The “Other”—source of fear and fascination; emblem of difference demonized and romanticized. Theories of alterity and cultural diversity abound in the contemporary academic landscape. Victor Segalen’s early attempt to theorize the exotic is a crucial reference point for all discussions of alterity, diversity, and ethnicity.
Written over the course of fourteen years between 1904 and 1918, at the height of the age of imperialism, Essay on Exoticism encompasses Segalen’s attempts to define “true Exoticism.” This concept, he hoped, would not only replace nineteenth-century notions of exoticism that he considered tawdry and romantic, but also redirect his contemporaries’ propensity to reduce the exotic to the “colonial.” His critique envisions a mechanism that appreciates cultural difference—which it posits as an aesthetic and ontological value—rather than assimilating it: “Exoticism’s power is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise,” he writes.
Segalen’s pioneering work on otherness anticipates and informs much of the current postcolonial critique of colonial discourse. As such Essay on Exoticism is essential reading for both cultural theorists or those with an interest in the politics of difference and diversity.
I was in Copenhagen last week, revelling in the exoticism. Mouse-blond hair, sea-glass eyes; tall Vikings cycling along, with their fresh complexions and stubby boots. Wearing stripes and eating shrimp on black bread. Looking patient, civilized, sturdy and weathered, with a touch of glorious paganism under the surface. Privy to the great magnetic secrets of the boreal realm. Sexy: so cold and well meaning and white. Mysterious: the real reason that I devour all that generally disappointing Scandinavian noir. While they were busy looking at me and savoring the imaginary fire under my swarthy skin and kinky hair, I was busy enjoying my fantasies about them.
It comes from the Greek exotikos, “foreign,” which in turn comes from the prefix exo, meaning “outside.” All dictionary definitions of “exotic” have two strands: “from a distant place,” and “striking and attractive because unfamiliar.” So, a simple conflation of strangeness and desire.
Google “exotic nature” and you will find an essential image: a coconut; a hammock; two palm trees.
A versatile concept, one would say, available for interpretation by all who notice differences. Yet anyone raised within the confines of the European canon knows that, in that context, “exotic” inevitably means “dark.” What I myself—a woman of African descent, domesticated by European rules—first envision, when I hear “exotic,” is an eye, black as a bottomless well. Darkness with a secret glitter in its depths, hinting at information both offered and withheld. But, for me, intense light—sun beating on rye fields, eyes like a bare Montana sky—can also evoke mystery and desire.
The writer and ethnologist Victor Segalen, drifting between Paris and China, Java and Tahiti, wrote his “Essay on Exoticism” in 1904. Oddly enough, with the passing years, Segalen has become somewhat exotic himself: French. An opium-addicted dreamer. An explorer. A tracker of dangerous themes through the forest of iconoclasm that was the early twentieth century.
In my childhood house in Philadelphia, a huge gold-framed painting hung in the dining room, an heirloom from a rich cousin of my father’s who had travelled all over the world and died senile in a house stuffed with mementos. Painted in the nineteen-twenties by a famous black woman artist, the painting depicted, in murky tints, what seemed to be a very stiffly rendered French marquise, complete with beauty patches, vapid rouged face, and powdered wig. But, if one looked closer, the subject proved to be a large French doll—and not alone, for almost invisible behind her stood another doll, a turbaned black mammy whose eyes and gold earrings and red lips shone with unsettling vividness out of the shadows.
The mammy doll was there in the immemorial tradition of the black servant, an intended touch of exoticism. Yet in the end—and certainly not by accident—the convention was upset. She dominated the scene, glowing with triumphant demonic life, as if she had sucked the blood out of her pale mistress and replaced it with sawdust. An example of the exotic spilling out of bounds, taking on a power that it isn’t supposed to have. This picture sat in the background of our middle-class colored Sunday dinners like a memento mori, and we made fun of it the way you joke about things that truly scare you.
When I was eleven, and one of the first black pupils at an expensive girls’ private school, I was excluded from many parties and other social activities. But I was given a small role in “The King and I,” as the Siamese noblewoman Lady Thiang. For this, I was unquestioningly costumed in a blue sari someone’s family had brought back from a tour of India. “Oh, how that color suits your skin!” the teachers and suburban mothers who made up the audience exclaimed. “How lovely! You look so exotic!”
I was flattered, but puzzled that I—invisible, untouchable to them in everyday life—could suddenly be beautiful in the identity of a fictional woman from the East.
This was the first of many times that white people—lovers, friends, complete strangers at parties—called me “exotic” as if they were giving me a wonderful present.
What else is “exotic”? It involves strangeness and desire, the desire for strangeness, with a sense of risk but no real threat of danger. There is always an element of ownership and control about “exotic”—because the dreamer controls the fantasy—which is the downfall of real contact. There is always something willfully stupid about “exotic”: two-dimensional, fundamentally dull, like all fetishism. Exoticism is built on limitation. It is exciting in the same amateur way as mild bondage in lovemaking, and as quickly forgotten.
“I’m feeling so exotic,” a Bollywood actress sings in a duet with a mediocre American hip-hop star. “Mumbai, Cuba, baby, let’s go / La-love me all the way to Rio.”
Segalen writes that it is “nothing other than the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one’s self.”
He omits the element of attraction, the human conflation of mystery and longing that leads circuitously toward the divine.
On another occasion at my school, the community-service club was appealing for volunteers. To the assembled rows of students in blue uniforms, the senior girl making the announcement described Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods in a dramatic voice, as if she were narrating an adventure story. “Have you ever visited the ghetto?” she asked. “Have you ever been to an African Baptist church?”
She could not have known that one neighborhood she described was where my mother taught elementary school. And that my father was the minister of the church whose name, on her lips, sounded so thrillingly savage. Alone in that sea of white girls, I sat frozen with the shock of worlds—entire dimensions of existence—colliding.
Recently, I asked my secretary, a young English woman, what springs to mind when she hears “exotic,” and she said “waxed”—she did not know why. Waxed like a tropical fruit, brought from too far away, and already stale inside? Waxed like a porn actress’s faux-childish vulva? I know she isn’t telling me everything.
On the island where I spend several months a year, off the northwestern coast of Madagascar, apples are exotic fruits. Shipped from France or New Zealand, they are bruised and mealy and cost a fortune in the supermarket where only the whites and rich Malagasy go.
I saw an old photograph commemorating the arrival of the first bananas in Norway. Bunches are displayed hanging before a warehouse, flanked by tall Norwegians in formal suits and hats, local merchants and dignitaries, posed ceremonially, as if welcoming royalty. What strange insects, what fantasies, arrived with that cargo?
When I first came to live in Italy, I was in Rome crossing Via Veneto one summer afternoon when two strolling Italian men, possibly tourists from a provincial town, turned to look at me. One said to the other, quite audibly, “That, my boy, is a mulatta from Cuba or Brazil!” He said it admiringly, with mock instructiveness but also with triumph, like a naturalist who has just sighted a rare specimen.
An art-historian friend, whose parents, years ago, moved from Mumbai to New York, tells me that what is exotic to her is golf. For me, too, growing up black in Philadelphia, golf—with its verdant country-manor acres and its association with the Scottish Highlands and other northern regions, where even dogs’ eyes are blue—was an activity of distant glamour. It belonged to the masters, who at that point in history were no longer officially masters but still clearly ran the world.
Strangely enough, many of the men I knew in childhood—doctors, lawyers, ministers, including my father and uncle—themselves played golf, at a public links that accepted middle-class colored folk. But this fact had no place in my fantasy, which was about an opulent world in which my presence was forbidden. I imagined what my father and his friends did as a poor copy of the real activity, a sham: Negro golf.
On a Sunday afternoon in winter, in the bleak hinterland of an alpine Italian city, I glimpse an exotic tableau. Beside the road behind the shopping mall, amid the trash and frozen weeds, a bonfire burns. In its light stand two impossibly beautiful Nigerian prostitutes, nearly naked in bras and thong underwear. Long braids streaming, buttocks gleaming like teakwood, symmetrically posed half turned away from each other, like a pair of urns on a mantelpiece. They seem impervious to the December cold. Their faces are masks.
The scene has an almost supernatural beauty that one immediately feels is too grand for its audience: glum Turin factory workers who come out in their battered Fiat Unos with a shamefaced desire for a taste of darkness between Sunday lunch and dinner.
When was it that I began to exoticize white boys? There was a prince in a storybook illustration who had hair like a new broom and wore such a bored expression as he kissed the princess that I instantly fell in love. And the classmate in fourth grade who was slow in reading and arithmetic but entranced me with eyes the sullen gray of late-winter ice. Later, there were prep-school boys with grubby khaki trousers and the pure, androgynous faces of Christmas-card angels.
My thoughts also lingered on the bad white Southern men who, I had learned from the news, wished to murder little black girls like me, to set police dogs on us, to blow us up even in church. This inexplicable hatred gave them, to me, a perverse allure: in daydreams, I imagined holding them at gunpoint—before falling dead, they’d acknowledge my beauty and power. As I grew older and started to identify the elaborate tracery of mixed African and European blood in my own family, I began to glimpse the obsession that lay beneath white loathing. It didn’t take many years to discover that there were white men who found me as exotic as I found them.
For a short time, one of my boyfriends was a sweet-natured, freckled student who had worked in Appalachia and could imitate a backwoods twang. He was puzzled when I made him talk in that hillbilly voice over and over again, in and out of bed.
One night in Moscow, when I was on a university exchange there, a drunken workman suddenly embraced me on a crowded bus. He stank of sausage and raw spirit, and it was like being abruptly swallowed up by all of Russia. As other passengers pulled him away from me, he hoarsely and joyfully repeated a few words of English: “My—black—friend!”
Strangely enough, this phrase has lived on in my family. My children use it whenever they think a white person has said something ignorant but really cute.
Once, when I was very small, my mother suddenly informed me: “Jewish people, you know, eat in restaurants.” She made this peculiar declaration, one of the few things she ever said about another religion, with an oracular air that flooded me with curiosity, and also with envy—for our family, whether from parsimony or fear of prejudice, never ate out. At that time, I knew little of Jews, but that enigmatic piece of maternal wisdom lingered in my imagination, draping a veil of mysterious glamour around an entire people and their faith. Why, I wondered, did they eat in restaurants? And when? Always? Were they so grand?
The Ghanaian novelist whose personal beauty we struggle to separate from her spare, forceful writing sits gleaming like onyx in a yellow gown. She lives in Rome and is talking to an Italian journalist about the concept of home. The journalist, a young man, stammers his questions as he stares at her with the expression of a sailor who has just sighted the Fortunate Isles.
High above the Schuylkill River, on a wide suburban avenue, there was once a Polynesian restaurant called the Kona Kai. My family of restaurant avoiders drove by it on our way to dine at Aunt Mabel’s house, in Germantown. I yearned to feast in splendor at the Kona Kai, which looked like a huge, dark stockade, studded with blazing torches and guarded by giant tiki statues that seemed to demand adornment with the skulls of conquered enemies; inside were said to be waterfalls, orchids, fiery drinks, and barbaric skewers of meat. Surrounded by ranks of gleaming station wagons, it enshrined the power of the rich Philadelphia suburbs nearby. It seemed that, in addition to country clubs, the residents possessed their own small primitive kingdom.
“Can something be exotic and real at the same time?” asks one scholar, who has written about exoticism in an unexpectedly boring way.
I went to a small police station near my house in Turin to report a minor loss. There, in a gloomy, biscuit-colored room that overlooked a vegetable garden whose zucchini vines were already beginning to twine onto municipal property, I found two bored young carabinieri at their desks. One of them sat in a daze, staring out the window. When I filed my report and said that I was from the United States, this boyish policeman sighed heavily, and, still gazing at the zucchini, said in a dreamy voice: “I want to move to America—and to live in Malibu.” He said “Malibu” with the same rapturous tone of longing with which some Americans say “Tuscany.”
My daughter called me from her college exchange program in Beijing and informed me excitedly that she was dating a celebrity, the most famous black model in China.
“How many black models are there?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, reflecting. “Him, of course. And then—his friend.”
On my first visit to Madagascar, I walked on an empty beach in a silk Indian wrap, carrying a Chinese sunshade. I knew that, behind the trees and out on the bay, there were fishermen and cane cutters whose faces looked much like mine, or like the faces of my relatives in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. But their language, their stark poverty, was untranslatable, and I moved among them behind a crystal wall of privilege. So there I was on the sand, like a flat figure—romanticized, exotic—from English wallpaper or a French toile, consciously theatrical rather than embarrassed, as I ought to have been.
Because I myself have been casually described as “exotic” so many times, I feel, in a vague way, that I own the word. Some related things that I vaguely feel I own:
All Venetian jewelry in the form of glittering turbaned Moors’ heads.
All Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shakers.
All black American music—jazz, blues, soul, R. & B., funk, house, dub, extending on into rhythmic black eternity—that I hear in Europe.
All naïve European chinoiserie, like blue willow plates, or the yellowing eighteenth-century wallpaper scrolls that I have hanging in my bedroom, which show a pair of aristocratic Chinese ladies with tiny bound feet, European features, and high powdered wigs.
Any form of decoration with a colonial theme, like steel engravings showing Adonis-like black slaves hauling cane.
Any piece of antique furniture woven with wicker and shining with brass.
All molasses, sugar, and rum.
The anarchist and critic Félix Fénéon, one of the shadowiest mavericks of turn-of-the-century France, was sometimes described by his artist friends as a Yankee—a term intended to give him a dangerous gloss of American exoticism.
The exotic may be impertinent, playful, or decorative, but it is always unexpected. A pearl in a black ear. A beauty mark on a powdered white face. A mythical white queen in the heart of Africa. A real black poet in the heart of Russia.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, I am walking down a beautiful street of baroque palaces in the center of Turin when I hear black American laughter drifting down from a leafy balcony. A voice with an unmistakable accent makes some remark in English about “white people,” and I feel such a sudden wave of nostalgia that I barely restrain myself from shouting up to these unknown conversationalists, who, in Italy, are as out of place as I am. Later, I wonder at how many different kinds of desire a foreigner can both inspire and feel.
In physics, it seems, an exotic atom is one born with some unusual particles mixed in. Because these outlandish particles are often unstable, exotic atoms, like tragic mulattoes, live short lives.
Segalen describes “the sensation of exoticism: surprise. Rapidly dulled.”
Sometimes one can recapture that fleeting sensation with names—place-names. If I am hiking up a familiar path near my house in Turin and I think, “I am climbing a hill in Italy,” there is a brief whiff of foreign glamour. And, when I arrived in Uzbekistan and was disappointed to find that city people took buses and trams as they do everywhere else, I could revive a touch of fantasy by silently repeating, “Streetcars in Samarkand.”
I like French and Italian movies that portray America as an exotic place. A generation ago, the setting was the boundless blood-spattered West. Now the fantasies of European directors are often sparked by wide landscapes of unfenced suburban houses, by oversize cars and people, vast dishes of bland food, the earnest virtues and mild eccentricities of families without long pasts. With stale modernity smeared over everything like ketchup. I like to watch this stuff and drift into imagining, just for a minute, that I’m seeing it all for the first time.
At the center of the courtyard of the Radcliffe library grew a single pine tree whose humpbacked silhouette suggested a letter in unknown calligraphy. I used to look up from studying and think of Greece or Japan. The twisted tree, with its fringe of fine light needles, meant distance and the unknown to me, and as I stared at it season after season I swore a fierce promise to myself: that I would travel far enough to decipher that cryptic, that irresistible, message.
Now I live in a country far from where I was born—in fact, have made it my life to be a foreigner. And I have admired many magnificent pines, rising like geysers out of the rubble of old monuments, or bent like arthritic hands beside foggy mountain shrines.
And these days, oddly enough, what I find most mysterious and alluring is the image of the person I was back then—the ever more distant seventeen-year-old girl in patched jeans and a man’s undershirt who sat reading Baudelaire like a cheap guidebook.
In the end, no one has come up with a good definition of exoticism. We all use the word carelessly, complicit with the ineradicable tinge of tawdriness that it always carries with it. And still it never loses its strange power.
My eldest brother calls me from California with an idea for a crime novel that he wants me to write. The heroine would be an Italian nun. But the hook, he says—he who too often was cast as the dark magus in school Christmas pageants—the hook is that the murder victim is an immigrant who arrived illegally in Italy by boat or truck. “You know,” he adds cheerfully. “African or Asian, one of those exotic types.”