Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Outsider's Viewpoint

Steve Paulsen (interviewer): Your book, Big Trips: More Good Gay Travel Writing, is your second anthology of gay travel writing. What does gathering together gay voices add to the classic travel narrative?

Rafael Kadushin: I think travel writing is a quintessentially gay genre. If you look even at the history of travel writing, so many of our best travel writers—even if they were closeted people like Bruce Chatwin, and Jan Morris, and Christopher Isherwood again—were gay. And I think that’s not an accident. Gay people are always a foreigner even in there own land, even in their own home. And that’s true even today. Even, you know, as things evolve. I think gay kids grow up learning to be almost natural ethnographers, in the sense that they really have to read their own culture very closely—to be safe, to really protect themselves. So they become very savvy, very smart, at reading the culture the way a traveler or an anthropologist would. So that really I think they develop almost a second sense, this real talent which the travel writer and the good traveler needs. You know, that sense of detachment, of objectivity, of really being sensitive to what defines a culture, and how to read a culture, and what is unique about a culture.

—from the Public Radio International program To the Best of Our Knowledge, the “Travel” episode, aired 27 June 2010

This very insightful comment brings home to me how, ever since my graduate study years, I was always focused on the insider/outsider interface: on the Other. Mr. Kadushin’s comments about being the other, being a natural ethnographer in one’s own culture, becoming an objective observer—these all ring true to my own experience. If I were to be simplistic, this could also account for my own studies in anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology—if I were being simplistic.

In fact, my interest in foreignness, in other cultures and their arts, is just as likely to be rooted in my childhood experience of having grown up in India. I was an ethnographic fieldworker from a very young age, no more strongly than when our family returned from India and I was unceremoniously plopped into American elementary school.

“Coming home” was the most traumatic, dislocating experience of my young life. We came home to the USA from India, taking all summer to do it, arriving in the month of August. For many years in my life, the month of August often had problems for me, perhaps in echo of that young trauma.

Coming home was a crash course in observing a foreign culture, as I had literally nothing in common with my new schoolmates—theoretically we had the American-English language in common, but even that had its pitfalls—I had never seen TV or listened to pop music on the radio. I knew nothing about the culture into which I had “returned,” and that culture had no clue about how my early childhood living in South Asia had affected me. Let’s call it mutual fieldwork. It took me many years to feel like I fit in.

Actually, I never fully felt that way. I was always an insider/outsider in most situations; I only fit in certain small groups of like-minded outsiders. Small groups of other global nomads, or small groups of Radical Faeries, or other categories of small groups. I’m never more than a provisional insider. This has marked me for life.

But as Kadushin says, it has also given me insight, and the ability to step outside a situation and look at it both objectively and from angles at the same time. I can be detached when others cannot. in emergency situations, I discovered by accident some years ago, I keep my wits about me while others crumble. (Of course, later on, when it’s all over, I tend to have a nervous breakdown. It’s just that I seem to wait till everyone’s taken care of, before I collapse into a puddle of quivering goo myself.)