A Warrior’s Odyssey – Interview with Antonio Graceffo

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. 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 and a Muay Thai monastery in Thailand, as well as 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.

David Calleja – How did you come up with the name “Warrior Odyssey” for the book? Does the term ‘warrior’ refer specifically to the practicing of martial arts or is there a broader picture that you are presenting?

Antonio Graceffo – 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 the 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 favorite 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 center of attention. Sometimes it is the culture or philosophy surrounding the art. In my videos, I am still often the center, 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, whereas with the adventure stuff, it was all experiential.

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David Calleja

David Calleja
David Calleja is an independent writer based in Melbourne, Australia. You can email him at davidjcalleja@gmail.com 

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