#WITS15 Reflections: An Invitation to Re-vise

The room was freezing, and then it was boiling. First, we bundled into our scarves and coats, brought with us inside from the cold Boston morning air, and then, we peeled off all the layers again. In a room of glaring fluorescent lighting, silver water pitchers atop white tableclothed tables, and notoriously bad hotel carpeting, no one seemed to be able to decide how many clothes they wanted to wear.

The malfunctioning of the air conditioner, though it might be the first thing I remember when I think about this week’s Women in Travel Summit, is certainly not the most important detail of my four days in Boston, although it does have meaning for me. The cold and heat of the room, that wave of heat passing over us from above, encouraging us to shed our coats, scarves, and mittens, marked a metaphorical shedding for me, too.

This is because I was the one standing in the front of the room, my computer propped up on the podium, a microphone angled toward my face. At the moment the heat clicked on and the stale warm air started drifting down onto our shoulders, I started my presentation, asking the 35 women before me to let their guards down and to be open to the possibility of revision. I talked about Adrienne Rich’s lovely and powerful essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” the very first essay I was ever introduced to in graduate school and the first essay I ever taught to students, and I talked about the importance of honoring our work, rather than just typing it out and hitting the publish button. To all 35 sets of eyes, many with incredibly diverse and worldly experiences, I talked about integrity and how and why, as women, our stories matter.

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It’s not the first time I’ve said this: I tell my students at the University of Arizona this every semester: that revision, the art of seeing something with fresh eyes, of seeking to revisit and old tale, an unsavory sentence, a tired image, is an incredibly powerful tool. Revision (or as we like to write it, re-vision) wields power; and having power allows our writing to flourish, and to matter to someone other than ourselves. Our audiences require at least this from us.

But don’t let that fool you: I was so, so very nervous, not because I haven’t gotten up a million times in front of my students every semester to help walk them through their own writing projects, but because this was the first time that I was bringing my teaching self into my travel writing world. The two have been disconnected for so long–as if one morning I’m a nice, put-together writing instructor in a pencil skirt and black pumps and the next evening I’m in jeans and a backpack, jetsetting to some faraway destination with business cards that say nothing about my being a teacher anywhere on them. When I proposed the workshop to the planning committee of WITS, I wondered if maybe I didn’t have enough experience, if maybe I didn’t have a big enough following (if maybe my shuddering at the word “following” was indicative enough that I wasn’t qualified to talk about creating better stories that would attract more pageviews and more shares on Facebook….), if maybe people would look at me and see a creative writer who has a degree but who’s only published travel writing, journalism, and a couple of photographs here and there. I wondered if maybe I was still too young to have anything decent to say about writing craft. But I hit the “send” button anyway, my application drifting off into cyberspace, and I put the whole business out of my mind for a couple of months until I received an email from Beth Santos, the CEO and founder of WITS, that I’d been invited to Boston.

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It’s a complicated space to be, to say the least, between responsible teacher and wanderlusting writer. However, there is power now, I realize, in merging these identities. By the end of our hour together, I was literally floored by what happened between the women and me. The women hadn’t gone the direction I’d originally thought, revising an existing blog post, maybe rewriting a tired scene or rethinking another way to write a “list post;” instead, they were in the process of daring themselves to start telling stories they’d always wanted to write about but never had the courage or the safe space to do.

Stories of the nervousness of admitting to her parents that she sold her eggs to travel, of healing from being attacked from behind by an assaulter on a quiet street, not far from home, of learning from the Eritreans what being the n-word meant in other context, of working with Ugandan mothers and feeling torn between photographing them and creating poverty porn….

This was not exactly what I had expected, and I nearly teared up at the end of the presentation when a few women came up to me and asked me if I could take a look at their work and let them know what I thought. One said I should start a business coaching aspiring bloggers on the art of storytelling, and another told me lots of women in the room had been tweeting lessons they were learning.

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My heart leapt. Me, the little girl who’d been scribbling in her little pink journal when she was five years old, now a woman, sharing a kind of expertise in a field she’s loved since that first step she took off the airplane in Madrid ten years ago as a college student. Ever since that moment, and the outpouring of writing that came from that experience, I’ve wanted this. And here I was.

The rest of the weekend, too, kept my heart full and hopeful that travel writing can be ethical, feminist, and worthy—all the adverbs I always pair with a genre of writing and blogging that is not always valued or considered important.

As I fly back to Tucson, where I will jump back into my pencil skirt and heels for tomorrow’s technical writing class, I come back with a renewed sense of who I am, who I wish to be, and how I hope to live my life. As a call-to-action, I encourage all of us to look deeply, passionately, and lovingly at what we do and how we do it, and re-vise, re-vise, re-vise.

And maybe eat a Mike’s Pastry cannoli in-between.

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Yours in travel,

Kristin

PS. Sadly, my smartphone doesn’t perform all that well in low light, so take these Instagram pics I’m including here with a grain of salt. 🙂

PPS. If you’d like a copy of my presentation script and accompanying worksheet, you can get them on Scribd.com for free!
 
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Dispatches from Boston’s Chinatown

DSC_0835I recently read a story about the first Subway opening up in one of North America’s Chinatowns. Despite the overlooked fact that a Subway had crept in to an otherwise corporate-free ethnic enclave, the interesting thing was that nobody knew how to translate it. It couldn’t be the actual word for Subway, because no Mandarin speaker would have any idea why a sandwich shop was named after a mode of public transportation. There is no such translatable idea of a “sub sandwich” in Mandarin.

So what did they do?

They went with something much more beautiful: they chose three characters that, when put together, mean “better than hundred tastes.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about that yesterday when I went to visit Chinatown in Boston.

These towns of China, these glorious microcosms of Chinese food and shopping, have always been a source of curiosity for me. For one, there are a lot of Chinatowns across North America (except, sadly, for Tucson, which could really benefit from an influx of decent Asian fare, and not the trendy, DIY, “roll your own sushi” place by the university or the unfortunately-named FuKu Sushi on University Ave). Secondly, I always find myself inexplicably drawn to Chinatowns for some reason or another, aching to try the juicy pork dumplings or the fried noodles, eager to find a place that serves food like it’s supposed to be, even though deep down I know even that’s a meaningless statement in itself. Food like it’s supposed to be….food is malleable as it migrates, just like people.

To be honest, I think it’s the general sense of awe and curiosity of stepping into a place that’s meant to mimic another place while still holding on to bits of the first place that strikes me so evocatively about Chinatowns. These places, too, are often the result of difficult migrations themselves, poverty, an aching for community, blue-collar labor, and sometimes, even red light districts. They are contact zones in and of themselves, simultaneously serving as relics of the past and examples of modern globalization.

Boston’s Chinatown is no different. As I walked through it in the pouring rain yesterday, hoping to find a hot cup of tea and a warm bowl of soup, I started thinking about these mini “towns” and what the represent, both geographically and culturally. Historically, Chinatowns popped up in tandem with waves of Chinese migration, to both ease the transition into life in a new country and to preserve a sense of community that might have otherwise gotten lost. Though many Chinatowns no longer specifically function as enclaves for Chinese immigrants and have been infiltrated by tourists and city locals, there’s still something fascinating about these replica spaces.

For instance, here’s a photo of a woman eating her lunch in the Dumpling Cafe, a little soup and dumpling shop right around the corner from the hostel where I’m staying for the weekend.

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Presumably from China based on her rapid Mandarin and her ability to navigate the menu like a pro, she’s not doing anything that unusual–after all, she’s just eating and catching up with an old friend or business associate on the phone, right?–but there’s something very, well, Chinatown about it. A woman eating a spicy bowl of soup that may or may not remind her of home, a smartphone, a conversation in Mandarin, equal amounts of white and Asian customers skirting by in the background–these are all images I see when I close my eyes and I think about the busy, chaotic, weird life we live in modernity.

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I also noticed the plate setting in front of me, lemon tea, a plate unusued, plastic utensils stacked on top of each other, a menu written in two languages. Another example.

From the window, there’s a McDonald’s, infamous in its two yellow half-moons, its logo placed next to Chinese characters that curiously seem to be the translation of the word. From my research, I now know that the orthography for McDonald’s in Chinese is essentially meaningless, a transliteration of the English word’s pronunciation, but when I saw this yesterday, I couldn’t help but think how strange it was to see such an American icon–yellow against its bright-red background–next to a set of Chinese symbols that are otherwise meaningless.

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Or this, a wrapped door calling out to shoppers of 3-D Pictures (what are those?!), Luggages, a cold Coca-Cola, DVD movies, and a drowned out “Push” sign. Elements on the spectrum, some words translated, some not.

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My sojourn through Boston’s Chinatown wasn’t long, and I was too cold to really spend any good amount of time there (yes, I’m pathetic when it comes to below-freezing temperatures, even when bundled up), but when I turned the corner and went back to the hostel to warm up, I had so much more to think about than just soup.

Chinatown is centered on Beach Street in downtown Boston. It borders Boston Common and is easily accessible by the MBTA’s Orange Line.

Yours in travel,

Kristin

All images copyrighted by Kristin Winet, 2015.

In the Rare Book Room at the Royal B.C. Museum

Located deep in the collections of a Canadian museum is a tiny book. Its corners are frayed, its spine cracked, its cover is worn…..

This is how I started my recent article for Atlas Obscura about Captain Cook’s very rare fabric books from his last voyage. I was on assignment with Tourism Victoria and took about a thousand photos of this incredibly rare, inextricably colonizing and yet gentle book of fabric swatches and descriptions from the many people Cook met on the last voyage he took before he was killed. Chilling, really, to see a book like that up close….but so much fun to photograph.

We didn’t get to use all of my photos in the article, though, so I thought I’d include some photos here of the actual process of going through the book–lots of nitrate gloves, careful handling, and a smiling docent at the end 🙂 If you’re intrigued and want to learn more about this tiny gem, grab a cup of tea, settle in, and take a peek at my Objects of Intrigue piece on Atlas Obscura.

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A special thanks to Tourism Victoria and the Royal B. C. Museum for helping me plan this unforgettable one-day voyage to Victoria.