Dr. Marie-Eve Carrier-Moisan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is an alumna of the University of British Columbia, having earned her PhD in 2012. I sat down with her to discuss her latest book, a graphic novel, Gringo Love: Stories of Sex Tourism in Brazil.
—-Lindsey Paskulin, PhD student in the UBC Department of Anthropology and Graduate Academic Assistant, Communications (spring 2021)
LP: I am very interested in your recent book, Gringo Love: Stories of Sex Tourism in Brazil. How did the idea for this book come to be?
MECM: Gringo Love is a bit of an unusual format. It’s a graphic story about my ethnographic research. The graphic form is emerging in anthropology—we see more and more anthropologists taking up this form. But back when I first started thinking about this, there were very few examples, if any. At the time, I had finished my dissertation and had just begun an Assistant Professor position at Carleton University in Ottawa. I was trying to think about ways in which I could communicate my research to a larger audience. I was a bit dissatisfied with the process of writing articles for very specialised journals that were read by only a handful of people. I also wanted to make my work accessible in Brazil, especially to those who were actively involved in anti-sex tourism campaigns.
I remember that one of my brothers had tried to read my dissertation, and had stopped reading it, as he struggled with some of the anthropological jargon I used. I thought I had been writing in an accessible way, that I was not too abstract and theoretical. What I realised though was that my work was alienating people not in academia and who were not anthropologists.
…I began to think about questions of access and audience. Who reads our work? Who has access to our work?…
At the same time, I had started to read graphic novels, in part because I read so many books for my dissertation that I had become tired of reading dense text. I started to read graphic novels as a way to find pleasure again in reading.
I became interested in a particular genre, graphic novels about real life experiences tied to social issues or linking history with biography. I started with Maus by Art Spiegelman, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I was just very fascinated by the genre— I was trying to find ways to do anthropology and to communicate research in an accessible way. It was actually my husband and collaborator on the project who had the idea. One day, we were talking about access and he said, ‘Why don’t you turn your dissertation into a graphic novel?’ and I said ‘Oh, I could do that, maybe…I don’t draw but maybe!’ [laughing]
LP: You just need to find an illustrator! [laughing]
MECM: Exactly! But there was a long time in between when I first thought about it and when it actually materialised as a real project. Initially, I don’t think I really believed that I could do it. It seemed like such a stretch for me. I’ve always been fascinated by visual anthropology and I’ve always liked thinking about other modalities for anthropological knowledge. But I don’t consider myself someone who thinks well visually. There was a bit of a challenge there! [laughing]
I started slowly, trying to figure out what was out there, what existed. I found, for example, Shane, The Lone Ethnographer by Sally Campbell Galman, which was a unique published anthropology book with some graphic elements. It’s a comic about research method. I found a few other things, but not that many.
I was planning to go to Brazil in 2014 to do research.
…I thought that the graphic story could focus on the campaign of sex tourism during the World Cup, and how this was affecting sex workers and women looking to date foreign men…
Initially, I was thinking I’d produce something small, maybe 25-30 pages. Then it became a book! [laughing]
A key moment for me in making this project possible was hiring a local Brazilian graphic illustrator, Débora Santos, and working collaboratively with her to make Gringo Love. Another key moment was when I was introduced to Anne Brackenbury from the University of Toronto Press. She was in the process of starting a new series called Ethno-Graphic. The whole series is about publishing scholarly work that engages ethnography in graphic form. There are all sorts of different projects as part of this series, I recommend looking at the books in the series, but the idea is to think about the graphic form as ethnography. So, there was a space, a structure in place, which really helped Gringo Love come to life.
LP: I love that. The graphic novel is such a unique way to think about ethnography and engage the public. The project on changes in sex tourism during the World Cup in Brazil, is this the focus of the final book?
MECM: In some ways it was but not entirely.
LP: Can you go a little into detail about your fieldwork? What was it like?
MECM: I had already been doing fieldwork in the city of Natal for my PhD in 2007 and 2008. I spent almost a year there, focusing particularly on an urban tourist beach called Ponta Negra. This was a prime site for tourists, particularly European tourists. At the time, Natal was getting high numbers of European tourists. There were a lot of chartered flights to Natal and a tourism boom in the early 2000s really transformed the place.
…In 2007-08, my focus had been intimate negotiation: the relationship between Brazilian women and European men and how they negotiated different aspects of these relationships…
I was interested in the ambiguity, in the way that they both were engaged in continual relationships ranging from commodified, with a clear exchange of sex for money, to relationships more similar to normative relationships, with aspects of dating and romance, some of which led to migration and marriage.
I was looking at that primarily, but I had also been looking at the mobilisation against sex tourism, and campaigns against sex tourism. I found that what people meant by sex tourism was not always clear, sometimes it was about children, sometimes it was about children and women— it wasn’t clearly defined. People played on the obscurity or lack of meaning to oppose all sorts of things. Ponta Negra used to be a space of leisure and consumption for the local middle class, but the increased tourism changed this space dramatically, drawing in people the locals didn’t want there. The local middle-class community considered the women who sought to date European tourists, and other informal workers coming to the beach to make a living, as undesirable. It all played out along racial lines and tensions, with the workers being racialized as non-white.
…There is a complex relationship there between gender, race, class, and sexuality. The opposition against sex tourism crystallized these relationships; it wasn’t just sex tourism that people opposed…
That was the research I did. When the World Cup came to Brazil in 2014, there was a huge intensification of focus on sex tourism through the lens of sex trafficking, leading to an intensification of practices of securitisation. There was intense surveillance in Natal, with the presence of various police forces all over — on foot, car patrols, helicopters, vans, etc. There was also intense mobilisation against sex tourism, and the beach had become more privatised and gentrified. At the same time, European tourism had dropped. I was hoping to track how this new context was transforming Natal and Ponta Negra. For the graphic novel, initially, I wanted it to be quite focused on the World Cup.
But once I tried to tell this story, it became important for me to explain the context leading up to the World Cup. The place had transformed significantly, and it felt important to also provide further context, so I ended up shifting the focus of the graphic story. The graphic story ended up telling the story of my fieldwork in 2007-2008, and especially about the kind of place Ponta Negra was back then.
LP: That is a lot of different perspectives to consider, between the people living in Natal, the sex workers, and sex tourists. Can you outline some of those perspectives? What did the sex tourists say?
MECM: With the tourists, I focused on a dominant pattern I observed. There were different elements in play in Ponta Negra’s beach economy, but as a space, it was mainly characterized by mostly heterosexual encounters—European men coming to Natal to meet Brazilian women.
What was really interesting is that there was a lot going on in terms of practices of masculine distinction. A lot of the men I talked to tried to position themselves as good men in that kind of economy.
…They didn’t see themselves as clients or sex tourists, most of them thought of themselves as good guys and framed their action as ‘helping poor women in need’…
Many of the men reconfigured what was happening in terms of these masculine ideas of themselves being good providers, and they felt value in that role because of the local context in which they found themselves.
There were a lot of different kinds of relationships and different class backgrounds in play. There was a significant proportion of men from the lower middle class who were not super wealthy; they had been saving for months to have this two-week holiday and charter flight. When they were in Natal, they suddenly had more power with their money; their money was worth more than in their local context back home, and they experienced a sense of value with that when in Ponta Negra. They took pride in paying for drinks for women and doing all of these things they may not have been able to do in their home countries.
It was interesting. Most of them would say things like ‘I’m against sex tourism’, none of the men I spoke with identified themselves as sex tourists. Many of them were interested in developing long-term relationships with Brazilian women. Some of them were looking for clear paid sexual exchange with sex workers, but many were looking for more romantic relationships and realised that many times, they had to pay for that.
LP: What did the Brazilian women think of that? I assume there were a lot of different motivations for them.
MECM: The women thought about it in a range of different ways.
…What I’m trying to do in Gringo Love, is show the different ways that women engage with these relationships and with their own positions…
For both the men and the women, something interesting was happening; they were each racializing one another and engaging in practices of feminine and masculine distinction. What was interesting for me was that the women were trying to establish themselves as good, respectable, marriageable women, because many of them aspire to a different life than what they had. They saw relationships with European men as opportunities to remake themselves in a more upwardly mobile way.
When people think of sex tourism, they think of a hypersexualised environment. That was certainly part of it, but what was really interesting was how the women sought to appear respectable. They did this in all sorts of subtle ways, in how they approach a man, how they talk to him, how they dress, even in the kind of drink that they would order, and the kind of conversation they would have.
…They would often talk to me about their approach to a man…
I think this reveals something about their social location, what was available to them, and their positioning in the Brazilian economy as women, as women who were engaging in something viewed as disreputable, as women who have been racialized, and as women who have been very limited in terms of their possibilities and economic opportunities in Brazil.
The class/race relations are very marked. Many of the women I spoke to used to work in factories or sometimes as domestic employees in the house of people with whom now they were able to sit in the same restaurant. They were able to frequent spaces that used to be inaccessible to them. With the gringo, they would go to a restaurant, a fancy restaurant that was previously inaccessible to them. That’s where the local middle class would find it really disturbing— to be sharing social space with people whom they feel didn’t belong. There was a lot of tensions between differently positioned groups, and this is why the opposition to sex tourism was about much more than just opposing sex tourism. It was also about who belongs in the middle-class spaces of the city.
LP: That’s really impressive and diverse. It’s a topic that needs to be talked about from all the different perspectives. So, what’s up next for you?
MECM: I’m really interested in continuing to think about anthropology, knowledge, knowledge economy, and how we do what we do. I think the pandemic has also brought a lot of questions about the meaning of our work. Anthropology is constantly asking itself ‘What are we? What’s the point?’ [laughing]
LP: Constant identity crisis [laughing]
MECM: Yes, a constant identity crisis! But I do think there are important questions to ask about the meaning of what we’re doing, why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how anthropological knowledge is produced. It feels like there is often a constant reproduction in anthropology despite critique. I want to think about that and about other modalities for doing anthropology. But I want to think critically about different modalities, and not establish any medium as being magical or having only democratic possibilities.
…I want to continue thinking about visual anthropology, knowledge production, and emergent forms…
I will continue to work in Brazil, but the situation there is complex at the moment with what’s happening with Bolsonaro and with the pandemic. It’s a very difficult time for sexual minorities, for gender minorities in Brazil, and for sex workers too. There’s a lot that’s happening. That’s something I want to continue to be engaged with.
I’ve also been looking a little bit more towards home. I used to work in the field of disability, especially intellectual disability. It’s a longstanding interest of mine that I put aside when I became an anthropologist. I am returning to this now thinking about care, and the governance and political economy of care in Quebec. I’m thinking about how care materialises in people’s lives, how it’s enacted in everyday experiences, and also thinking at the infrastructural level. It’s a completely new field so I’m figuring it out slowly, very slowly. [laughing]
LP: It’s great that you’re getting back to your roots! It’s always nice when you can return to something you put aside earlier.
MECM: Yeah it’s been important for me to think about the meaning behind what we do, so I’ve been trying to think through some important questions that connect back to where I live, to my home, to the state, to the institutions and how they are organising care. These are things I’ve been obsessing about for years! [laughing] They’re deeply personal.
LP: That’s great! After talking about your interests in why we do what we do, and the different means by which we communicate our research, what advice do you have for students who are thinking along similar lines of thought?
MECM: There are so many things I want to say.
…First, I want to recognise that right now it’s a particularly difficult time to be a student and to be in graduate school…
It’s challenging to do graduate studies under any circumstances, even with funding and support it’s hard. You take away any of these things, it adds to the challenge. Then, doing graduate studies in the middle of a pandemic is just— [laughs incredulously]
I do feel a lot of compassion for students at the moment. I’m the graduate program coordinator at Carleton University, so I deal a lot with our graduate students. I see the particular challenges first-hand, and especially in anthropology. We claim authoritative knowledge from being there, it’s so fundamental to how we construct knowledge. So, I just want to recognise that this is the context you’re in and it’s challenging, because the pandemic requires us to rethink the field.
One of the things I think I learned too late, is that we tend to think of ourselves, because of how academia is structured, as the sole author, the sole researcher, and as making our own way into the world. I think it’s a problem.
…We are not alone; we don’t ever think in isolation…
When we read a book, we are reading with someone; we are in conversation with an author. We think in the company of others, always. Whether it’s in a classroom forming our thoughts with our peers, receiving written feedback, or bouncing ideas in a coffee shop with friends. We are always thinking in the company of others. I would say that students need to foster that more, to accept it, and to make themselves more vulnerable so they can discuss and share their work and ideas. Because alone, we cannot go forward. We need others. In the context of the pandemic, the sense of isolation has been accentuated. I’d say that now, it’s even more important to seek others in trying to figure out your thinking.
Also, thinking is an ongoing process. I find that hard, because when we are asked to produce something, whatever the format is, we’re asked to somewhat fix the meaning for others.
…But this fixing is a fiction. We continue to think afterwards, we continue to reflect, and we’re going to eventually read things that will make us see things slightly differently…
We want to nuance that difference. I think writing is difficult because we have to accept that at one point, we have to let go of the idea that we should have it all figured out. You’ll never have it all figured out.
You have to accept that you and your work will be part of an ongoing conversation. The piece of writing stays fixed, but you continue to think, to read, to process things, and you change how you think about what you wrote. Writing allows us to process our thinking, to sort a problem, to work through something, and it’s a very helpful and important process. We just have to let go of this idea that we have to figure it out completely once and for all. It’s okay that it’s never figured out completely, that it’s unfinished and incomplete, because it’s part of an ongoing conversation.
During the pandemic, you can find Marie-Eve working at home in the company of family, including her two cats and their multi-story kitty condo.