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.
Folks say that there’s a time and a place for everything, but Paula Young Lee doesn’t give a fuck. The cultural historian, hunter, and author of Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat seems able to finesse a story out of every moment and thing she comes upon in the travels that make up the book. Its main storyline follows her from coming of age in rural New England to touring Europe as an adult and back to New England where she marries into a hunting family and develops a taste for game meat. She takes the common anthropological gaze of travel writing and turns it on the mundane, the random, and what is perceived to be the dominant in order to subvert it. In a genre grounded in a lay study of the “exotic,” she challenges the binary of what’s considered foreign and what’s considered normal, and illuminates everything from the karmic to the kormic (you’ll see) through her brilliantly bombastic gaze. In doing this, she reminds women and nonbinary writers of color that there are limitless ways to tell a story. Only you are qualified to tell yours, because how many other color-blind Korean American preacher’s kids with innumerable food allergies can tell you about how they left France to marry a Republican hunter in rural Maine who she met online? Yeah, didn’t think so. In this interview, she talks about defying literary labels, the science behind staring at turds, and how to write a travel book about going nowhere.
What is it that made you want to sit down and write this story?
This memoir is about a vexed idealist seeking utopia and wrestling with the unrealistic parameters of that longing. I was also working through this equally unrealistic desire to be a writer, coincident with the fact that I had met an American man online, by accident, while living in Paris, France. Mostly, what I had was a gut feeling that I had to follow that white rabbit. So I did and found myself in Paris, Maine, learning how to hunt for food. Using my romantic relationship as a lens, I wanted to write something that addressed the geopolitical and racial divides in this country before things got to the point where it all cracked up. With every passing week, that goal seems increasingly quixotic. I don’t call myself a vexed idealist for nothing.
This book dances so much from theme to theme, from religion (since you were raised in the church) to politics (since you married a Republican) to illness (since you have so many allergies), that it challenged my assumptions about genres. I’m wondering what Deer Hunting in Paris is to you: a memoir, a travel memoir, a food memoir, none or all of the above?
Inside a commodified landscape, everything has a niche. To ask the question, “Is your memoir about food or travel or what?” is to fundamentally ask the reverse: Who will want to read your book—food people or travel people or . . . ? It articulates a truth about the ecology of modern marketing, the pathways of the urbanized mind. The telling bit is that these refinements show how much our imagination has narrowed. Consider that you can use a car engine to cook lunch, a hair dryer to set plaster, and a pair of socks as hand warmers. We’re just trained to understand there are certain ways to think about the stuff in our lives. Similarly, we think that we’re exerting ownership over a thing when we buy it, when what we are really doing is reaffirming ourselves as consumers and consolidating identities through objects. Food and travel are quotidian vectors where the pleasures and pains of the global economy readily expose themselves. As subjects, they’re pre-chewed for social media, which is why everyone posts Snaps of their lunch and their day at the beach. But I think it’s fair to say that I, like this memoir, resist easy categorizations.
Consider that you can use a car engine to cook lunch, a hair dryer to set plaster, and a pair of socks as hand warmers. We’re just trained to understand there are certain ways to think about the stuff in our lives.
There’s humor and wit dripping off every page in your book. I personally ached with laughter when reading your descriptions of your younger self, like “a pudgy ball of rage stomping angrily on tabletops” and “a fat feral gnome surrounded by the aromas of love and yeast.” Was it important to you for it to be funny, or is being hilarious something you just can’t help?
In real life, I am not a comedian. But I do make people laugh.
It’s the ballad of the middle child. I’m not the pretty one (that’s my sister) or the smart one (that’s my brother), so I ended up being the annoying one. In real life, I am not a comedian. But I do make people laugh.
The narration honestly took me by surprise. There’s a lot of wandering into descriptive tangents and slowing down scenes that don’t necessarily illuminate the main plot (but are still satisfyingly weird). It reminded me a lot of old-school travelogues. Your work doesn’t always read this way, so is this an intentional play with structure, and if so, why?
So if life is a journey, as the old saw goes, some people rush to the end and then balk like a mule. I’m a meanderer, smelling the roses, staring at turds, and equally fascinated by both. There’s an entire branch of paleontology that studies fossilized turds, called coprolites (a good word that means “dung stones” and sounds like a cigarette brand), first identified as such by an 18th-century British woman named Mary Anning, who lacked the financial means to travel so she dug fossils up in her seaside town. She was a religious dissenter as well. This was a woman who was too adamant about her observations to be ridiculed into silence. I think that’s what I was trying to show, with my little digressions, that by not rushing to the end you discover real meaning about yourself and the planet we share. It also happens to be the way my mind works, seeing hidden links that speak to subconscious feelings that everything really is connected. We can’t escape the gravitational weight of history; at this point, even the air we breathe is a literal cultural artifact. The world is what we made of it. Nobody wants to talk about whether it is any good.
So if life is a journey, as the old saw goes, some people rush to the end and then balk like a mule. I’m a meanderer, smelling the roses, staring at turds, and equally fascinated by both.
Deer Hunting in Paris won the 2014 Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book. What do you think is significant about your book that it stands out from the rest as something wildly unique?
It satirizes bourgeois longing, where “going somewhere” is shorthand for “being someone.” By contrast, Deer Hunting in Paris is a story about going nowhere, about hunkering down in a parcel of land in rural Maine and seeing the world reflected there. Escapism is a powerful lure. Can you travel if you stay in one place? The very question is confusing, but for certain readers also hilarious.
When writing Deer Hunting, was it important for you to seek out writing by women of color as points of reference? Or were there any particular books that helped guide or influence you in writing Deer Hunting?
Writing-wise, the biggest influence on Deer Hunting in Paris was probably early treatises in natural history by Conrad Gessner and Athanasius Kircher, and classical sources such as the Odyssey, largely because I used to read them and wonder why women never got to make the Grand Journey. So today, I support writing that challenges the dialectics of power: presses such as Shade Mountain, run by Rosalie Morales Kearns; writers such as Vanessa Hua, Roxane Gay, Kirsten Koza, Jacqueline Woodson, Angie Thomas, and Nnedi Okorafor; social media voices such as Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth—and you, too, Bani, because you offer essential critiques of travel as an industry. As far as I am concerned, everybody eats, so every story is a food story. Everybody poops, too. We should talk about that more.