On She Goes

Bookmarked: Beyond Travel Tropes with Faith Adiele

On the vital work of our stories.

Bani Amor
Bani Amor
June 26, 2017
Story hero image

Bookmarked is a series of interviews with women and nonbinary writers of color about their novels and memoirs of navigating lands, languages, and themselves—and most of all—about taking up space everywhere we go

Travel narratives tend to share a distinct vein of attending to an inner journey while the body moves through outer ones. They underscore the nature of travel and its ability to change a person and their life. It’s what sits at the heart of the project of memoir—the process of reflection. However all-encompassing this experience can be for travelers and writers of all stripes, travel memoirs in the hands of women and nonbinary writers of color in particular can be a revolutionary thing. While traditional story structures often fail to accommodate the ample stories of hyphenated people with “complicated” identities, it also provides an opportunity to complicate the project of memoir in new and exciting ways. It’s what Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun, calls a “superpower.” The memoir follows Faith from flunking out of Harvard to a maechi temple in Thailand, where Buddhist women live a devout life. The book traces her journey of becoming the country’s first Black Buddhist nun. But the book is so much more than what I can summarize here, so I talked to Faith about writing against the trope of Westerners seeking spiritual enlightenment in the East, finding relief abroad from the racialized binary of the US, and why teaching travel writing to people of color is such vital work.

The first thing folks who haven’t read your book would probably want to know is what prompted you to move to Thailand and become a nun?

Well, I certainly didn’t move to Thailand to become a nun! I moved to Thailand (or rather, ran away from America) to save my life, so the short answer is: Failure, baby! I had spent a year in Thailand as a high school exchange student, which helped save my life at that time, or to be specific, helped me cope with being a biracial nerd with a single mum in small-town America. So when I was crashing and burning at Harvard, some part of my reptilian brain knew that I’d be safe (i.e., outside the transatlantic black-white paradigm that was killing me not so softly) back in Thailand.

That’s interesting. A lot of travelers of color tend to leave the US and feel a relief; even though racism is everywhere, leaving the country may allow people the space to self-identify. Did you feel like you had a better understanding of yourself when you returned?

Yes, both times. The first time it was more about getting my sea legs as a solo traveler, what I was like on the road, and learning how Western my gaze was. Plus whatever teenage girls think they need to learn. The second time—the nun trip—was all about the identity journey. My entire self had crashed and burned doing battle with Harvard and America, so the ordination project was an attempt to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

You chose to live amongst the maechi of Northern Thailand, women who commit to a life of asceticismfasting, meditating for long hours, and being celibate. What initially piqued your interest in the maechi?

I think my curiosity was initially piqued out of spite. We were tasked with doing fieldwork (I was on a study abroad program, which is how I could afford to be there during my Year of Shame—Harvard probation), and a male American classmate had the brilliant idea of studying Thai monks and then ordaining at the end of his research. As a writer, I know a good story worth stealing when I hear it, so I immediately piped up, “I’m going to do the same thing, but with women!” All the Thais burst into laughter and spent the rest of the year telling me that “No one studies maechi“ and “Maechi: broken heart, broken home!” So of course I had to study them. I was also on a redemptive mission—both to regain my intellectual chops after flunking out of Harvard, and to interrupt this ridiculous “broken heart, broken home” nonsense.

Were there any tropes you actively wanted to avoid in writing a book about being a Westerner in the East? You said you were aware of this during your first trip to Thailand. Did you learn things that you applied to your second trip there?

Tropes to avoid . . . oh, so many! I wanted to avoid the Westerner Finds Enlightenment in the Inscrutable East trope of spiritual narrative; the Hero’s Journey trope, where landscape and natives are backdrop for the hero’s discovery of self. And of course, I’m always actively writing against the Tragic Mulatta trope (hand to cheek—alas, she doesn’t fit in the black or the white worlds!), which complicates the project of memoir, which requires us to offer up our vulnerabilities and failures. The final trope to avoid was that of Western anthropology, which my Thai advisor checked me on. He said that Westerners show up, look at brown people, go home, and write the story. He warned that I was asking a sociological question, and the maechi were responding in a spiritual language, which I didn’t speak. He gave me the best advice of my life: if I wanted to avoid the failure of anthropology, I had to risk something myself. That’s how I write travel and anthropology to this day—I have to have skin in the game.

That’s such good advice!

Right? And it’s why I decided to ordain.

Of the many factors that make Meeting Faith unique, blowing up the footnotes and setting them up in columns alongside the main text is def a game changer. What made you want to go in this nontraditional route?

Thanks, though they’re not footnotes. They’re my journal entries, snippets from Buddhist texts I was reading, charts and notes from when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to study the other maechi and turned the anthropologist’s eye on myself. The idea was gradual, organic, and took a village. Experimental poet/translator Jen Hofer (the first to read my transcribed journal entries) pointed out that she heard lots of voices in mine and encouraged me to find a structure that used polyphony as a strength. I realized that I wanted multiple access points for readers who might not be able to relate to Buddhism, for example. One of my teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stuart Dybek, advised me that you have to have a good, clear reason to make readers do extra work, and together we came up with the idea that the external journey would be in the middle (memoir), while the internal journal (meditation) would be in the margins. I realized that I wanted lots of white space to re-create the importance of breath. Book designer Shari DeGraw volunteered to design and letterset some sample chapters. It was her idea to research historic spiritual texts and she who came up with the idea of basing it on the structure of the Talmud. I realized that I wanted the page to be initially confusing so that the reader decides her path and has agency, in order to re-create the orientation of arrival and success of travel.

Did you feel like you really had to create your own kind of memoir, the type of which had not really existed before because of your identity, experience, and the work you were interested in doing?

Yes, definitely. I resigned myself to the fact that this is my project—I always have to reinvent the wheel I want. I’m always telling my students, clients, and mentees that for those of us who are multihyphenated, the story will determine the structure and form it wants.

It sounds like extra work for people who may not qualify as the “dominant narrator,” but it may also work as kind of an upper hand.

It’s a superpower!

Do you advise folks to use this to their project’s advantage?

Totally! One, I see POC and others trying to cram themselves into the old structures that don’t represent the way we view time, the multiple codes we speak, the shapes of our families and lives. I knew that one of the reasons I had ended up shattered in northern Thailand is the pressure I experienced at college to choose between being female (a white project) or black (a male project), which felt like a choice between my arm or my eye, so I certainly wasn’t going to let narrative rules do the same kind of damage.

What were your impressions of the travel writing world before publishing your book? And after?

I had been collecting travel books and anthologies by women and Black writers, but I’m not sure I was very aware of that world. I do remember being encouraged and welcomed as a fledgling baby writer by the folks at Travelers’ Tales and Seal Press, which were both doing women’s travel anthologies. I had a very successful travel writer colleague who said it took her five years of winning awards and pitching Condé Nast to get a glossy. Five years after the publication of Meeting Faith, when I moved to the Bay Area, I realized what a white boys’ club the travel writing industry was, and how proud white women were for cracking it. Now we have the new Black travel movement, which has its own issues, and a lot of exciting mostly digital—initiatives like On She Goes, Away, and Panorama.

You teach travel writing workshops for people of color. Why do you think this is vital work?

So vital! I think the VONA/Voices Travel Writing workshop for writers of color may be the first and only one of its kind in the country. VONA is always smart about seeing what’s next on the horizon—trying new genres, new approaches—and I shared their vision: that travel writing was a particularly colonized genre desperately in need of a full-frontal attack. Not only do we have to fight against the master travel narrative—an extension of the colonial project—and redefine the definition of travel, but we spend a lot of time educating POC about what travel literature is. Folks weren’t valuing their journeys as the stuff of literature, and they were letting the white gaze determine and define the world. As I always say, POC are the most traveled people on the planet; every time we leave our houses, we travel.

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

I’m finishing up my magnum opus—an epic, multigenre memoir about the search for home that tracks four generations of family over three continents. I just got back from the NonfictioNOW Conference in Iceland, and I’m heading to VONA for the travel writing workshop this weekend. Then it’s off to Finland for a month with my mum, where I’m attending a conference on Afro Europeans and reconnecting with cousins, [and] a quick detour to the Documenta art fest in Athens, Greece, for a gathering of Nigerian artists shaped by the Biafran War.