Review: Beyond Guilt Trips

Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World by Anu Taranath is written largely from the perspective of an individual from the Global North traveling to the Global South. It investigates why these travelers feel guilty and uncomfortable when going overseas because they start to experience how invisible global systems privilege them over others in the lesser developed countries they travel to.

The most interesting parts of the book were the actual scenarios that played out these abstract issues in real time. For me, as a traveler/expat who was born and raised in the Global South and who wrote about meaningful travel for GoAbroad, this book raised serious issues about how privileged travelers should engage with locals in the Global South and how they should deal with the attention, negative or positive, they may receive from them. For me, these are some of the book’s important takeaways:

1. We should pay attention to difference because difference is real and noticing difference is not a bad thing.
2. Some travelers from the Global North crave difference as a product, something to eroticize, commodify, and consume.
3. How far or close we are from the “mythical norm” determines how we perceive ourselves and how other perceive us.
4. We hold many identities and some of these identities are visible while others are invisible. Our identities are never fixed but fluid. We are different in different contexts.
5. Global travel often capitalizes on the legacy of imperialism, where relationships between travelers from the Global North and locals in the Global South still rest on the premise of unequal systems.
6. In the final analysis, the author says that “trips abroad must intersect with our local lives… Otherwise we’re just exoticizing difference abroad while refusing to engage with it at home.”

Overall, it was a good read that asks important questions about travel and privilege and I really hope more Western travelers read this book carefully before they take those “well-intentioned” trips to the Global South.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

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Review: Magic Realism for Non-Believers

Published by the University of Minnesota Press, Magic Realism for Non-Believers is a memoir from Anika Fajardo, a Latinx author who was born in Colombia but grew up in Minnesota. She is the product of an American mother and a Colombian father. The crux of her story is that she, having grown up in a single-parent home, never really knew Renzo, her father, or her Latinx heritage.

The memoir details how the author gradually reaches out to her artist father through letters, eventually visiting him at age twenty-one in the homeland she never knew. This trip precipitates a recovery of memories she thought she knew and also leads to the revelation of more family secrets that shed light on the enigmatic character of Renzo.

As a Caribbean-born reader and a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and magic realism, I appreciated how well Fajardo uses the literary technique to tell her origin story and her reconnection with her Colombian heritage.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital ARC (Advance Reader Copy) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Review: What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

“In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.” Haruki Murakami

The book translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel describes itself as “equal parts travelogue, memoir, and training log” and after reading it, it certainly slots into all these categories. Murakami details key episodes in his running life including his long-distance feats in Athens, Boston, Hokkaido, New York, Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Niigata. Before reading this book, I had no idea the Japanese novelist was even a runner. Also, forget the self-destructive writer stereotype. Murakami proves that writers have to be healthy in order to write better. He writes in a very conversational style so the book is very easy to get into in the beginning. However, he confesses that the book was written in snatches over two years and as it unfolds, it does feel piecemeal at times. Overall, however, I think the book gives great insight into the man called Murakami as well as the rigors of running and the writing life.

Review: Cuba Then, Cuba Now

Firstly, I found Cuba Then, Cuba Now, the title of the Vintage Short by travel writer Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, to be a bit misleading. It promised reflective essays on Cuba – then and now, but the bulk of the book spoke about another Caribbean island, Jamaica. In fact, Cuba Then, Cuba Now included many excerpts from Shapiro’s first book, Island People: The Caribbean and the World.

Shapiro’s three chapters on Jamaica certainly brought the island alive with keen observations of its people, history, and culture. I liked that the narrative voice was attuned to Jamaican patois, particularly the brand spoken by its Rastafarian community.

The introduction and the chapter on Cuba, however, somehow didn’t make much of an impact on me as a Caribbean-born reader and writer. That said, I enjoyed reading this title and would really like to read Island People next.

Disclaimer: I received this book as a digital Advance Reader Copy (ARC) from the publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Have you read it?

Getting nostalgic over Anne of Green Gables

The last time I read Anne of Green Gables, it was 1994. Wet, Wet, Wet’s Love is All Around Me was on heavy rotation and Friends and My So-Called Life debuted on local TV stations in Trinidad and Tobago. You could only imagine my delight when I spotted a battered copy of the exact edition I owned on the library shelf at my local library in Japan. When I spotted the cover, everything just came swimming back to me and I knew that it was due for a reread.

At first, I was amazed that I was able to get through such a dense book. The words were so quaint and tightly packed together on each page. Also, upon rereading I realized that there were a lot of foreign vocabulary words I probably glossed over, particularly when author LM Montgomery described the flora of Prince Edward Island.

But as I continued to read Anne, I chuckled aloud (yes, I really did) at her talkativeness, her flubs, her antics, her hot temper, her predisposition for romanticism, her weakness for puffed sleeves, and her gift for expression in terms like “bosom friend” and “kindred spirit.” She is truly a character, as we like to say in the Caribbean.

Have you ever read Anne of Green Gables? What’s your verdict?

Review: The Last Children of Tokyo

Published by Portobello Books in 2018 and translated by Margaret Mitsutani, The Last Children of Tokyo (also published as The Emissary) by Yoko Tawada is speculative fiction that imagines what can happen in an ageing society that is affected by a major environmental catastrophe.

The story is set in futuristic, dystopian, environmental wasteland Japan that has once again retreated into self-isolation, cutting itself off from the rest of the world. Things are so bad that foreign words are banned and people get into a lot of semantic arguments. There are food shortages in Tokyo even though food is produced abundantly in Okinawa.

In this post-catastrophe world, great grandparents outlive their great grandkids. Tawada focuses on the relationship between Yoshiro and his great grandson, Mumei. The grandfather’s care is palpable, particularly how he fusses over what the boy can and cannot eat. However, things get weird when the author starts shifting from one narrative perspective to the next.

Deeper into the chapter-free story, more characters are added but Tawada does not deal with them in as great depth as how she handles Yoshiro and Mumei. The plot starts well but then meanders into some strange direction and by the end of the story, I was so confused.

Meandering plot aside, Yoko Tawada is a skilled writer who clearly loves to dabble in word play. Also, her writing is distinctive from the spare, minimalist style of her literary peers like Sayaka Murata and Hiromi Kawakami. I think it may have to do with the fact that she writes in both German and Japanese and lives in Berlin rather than Japan. She is also able to satirize Japanese culture and language and use this story as a cautionary tale of what could happen if Japan behaves in an increasingly insular and environmentally destructive manner in the future.

Bonus: the book recently won the US National Book Award for Translated Literature.

Review: Strange Weather in Tokyo

Strange Weather in Tokyo (2014, Portobello Books) by Hiromi Kawakami and translated by Allison Markin Powell starts with the informal reunion of Tsukiko and Sensei, her former high school Japanese teacher, at a bar in the city. The narrative slowly traces the development of their relationship from friends to something more than friends. In this novel, Kawakami, like Sayaka Murata in Convenience Store Woman, is able to pin down the ennui, loneliness, and alienation single people of all ages face in urban Tokyo. A good read, although sometimes, I found the narrative focused too much on quotidian details.