Books interview: Debbie Lisle

The scholar of international relations and author of Holidays in the Danger Zone on misplaced nostalgia, foreign encounters and the allure of ‘dark tourism’

August 18, 2016
Author Debbie Lisle, Queen's University Belfast

What books inspired you as a child?
My first favourite book was Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World, in essence animals dressed up as national stereotypes and getting into adventures (eg, “Ah-Choo of Hong Kong” and “Schtoompah the funny Austrian”). I recently got a used copy for my own kids, and my feelings of nostalgia were quickly torpedoed by the book’s Eurocentrism and casual racism – a good reminder that privilege and inequality are often reproduced where we least expect, as in the seemingly innocent caricatures of “French” dogs, “African” lions and “Australian” kangaroos.

How does your new book, Holidays in the Danger Zone: Entanglements of War and Tourism, arise out of your earlier research?
All my work, to some extent, explores how cross-cultural encounters are shaped by entrenched asymmetries of global power, but also how they disturb and unwork them. I like it when things go wrong or don’t go the way people expect them to. My earlier work looked at cultural and visual representations (eg, travel writing, films, photography, museums), but this book explores the material and embodied practices of everyday life – what people actually do when they encounter foreign landscapes and people. My curiosity about the connections between war and tourism has been with me for a long time, but the book itself developed over a decade – a punishable offence in the REF-driven frenzy of thinking and publishing everything immediately.

Have you ever personally been interested in ‘dark tourism’ in dangerous places, and is it a significant phenomenon in Belfast?
Absolutely. When I was young and even stupider than I am now, I was very attracted to global “dark spots” and travelled to places such as Vietnam, South Africa and Sarajevo. I have no idea what I expected to find there, but I often return to the deep discomfort and disorientation that I felt in all those sites. Belfast is an interesting manifestation of “dark tourism” because it tries to avoid the difficulties of the Troubles by offering comforting messages of peace and reconciliation, or resorting to depoliticised claims about neutrality and impartiality.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
I gave my partner Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a very moving and poetic intervention into America’s complex racial politics. Her careful, thoughtful and detailed stories are important counterpoints to the violent speed of current events, and provide something meaningful to hold on to when you wake up and can’t bear to read the news.

What books are currently on your desk waiting to be read?
There is no way to answer this without sounding completely pretentious and awful, but I’m staring at Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution and Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.

Debbie Lisle is reader in international relations and director of postgraduate research, Queen’s University Belfast, and author of Holidays in the Danger Zone: Entanglements of War and Tourism (University of Minnesota Press).

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