have nature writing; I’ll have novels. We’ve read poetry, experimental stuff.
CT: Did you have a particular mission when you started, and has that mission changed at all, once you’re in it?
BA: Whenever I meet people who are trying to do travel writing, or even when they meet me, they say: “I haven’t really read that many travel writers of color. I don’t know what’s out there; can you recommend a book or two?”
I remember one of the first travel writing workshops I attended, one of the first questions I had was: do you know any travel books by writers of color? My teacher couldn’t think of anyone. He eventually came up with [Michael Ondaatje’s 1982 memoir] Running in the Family and that was the only book.
Even people of color aren’t familiar with that canon. As someone who has been really interested in this stuff for a while, I would read white writers a lot because when you go to the travel section in a bookstore, it is all white, usually men. It is very narrowly defined.
CT: There is this idea that travel writing is Eat Pray Love. In reality, there is so much more.
BA: For writers of color, if you don’t see it out there, you don’t really know it’s possible. It took me a really long time to think about becoming a writer, even though I had been writing for years just for myself. I have had ridiculous adventures but I don’t really see stories like mine out there.
I wanted other writers of color to see each other, for us to connect with other writers in the past. Even Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou or bell hooks, who have written on the idea of movement, community and belonging. We don’t really find it in the larger culture but is reflected in travel culture.
CT: Part of what you are doing with this book club is starting a conversation about the current state of travel writing. Where would you like to see that conversation shift towards?
BA: Honestly, jobs and opportunities. We see a lot more visibility with social media. But this is not really leading to opportunities in writing, specifically in publishing.
It would be nice to see new magazines and new platforms, not just getting into what is already established. We don’t see the ways we [people of color] write. It would be nice to see magazines and publications that are run by people of color that are widely read.
CT: Part of what you are talking about is industry-wide change. But you mention how social media is shifting the conversation. The way humans travel has changed so much in the past 50 years. What are your thoughts on how social media shapes travel?
BA: Social media, in general, is all about shaping who we are in a very narrow way. Instagram is really huge right now. It is an image with text. That is nice, but it doesn’t get deep into the story. It is very performative because it is the nature of the platform. It’s just not going to go as deep as I want it to go. I would like to see that translate into something else off of Instagram.
I’m interested in longer narratives and disrupting colonial narratives. People of color are climbing the mountain and seeing each other. We do want folks of color to be able to access that idea that they can do it. But we are still seeing a very elite and exclusive group of people having expensive vacations. I don’t care that it is a person of color; what is it doing for me or my family?
CT: What is your approach to travel writing?
BA: Everyone is supposed to write what you know. I wrote in my own journals when I was young and as a teenager when I started traveling. I dropped out of high school; I didn’t go to college. I had a rocky-ass youth, so I was out in a completely different way than Eat Pray Love or whatever. I was dumpster-diving and hitchhiking and getting into all sorts of mess. So I would just write from that.
I am a person of color who comes from an immigrant background, who comes from Brooklyn and has all these experiences that are not reflected in any mainstream way. That naturally lends itself to a non-normative narrative.
CT: On some front, you are talking about how the change that is needed is beyond just people of color telling the same stories that white people have been telling. You need different approaches, different stories. What is your method for trying to dig into these differences?
BA: I started becoming interested in this idea of decolonizing travel writing after a few years of going to those workshops and having those conversations with white professors and reading all this stuff. This was the same time I moved to Ecuador, where my family is from. I thought I would move there and write a book. In my experience of being Ecuadorian-American and going back to the ‘homeland,’ I ended up [seeing myself differently].
Being in Ecuador really challenged aspects of my identity. Over there, I could see that all the ways I was in power and disempowered [were] constantly in conversation with each other while I moved throughout the world, specifically in Ecuador. Those experiences influenced my writing.
Traveling has changed a lot in the last 50 years. A lot of people my age in the United States might be the first people in our families that are going back to our countries [of origin] or have the opportunity to see other places. New questions come up for us that might not have come up for the travelers before us.
We don’t really know how to travel in a way that is not problematic. I just wanted to explore that in a way that hasn’t been.
CT: How do you approach disrupting those narratives within yourself?
BA: For writers, it is something we are discovering as we go. I think of travel writing – travel culture – as people who might not have been able to tell their stories in a way that we are daring to now. We can talk about immigration and forced migration and chattel slavery and the Great Migration in the United States. There is so much going on with immigration in this country right now that these are double standards that need to be talked about going forward.
Sometimes our stories tell us where they want to go. There are innumerable lenses through which we can see our travel experiences. It doesn’t have to be so chronological. It doesn’t always have to be in hindsight.
CT: Do you have advice for other writers and travelers?
BA: Always challenge yourself. Challenge the idea that we are normal; the idea that there is a foreign. What does that mean? It is a lot of soul-searching and a reflective process. Travel writing, especially right now, lends itself to honesty and education. Let’s educate ourselves.