Stephanie Elizondo Griest has belly danced with Cuban rumba queens, volunteered at a Russian children’s shelter, and polished the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party. These adventures are the subject of her first book: Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, which will be published by Villard/Random House in March 2004. She has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Latina Magazine, the Associated Press, and Traveler’s Tales: Cuba, Turkey, China, Hyenas Laughed At Me and Now I Know Why, and Her Fork In The Road. As a national correspondent for The Odyssey, she once drove 45,000 miles across America, documenting its history for a website for kids (and surviving on a $15 daily budget). Although she hails from South Texas, she calls Brooklyn home at the moment, and runs an anti-censorship youth activist organization called the Youth Free Expression Network.
How did you get started traveling?
Wanderlust prowls in my genes. My great-great uncle was a hobo who rode the rails; my father drummed his way around the world with a US Navy Band. But while I was desperate to escape my hometown in South Texas, I never thought I could — partly because of the expense, partly because I couldn’t fathom how. I mean, I could conceptualize buying a ticket and boarding a plane, but what would I do after it landed?
After my senior year in high school, two things changed these misperceptions. First, a friend’s neighbor returned home after a semester abroad and introduced me to the magical, mystical world of hostels, Tiger Balm, and Lonely Planets. Then I attended a journalism conference that featured a keynote by a rock-star CNN correspondent who’d covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His stories of riots and revolution blew me away: his job would get me out of Corpus Christi! When he finished, I ran up to the microphone and asked how I could be a foreign correspondent just like him. He looked straight at me and said, “Learn Russian.”
So I did. Four years later, I jetted off to Moscow as an exchange student and have since traveled to a dozen countries that experimented with communism at some point in the past century. These adventures are the subject of my travelogue/memoir Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, which will be published this year by Villard /Random House.
How did you get started writing? What was your first break?
With me, it was never a question of whether I was going to write. It was more — how could I get paid enough doing this so that I would never need a day job? Journalism seemed to be a practical solution, so I studied it in college and started freelancing for a gay and lesbian newspaper. That was in the early ’90s, before Ellen DeGeneres and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” made it “socially acceptable” to be gay. People had such strangely strong reactions to my involvement with the paper (I guess because I’m straight), I wrote an essay about it — and subsequently nabbed an internship with the Washington Post, which led to one with the New York Times the following summer. Those clips enabled me to freelance for magazines and ultimately land a book deal. Moral of the story: write outside of your realm.
As a traveler and fact/story-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Because my travels have largely been to nations ruled by rather oppressive regimes, I am always terrified one of my sources will get in trouble for telling me something they shouldn’t. I grew so concerned about this in Beijing (where I spent a year editing the English mouthpiece of the Party), I started self-censoring my phone calls and writing notes in such elaborate codes, I could barely understand them myself. Looking back, I realize this was senseless paranoia: unless you’re a diplomat, foreign correspondent from a prestigious paper, or activist from a major organization, most governments could probably care less about you. At the time, though, it gave me a lot of anxiety.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
Rising above my own preconceived notions of a culture and then attempting to persuade others to do the same. Like the first time I landed in Beijing International Airport and saw a People’s Liberation Army soldier standing guard, I thought: “That’s one of those blood-thirsty soldiers who murdered those student protesters on Tiananmen Square!” — even though he was probably 10 years old back in 1989. Our world is an intensely complex place: it is imperative that we as travel writers not jump to easy conclusions. I catch myself making outlandish claims like ‘Russians think/feel/do _______.’ Instead, I should be saying: ‘My friend Nadezhda — who is highly educated, makes x rubles a month, and lost a brother to a Mafiya dealing gone awry — thinks/feels/does ________.’
I also struggle over which details to include in my stories. Say some gracious host offers me a bowl of yak penis soup. I’ll ask myself: will I contribute to the misperception of this being a backward, barbaric culture if I write about this? Because if you think about it, if you’re going to kill that poor yak anyway, why waste his penis?
These sorts of things really keep me up at night.
What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint?
Health insurance! Keeping a roof over my head! Feeding myself! Yo, it’s hard. Over the past four years, I have written nine versions of my book proposal and performed four major, reconstructive surgeries and innumerable revisions on my manuscript. One of those years, I netted zero dollars; another, a whopping $7,500. When at last I sold the book, soon after moving to Brooklyn, my advance was the equivalent of four months’ room and board — and I had at least a year’s worth of work left to do on it. And so, at age 27, after having successfully avoided it since high school, I buckled down and got a “day job.”
Do you do other work to make ends meet?
From 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. M-F, I am the coordinator of an anti-censorship youth activist organization and the spokeswoman of a think tank on artistic and intellectual freedom. Every other waking hour, I write.
What travel authors or books might you recommend?
Mary Morris’ Nothing To Declare is my favorite travel read. I also love Travelers’ Tales anthologies, especially Marybeth Bond’s A Woman’s World. I tend to read more journalistic non-fiction than travelogues, and my heroes in this realm are Jon Lee Anderson, David Remnick, Alma Guillermoprieto, Jianying Zha, and Ian Buruma. Fiction writers who have hugely influenced my work are Anchee Min, Sherman Alexie, Cristina Garcia, and Michele Serros.
One book every traveler should read is The Ugly American.
What warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
You’ll become so aware of how exciting/adventurous/fulfilling life can be, it will kill your soul to do anything else!
No, but seriously: I hate to keep harping on money, but that really has been my major obstacle in this line of work. I have figured out how to travel for free — on scholarships, fellowships, etc. — but how do you finance the time you actually sit down and crank out a whole book? The only ways I have come up with are:
- Maxing out credit cards
- Finding a sugardaddy/sugarmama
- Moving back in with Mom and Dad
- Getting a day job and never enjoying a free late night, early morning, or weekend again
- Leaving New York City (which I really don’t want to do, but: Has anybody out there found another way? Could you please let me know?)
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?
Traveling teaches you the inherent value of a day and the infinite possibilities each new one holds within; writing enables you to share the extraordinary stories of the people whose paths you cross along the way. The partnership of the two is utter bliss.