Thursday, September 18, 2008

Unpacking Carifesta X, Part 2

Not a Small Place

"We are not specks in anybody's ocean..." -Tony Martin, Marcus Garvey Scholar

One of the most persistent thoughts expressed during the many panel discussions and readings at Carifesta X Guyana was this: The Caribbean is made up of diverse people and their spiritual and cultural traditions; our strength is in that diversity. In Guyana, the Guyanese speak of living together as six different races. They include among these the Amerindian, the Indian, the African and the European. In Suriname and Trinidad, there is a similar ethnic diversity. This diversity, while not always seamlessly lived, is the way forward, scholars and activists and artists asserted, not only in the Caribbean, but as a model for social relations worldwide.

Although the panels and speakers themselves did not always or often reflect this diversity culturally, (and, there were few women panelists, few panelists under the age of 40, and no transgender panelists or panelists who did not speak from the default heterosexual standpoint, openly that is; nor did they all embrace this idea of diversity, some panelists preferring a more purist enterprise of ‘going back’ to an identity that excludes other races; still, the idea that carried the most vital energy for social transformation, particularly for this writer, was this one of our diversity as power.

Rex Nettleford, the eminent artist and scholar from Jamaica perhaps expressed this sentiment most succinctly when he said that “the whole world has gone creole” then pointed to us, the Caribbean, as a model for this creolization of people and ways of being and ideas. He drew on his own experience as a child, being taken to a Christian church service on Sunday, a Pocomania meeting later that evening and then to the Obeah man come Friday. There was no contradiction for Nettleford, or for the grandmother who took him, between these different spiritual modalities. We survive, he said, by using whatever means and expressions are available to us, or more importantly, by creating new modalities out of those we inherited, and in that survival and in the art that we create out of these our daily lives, there is no binary or dualism – we are much more than that.

This is how I know I am a Caribbean person: because hearing Nettleford speak answered questions I have been asking myself and pondering and arguing, particularly here in the US, for some time now, if not my entire life. Wondering why I felt that I was more than one thing inside this skin, which is not quite Anglo white and not brown either; Why was it that I struggled against divisions between Christianity and a desire to worship divinity in blue holes and mangrove swamps and in the bodies and faces of lovers? Why was there an easy transition between speaking the Queen’s English and Bahamian English (and there isn’t just one of these either) and how was I to write this, reflect this in the art I wanted to make?

In the same way that our island countries are so called small places where, rather than ‘melting pots’ we are ‘pepper pots’ of multiculturalisms (our differences are not dissolved in the pot, they are distinct and necessary to the overall textures and flavors), each of us walks in the world embodying this same dynamic: we are individual and many; we are “contradictions coalescing”; we are “intertextual multiculturalism”; and if we believe we must be one thing or the other -African or European, Hindu or Moslem, Christian or Yoruba – that we must adhere to an inherited notion of binary identity, we will suffer, because the process of becoming in small places has taught us that we are both, and. Not one, or. (And I know I echo here my Bahamian and Caribbean brother Christian Campbell…)

“Pre-modern, modern and post modern all exist in a complex dynamism in the Caribbean,” said Nettleford. “We are more than a binary dynamic which Europe generated.” To resist this complexity, to reduce it or deny it, robs us (Caribbean people) of a deeply important lens with which to see ourselves and other realities outside the Caribbean; a way of seeing that serves us in our own quests for community and social transformations, as well as a way of seeing that, in the tradition of Caribbean people before us, like Marcus Garvey, Robert Love and others, can contribute to liberatory dialogues between ourselves and nations beyond our region.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sexism, What's That?

Potcakes In The Diaspora
Writing from Oakland...

So, apparently not one of the women discussants on ABC's The View, including Barbara Walters, knew or understood the meaning of sexism on her own terms (one of the women read the definition from a dictionary). They sat around arguing about whether or not a Saturday Night Live skit (featuring Palin and Clinton impersonators) was sexist, but seemed to be in the dark about why anyone would feel the need to speak to issues of sexism, or what in fact is meant by the word. (I actually don't think they were in the dark at all, or arguing, for that matter; I think they were trying hard to appease... someone... whom might that be???) (I mean, Barbara Walters actually said, "What is sexism??" What?)

I have to say watching them made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and actually, angry (Whoopi, you let me right down!). This is partly why I don't watch television anymore, anywhere, because the realities of social dynamics rarely do get discussed, and when anyone attempts to do so, she or he is ridiculed or penalized. Was the skit sexist? Actually, I don't think it was. It played upon Palin's ignorance of foreign policy. What was sexist was five grown women talking politics on US National TV and pretending they had no knowledge of the history of gender oppression in the United States of America. Astounding. Or, sadly, not.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Carifesta X: Unpacking It, Slowly

I was there. In Guyana, at Carifesta X. I was there as one of four chosen Bahamian writers to represent Bahamian literary arts, only to arrive and discover that we Bahamians were still not on the official schedule to read or speak. We knew we were not represented before we left Nassau, and in spite of our letters to our own government and to the Carifesta X Committee, we never did make headway. Good thing we were prepared to go with the flow. Still, what is perplexing is why Bahamians were left out of the Carifesta schedule of literary arts in the first place. To be fair, several of the other northern Caribbean countries were missing from official literary arts events as well, including Jamaica. And when we showed up and asked to be included, we were met with hand waving and eyes averted; a strange disassociation which we were not sure of how to read.

Was our 'marginalization' intentional or an oversight? If either one, does it point to our lack of collective involvement in a larger Caribbean literary conversation? How do other Caribbean people see the Bahamas and its artists? As isolationist? As unwilling to speak as Caribbean people? I have heard rumours, of course. That Bahamians are 'flashy' and 'arrogant'. That we are too American. Not Caribbean enough. The questions and the rumours haunt me.

Still, we eventually negotiated three minutes for three of us to read at two of the evening readings, and encouraged by two of the Caribbean's most notable novelists, Austin Clark and Earl Lovelace, we also decided to organize our own reading, at Buddy's International, where we stayed for the two week event. And speaking for myself, being able to share my writing in Guyana, with other Caribbean writers and readers was a gift. Particularly because in that location, I became more accutely conscious of the Caribbean as my audience. And of my own need to be recognized and assessed by that audience, whose desires and experiences are part of the particular diversity that is the Caribbean, and of which the Bahamas is an inextricable part.

What I'm saying is this: that reading my work there gave me a glimpse of my extended family, and hearing the likes of Austin Clark, Earl Lovelace, and of course, Derek Walcott and others gave me a different kind of permission as a writer, one that I had not encountered before and needed in order to begin to fully inhabit my writer self: they gave me permission to see my self seriously as a writer with a long and dynamic tradition, connected by ocean and by spirit and by experience to literary forefathers and foremothers who have pioneered pathways and whose work compells me now to sit down and grapple with mine.

Perhaps being left out of officially sanctioned spaces is sometimes the critical jolt that remembers us to ourselves - reminds us that no government, and no festival can create art or artists, we create and define ourselves.

Here is an In Between Place

I am here. For a daughter of a Greek immigrant mother, who grew up in a postcolonial island country off the southern coast of North America, who has, for the last three years, lived her day to day life on the west coast of that enormous land mass, being 'here' is not simple.

Being 'here' is always an in between place, a place that is hardly ever static, that is pulled between impulses: to go 'home', or to look for someplace else to grow; to go home and help build a 35 year old country, or stray, go out into the world looking for something far more individual, the desire for self fulfillment that is often sacrificed in the building of nations - and how complicated that desire is, when it is articulated, (even its articulation is complicated, heretical), since it is not part of mainstream cultural desires (at least, not visibly); it is womanish and queer, so that to be 'here' out here, is really an exile, and to go home is to take myself back to the older, former exile - to live at home where homosexuality, bisexuality are not only deviant, they are anti-Christian in a country that calls itself a Christian Nation, that speaks to this in its constitution, claiming adherence to Christian spiritual values.

I called my grandmother today, because it is Sunday, and no matter where I am in the world, Sunday is lunch after church at Yaya's, and the family sitting around a table and the newest member of the family being passed from hands to hands, the eldest looking on and smiling, though somewhat sadly, and talk of business and perhaps some sweet piece of gossip, and joking, and laughing, and today, I called Yaya, because it is not good for a Greek Bahamian woman to go too long without speaking to her Yaya, and I had to keep the tears from filling my throat and blocking the words, and Yaya said, "When are you coming home?" And I thought in that moment of all the lunches and dinners around the family table where I have sat mute, or spoken words to avoid speaking words. Where children and weddings were discussed, but my own life was carefully edited and censored before it could make it into sound much less the family discussion. I thought about how well I learned to mask my yearning, to call it something else, to speak the words that were good and acceptable so I would not be seen. How I learned to play necessary roles and pretended to want what my characters wanted, till I did not know what it was that I wanted, my own self. How I had learned to disguise my multicoloured wings, till they were of no use to me there. How I was out here learning to fly. I said, "Soon, Yaya, soon." She said, "For good?" I said, "I don't know Yaya, maybe."

And that is how it goes, out here, with the birds (Cixous), because once you start articulating who you are, you can't go back to pretending you are not the person you have been dying all your life to become.

And if I were to imagine it otherwise, I would have a different conversation with my Yaya. We would talk and towards the end of the conversation, she would say, "So, have you found someone to make you happy?" I would say, "Not yet." She would say, "Come home, maybe you will find her here." My heart would start and stumble, and I would try hard to keep the tears from filling my throat and blocking the words. I would say, "You think so?" She would say, "This is your home, isn't it?" I'd say, "Yes, it is." She would say, "If you can't be yourself here, where can you be?" Then, like some incarnation of an ancient Cretan priestess, her voice deep and oceanic, she would say, "Lena mou, come home..." and the word 'home' would bring me there.

'Here' is not an easy place. It is fragmented. It stops and starts. Codes change. What it means to be a woman loving woman in this place is not the same as it is in the place I come from. What it means to be a white woman in the place I call home is very different from whiteness in America. 'Here' is pieces and stitching them together the way I watched my Yaya do with needles and coloured thread, with needles and coloured yarn, with her working hands and a desire to create 'family' out of every and any thing she could find, far from the island she grew up on, in another sea, another time; both of us Helens, making home no matter what.