A tourist? A merchant? An avid assimilator?


Aurora in Nuuk, Greenland

From The Smart Set:

Before the Danes took it over, Greenland’s inhabitants have ranged from the Paleo Eskimos to the Saqaaq, the Dorset culture, the Thule. There have been Icelandic and Norse settlements since the 10th century. Scottish whalers and Portuguese sailors have made themselves at home and the U.S. Air Base that arrived during World War II is still there, too. For millennia, Greenland, like every inhabitable landmass on Earth, was colonized and re-colonized. On this vast icy island, cultures flourished and disappeared. People intermingled and people were dominated. They assimilated and rebelled. It is a story of Greenland, and it is a story of everywhere. Which is to say that, where there is habitable land, there will be travelers with their eyes on it, and that every place, if you dig a little, will show you its scars. Every place is a place of evolution.

Almost immediately after its publishing, An African in Greenland became one of those books that gets talked about, written about, passed around and around among friends. This is how the book came to me, through my friend Jean. Jean’s own obsession with the book lead him to create an entire art show around it. A native Frenchman, Jean has adapted so well to New York life that we used to tell people his very slight accent came from New Jersey. For Jean, and for all the fans of the book, An African in Greenland taps into questions that gnaw at the traveler living in an increasingly globalized world. How does one enter a foreign land? As a tourist? A merchant? An impassive chronicler? An avid assimilator?

With travel now so easy, what are we to call ourselves when we go from place to place? What is the difference between the wanderer and the tourist? Between the tourist and the explorer? Kpomassie, who calls himself a “traveler,” never gives us answers to the questions he raises — not directly. One thing that makes An African in Greenland such a remarkable travelogue is its style. Kpomassie’s story is personal, not universal. It is told through the author’s actions and observations rather than his intentions. He often makes you feel as if you’re right there in the homes of Greenlanders, but rarely are you inside Kpomassie himself. Little details, like his age or the year, are absent or come quite late in the book (we learn in the last pages that he is 24). Moreover, it’s never clear why Kpomassie is so obsessed with going to Greenland in the first place, why he spent 10 years of his young life, working his way through mid-1960s Africa and Europe, trying to get there. Kpomassie has no pretensions to study Greenlanders. Though he grew up in French-controlled Togo, living — like Greenlanders — in the shadow of colonialism, he is uninterested in big sociological comparisons. He seldom makes judgments in the course of the book save those that come from a heartfelt delight or disgust or confusion. All he mentions is a “muddled, yet vivid wish…triggered perhaps by the pursuit of a recurrent dream…and a desire to find some last fixed point which would be neither southern Greenland nor Africa and above all not Europe!” Kpomassie’s travels begin with a childhood fascination and never stray. His unsatisfying, unprescriptive enthusiasm is the book’s charm. And maybe, also, its message. You’re in a position of deference as a traveler, a traveler in the Kpomassie sense. You’re unstable, uncomfortable. But you’re more receptive, too. Ironically, if you travel without expectations, you can often find yourself feeling more at home. You can be a traveler without being a stranger.

“Travelin’ Man”, Stefany Anne Golberg, The Smart Set

Read Al Avarez’s introduction to the NY Books edition of An African in Greenland (pdf)