Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Week 7 & 8: Lots of Strangers in Lots of Strange Lands

40 Books in 40 Weeks: I'm reading one book from my to-read shelf per week through the end of the year. Afterward, I write a post here: not a review, just a reaction to something or many things in the book. It's keeping me accountable.

Muddling Through in Madagascar, by Dervla Murphy
Overlook Press, 1989


Okay. Murphy, a travel writer, took a trip to Madagascar over thirty years ago. On the one hand, it's neat to see how the country has changed and evolved since then. But on the other hand . . . frick, this book was hard to get through. There's so much judgment based on tribes, race, "those people". There's so much entitlement of a white person saying "I just want a peaceful, uninhabited trek through nature, so let me just wander across the countryside, spooking all the people there because they equate white people with brutal colonizers." To her credit, at least she tries to puzzle out the reason that she worries more about plants and animals going extinct than people losing their lives and livelihoods.

I don't know. I suppose most people's reasons for travelling, for wanting to see the world, are pretty selfish. Goodness knows I've done my fair share of it. But to then turn around and write a book detailing the "primitive" nature of the different "tribes", playing into the completely incorrect assumptions that certain "tribes" are "more suited to intellectual and managerial work" than others, giving all the credit for technological advances to Westerners, listing out all the wonderful things colonization did for Madagascar, blaming Senegalese troops for the bloodletting in the 1947 rebellion, blaming tourism for many new problems, even saying that city girls who wore European clothes would have looked "so much lovelier" in traditional garb? It's so patronizing. Even racist. Makes my stomach turn.

Anyway. That's why it took me a few weeks to get through this book. But moving on, here are some useful things I learned from it:

  • The Tana-Tamatave train line was not only still running in the 80s, but was the primary method of travel between the two cities, as the Route Nationale I took in a taxi-be was in utter disrepair at the time.
  • Taxi-bes were NIGHTMARES 30 years ago. Health hazards. Torture. Awful, inhumane modes of transportation. But the only option for travel between many parts of the country. Makes me thankful for today's Sprinter vans.
  • Chinese companies had a huge presence in Madagascar in the 80s. I suppose they've all moved on by now due to a lack of precious metals or other valuable resources.
  • One of Murphy's observations was actually quite apt: There's a difference between not having money and being impoverished. Many families or communities who we would consider "poor" had actually been entirely self-sufficient, and are now struggling from being forced into a cash society. If you've never had to earn money before -- if you just work to feed your family and protect your community -- then there's a vast mindset shift to be made to become accustomed to the imposition of existing in a cash-based economy. That is, in fact, one factor that contributes to the poverty across Madagascar.
  • Religious missions still serve a very important purpose across Madagascar (in the 80s as well as today), because in many places, they're the only ones providing education or medical care. The government can't, and there aren't enough NGOs on the ground.

So, what is a travel writer to do? How is the best way to experience everything that a country has to offer, without passing judgment or invading or killing local culture? Who knows. Maybe it's best to have a reason for traveling, to be a scientist or biologist with a specific research project in mind. Maybe it's best to just stick to areas set up for tourists, and avoid bothering the people who don't want to be bothered. Maybe it's best to visit friends and family, have them be your guides.

I don't have the answers. I question all the time whether I just have "white savior" syndrome, whether I'm over-exoticizing the other, whether I'm using a Western system to take advantage of other people. I suppose, at the very least, it's good to keep in mind, to keep struggling with, to keep questioning. Never get complacent.

Also, don't get gout from unknown local alcohol. But that's Murphy's story to tell.


BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE! In my struggle to muddle through Murphy's book, I went to the library to pick up the latest volume of:

Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Image Comics, 2012 - present


The first hardcover bound volume is a close-up of a baby breastfeeding.

The first page of the first issue is the realest birth I have ever seen in a fiction setting.

THERE ARE NO VILLAINS. At least, not as such. Everyone is a real person, a real complex character with a complex personality and a set of wishes and needs and sometimes that means they are working against other people but it barely even matters if they're working against the main characters or not because they're not really heroes, either.

There are robots. Who have their own kingdom. Who can procreate. WHO HAVE SEX IN THE BOOK.

Six volumes in, one of the characters gets a prison tattoo, and it's just on the cover and it's never mentioned in the story, but it's such a meaningful and sad tattoo that I just sat and looked at it and cried for a bit.

The artist, Fiona Staples, has started getting top billing on many of the issues. Because she's just insanely brilliant, and Image Comics is recognizing that.

If you've never picked up a comic or a graphic novel, if you've always thought it was a medium that just wasn't for you -- and I totally get that, because I never read one until a friend pushed Watchmen into my hands in college, and I had to re-read the first three chapters once I figured out how to wrap my brain around reading in that format -- START HERE. START WITH SAGA. It's the realest story you'll ever read.

If I haven't convinced you yet (really?), here's some more convincing from Buzzfeed, back when the series was first starting.


Next up: A Greater Music, by Bae Suah, tr. Deborah Smith