Dove is a bestselling novel by Robin Lee Graham, a non-fiction narrative about sailing solo around the world at 16 years old, starting from San Pedro, California. It ends like a fairytale: he returns home with a wife and a daughter. I read it as part of my middle school curriculum and was so taken by the story that I soon purchased a how-to manual titled “How to Sail Around the World” from Barnes and Noble. My dad received my plans flatly. I realized I had to be rich, white, rugged, and learn the nuances of boating and basic human survival to achieve my goal. It was out of reach.
But this past fall, 15 years post-Dove book report, all those adolescent aspirations came back. My spirit for unconventional travel was renewed when I met Mary Ann Thomas, cross-country biker and author of the new chapbook, Asking for Elephants, at a community talk in Seattle. I don’t even know how to ride a bike, but I was interested in learning what traveling as a queer woman of color entailed. She seemed like someone who could hold space for women with ambitious passions for the outdoors, for women who want to do badass shit from the joy of their hearts. She did just that, and it is both her open heart and grounded spirit which guide her.
Asking for Elephants chronicles Thomas and her biking partner Daniel Baylis’ trip across India. They traveled from the Himalayas to Kerala, where Thomas’ family is from. The distance is hardly epic given Thomas’ history. In the last five years, she has biked over 10,000 miles – in 2014, traveling solo from San Diego to Montreal. In “Asking for Elephants,” she dots her journey across India in a candid, journalistic voice, sketching out some moments for thought. Each vignette reads like a diary entry cum postcard in fine detail.
On the first page, she says, “I refuse to tell an easy story,” and so begins the potent, literary tufts known to chapbooks – on feeling both estranged and at home as a daughter of Indian-American immigrants, the maddening quiet of Himalayan peaks, strangers of meager backgrounds bearing generous gifts, an exploding bike tire, washing grime off her tired body, and the “millions of realities” colliding in India.
The book is 20 pages and equal parts Baylis and Thomas. Each page features a single vignette, alternating between the two authors. Baylis and Thomas perspectives merge like an interlocking chain, each vignette leads into the next through a joining theme or sentiment.
One of Thomas’ vignettes “Good Daughter of India” sees her attempting to answer the daunting question Where Am I From? by examining her moral goodness and badness. Following this, Baylis describes his anger and amusement at curious natives who ask about the nature of his and Thomas’ relationship, especially when checking into hotels, which commonly bar non-married couples. Baylis and Thomas often found themselves oscillating in white lies, sometimes acting as siblings and other times a married couple, depending on what was convenient. In this vignette, titled “What is Your Relation?” Baylis examines the silver lining of the situation:
“We had the opportunity to represent an uncommon pairing: a mixed-race, unmarried couple…in some way, normal[izing] that which is not normal.”
In other situations, comfort is never reached. In “Sex,” Baylis reels after an autorickshaw driver offers to hook him up with some local sex workers and then reveals the death of a family member in a single, terse, and brief conversation. In moments, eons can unravel.
The chapbook brings awareness to the underpinnings of complex interpersonal moments like these, some which seem backwards and others that seem progressive to American minds, capturing the contradictions rife in modern-day Indian society. The alternating perspectives between Thomas and Baylis, both aware of their differing privileges, creates a sharply balanced narrative. It reveals how two people can experience a shared journey totally differently, and how deeply friendship can become rooted both despite and in spite of that.
Thomas’ experience as queer Indian-American woman biking across India makes space for questioning the real maternal qualities of what is popularly called the “motherland” among diaspora. It also nudges us to act on our dreams while taking practical inventory – what equipment will we need? How will we pay for it? (Thomas is also a travel nurse.) Can I really do this? To the latter, the answer is yes.