Friday 17 May 2019

Kawika Guillermo makes a bookstop at Asian Books Blog to chat about Stamped, his anti-travel novel, online personas and why he thinks Americans can't be flaneurs.


Kawika Guillermo is the author of Stamped: an anti-travel novel (Westphalia Press, 2018). His stories can be found in The Cimarron ReviewFeminist Studies, The Hawai’i Pacific ReviewTayoSmokelong Quarterly, and others. He is an Assistant Professor in the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia and is the author of Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific (Rutgers University Press, 2018). He occasionally writes on travel, politics, and video games at Anomaly Magazine (formerly Drunken Boat) and decomP Magazine, where he serves as the Prose Editor.

About the Book

Exasperated by the small-minded tyranny of his hometown, Skyler Faralan travels to Southeast Asia with $500 and a death wish. After months of wandering, he crosses paths with other dejected travellers: Sophea, a short-fused NGO worker; Arthur, a brazen expat abandoned by his wife and son; and Winston, a defiant intellectual exile. Bound by pleasure-fuelled self-destruction, the group flounders from one Asian city to another, confronting the mixture of grief, betrayal, and discrimination that caused them to travel in the first place.

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Kawika. Congratulations on the recent publication of your novel, Stamped. In our email chat, you had mentioned your name ‘Kawika Guillermo’ has an interesting provenance. Can you tell us more?

KG: My legal name “Christopher Patterson” came from my father’s family, who are mostly Irish/Scottish white, from the South, and very Christian, as in cult-ish-ly Christian. “Kawika Guillermo” comes from my mother’s side, who are mostly mixed Filipino/Chinese/Hawaiian, and also come from a very religious lineage (both my grandfathers were preachers). Me, being the atheist-ic overeducated one of the family, don’t see myself in either name. Names are often elusive, punishing things that remind us of where we come, and the family who made us. 

EC:  Stamped is billed as a mix of travel memoir and psychogeography of several modern Asian cities – from Phnom Penh to Manila, Jaipur to Seoul. How much of the travels reflected in the book mirrored your own?

KG:  Except for one remote city in the North of Japan, all the places in Stamped are places I went to travel and research. In some ways Stamped mirrors my state of mind at the time—feeling dejected, depressed, and anxious, which became bearable by walking around a city and meeting people. In other ways, the book reflects the politics of the Bush and early Obama years—the extent of America’s war on terror, its unabashed developmental regimes, its corporate leviathans shaping culture and even skin color. I was also in a mind-space common to many marginalized travel writers, in that I needed to get away from America and see what the world was like (and who I was) without the habitual and subconscious need to compare myself to whiteness. 

EC:  The byline of the title states that it is an ‘anti-travel’ book, an interesting phrase, given the book is all about travel. Can you share with us your sense as to how it is ‘anti-travel’?

KG:  My partner came up with that subtitle. Her go-to phrase to describe me is that I’m “so anti everything.” Like an undead companion, poison and decay are the only things that cure me, I guess! So “anti-travel” is about the travellers who flourish through being “too critical,” who “overthink,” who, as Edward Said said of exiles, “tend to be happy with the idea of unhappiness.”

EC:  The narrative is written from the perspectives of quite several characters --Skyler, Sophea, Connie, Winston, Arthur – all of whom are American expat travellers.  To give readers a sense as to how these characters navigate, what’s one thing they might do or say (capturing their essence beyond the surface markers of race, gender, sexuality) if we were to encounter them in a Singapore kopitiam?

KG:   Scene: Singaporean kopitiam

MELANIE:(shifts through the crowded restaurant)Sorry! I’m just gonna SNEAK right past ya. (She looks crossly at someone’s Kaya toast) Yum?
WINSTON: (behind her) I doubt this place has true palm-oil margarine.

ARTHUR: (behind him; his eyes beam at two women playing mahjong) Is that a game for two, or can anyone join in? (He stops and smiles at them)

CONNIE: (behind him, knitting a ball of yarn) Hey!(plods into ARTHUR) Keep moving whitey!(The yarn unspools as it catches the edge of a waiter’s tray)Look what you did! Gaesaekki!

SKYLER: (behind her, he gives a withering glance to the waiter) This was supposed to be my shawl...(he tugs at the yarn, sending the tray cascading onto the floor). Oh shit. 

SOPHEA: (Shrinks into a corner table and pretends she doesn’t know them

EC:  Thank you for these descriptive passages, they really connect to each character’s voice.  I confess I was most drawn to Skyler. You describe him as “the American not-quite-Asian-and-not- quite-white heathen queer. The butt of all jokes, the end of all cautionary tales” and again “You, the Fil-Am Eur-Asian Hapa-Haole, are one hot piece of Mango meat” and interestingly, his sections of the narrative are written in the 2ndPOV. How did his character come to you, and what fuelled these creative decisions?

KG:  Skyler is a walking contradiction, who becomes someone new in every place he travels. I found myself drawn to him because of his effervescence, his refusal to be tied down. This characteristic also drives him mad at times, because it’s partially just a reaction to the world around him who demands he make himself known and transparent. In some ways Skyler’s story is about the anxiety of being a lower-class person of color traveling—the need to always explain who we are, even though no one believes us when we do explain ourselves. Skyler refuses to play along, bringing about unforeseeable consequences.

As for the travelogue sections, we are reading from Skyler’s blog, which is written like travelogues in Lonely Planet and TV travel-shows. It’s the “imagine yourself in Bali,” voice, the “dip your toes in white-sand” use of second-person that is ubiquitous in tourist pamphlets. 

EC:  Yes, about the travelogue, it’s interspersed with virtual chats (sort of like a 2007 version of Whatsapp) and also more traditional-style narrative in the book. Why did you choose to structure it thus?

KG:  Almost every travel story we read is about a “lone wolf” travelling alone, a pure (white) being who imbibes the local treats and makes wry comments. Yet in reality when we travel we are rarely alone, and when we are, we are in constant contact with an online community. The solitude of travel felt like a myth, especially in big cities. Travel is almost always a communal activity, whether we travel with others or we stay connected to online chat-groups, text messaging, instagram posting, facebook updating, etc. I wanted the novel to reflect that.

EC:  Many of the cities that appear in the book have experienced ‘empire’ and are ‘inheritors’ of colonial legacies, or they have been colonised in one form or another. 
How difficult was it to sift and pull strands of that history and weave that through the narrative, and the choice of words?

KG:  Studying empire in the transpacific is basically my academic career, so there was a sharing of resources that went on between my academic work and my fiction writing. Story-telling captures the vagaries of empire and colonization in more prescient, palpable ways. I had to turn off the things I’d read, as I didn't want to write about cities or people as mere colonial aftermath. Even very good travel-writing (V.S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh) can rely too heavily on a kind of cyclical pattern in history, where the colonizing culture is always battling the traditional national culture. But we live in a time where—at least in many Asian cities—these things are no longer separable

EC:  That’s interesting. By ‘inseparable’ do you mean the forces of capitalism, globalisation and the ‘worlding’ of the info era, which often creates this effect that we now travel with two selves: the physical one and the one that exists on the web? It puts paid to the old binaries, don’t you think?

KG: Yes, in a sense this is the emerging binary that travellers and migrants face - the self we present online and the self we present to the locals, to the border guards, to our itinerant communities. Some of the characters in Stamped use their online personas to balance-out the hard realities they face as travellers. Arthur, the poverty-stricken white male, adapts an online persona akin to an over-sexed Pinkerton, though he spends his travels writhing in loneliness and searching for a ghost. Sophea, the Cambodian American NGO-worker, presents herself as a hero, even as she attempts to destroy the lives of a Cambodian family who stole her phone. The travellers we read about in travelogues and travel literature are often just that single persona presented to us. Mark Twain tried to parody these personas back in the 19th century, but in the digital age it’s only gotten worse.

EC:  The word ‘flaneur’ appears quite a few times with respect to these travellers, and I felt that your definition or nuanced characterisation of the flaneur differentiates from, for example, Edmund White’s Parisian ‘flaneur’ or The Situationists’ method of ‘flaneurie’.  Would you agree? 

KG: “Flaneur” is an attempt to travel with more distance and observation, outside of the sensational tides of tourism. “American Flaneurs” is the title of the novel’s first section. It is a beginning and not an end, because Americans cannot be flaneurs no matter how we try. We are already too involved in the lives of those we encounter. How can we be a flaneur in Cambodia, where the U.S. illegally and secretly dropped more bombs than in all of World War II? How can we act distanced and observant in Asia when the U.S. holds 650 military bases in 70 different countries? How can we claim to be neutral when drone strikes kill thousands upon thousands (by some estimates, 50% civilians)? We cannot be flaneurs, and this is one reason why Americans travel very little. Traveling would mean humanizing the very people who make our lives possible.

EC:  As you mentioned, you are an academic, and in our email chat, you’d said that you wrote the novel during the time you lived in Hong Kong and taught at Hong Kong Baptist University. What was that like?

KG:  In the two and a half years I lived in Hong Kong, I never emerged from the honeymoon period. I was lucky to teach in a dynamic and collegial department (Humanities and Creative Writing). We had no discipline—in-fact, we were very undisciplined—and many of us used queer theoretical methods. As a writer I felt supported and valued, a rare thing indeed. 

As a western foreigner with a respected job, I also carried a lot of privilege. My American-accent and Ph.D. made for ample social currency. On top of that, for the first time in my life I had actual currency, and I was able to pay off the loans and credit cards that had been accumulating for decades. So being a darker-skinned minority did not have the same consequences for me as it would have a lower-class local, migrant, or domestic worker. Perhaps this is why Hong Kong appears in only two pages of Stamped—it’s difficult to stare your own privilege in the face as you’re also depending on it to get through the day. 

EC:  I read that you teach a travel literature course that’s quite different than how one might perceive a syllabus of travel literature to be taught. Would you elaborate more for us?

KG:  Travel appeals most to college-aged people who approach the world with a ravenous curiosity. But when the only guidance available for these zestful would-be travellers are sensationalist travel guides and online review sites, travel becomes about shopping, food, and culture with a capital C. 

I’m more interested in how excursion can reveal the sort of violence and prejudice that structure the ways of life in the homeland. So I teach James Baldwin discovering the insidious and global nature of white supremacy through his travels in Europe. The reading list is plentiful with these kind of travellers:  Edward Said, Amitav Ghosh, Saidiya Hartman, Zora Neale Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, Ma Jian, Lawrence Chua, R. Zamora Linmark and others.

EC: Sounds like the kind of course I would love to take! What’s next in the pipeline for Kawika Guillermo? 

KG:  I have two books coming out next year, an academic book on video games entitled Open World Empire: Race, and the Erotics of Empire (New York University Press), and a queer speculative fiction novel, All Flowers Bloom (Westphalia Press). The novel tells the story of two souls whose love endures through war, famine, and even death, spanning the history of mankind and beyond. It’s queer, quirky, and very sacrilegious.

EC:  Congratulations on your upcoming book publications. That’s very exciting, and I look forward to reading them both. They sound intriguing!