There’s actually a reason why I’ve never wanted to visit Spain. Back when I wasn’t afraid of airplanes, and I thought I’d spend my life traveling around the world as a photojournalist and novelist, I spent a couple of weeks in a small town in Holland. My friend there gave me a letter to read from her English buddy, a Black man who loved travel as much as I did. He was a little older, maybe 21 to our 18, and his letters were long and outrageously funny. The letter I read was about his unpleasant journey through Spain.
I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of it was that Spain was one of the most racist countries he had ever visited. I was surprised by this, but because Spain had never been at the top of any of my lists for anything, it was without regret that I declared I would never go there.
Over the years, I’ve been content to see Spain through Pedro Almodovar‘s eyes. Sometimes I see Spain through pictures my friend in London sends me. He’s involved with a Spaniard, so Spain, I think, has recently become important to him. This is my only connection to that country. I haven’t wanted more. But when I read a little bit about a forthcoming memoir called Kinky Gazpacho (March 2008) in a catalogue I picked up at BookExpo America last summer, I knew instantly I had to read it.
In Kinky Gazpacho, a Black American woman travels to Spain and “her innocent dreams of a place where race doesn’t matter are shattered.” Hadn’t I, at 18, decided never to step foot in Spain because of something I’d read in a letter written by a man I’d never met? My Spanish experience was clearly different from Lori’s (mainly because I never really had a Spanish experience), but twenty years later my aversion toward Spain remained the same and I’d never had any reason to challenge those feelings. Without any facts other than the memory of a letter I read in 1988, I’d written Spain off as a racist country I would never visit (even if I overcame my fear of flying). Now, here was a woman who had actually traveled to Spain a few years after I’d read that disappointed letter by a young Black man who had just been there, and experienced what I had not allowed myself to experience when I was young and curious about other cultures. Not until I picked up Kinky Gazpacho had I ever wondered whether my choice was a bad one.
Many years ago, my husband and I went to hear Lori L. Tharps, the author of Kinky Gazpacho, read from a book she coauthored called Hair Story at a Brooklyn Barnes & Noble. We really liked her, so I wasn’t surprised by how much I enjoyed her voice. You know when you finish a book and feel sad because you don’t actually know the people you’ve just spent a few days with? That’s how I felt when I finished reading Kinky Gazpacho. I think I would have been content with 100, maybe even 150, more pages of Lori’s life in the United States and Spain, as well as her research into the history of slavery in Spain – a history that seems to have been buried by the Spanish government and forgotten by its people. That’s really my only complaint about this memoir. It was too short.
In Kinky Gazpacho, Lori writes about growing up Black in Wisconsin and dreaming of a place where race won’t define her. At a young age, she decides that place will probably be Spain. She attends Smith College in Massachusetts, where her attempts to have an authentic Black experience fail, and she finally turns her dream to study in Spain into a reality. It’s Lori’s year abroad in Spain that changes things. Spain isn’t the haven she expects it to be. All around her, there are signs that Spaniards are racist. From the nation’s favorite candy (chocolate covered peanuts in “little plastic statues of a naked Pygmy with oversized red lips, bulging eyes and and a spear in his little hand” called Conguitos), to a Spanish mother trying to control her ill-behaved child by threatening him with “If you don’t behave, I’ll give you to that” while pointing at Lori, to an article in a Sunday paper that discusses “the Black woman’s hypersexuality through our intrinsically savage nature.” Yecch.
Lori doesn’t give up on Spain. In fact, she finds an excellent reason to keep Spain and Spanish culture in her life. His name is Manuel. There’s a wonderful scene in the book when Manuel meet’s Lori’s family for the first time during a reunion. I laughed out loud when Lori and Manuel walked into the house to find the family sitting quietly, waiting for their arrival.
Something Lori manages to do really well, I think, is write funny scenes without trying to be funny. The absurd things that people do or say, the things that aren’t really funny as they’re happening, come to life on the page in Kinky Gazpacho. Like the time a boy invites Lori over for dinner and the date isn’t what she was expecting. And, of course, the aforementioned family reunion.
There are also small moments I related to as I was reading, like Lori wiping away all evidence of her hair in Manuel’s family’s bathroom after washing and blow drying it. I spent a lot of time wiping hair off the walls of my brother-in-law’s bathroom when he moved his family from Denmark to Wisconsin and I finally had a chance to visit them. I never told my husband about that until after I read Kinky Gazpacho.
As the memoir comes to an end, Lori begins to research Spain’s history with slavery. Only recently, after a three day trip to Newport, Rhode Island where I was able to indulge my long buried passion for nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mansions, have I started thinking about all the history we destroy on a daily basis for the sake of gentrification. In the case of Spain, their history with slavery wasn’t destroyed to make room for new parking lots and snazzy condos, but to hide something ugly. I loved Lori’s enthusiasm as she learned more and more about Spain’s Black residents. For a moment, her memoir inspired me to get up and start researching all the things I’ve wanted to research since I was a teenager.
As I mentioned earlier, Kinky Gazpacho could have been longer. I wanted to know more about both Lori’s and Manuel’s families. And I thought there should have been some mention of when and why Lori became a member of the Baha’i faith just to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. (My best friend’s fiance is half-Persian and I’d never heard of the Baha’i faith until they started dating.) I would have also liked to read more about how Manuel adjusted to life in New York, and later in Philadelphia. Minor quibbles, really. And of course all these missing details leave room for another memoir.
Kinky Gazpacho hasn’t changed my mind about Spain, but I really enjoyed reading it. Definitely recommended.
Edited to add: On the front of today’s New York Times (February 4, 2008): Racism Hits Formula One in Spain.