Debbie Gonzalez Canada started translating original content in English to Spanish for Matador Network in October 2013. Another editor, Laura Bernhein and Debbie quickly noticed that the Spanish-speaking audience was not relating to most of the travel experiences on Matador Network, so the two started producing original content in Spanish, using Latin American and Spanish writers who write about their own culture and the places they visit. Debbie and Laura targeted an audience that shared that cultural code. Since May 2014 Debbie has worked as an editor at Matador, producing, editing, formatting and promoting articles, mostly in Spanish. While she is not formal MatU faculty, she steadily works with Matador writers.
1. When and how did you first know that writing was deep in you?
I had to think about it for a while. I can’t recall having a specific Aha moment. A sum of little moments led me to believe that I can communicate by printed letters – but I don’t see writing as my vocation. Quoting Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentinian journalist and writer, I practice the violent craft of writing (as I practice other crafts that allow me to communicate with others). Now that I think of it, maybe I should have known writing was deep in me when I started feeling, as a teenager, that some writers would have understood me better than neighbours my own age. But that makes the whole thing sound more pretentious than it actually was, so I’ll stick to the “craft of writing” bit.
2. What does teaching writing mean to you? If you were allowed to teach only one wisdom to your students, what would it be?
I am not teaching at the moment, but I’ll answer anyway. Firstly, I like to teach because it is a fantastic way for me to better understand things. For example, if I am able to transmit an idea, it is the last step of my own learning curve for that idea. Of course, it is an iterative process. Secondly, I see teaching as “facilitating” a process of learning. In many cases, I can’t teach a person an idea or a skill, I can only provide a good environment for him or her to learn… I can be accessible for questions and I can do my best to lead by example.
If I was allowed to teach one wisdom… uh, tough one. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes when you are learning (and you are always learning). If you have to fear something, then fear not learning from your mistakes”. It is a version of many wisdoms I’ve heard in the past, including a silly poem my grandfather used to teach me we are all equals and we all make mistakes. It goes like this: Caga el pobre y caga el rico, caga el grande y caga el chico, caga el rey y caga el papa, y de cagar nadie se escapa. [“Everybody takes a shit: the poor and the rich, the big and the small, the king and the Pope. Nobody can escape taking a shit”].
3. How do you see travel writing as a tool for social and environmental change? What three areas are you most passionate about when it comes to being a politically effective writer?
A politically effective writer… Hmmm, is there such a thing?
I am not sure I understand your question. If you ask about the three things a politically effective writer must have, those would be (for me) anti-dogmatism, clarity and the capacity for laughter and engaging story telling.
If you want to know three topics I would love to politically and effectively write about… then those are: the way humans understand and relate to nature, the way humans understand and relate to each other, and how we can (pragmatically) foster positive changes in the former two.
We are a species with a huge impact in ecosystems at a local and a global scale. And I think / feel / believe one of our bigger problems is apathy. Travel writing can be a tool for social and environmental change as long as it fosters empathy with those “others”. In the past and in the present, when carried out thoughtfully, travel writing can help build broken or non-existent bridges amongst communities. My concern is that shallow travel porn only contributes along with consumerism, narcissism and prejudice to notions of what those “others” should look like – not to mention the environmental impact of reckless tourists.
4. What lessons, skills and intentions MUST a travel writer carry into any new country, culture, locale and/or political situation?
I think the skills of a good interviewer or a good conversationalist. It is much better if you come prepared, with some knowledge of what you will face, but never with the attitude that you already know it all (and I believe we never ever know it all). To me, it is extremely important to be humble, patient and respectful, instead of intolerant, arrogant and bigoted. If you ask a question, avoid yes/no questions: ask a person why and how she does what she does. But more than that, if you ask a question, be present to listen to the answer, don’t be preoccupied with what your next question should be. And allow silences!! People do talk more when you allow silences and pauses.
Another little trick from interviewers: observe and write down details in your notebook before, during and after the “encounter”. Don’t just trust you’ll remember them.
A travel writer must be willing to share his or her culture, and not just “extract” (information) from the visited places. As travel writers, we must also be self aware of our personal and cultural ways of being. I don’t believe in objectivity. I believe in intersubjectivity (that is, that meaning is constructed by a community of subjects) and in stating one’s biases. In science, in journalism, in travel writing, we should be more transparent about the place from where we write, about our own motivations and how that tinges our perspective. Then, only then, we can write about a new country, culture, locale or political situation.
5. What fills you with joy in your own writing?
For lack of a better metaphor, when I feel I poured my heart and my brains out in a text, and then that piece reaches at least one person who can connect with what I said. I see my writing only as a link in a chain: it is the product of hundreds of conversations, and it gives me joy when it fosters more meaningful conversations.
6. Does being a woman writer have an impact on your work?
It does, just like other aspects of my being do, including but not limited to my social background, my sexuality, my studies, or my passion for dancing. The way I was raised at home, I never felt I had to let men speak first or be the ones to make decisions. I am fortunate that I was never taught that my voice was less important because of my genitals. All my classmates can tell you how much I insisted on asking questions or being a leader in group activities. Only as a grown up did I become aware of misogynists or sexists attitudes in academic and in working environments.
I (re)educate myself daily on what it means to aim for gender equality, and I do my best to avoid sexist content in the articles I am responsible for. I actively seek stories of women that inspire me, and I stopped doing something harmful but quite common in my culture: criticizing a female professional not because of her actual shortcomings but for being a “fat pretentious bitch”. We have a long way to go… all of us.