What Anthony Bourdain Can Teach Us About Storytelling in ‘Parts Unknown’

“Who gets to tell the stories?” Anthony Bourdain narrates at the end of the new season’s premiere of Parts Unknown. “The answer in this case, for better or for worse, is I do. At least this time out. I do my best. I look, I listen, but in the end I know it’s my story. Not Kamau’s, not Kenya’s, or Kenyans’. Those stories are yet to be heard.”

Following Bourdain’s untimely death in June earlier this year, and especially considering today’s political climate, these words seem to ring truer and heavier. The nine-time Emmy Award–winning CNN travel show started its final season last week in Kenya, where Bourdain and writer-comedian W. Kamau Bell ate goat’s head soup; saw lions, rhinos, and elephants on safari; and visited a nonprofit boxing academy called Boxgirls, which is dedicated to teaching young women to defend themselves.

This episode would be the last one narrated by Bourdain himself (the follow-up in Spain, which aired last night, was the first without the beloved food and travel writer’s thoughtful commentary). His empathetic narrative voice—his defense of women “being able to kick the hell out of men if they have to,” for instance—feels even more welcome as the lens through which we get to view modern-day Kenya.

But as much as Bourdain sets the stage for Kenyans to tell the story of Kenya, even he admits that this version is, ultimately, still his own and that the keepers (and tellers) of stories are rarely the subjects themselves.

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So who does get to tell the stories? This question of ownership and authenticity in the frame of storytelling feels particularly meaningful as you watch Bell confront his own identity throughout the episode. Whether he’s drinking cow’s blood for the first time or chatting with the local Kenyans, or just having a beer with Bourdain, the question seems always to be: Whose story is this? Mine or theirs?

“As a black American,” Bell tells Bourdain over their first meal together in Nairobi, “I’m still wrestling with my African-American identity sometimes, and I’m still wondering, am I doing right by this culture and does this culture think I’m doing right by them? That’s why I don’t want to walk around like, ‘I’M HOME!’

“I also think that a lot of times black people in American have really struggled with that aspect of identity: What does it mean to be black in America? I’m like, I fought hard to claim this identity. It’s exhausting, you know. Am I ready to start with a new one? I don’t know yet.”

Bourdain sits and listens, sipping his beer once in a while, but mostly letting his friend talk.

The whole episode is like this. As Bourdain and Bell visit each group (like LGBTQ art collective To Revolutionary Type Love and community-based organization Kibera Creative Arts), they gather around a table and talk politics, especially class and identity politics, all the while eating and drinking. Bourdain asks questions, but mostly lets his guests have the floor. It’s the Bourdainian way toward empathy: to look, and to listen to others.

I do my best. I look, I listen, but in the end I know it’s my story. Not Kamau’s, not Kenya’s, or Kenyans’. Those stories are yet to be heard.

Anthony Bourdain

The looking, for Bourdain, is as important as the listening. At the end of the safari, he and Bell sit on top of a hill overlooking the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. It’s a poignant moment as Bourdain tells Bell, “I don’t know, this should kind of be compulsory viewing for—if you ever run for president, this should be compulsory viewing.”

“At the very least,” Bell says. “I do think that a lot of perspectives will be opened up, a lot of minds will be changed.” Not just about Kenya as an ever-growing, dynamic country, but about other cultures and viewpoints as well.

The closing narration—when Bourdain asks, “Who gets to tell the stories?”—is a reminder of how important it is to keep an eye and ear out at all times, with compassion, and to remind ourselves that so many of these stories about others, especially the difficult ones about poverty, identity, and victimization, are yet to be heard. It’s our jobs, then, to listen.

Are you watching the new season, too? Let us know in the comments below.


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