“We’re all so far downstream from who we used to be.” Pam Mandel
We all have ideas about places that are far away from us, but when you talk to real people who live there, it’s hard to hold on to your preconceived notions. Those encounters can remain with you in memory even as you change and the place you left changes too.
Pam Mandel is an award-winning freelance travel writer and co-founder of The Statesider, a newsletter of U.S. travel stories. Her latest book is The Same River Twice: A Memoir of Dirtbag Backpackers, Bomb Shelters, and Bad Travel.
- When travel changes the way you think about the world
- “It’s complicated.” Thoughts on Israel
- Tapping into memory when writing
- How to explore an unknown place — when to branch out of your comfort zone, and when it’s a good idea to retreat to the ‘known’
- Making more of traveling in the USA
- Is there such a thing as bad travel?
- Travel book recommendations
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Pam Mandel is an award-winning freelance travel writer and co-founder of ‘The Statesider,’ a newsletter of U.S. travel stories. Her latest book is The Same River Twice: A Memoir of Dirtbag Backpackers, Bomb Shelters, and Bad Travel. Welcome, Pam.
Pam: Thanks for having me.
Joanna: It’s exciting to have you here. I want to start with a lovely quote from the book where you say, ‘I imagined the road miles accruing to me like I was being tattooed with maps of where I’d been.’ And there were so many countries in the book, and you’ve obviously traveled since.
What are the places that particularly stick in your mind that remain with you as those tattoos?
Pam: Wow. You’re right, I have been to a lot of places since I wrote this book. And one of the places I got to go, I think it’s five years or six years ago now is Antarctica. And you, of course, can never forget that.
Lately, more recently, I’ve been traveling in the U.S., my home country more. And a few years ago, I spent 10 days driving around the Mississippi Delta. I was really affected by that trip, it really stuck with me. I think it’s really important that we explore our home countries too. And to be in the place where so much American history had happened was really affecting.
I think about Mississippi all the time. It really changed my view of my own country. It changed my view of American history, it changed my view of what these places that we look like as red states in the U.S.
The other place that really sticks with me was…I went to art school. I have a BFA. And I did a bunch of art history. I had wanted forever to go to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. That was definitely a dream come true. But I had not realized the tragedy of what happened and the history there. And so I was deeply affected by my trip to Cambodia too, and I think about Cambodia frequently all the time.
Joanna: Wow, those are three really different places Antarctica, the Mississippi Delta, and Angkor Wat. I don’t think you could have picked three more different places. But that in itself says something. I mean, obviously, they’re all very different. But you picked them all for a reason.
What binds them together in your mind as the things that have stood out the most?
Pam: They change your worldview. They are travel that changes the way you think about the world around you.
For a while, after I came back from Antarctica, I would lie in bed at night, in my dark room in Seattle and I had this image in my head of the shape of the planet and how I had been to the bottom of it. And then I thought that’s not even real.
So I think that it’s that affectiveness, affective like affect with an A, not effect with an E. That the way it really changes the way you think about the world that made those things stay with me.
Joanna: And then again, in my mind, I’ve got very clear visuals of those three things. You’ve got the white ice and then the Delta I think of the river. I actually interviewed Dean Klinkenberg on this show about the Mississippi Delta. So I’ve been talking about that. And also Cambodia as well. Anyone who’s seen Lara Croft, for example, has the temple in Angkor Wat in their mind, which is interesting.
But there’s a huge difference I think with the people as well. Of course, we think of Antarctica, we think no people, and you think on the opposite end Cambodia, lots and lots of people.
How do the people and the culture of a place make a difference, do you think, to what you’re saying about changing your worldview?
Pam: Right. I think about this with Mississippi a lot specifically because I live in the northwest corner of the United States. And I live in a very liberal enclave and I grew up on the West Coast and I grew up surrounded by very liberal values. We are raised with certain ideas about places that are far away from us.
When I went to the Mississippi Delta I was traveling by myself, so I had lots of one-on-one interactions with people. And I guess I came away with a real sense of the humanity of people there. People can’t be so abstract when you interact with them, right?
When you talk to actual real humans who live in a place, it is really hard to hold on to your preconceived notions about what the people in those places are like.
Joanna: I think that’s so true. And that the magic of travel, you meet someone on the other side of the world, or as you say, in your same country, and you realize that you have more in common than you have in differences. So that’s great to hear.
Pam: Yeah, even when they’re different. I didn’t have those kinds of deep personal interactions when I was in Cambodia. I don’t speak the language and I was very much a tourist there. So I didn’t have these one-on-one kind of things like I could have while I was in the Delta, where I was a local outsider, local U.S. outsider, Pacific Northwest.
It was very easy for me to converse with people there. But the reality of it is substantial. You see the people there and it shakes your view a little bit.
Joanna: You also talk about your family background in the book and your experience of kibbutz. And now, for you and people listening, my husband Jonathan is Jewish, and his parents come from a Jewish immigrant family, and I’ve been to Israel a lot.
I’m always so interested to hear about what people think about Israel and what it means. Because you weren’t born there but you have context there.
Tell us a bit about what you felt there and what you feel about Israel now versus then perhaps.
Pam: I wasn’t raised with a deep connection to the Jewish homeland. I knew it existed and that was about it. I had this idea of this Jewish summer camp where, I don’t know, the tribe goes to work on farms and sing songs, and this very bucolic romanticized view.
But I didn’t really have any sense of the history of the place. Some of that stuff, I think, plays out to be true on kibbutz especially. You live in this community, everything seems very well taken care of and very well managed. And you could probably convince yourself that that is the extent of the story if you don’t look beyond the fences of that community.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that kibbutz is also on a spectrum of conservative to liberal and I was in mostly pretty liberal communities. So your experience there could be different as well.
If you’re in a conservative kibbutz, you might find that all of the rules around how women behave and are separate from men and all that stuff are part of your experience. They were not part of mine. So a lot of that stuff was filled in for me.
I found that it was really nice. I really appreciated being in a place where I didn’t have to explain ever what it meant to be Jewish. Nobody asks you about it when you’re in Israel. Nobody says, ‘I’ve never actually met a Jewish person ever in my life.’
Not that long ago, I met a young woman at a party who told me that she had never met any Jews at all before she moved to Seattle. So you know, it’s crazy. So that part of it, I really appreciated, the fact that this piece of my identity was not something that I was constantly having to explain.
So the thing that I’ve learned since is that it’s a much more complicated place. I was educated more into the history of the country and I find myself increasingly conflicted. I don’t support the current government. I think it’s a tragedy what’s happening with the occupied territories. So it’s become increasingly complicated.
And it’s also this stuff sits side by side with the rise of antisemitism in Europe and the U.S. And it’s just a mess. It’s just a mess.
And this is very reductive, but I feel a little bit like that Facebook status that says “it’s complicated.” I’m in a relationship with this nation whether I want to be or not. People assume that I have certain politics because I’m Jewish, which is faulty.
People assume that I either agree with or don’t agree with various administrations or what’s going on there because I’m Jewish. They immediately apply a filter to what they think of as my worldview. And I’d say that about 95% of the time, they’re absolutely wrong. So yeah, it’s a super complicated question. How long do we have?!
Joanna: I think almost that has to be the answer. If you have a very clear worldview of Israel, then you probably sit on one extreme or the other. Whereas you said you have liberal worldviews, and as do I and my husband is secular Jewish. And we also have very complicated views of the place.
But if you think about the history of Israel and Palestine, and everything it’s been called for thousands of years, then it has always been complicated, and perhaps always will be.
Have you been back since you traveled there and wrote about it? Obviously, you’ve written in the book and the book is set in the past. Have you been back? It’s changed a lot since I first went in the ’90s, which I guess was after you were there originally. Have you been back at all?
Pam: I haven’t. I would really like to go very, very much. I was invited to participate in a tour there, one of those press things. This might be a decade ago now, it was a while back. And I started looking into the organization that was hosting it and it was basically a propaganda machine.
I declined. I decided that I was not going to take that trip. And then I wasn’t going to do one that was set up by this very staunchly Zionist organization.
One of the things they had on their agenda was that you would get to meet a real Israeli soldier. And I was like, this is clearly written for somebody who doesn’t understand that everybody in the country has been, at some point, a real Israeli soldier. One is making your sandwich, or handing you the keys to your hotel room, or driving your bus, or sitting next to you on the bus.
The young woman next to you on the bus is just as likely to be carrying a weapon as she is to be going to her software coding job. And I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing this.’
So it is absolutely on my list of things I would like to do, but I’m not going to do it in that particular way. It just hasn’t made the cut yet. But I very much hope to go back because I really want to see that change.
Joanna: Yes, definitely. It’s such an interesting country.
Talking about the past, you revisited your younger self in this book. And also another quote, you say,
“We’re all so far downstream from who we used to be.” And that totally resonates with me.
Even going back to Israel, when I went back in my 40s, I remembered being their age 16 when the bombs were coming down in that first Gulf War. And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m so different, the country is so different.’ And it’s very hard that thing you did there writing about the past. How did you manage that and manage memory in that way?
Pam: People ask me that a lot. Because it seems very clear to me. I tapped this well of memory. But it was really important to me, as I was writing this book, to hold that line. And I was very aware, especially in the revision process, when my editor would say, ‘Well, you need to explain to the reader…’
For example, there’s a bit in the book where I go to Sinai. At the time, Sinai was being handed back from Israel to Egypt. And my editor said to me, ‘Look, I think you need to give the reader some context so they understand the significance of this.’
And so I would have to write these historical bits that provided context for this piece of land and what was happening at the time. But I tried really hard not to apply the voice of my current self in the book, I wanted it to be the voice of my 19, 20-year-old self telling this story.
It was really hard, actually. And I would have to check myself repeatedly. ‘What am I saying here?’ I could move out a little bit when I needed to write a brief historical or cultural context for things, and then I would have to go back in. And really, that stuff got revised out.
I did six, seven rounds of revisions with my editor. Every time I came across something that sounded like I was talking about something from the outside, I was like, is this historic context or is this me just telling the story? And if it was me telling the story, and I was applying some kind of external future self-knowledge to it, I would whack that out of there. It was actually really hard.
But the other thing that happened over the course of my writing the book was, the more I worked on it, the more I remembered. What’s the inverse of diminishing returns? Every time I remembered something, it would lead me to something else. So the initial draft was hard because I had to dig well into the depths of my subconscious to find these things.
It got progressively easier because I would remember something and it would get to the point where I would be revising. And I was determined to write forward, not go back and revise until I had reached the end. But I would put notes to myself because I would remember these things. ‘Oh, right, remember that guy on the bus? Put that.’ I would write a note to myself in the manuscript and come back and add it later. It was a super strange process, actually.
Joanna: If you’re there trying to channel your 20-year-old self, and you’re finding these memories coming back, you must have reflected on how much you have changed, how much you’re so far downstream from who you were.
How has travel changed you? Or how has the world changed you since then?
Pam: I think a lot about that when I think specifically about travel and the process of travel, which is not a direct answer. Forgive me, I’m veering slightly off your question. But the nature of travel is very, very different now. There’s a couple of things.
One is that it’s so hard to get lost now. It’s really hard to get lost. It’s really hard to disappear. You have to make this concerted effort to be in places where you’re not connected.
I see these things about people doing these silent retreats for two weeks. They’ll tell everybody they’re disappearing and they’re not going to be heard from for who knows how long, two weeks, whatever. And that was basically what travel was when I did this trip. You could just disconnect.
Now I travel with my phone in my pocket. I’m always connected, and I’m looking for a signal and I need to see my email and my reservations are made through my phone, and I’m never lost, and I’m never stuck. It just doesn’t happen, so.
Joanna: It’s interesting because I did pick out that as well from the book, you definitely talk about this. But it’s interesting because I also remember traveling then, and you’re right, we were well out of contact.
But I wouldn’t now want to give up some of the safety aspects and some of the things, the benefits of technology.
If we want the benefits of technology, how can we push our comfort zone in other ways in the same way that we used to be able to?
Pam: Right. It’s so hard to think about what’s outside the edge of my comfort zone. I’m an adventurous person still, even 30 years later, I think of myself as being a really adventurous traveler. And I’m not afraid to do stuff on your own. I think maybe if people haven’t traveled alone, that’s a really good way to do it because you’re forced to interact with others.
Changing up your method of transportation. I do this thing where I try really hard when I get to a new place to never get a car. And that’s a big deal in the U.S., it’s not always possible, but I make myself use public transportation to get from the airport to where I’m going if it’s at all sensible.
If I’m arriving at 3 in the morning, I’m going to take a cab. But I try really hard to get my feet on the ground as quickly as possible and to break that, ‘Oh, I’m going to travel in this protected corridor’. I’m just going to get on a local bus.
I remember getting on a bus in Denver, and we went to Transit Center and we sat there for 20 minutes. Because the bus was on this schedule, and I was like, ‘Oh, have I made a mistake? This is dumb.’ But I got to see the city in ways I wouldn’t see it otherwise. So I like doing that and that, you see the people who take the bus, just regular people who live there and go to their jobs.
I don’t know that that necessarily pushes a lot of people outside their comfort zone but I think it’s true for some. It connects you to a place in a way that you’re typical take a car from the airport, take a cab, whatever doesn’t do. And that helps reset and then you get a view of a place.
Joanna: That’s probably even more of a challenge in your home country, like you mentioned getting a car. As a European, as a Brit, I never get a car, we don’t own a car. I can drive, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a car in America and I’ve been there so many times, my default is public transport.
So for me, pushing my comfort zone would be hiring a car in America, and driving on the other side of the road and stuff like that, which is interesting.
You mentioned Denver there; with jet lag, I’m normally up at 4 a.m. on American time. I went for a walk around downtown Denver at 5 a.m around the center of Denver when the streets were full of homeless people. And I remember how shocked I was, really, really shocked to find what I thought was Denver was not at all what I had expected.
Maybe that’s something too is walking at a different time of day, as long as it’s safe for you to do that. But I think I learned a lot by walking around at a time of day that wasn’t commuter time. Do you walk around cities?
Pam: That’s almost always the first thing I do when I get to a new place is I go and I put my bags down wherever I’m staying. And then I look at my phone, and I’m like, ‘Where’s the nearest cafe?’ I walk to the nearest cafe, and I get coffee, and I sit somewhere with a window or outside if weather permits. And I just look at where I am. And I listen.
Then I’ll take a walk around the neighborhood to figure out where I am and what it’s like. I love doing that, actually. It’s one of my favorite things to do is to arrive at a new place, drop my stuff, and go for a walk. Because then you get this look at where you are, you get oriented to your destination in a way that going to the hotel and focusing on your agenda, whatever your tourist activities are, doesn’t give you.
Joanna: And I think even though you say coffee, it’s too easy in America…and of course, there’s a lot of these chains all over the world. It’s too easy to say, ‘Well, I’ll go to the Starbucks because I know what I get at the Starbucks.’ Instead, maybe try an independent coffee store that might have something that you wouldn’t normally have.
Eating is really important. Eating things that you might not find in your home town or your home state.
Pam: Starbucks, as an example. Starbucks is a total monolith. I live in Seattle, the home of this giant monster coffee company. But the funny thing about Starbucks is that it’s a very standardized chain. The people who go to the neighborhood Starbucks are a reflection of that neighborhood.
People who are focused on independent cafes in the U.S., for example, are maybe a certain type of people. And people who will go to a chain restaurant like a Starbucks are a different kind of people. So you may see a different reflection of a community even if you’re picking a place that’s a standard, monolithic chain because Starbucks doesn’t decide who’s going there.
They pick a location. And it’s the people who go there. You’ll find that there are knitting circles or immigrant communities that are hanging out there, the kids who are there are there because they get to go to Starbucks and there’s free Wi-Fi.
I’m less snobby about indie coffee and chains than I used to be, as much as I personally would prefer to not have this giant coffee chain determining what coffee culture is. They don’t define who’s there.
If you go to the Starbucks in the middle of Pike Place Market here in Seattle, it’s full of tourists. If you go to the Starbucks down at the Transit Center, south of me, maybe 15 minutes, closer to the airport, it’s a hugely diverse community because it’s full of immigrants. So there’s a possible reflection of what your neighborhood is like in that Starbucks, even if Starbucks itself is a monolith.
And sometimes you just want the familiar. I’m trying to remember what city I was in. Maybe it was Singapore that I was on a very long stopover, and I saw this Starbucks. It was hot. It was super muggy. And I was like, ‘You know what, I bet I can get a Frappuccino there and it will be air-conditioned.’ So it can definitely be this island of familiarity and comfort in a place where things start to get wearing on you.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely. You mentioned Seattle there and I wondered as someone who’s obviously traveled a lot:
Have you found home in Seattle? And what does home mean to you?
Pam: It’s such a big question, isn’t it? In short, the answer is yes, Seattle has become very much my home. It is a place where I know how everything works. I have such good friends here. I have such a good community around me, it feels very much like home.
I think there is a familiarity that makes a place feel like home, there is a security that makes a place feel like home. Seattle could absolutely be more diverse. It has been becoming that way over the last, I don’t know, maybe 10 years or so. It was pretty white when I first moved here.
Now it’s really starting to look like a more diverse community. And that also makes me feel like home because those are things that I thrive in. I enjoy tremendously diverse communities.
I feel like it’s a transitory idea too; what’s home for me now? Ask me in five years and I might be like, ‘No, it’s time for a change, something has shifted.’ And I don’t know what that would be.
Joanna: I struggle with this question, which is why I often ask it. How long did it take you to call Seattle home? And is it just an amount of time, do you think? Or is it finding your niche within the community, as you say?
Pam: I think it’s the latter. I think probably I had been here for maybe two years. I was working retail, I was scraping by, I didn’t have a lot of money in my pocket, but I felt really connected to the place. I had made very good friends almost immediately here.
There’s this myth about this thing called the Seattle Freeze where it’s supposedly a hard place to make friends. I found that that was not true, I connected with people that I’m still really close to. I just had coffee and cake with my best friend who I met the first winter I moved to Seattle. I think that that idea of deep personal connections is probably what does it.
Joanna: I wanted to come back on the book because the subtitle includes ‘bad travel.’ And this is challenging to me because I’ve had some pretty awful experiences as you mentioned, some of yours as well.
Can travel ever be totally bad? Or are these difficult times a learning experience?
Pam: There’s two things. One is this difficult learning experience kind of thing. Or this idea that you end up in a place where you don’t really understand what’s going on, and you have to figure it out. I think those kinds of experiences are totally great.
I love ending up in a place where I can’t figure out how things work. I think about I was in Italy, and I was driving and I stopped at a gas station because the Italian gas stations have incredible sandwiches. It was chaos in there, the place was packed, and I could not figure out how to get a sandwich.
I had to stand there and watch what was happening with no Italian. ‘Okay, so I need to order from that person. And they’re going to give me a ticket, which I have to give to another person. And then I have to pay for the thing.’ There’s this whole process that I had to decode. That’s difficult and fun. And so there’s the challenge, you have to unravel this challenge.
But there’s also the idea of, I think there’s a level of irresponsibility where you end up washed up with no money in a place where you cannot take care of yourself and you have to rely on the locals to get fed. That’s not cool. If you end up shoplifting, that’s bad travel.
So there is definitely a line to be crossed in which travel is bad. And there’s this spoiler alert, there’s a bit where my boyfriend in this book is shoplifting. That is not good travel, no matter how you slice it. We had run out of money, we were living on the beach, we were being fed by the Roma community camp that lived up the beach and my boyfriend was shoplifting to get us dessert. I don’t know how to slice that as good.
Joanna: No, but I would argue that that is bad living as opposed to bad travel. Presumably, you had to do that, it was not something you chose to do. And also, in a way, it demonstrates how people are wonderful, across the whole world.
If you’re in trouble while traveling, usually someone’s going to help you. I feel like a lot of people won’t travel or fear traveling because they’re afraid of people. And generally, people are pretty wonderful.
Pam: Right. So two things. One is, the first thing is that like we put ourselves in that situation, we made a series of bad choices that were driven by our desire for travel that landed us in that situation. So I would still say that that was bad travel rather than bad living because we should have stopped but we continued to travel even though we didn’t have the resources to do so. And so I would say that’s not good travel.
And then as far as your kindness of strangers philosophy, I cannot agree with that enough, I am just continually taken by it. If I go back to Mississippi, I was in this very small town on a Saturday afternoon and it was in a shop and I was talking to the shopkeeper.
She asked me where I was going next. I told her and she said, ‘Oh, my God, you can’t go there because everything will be closed and you won’t get any food. And you have to make sure that you get something to eat, and you’re going to need to go to…’ She pulls out her phone and she’s looking for a place for me to have dinner because everything’s closed in Mississippi on Sunday, except for a few fast food joints on the highway.
Her concern was so real and I’m a grown woman with a car and a credit card and a phone and like, I know how to get by. It’s okay to me to eat cereal for dinner if I have to. I’m not going to starve, but she was genuinely concerned that I was going to go without a decent meal that night. That kind of thing is very small, but it still happens to me all the time.
I love that about traveling, that people will take you under their wing with such kindness.
Joanna: And often you only just have to ask someone in the area. I was just thinking that you mentioned Italy, and I’ve been to Venice three times. There was just this terrible time where it was so touristy. We ate the worst food and stayed in the worst places and just had the worst experience because we just didn’t even try to get off the beaten track or even ask a local like, ‘Where should we eat for dinner?’ As opposed to this horrible tourist pizza joint.
Pam: Right. Yes, that’s a rookie mistake that I keep making.
Joanna: If you’re in Italy or Spain or anywhere that doesn’t speak your language and you go somewhere and you can understand people speaking like you, then you really should go to a place where you don’t understand the language.
Pam: Right. Keep it moving.
Joanna: Yes, because that’s the best food. And it’s the same in America, depending on which state you’re in, you should be eating in a place where they have the accent of the state.
Pam: Yes, I agree completely. You gotta keep moving. If it seems like the place is full of tourists, keep moving.
Pam: Although, again, when I think about that Starbucks in Singapore, sometimes it is just what you want. Like, I’m trying, I’ve been trying really hard to get off my high horse about snobby tourist things. I had this great adventure and went to this place where I couldn’t understand and then they just brought me food and it was great. And sometimes you want something familiar.
Joanna: Absolutely. Maybe even at least once on your trip.
Pam: Right. As an island to refill your battery for adventure, you’re like, ‘I’m going to have this Frappuccino and then I’m going to go find out what this whole hot pot thing is about.’ But first, I need the Frappuccino.
Joanna: I’m very interested because you co-founded The Statesider and on your blog, you say, ‘We want to make American travel interesting again.’ That implies it wasn’t interesting.
What is this attitude shift to make American travel interesting?
Pam: My co-founders and I looked at what the media landscape was like the stories that were being told about American travel. They fell into a bunch of really specific categories.
We have national parks, we have Route 66. We have this mythical idea of California. There’s Disney and these resorts. And these are all excellent, fun things.
But the United States is full of considerably more complicated things than that. We have a lot of super interesting immigrant communities that have been here for a long time. And we have places where the ideas of what’s American intersects with outside influences. We have a zillion kinds of tacos.
I guess it’s possible that American travel is inherently interesting to outsiders. But to those of us as Americans, I think we’re trying to peel back those dominant myths about what America looks like, what America sounds like, what America tastes like.
We are not just hamburgers, we are many, many kinds of noodles also. And to get beyond us that surface story about what the U.S., looks like. Don’t get me wrong, I love the national parks and the idea of driving Route 66 in a giant car seems like a grand adventure, and the landscape’s spectacular.
But there are generations of Vietnamese immigrants who are making pho along Route 66. How did they get there? What are they doing? How did they end up in the middle of Montana? That’s also an American story.
Joanna: I love that. I wonder if that is going to take off even more. As we’re recording this, the pandemic is still going on.
Do you think Americans who might have just left and gone somewhere else pre-pandemic are staying home and rediscovering their own country?
Pam: I can tell you that collectively at ‘The Statesider,’ we want this to be true. This is something that we are hopeful of.
One of my co-founders, he actually wrote a story that’s on ‘The Statesider.’ My co-founder, Andy Murdock wrote this story about how he went to Paris. This was before the pandemic. He spent a lot of time thinking about why he’d gone on a plane to go all the way to France to get French baking when we have so much of it right here.
This is not to deride the things that France has to offer. But just that if he had decided, ‘What I really want is French baking, and that’s the impetus behind my trip. Can I find that here?’
The answer in my neighborhood is yes, we have a spectacular French bakery that’s far too close to my house. I can walk there, and that is too close to be able to get their twice-baked almond croissants.
I think we all hope that that’s true. And I think that domestic travel is going to be the first thing that we’ll get back when we are able to feel like we can safely travel again and like our traveling isn’t putting other people at risk, we’re going to do things that are closer to home. And hopefully, people will explore their backyards with greater curiosity than they have before.
I live two miles north of a pretty diverse immigrant neighborhood. I remember going there once to a street festival. And there were all these Cambodian rappers rapping in Khmer. This was two miles from my house. Really literally just down the road from me.
And I was just like, ‘What is happening here? And how did I not know that this was happening right in my backyard?’ I had been all the way to Cambodia and there was this Cambodian rap scene happening on the streets two miles away from me.
So that stuff is happening, and hopefully, in our search for the excitement of finding new things, we also look in our own backyards.
Joanna: I’m doing the same thing here in the U.K. I would normally just go to Europe and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to look at my own country.’
Apart from your own book, what are a few travel books that you love and recommend?
Pam: My first two picks in answer to this question are not traditional travel books. They’re both fictional.
One’s called Sharks in the Time of Saviors. That’s Kawai Strong Washburn and that book takes place in Hawaii. Now, actually, it takes place in Hawaii and in Washington State and in Oregon because the characters go to the mainland.
I spent a lot of time in Hawaii, I used to have a regular column about Hawaii. And the thing that I love about this book is that it presents a Hawaii that I observed and rarely see written about in materials about Hawaii. It is so real and so moving. So I love this book in the realness of how it presents the people and the state. Anybody asks me like, what’s the best thing you’ve read lately? And that is top of my list, Sharks in the Time of Saviors.
I also read a book called Stay and Fight, which is another fictional book that takes place in Appalachia. The thing that I like about that book is that the main characters in that book are super complicated. And when we think about Appalachia here in the United States, we have this very narrow view, this very clichéd view of where our brains want to take us.
This book refuses to allow us to do that. The characters are super complicated. And the way they live on the land, you think about these backcountry, poor people living by their wits, and they do indeed do this, it doesn’t go well. But they’re not the kind of people that you expect to see doing this.
Both of those books really stuck with me for the way they presented the people and landscapes that we have these ideas in our head about in new ways, real ways that seemed much more detailed than what we’re used to seeing. It’s probably last year that I read Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas.
With everything that just happened in Texas, they had that terrible freeze and Texas is a mess, it’s a mess politically, and this book explains how it got that way. Lawrence Wright does all this stuff in the State of Texas and unpacks the complicated mess that the State of Texas is. I love this book. It’s really great.
And then my last one is called Buttermilk Graffiti by Edward Lee. Edward Lee is a celebrity chef. But he wrote this book where he went on a road trip to go find American food. He defines American food very, very broadly. He’s not just eating fried chicken. That was really interesting.
He’s of Korean descent. He’s the son of Korean immigrants. So he comes from an immigrant background. And he runs a Southern restaurant where he cooks traditional Southern cooking. But that’s not where his background is. And so it’s interesting to follow this journey where he goes, and sometimes he travels with a chef, sometimes he’s on his own. He goes out with fishermen in the Gulf looking for shrimp. It’s a great book, I really enjoyed it. And he’s an interesting guy.
I talked to him like for a piece for ‘Statesider’ and he lives in Kentucky, which is Mitch McConnell’s home state, which you know, Mitch McConnell is a long-term very conservative figure in American politics. I remember him talking about how Kentucky was more than Mitch McConnell and that we needed to see the world in a broader way. We need to see the U.S. in a broader way and stop dismissing these places as red state/blue state because we are missing out.
Joanna: I love getting book recommendations, it’s always so fascinating.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Pam: I am always findable as nerdseyeview on Twitter. My website is nerdseyeview.com. My book is The Same River Twice. It’s published by Skyhorse, but there are links to where to acquire it on my website. Well, you can get it anywhere.
And you can, of course, get it from the giant retail monster that gives you books but what I really would prefer people to do is to call their independent bookstore and say, ‘Hey, can you get this book for me?’ Because books are how we’re getting through all this terrible time.
We’re doing lots of reading, or some of us are doing lots of reading. Others of us have brains of Swiss cheese and can’t focus right now. But I really want there to be bookstores when we come out of this. Amazon will be fine if we don’t buy our books from them today, they will survive. Your local bookstore, maybe not so much so. So the best place you can get my book is by calling your local bookstore and asking them to order it for you.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Pam, that was great.
Pam: Thank you. Thanks for having me.