Guidebook to Relative Strangers – Camille T. Dungy

It’s officially December and I officially forgot to post this one last week and I’m officially not that sorry.

Another book marked off the 2018 reading list. This week’s selection was Camille T. Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers, a book I added to my list after reading a short review of it on one of the random book email lists I subscribe to.

Ten (or so) months later, here we are–I read the book.

And it’s beautiful.

It’s one of those books that I probably would not have picked up if I wasn’t trying to consume and understand as many travel books as I humanly could while editing my own book, but I am so incredibly glad that I did.

It’s not classified as a travel book, though there is far more traveling in this book than other books I have read that have their first classification as travel. (Not naming names.)

Instead, it’s a series of vignettes, many of which involve travel with the author’s young daughter. The subtitle on this book is “Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History” and that is… well, what it is.

I have to apologize real quick. I just finished this book about twenty minutes ago and still haven’t fully processed how much I love it and why.

In the middle of reading it, at a coffee shop with my husband, I looked up from the book and said something along the lines of, “Goddamn, this is so good, Greg. This is so amazing good you know damn just perfect and beautiful and good very.”

My husband, of course, used to me throwing words at him when I’m operating just off emotional highs of enjoying something, tried his best not to role his eyes at my sad attempts at English and went back to reading a New York Times article. (This is the summary of our relationship, folks.)

There is so much to take in while reading this book. Not just the thoughts and ideas she presents, many of which require a bit of unpacking, but the prose in which she presents them. You have to process one emotional layer of this great beauty, then another of the content.

Gungy herself, unlike some of the other travel book authors I read this year, was a great travel companion, someone I wanted to join on the road, someone I could see myself sitting in front of a fire with, drinking hot cocoa, curled up in our blankets, talking into the night, telling each other of our lives, our thoughts, our worries.

This is, of course, me projecting. I grew up in Los Angeles; I know people aren’t necessarily who they appear to be, on screen or in books. I hope she is just as she presents, though. That would be nice.

Other thoughts: reading this, when it touches on Traveling While Black, reminded me of Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. I had barely thought of the difference in interstate travel experience myself and someone of color (whatever color that is). I had hoped, before this would Trump debacle, that people had gotten over… everything. That they had realized that–whatever physical characteristics a person had–actions, morals, values, thoughts, personality, interests, etc mattered more than anything else.

Naive of me.

I didn’t realize how much until 2016. I thought everyone was trying to be better. And I wasn’t right about that. Not remotely.

Anyhow, I brought up Lovecraft Country not because Dungy’s book reminded me of white tentacle-themed cults in America, but because the central family in the book (set in the mid 1900s) is an African American family who runs a travel agency/publishing house to provide information to other African Americans who wish to travel safely around the country. And, hopelessly naive person that I am, was like, “Oh. Oh, that’s was a thing back then.” Mentioned it to one of my friends, who is Muslim, African American, queer, and poly and she looked at me and was like, “Honey, it’s a thing now.”

Now I’m looking at American travel narratives and realizing that, for all my research, I haven’t found one written by a black person, male or female, save for this one. And I don’t know if that’s because they don’t exist, because they’re not getting picked up or represented properly, or, because of my privilege, I never thought to look for them.

Which means I need to start looking. It’s unacceptable to have an American travel reading list with only one non-white person on it.

Anyhow, the book was fantastic. Buy it, read it, and love it.

So you can understand the beauty of this book, here are some quotes. You’re welcome.

“I want to say aloe and agave, not just cactus, which would, anyway, be imprecise. I notice, now more than ever, what I don’t know, and what I want to know, and what I want to share with you, Callie Violet. I want to name the world correctly. One day this will be your language, and I will have been the first to present it to you.”

“Hers was the small body insider her mother’s body. She might not yet have even been conceived. This is how history eclipses all reality. My grandmother, who could not help but relive this trauma, was also as far away from everything I am writing as you and me.”

Roustabout is one of the words used to describe Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie, which meant they worked for the John Robinson Circus as cooks and physical laborers. Consider outlandish: people–originally black people–who come from other places and bring with them “outlandish” ways of moving through the world. Consider hippie: in the Senegambian language known as Wolof, ‘hippi’–from which we get the terms hip, hippie, and hipster–means to open one’s eyes. And also to be sold downriver: a phrase that originally referred to the sale of enslaved human beings to more treacherous destinations along the Mississippi River basin. Words with derogatory shading–like roustabout–are often words that were associated with black bodies as they moved through America.”

“Nine months before were were pulled over, unarmed twenty-four-year-old Jonathan Ferrell endured and died from ten gunshot wounds when he approached police officers while seeking help after a car accident. Moses Wilson, one of the jurors who sought a murder conviction for the police officer who shot Ferrell, said after the trial, ‘It became not what he did, or what they did to him, but more, what he didn’t do, what he should have known what to do, so that the police would not either beat him silly or shoot him.’ These are some of the reasons that Sean’s hands remained on the dashboard when we were pulled over.”

“I didn’t want to slip into the kind of oblivion I visualized when I imagined women who stopped doing the things they’d previously done because they’d had a baby. I’d not yet been called to reassess my opinions about the changes motherhood demands of women. I wanted to remain the sort of woman who taught at a university, wrote books, and accepted invitations to speak about those books.”

“I used poetry to understand the people who are near to me. I live a writer’s life and hope to change the world one person at a time. I write in the dark, groping and unsure, but heeding instincts I’ve been learning to guide. Something in me needs to believe no one is looking, so I can take the risks I need to take to make the writing come out right.”

“When I pray for traveling mercies, I am praying for moments like these.”

“If memory is home, I am a long way from hope. I have escaped and am running. I have to remember what has been said: I am black and female; no place is for my pleasure. How do I write about the land and my place in it without these memories: the runaway with the hounds at her heels; the complaint of the poplar at the man-cry of its load; land a thing to work but not to own? How do I write about the land and my place in it without remembering, without shaping my words around, the history I belong to, the history that belongs to me?”

“I had no interest in reliving history, through memory of experience. Campfires and bonfires represented a conflation between the natural world and the human. The wood in those piles was innocent and yet acted out a role. Because I was afraid of what humans had done to other humans in those woods and on those tree-provided fires, I’d come to fear the forests and the trees.”

“Try as I might to lose myself to something larger, I’m always reminded of the boundaries of the body: we are bound by gender; we are bound by appearance; we are bound by race. These are ways human history cross-pollinates all my interactions.”