Bloom Spaces: Q&A with UTP Author Susan Frohlick 

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Inviting readers into a world of yoga studios, beaches, and rainforests, Susan Frohlick investigates how atmosphere can create “bloom spaces” that lead tourists in Costa Rica down reproductive paths. Read the full Q&A about Bloom Spaces: Reproduction and Tourism on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica by the author, Susan Frohlick.

Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out? 

For some time, I carried the idea of writing a book about tourism and reproduction with me, back and forth from Canada to Costa Rica. When friends and community members in Costa Rica heard me talk about “the book,” some would tease me. Would this book ever materialize? Was “the book” only a pipe dream? They were not exactly wrong. But the issues I wanted to delve into warranted a book-length ethnography, so I didn’t let go of that possibility. The story, and the way I wanted to tell it, did not become clear for a few years.  

It was Anne Brackenbury, founder of the Teaching Culture Series at UTP, who suggested that I try writing in a creative style to capture the feel of the place that had so strongly affected the tourist interlocutors in my research. Returning to my fieldnotes and interviews, I noticed a recurrent phrase about “the vibes” of the Caribbean coastal towns and surrounding geography. This led me to consider the material elements that constituted the affective atmosphere that mattered to the northern women whose reproductive experiences are at the center of the book.  

Eventually four elements became the anchoring chapters of the book and, as well, became the story that by its provocation energized my own writing. The idea that an atmosphere plays a significant role, or, even, has agency in reproduction pulled me along in the writing, and sparked creative writing that I had not initially considered for the book. The tension between ethnographic description and critical analysis runs through the book. Rather than a coherent and seamless narrative, which did not reflect the reproductive experiences that I came to know through spending time and talking with women, I wanted to write something “messier.” I experimented with a series of narratives that might allow that tension to come through in fits and starts. That is basically how the preludes and postludes emerged in the book’s structure and experimental ethos.  

In short, the book took a long time to bloom. And I had to stretch myself as a writer and be vulnerable and take chances.  

Susan Frohlick and an interlocutor, Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica 2007. Photo by Susan Frohlick.
The author and an interlocutor, Puerto Viejo, 2007. Author’s photo.  
Tell us about the research process for this book. What was it like to do academic research on Costa Rica?

The ethnographic approach that I used for the research for this book was based on relationships, which required time to foster. Because I was a university professor and department Chair during the time of this research, and had parenting responsibilities, too, travelling to Costa Rica involved a lot of pre-arranging. I revered the short trips that I could squeeze in between these other unalterable parts of my work and life.  

The time limitations meant that fieldwork felt pressurized sometimes. I would remind myself that building relationships mattered more than “quantity” such as number of interviews or pages of fieldnotes. On a typical fieldwork day, in the morning I would go to a café run by a foreign resident and frequented by tourists and expats (referred to as lifestyle migrants or transnationals in the book) to participate in the tourist culture and hope to speak to tourists or foreign residents; later in the day travel by bike or car to a nearby town for an interview or two; and, in the evenings attend a yoga class or visit with people I had met through my research. These activities might sound idyllic, and often times they were, yet the methodology of “immersion” (in my case, being a tourist to study tourist behavior) was also draining and emotionally complex.  

This research was part of a larger project about how global tourism shapes the lives of local youth growing up amongst a flow of northern tourists, and I was supervising two university students who were carrying out that research, Becca Quinn Davis, a Canadian gender studies student, and Carolina Meneses, a Costa Rican anthropology and sociology student. When all three of us were in the area together, we would meet at the end of fieldwork days to share what each of us were learning. As a middle-aged person I learned a lot from those inter-generational exchanges. Glimmers of Becca and Carolina’s keen insights on community goings-on and socio-cultural dynamics run throughout my book.  

Over those years, Puerto Viejo became almost a second home to me and also to my young daughter who accompanied me many times and my older son who joined us once or twice. The global pandemic put a halt to those visits. I haven’t been back since late 2019. I hope to return to the community one day soon to bring copies of the book for key people who helped me with the research and shared an interest in the topic. 

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Photo by Susan Frohlick.
The main street parallel to the ocean in Puerto Viejo, early morning, March 2016. Author’s photo. 
Are there any examples, anecdotes, or lessons that stood out to you during the research process of this book? 

Absolutely! An important methodology lesson. During an interview with a Puerto Viejo resident whose family were long-time townspeople going back several generations, I mistakenly assumed my tape recorder was on. Because I thought I would have the audio-recording to fall back on for reference, I didn’t take notes. Although I had been listening intently to the stories she was generously sharing, unfortunately without the recording or notes I lost the nuances and turns of phrases she had used. It was after the two-hour interview I realized my mistake. I was mortified with myself. So, the research assistant Susana and I sat in my car with my recorder turned on and with posthaste recalled as many of the details as we could. I was especially grateful that Susana was with me so that we had two sets of memories and not only mine to pull from in belatedly documenting a particularly significant interview.  

An obvious lesson from that experience was to make certain my recording device was on. But another less obvious lesson was the value of being in the moment with people as an ethnographer/researcher. While I remain to this day sad that a recording of her voice telling her stories doesn’t exist because of my technological slip-up, the affective quality of the interview lingers on and carries meaning. I learned a lot from being in that space, the yard of her home, with the people who came and went, the humidity we were all feeling, and from her bodily composure in relation to them and to Susana and I, and the mood that was created amongst all of us. These were amongst the non-verbal and, in a sense, intangible ways in which I came to understand how reproductive stories and histories held pride, shame, secrecy, normalcy, and the like, within families and across individuals.  

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. Photo by Susan Frohlick.
A public clinic for reproductive and sexual healthcare, situated on a side street in Puerto Viejo, 2009. Author’s photo.
What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

Representing other people and their experiences and interpersonal and intimate relationships is inherently challenging—an issue that reflects the power relations of research (that feminist ethnographers critically reflect on) as well as the demands of written communication. Not formally trained in creative writing, I struggled with finding the right words and phrases through sensory writing that would evoke for readers a felt sense of the place at the time of my fieldwork and shared by interlocutors. Related to this, an even more challenging aspect of the writing process for me was knowing that anthropologists’ representations of people’s lives can have unanticipated, sometimes negative, consequences for those on which our stories are based. I was potentially writing about a future reader’s mother or father, and producing a narrative about family-making that took place under difficult circumstances for the men and women I interviewed. I tried to keep these imaginary-real future readers in mind throughout the writing process.  

What do you hope readers will take away from reading Bloom Spaces?

I hope that reading Bloom Spaces might encourage readers to think about tourism differently and about reproduction differently too, and, of course, how tourism and reproduction are entangled and situated in wider social, cultural, economic, and political processes and histories. Both to travel, and to become pregnant or to terminate a pregnancy, start a family, or lose a baby, are often private experiences and choices for individuals. Yet, as Bloom Spaces tries to show, these are also deeply social practices shaped by a wide range of influences. I want readers to better understand how tourists are social actors, not without agency or without culpability, yet acting within structures of power and in response to power around them and that they exert. I hope that the book challenges straightforward or easy conclusions that readers might be tempted to make about the reproductive trajectories of mobile northern white and Black heterosexual cis-women tourists who “ought to have known better,” and instead consider both the complexity of reproductive pathways tied to these wider processes and the inequities on which tourism is fundamentally and historically based and all tourists are complicit in, one way or another. I also hope readers will come away with a sense of the complicated emotional and material dimensions of the transnational interracial families created in the spaces and time described in Bloom Spaces, an overlapping of joy, happiness, disbelief, disappointment, resentment, celebration, and hope. These are very real lived experiences of contemporary mobile intimate relations, not merely abstract ideas or critiques about tourism and travel.  

Read an excerpt of Bloom Spaces: Reproduction and Tourism on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica by Susan Frohlick, here.


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