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'In Africa, you want more, I think.'
Going on a little trip; announcing a newsletter! (Africa pt. 1)
One year and some months ago, I wrote a post just like this one. Something something ‘It’s been a strange year’ something something ‘I need to shake things up’ something something ‘I’m hitting the road to find myself.’
And so I did. I spent several months driving around America, drinking in rural watering holes, and sleeping under the stars. I fished in the Bayou, rode horses in the Mountain West, tangled with a grizzly in Wyoming, and, well, would you believe me if I told you that I met real, live Trump supporters at a rodeo in Montana? You really haven’t lived until you’ve gone hoarse from drinking bourbon and chanting ‘Let’s Go Brandon!’ in a dusty prairie. Please, dear reader, hold your judgment—one seeks such transgressions for the sport of it while passing through the dark night of the soul.
I’m proud of that trip, and what I wrote about it, and when I returned home I decided that I wanted to spend my life in this way. I recalibrated my priorities to create more time for reading, writing and teaching, and then I applied to and was accepted into NYU’s Master’s program on Cultural Reporting and Criticism. I’ll be starting in the Fall. I’m very excited, albeit nervous, to finally take this leap of faith that I’ve been dreaming about for the past 5 years. Many people are saying that I’ve made a brilliant move in leaving behind an established career to enter the lucrative, thriving world of vague, long-form journalism.
But I’ve begun to feel stagnant (again) in New York, and I’m worried that I won’t have anything to write about when I start school. My friends have advised me that this is a fallacy–surely I can write without first having to leave home?—perhaps I can find something noteworthy to write about in New York City?—and besides, what is cultural criticism if not the product of quiet, solitary contemplation?
They are, of course, correct. I have written quite a bit in the past year, including a work-in-progress essay about a perverted little habit of Dorothy’s (subscribe for the big reveal, coming soon!). But I find it much more difficult to feel creatively inspired—and a broader sense of purpose—when I’m stationary. Sometimes I feel like I’m one of those fabled sharks that will die [a spiritual death] if it stops swimming.
It’s no surprise, then, that I’ve long felt a karmic bond with Mating’s nameless narrator—I just want more, I think.
“There is no situation like the open road, and seeing things completely afresh. It’s not a question of meeting or seeing new faces particularly, or hearing new stories, but of looking at life in a different way. It’s the curtain coming up on another act.”
James Salter, interviewed by Edward Hirsch for The Paris Review, Summer 1993
So I’m going on another little trip! On Tuesday I’m flying into Nairobi, and then I’ll be spending about a month traveling solo through East and Southern Africa. The plan is to cover swaths of Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Naturally, there is plenty of room in my itinerary for wandering—in big cities, small towns, the jungle, and the bush—and I’ve arranged to host a series of writing workshops along the way. I’ll also be doing some very specific work involving refugees that I can’t write about in advance for reasons that should become clear at a later date (I’m in the CIA).
This is all very fraught. In an effort to fortify myself against slipping and falling into a trope, I’ve soaked up a small library’s worth of postcolonial literature over the past few months. I told a friend about all of this reading, and he raised a new thorny issue to lose sleep over: there is something fundamentally paradoxical (and sort of funny) about the notion that a person can become so well-read that they’re rendered incapable of subconsciously acting out a savior complex.
He may be right, but the great Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole reaffirmed for me the importance of understanding the history of a place you visit in order to contextualize your own relationship to it. After a 2012 viral video about an African warlord triggered a mass mobilization of The White-Savior Industrial Complex, he wrote:
“Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to ‘make a difference’ trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage.”
And then there is the issue of a white person going to Africa to ‘make a difference’ while documenting the experience for a largely white audience. On this, there are two pieces of advice that I’m bringing with me.
First, Teju Cole again, pondering how a well-meaning American might actually “help” a place like Uganda: “It begins, I believe, with some humility with regard to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country.”
And here’s my friend Brendon Holder—a great writer and critic in his own right—with a few simple words of wisdom on how to approach the page: “It will reveal itself to you once you get there.”
Finally, there is the inescapably problematic nature of the trip’s raison d'être—going to Africa because I want more. My friend Nora Naji, a scholar of humanitarian issues who lives between Africa and Europe, had this to say after I told her about my plans:
“There is a lot of literature on how Africa as a continent is imagined—it serves to fulfill desires and projections of the West and people who want to explore what’s beyond our capitalist realities. [...] It seems a bit like Africa is a playground to cure your boredom.
As far as your writing goes, how can you negotiate your positionality in a way that does not relegate Africa and the people you will engage with to the background in your adventure? And if you foreground them, how can you make sure not to capitalize on their stories for your writing? There is a real issue with extraction on the African continent.”
“You’re right,” I told her. “But what am I supposed to do with all that?”
“Nothing,” she said. “You just sit with the inherent ambiguity that a privileged life brings when you choose to travel here.”
A new concept: internet newsletter
Lest you thought this rumination was purely a self-aggrandizing vacation announcement, it is also a solemn pronouncement that I, too, have launched a Substack.
What to expect if you sign up
An irregular cadence of irreverent writing, more specifically—
Immersive and ethnographic-style stories and profiles from my travels through East and Southern Africa (and beyond)
Writing shared in the workshops I host in bookshops, schools, refugee shelters, informal settlements, and more
Meandering journeys into my own heart (of darkness? sign up to find out)
Photos of wild animals having sex (maybe)
Cultural analysis and criticism, essays, short stories, and who knows what else, we’re going to find out together. I plan on trying a lot of new things on the page in the coming months and years, and I would like for you to read them
You can visit my About page to read more about who I am, what I write, how I write, etc. I’ve also uploaded quite a bit of my old writing into the archives, which I encourage you to browse once you’ve finished reading everything else ever written. Dispatches 3 and 5 are probably the best places to start to get a sense of what my ‘travel writing’ is like. Here's a short story, Morning Music, published by Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and even a few drawings for good measure.
Thank you for reading. Bye!
PS—To the people that follow me as a proxy for stalking Dorothy, my beautiful dog, you should know, she will not be traveling with me to Africa. She’ll be staying with my parents, and yes, I will miss her dearly. Should you choose to follow along over the next month regardless, you [and I] will [both] be discovering who I am outside of Dorothy.