Essayist Joseph Pearson, author of “This Is Also Tangier,” talks to NER Editorial Panel member Elizabeth Kadetsky on writing as a foreigner in a post-Bowles and Beats Tangier, the creative process, and a “raging debate: who is allowed to speak about foreign places?”
Elizabeth Kadetsky: “This Is Also Tangier” is a wonderful travelogue, or anti-travelogue, that upends both the celebratory aspects of that genre and the work of traveler/writers to that place who came before—most notably Paul Bowles. To what extent were you consciously in conversation with the genre of travel writing and the works of travelers from earlier times in your essay?
Joseph Pearson: I recently reread Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), a classic of the travel genre, and also one of my favorite books. I say that even though I’m all too aware of the travelogue’s limitations. It’s frustrating to read travel prose that approaches foreign places as ciphers or symbols for an agenda, or that props the author up as an authority or judge. West traveled to the Balkans (she contemplated going to Finland instead) only because she anticipated the expansion of German hegemony in Europe in World War II, and anticipated that Yugoslavia would be a victim. The Balkans become a symbol of resistance, placed in the dramatic light of ancient battles against the Ottomans. I read for her poignant descriptions, when meeting people (an old woman who wanders around a rocky hillside in Crna Gora, looking for what has happened to her life) or visiting landscapes (the harbor of Rab island emerging from a cloud of myrtle and thyme and rosemary). But I always feel the weight of a single heavy filter.
In contrast, Paul Bowles’s travel writings—from Sri Lanka and South India, for example—as opposed to his novels and short stories, are remarkably self-critical (and critical of others!). He was well aware of the problem of uncharitable readers who “regard any objective description of things as they are today in an underdeveloped country as imperialist propaganda” or the risk that his views might be misconstrued as the “reactionary attitude of Americans toward oppressed peoples” (I’m quoting from his forward to Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, 1957).
I certainly accept that I will be criticized, but since who I am is inescapable I go ahead and write in any case. The onus is to remain open, observant, and absorbing of conflicting messages and ambiguities. I wonder why, so often, do authors—like West—try to nail the butterfly to the board? One problem might be that travel journalism has influenced more “literary” travel narratives. Authors need to merit the byline, argue their right to comment, and, as they certify through big claims and arguments, they risk reductionism.
I attempted in “This Is Also Tangier” to create a structure that would allow for different voices to express themselves, to provide more than one lens through which to observe the city. Perhaps this is what you mean by the “anti-travelogue.” I wouldn’t say that these perspectival shifts are an innovation in the genre. But I do think they are against a canon of narratives that claim to be authoritative. Nor do I pretend I have succeeded, but I have tried.
EK: You often use terms that suggest the liminality of Tangier, a border city of sorts, such as the Interzone, and “the other side.” Your essay also evokes parallel worlds, alternate realities, “through the looking glass,” as it were, and even the view of the city streets on the GPS. Was liminality—the sense of being in between, in transit, or otherwise destabilized—a part of your quest as a traveler to Tangier?
JP: I was admittedly fascinated by Tangier’s position in the literary imagination as an in-between place on the straits separating Europe and Africa. During the Interzone years (1924–1956), this city on the African continent was shared by three European powers, making it a confusing loophole of laws. It was a place where many English-speaking artists came, as an escape hatch from the conformity of America or Britain. It was a place that attracted queer travelers. I know many people, especially artists, who are still looking for that place—because of its geography or political status—where they can go, live out-of-context, cheaply, un-ruled, with liberties unavailable at home (in more recent memory, Berlin has served this function). Tangier became—in the writing of Bowles, Burroughs, and others who spent time there during this period—then a symbol, a place of transition that was outside authority. The Beats told this story about it, and I went there full of the hope that Tangier would still be “out of this world.” Maybe I hoped it remained an exit-strategy. A bridge between Europe and the “developing” world, but somehow standing far above both. I was wrong, of course. Tangier is just another place. It’s a fascinating port city open to many influences. Rather than being liminal, on the edge, it turns out to be quite central, to the traffic between North Africa and Iberia and France, and to the Atlantic. I think I play with this expectation for Tangier to be an “alternate reality” and then try to undermine and demystify it, by considering Tangier as just another, very compelling, place where people work and live.
EK: You wonder if Bowles needed “that constant jolt of being pulled out of oneself, of being the observer.” Since you live abroad and often write from the experience of the foreigner, I wondered if that in some way also described you.
JP: You are asking about the creative process here. If you are a traveler who visits a place for a short time, you get an initial strong jolt of impressions. It’s the most productive time for a travel writer. I try to harness that flood of perceptions when I travel somewhere. One should be wary of first impressions. But you shouldn’t ignore that you are a sponge soaking things up during the initial days in a place, before your body adjusts and begins to normalize the situation, make choices, and seek out coordinates. You see things in those first days that you might filter out later because they do not fit into pre-existing frameworks. This vividness is worth capturing in writing, and then revising once you settle into a place.
Bowles, of course, lived in Tangier for fifty-two years, and did not operate from first impressions. But I can imagine Tangier on a daily basis was still a place that offered many more surprises than, say, the French Riviera, which was also popular with expatriate artists in his time. But even there, if you are not French, one’s alterity provides friction. If you are attentive to those moments of friction—when a social practice surprises you, or when you are made to feel like you don’t fit in, or that you’ve made a mistake—then you are probably on to something worth exploring. This can become a generator of, hopefully, revealing prose. As for myself, I was born in Canada, but have lived abroad since I was sixteen, and have lived in a dozen places. For the past decade, I’ve been in Berlin. It is a city that is in flux and I change with it, as an outsider-insider; I find there’s no end of this kind of productive friction.
EK: Through your essay, the reader comes to understand the Beats, Bowles, and even the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri to have been exploitive, profiteering, and sometimes violent. There is a sort of lifting of the veil on literary icons. I recall a Facebook thread recently where a commentator was nearly eviscerated (virtually) for suggesting Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky as an exemplar of fiction writing from the vantage of a foreigner. In the #MeToo era, the sex tourism and other exploits of these writers are no longer looked upon romantically or even tolerantly. Is your essay in some way an expression of a traveler looking for a new way to engage or pursue beauty as an outsider in spite of one’s own ignorance and even desires? Are you interested in taking back Tangier from Bowles and the Beats? And yet, since those writers have made such an imprint on the city’s own self-conception (as your essay shows so well), is that even possible? How to resolve the paradox? Must we just shrug and chalk it up to the rapaciousness of colonialism and its irreversible after-effects?
JP: Yes, I try to put a harsh lamp on the sexual escapades of the Beats in Tangier, which are too often described as positive and liberating. Many of us have a reflex to celebrate queer identities in the era before Stonewall. But then we get into trouble when those actors, having escaped the vice of American puritanism, go abroad and act like cads, assuming positions of power because they are rich and Western, hiding sexual abuse under the cloak of the “bohemian.”
(Although I would nuance that the category of the “sex tourist” is a problematic one. How do we consider it in a dispassionate way, detached from, often unconscious, American moral and political categories? What of a gay man from Saudi Arabia coming to, say, Berlin to avail himself of what is illegal back home? And by what moral authority do we presuppose that prostitution under all circumstances is wrong? Certainly, the moral position by which to judge “sex tourism” is not monolithic. And we should avoid condescension, denying agency to those, from “non-Western” countries, who might practice it themselves.)
How then do we read Paul Bowles with a more critical stance given the Beats’ exploits abroad? Is it possible to continue to love Bowles’s writing, even if The Sheltering Sky has some of the most atrocious scenes of misogyny and North African caricature that I have ever seen in print? One could argue that Bowles treated everyone badly in his novels: men, women, expats, and locals alike. But Kit Moresby’s sexual enslavement to Belqassim in the desert, and her resulting Stockholm Syndrome, makes one think we need to revisit this misplaced romanticism. But there’s plenty that is objectionable in the history of artistic production. I don’t think we are required to stop listening to Mozart’s Magic Flute because Monastatos is a distillation of eighteenth-century racial hatred. In fact, we need to continue reading these Bowles texts critically—with their remarkable descriptions of the desert and evocation of the terror of existence—and not fear that we will be persuaded by every part of them. Doing otherwise would be a form of revisionist history, a loss of control of the literary past. With critical reading comes an opportunity: to move on and to add reflective voices to the story we tell about places that have so often been done a disservice.
EK: In her 2002 essay from Harper’s arguing for Bowles’s relevance as a post-9/11 author (“The Coldest Eye”), Francine Prose identifies Bowles’s subject as “the tragic, even fatal mistakes that Westerners so commonly make in their misguided and often presumptuous encounters with the mysteries of a foreign culture.” Do you have an updated take on that subject, or suggestions to other writers on how—or whether—to pursue that theme?
JP: I think we enter here a raging debate: who is allowed to speak about foreign places? Especially those places we call “non-Western” (a problematic, too-monolithic, category)?
I certainly feel like my voice has been deauthorized in the wake of the postcolonial experience. It is enlightening, even productive, to being taken down. And I am sympathetic to those who say we need to privilege local writers, allow authors from non-Western cultures to describe their own worlds. I see this as an important antithetical position to how Westerners—often ones who desire the East—have previously positioned themselves as authorities.
But I do not believe that coming to terms with the colonial tradition in literature can end here; there are a number of risks involved if we do not come to a synthetic position. One risk is to say that outside—and by this I mean critical and “Western”—voices are no longer useful. They exist and will continue to do so. People visit other places, they see them, and have ideas about them. Should they not be recorded and read if they are self-critical? I am not at all advancing the right-wing cause of the neglected, essentialized, “white voice,” in the context of foreign travel. But I was trained and still work as a cultural historian, and I do not exclude documents from my research just because they were written by foreigners: in fact, they can provide invaluable evidence precisely because they come from a foreign perspective. Shutting out the view from outside—including my view because I am a white man born in North America coming to North Africa—I think is absurd. I am sometimes tempted to claim a fellow-subaltern privilege to speak, by appealing to a non-gender-conformist queer identity. But I feel that’s somehow cheating, that I simply would be joining the choir of those who require permission first to voice an opinion.
There’s the other risk, which is to fetishize what constitutes an authentic local voice. It creates national(ist) categories, fictions of stable identities and essentializing ideas of what it means to be a culture, which has the bad aftertaste of something worse than provincialism. It ignores the global movement of people and voices in the era of mass communications, as if we still (or ever had?) neat compartments of belonging. It pretends conveniently that there is no variation, in our globalized neo-liberal market, between, say, a wealthy patrician Moroccan from Casablanca, and someone like Choukri who came from impoverished circumstances in the Rif. The former may well have more in common with her colleagues in Dubai and New York than a poor man from the mountains in her own city. I balk when I am told by entitled individuals from “non-Western” countries—who enjoy more corporate privilege in their home countries than I will ever know, who have inherited the mantle of the postcolonial structures, now perhaps live abroad, or work at private institutions—that they are more authorized to speak for the disenfranchised in their home countries than an outsider with more class consciousness and anger for social justice.
You ask for suggestions. Mine is that we should not be afraid to be curious, to learn, and to write about our experiences in unfamiliar places. In our increasingly fractious geopolitical reality, there’s an ever-greater need to have conversations across borders. We have an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves, as travelers, with many places already visited, but in a way that is, I hope, more humbled. We can visit having come through the sensitizing of the post-Saidean experience. Because in fact, the deauthorized voice—gutted, self-doubting, and guilty—is a textured and compelling one, more so than one that feels empowered.
Joseph Pearson is a writer and historian based in Berlin, and author of Berlin, his portrait of the German capital (Reaktion Press, 2018). Pearson is the essayist of the Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin, and also writes for the BBC and Newsweek.
Elizabeth Kadetsky serves on New England Review’s editorial panel for nonfiction and is the author of the novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (Nouvella Books, 2015), the story collection The Poison that Purifies You (C&R Press, 2014), and the memoir First There Is a Mountain (Little Brown, 2004).