Stamped: an anti-travel novel by Kawika Guillermo
Westphalia Press, 2018
346 pages / Westphalia
Just a few weeks ago, I left China after spending almost a year in Chengdu, Sichuan. Going back to America was nothing new. I had been visiting China semi-regularly since age five and had previously lived in the country in 2014 and 2015. This time, however, felt different. I was going back home to start a Ph.D. program, one which would likely keep me marooned in intellectual limbo for five or six years at least. This latest departure felt, in other words, like the actual end of something.
Luckily, all my possible feelings were exhausted by the tediousness of moving. I cleaned out my apartment and sold what I could (everyone jockeyed for the air filters and the water kettle, less so the bedding and the mugs). I paid the landlady in Shanghai over WeChat and settled my tab at the utilities office downstairs where the most passive aggressive men in China work—478 yuan a month for electric is a helluva lot of air-conditioning, their eyes are always saying. I swept floors and packed bags. I said sorry to all the plants I had to leave behind.
During the last week, rain fell in torrents on Chengdu. I found one day that I had said all the required goodbyes—to my grandparents, my cousin, my friends who made it in for last call. All that remained was the actual leaving, the part where you stand outside the room which is no longer yours; the part where you try taking a mental snapshot of the view before heading down past the hot pots and the fruit stands and the Royal Respect Men’s Spa with its ridiculous gilt façade; the part where your boyfriend hails a taxi, and the taxi takes you and all your bags to a train, and the train takes you to another city, and the other city takes you to an airplane, and the airplane, as it should, takes you away.
Stamped: An Anti-Travel Novel by Kawika Guillermo is, as its subtitle suggests, a book which wants to dispel every sweet, uncritical thought you ever had about traveling. It is also decidedly weird, written in a maximalist style that doesn’t really care if you like it or not. Through a riotous mix of chatlogs, blog posts, and geotagged stories, the book pushes its readers to consider how long is too long when it comes to travel. And if one does stop—checking out of the hostel, boarding the flight, gathering his flayed wits and getting the hell out of dodge—what is it, if anything, that the traveler takes away from his trip? What has travel gained him, or let him forget, disavow, leave behind?
Guillermo’s novel follows a group of Americans as they flit, separately and together, through Hong Kong and Seoul, Penang and Hanoi, Vientiane and Singapore, Jakarta and Goa. They are, as a group, “feverishly ambulant” and frequently sloshed. Their linchpin is Skyler Faralan, a racially ambiguous, genderqueer backpacker who seems to treat travel as a means of self-immolation. (Early in the novel, Skyler burns his bridges with his family and ex-girlfriend back in the states; when they attempt rapprochement, his answer is an emphatic “fuck you all.”) In Phnom Penh, Skyler meets Sophea, a tough-talking daughter of Cambodian refugees who badgers him into volunteering at a local NGO (a somewhat listless operation dedicated to the collection of illegal munitions). On the night that they first meet, Sophea confides in Skyler that she never wants to return to the U.S., and that she doubts he ever could as well. She tells him:
Most travelers can be separated into three groups… Sexpats, drugpats, and ecopats. Then there’s a fourth group. The people who were rejected from their country, and everywhere they go too. They can’t stop moving, rejecting every city before it can reject them. You and I, we know where we fall.
Most of Stamped’s characters, even the white ones, claim membership in this fourth group. They identity as a tribe of drifters, as hyphenated and split as the book’s geographies. Even if the novel’s first section is called “Flaneurs,” few of the characters actually resemble Baudelaire’s vision of the “passionate spectator.” They are too wasted or too unaware to stand aloof from the scene, coolly jotting notes, and besides, objectivity is a game they have no interest in, preferring to spin out on their own private non-trajectories—smuggling drugs, shopping at malls, having run-ins with the cops. When together, the travelers drink, talk shit, and fuck strangers, a ritual recreated night after night at bars called Soi Cowboy and Monkey Jane’s (the precise bar or city or even country doesn’t really matter). It’s the kind of months-long bender that many westerners who have backpacked in Asia probably remember with fondness, a never-ending parade of expat bars and hotel quickies that Guillermo’s characters seem trapped inside, filled with the “herded pressure of a heart promising to explode.”
What protrudes from the madness is the ever-vexing question of identity. The travelers are aware that who they are or, more importantly, who they appear to be shapes how they travel. A lily-white schmuck from Seattle whom Skyler dismisses as an LBJ (“loser-back-home”) is transformed in Asia into a hypermasculine, oversexed bro. Donning a suit, this man can attend business meetings where he is paid to smile and give legitimacy to a venture simply by showing up looking the way he does. As for the book’s non-white characters, leaving America for Asia means setting their race cards to “wild.” Where once they felt singled out for their difference, they are now empowered to choose; sliding in and out of an identity becomes as easy as changing cities or swapping outfits. While traveling, these characters often obscure their national origins, even if they remain all too aware of the country they have left, its military spoils and tentacled reach.
To its credit, the book offers few if any resolutions—the white characters are not carefully rehabilitated, and the non-white characters remain unhealed, their yellow and brown pieces scattered all over the map. Indeed, Guillermo’s outlook on travel seems almost nihilistic. People come and go. Wherever they are, whether it is a beach in Bali or a club in Busan, they act with whatever latitude their privileges afford, chasing their own ends, both figuratively and literally.
When I first moved to Asia in 2014, I read many books of fiction and nonfiction which I hoped would educate me about travel, China, and perhaps even my own split, Chinese-American life. Many of these books were subtly evangelical about travel and its virtues. The narrators’ time abroad was often difficult, but never less than significant, life-changing even. Locals and foreigners alike were described in analytical, sympathetic terms. Historical context was key, that and an overarching sense of adventure, of the journeyer challenged and enriched by his grand allegory of the road, his crucible of the exotic.
With Stamped, Guillermo–whose family has roots in Hawaii, China, the Philippines, etc.–is writing intentionally against these models. “At some point I had to decide for myself that this is not the kind of writing I would ever participate in,” he writes in a blogpost about embracing his penname and resisting the draw of mainstream (in his view, white-pandering) “ethnic” lit. “And as Kawika Guillermo, under my mother’s name, I can disrupt this system. I can refuse the ethnic story. I can remain obtuse, obscure, difficult, frustrating, silly, trite, nonsensical. Instead of invoking a question mark, my name will invoke a middle finger.”
Unsurprisingly, the ethnic characters and identities in Stamped are messy, unvaliant, and undone. Anomie reigns on the road. People scream and fight. They rut in the dirty sheets and scurry away before morning. Late in the novel, a woman, squatting in a filthy outhouse, is forced to use the pages of her American passport to wipe her ass—the legally-determined proof of her travels soiled and then discarded.
Maybe this is the pithy takeaway I am looking for: mutability, the goal and the gift of travel. Maybe it’s all about jettisoning one’s plans and starting anew, taking on this attitude of constant itinerancy, this radical openness to change and dispersal.
On the other hand, maybe the real message—the message I don’t want to hear—is that we don’t acquire anything new or special through travel, that travel is about loss and not gain. If Stamped’s many characters share anything it is this process of subtraction, how every new place unknots something inside of them, breaking down their intentions, their loves, their very bodies. One night in Thailand, after a bad beating, Skyler lies sleepless, thinking about travel:
He stared at the dark ceiling, thinking of the many things he had seen since he had started traveling. All the people, the tours, the drinking, the drunken wisdom. At the end, everything was supposed to lead to a moment, to some spark of genius, some gestalt, some enlightened wisdom. Yet at the edge, there was nothing but the caverns in his eyes and a local woman to keep him sated.
I don’t know if I agree with this sentiment, Skyler’s or Guillermo’s. Or rather I agree and I also disagree. Foreign travel can seem troublingly vain, self-destructive, privileged or plain dumb, but I think it is possible for travelers to acknowledge these facts and still somehow form attachments—meaningful, lasting, fraught and yet productive attachments—to the places we travel, to find not an aha moment, per se, but not an empty cavern either. Reading Stamped made me think hard and to no real conclusion about the mix of freedom and containment that travel offers us, especially those of us who are non-white, non-straight, or non-aligned in any strong or stable sense. It made me question the silver linings I’m always looking for, somewhere over the cloudbanks.
In my airplane, over the sea, I tried to write a few notes as my boyfriend dozed beside me. Guillermo’s anti-travel novel ends in 2008, on the eve of the Obama years; in 2018, I returned to an America governed by Trump, which is not to say I was ungrateful (for homecoming) but that I felt confused and scared (by home). Opening my journal, I tried to express this contradiction, to strive against passivity in whatever small way I could. Nothing relevant or calming occurred to me. (How a stranger describes Julia Kristeva’s concept of “chora” to a character in Stamped: “It’s a passive state of receptiveness, a perception without prejudice. Everything is as it is, unburdened by knowledge or experience”.) I wrote a line and then redacted it, feeling very conspicuous in that very dark plane under my very bright reading light. For the moment, it seemed better just to sleep.