You Get Off On Stealing: Kathy Acker, Travelogues, and the American Imperial Instinct

Clay Guinn

Abstract


Haiti maintains an outsized presence in the American literary imagination, where it represents a compelling confluence of ideas and themes. Like its neighbor in the Western hemisphere, it rejected a colonial ruler through a revolution. Yet it is a predominantly black nation, one with a troubled history and questionable leadership, including decades of imperialism at the service of the United States itself. While this fascination with Haiti waxes and wanes, it has lasted into the twenty-first century, continually renewed with natural and political disasters.


This complicated relationship is especially evident in what was once an ostensibly innocuous literary genre: the travelogue. Haitian travelogues, which were especially popular in the years before World War II, offer a captivating depiction of the American cultural attitudes towards Haiti. These guides often approach their subject with an unselfconsciously imperial gaze. They suggest racial and cultural superiority, reinforce imperial relationships, and cast the occupants of the visited nation as “the other.” They are also ripe for parody.


In her 1978 novel, Kathy Goes to Haiti, Kathy Acker explores this territory by offering a mocking satire of the travelogue. Acker’s partially autobiographical heroine aspires to lose herself in Haiti, specifically in the company of its men. However, she cannot escape her own Americanness. Instead of a politically-neutral immersion in Haitian culture, Acker shows us that American tourism is subject to the imperial instinct and provides her readers with a trenchant cultural critique of the travelogue genre.


Keywords


Kathy Acker; Travelogues; Haiti; Caribbean; Imperialism

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