Well, this is awkward.
The trouble with analyzing the autobiographical is that one is also, to some extent, analyzing the person. And that just seems rude, right? Thinking of the autobiographies I have read, I try to tread that fine line, but I confess I drift into murky waters with the public personas, the people who deliberately live their lives as on-camera. The Gen-Xer, anti-establishment, and introvert in me can’t imagine such a choice, but it seems to me that in becoming a brand or a product, one has opened oneself up to deconstruction of what that brand is, right? Since this book is based on Nabongo’s long-standing blog and Instagram of the same name (she describes herself early on as a “content creator”), I will proceed.
The book itself is a pleasure; solid, photo-focused, high-quality paper with large color photos on nearly every page. Although it does not have an entry for each of the 195 countries she visited, it highlights many of them in rough chronological order. It also includes a nice introduction to the book, an epilogue, a list of the 195 countries with year visited, and a suggested bucket list for the reader. Each section has small detail map of the country highlighted within the continent it is located, which I appreciated a great deal as a geography-challenged American. There’s also small sidebars, in the manner of some of the Dummies books, with ‘Tips,’ explanations, ‘Must Do/See,’ but these are infrequent. Kudos to the design team.
As the book takes place in chronological order, and it takes some time to travel all these places, it is, in many senses, also a rough journal of Jessica’s life changes. In a strange way, it goes from simple to complex, as Jessica is young when she starts and the countries she goes to are close and familiar; it gets more complicated as she gets older and the countries require more strategizing to reach. Thus, the initial countries are places like U.S., Canada and Jamaica, from 2008. Her piece on the U.S. was one of the more interesting, allowing her to address the issue of safety and traveling as a woman. She makes the unfortunate point that it was in the U.S. that her most frightening and unsafe interactions with the law happened, reminding us that safety is truly a matter of the speaker’s privilege when we talk about safety and travel.
On the one side, she’s done an amazing thing on a number of levels. Unsurprisingly, the majority of people that have travelled to ‘every country in the world’ are largely wealthy people, and unsurprisingly, often white men. It’s even become a competitive sport, according to Slate; when one millionaire was upset with the Travelers’ Century Club and Guinness World Records, he went on to found his own travel-validation website. So what I am saying here is that major kudos need to be given to Jessica for muscling her way in to this club as a Black American woman and a first-gen immigrant.
And on the other side, this was terribly challenging due to the self-centered nature of the book, both textually and visually. A significant portion of the full pictures centered on herself with a gorgeous and scenic background, à la social media. Again, great–celebrate Black beauty. But flip side–in a travel book? It begs the question, now that I think about it, why visit all the countries? She answers this question early on, and for me, it sounds, well, admittedly self-centered. Because she can, because she’d be the first Black woman, and because she’d be setting an example. However, is that any less self-centered than the millionaire who wanted to make Guinness Book of World Records? At least she’s also doing it from the position of a potential role model. You get my ambivalence, obviously.
But, role model a little less mirror-gazing, if you would. There are few insights in the first third of the book; it’s mostly “I did this, I ate this, I shopped here, the people are lovely” (the people were always lovely). There is a surprising amount of complaining about the quality of accommodations for someone that plans to be traveling the world. In Honduras, she writes, “I put my foot down. I demanded luxury.” There’s some kvetching about the village in Benin that was the absolute epitome of the self-centered American. Eventually, it becomes less about meeting her expectations as she grows up–her time in Benin was transformative, she thinks; it was one of her first jobs post-college –but it remained a generally surface-level gaze at most of the countries.
Take the chapter on Ghana: The city Accra in Ghana, she writes “quickly became one of my favorite party cities.” But why this is, she doesn’t say. She will say sort of meaningless things like “I love Ghana because I love Ghanaians. Whether at home or in the diaspora, Ghanaian people have a warm and fun energy.” To be sure, there’s other information: a paragraph each about her favorite meal, a tattoo she got, celebrating New Year’s Eve in 2019, dancers, a bus ride, and a brief mention of St. George’s Castle and the slave trade.
In a rare moment of referring back to my goodreads review, I included there a long excerpt under a spoiler from the Saudi Arabia, 2018 entry.
What I am saying, then, is that if you’d like an Instagram-level overview of all the countries in the world, it’s lovely to look at, easier to read than Insta, and less annoying than the imperialistic white dudes out there. So, endorsement, I guess? But if you want to know something about the world’s countries and their people, even at a surface level, I imagine you could do better. Even if it was a picture book, because you’d have zero pictures of the author.
Update: I’ve since learned Woni Spotts was the first Black woman to travel to all the countries, and did it about a year before Jessica. There’s some back and forth between the two, I suspect. But it also means that Jessica is that much more challenging to support.
What are you saying, koeur?