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“To be loved, of course, and to be safe”

by Denise Decaires Narain
17 Jan 2009 • Comment (0) • Print PDF
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review of: Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, edited and with an introduction by Thomas Glave, Durham & London, Duke University Press, 2008, pb., 405 pages.
ISBN: 082234226X
Anthologies are a curious genre: some consolidate the status quo by conveniently collating ‘the best of’ a disparate range of already published material (witness the many anthologies of Caribbean poetry and short stories) while others challenge canonical formations with selections of texts that together imply ‘new’ constituencies of works and writers. Within the Caribbean, the anthology has perhaps had to work exceptionally hard in the latter function, being required with a wearying regularity to signal the presence of excluded and marginalized groups: following on from the predominantly AfroCaribbean focus of the earliest collections of Caribbean works, anthologies by women and by/about IndoCaribbeans and Carib peoples have all been published. So much for the ‘all of we is one’ happy hybridity that supposedly characterizes the region: each apparently discrete ethnicity has been forced to stake its particular claim to belonging.

That this anthology, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, has been such a long time coming attests to the complacently heteronormative assumptions underpinning all prior Caribbean writing categories, as well as to the perception of publishers that such a collection would be of limited interest, “a slice of a slice” as Glave reports in his introduction (4). But it also attests to the much greater risks which gay and lesbian identities are perceived to pose to the accepted norms of Caribbean subjectivity and nationhood; if the former is taken as (hetero)normatively male, the latter is projected in terms which implicitly equate nationhood with manhood. As many of the pieces in this anthology suggest, being lesbian or gay is viewed as distinctly un-Caribbean, and to choose to live openly as a lesbian or gay citizen is to court aggression and violence from ‘proper’ citizens. Coming out seems to require getting out of the region and most of the authors included do live outside the region; as King argues, there is a “growing conviction that to live openly as a Caribbean lesbian, one must, or should, emigrate.” (192). Questions of who ‘really’ qualifies as Caribbean have persisted doggedly from the formative moments in Caribbean writing; indeed, this question might be seen as inaugurating Caribbean writing in the first place. But the refusal of lesbian and gay identities as part of Caribbean culture (and writing) has been so loudly, violently and aggressively expressed that it increasingly appears irrational and hysterical. It has also meant that the Caribbean generally but Jamaica in particular, is often invoked as a convenient example of rampant homophobia – and of the failure of backward postcolonial societies to embrace modernity. The notorious homophobia of many dancehall lyrics has disseminated this perception of the Caribbean far and wide and two of the entries comment directly on this (Chin and Lawson Williams). Lobbying by OutRage! in the Stop Murder Music campaign resulted in a series of cancellations and boycotts of performances in the US and UK and the signing of the Reggae Compassionate Act in 2007 by Sizzla, Capleton and Beenie Man, renouncing homophobic lyrics. In a BBC Hard Talk programme aired on May 20th 2008, the Jamaican Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, was pressed hard by Stephen Sackur about his policies for solving Jamaica’s high crime rates and his plans for changing prevalent attitudes to homosexuality. To the latter he replied that attitudes were becoming more tolerant but he also stated firmly that “we will not allow values to be imposed from outside”. Golding’s comment exposes the knotty dynamic at the heart of these debates especially as they cohere around the issue of who has the power to speak and be heard. Sackur is able to pressurize the Jamaican Prime Minister in ways that are unimaginable ‘the other way round’, if, say, a Jamaican reporter were to interview the British Prime Minister.[1] This dynamic of forceful accusation followed by defensive/aggressive refusal reproduces a combative and polarized discourse which risks hijacking the debate away from the more nuanced discussions that might lead to more meaningful and long-term changes in Caribbean culture. There are instructive lessons to be learned from feminism here: Western feminists’ targeting of women’s oppression in postcolonial contexts has led, many argue, to feminism being co-opted as a central part of what the West can teach the rest about democracy and modernity. The so-called war-on-terror includes the ‘rescue’ of women from backward fundamentalisms as a very visible aspect of its agenda. Queer theory, too, is being required increasingly to take this dynamic seriously.[2]

In such an intensely fraught and over-determined context, this anthology is bold and brave – as well as timely and most welcome. It offers more complex and modulated representations of lesbian and gay sexualities than the prevailing focus on homophobia in Caribbean popular cultural forms allows. The 37 writers from across the Caribbean whose work is gathered together here provide diverse, engaging and powerful testimonies of the complicated, painful – and pleasurable – realities of being Caribbean and queer. It includes critical essays, poems, short stories, allegorical pieces, memoirs and extracts from novels by well-known and less well-known authors. The majority of the authors are from Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago but there are single contributions from mainland Guyana and Suriname and from Barbados, St Kitts, St Vincent, the Bahamas, Grenada, Haiti and the Dominican Republic as well as a handful from Puerto Rico. With a few exceptions, the majority of the contributors now reside in the US or Canada. This fact inflects many of the pieces with a sense of the complicated ways that migration also impacts upon the expression of lesbian and gay sexuality. Many of the contributors are associated with academic institutions in North America and the Caribbean, adding another layer to the sense of community that the anthology seeks to consolidate. This is further endorsed in the sense of a shared critical community indicated in the many references to well-known essays by Silvera, Lorde and Alexander, among others. Surprisingly, a contribution from Alexander is not included in this anthology but she is referenced so often that her critical insights are a palpable presence. The decision to publish in English means that many entries are translated from Spanish, a fact that Glave thoughtfully worries away at in the introduction but which is amply compensated for by the pleasures of reading across the usual English/Spanish boundary.

The ‘simple’ fact of this anthology’s existence is significant, constructing a sense of community and solidarity with which to challenge hostility, exclusion and silence. Glave describes the book “as an idea born out of the most extreme longing” (1) and in his contribution, ‘Whose Caribbean? An Allegory, in Part’, his allegorical Caribbean subject – s/he – “yearns for two things only: to be loved, of course, and to be safe.” (179) Many of the contributions echo this sense: Saint recalls being amazed when on a visit from Haiti to see his mother, she tells him that thousands of homosexuals had marched in New York for their rights:

Thousands! I was stunned. I kept thinking what it would be like to meet some of them. I kept fantasizing that there was a homosexual world out there I knew nothing of. (323-4)

This sense of a need for solidarity via public testifying as lesbian and gay Caribbean subjects is one that recurs in several pieces. Many describe the painful maneuvers, disguises, stoicism – and defiance – required to survive violent humiliation in public as well as private spaces. Crichlow, for example, suggests that the card games he played with his father on the block provided a disguise that protected him from censure from the wider community and from family, friends. Other contributions express a sense of bewilderment at the intensity with which heteropatriarchy policies its boundaries and embeds its prejudices deep into the everyday life and culture of the region: King asks, “How does a living, breathing, loving person prove her existence? And why should she have to?” (191) Quashie’s poem, ‘Genesis’ captures the moment when a seven-year old boy in lilac hot-pants dancing on a summer’s day meets his father’s eyes:

        He’s a dervish.
Spinning until his eyes meet his father’s,

Eyes that betray stammering maleness about
To leave lips and then hands.
Summer stops, music fades (304)

While Helen Klonaris, in ‘Independence Day Letter’ which first appeared as an open letter to Bahamians in the Nassau Daily Tribune, exposes the failure of national and spiritual leaders – one Bahamian pastor lead three separate anti-gay demonstrations in Nassau. Klonaris asserts, “I don’t want to be accommodated. I want to be embraced.” (197) Other contributions present tentative possibilities for a future beyond ingrained prejudices: Alvarez’s short story, ‘Property Values’ presents a group of women -”old-landed-gentry-turned-professional-money women’s auxiliary” (22) – as an unlikely but firm force against homophobia. Cuesta teases away at possible meanings when she and her lover, Clara, decide to build a room of their own and the strong young men of the neighbourhood volunteer to help. She recognizes it as a display of strength and machismo and possibly of sexual voyeurism but she also entertains the possibility that it might be “authentic and disinterested aid” (133).

As these necessarily brief raids on the anthology suggest, the contributions reflect great diversity. This diversity is emphasized (or perhaps disguised?) by the way the text is organized; rather than arranging entries by genre, theme or location, it is organized alphabetically by author’s names.  Sometimes the shift from an essay to a poem is slightly jarring but on other occasions the democracy of the alphabetic arrangement, produces some interesting effects. The gentleness of Arroyo’s poems, for example, comes as a relief after the relentless and slightly crazed hedonism (so much frenetic fucking, so many penises in so few pages!) of Arenas. But Arenas is brilliantly funny too and his dangerously flamboyant out-ness is matched by his riveting prose style. His dogged attachment to a battered typewriter and the image of his illicit manuscripts being hidden behind the plastered-over closet resonates sharply with other references to the closet in the anthology. Other pieces revisit more mainstream figures in Caribbean writing: Chin discusses Claude McKay’s ambiguous representation of homoeroticism while the extract from Andrew Salkey’s novel suggests that the negotiation of black masculinity amidst the racism of London is a risky and precarious business. Erica Doyle’s ‘Tante Merle’ offers an interesting revision of a staple feature of the Caribbean canon, the loud-mouthed, larger-then-life black woman, perhaps most famously immortalized in Paul Keens Douglas’ ‘Tantie Merle at the Oval’ (and in many Louise Bennett poems). Where Douglas plays this figure largely for laughs, Doyle inscribes this figure as quietly affirming a sensuously woman-centred lifestyle.

The diversity of representations encompassed in this anthology is dealt with lightly in the introduction when Glave wonders “what exactly [...] is – can be – “lesbian and gay writing”? (8). Refusing to provide the reader with a quick digest of the entries or a convenient overview – or any big-up claims about the anthology’s remit – Glave’s light touch leaves this question to resonate for the reader to work at. By contrast, Ochy Curiel is much more definitive in her assessment of some of the very different agendas which the category ‘lesbian and gay’ ties together. I quote Curiel at length because she succinctly raises several provocative issues, some of which may partly explain the greater numbers of male to female contributors (22/15) but also because in exposing some of the tensions within the constituency the anthology is organized around, she exposes the inevitable limitations of identity-based anthologies:

Certainly my goal as a lesbian is to challenge heterosexuality as a norm. Logically, my best allies ought to be gays, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transgendered people, because all of them represent a questioning of genders stereotyped according to sex. Though this is in part true, the problem is that the symbolic and real images of the great majority of gays also embody features of patriarchy: androcentrism, machismo, consumerism, authoritarianism, phallocentrism, but above all misogyny. Transgendered people are often returning to gender more than destroying it, while transsexuals center their demands on the biological (sex change), losing sight of the cultural construction of sex, and thus paradoxically fall into essentialism. As a lesbian feminist, these are not my political objectives. (149)

The debates about and between position that Curiel lists so briskly, need not lead to such a categorical conclusion. They might instead be read as indicative of the kinds of tensions and differences which mark all those categories which have for too long appeared to be neatly discrete in Caribbean writing, particularly those of ethnicity and sexuality. The violent removal of people from various ‘elsewheres’ to the Caribbean has made the construction of identity and selfhood a pressing but precarious and embattled matter, engendering a sense that assertion of any distinct category of selfhood must necessarily be at the expense of another. In this context, Curiel’s unraveling of the category around which the anthology is organized is both productive and instructive.

The Caribbean continues to resonate as a creolized culture, despite a history in which each component of its famed cultural hybridity has had to assert its distinct contribution to ‘the mix’. Perhaps there is no way round this but it strikes me that a more productively creolized future for the region might be derived from the loosening of these taken-for-granted categories and a greater commitment to critical negotiations across them. Critics of Caribbean writing have perhaps been too unwilling to ‘trespass’ outside of their particular specialist areas of scholarship; and perhaps Caribbean subjects themselves have to work harder to see where and how our stories connect across differences of ethnicity, sexuality, class and location. It may also be necessary to interrogate the current emphasis on popular cultural forms and the swaggering flamboyance associated with them to ask whether gentler, less noisy modes of performing Caribbean subjectivity are possible and desirable. In this respect, Glave’s epigraph and the thoughtfully reflective register of his introduction are instructive. The epigraph reads:

 To all those
above the water
and beneath it,
still silent

Here, Glave quietly but boldly inserts the lesbian and gay subject into the region’s dominant narrative, that of slavery, implying wider interpretive possibilities beyond a strictly defined Black Atlantic. His introduction concludes in a similarly understated and suggestive vein:

But for now, over all that glistening water and beneath it, gathered voices are rising. Rising as they call Now, as they call Here. As they utter so softly, Listen. (10)

The modesty and restraint of this register is one that has been absent for some time in the Caribbean where the volume in which resistance is voiced is invariably loud. This anthology needs to be read and responded to because of the merits of the individual contributions but also because its collective significance suggests possibilities not ‘just’ for how lesbian and gay subjects are interpellated within Caribbean discourses, but for how constructions of Caribbean subjectivity more broadly might be unsettled and revisioned.


1. Aaron Kamugisha makes a similar point in ‘Homophobia in the Caribbean State‘ in Stabroek News, July 14th 2008 (accessed online, December 20th 2008). [↑]

2. See M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing and darkmatter Issue 3, ‘Interrogating Postcolonial Sexuality’ edited by edited by H.Gunkel and B. Pitcher, for example. [↑]

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Denise Decaires Narain is Senior Lecturer in English at Sussex University
All posts by: Denise Decaires Narain | Email | Website

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