At some point in my coming-of-age years (not that long ago, really) I read Kerouac (white man has adventures, shit-talks women). I read Into The Wild (White man writes about other white man’s stupid adventures). I read Evasion (young white man rides freight trains, eats dumpstered bagels, encourages reader to do same). I read Jack London (White man has adventures, makes up a lot of bullshit about the Far North, refuses to put any female characters in his stories, except one woman who gets “hysteria” and dies). What else? They’re countless, really, and the publishing industry churns out more of them every year, seemingly worse in quality as time goes on- here, and here, and here. Let’s face it- young, wealthy, able-bodied white man is not the only person who has ever had “adventures”, nor is he the only one capable of having them. So why does he have such a corner on the market?
Believe it or not, there is no shortage of other sorts of people having adventures in the world these days. Just check the blogosphere- it’s plastered with all manner of humans running around doing things you would never think to do. Families riding their bikes to Argentina. Women living on sailboats. Hell, every fifteen minutes a fat man walks unassisted across the continent. And the even greater adventures- people battling addiction, mental illness, oppression. So why is it that we are flooded with stories of able-bodied, wealthy white men running off to “find themselves”, stories chock-full of misogamy and racism and flat-out made up shit (Kerouac never road freight trains, London’s account of life in the arctic is ridiculous), and it’s like there’s no-one else on the goddam earth who has ever done anything exciting or new?
I don’t know the answer to that question. All I can do is look back in time and make a reading list for Younger Me, a list of books that I wish I would have read before Kerouac, before London, before Evasion. (Although some of these weren’t yet written.) Some of them I am just reading now, as in, in the last few weeks, and I’m sort of like- What? This book exists? Why is it doomed to obscurity on this dusty small-press shelf? What kind of a world have we gone and created here?
You know what? I think I know the answer to the question I posed earlier. I think that Able-Bodied White Man has a corner on the adventure market because people don’t like to talk about oppression- and when the protagonist of the story is as privileged as a human being currently living on planet earth can possibly be, then there’s no need to ever bring up the messy subject. But if the protagonist is a woman, a person of color, a queer person, a person with no legs- well hell, the whole book can’t help but challenge this shitty system we’ve got in place. And what fun is that? Maybe the whole book-buying public just likes to read a story where they can pretend that they are the young white guy, like the Wealthy Young White Man is a sort of superhero with special powers that make the story that much more entertaining.
I don’t know.
Here’s my booklist.
An Incomplete Anti-Kerouac Feminist Adventure Reading List For Young People And Grown-ups Alike (I feel like I’m forgetting a few- your suggestions are appreciated.)
Valencia, by Michelle Tea
This book is beautiful. I just read it two weeks ago. And Michelle Tea is so good at promoting herself and her books that she almost, ALMOST rises out of the pigeon-hole of obscurity that is the fate of small-press publication.
The protagonist lives in San Francisco where she drinks, fucks a lot of girls, does sex work, and flirts with exhaustion. It’s all the excitement of a life on the road, but she never leaves the city. And the lyricism and run-on sentences feel so natural, like she puked it all up in one sitting, after staying up all night on a speed bender. Sparkling, reckless supporting characters. Drug-fueled epiphanies, beauty, a liberal poetic license. Chock-full of adventures for the adventure-hungry. Never Boring.
Atlas of the Human Heart, by Ariel Gore
I just read this book, like, yesterday. The first thing I felt after finishing the book was Anger. And I had no idea why. Did I hate the book? No. Did I love the book? Maybe… yes. And that was why I was so pissed off. Because this book has got to be one of the most obscure and underrated coming-of-age reckless-adventure-travel books there is, even among more small-press oriented circles, such as the ones I hang out it. I’ve heard this book mentioned maybe twice in my life, in sort of hushed tones. I’d always thought, It must be really bad, and written it off. I’ve even read one of Ariel Gore’s other books, a guide to writing and publishing from a punk, DIY perspective, which I LOVED. But I had never read this book. And then I finally picked it up off its dusty, back-corner shelf and read it, and felt so angry I cried. Because I LOVED it. And it’s doomed. Doomed to obscurity. Not only is it published by a small press, but said small press actually fucked up and left out thirty pages in the middle. Thirty pages!
At least it has a nice cover, which is more than I can say for a lot of small press novels.
The book is a memoir of the Author’s teenage years. But written as a novel, and the main character is cast as having a lot of grown-up wisdom, so it’s not hard to place yourself in her shoes.
At sixteen, Ariel drops out of high school and leaves her stable, loving, middle-class liberal family for a one-way ticket to China with only a change of clothes and her I-Ching, and a few hundred dollars. It’s the eighties. She goes to language school in Bejjing, in a climate of oppression and student protests. She gets kicked out of school for asking too many questions and gets on a boat to England, where she proceeds to make the worst choices you can possibly imagine- drinking until she blacks out, swallowing handfuls of pills, living in ancient, crumbled houses and taking up with a crowd of horrible drunk-punks who shoplift everything they eat, one of whom becomes her boyfriend, and beats her. She’s robbed again and again, taken advantage of, raped. Her situation just goes downhill from there, as she navigates the fairytale landscape of rural Italy and France with her terrible choices and repulsive friends. Three years later, she’s pregnant and washing dishes, living in a moldy wine cellar in rural Italy and being kicked around by her boyfriend, who has taken her passport and won’t give it back. There’s a roofless stone house on the edge of a ravine where she hides her journal and her dishwashing money, and lights candles to Italian patron saints of travelers and the reckless. Just before you throw the book down in frustration, she gives birth to her daughter and flies home.
It’s an amazing story, and I can see why she wrote a book. I just don’t know why I hadn’t read it before.
This is a documentary (trailer above) about some friends of mine who fixed up a junked sailboat in Florida with stolen hardware and elbow grease and sailed it to the Dominican Republic. The documentary was made by a member of the crew on a laptop with a 14 day return policy. Three women and a feminist man, a black slip blowing from the bow as their anarchist flag. None of them had much sailing experience previous to the voyage. There is a twister at sea, ginormous waves, sea sickness, and dinners of quinoa and vegetables cooked on a tiny alcohol stove. Makes you want to take off on a sailboat and do something stupid, if it weren’t for the seasickness.
The IHOP Papers, by Ali Liebegott
This just came out a few years ago, after which it promptly won the author a Lamba Literary award for “best lesbian author.” The young protagonist follows her writing-professor crush to San Francisco, where she is part of a weird, passive-aggressive hippie love triangle, has terrible self-esteem, cuts herself, drinks too much, falls in love with unattainable women, and of course, gets a job at IHOP. She saves all her money in a hole in the wall, goes to AA, relapses, sets out on a roadtrip, and eventually starts to get her shit together. Ali’s writing style is hilarious, self-deprecating, and brutally honest, ala Augusten Burroughs. I read this book last year when I was depressed and it made me feel better when nothing else could.
Tara’s blog, HoboStripper
The best book that was never published, blows every other vagabond-travel book out of the water, for free and on the internet. Get it while it’s hot. Not only is Tara not a drugged-out wastoid who depends on bad choices and self-destructive characters for her exciting plot lines, but her writing is incredibly warm, straight-forward, and accessible. The blog (no longer updated as of a few months ago, but still on the web in all its archived glory) is all stories from Tara’s adventures traveling around the US in her van, which she lived in, doing outrageous sex work to pay the bills, gathering wild plants for medicine, fucking girls, skinning rabbits, and being a badass feminist. She stopped posting stories on the blog because she was able to buy land in the Far North, where it’s sixty below and she now lives in a little cabin without electricity. I just hope to god that she finds a way to make her blog stories into a manuscript, even without much electric to power her computer, and starts shopping that shit around, so we can hold it in our hands on real wooden paper. Even if it’s with a small press. SO important.
Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Craighead George
A young adult novel. You could read it in one day. My favorite book when I was a kid.
Julie is an Inuit girl who lives in the Alaskan Arctic. Her family abandons her and she is forced to marry a mean boy she hates, at which point she takes off on foot into the barren arctic to look for her father. She intends to walk all the way across Alaska, but winter comes and she is forced to take shelter in the lee of a small hill and wait for death. Luckily, there is a wolf pack living nearby, and she (very realistically!) befriends the wolves by learning their body language, and figures out how to get the mama-wolf to regurgitate caribou meat she has brought back for the pups, which Julie then cooks into delicious stew for herself, in her pot. (she has brought a pot.) In the spring some aerial hunters gun-down her wolf-pack in the snow, and she sets off again, destitute and alone. After some weeks she finds herself, surprisingly, on the edge of a small coastal village, but she hesitates- does she really want to rejoin humanity? Or can she never learn to trust people again, after what they have done to her and the wolves? Hungry, she ventures into the village and finds her father there, who is happy to see her. Only thing is, there’s a bush plane in the driveway, HIS bush plane, and some wolf pelts on the walls…. Devastated, she runs back into the wilderness, the reality hitting her, at long last, that civilization has destroyed everything that she loves.
And that brings us to…
The Bandit Queen of India, by Phoolan Devi
Do you ever ask yourself- what is the greatest story ever told? Like, really, the very best and most powerful story that has ever been written?
If you asked ME that question, I would hand you The Bandit Queen of India, which is Phoolan Devi’s story, written herself, a few years before she was gunned down in the street at the ripe old age of 33.
The book is written in plain, everyday English, and with the careful cadence and weave of a master storyteller. It’s a good, back-to-basics, remember-what-really-matters book to read if you’re sick of literary bullshit and just want something plain and strong.
They say that there are two types of good writing- a story told greatly, and a great story told.
Phoolan is born into one of the lowest castes of rural India in 1963 and is, of course, a girl. She is therefore beaten, raped, and generally made to know that her life is worthless and of little value. She can’t help but rebel against this, though, and is subsequently rejected by her family and village as a troublemaker, and soon-after is framed by a wealthy upper-caste man in the village who is personally irritated by her refusal to be raped and beaten QUITE as much as he would like. (She is, like, twelve at this point.) The police beat her, rape her, and let her go, thinking they’ve taught her a lesson. But she continues to stir up “trouble” (aka not wanting to be beaten/raped to death) and so the rich man arranges to have her kidnapped and killed by a gang of bandits. The gang of bandits is headed by an upper-caste man, but the other members are mostly of her own caste. They march her into the jungle to shoot her, but one of the gang members falls in love with her, and shoots the tyrannical upper-caste gang-leader instead, which leads to much rejoicing among the gang. This brave and good man of her caste becomes the leader, with her as his second in command, and the whole gang agrees to use their powers for good. She’s like sixteen at this point.
He is the first human being who has ever shown her real love. She slowly learns to trust him. The group makes their way as mostly good bandits, running for days through the jungle, living off of mangoes, stealing from the rich and giving to a few select poor villages, who harbor them. They wear stolen police uniforms and since Phoolan is so small and slight from a childhood of malnourishment, she easily passes for a young cadet. No-one in the villages recognize her, or knows who she is.
And then, of course, her lover is shot and killed by the leader of a rival bandit gang, and she is devastated.
“Phoolan,” say the other gang members, as she weeps hysterically and polishes her semi-automatic weapon, crouched deep in the jungle- “we want YOU to be our leader.”
And so she becomes the leader of this, the most fearless and efficient gang of bandits, and they go on a spree and rage of terror the likes of which India has never known. Their m.o. is such: dressed as policemen, Phoolan and her gang march confidently into the centers of remote Indian towns, and ask after the wealthiest of all the villagers. They are led to the lavish house of a piggish, tyrannical upper-caste man, at which point they pry him for information on the local women, under the premise that they are in the market for some nice young girls to rape. He gladly spills the beans, telling the bandits in excessive detail all about his exploits with the local girls, which ones he likes to rape and torture the most, and all the gory details of said rape and torture. Once Phoolan is good and fired up, she ties up the man, cuts off his balls, burns down his house, and drags him through the center of town by his penis, her gang-mates dancing alongside and throwing his money in the air, raining wealth on the impoverished villagers, and the local people dance and sing, thinking Phoolan some sort of god, or saint. The gang also, while they’re at it, robs the other wealthy villagers and burns down their houses. Life is good.
I think Phoolan is eighteen at this point.
Life goes on like this for a few years, until she has become a sort of national hero/villain, and the military sets out to hunt her down, and there is a gigantic price on her head. Only problem is, no-one knows what she looks like, because her photo has never been taken, and she passes as a young boy so easily, or, when she changes into a sari, as a young girl, which is never the way that people expect her to look. Her band spends weeks running through the jungle, starving, she is captured, is tortured, escapes, is captured again, tortured some more, escapes again- she is always the quickest, the fleetest of foot, the fastest swimmer (hers was a caste of boat people), the quickest thinker- and one by one, she watches her chosen family go down around her- her bandit friends, her gang members, shot, murdered, tortured to death, captured, disappeared. All this is interspersed with more looting, more pillaging, more burning, more murder- always long overdue, always of the wealthiest and most powerful of men, always accompanied by singing and dancing, always fearless, and she always escapes, always miraculously.
At last nearly everyone she knows has been murdered or disappeared, and she has been living in a state of crisis for so long that she has become a sort of feral animal- starving in the jungle, nearly mad and unable to eat anyway because of massive stress-ulcers that have grown in her stomach.
The government announces a plan of immunity For bandits who turn themselves in. She turns herself in, exhausted, starving, and alone, at the age of 20, and spends eleven years in prison, where she sleeps, eats, and reads, all for the first time, and learns to meditate. When she gets out she is thirty, and has become such a national hero that she is elected to Indian parliament. She marries a wonderful man, and writes her book. Three years later, she is gunned down in the street.
After I read this book, I couldn’t read a single other thing for six months, and cried every time I thought of it. The story was so good, and so important, it made whole libraries seem like wastes of paper. And indeed, no book has ever matched it. Highly recommended.