Stamped: An Anti-Travel Novel
by Kawika Guillermo
Westphalia Press, 2018
360 Pages, $15.99
Review by Alina Grigorovitch
Kawika Guillermo’s Stamped (Westphalia Press, 2018) is subtitled “an anti-travel novel”, but it’s less a defiance of travel (and travel writing) conventions than an attempt to cover that ground in a more literary way. It focuses on the expatriate lifestyle, psychologically and logistically worlds apart from the week-long vacation or the Eat, Pray, Love journey of self-discovery; in fact, the main character, Skyler states that leaving home begins as an effort of self-forgetting – mixing modern nomadism with sexual and cultural identity crises.
“Most travelers,” one of the book’s cast says, “can be separated into three groups…. Sexpats, drugpats, and ecopats. Then there’s a fourth group. The people who were rejected from their country, and everywhere they go too. They can’t stop moving, rejecting every city before it can reject them.”
The central pillar is Skyler, a twenty-year-old half-white, half-Indonesian man who has left his ex-girlfriend and fundamentalist Christian upbringing in America with a bit of cash and a haunting death wish. Some of Guillermo’s most beautiful, lyrical writing is reserved for Skyler’s blog entries, painting poetic impressions to a degree of poetry rarely encountered in actual travel blogs. Structurally, the blog posts anchor the narrative, which switches perspectives between the central group of six long-term travelers who, like him, are American expats losing themselves in a chaos of partying and abandon.
There is sheltered Arthur, venturing to China with his Chinese wife and their young son; Sophea, a Cambodian refugee returning to work at an NGO; Winston, a part-Asian, part-African American army brat with a lifestyle code that emphasizes non-attachment; Connie, a Korean-born adoptee seeking a stronger identity in a land she never knew; and all-American blonde Melanie, who cannot not embody her identity in Asia, partying recklessly while telling her religious family back home that she is on a mission.
In keeping with the overall theme of fluid identities, Guillermo experiments with other story structures during the middle of the book. Other than the interspersed blog entries, Stamped is similar to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, first acquainting us with these characters and their backstories, leading their mental states and motivations to a precipice, before bringing them all together for an encounter at the end of part one and the start of part two. Guillermo writes their encounters not as moves by the hand of fate, but as naturally-occurring (given their small expatriate social circle) products of chance.
When they finally converge, Arthur is high and on a mission to find a ghost, Skyler is “the kind of lost that he had no interest in curing,” Sophea has gotten over the purpose that brought her there to begin with, and lonely Winston takes on the roles of patron and babysitter. The story temporarily relocates to a plain of reality where each character is given a pseudo-mythological name (Arthur, Witch Slayer, Skyler the Summoner, Sophea the Sot, Winston the Pure) and traces, through each section, the group’s traversals from city to city, almost the way Game of Thrones switches perspectives from one chapter to the other. It is, fittingly, a mythical time in their lives; abstracted from reality, at the height of an indefinitely long and directionless bender — the only solution to their nebulous life purposes and identities.
This theme is never sharper than when dealing with the thorny issue of their “traveler status.” Despite belonging to the Asian diaspora, they are not seen by locals as Asians. And yet, most of them left America because they were not quite seen as Americans, either. Trying to interact with the local population, they end up sticking with each other: fellow American expats. In a stand-out scene, they sit at a bar in Chengdu not far from another group of boorish American expatriates who drunkenly say they hate Chinese people, while they themselves are self-styled flaneurs.
But because flaneurs have a sharp conscience about traveling, they seek to be culturally and historically aware, to differentiate themselves from trollish white tourists. But even with their hearts in the right place, global power structures so outweigh them as individuals that they cannot get terribly far.
Guillermo returns to this knot again and again throughout the book. Like flaneurs, they are often unpleasant people, but uncomfortably relatable, which is perhaps the point. They regularly get wasted, they smuggle drugs, and they are approached by sex workers no differently than any other tourist – even in a police state they are free to do whatever they want. They drink and party, they hop around cities, they teach English – they do all the things they condemn other expats for doing, the only difference being their greater propensity toward self-examination, and the unignorable twangs of their conscience.