Sight is an interesting sense. Especially for writers. It’s our most subjective sense–allowing us to focus or not, to interpret, to see what’s in our periphery or turn our heads. Unlike, say smell. It’s much easier to avert one’s eyes than stop the stench of a subway, for instance. But of course, the best inspiration comes (at least for me) from personal multi-sensory experience.
You know the stock photo of a white sandy beach with the lone palm tree on computer screen savers? That’s Natadola beach in Fiji: the poster image of Paradise. On my recent trip to Australia I was thrilled to have an extended layover in Fiji. I immediately took to envisioning coconuts washing up on beaches so crystal clear they’d take my breath away, lounging in a cabana, sipping fruity drinks while reading a book. Ahhh, Paradise. And when I saw it, I wasn’t let down. It is spectacular. Yet I found myself thinking about the Nacirema.
In my first anthropology class, we studied Horace Miner’s article about the Nacirema–a people whose obsession with teeth cause them to go to great lengths, often enduring pain (even inflicting it on children) to achieve their ideal of perfection. During the subsequent discussion in class some students called it barbarism, some thought it seemed arbitrary–blaming it on lack of education, and others commented on the romanticism of cultural traditions. It’s easy to romanticize or demonize the “other”. The trick, (apology for the spoiler, Anthro 101 students) revealed at the end of class, was that Nacirema is American, spelled backwards.
And in Fiji, while the locals said “Bula” with all the enthusiasm they were paid to, it did little to hide their underlying frustration and suspicion of us. As one who’s worked all manner of menial tourist-based jobs, I would recognize that smile-jaw-clench move anywhere.
Our drive to Natadola beach from Nadi airport revealed a much poorer population than I’d anticipated. In the villages, people set up lawn chairs on the side of the road to watch traffic go by, while kids made a game of waving to cars and seeing how many people they could get to wave back, jumping up and down when they succeeded. The hustling of the street markets and constant negotiating reminded me of third world countries I’d visited in South America, where being a tourist is akin to pasting a target on your forehead.
It started in the airport as soon as we cleared customs, where even the official tourist agency had us negotiating the price of our day at the beach. We grew suspect after we were forced to stop half way across the island at a gift shop to “look around” and then, upon arrival to the resort at Natadola, were warned not to tell anyone we were going to the beach, our driver suggesting instead we say we came there for lunch. He said he’d be there all day, implying he’d be ready just in case/when we got kicked out.
Sight lets us choose to pay attention to what we want; as a tourist relaxing in a beautiful cabana on an exotic beach; or saddened to see a disenfranchised population exploited by the big bad tourists undermining their traditions and culture.
As a writer and anthropologist, I love that neither view is absolutely right or wrong. An excellent case could be made on either side, and that- the ability to see both sides completely, is how writers create memorable characters and stories. The most interesting stories are told, not by assessing good and bad, but by seeing the world and human behavior as it is, understanding each character’s perspective, and placing them in situations that challenge them, forcing them to confront their issues and highlight the grey areas of human experience. Like reading about the Nacirema, seeing ourselves as “other” forces us to see ourselves in terms of a bigger picture, giving us much needed perspective and hopefully, inspiring new characters and story ideas.