Imagine Otherwise: Amy Lam on Feminist Travel Writing

by | Jan 8, 2020

In episode 102 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews podcaster, travel writer, and journalist Amy Lam about the power of feminist podcasting, how histories of race and colonialism shape the ways different women of color approach leisure travel, how to write travel stories that ditch the cis white guy tropes for more political and accessible forms, and why drawing inspiration from her childhood dreams of a more just future is how Amy imagines otherwise.

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Guest: Amy Lam

Amy Lam is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon.

She is a contributing editor and cohost of the Backtalk podcast at Bitch Media, the editorial assistant at diaCRITICS, and the former editorial lead at On She Goes, which explores the world of women of color and travel.

Amy is a Kundiman fellow and received an MFA from the University of Mississippi where she was the John and Renee Grisham fellow. 

Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Tin House, Gay Mag, Pacifica Literary Review, Utne Reader, and Papercutter.

She is a former punk kid, who penned a long-running column in Razorcake, the only nonprofit music magazine in the US.  

Amy Lam wearing a denim jacket. Text reads: When I think about what kind of world I want, I think about how this world can be more equitable in a practical way and what everyday life could look like for everyone if we were treated in an equitable way in terms of accessing education, housing, employment, health care, environmental justice, and so many other things. Quote from Amy Lam on the Imagine Otherwise podcast

We chatted about

  • How Amy came to podcasting (1:47)
  • The practicalities of producing a cohosted, chat-based podcast (3:20)
  • The racial, colonial, and gender politics of travel (8:56)
  • Why travel writing is so damn white and cis-dude-centered and why that matters (11:30)
  • How travel shapes Amy’s approach to writing (13:32)
  • Infusing social justice activism into literary writing and journalism (15:36)
  • Imagining otherwise (0:00)

Takeaways

Podcasts as transnational community

I started listening to podcasts when I was living abroad. I was living in Bangladesh for awhile, working and living there. One of the ways that I connected with what was happening back at home was through listening to This American Life. This is back when the options for podcasts were really limited because there weren’t many people making them. I understood that they were a way to essentially listen to radio shows on demand. It’s just such a fun format and a great way to connect with listeners and to talk about bigger issues.

The practicalities of cohosting a podcast

It’s like with any working relationship where you want to be successful. We communicate a lot. Maybe we over-communicate! Maybe that’s a podcasting thing where we talk too much to each other. But I think it’s worked really well. We’ve been able to talk about things that interest both of us and fire us up as we’re speaking on [them]. It’s been really fun. We enjoy each other’s perspectives and we enjoy each what each other has to say about something.

Ethical travel

Often the people who have been doing the travel writing or setting the tone and boundaries of travel culture are people who have the means and resources to travel and to be paid to think and write about it. But now that travel writing and travel is more accessible, we’re getting new voices that are talking about what it means to move around the world and how to travel responsibly, how to be a good visitor, and our impact as travelers versus only thinking about how the travel experience will impact us.

Diaspora and the struggle for home

The overarching theme that I write about in my work is exploring what it means to be part of a diaspora, what it means to be displaced essentially, and trying to find home. I think that’s just something that I struggle with personally as a human being who exists in this world. And so my work often touches on that.

Imagining otherwise

I want to understand how things can happen on a practical level. So when I think about what kind of world I want, I think about how can this world be more equitable in a practical way and what everyday life could look like for everyone if we were treated in an equitable way in terms of accessing education, housing, employment, health care, environmental justice, and so many things. I’m trying to envision a place that we can all live in and be treated with respect and dignity.

More from Amy Lam

People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.

Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

Transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:23] This is episode 102 and my guest today is Amy Lam.

Amy is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. She is a contributing editor and cohost of the Backtalk podcast at Bitch Media and the editorial assistant at diaCRITICS. She is also the former editorial lead at On She Goes, which explores the world of women of color and travel.

Amy is a Kundiman fellow and received an MFA from the University of Mississippi where she was the John and Renee Grisham fellow. 

Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Tin House, Gay Mag, Pacifica Literary Review, Utne Reader, and Papercutter.

She is a former punk kid, who penned a long-running column in the nonprofit music magazine Razorcake.  

In our interview, Amy and I chat about the power of feminist podcasting, how histories of race and colonialism shape the ways different women of color approach leisure travel, how to write travel stories that ditch the cis white guy tropes for more political and accessible forms, and why drawing inspiration from her childhood dreams of a more just future is how Amy imagines otherwise.

[to Amy] Thanks so much for being with us today, Amy.

Amy Lam [01:31]: It’s my pleasure. I’m so excited to talk to you about everything.

Cathy [01:36]: Many of our listeners might know you as the cohost of Backtalk, one of Bitch Media’s really amazing podcasts. What got you interested in podcasting as a genre?

Amy [01:47]: I think mostly because I’m such a big fan of podcasts. I’ve been listening to them since iTunes had the option for it.

I started listening to podcasts when I was living abroad. I was living in Bangladesh for awhile, working and living there. One of the ways that I connected with what was happening back at home was through listening to This American Life. This is back when the options for podcasts were really limited because there weren’t many people making them. I understood that they were a way to essentially listen to radio shows on demand. It’s just such a fun format and a great way to connect with listeners and to talk about bigger issues.

[02:39] I also really love the format where it’s a chatty podcast. I love produced podcasts where there’s a lot of production value behind them and they’re telling a narrative story. But I also really love chatty podcasts where there’s two hosts talking. That’s one of the reasons why I really love doing Backtalk, especially with Dahlia Balcazar my cohost, where we get to hash out current events and pop culture news with each other. It’s engaging, I hope, for our listeners but mostly in a selfish way for me. I get to analyze and synthesize ideas in real time and break down things and to help myself understand bigger issues better.

Cathy [03:20]: I’m really curious about the cohosting relationship because this is something that has come up on a couple of episodes of this show. I’ve talked with folks who cohost podcasts: some of them cohost them with friends or colleagues, and some of them with partners, which brings a whole other dimension to it. How do you and Dahlia work out putting together the actual podcast? Are there certain things that one or both of you are responsible for or is it just “We need stuff to happen, somebody volunteer”?

Amy [03:53]: I’m so glad you brought up podcasts that are hosted by couples because I literally cannot imagine that. It seems like a big land mine. But for me and Dahlia, I think it really helps that we’re friends and we’re able to communicate or share ideas. We pitch to each other what we want to talk about.

I do want to take this time to say that like when we started podcast, it was between myself and my first cohost Sarah Mirk, who used to also be with Bitch Media. She used to be the online editor. With Sarah, her and I worked out the way we shared responsibilities and it just kinda carried over with Dahlia.

[04:39] It’s a show that comes out twice a month and we pitch ideas to each other about what we want to talk about. Then one or the other volunteers to do that segment. And then we just figure out what points we might want to talk about. I think a big secret for even chatty podcasts is that often we have a doc[ument] we’re working off of, where we have written notes for ourselves. We share that doc where we have notes about what points we are sure we want to speak on.

[05:20] One of the ways it works really is just that we talk to each other a lot off of the podcast and we try to figure out who does what. Then we work with our producer. We’ve had some amazing producers in the past and we’re also working with a great one now. We have to keep lines of communication open from before we record, during a recording, and post recording, because then we have to do edits to the track.

So it’s just, I guess, like with any working relationship where you want to be successful. We just communicate a lot. Maybe we over-communicate! Maybe that’s a podcasting thing where we just talk too much to each other. But I think it’s worked really well. We’ve been able to talk about things that interest both of us and fire us up as we’re speaking on [them]. It’s just been really fun. I think that’s probably another big part of it. So it’s that we just really enjoy it and we enjoy each other’s perspectives and we enjoy each what each other has to say about something.

Cathy [06:07]: Do you have favorite episodes?

Amy [06:09]: Oh, yes, I definitely do. Actually, we just did one about Facebook and how Mark Zuckerberg was just testifying in front of Congress. It was a really fun episode, which sounds weird to say because we talk about how horrible Facebook is and the impact it has had culturally and the responsibility that Mark Zuckerberg has had in it. Always remember the origins of Facebook and how it was a website that was invented and put together to rate other classmates based on their appearance. It was a really fun episode for me because I love it when Dahlia and I do research on a topic and then come together and present our research to each other and also crack each other up.

[07:04] So that was one I really enjoyed doing. And then maybe a couple months before that, we had a back-to-school episode where we talk about federal policies having to do with how we educate kids in school, in public school, and what’s types of policies shape our educations. [We also discussed] how our education then goes on to inform our world view.

[07:50] It’s kind of cheesy, but sometimes there are episodes where I’ll listen back and then be like, “I think we did a good job on this!” So that’s my metric for an episode I really enjoy. On my website at byamylam.com I have a podcast tab and I list some of my favorite episodes on there.

Those are ones where I feel like all of our ideas come together in a way that just works out really well and we’re able to communicate what we really want to say. To be frank, sometimes there are episodes where I feel like maybe we could have expressed our ideas in a more clear way or there were more ideas that we wanted to get in. But sometimes, when it just comes together so right. I do actually enjoy it and I think we did a good job.

Cathy [08:15]: I’d like to shift a little to your journalism, your writing, because I think it’s really interesting to hear how people talk about the collaborative work versus the solo work that they do and you’re such a fantastic example of this. You do these collaborative projects like the podcast, but you also write. As a journalist, as a writer, your work—well, you cover a billion topics. But one of the main themes that made me particularly curious was travel and the way that history, colonialism, race, gender, and all of these kinds of things shape the way that you approach travel and the way that you write about travel. So what, first of all, got you interested in travel?

Amy [08:56]: I think I was at first influenced by the time when I was living abroad. I lived in like the countryside, in rural China, for a year. I also lived in Bangladesh, as I mentioned. I was in Chittagong for a year and a half. At that time I really relied on travel writing to understand places that I was going. I wanted to understand what lens people were writing through and how my experience differed from what I was reading about.

So I think that sort of planted the seed for me, especially as somebody who grew up being raised to be fearful of traveling, if that makes sense. My parents were both refugees and so when I was being raised in the [United] States, they were very protective. I get where they were coming from because they had to move to a whole new country where they didn’t speak the language to raise a family. So they wanted to make sure that we were safe at all times

[09:55] I was very discouraged from stepping out of the bubble that my parents created for us so that they could watch over us. I remember when I moved to China, that was a big deal. My parents were very, very not supportive. But what could they do? I was an adult and I made that decision.

[10:37] I remember the first time that I traveled alone in China. It was not something I had planned on doing. It was just at the job I had, I had vacation and nobody else I knew had vacation at that time. So I was like, “Well, I guess I’m just going to go to Shanghai all by myself.” At that time, I definitely did not speak Chinese—Mandarin—very well. Even after I had been there for a year, my Mandarin was very still very rusty.

I think I wrote the train for like 20 something hours or, I forget, 12 hours. Having gone to Shanghai by myself and it was a good trip and there were no huge calamities and understanding that I was able to move in this way and understanding that I was perceived differently than the way travel writers talk about. Their experiences made me think, “Wow, how come I haven’t heard a perspective like mine in the wider travel writing culture?” So I think that kind of planted the seed for me.

[11:30] Then for awhile I was the editor for On She Goes. On She Goes used to be a platform for exploring the world of women of color and travel. When we think about travel writing, we inherently think about the mainstream way of travel writing and travel culture. And often the mainstream way of travel writing frames the visitor as being somebody who needs to be catered to. Like, how do you go there and take as many “experiences” as possible? Maybe we could push back on that.

I think that’s why the intersection of race, gender, colonialism, and travel culture has not been historically explored. Because often the people who have been doing the travel writing or setting the tone and boundaries of travel culture are people who often have the means and resources to travel and to be paid to think and write about it.

[12:19] But now that travel writing and travel is more accessible, I think we’re getting new voices that are talking about what it means to move around the world and how to travel responsibly, how to be a good visitor, and what is our impact as travelers versus only thinking about how the travel experience will impact us.

I think it’s just part of my growth as a person to think more, to be more empathetic about our impact when we show up at places. I think it’s important to think about because in our culture at large, travel is sort of seen as this inalienable right. It’s very aspirational, it’s like a flex when you do it on your Instagram. You like to show where you’ve been in the world. But I think that to be a responsible person or a responsible traveler, we have to think a little bit more deeply about our impact when we show up in other people’s homes essentially.

Cathy [13:17]: Have you found that your actual traveling has shaped your approach to writing or vice versa? Like are there lessons of the road (so to speak) that you found that you incorporate into how you actually go about writing?

Amy [13:32]: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think maybe in general it’s perhaps just to be more compassionate. I think when you travel and you are exposed and see how other people live, how other cultures treat certain things, or how other cultures live their day to day life, we understand that it’s like there’s a whole spectrum. It opens your eyes to different points of view.

Not just in my travel writing, but in my fiction writing and my essay writing, it just makes me sit down and clear my mind and think about the subjects that I’m writing about. I try to do this in an three-dimensional way, coming at it from 360 degrees. And to be more empathetic to[ward] the subject I’m writing about, to be more compassionate about it.

Of course, this is combined with having some really great mentors and instructors along the way who have taught me to think about writing as a compassionate exercise and as an art form of expressing empathy, like my mentor Kiese Laymon, who I studied with in my MFA program. He really opened my eyes to the power of the essay and how we can be more honest truth tellers in our storytelling.

Cathy [14:55]: I saw that you’re working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Do you want to give us a little bit of a glimpse into what those projects tackle?

Amy [15:04]: I’m superstitious talking about my work. I don’t know if you encounter that with other writers and artists, but I am kind of superstitious about this. But I think the overarching theme that I write about in my work is exploring what it means to be part of a diaspora, what it means to be displaced essentially, and trying to find home. I think that’s just something that I struggle with personally as a human being who exists in this world. And so my work often touches on that.

Cathy [15:36]: I’m curious how you see your work in these realms—in your podcasting, your novels and your short stories, and your journalism—how you see them combining your interests in academia, art and activism. How do these three realms come together for you?

Amy [15:53]: That’s such an interesting question because I don’t often actively think about it. It just shows up in my work and I think that it shows up in my work because—this is gonna sound cheesy—but those are the values that I hold and so it has to appear in my work in that way.

I’m glad you asked this because often with my fiction in particular, I think about how I sometimes really have to shoehorn in activist ideas or social justice ideas in the short story. Like why can’t I just write a short story about an ant, like a bug or ant going about her day, struggling to live in on the ant farm. But even my description of that, which I just came up with off the top of my head, I think of oh, this can be a story about class issues or somebody struggling to exist within a capitalistic world. I think it just it just comes from the framework that we’re working from.

I’m sure you encounter this when you talk to other artists where if it is values-based or based on somebody’s morals and how they want to express that externally, it just shows up in the work. That’s my goal. I hope that I’m doing it some semblance of justice. I think that it’s my responsibility as a person to create works that speak to me, first and foremost. And often the work that speaks to me has that angle. So that’s why I produce work that does intersect the world of expression and art while thinking about ideas that have to do with my own values.

Cathy [17:45]: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask, which really gets at those threads that tie all of your projects together. That’s the version of a better world that you’re working towards when you sit down to write, when you sit down to record a podcast, when you collaborate with folks, and when you do all the kinds of projects that you do in the world. So I’ll ask you this giant question that I also think is an important question. What kind of world do you want?

Amy [18:13]: Wow, that’s such a big question. When I think about this question, I think about me as a kid and what kind of world I wanted when I was a child. I think that the world that I wanted as a kid was a very idealistic, sort of utopic culture and society where everybody’s just very happy and gets to do what they want. I think essentially that is what a lot of us are fighting for in our work.

But of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more realistic. I think that if I was thinking about it in a practical way, I’ve become really hyperfocused on what like an equitable world can look like, in a nuts and bolts kind of way.

[19:01] I know that I’m a Virgo. I’m a Virgo sun [sign] and I understand what that means to be a Virgo. But I actually did not know that Virgo is an earth sign. I just learned that recently. Often people who are earth signs are very grounded and very practical and look at things in that way. As I was reading the description of earth signs, I was like, “That is me!”

I want to understand how things can happen on a practical level. So when I think about what kind of world I want, I think about how can this world be more equitable in a practical way and what everyday life could look like for everyone if we were treated in an equitable way in terms of accessing education, housing, employment, health care, environmental justice, and so many things. I’m trying to envision a place that we can all live in and be treated with respect and dignity, and can feel like we can all live in our own humanity and not be bothered for it, which seems like a very minimal thing to ask for. But I think for a lot of folks, that’s not true.

[20:09] That’s what I think about when I think about the world I want to live in, the world that I’m hoping that perhaps my art can contribute towards. I think that’s such a good question to ask. I really appreciate it because I think that when we think about our work as artists, we do have to always have this question in the back of our mind. Because we are creating something that we’re putting out there and in a way we are creating it to create some type of impact. It’s important to grapple with what the impact is, the impact we’re hoping for. So thank you so much for asking that question.

Cathy [20:52]: I love that question. I have to say, it’s the entire reason I started this podcast. It is the impetus behind it. It’s the foundation of it. It’s really just an excuse for me to ask really smart, creative people what kind of world they want.

Amy [21:06]: Thanks. I don’t know if I answered it fully, but I think it has to do with my Virgo brain. It’s like, this is what I’m hoping for. This is what I want to see. But I’m not a policy maker. I’m not an organizer. So these are things I’m hoping for. I don’t know how to practically put those things in motion except to just write stories write essays that explore humanity in general, and just hope that perhaps my work contributes in however small a way.

Cathy [21:41]: I think it absolutely does. Well, thank you so much for being with us, Amy, and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Amy [21:50]: Well, thank you so much for having me.

Cathy [21:56]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by me, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]

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