Often the most carefree adventures carry the most risk, because travelling carelessly is most likely to unwittingly impact others. With great compassion, Dr. Anu Taranath's book Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World invites us to reconsider our travel through the lens of identity, race, difference and social justice.
How do you introduce the book, in a nutshell?
Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World uses storytelling and reflection to invite readers to consider their travel from the lens of identity, race, difference and social justice. These are, of course, big and sometimes intimidating topics, and can inspire equally big and intimidating feelings in us. My book helps readers understand and navigate these feelings in a friendly and compassionate manner. I tell many stories about travelling in places that are culturally, racially and economically different from what we know, and pose questions for thoughtful discussion. Unpacking the big feelings lightens us, and can make travel a more connective and mindful experience.
In the introduction you say you wrote the book because you wanted to read it, but it didn’t exist. Why do you think this ‘gap in the market’ existed?
I absolutely wrote the book I wanted to read but had never found. I wanted a book to discuss global history, colonialism and why some regions of the world were more resourced and wealthy than others, and to do so alongside a discussion about wealth and racial equity in the US. All over the world we see communities who have/enjoy/expect more, and communities who have/enjoy/expect less. Why is this? What are the connections between these seemingly disparate contexts that actually are quite connected? These are some of the questions that brought me to this book.
My own personal and professional experiences, too, have helped me see how the local connects with the global. My family are immigrants who have journeyed from a less-resourced country to a wealthier one. We are also people of colour who are not Black. Both of these facts have shaped my experiences of what home means, being American, being different, experiencing racism, and feeling like I belonged or not. On the professional level, my work as a racial equity and diversity consultant in the US, along with my work in global travel and international education, have brought these different conversations into one frame as well. Beyond Guilt Trips is undoubtedly the book that only I could have written, and incorporates many of these experiences.
One need not travel far to experience differences and not know how to navigate them. That happens quite close to home as well. We are often not taught how to talk well together about sensitive and difficult topics. We certainly do know how to shut down and turn away. Offering another path, my book serves as a guide for how to turn toward ourselves and each other with less judgement and more curiosity and compassion.
'One need not travel far to experience differences and not know how to navigate them.'
Amidst the so-called culture wars (with Twitter the primary battlefield it seems) nuance is often lost, as is the capacity to forgive mistakes and discuss ignorance - a word that has become dirty. But your book takes a compassionate stance towards potential ignorance and mistakes. I wonder if you could reflect on your decision to take this stance, and specifically whether you were conscious of writing in a ‘culture war’ context?
Yes, what you are noticing is very deliberate. As a professor and racial equity consultant, my work is to invite people to talk about sensitive issues like identity, society, history, harm, heart and healing. These conversations often make us feel a wide variety of negative emotions such as shame, guilt, disconnection, anxiety, shut down or fear of being wrong or misunderstood. What if instead we could approach sensitive issues with actual sensitivity, compassion and mindfulness about who we are and the feelings we might be bringing into the room? I’ve found this approach helps many people feel more open and willing to participate.
Most of us, of course, are not consciously horrible people. Rather, we are often well-meaning, and shaped by our circumstances, our families, our privileges, and experiences. All this means we often don’t know too much about others unlike us, and sometimes even, we don’t know too much about ourselves either. Equity work both at home and abroad to me is about making space for people’s stories, feelings, and interpretations whether you’re a well-seasoned social justice advocate or at the beginning of your journey. We all have to start from somewhere, right? If we can enter a space and feel more compassionate and resilient, we’re more likely to know that we’ll be okay even when it feels uncomfortable now and then. That’s my goal as an author, teacher and facilitator—to help shepherd people through this process together.
I really like that the book makes a point of being comfortable holding seemingly competing ideas in mind. One example is the need, while travelling, to simultaneously engage with serious issues and find joy. Do you think there is a particular relationship - e.g. of tension, or of harmony - between these two imperatives?
I am passionately committed to joy, partly because joy is so wonderfully joyful, and also because joy IS a critical component of justice work. We certainly need material changes in our society to offer more safety, choice, dignity and opportunity for all. Our communities could also thrive if more of us felt peace, rest, ease, laughter and play, wouldn’t you agree? Joy reminds us that we are not only warriors fighting to rectify society’s broken promises. Joy reminds us that we can feel delight too, which in our unequal and difficult world, is nothing less than radical to the core!
'Most of us, of course, are not consciously horrible people. Rather, we are often well-meaning, and shaped by our circumstances, our families, our privileges, and experiences. All this means we often don’t know too much about others unlike us, and sometimes even, we don’t know too much about ourselves either.'
Another aspect of the book I feel is really important is the idea that its arguments don’t just apply to travelling. They apply to everyday life, and you encourage readers to see travelling as something that informs - indeed, requires many of the same approaches to - life at home. I wonder if you could reflect on the importance of this link?
Yes, you’ve picked up on a key point in the book. We often think of our travels as quite distinct from our “real life,” but that isn’t really the case. What happens “over there” is often intimately connected to “over here”, if only for the fact that you were once there and now you are here. If you want to be a more ethical and sensitive visitor abroad, what might being a more ethical and sensitive resident in your community at home mean? How might understanding history’s reach abroad help us understand history’s reach at home, and vice versa? What does despair and dignity look like nearby, and what are its features far away in another cultural or geographical context? These observations are what connect the global to the local, and why travel can be such a great metaphor for moving more mindfully through our world both near and far.
I initially came across the book when thinking about risk and adventure (the theme of this Edition). It seems to me that your book highlights risk in a couple of interesting ways. First, it highlights the irony that, although many of us travel to ‘step out of our comfort zones’, we often do so only superficially, while in fact avoiding the most important and potentially productive forms of discomfort. Do you think this is an accurate observation?
Let’s be clear: discomfort can be uncomfortable. Discomfort is often understood as risky, unsettling, unsafe, unpredictable, and discombobulating. And while discomfort can be all that, some comfort with productive discomfort can also help us be more honest and brave, less “sweeping under the rug” and eggshelly. A little productive discomfort now and then won’t hurt us, especially if it helps us grow, heal, feel heard and more heartful toward ourselves and one another. A friend of mine calls Beyond Guilt Trips a “personal trainer to help you navigate discomfort better without losing your shit.” I love that description!
'We often think of our travels as quite distinct from our “real life,” but that isn’t really the case. What happens “over there” is often intimately connected to “over here.”'
On the other hand, in the long-term the risk seems to be greater, both personally and socially, in failing to engage with the difficult topics you highlight in the book. What do you see as the dangers of failing to engage in these issues?
Well, just because we don’t talk about race, identity, social hierarchies, inequality and all the other sensitive topics that shape our lives, doesn’t mean that these issues aren’t in operation. How could we ever actually undo and repair the things that we are too nervous to talk to one another honestly about? Let’s instead be brave together, and know that yes, conversations about difficult topics can be a bit uncomfortable. How could they not? With some guidance and grace, we can learn to appreciate what productive discomfort might offer and come out with more clarity and connection.
Looking forward, do you envisage any particularly notable changes in the coming years in how Western travellers travel, in relation to the issues in the book?
I’ve heard from many in the travel industry that more people are looking for something different nowadays, a different traveling ethos that helps us move throughout our world both near and far with more integrity, honesty, solidarity and accountability. These are, of course, slippery topics, and we’ll have to make time to better understand what we mean by these words, and how they affect our journeys.
Even though you and I did not create the unequal world we live in, we do have small choices on how we want to engage with ourselves, the people we know, and people whose lives look quite different than ours. We can’t do everything, but we can sure do something. I am so glad my book and I are a part of this something!