By Lisa Anderson
Elizabeth Gilbert seems to be a rather divisive literary figure. Her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love told the story of the year she lived abroad after her first marriage ended. It spent almost two hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and was praised by Oprah Winfrey. At the same time, it received a lot of criticism in the blogosphere. The gist of the criticism is that many people have problems starker than Gilbert’s, that very few people have the resources to travel for a year as she did, a and that to use other countries as the backdrop for her personal salvation was imperialist at best, racist at worst.
I don’t think that any writer is above criticism, and I’m not trying to silence anyone. I certainly agree that racial and cultural sensitivity are important. However, a lot of what I’ve heard said about Gilbert misses the point of her work, and some critiques are quite sexist. I’d like to point out a few of the things that I’ve heard and explain why I don’t believe they apply.
This is perhaps the most common charge leveled against Elizabeth Gilbert. The idea is that she sought spiritual teaching in India and Indonesia because it was the chic thing to do; that she saw these places, in fact, as existing only for her betterment.
I define cultural appropriation as either (1) using something from another culture for a purpose that was never intended or (2) claiming a title that can only be conferred from within the culture, without the proper training. Gilbert didn’t do either of those things. Her interest in the spirituality of other lands seems sincere, and in Eat, Pray, Love, she does everything she is told, both at the Indian ashram and by her Balinese teacher.
This is the thread that disturbs me most of all in the criticism against her. Yes, people traveling in other countries or interacting with different cultures should absolutely do so with respect. I’m not trying to say that Gilbert was always perfect. However, so many of the arguments I’ve heard about Eat, Pray, Love imply that people have no right to take an interest in a culture or religion that’s not their own. People who think that they’re going to bat for people of color living in former colonies in fact end up making the same arguments as racists and isolationists.
A friend of mine summed it up best: “People get so wrapped up in trying to prove that one culture is just as good as another that they up saying, ‘Well, just [screw] culture!’”
These accusations related to the concept of cultural appropriation, and of the “Other” existing only for the benefit of white Westerners. At least one of the reviews I read of the Eat Pray Love film took issue with the archetype of the “smiling brown medicine man.” There actually is a medicine man in both the book at the movie. If I recall correctly, the blogger (who, in fairness, is Indian-American) had only seen the movie. If she’d read the book, Gilbert’s lengthy explanation of Balinese naming practices might have helped her remember that the medicine man’s name was Ketut Liyer.
It is true that Liyer is not depicted as three-dimensionally as one might hope, in either the book or the movie. In thinking about it, though, it occurred to me that that might be the result of discretion on Gilbert’s part. She may not share his foibles and failings in the same way she does with other characters, out of respect for him as her teacher.
Most importantly, Liyer is a very influential man is his community. He and his wife have everything they need. I frankly think it’s paternalistic to assume that he did not have any choice in spending time with Gilbert. He does not need Westerners, white or otherwise, coming to his rescue. Not only did Gilbert work in exchange for her teaching, bus as I have already pointed out, she did her best to follow his instructions.
The other, trickier incident involves Wayan, a Balinese healer who befriended Gilbert. Wayan and her daughter were forced to relocate frequently, as a result of the stigma around Wayan’s divorce and despite the fact that her husband had been violent. Gilbert solicited contributions from her friends to build them a modest home . . . only to have Wayan’s demands escalate to a full-scale healing center.
I’ll admit: there must have been a better way to handle Wayan’s plight. I’m just not sure what it would have been. Certainly, allowing Wayan to continue to be uprooted and her daughter to have to change schools regularly doesn’t seem like the best outcome. If Gilbert had not stepped in, I’m sure that people would stand ready to criticize her for that, too.
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