INTERVIEW: Joshua Samuel Brown on His Ongoing Love Affair With Taiwan

INTERVIEW: Joshua Samuel Brown on His Ongoing Love Affair With Taiwan
Credit: Illustration by David Lee Ingersoll (2015)
What you need to know

'Josambro' chatted with TNL's Cat Thomas ahead of an April 25 book reading in Taipei of 'Formosa Moon,' co-authored with Stephanie Huffman.

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Growing up “on the streets of New York,” Joshua Samuel Brown (also known as Josambro) always knew he’d wind up being a writer. In 1994, as he turned 24, he expanded his travels beyond New York State, first moving to Taiwan where he quickly settled in with a standard issue teaching gig in Taichung. Not long thereafter, he began his career as a freelance journalist mainly focused on travel writing. With the Taiwan of yesteryear not attracting much in the way of interest from travel publications, he moved over to China spending three years building his chops as a travel writer based largely in Beijing, Kunming and Yangshuo.

After a further two years living on Lamma Island in Hong Kong, he returned to the shores of Taiwan to write up his first Lonely Planet guide, choosing to base himself largely in Penghu for “weird” reasons. Fans of his work will not be remotely rattled by that explanation as a strong streak of the other and love of the strange, disturbing, and wonderful runs through his work.

The next four years or so were largely nomadic as he embarked on work on a series of Lonely Planet guides – Belize; Singapore City Guide; Greater Mekong; Singapore Encounter; Central America on a Shoestring – before settling for a while in Portland where he worked as a travel guide.

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Credit: Stephanie Huffman
Joshua Samuel Brown, covered by various books he has authored or co-authored, 2013.

Over the course of his career, Josambro has been featured in a wide array of publications – including Bicycle Times, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Standard, China Post, Taiwan News, Colorado Daily, Beijing Scene, City Weekend, Business Traveler Asia, Cat Fancy, Dim Sum Literary Journal, Destination Belize, Travel in Taiwan, The Rocky Mountain Bullhorn, Funny Times, Taiwan Business TOPICS and numerous in-flight magazines – covering cycling, music, culture, politics and of course, travel, with his distinctive writing. He also authored “Vignettes of Taiwan” (2006) and “How Not to Avoid Jet Lag & Other Tales of Travel Madness” (2014) and contributed to several other travel-based food guidebooks.

However, despite his wanderings overseas, his heart remained in Taiwan as laid out in his latest book, “Formosa Moon.” In the opening paragraphs he describes telling his girlfriend, Stephanie Huffman, early in the relationship that if they were to stay together for any period of time, she’d have to share said heart with Taiwan.

Fortunately for his avid readers, Stephanie took this in stride and a couple of years later they left their home in Portland to set out on an extended adventure around Taiwan, book advance in hand, to co-author a travelogue of their trip in which Josambro hopes to entice her to fall in love with his adopted homeland. The result is a stunningly beautiful – and oft-amusing - book which will resonate with readers who know Taiwan, and is an excellent way to encourage wary relatives to come and visit – although you may have to be prepared to stump up for a hot air balloon ride over Taitung to fully meet their thus-raised expectations.

The News Lens interrupted Josambro on a recent cycling jaunt in the east of Taiwan – a well-deserved break after winding up his position as editor-in-chief for Taiwan Scene – to mither him with pesky questions ahead of the upcoming book reading of "Formosa Moon" on April 25 in Taipei. He graciously took the time to enlighten us on several matters including his new self-created religion, early years, and of course his writing adventures – with news of a new book in the offing.

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Credit: Supplied
Josambro leads a tour with Bicycle Adventures in Eastern Taiwan in Spring 2015.

The News Lens: Growing up in New York State, did you have an inkling that you would spend a large portion of your adult life as a travel writer?

Josambro: I grew up in Staten Island. Any more downstate and you’re in New Jersey. But I did go to university in Brockport, upstate New York – any more upstate and you’re in Lake Ontario. I’ve always been a traveler, stemming from an early – and successful – career as a runaway child. But I always figured I would wind up a writer. My early heroes were people like Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Kurt Vonnegut, all writers who also did a good bit of travel.

Outside from teaching English, the first non-writing job I had as an adult was working as a sweatshop inspector, which led to one of my first major magazine articles: Memoirs of a Dog Meat Man, a.k.a. Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector. I wrote this originally on assignment for The Nation, but for whatever reason they didn’t run it, but it got a lot of traction for a year or two, winding up in a few textbooks and magazines about workers’ rights. (You can read it here.)

TNL: You’ve racked up 25 years on and off in Taiwan, your adopted second home. What were your first impressions? As it has modernized, is there anything you miss from those first couple of years here, aside from having the constitution of a fresh faced 24-year-old?

Josambro: My first impression of Taiwan was from the Ang Lee (李安) film “Eat Drink Man Woman” (飲食男女), and when I first landed in Taiwan and came to Taipei that’s pretty much what it was like – scooters everywhere, people mountain people sea, that sort of thing. I did a lot of traveling by motorcycle my first few years here, having bought a second (or sixth, for all I knew) Sanyang 125cc bike from some outgoing westerner in a bar in Taichung. Never got the paperwork for it, never had a proper Taiwanese license either. Back in those days, nobody really cared, and if the police pulled you over, they’d usually let you go if you were polite and apologetic about not having a license. So there was definitely a more wild west vibe to Taiwan back then. You could rent a motorcycle anywhere, stuff like that. But on the whole, I think I prefer it now.

TNL: How do you think the rapid and enthusiastic adoption of smartphones by Taiwanese people has changed the environment for travelers in Taiwan?

Josambro: It’s a mixed bag. I mean, on the one hand, yeah, it’s easier to get around. I’m currently on a bicycle trip down the east coast, and I can pretty much use my smartphone to find hotels, steer me into otherwise hard to find spots, measure distance between points. On the other hand, having made travel much easier, its robbed travel of a good deal of that… sense of accomplishment, I guess, that it once brought me. Taiwan used to be kind of a niche destination, and the deeper you got into Taiwan the more niche it felt. These days that really isn’t the case.

JSB_Muddy
Credit: Stephanie Huffman
Taiwan may not feel as 'niche' as it once did, but traveling the Beautiful Island is still a blast. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown at Tainan's Guanziling Hot Springs.

TNL: On your Twitter thread recently you shared the story of landing your role as a writer for Lonely Planet, complete with your sample guide to bygone Shekou. What’s your favorite landing-a-gig story?

Josambro: Heh. Yeah, as far as “how I got the job” tales, that’s pretty much the best one I have. The only one I have that’s even close is only so on a personal level, and that’s mostly because it was a pretty formative for me. I got a mountain bike for my 16th birthday and promptly carried it up the stairs of the Lightspeed Messenger office on Great Jones street, told them I was 18 and demanded a job as a bike messenger. I looked like I was 14, produced no documentation and got the job out of sheer moxie. The story about how I got fired from that company is even better, but let’s save that one for another day.

TNL: Other than Taiwan, for which you have a clear affection which led to the penning of “Formosa Moon,” which of the countries that you wrote up for Lonely Planet was your favorite?

Josambro: I don’t really play favorites with places. I mean, next to Taiwan I’ve spent the most time in Belize, and I have a good amount of affinity and affection for the place and the people. They sort of march to the beat of their own drummer there, which I appreciate.

TNL: You’ve contributed to several travel guides and written numerous travel articles. Has your wanderlust dimmed any over the years?

Josambro: No, but it’s shifted. I’ve been studying astronomy for the past couple of years. I just turned 50, so I figure I’ve got another two or three decades in this meat-shell. Once I ditch it, I’m leaving the solar system for some serious exploration. It’s all part of the religion I invented, Norrinism. (You can read about it here.)

TNL: You’ve most certainly met your share of odd characters along the way, as evidenced in your books “Vignettes of Taiwan” and “How Not to Avoid Jet Lag & Other Tales of Travel Madness.” Is there anyone that sticks in your mind as someone that you would love or fear to meet again?

Josambro: I’d like to hang out with Michael Palin again. I could probably live without meeting up with the Taiwanese guy who beat me up at the VS club. I hope the guy with the cudgel from Supper in Uigherville (a story in “How Not to Avoid Jet Lag”) is doing OK.

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Credit: Supplied
Joshua Samuel Brown in Portland, Oregon.

TNL: Your writings in “How Not to Avoid Jet Lag” certainly demonstrate that you’ve ended up in some rather odd situations at times (Supper in Uigherville being a good one). What would you say was your biggest WTF have I got myself into moment?

Josambro: Uigherville has run in a few publications, but the original online magazine that ran it before I put it into “Jet Lag” (“Cherry Bleeds,” run by my very awesome friend Tony DuShane, author of “Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk,” now a major motion picture…) is currently offline. But I digress. The situation described in “Uigherville” was largely out of my control. I mean, I’d come to Beijing in 1999 – a place I’d never been – accepting a job offer sight unseen over the internet by a semi-deranged magazine publisher who insisted on putting me through a first-day rite of passage. But later in my career I started seeking out challenging experiences to give my writing an edge. I’ve always been afraid of heights, so I did a story for The Rocky Mountain Bullhorn about skydiving that culminated in my doing a jump with a good friend of mine, a professional skydiver who would die in a jump a couple of years later. In “Vignettes of Taiwan” there’s a story called Fight Club, where I basically get my ass kicked in an underground fight club. That was a WTF moment, for sure. Anyway, back to Supper in Uigherville – the story is one of 19 illustrated tales of Travel Madness available for a pittance here.

TNL: Travel writing has certainly changed since you first started punting as a freelance writer. What are your opinions on the matter?

Josambro: One phenomenon that’s caused me a certain sense of antipathy, or maybe just old-man grumpiness, is that of “travel influencers,” folks with Instagram accounts who act as if their ability to post selfies while traveling and diddling their Instagram stats somehow entitles them to free meals and hotel rooms. I worked with a bunch of “influencers” last year, and while a handful of them were actually pretty diligent in providing the general public with useful information – in some cases within very unique niche areas – others were just… dull grifters, cheap attention whores taking advantage of new technology to fund experiences that they lacked the talent to either convey to readers or even to appreciate much.

TNL: Last summer you published “Formosa Moon,” which you co-authored with your partner Stephanie Huffman. It’s a fascinating read in which the pair of you explore Taiwan each offering your own interpretation of the country. Are there any escapades that didn’t make the final cut of the travelogue that you’d care to share here?

Josambro: Thank you. Yeah, like anything, we had to make some editing choices. We went to a few places that just were pleasant enough, but not interesting enough to really make for a great story so we ditched ‘em from the book. We vacillated for a while about including “A Nihilist’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake” before deciding its tone didn’t really fit the book, so I put it up as a blog post.

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Credit: Tobie Openshaw
Joshua Samuel Brown (L) and Stephanie Huffman at the start of the trip which became 'Formosa Moon,' January 2017.

TNL: How was the experience of co-authoring with someone you are so close to?

Josambro: It really wound up being quite the organic process, with certain chapters working better in her voice while others worked better in mine. We had some back and forth about the layout, but as we continued doing the research it became clear that the final layout of the book should be chronological. As far as editing and proofreading, we each read through and edited each other’s chapters multiple times, offering each other suggestions along the way. Janet Brown, ThingsAsian Press’s editor, did a fantastic job on the final edit.

TNL: In “Formosa Moon” you describe the send-off of Grandpa Shi – a rather boisterous three-day affair being conducted in the alley outside the hotel you’d booked yourselves into for a writing retreat. How would you like to be sent off?

Josambro: Preferably after I’ve died.

TNL: In addition to travel writing, you have also contributed to several publications on other subjects. What did you write for Cat Fancy and Dim Sum Literary Journal?

Josambro: I did an article about Hong Kong’s trap, neuter and release program for Cat Fancy. Dim Sum, which I think later became Asia Literary Journal, ran three or so of my more esoteric literary-type stories, including Supper in Uigherville and a pretty bad story I wrote concerning cannibalism, the Cultural Revolution and time travel. The name of the story eludes me.

TNL: What are three things that a worldly traveler ought never to be without?

Josambro: Imagination, a boundless sense of adventure and clean socks.

TNL: If, perhaps through the whimsy of Tudi Gong, one of your books was to make it on to the New York Times bestseller list which one would you like it to be?

Josambro: Tudi Gong will appreciate my next book, a Buddhist Comedy called “Spinning Karma.” Most of the action takes place in Taiwan. I’m in the final edit stage and hope to submit it to Camphor Press. I’m not sure how much pull Tudi Gong has at the New York Times, but I’m assuming he has a bit over at Camphor, being a Taiwanese deity and all.

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Credit: Tobie Openshaw
Cover of 'Formosa Moon' (2017).

See Joshua and his co-author Stephanie Huffman give a reading from their travelogue 'Formosa Moon' on April 25 at The Center in Tianmu: 25, Alley 290, Zhongshan North Road, Section 6, Shilin District, Taipei 中山北路6段290巷25號. Copies of 'Formosa Moon' will be available for purchase. (Facebook event link)

Hard copies of 'Formosa Moon' may be purchased at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR or on Amazon.

Read more of Joshua’s writing here or follow him on Twitter.

Read Next: 'I Was Told There'd Be Strippers': Saying Goodbye in Taiwan

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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