Reading the prologue to Invisible Man, my favorite book, I realized that my experience in East Timor is completely the opposite of Ralph Ellison’s main character in 1950s New York. His is a man who is systematic ignored, made to feel invisible for sheer lack of recognition of his existence, somebody who people bump into for not having seen, and then curse for being in the way, and being black. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… Then too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you wonder if you really exist.”
I on the other hand, am a white woman, so visible that I attract resentment and scorn as I move around here. People see me, curse me, and then bump into me on purpose! What a different set of circumstances. There is no wonder if I really exist, indeed my existence is follows me everywhere I go with smooching noises, and disapproving “tut-tutting,” or “Hello Mrs,” or “Professora bonitas.” Instead of seeing “my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination” as they do for Ellison’s character, when people see me they see me by a distorted version of me. Some kind of pornstar, erotic mirage rising before them in a desert of Catholic reppression.
My experience, however, is in a very fundamental way voluntary. I am an analogy to that white journalist who underwent pigment therapy and dyed his skin a darker tone in 1960s South to write the book Black Like Me. However nasty, or unbearable I find the experience of being a white, western woman in a repeatedly colonized, patriarchal third world country coming out of severe repression and trauma, I have an easy escape valve: leave. I have a new appreciation for the anger and the ambivalence of Ellison’s character, feeling the opposite sensation: visibility, but also knowing that for me it is temporary, it is a mere experiment.