First Angel took us to Djibouti in “Fractured Weather/Functioning Bones.” Now we learn more about all the traveling.
RPP: Your writing is very atmospheric, with a great focus on weather and climate and how you feel in each setting. As a writer, how do you use atmosphere to contribute to the narrative?
I am typically an emotional writer. In my fiction, this always meant I needed to be deeply-rooted in the heads of my characters. Even as a journalist, whatever made me react or tugged at my heart often formed the core of my story. So I think I capture my perceptions atmospherically as a way to pull readers into my head.
RPP: This is a wonderful line: “I fell in love–of the literary, romantic sort–with Djibouti,” a place that you also describe as “one of the most pivotal and severe geographic locations on the planet.” So many writers are also committed, avid travelers. That can’t be a coincidence. As a writer, what has traveling meant to you? From a craft perspective, does the setting come before the story?
I love travel, but I never had the means to do so. I really have “M” to thank for my travel experiences. As life often goes, one thing builds on another and gradually changes who you are. As the newspaper industry splintered and sputtered, I moved from journalism into part-time employment in non-profits. I thought this would lower my stress and allow me to focus on my daughter. “M” hadn’t seen me in 15 years and thought we could reunite over a weekend in Paris. And we did.
We had a great time and he wanted to take me to Algeria so I could do research for an honor’s project I was doing for my second bachelor’s degree. As most of our trips go, we ran into problems. His visa didn’t come through. So we went to Tunisia instead.
So, to answer your question, “M” says I am the only one crazy enough to go the places he and I share an interest in. I think what I learn in these perhaps exotic locations propels my writing. In that case, the story and the setting rely on each other.
RPP: This is another compelling passage, made more interesting by a hint of cynicism: “You arrive Saturday morning and you depart Saturday evening. Meanwhile, the flight crew spends the day at the luxurious Kempinski Palace, experiencing the kind of Africa that doesn’t really exist.” This statement resonates because in it you allude to the unreality and inauthenticity of tourism. As someone who writes about travel, how do you reconcile the reality of a place with the fantasy that is so often presented to outsiders?
I have traveled to Djibouti twice now. Both times we stayed in the same hotel. It was what might be considered a two-star place here in the United States. It was no frills. But provided the basics. “M” and I took a boat out to the Moucha Isles, which required booking passage from the Kempinski Palace. The Kempinski stood on the beach with fountains and lawn chairs with “Welcome to Africa” written in stones against the sand. The employees, all dark-skinned, wore uniforms. They had a gated compound so taxis could not drive up to the hotel. Only hotel shuttles. That hotel sheltered their guests from the poverty and the dirt of Africa.
In my hotel, the staff went barefoot and they wore the same outfit every day. And when we arrived home from a side trip to Yemen at 2 a.m., I thought I could Facetime my family from the lobby where the wifi worked, but the hotel staff slept on cardboard boxes on the floor. I suddenly realized what “First World Problems” really are.
Near the airport, Europeans and Americans lived in villas that looked similar to a beach house at the Jersey shore. Small children, five years old, walked around the city with no parents and no shoes. On the other side of town, leaving the city, people lived in cobbled-together huts of rock, discarded construction materials and corrugated metal.
So travel can indeed broaden the mind, but if you only book group tours that visit the major tourist sites or stay for a week at a five-star resort like the Kempinski Palace, what are you experiencing? I want the authentic. Perhaps it’s the journalist in me that keeps her eyes open and travels via instinct instead of by guide book.
But, then, I traveled to Siberia for a pizza I saw on Instagram. That’s another story. This could whet the appetite for the pizza journey.
RPP: Where else can we read your work?
I spent more than a decade as a print journalist, so you can occasionally stumble upon my work for The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) online, but most of my favorite newspaper pieces are available on my web site, www.AngelAckerman.com. I sporadically update my blog, unless I’m traveling, then I am religious about it.
My poem about immigrant-Paris was published online in Step Away magazine. I have some upcoming pieces, an academic book review for The Journal of Global South Studies and an essay on an experience my daughter and I had caring for a farmer’s chickens is slated for Hobby Farms. My other recent articles are for Sage Academic Publishing, both on Djibouti. But I am working on having more creative pieces published, both fiction and creative nonfiction.