Writer Ella Paradis On Representation In Travel Writing

The writer-editor tells us why she'll be back in India despite a negative first experience and why she decided to start a magazine specifically for Black voices
Ella Paradis in Burano, Italy
Ella Paradis in Burano, Italyheyparadis/Instagram

Modern-day travel writing and journalism are comprised mainly of European and American voices. How often do you read about the prolific explorer Matthew Henson? We may swoon over Amelia Earhart's solo flight across the Atlantic—but how many of us know about Bessie Coleman? 

With the Black Lives Matter movement serving as the inspiration for other minority groups all over the world to assert their identities and cultures, we decided to catch up Ella Paradis, a pioneer of the black travel movement. who leads an expanding network of black hiking and adventure travel groups. Paradis is the editor of "The Black Explorer," a unique travel publication that's working to undo the erasure of black exploration and the marginalisation of Black voices in travel. Excerpts:

The Black Explorer founder Ella Paradis, on a stop while journeying on Route 66
The Black Explorer founder Ella Paradis, on a stop while journeying on Route 66 heyparadis/Instagram

Do you agree that travel is still largely a privilege? What can we do to address it?


Leisure travel is definitely a privilege. There are many ways that people travel around the world that has nothing to do with leisure, and I'd even argue that non-leisurely travel accounts for the vast majority. To be honest I don't know how to address this. The best thing I know how to do is be grateful for the privilege I have moving into this world and give back as much as possible.


As the editor of "The Black Explorer," what do you do differently with each issue that comes out? Is there an established pattern or trend that you constantly seek to upset?


Each issue is built around a central theme that acts as a guiding line for all the content that I commission. The focus is much more narrative. For example, a type of article you will never find in the magazine is something like "The 10 Best Restaurants to Eat at in Paris"; there's plenty of that out there already. I look for stories that really give us a look into the person writing them.

Travel is often the background of many life discoveries, experiences, realisations, and more. The way I try to explain it is that, "The Black Explorer" magazine isn't a travel magazine as much as it is a magazine about travellers. This is not a magazine about destinations, locations, things to do and see. It's about the people that travel, why they decide to make the jump, what they pick up on the road, how destinations and experiences change them, add to them, teach them about themselves, and change their worldvieiews.

So all the stories I commission have a very human and personal core. Everything else you learn about a destination or a place along the way is completely secondary. And, of course, I exclusively commission Black and Brown writers because we also need to normalise the face of the traveller not solely being white. Because it's not, and looking at travel media and publications, you'd think that it was.


In an earlier interview, you recall experiencing harassment and a negative reception in India. It was deeply unfortunate, but would you like to travel to the country again despite what happened?


When I came home from India, I did vow never to return because of how deeply scarring the experience was for me. Over the years, having matured both as a woman and a traveller, I've come to realise that I could have controlled much more of the situations that unfolded during that trip had I been prepared for what was coming. I went to India after my first solo trip around Thailand, which, though it had some hiccups, went great overall. So I thought I knew what I was signing up for. But for better or worse, India is like no other place I had ever been to or have ever been to since. It's so insanely unique, vibrant, and loud. 

So now that I know that yes, I will be back in India one day because there are so many wondrous places there that I'd love to experience. I just won't return with the same expectations as before. Plus, I still haven't found a butter chicken as good as the one I tasted in Agra.

Ella takes a dip in the English Channel near Isle of Wight, United KIngdom
Ella takes a dip in the English Channel near Isle of Wight, United KIngdom heyparadis/Instagram

Which places or cities have you found the most accepting—and, of course, safe, as a woman? 


Portugal, and more particularly Lisbon, is one of the easiest places for me to be and just move around without feeling like I have to constantly be on the lookout or watch over my shoulder. Lisbon is probably the one city I have returned most to, with Florence, Italy coming a close second. These are cities where I naturally wake up early and can just walk around unafraid of getting lost. That's my favourite way to explore and I love cities and places that make me feel like I can do just that, especially as a Black woman.


How important is it to document and extensively cover women's travel stories? 


To me, and probably because I am a woman, it's important to see my gender and my race reflected in the spaces I move in everyday. So for me, there isn't even an argument to be made for just sharing the stories of literally 50 percent of the world's population.

The majority of my contributors are women, and I'm so insanely proud and lucky that they trust me to share and amplify their stories. Creating a space that values those stories as authentically as possible, for me, is a big part of why I've dug myself into this project.

I can't speak to how important it is because the importance can't be measured when something is just an integral part of who you are. The only answer to someone asking why we should be sharing women's travel stories is why not?


When and why did you decide to start 'The Black Explorer?'


The idea for the magazine is something I had been toying with since 2018, and I had a version of it ready for release for the end of March 2020, but then COVID-19 hit and the lockdown measures started.

At the time, I completely shelved the idea because I thought it didn't make sense to launch a travel magazine at a time when travel was grounded. But then with George Floyd's murder and all of the emotions it forced us all to reckon with, I needed to do something to deal with those feelings of powerlessness, fear and hopelessness that were drowning me. The world seemed hopeless and I was so sad that I couldn't wave a magic wand and just fix it, especially for my own people. 

And then I remembered, this magazine I was working on to amplify our voices in this space that I am deeply passionate about. So I went back to the drawing board and started working on it again, but this time not as a cute hobby, but as my form of activism. This was my chance to affect change, albeit in a small sphere, but change nonetheless. And I keep working on it in the hopes that some butterfly effect takes place and this little thing I'm doing will eventually lead to more significant changes. I don't know if it will, but I have to hold onto the hope because not having hope is one of the most complex feelings to live through.

Athlete and artist Brooklyn Bell
Athlete and artist Brooklyn Bellbadgal_brooky/Instagram

You are in your early thirties. Thoughts on spearheading a publication that's quite significant to the state of the world currently?


I am nervous, scared, terrified even. Every day I question whether I am the right one for the job, I question why I decided to do this and pour everything I have into it. I cry at least twice a week because of the multitude of issues that arise, the rejections, the fact that I don't have any experience in the publishing industry, and I'm just making it all up as I go and trusting my gut along the way. I am making an immense amount of mistakes because I still don't have the resources to manage all of this the way I want to, and of course I beat myself up for not knowing better. The journey is not easy at all right now, and honestly, there are days where I wish I could just vanish from existence; just one day, I'm here, and the next, I'm snapped away by Thanos. That's a bit grim, but it's the truth.

But then I cry it out and get back to work, trying to balance the days where I only manage to read and reply to one email with the days I feel like I'm on a roll and manage to get through half of my to-do list. It's all about balance, right?


Where do you think the world of travel is headed?


I think sadly people in general have a short memory. Mass tourism is making a resounding comeback with all the implications that it has for the world we live in. That said, there are enough of us out there now who have seen and know that we can't go back to how things were before the pandemic.

Whether it is in regard to the issues of diversity in travel or sustainability when it comes to travel experiences, there are many more people out there who are making it their priority and life's mission to create a better travel industry. And it will be up to us to keep these discussions front and centre. I know I plan on stepping on some necks along the way too.

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