A WARRIOR'S ODYSSEY
An Interview with Antonio Graceffo
by David Calleja
Warrior Odyssey is the sixth book written by Antonio Graceffo, the American host of the web TV show Martial Arts Odyssey. Having spent nearly nine years in Asia studying martial arts, Antonio has immersed himself in the languages, cultures and religions of a number of nations in that time, Warrior Odyssey looks at the first six years of his journey. Arriving in Taiwan in 2001, Antonio’s quest to discover Asia’s diverse martial arts has led him to the original Shaolin Temple in China, a Muay Thai monastery in Thailand, as well as learning martial arts from Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. His journey ends in Burma, where he highlights the persecution faced by the Shan ethnic minority.
For a person who is constantly on the move in pursuit of his dream, relaxation is an unfamiliar term for Antonio because there is so much experience to cram into one lifetime.
D.C. - How did you come up with the name Warrior Odyssey for the book? Does the term ‘warrior’ refer specifically to the practising of martial arts or is there a broader picture that you are presenting?
A.G. - Originally, I wanted the name to be Martial Arts Odyssey the same as my web TV show. But this book begins with my arrival in Asia, when I was only writing for magazines and writing books. I didn’t get a video camera until my sixth year in Asia. So most of the stories in the book were not filmed and never appeared on YouTube.
The publisher also felt that Warrior Odyssey was a better title because, as you said, there are broader implications to the meaning and to the journey and the struggle. One point I always make to people about following their dreams, or going on their own odyssey, is that it doesn’t have to be about martial arts.
D.C. - Which nation provided the greatest challenge to you in learning about the martial art and people's way of life in which you became ensconced? What was that challenge?
A.G. - So far, I have studied five Asian languages and speak three well; Thai, Chinese, and Khmer. I didn’t finish studying Korean and Vietnamese.
I have studied Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism while living in a temple, and currently I am studying Islam in Malaysia. I have also done reporting on the Cao Dai religion of Vietnam and as far as I know, have presented the only video, about the Cao Dai Temple in Phnom Penh.
I had to learn about religions. I studied in a Mahayana Buddhist temple and had a best friend/adviser in Taiwan who was a former Mahayana Buddhist monk. In Thailand, I lived in a Theravada monastery and then often stayed in monasteries after that, studying with the monks and using monasteries as my base to launch various adventures. My assistant and very close friend in Cambodia was an ex-Theravada monk who went back to the monkhood and then I stayed at his monastery several times. We travelled together in Surin and Chiang Mai. Now, in Malaysia, most of my teachers are Muslim. Now I am first non-Muslim to be permitted to learn Silat Kalam, a Muslim martial art which is deeply tied to Islam.
The word Kalam means, “The word of God.” We have to say prayers before, after and sometimes during practice. We are taught that everything we do on this Earth is because of God. Even the four basic positions, which all of the movements are based on, are taken from Muslim prayers.
D.C. In preparing for Warrior Odyssey, who do you cite as a major influence for both your writing style and the material? Does it differ from your previous material as an adventure author?
A.G. - The largest influence on me as a writer is Ernest Hemingway. I am not so pretentious as to say I have a tenth of his talent, but he was always my favourite author growing up. I loved the fact that he lived such an incredibly adventurous life. His books are really just fictionalized accounts of his real life, boxing, sailing, and serving in two wars.
The interesting thing with Hemingway is that his stories were originally fictionalized versions of his real life, and then later, his real life became a fiction of his stories.
Jack London, another of my other literary heroes, had great adventures, and he knew he would be an author. But most of his adventures were motivated first, from a position of needing to earn a living, and then as fodder for writing second.
In the early part of my life, boxing, working as a sailor and a soldier, I also adopted a similar philosophy to Jack London of trying to live an adventurous life, so I would write about it later. But when I came to Asia, I decided it would be better to write about thing as they happened. So I began keeping diaries.
Sir Richard Francis Burton is another huge role model and influence for me. He was an agent for the British military and lived for countless years in India, Africa, and Arabia. Burton lived a life of study and exploration and wound up writing about twenty books, at least one of which was on sword fighting and pugilism. During his life, he learned 29 languages. He also became so convincing in the roles he played under cover that he became an Islamic Imam and made the Hajj to Mecca. He became a Hindu priest and I believe he was also a Sikh.
D.C. - How important is faith to the practice of martial arts?
A.G. - It is extremely important. You can’t study the language without knowing the culture. You absolutely can’t study the culture without studying the language, and religion is one of the biggest factors in culture. Finally, you can’t study the martial art without knowing the language, religion and culture. Prayer and meditation are a huge part of many martial arts. So, the religion is definitely present at all times.
D.C. - How would you compare your writing style used in your first book, The Monk From Brooklyn, to your upcoming release, Warrior Odyssey?
A.G. - My first book, The Monk From Brooklyn is simply an edited copy of the diary I kept at the Shaolin Temple. My first two books were diaries. My next three were collections of articles I published in magazines. This was a hybrid Hemingway/London thing. I earned so little per story that I had to write five stories a week to stay alive, so I was constantly doing adventures and writing about them, then heading out for the next adventure. During those years of adventuring in Chiang Mai, in Taiwan and Phnom Penh, I had no time to keep a diary. My life was pretty well documented through the stories I wrote.
My martial arts odyssey, while having a central theme of martial arts, has been my attempt to live up to the spirit of adventure and great literary prowess of my idols.
D.C. - Does the process of writing about a martial art differ from your previous material as an adventure author?
A.G. - I don’t know if we could say that the process differs because of a martial art, but I have definitely changed a lot, and this is reflected in my writing. In my early adventure writing, I was the primary character. In fact, since I crossed the desert alone, and climbed mountains and cycled around Formosa (Taiwan) alone, I was often the only character. Now that I am studying martial arts, I am often a secondary character. I allow an interesting teacher, Kru or Guru, or the martial art become the centre of attention. Sometimes it is the culture or philosophy surrounding the art. In my videos, I am still often the centre, but in the writing I am often just an observer or catalyst.
One huge difference between adventure writing and martial arts writing is that I study martial arts deeply, whereas I never studied mountain climbing or cycling. So I write and think a lot about the art, not my own actions. And I go in with a knowing eye, comparing one art to another, and also I do a lot of research, where as with the adventure stuff, it was all experiential.
D.C. - When you first began your journey many years ago, how long did you think your journey throughout Asia would last? Did you map out a plan to cover numerous martial arts throughout various nations back then?
A.G. - No, I didn’t map out anything. An ex-monk in Taiwan who taught me a lot said, “If you want to make the gods laugh, make a plan.” You can’t plan this type of adventure sitting in Starbucks in Union Square. You don’t even know what all the options are or what difficulties or opportunities will present themselves. So, you just go and follow as the road reveals itself. Half the martial arts and some of the languages I have studied since coming to Asia, I had never heard of back in New York.
D.C. - Can you recall one moment in the book where you sit back and think, “Wow, I cannot believe I put myself through such mental or physical pain?” and why it sticks out in your mind as a defining moment?
A.G. - Honestly, there were a lot of painful or harrowing adventures. But because it is your real life and not a movie, there is never a definite start or end point for any event in your life. So, when these things are happening, they sometimes seem less epic than when you retell them. In my book, The Monk from Brooklyn, I talked a lot about how dirty Shaolin was and how unhygienic it was living there. But it got normal. And I was used to seeing the outhouse completely overflowing with human waste, but drew the line when I saw a dead pig floating in the pool of faecal matter.
Life happens in gradual increments. At Shaolin we trained from 5:30am till about 6:00pm. That is a brutal workout day, but you just do it. Afterwards it looks like a lot. At the time, you just get through as best you can.
Some of my fights were scary. I didn’t know what the rules would be. I didn’t know how people from that country or style fought, or if they would try and kill me. But in the end, it always worked out fine. Win or lose, you almost always walked away with new friends, new experiences and having learned something.
In Vietnam I had severe diarrhoea while we were filming and we had to shoot in one and two minute increments so I could run to the toilet. I almost passed out several times, but we had to keep filming or it wouldn’t get done.
In Burma I got knocked unconscious in an accident, but had to revive myself enough to open the airway on an injured man and stop the bleeding on another.
Don’t make too much of your own suffering. You need to realize that you, me, we are all just tourists in other people’s reality. Yes, Shaolin was hard, but I left. My friends are still there. Yes, Burma was dangerous and sad, but my friends are still there and their lives are being threatened. Yes, I got beaten up in Saigon and in several other places, but I got my photos and video, did my story and moved on. The guys who beat me are facing the reality of making a living as professional fighters. If they ever lose to anyone the way I did to them, their career would be over.
D.C. - Describe a day in the life of Antonio Graceffo when preparing for an episode of Martial Arts Odyssey. Do you have a particular schedule that you maintain or is every session spontaneous?
A.G. - I am constantly in different countries, with different issues, problems, and opportunities. So I don’t have a typical day. However, the two consistencies are that I must train at least two hours every day and I must be online, answering emails for at least two hours per day. Here in Malaysia I also teach advanced students sparring and old style Muay Thai/Bokator at Kru Jak Othman’s club from 10:00 – 11:00. In Malaysia, my training day starts at 4:00pm when I go to Silat Kalam, then at 7:00pm I go to Muay Thai, and train till 10:00pm. Once that finishes, I start teaching.
Since arriving in Malaysia two months ago, I have done numerous episodes of Martial Arts Odyssey. I have done one professional shoot for a DVD on Silat Tomoi. That required two weeks of preparation and three days of filming. One of our shoot days ran 18 hours. My involvement is still not finished because I have to go into the studio this week and do voice over.
Now, I also have my column in Black Belt magazine, and they wanted me to submit several months ahead, so I had to prepare numerous articles for them. Black Belt is also going to have a video magazine soon, and the editors have asked me to do a video column which complements the print magazine column, so I have begun working on the first instalment.
Parallel to these shoots, The Star newspaper in Malaysia is doing a video documentary about me for their website, thestaronline.com. That required two days of shooting, three days of interviews, and several days of sending them video clips and photos and answering more questions.
For Warrior Odyssey I needed to be online every day, and the editor would send me chapters to rewrite or suggest changes. That was hard. I probably worked on about 200 or more pages of the book each month.
I have another DVD, Martial Arts Odyssey: Volume One, that is coming out soon, and I have had to do a ton of work on that. The editors tell me what I need to change, or if they need more photos or if I have to do more voiceovers. Working on a DVD product like that is already a full time job.
Now I am preparing for the next professional video shoot, which will be on Silat Kalam. I need to pass the black belt test this month before we start shooting. That is absorbing much of my time and my mental energy.
D.C. - Muhammad Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’" Can you draw any comparison to Muhammad Ali’s words and the message you are sending in Warrior Odyssey, regardless of the metaphorical meaning of warrior or champion in life?
A.G. - Obviously you have to overcome adversity to achieve anything. And there is a cost for everything you want in this life. If you want a BMW, the cost is money. If you want to lose weight, the cost is enduring the pain of hunger. If you want to be a lawyer, the cost is studying through seven years of college. So never back down from a dream simply because there is a cost. If you do, you will never have anything.
One reason why people sometimes follow a bad path or an immoral path is because with immoral desires, you get the payoff first, and the price comes second. If you had to first sit in prison for five years BEFORE you committed a crime, I bet people just wouldn’t commit crimes. But sadly, if you want to use drugs, drink, gamble, get involved with crime and prostitution, those payoffs all come first and the consequences come later.
People love credit. Buy now, pay later.
That’s why people find it hard to learn a foreign language, lose weight, learn a martial art, start a business, or make positive changes in their lives. The hard work comes first. The pay off comes second. People get turned off by the cost and walk away.
I want to encourage people to endure that pain, pay the cost, and get the things they truly want.
Warrior Odyssey is due for release in late June. You can follow Antonio’s progress by visiting his website, Speaking Adventures at www.speakingadventures.com and sign up to his newsletter.
Antonio Graceffo is also available on Facebook and Twitter. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org