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.
The travel books that have always lined the bookshelves in my home dance between place and language. The women and gender-nonconforming writers of color explore quests for homes while wrestling with both otherness and belonging in these novels—travel and movement always seemed central to the experience of being a woman of color. People who look like us are often relegated to the backdrops of travel narratives as smiling spiritual guides on the white woman’s journey, or as nameless bodies warming the beds of the heroic, white, male adventurer, which makes taking up space in travel writing a radical act for women and gender-nonconforming folks of color. This series will speak to 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.
When I think of travel narratives authored by women and gender-nonconforming folks of color today that complicate, challenge, and reclaim the genre all at once, Nia Hampton’s Cicatrizes is the first to come to mind. The multimedia e-book which was self-published last year is a book of its time. It follows Nia on a nonlinear inner and outer journey from Baltimore, Maryland, to Salvador, Brazil, at the height of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising, as a protest against the death of Freddie Gray. In the book, she contends with past traumas and lost loves, and muses on the shared (and differing) experiences of people of the African diaspora. I talked to Nia about the whys and hows of making Cicatrizes as well as publishing, police brutality, and travel writing.
What prompted you to write Cicatrizes and why did you choose to self-publish it?
I started self-publishing because I was hungry and broke and tired of asking people for money. A lot of my Facebook friends were amazed that I decided to “just leave” Baltimore for Brazil after I graduated college, so I knew I had an audience. The first e-book I published was titled Hungry and it was full of poetry I had written throughout college and high school. I sold about 200 copies online. I’m not sure how many I’ve sold of Cicatrizes, but it was highly publicized.
There are so many stories in the world that you have no idea of because they don’t align with the dominant culture.
I self-published because it’s quick and I didn’t have a choice since publishing is a very hard world to get into as a young Black woman. I also don’t see many women who look like me publicized for traveling in general. I’m an artist and a millennial and you know we are obsessed with documenting ourselves, but with good reason. There are so many stories in the world that you have no idea of because they don’t align with the dominant culture. I see my travel memoirs as proof that these other realities and narratives exist. Ever since learning about the transatlantic slave trade I was obsessed with knowing what the day-to-day lives of these people who were born in one country and ended up in another was like. And as Brazil has the majority of the enslaved people, it felt only right to start here.
You mentioned the urge to “just leave” Baltimore for Brazil. Why? What was the catalyst and what did leaving look like?
Success and survival meant leaving my predominantly Black neighborhood. Mainstream media told me and many of my well-to-do peers that we had to leave where we were from to succeed. I now know that was bullshit and I’m dealing with gentrifying white people telling me how amazing my city is now that I’ve left. The catalyst was graduating college and just being bored with a city I spent 21 years in. I was always obsessed with Brazil in regards to the shared history of slavery and being a predominantly Black nation. Leaving looked like downloading Google Translate and Duolingo, posting in Nomadness Travel Tribe on Facebook, and telling people about my plans mainly after I’d already bought my ticket.
How would you describe Cicatrizes and what do you think folks might get out of the experience of reading it?
I would describe Cicatrizes as an offering. I put some stories and photos together in the hopes that it would encourage people to scratch that itch or buy that ticket, set off for the adventure they’ve either always dreamed of or maybe feeling like life is pushing them towards. It’s a book of poetry, prose, essays, pictures, and even a spell. It’s something whimsical at times and unbearably heavy at other times. It’s an experience, really, of what moving to Salvador from Baltimore was like for me as a young Black girl.
The nontraditional structure of Cicatrizes is refreshing and seems to complement the nature of the text—multilayered, vast, and complex. There’s poetry, prayer, prose, recipes, and photography. How do you think this structure informs how the book is read?
I wanted to give people the experience I was having as much as possible. I’m an aspiring filmmaker, and I’m always dabbling in mediums; if I had more resources, Cicatrizes would have featured audio and visual clips as well. Traveling is such a sensory experience; because you’re in a new place, all of your senses are almost over-functioning. Really, I wanted the reader to understand my journey as thoroughly as possible.
There’s a running thread of police execution of Black people in this book, from Baltimore to Brazil. What was it like to travel to a different hemisphere and deal with the same issues as back home?
It was sadly comforting and triggering. I was just talking to a friend about this. How being from Baltimore makes you equipped to live anywhere in the world because you learn early how to navigate poverty and the violence that comes with it. You learn how to hustle, how to move in spaces that may seem unsafe to others but normal to you. The flavor might be different, but it’s the same thing. Poverty and oppression and racism have all manifested itself similarly in the Americas. It’s like there’s a handbook written on how to stifle and oppress the descendants of enslaved Africans. And the police of the world follow it.
Were you familiar with travel narratives written by women of color before you wrote Cicatrizes? If so, did you relate to them, and if not, what do you think that says about the travel writing genre?
While I was publishing my first e-book, which is more poetry than travel, I started reading Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography and it really inspired me. I knew she was a writer but I had no idea how nomadic she was. She was really committed to her work and to her journey, and I found that incredibly inspiring. The lack of published travel memoirs by women of color is disheartening but not surprising. Travel is an incredibly powerful and political act. Certain narratives have to exist in order to maintain a status quo. That’s why there are laws in states to allow certain people the freedom to move around while withholding that from others. Also, travel writing as we know it is inherently racist, so we have a lot of work to do if we’re going to see any real changes to the genre in our lifetime. I’m optimistic about it though, and there a lot of women in the world on really interesting journeys that we could all benefit from knowing about.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m currently editing my third e-book, titled What to Do with All This Freedom. It features bilingual poetry and you can buy your pre-order at niahampton.com. You can also follow my travel adventures at glowingpain.com and @_glowingpain on Instagram.