The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Make You Feel

It’s been a hard month-plus for a lot of us since Trump was inaugurated, and as my friend Joanna jokes, whenever I run into trouble, I turn to books. In my last reading list, which I posted shortly after the U.S. election, I suggested five books to read on race. This time, I’m focusing on feelings.

One of the best things stories offer us is a chance to walk around in someone else’s skin. As President Obama so rightly noted when describing the importance of reading in his life and presidency, books allow us “the ability to slow down and get perspective” and “the ability to get in someone else’s shoes”—and if we need nothing else at this time, it’s certainly more empathy. (The full transcript of Obama’s interview with the New York Times about books and reading is beautiful and available here.)

So here are some of the things I’ve read recently that have given me feels and made me feel more human. I hope you might be moved by them, too.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

5941033I’m gonna be honest—this is my second time reading this book, and I read it before the election results were announced. I’d filled out my absentee ballot. I’d scanned and sent it from the lovely Airbnb home I was staying at in Pokhara, Nepal. Trump wasn’t even on my radar.

But Nepal was a weird time for me. I was overwhelmed by Kathmandu, unsure about how to face the legacy of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent that I’d just traveled through, confused about how to deal with my economic privilege in the midst of a lot of poverty, and had been on the road for almost six months.

I’d retreated to Pokhara for a couple weeks, to a lovely rustic property up the hill from Phewa Lake, to write and regroup. As much as I needed the quiet time, I was simultaneously struck by a feeling of aloneness (with the good and bad that goes with it) and self-defeating doubt.

I hadn’t felt invested in my fiction writing in a long time. I doubted the usefulness of stories. I didn’t know where my voice had gone, or why.

So, I turned to Let the Great World Spin, a book that I’ve counted as one of my favorites since I first read it a few years ago. So often, I’ve viewed literary fiction as a place of sadness; so infrequently have I found literary fiction that puts some hope in the bottom of the box.

Let the Great World Spin is an aching, dizzying, resonating piece that does just that—while sorting through realms of grief, longing, loneliness, and connection. Told through multiple viewpoints, McCann takes the reader deep into the lives a series of narrators who are connected by a thin thread (thicker for some than others) via the moment in 1974 when a man strung a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in New York and walked across it. Each voice layers on top of the other, giving each greater meaning, and pulling the reader across space and time, into living rooms and antique cars and subway tunnels and the tops of towers, inviting us in for coffee, inviting us to share in one another’s grief and, in the end, to land on love.

Let the Great World Spin reminds me of how intimately we are connected, how deeply grief and loss can affect us, and how love and empathy can draw us through the even darkest of times. Continue reading “The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Make You Feel”

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The Story I Can’t Tell

There is a story I want to tell, but no matter how many times I try, I can’t get it right.

 

There is a writer. They go to Bhaktapur, Nepal. It’s October. A young girl approaches them as they enter the city. Says “hello.” Starts chatting. Asks if she can show the writer around to practice her English.

The writer is a white American. The young girl—a teenager, really, though she looks like she could be in middle school—is Newari, an ethnic minority in Nepal.

Let’s call the girl Matina. Let’s say she shows the writer around. There are buildings that are hundreds of years old. There are intricate wood carvings on the doors, in the eaves, above the windows, making windows themselves. This is what people come to Bhaktapur to see.

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Let’s say the writer takes her to a café, but mostly because the writer is hungry and hasn’t had coffee. Let’s say they watch Nepali music videos on the writer’s cell phone. Let’s say Matina loves Nepali singers, but her favorite band is One Direction.

What if even in that moment, the writer realizes the complexity of what’s happening? Wonders when Matina might make an ask. Wonders if her parents put her up to snagging tourists off the streets and showing them around, telling them things like how much she likes chemistry. Wonders about the economics that would lead a family to do a thing like that. Wonders if Matina will be able to finish school. Wonders how many other foreigners have taken her to this café.

Still, the writer goes along. Eventually, Matina invites them to her home. The writer meets Matina’s parents. Matina shows the writer her homework—pages and pages, reciting chemistry facts and asking if she got the answers right on her English test. Her mom asks the writer to buy the family groceries.

The writer has been ripped off before with a similar ask—once in Delhi and once in Kathmandu—but they buy the groceries anyway—rice, oil, milk. Matina’s mom invites them back to the house to drink Fanta, their one splurge. Matina cleans off a metal cup with cloudy water from an old 7Up bottle and pours the soda in.

Matina calls the writer “sister” and “friend.” The writer thinks it might all be an act but is tempted to think that Matina might be lonely, too. Maybe in that way, they’re the same. When asked about her best friend, Matina says she had one before, but not now.

It is tempting for the writer to think in terms of these well-worn narratives. Because it easy, and there are clean lines to follow. Lines that could make the writer feel more comfortable.

But they’re not comfortable. And when Matina takes them back to the bus stop, and tells the writer to come back to visit, and asks them to send her post cards, and makes sure they get on the right bus to Kathmandu, the writer can’t help but thinking. And thinking. And thinking.

 

Did I do the right thing? Did I just make things worse? Will she become a tour guide, nurse, or singer like she dreams? What if my life had been like this? Where would I be? Why do I get to go back to an air-conditioned hotel with wifi when her home has dirt floors and no running water? Why do I keep talking to strangers? How did her house still stand in the earthquake? Did she lose anyone she knew? How do I tell this story? Can I? Continue reading “The Story I Can’t Tell”

Call for Submissions: Traveling While [Insert Identity Here]

On you are (queer) here, I’ve written regularly about my experiences traveling as a gender non-conforming person–from getting hassled in bathrooms to figuring out how to pack a packer to having long, philosophical conversations with hotel staff who also don’t “fit in.” What I’ve learned is that having a non-normative or marginalized identity can be tough while traveling, but it can also bring conversations and enriching experiences that I’d never imagined. However, I recognize that my experiences as a queer, gender non-conforming traveler are also impacted by my other identities–race, class, education level, ethnicity, nationality, ability, etc.
In an effort to broaden the scope and intersectional lens of you are (queer) here, I’d like to hear from others about their experiences of “traveling while ____.” What identity categories have the biggest impact on you when you travel? What would you like others to know about how those identities affect your travel, whether it’s having to think about more things in advance or having to make distinct decisions about where (and where not) to visit? In what ways have your assumptions about “traveling while ____” been proven wrong?
I’d like to select several stories from those submitted and put them together in a piece or two–time and space permitting. And I’d also be interested in offering guest blog spots to a few folks who have longer stories to tell (and are, perhaps, more experienced writers/storytellers). In the survey below, you’ll have options for submitting a brief story and/or a pitch for a guest post. And though I don’t have the funds to pay contributors right now, I’d be happy to feature your website/blog/etc. in promotional materials!
I’d love to hear your stories and amplify the voices of diverse travelers around the globe–so let me know what you think via the link below (deadline March 31)! I look forward to hearing from you!

What to Do, Kathmandu?

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

“What to do, Kathmandu?”

My guide smiled at me over our steaming bowls of vegetable soup. He’d shown me around Kathmandu’s famous Durbar Square and shrugged as if the question encompassed all we’d spoken about. His struggles to make ends meet. His conversion to Christianity. His attempts to be an honest guide in the midst of touts and scammers.

I smiled back and looked at the buildings around us. We were sitting in a rooftop café by the Square, looking at the intricately carved wooden structures and the remains of ancient buildings destroyed by the earthquake that shook the Kathmandu Valley in April 2015.

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal

I wanted to know what Kathmandu would do. What anyone could do in the face of such odds. Continue reading “What to Do, Kathmandu?”

How to Pack a Packer

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When the security guard in the Tokyo Narita Airport asked to put my bag through the X-ray machine a second time, I couldn’t help but tense up.

Hi,” I said, assenting in Japanese. It was one of the few words I knew—along with some basic greetings and a handful of numbers. My language was limited, and as the bag went back to the conveyor belt, I started running through worst-case scenarios: With my limited Japanese and their limited English, how would I explain the thing I was carrying in my bag—the thing I knew they were looking at, the thing they couldn’t quite understand?

I wasn’t carrying anything illegal. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.

But as they unzipped the lowest pocket of my pack, plastic gloves on, and asked me if they could search my bag, I braced myself.

How would explain myself when they pulled out my soft, heavy, penis-shaped packer? Continue reading “How to Pack a Packer”

The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Read on Race

As a writer, one of my favorite things to do is to read. All throughout my journey, and especially after the election, I’ve been trying to pull together books that will help me see the world in a broader light and make me a more empathetic human and effective advocate.

Here are five books that have been on my shelf the last couple months. Hope you might enjoy (and learn from) them as much as I did!

Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide (Daniel Hunter)

njc-coverAfter the election, I felt pretty powerless in terms of how to respond and also realized I needed to learn more about engaging with the racial justice movement and integrating anti-racism work into my other advocacy. This book was a great primer for me regarding work being done to end the prison industrial complex (and its inherent racism) as well as an awesome guide for movement-building in general. I recommend it for anyone working in advocacy and activism and for all my non-profit sector friends. Find out more online here. (Available on Kindle for only $0.99USD!) Continue reading “The Traveling Bookshelf: Five Books to Read on Race”

Singing Prayers to the Sky: A Weekend in Rishikesh

We began our tour of northern India by shuffling through the busy Delhi streets, looking up at the spires of mosques and breathing in the heavy scents of Old Delhi’s spice market. From there, we trundled up the mountains to what’s become a honeymooners’ getaway, and then toured temples in Mandi, Dharamsala, and Amritsar. By the time we got to Rishikesh (about ten days into our tour), my head and heart were swirling.

So many places. So many people.

An introvert at heart, I could feel myself shutting down. Some quiet time our last morning in Dharamsala and some rejuvenation at the Golden Temple in Amritsar boosted me enough to make it to Rishikesh in one spiritual/mental piece.

And once there, my first thought was “Rishikesh is heaven.”

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Rishikesh is considered by many to be the “yoga capital of the world,” and as such, it is unsurprisingly filled with yogis from all over the world and, thus, a considerable number of tourists (for better or worse).

Indeed, there was something special about doing morning yoga at a studio on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) River, songs rising from nearby temples and worshippers as we practiced, bells ringing. Even the honking and engines somehow made a chorus. Of praise, perhaps. Of life. Continue reading “Singing Prayers to the Sky: A Weekend in Rishikesh”