S-v I *
Chrd & Dicod
IN ~ ~ THSISU
Mar o r Jaie Avila
Mari-Deise Shlo Came Cetn Ahe
Nain ....a Yol.d Matne-a Migue
David Liad luet. Wilim
SARGASSO 2006-07, I
Minor Keys, Chords and Discords
SARGASSO 2006-07, I1
Minor Keys, Chords and Discords
Sargasso, a peer-reviewed journal of literature, language, and culture edited at the
University of Puerto Rico, publishes critical essays, interviews, book reviews, and some
creative works. Sargasso particularly welcomes material written by/about the people of
the Caribbean region and its diaspora. Unless otherwise specified, essays and critical
studies should conform to the style of the MLA Handbook. Book reviews should be kept
to no more than 1,500 words in length. All correspondence must include one S.A.S.E. For
electronic submission, write to: email@example.com.
P.O. Box 22831, UPR Station
San Juan, Puerto Rico 00931-2831
Lowell Fiet, Founding Editor
Sally Everson and Don E. Walicek, Co-Editors
Maria Cristina Rodriguez, Book Review Editor
Carmen Hayd&e Rivera, Book Reviews
Eileen Olmedo, Editorial and Administrative Assistant
Jessica Adams, University of California, Berkeley
Mary Ann Gosser-Esquilin, Florida Atlantic University
Peter Roberts, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill
Ivette Romero, Marist College
Felipe Smith, Tulane University
Antonio Garcia Padilla, President of the University of Puerto Rico
Gladys Escalona de Motta, Chancellor, Rio Piedras Campus
Jose L. Ramos Escobar, Dean of Humanities
Cover art: Sally Everson, Lowell Fiet
Back cover image: La charada china, Sargasso Staff
Layout: Marcos Pastrana
Opinions and views expressed in Sargasso are those of the individual authors and are not
necessarily shared by theSargasso Editorial Board. All rights return to authors. This journal
is indexed by HAPI, Latindex, MLA, and the Periodicals Contents Index. Copies of Sargasso
2006-07, I, as well as previous issues, are on deposit in the Library of Congress. Filed
October 2007. ISSN 1060-5533.
Table of Contents
Editor's Note: Chords and Discords -and New Directions ......... vii
"Here Comes the Chinaman": Another Song of Cuban Identity.... 1
Imagining the Haitian Revolution: The Caribbean Perspective .. 9
Atlantic Gandhi, Caribbean Gandhian ...................................... 21
Pantomime, Touristic Performance,
and the Difficulty of Revision ..................................................... 39
Implications of Travel in Novels by Kathy Acker,
Margaret Atwood, and Mary Morris .......................................... 49
Publishing Jamaican Fiction: The Return to the Metropole ..... 57
"Stepping out of the Kumbla"'
-Jamaica Kincaid's AIDS Narrative, My Brother...................... 67
Constructing Awareness via Sexual Political
Discourse & Riddims: AIDS in Caribbean Music & Literature .... 83
vi TABLE OF CONTENTS
Book Review Editor's Note............................................................... 99
BOOK REVIEW S ................................................................................... 101
LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS.................................................................... 123
Chords and Discords
-and New Directions
he essays featured in this volume of Sargasso first appeared as
keynote presentations and papers at the twenty-fourth annual West
Indian Literature Conference held at the University of Puerto, Rio
Piedras from March 29 to April 1, 2005. Yet the issue reflects the breadth
and diversity of the fifty-some "minor key" conference papers only indirectly.
Because publishing those papers as "proceedings" or even as a panoramic
sampling was not feasible, the articles chosen for inclusion mirror as closely
as possible some of the most immediate literary, cultural, and social
concerns expressed by Sargasso's editorial charter. Specificity "keys" each
essay: the Cuban danz6n "Ahi viene el chino," ideo-literary images of the
Haitian Revolution, Gandhi's "exile" in South Africa, the Caribbean
imaginaries of North American women novelists, folklore and "cultural
performance" for tourists, Anthony Winkler's novels reissued by UK and
US publishers, Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother, and AIDS-related lyrics in salsa,
calypso, soca, and reggaet6n. Yet they illuminate larger, more general
themes: ethnic and linguistic diversity in the constitution of circum-
Caribbean culture, post- and neocolonial interventions such as the
increasingly tourist-driven island economies and their impact on local
cultural production, Caribbean education, publishing, and readership
development in relation to "multi-cultural" market formation in North
America and Europe, and ideological conflict as a determining factor in the
The opening essays by novelist Mayra Montero ("Here Comes the
Chinaman": Another Song of Cuban Identity) and scholar Marie-Denise
Shelton (Imagining the Haitian Revolution: The Caribbean Perspective) were
originally presented as keynote addresses, and we thank them for permitting
us to publish their translated (Montero) and adapted (Shelton) talks in
this volume. The other contributors also graciously altered the original
conference-paper format of their essays to better adapt to publication. Their
efforts are appreciated as well.
Sargasso 2006-07, I1 (Minor Keys: Chords and Discords) and Sargasso 2006-
07, II (Re/Visions of Santiago Ap6stol) feature materials drawn from a
conference and a symposium, respectively. The submitted papers then
received peer evaluation and, once accepted, were revised by their authors
for publication. However, only rarely will future issues follow this design of
inviting the submission of talks delivered at conferences. Work is currently
underway on a volume that addresses "Community-based, Alternative, and
Urban Arts" and another on "Alternate Identities: Representations of Gender
and Sexuality." The call for papers for the second issue remains open until
October 31, 2007. Guest editors who work in conjunction with the Sargasso
staff are responsible for the content. These issues point to new directions
for Sargasso. Both reflect a broader interest in performance and visual
representation as well as our more traditional focus on literature, language,
and culture. The increased visual content of the page layout of both issues
reflects that interest. Simultaneously, a semi-independent, on-line
publication will underscore and expand on the production elements of
alternative and experimental visual, musical, and performance arts. The
overlapping of Sargasso's print version and the on-line journal responds to
the development of a new interdisciplinary MA program in Cultural Agency
and Development at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. The
temporary partnership proposes to, on the one hand, create more varied
and visually arresting print and digital versions of Sargasso and, on the
other hand, launch an independent on-line alternative arts journal. We hope
our readers will support both projects.
"Here Comes the Chinaman ":
Another Song of Cuban Identity
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Translated from Spanish by Vivian Otero
Suppose that the organizers of this event will have a hard time
determining the nationality of the person who will be speaking to them
this afternoon. But since we are addressing the "crossing of cultures"
through the novel, I think the Caribbean blend that characterizes me is
precisely the right element for a group as heterogeneous as the one drawn
here by this annual West Indian Literature Conference.
True, I am a writer born in Cuba, with deep Cuban roots, but it is no less
true that I've lived for 33 years in Puerto Rico, a country that I regard not
as a second homeland, but as my homeland, with all the social, moral, and
political implications that entails. So, I am a Cuban-Puerto Rican writer,
but also a bit Haitian by literary adoption and because three of my nine
novels are set in Haiti, narrated from there in the voices of characters who
are, naturally, Haitian and whom I feel I know as well as I know myself.
I would also like to highlight the fact that the Dominican Republic, the
country in which I placed one of those Haitian novels, represents, for me,
my other home -full of intimate references, of light and music, of colors
and aromas with which I identify as a Caribbean woman. So I have the good
fortune of being a citizen of the warm, frantic, effervescent expanse of
islands and sea known as the Greater Antilles.
I have the good fortune of having all those homes and of feeling good in
each one of them. Not as a guest, but as an integrated, committed part,
sharing their longings and idiosyncrasies. It is from that perspective, one
that we could call Pan-Caribbean, that I speak to you this afternoon. And,
in the context of "crossing cultures," I would like to address a very special
influence I experienced as a young girl whose echo has reached, in one
2 MAYRA MONTERO
way or another, all the books I have ever written. Almost inadvertently,
with absolutely no intention on my part, I realize that in the midst of my
stories, suddenly, a Chinese man appears. Even when I speak of Haitians,
in Haitian novels, a figure with Asian features emerges. I am going to speak
of that "crossing" this afternoon, because in light of the subject at hand,
maybe the time has come for me to explain it.
"Here Comes the Chinaman"
One of the questions most insistently asked of me both in the United
States and in Europe about the publication of the novel The Messenger, in
which the starting point, as some of you already know, is a curious episode
that occurred in the life of the tenor Enrico Caruso, concerns the nature of
the novel's central female character. The character's Cuban identity was
complemented by what, for many, was a "strange" element of racial
admixture. Aida, as the main character is called, is the granddaughter of a
black woman and the daughter of a mulata and a Chinese.
I invariably answered the question by saying there was nothing exotic,
much less "strange" about this woman, a widowed seamstress only twenty-
seven years old, given that the first waves of Chinese immigrants began to
arrive in Cuba around the first half of the nineteenth century, most of them
poor farmers from Canton province. Lured by the deceptive siren calls of
an industrial bonanza in the Caribbean, or simply seized by force from the
coasts and rivers of Canton, upon arriving in Cuba, they found a regime of
slavery from which they could not escape to live as free citizens, much
less to return to their homeland.
Along with the slave trade of Black Africans, that period saw a
strengthening in the traffic of "coolie" slaves. These laborers were physically
more fragile than the Africans and also more reserved in character, which
frequently led them to commit suicide, desperate as they were because of
the shameful living conditions they were subjected to. During my childhood
in Cuba, my elders used to tell horrifying stories about collective suicides
by the poor -and often elderly- Cantonese workers, who had lost all
hope of returning to the land they had left so many years before.
In fact, the Chinese community in Cuba, whose neighborhood was
adjacent to the one I grew up in, was a decisive element in defining the
cultural profile of Cubans in the twentieth century. I no doubt met many
poor Chinese people, but I also came across a great number who lived or
had lived in affluence. For me, the Chinese neighborhood was -and still
is- a mysterious and dreamlike mosaic. It was a place where societies of
"countrymen" thrived -clubs where they would get together to talk, play,
or simply read the newspaper. During my childhood, I had the opportunity
to leaf through newspapers written in Chinese and printed in Cuba. The
"HERE COMES THE CHINAMAN": ANOTHER SONG OF CUBAN IDENTITY
Asian community had two movie theatres that I went to as a little girl, the
Aguila de Oro and the Nuevo Continental. They showed movies in Cantonese,
most of the time without subtitles, which many children went to see even
though we did not understand the language, just for the pleasure of admiring
the romantic characters and the bloody battles.
There were general stores, laundries, bodegas, and other businesses
run by Chinese men who, for lack of women of their own race, and given
the prejudice that white Cuban women held for them, would end up
cohabitating with or marrying Black or mulatto women, thus enriching a
unique racial admixture full of physiognomic and cultural implications.
I believe there is no richer quarry for the practice of Caribbean narrative
than the circumstances of this intersection of traditions and feelings, a
complex mix bristling with cultures and races, languages and religions,
and historic junctures of all types. Our reality, as Alejo Carpentier stated
well -and before him, the psychiatrist Pierre Mabille, a specialist in the
marvels of our region- is more profound, magical, and interesting because
of the constant influx of cultures and the swirling fusion of various historical
In my opinion, there are many aspects of the influence the Chinese and
their second and third generation descendants exerted on the society in
which I lived that await study, and, from a narrative perspective, have yet
to be written into novels. It was a society that tacitly cut off the Asian
community, in spite of the fact that those Asians comprised the most
populous and important Chinese neighborhood in Latin America, second
only to the one in San Francisco, California. While everyday citizens
assimilated this phenomenon as something exotic and, in a way, alien to
our reality as a people, the Chinese community strived to create a dignified
place for themselves through their tenacious work (although I should
mention that, in a number of cases -notorious ones in Havana- some of
them took to trafficking in opium and establishing powerful chains dealing
in illegal gambling). The truth is that, with the good and the bad, in its rich
and far reaching wholeness, their hard work bore fruit. The essence of the
quiet, although powerful Asian identity trickled, drop by drop, just like
Chinese torture (never said better), and the rest of us in Cuba absorbed it
little by little without even realizing it.
How did the Chinese arrive in the West Indies? How did this massive
migration from such faraway lands come to be? Around the 1830s and 40s,
Cuban landowners began to feel the effects of the Anglo-Spanish treaty
condemning the African slave trade. These landowners were also plagued
by the repercussions of Europe's industrial development, which placed
them in the dilemma of either hiring wage labor and acquiring new
technology or covertly escalating the trafficking of African slaves, which
implied considerable risk. On the other hand, there were also many
4 MAYRA MONTERO
uprisings by Black slaves around that time, and the tension and shortage
of hands on the plantations reached distressing levels. The situation was
so difficult that landowners began to favor the solution that the British
government itself had proposed earlier: the immigration of Asian workers
through work contracts. This was not a new solution in the Caribbean -
Trinidad, Jamaica and Guyana had already begun to receive contingents of
East Indian "coolies." I should point out that the immigration from India
had important socio-cultural repercussions for those islands. In the novel
In the Palm of Darkness, for example, I refer to the religious syncretism
derived from that migration, specifically the Cult of Mariamman, brought
by the East Indians who migrated to the Antilles, in this case, to the island
Desperate for cheap labor, Cuban landowners decided to try their luck
with the first Chinese from Canton. That is how, at the time of the twelfth
moon, in the year 47 of the emperor Tu Kong, that is to say, January 2,
1847, the frigate Oquendo sailed from the port of Amoy, bound for Cuba
with more than 300 Chinese aboard. Several months later, on the 3rd of
June of that year, 206 survivors arrived at the port of Havana. More than
one hundred Chinese men had died during the voyage, from fever or in
accidents, and the ones who finally made it to Cuban shores could barely
imagine that a much more painful and humiliating journey awaited them-
the unadorned slavery of the cane fields. From then on, the so-called "Yellow
Trade" was perpetrated on a regular basis, concealed in part through the
arrangement of fake contracts. By the year 1874, an estimated 150,000
Chinese had entered Cuba.
The violent introduction of these men -who considered themselves
free citizens- in a brutal scheme of oppression and forced labor began to
cause serious conflicts. The nature of the work assigned to them and the
way in which they were fed was devastating to the health of these
immigrants, who were more prone to suffer accidents or succumb to
epidemics than were the Africans. On the other hand, the "coolies" also
rebelled frequently. Often, like the African slaves, these were men who had
been abducted by pirates paid by Cuban agents. Others were actually
political prisoners whom the Mandarins regularly sold to traders. Their
cultural level and education clashed strongly with the brutal nightmare of
slavery. Since the "coolies" rebelled often, the African traders, whose
pockets suffered from the competition, spread a distorted image of the
Chinese, claiming they were crafty and vengeful.
That impression remained in Havana's popular imaginary until the end
of the 1960s. During my teenage years, to keep me from venturing out alone
through the Chinese neighborhood, my aunts would warn me about the
"treacherous character" of the Asians. Strong vestiges of this prejudice
survived in Cuban popular speech, so that, during my childhood and youth,
"HERE COMES THE CHINAMAN": ANOTHER SONG OF CUBAN IDENTITY 5
I often heard pejorative phrases about the Chinese and their descendants.
When a child was asked what she wanted for dinner, and she responded
"oh, any ol' thing," it was pretty common for the adult to answer, "'any old
thing' is a Chinaman's woman." Other popular phrases were "He was duped
like a Chinaman," meaning the person had been easily deceived; or "Let
her find a Chinaman who will rent her a room," an insult directed at a woman
who had few romantic options.
Going back to the beginning, the liberation process of the first "coolies"
began almost six years after their arrival in 1853. Some managed to escape,
others were legally freed from their contracts. During the following decades,
the Chinese slaves gradually joined the country's regular work force. They
worked in various jobs, all of them hard and poorly paid. The tobacco
industry took in thousands of them for the work of stripping the leaves,
many others became street vendors. In 1874, a Mandarin official came to
Cuba to assess the immigrants' situation. The Portuguese consul in Havana,
who at the time was the great writer Eca de Queiroz, made an effort to
show the Mandarin the disastrous conditions his compatriots lived in. As
a result of the visit, a treaty was signed between Spain and China that legally
put an end to indenture hiring. Later, with the definitive abolition of slavery,
the "coolies" came to feel like owners of their destinies. It was not a very
promising destiny, however, and it was entering a new and difficult stage.
Although the hiring had been stopped, immigration continued. New
waves of Cantonese men arrived in Cuba, as did Chinese men from
California. The latter were shopkeepers and traders with a certain amount
of capital who began to employ former "coolie" slaves and even establish
businesses that thrived on the thousands of Asian consumers who were
eager to patronize food businesses -the famous, cheap Chinese restaurants
and the markets of products that were more in line with their religious and
cultural needs. The "Californians," as they were called, also became involved
in the prostitution business and in developing forms of gambling that
featured Chinese symbols and names.
Like the Africans before them, the Chinese brought to Cuba some of
their gods. During my childhood I had the opportunity to admire several
Chinese altars. These were lovely altarpieces where sandalwood sticks
burned, and a syncretized, cubanized god was adored and venerated by
no small number of Cubans -San Fan C6n. In the company of a friend of
my grandmother's, a beautiful woman called Lidia who was the widow of a
Spanish immigrant and part Spanish herself, but linked by gossip to a
powerful Cantonese businessman, I visited one of the most extraordinary
Chinese altars in Havana. It was in a house on Dragones street where I went
several times to place offerings. I can see myself, a small basket of fruit in
hand, walking down a dark corridor. In the room where the altar was located,
a sweet though imposing Chinese man awaited us. He would stroke my
head with his hand, which had terrible, crooked nails. Lidia and I would
light some incense, and she taught me a prayer I still whisper sometimes:
San Fan C6n, warrior of light, put your head in my hands and happiness in my
At the time, I didn't understand the prayer -I still don't, completely-
but I remember the face of the warrior of light, a dull noise that resembled
dizziness, and the little paper figures given to me by the Chinese men that
scurried through the house. Years later I rescued that light -the divine
shadows, the Asian contrast that was slowly fading- in The Messenger,
and, even earlier, in books such as The Red of His Shadow or In the Palm of
Darkness, in which the Chinese element appears and disappears, somewhat
like a brief aesthetic ray, a sidelong look, passed on to me by the
"countrymen" from Lealtad street where I lived for fifteen years.
When the Aida in my novel enters the house of her real father, a Chinese
witchdoctor whose fingers move like little worms, it is me -no one else-
who enters the house to reclaim a wonderful, mystical, and fragrant space
that is hidden inside my warmest memories. At fifteen, driven by my love
for the Chinese neighborhood and my discrete devotion to San Fan C6n, I
signed up for some Cantonese courses sponsored by the Cuban-Chinese
Friendship Society. With my elderly professor, Cecil Pan, I made my first
visit to the Chinese cemetery in Havana. It was a poignant, beautiful
graveyard where, in early April, as I remember, we would light incense,
place food and flowers on the tombs, and burn little pieces of paper, like
What kind of racial admixture is forged in our mind and in our soul when,
on the one hand, we have the imprint of a rich African culture, on the other,
a strong Spanish heritage -in my case, of a more or less magical origin,
that is, Galician- and finally, as a culmination, there is the magnificent
stroke of a gong, the pitch of the Chinese trumpet that rose above the sounds
of Havana's carnival, the unforgettable cloth tiger that would stride through
the streets of my neighborhood in celebration of the Chinese new year?
Alejo Carpentier, paraphrasing Rabelais, who at some point referred to
certain "sonorous islands," said the Antilles deserved that title more than
any other archipelago in the world. "Everything has a sound in the Antilles,"
wrote Carpentier. "Everything is sound. The Antilles have music as a
Clearly, the melodies of many cultures and many geographies throb under
the basic leit motive of all things Antillean. Chinese influence on popular
Cuban music is plural and colorful, teeming with interesting resonances.
The quintessential musical genre from Cuba, the danz6n, has many
examples. To cite only a few, there are: Una taza de arroz (A Bowl of Rice),
El Dios chino (The Chinese God), La sopa china (Chinese Soup), Ahi viene
el chino (Here Comes the Chinaman). The latter, composed by the greatest
"HERE COMES THE CHINAMAN": ANOTHER SONG OF CUBAN IDENTITY 7
Cuban composer of all time, Ernesto Lecuona, represents the chapter in
Cuban music that, perhaps, best depicts the Chinese influence on our music.
Beyond our borders, when Aaron Copland decided to compose a danz6n,
which he titled, precisely, "Danz6n Cubano," he based it on the famous
piece Almendra, by composer Abelardo Vald6s. But the interesting thing is
that the first bars are evidently from a Chinese melody. How did Copland
know of the Chinese influence on our music? I have no idea.
Perhaps he had read somewhere what was more or less general
knowledge to everyone who lived near the Chinese neighborhood. In one
way or another, all of us were exposed to their music. The arrival in Cuba
of the first actors from China dates back to January 1875. They were
comedians, and it is a comical coincidence that the first Chinese theatre,
which was built in Havana around that same time, was located on the
grounds where, many years later in 1958, my own house would be built.
There, along with my childhood dreams, surely hovered the echoes of the
high-pitched Chinese notes, the shrill dialogues, the hum of the fans, and
the humid trail of the lotus flowers.
The Sun Yen, as the theatre was called, at one point offered daily shows
from six in the afternoon to ten o'clock at night. Later, during the first half
of the twentieth century, opera companies would come to Havana at the
invitation of the main Chinese theaters of the capital. Different radio stations
would broadcast Chinese music, and in fact, in the 1930s and 40s, Cubans
had the opportunity to listen to -if not understand- a newscast in Chinese,
produced in Cuba and aired by a famous Havana radio station.
The Cuban vernacular theatre, a mirror of our national reality expressed
in caricatures, added the typical chinito street vendor of fruits and
vegetables to the emblematic characters of the gallego, the negrito, and
Chinese influence in Cuban art has also had its great exponents. In the
magnificent strokes of a painter of Chinese background, Wilfredo Lam, one
can make out the soft perspective -like a fine light in the jungle, or a fine
glaze, who knows- a delicate, minimalist, in other words, Asian art, blended
with the forceful silhouettes of a great African odyssey.
I know that some Cuban novels include characters of Chinese origin, or
episodes that involve the Chinese who had just arrived in Cuba, even scenes
that take place on Zanja street, the principal artery of the famous
neighborhood. However, I believe that the real story of the Chinese
immigrant has yet to be told in a novel; a story told from the inside and
narrated from his or her perspective.
Of course, what is left of the Chinese neighborhood is a mere evocation
for the sake of tourists. Most of the immigrants have died, and their children,
grandchildren, and great-grand children -men and women with a great
admixture in their blood- have merged with the Cuban population, and
have naturally lost their features, customs, and traditions. That is why I
feel so lucky for having been born in the early fifties and for belonging to
the last generation of Cubans who had the great fortune to know the Chinese
neighborhood at its peak, with its movie houses and newspapers, its dime
stores and its restaurants, where nighttime bohemians like my father would
take refuge at six in the morning to drink a delicious bowl of soup that
could raise the dead.
I learned to respect the dead, the ancestors, at home through the
influence of my grandmothers -one from the Canary Islands, the other
Galician- the most spiritual and magical people in all of Spain. However,
that constant meditation upon the mirrors of death and the premonition of
the deceased were also instilled in me by the beliefs and rituals of the Yoruba
and the beliefs and rituals of Chinese immigrants, next to whom I practically
grew up. The Chinese would place semiprecious stones on the foreheads
of their dead. They would burn incense, a habit I acquired then and practice
to this day.
When I was little, my mother used to hum the lovely danz6n by Lecuona,
Ahi viene el chino. She would sing it to make fun of my sister, who by a
funny twist of fate had been born with marked Asian features. People in
the street always called her chinita.
I often recall that song and think that those of us who are lucky enough
to know that, beyond the major ethnic elements, there are countless other
circumstances -all very subjective but equally intense-that contributed
to defining our spirit and our identity, can take pleasure from seeing the
"Chinaman" come, whoever he may be, and greet him with pride and
As I glimpse, within this fortuitous dance of ghosts, the Chinese men
and women of my childhood; the powerful ftidigo of my childhood
nightmares; the babalao priest of Yoruba origin; and even the folk healer
from the Canaries, an old friend of my elders who would cure me of the evil
eye, I have no other choice but to agree with Carpentier: the Antilles are
sonorous islands, and Antilleans, wherever we may be, create a sound that
is manifold and deep, the merging of a hundred thousand voices.
Imagining the Haitian Revolution:
The Caribbean Perspective
Claremont McKenna College
Despite its size and well-publicized problems, Haiti has captured the
imagination of authors throughout the world. What greater
contradiction could there be than the reality of a small Caribbean
island becoming the first black republic in the world, the second republic in
the Americas, and the site of the third major revolution of the eighteenth
century, after the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of
1789? The story appears improbable -incomprehensible.
In his insightful book Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot examines
the treatment of the Haitian Revolution in Western historiography. He
identifies two types of tropes. First, there are what he calls "formulas of
erasure," a set of generalities and assumptions that work together to
obliterate the reality of the revolution itself. The other tropes identified by
Trouillot are discursive practices he calls "formulas of banalization." Here,
one does not deny that certain events happened in a specific time and place.
However, eviscerated of their real content and coherence, these events lose
historical significance. "The joint effect of these two types of formulas is a
powerful silencing: whatever has not been cancelled out in the generalities
dies in the cumulative irrelevance of a heap of details. This is certainly the
case for the Haitian Revolution" (97), concludes Trouillot.
Yet, there is a paradox. Despite the disbelief, the silences, and the
generalizations and distortions, for the past two centuries, the Haitian
Revolution has not ceased to fascinate the imagination. Branded a pariah
nation, Haiti has remained both a disquieting enigma and the embodiment
of a promise. Numerous plays, poems, essays, and novels have taken as
subject the Haitian Revolution. Nineteenth-century writers in Europe offered
their own renditions of the 1791 slave revolt of Saint-Domingue. Many
reflected the ideological divide of the time arguing in favor or against slavery.
There are also works by prominent literary figures who found in the Haitian
Revolution a source of unique inspiration. Their names are Alphonse de
10 MARIE-DENISE SHELTON
Lamartine, Victor Hugo, William Wordsworth, and Heinrich von Kleist.
Alphonse de Lamartine's epic poem, Toussaint, is a rueful meditation on the
tragic destiny of the architect of the revolution, who died in the cold prison
cell of the Fort-de-Joux in the Jura Mountains.
Victor Hugo's novel, Bug Jargal published in 1818 and rewritten in 1826,
offers an image of the revolution which reflects the ambiguities of the French
humanistic tradition. It is both an affirmation of the necessity of the slave
revolt and a condemnation of its excesses. The essence of revolutions, Victor
Hugo believed, is that they are right in substance but wrong in their execution.
Nowhere is this idea better expressed than in this novel. Bug Jargal, the hero
of the novel, is the fictional leader of the slave revolt. He is an idealized
romantic figure who is generous, loves freedom and abhors injustice. He is
all the more admirable when compared with real figures of the Revolution
such as Boukman, Biassou, and Jean-Francois, who themselves are described
as transgressors and a generally unsavory lot. In Engagement in Santo
Domingo, the German poet, Kleist, provides a similarly ambivalent
representation, one which is infused with both admiration and horror. The
Haitian Revolution was, as it were, tailor-made for the romantic sensibility.
The gesture of slaves breaking the chains of bondage and the Sturm und
Drang of revolt intersected with the romantics' desire to liberate the human
spirit. For the English poet, William Wordsworth, Toussaint Louverture
symbolizes the more generous aspirations of the revolution. He expresses
this idea in eloquent and dramatic terms in his poem, "To Toussaint
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again
Live and take comfort. Thou has left behind
Powers that work for thee: air, earth, and skie
There is not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee: thou has great allies:
Thy friends are exultations, agonies
And love, and man's unconquerable mind (149)
The idea of a timeless emblematic hero reflects the romantic belief in
human progress and the power of the spirit. It derives its meaning from the
historical events themselves, but also from the philosophical and aesthetic
values prevalent in Europe at the time.
In turning to the representation of the Haitian Revolution in Caribbean
literature, outside of Haiti one does find reminiscences of the pathos of
European Romanticism. Here also, the focus remains on a history made by
male heroes in general and on the figure of Toussaint Louverture in particular.
In his essay, The Pleasures of Exile, the Barbadian poet, George Lamming,
takes on a Wordsworth-like accent to invoke the spirit of Toussaint whose
name, he believes, is "unforgotten and unforgettable as the common wind"
IMAGINING THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION: THE CARIBBEAN PERSPECTIVE
(150). One hears similar inflections in Aime Cesaire's Notebook when evoking
the last days of Toussaint. He describes him in his cell as "a lone man
imprisoned in whiteness ... a man who mesmerizes the white sparrow hawk
of white death" (16).
However, the Caribbean encounter with Haitian history is not a mere echo
of abstract Romanticism. The perspective of the Caribbean writer is defined
by the specific experience of slavery, colonization, and the ongoing quest of
a Creole identity. Faced with the event of the Haitian Revolution, the
Caribbean writer is not a disinterested spectator. Rather, he or she engages
in an active interrogation that is both theory and practice: a theory of self-
discovery and a textual practice based on symbols. This writer's effort is to
liberate a contained energy in the hope of dismantling old structures of
thought and building new ones. Whatever his or her interpretation of the
Haitian past -positive or negative; subjective or aspiring to objectivity- it
is infused with passionate intensity. Something vital and transformative
seems to be at stake. Even somebody such as Derek Walcott, for instance,
who, as we will see, considers history in general and Haitian history in
particular "a nightmare," felt compelled to reclaim the Haitian Revolution as
the Caribbean people's "only noble ruins" (qtd. in Olaniyan 95). Whether
motivated by a Pan-African vision, revolutionary Marxism, or an Antillean
dream, several Caribbean writers, at one point or another, have turned toward
the Haitian past in search of answers or meaningful propositions. The same
is true for American writers and artists such as Countee Cullen, WE.B. Dubois,
Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, and others for whom Haitian history
served as an antidote to black alienation in the U.S.
In the French-speaking Caribbean, Aime C6saire and Edouard Glissant have
both written about the revolution and about Toussaint Louverture. Their
preoccupation with the Haitian revolutionary period is consistent with their
wider quest for a Caribbean identity. For Cesaire, the poet of Negritude, Haiti
provided the first illustration of Negritude in action. Haiti, asserts C6saire, is
the country "where Negritude rose for the first time" (Notebook 15). Glissant's
notion of antillanite or caribbeanness rests on a poetic of presence and
recovery of history. In the preface to his play, Monsieur Toussaint (1961/
1981), he explains his project as follows:
For those whose history has been reduced by others to darkness and despair,
the recovery of the near or distant past is imperative. To renew acquaintance
with one's history, obscured or obliterated by others, is to relish fully the
present, for the experience of the present, stripped of its roots in time, yields
only hollow delights. This is a poetic endeavor. (17)
C6saire takes leave of his persona as poet to assume the role of historian
in his historical essay, Toussaint Louverture, published in 1961. Undaunted
by the challenge, C6saire sifts through a voluminous compilation of dates,
12 MARIE-DENISE SHELTON
events, and names to extract the portrait of a man, Toussaint Louverture,
and the lesson of the Haitian Revolution. In the introduction, he clearly states
the significance of the Haitian Revolution as a major world event: "Saint-
Domingue is the first country of modern times to have confronted in real
terms and in all its social, economic, and racial complexity the great problem
that the twentieth century tries to solve, i.e., the colonial problem. It is the
first country that confronted this problem, and the first country where it
was resolved" (24).
As for Toussaint, C6saire depicts him as at once familiar and elusive;
knowable and unfathomable. He admires him for having demonstrated to
the world that there is no outcast race. Like C.L.R. James, C6saire considers
Toussaint a formidable strategist who transformed an insurrection into a
revolution; disparate masses into one people; a colony into a nation/state.
He also sees him as a flawed hero, one who remained at the threshold of
greatness. Blind with hubris and power, he could not bring the revolution to
its ultimate end, which was the independence of Haiti. Imagining history as
apotheosis, C6saire interprets Toussaint's exile and death as the self-
immolation of a misunderstood and solitary hero, who had to remove himself
because he realized he had become an obstacle.
In his play, The Tragedy of King Christophe (1963), Cesaire contemplates
the aftermath of the Revolution. The action takes place a few years after
independence in 1804. The context is that of a barely constituted nation
already worn out by devastation and conflicts. Dessalines, the first leader of
independent Haiti, has been assassinated. After his death, the country is
split in two: a republic in the West led by P6tion and a kingdom in the North
run by Henri Christophe. C6saire shows Christophe's rise to power and his
conduct as a self-anointed monarch who was convinced that he alone could
lead Haiti toward real freedom. C6saire's tone is derisive, when depicting
Christophe's court and his fascination for palaces and citadels. Through
characters, such as Brelle, de Vastey, disgruntled soldiers, and disillusioned
peasants, the author articulates a scathing denunciation of despotism.
However, the overall tone of the play is introspective and grave as C6saire
considers the monumental task undertaken by Christophe to build a
"modern" nation against powerful enemies from the outside and the inert
force of three hundred years of slavery and colonial oppression. At the end
of the play, Christophe appears as a tragic figure. Hated by the masses,
abandoned by the gods, and betrayed by friends, he gradually descends into
madness and death. The Citadel he built as a symbol of the nation's resolve
becomes his tomb. Viewed by C6saire, the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath
have defined, despite the appearances to the contrary, a liberating path towards
the future. For him, the modern story of the Caribbean would be somehow
meaningless without the illuminating moments of Haiti's past.
Glissant explores similar themes in his play, Monsieur Toussaint, in which
are interlaced the collective history of the masses and the personal story of
IMAGINING THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION: THE CARIBBEAN PERSPECTIVE
Toussaint. Glissant shows the Haitian people with their dreams, their gods,
their struggles, and their will for freedom against the backdrop of the
Revolution. The play also retraces the unique journey of Toussaint, from
glory to obscurity, from power to dejection. Glissant's Toussaint is a solitary
figure who accepts responsibility for his own demise: "The people do not
desert me. Alas, I desert my people" (77). The play's action unfolds in an
imaginary world between Saint-Domingue and the Fort-de-Joux in the Jura
Mountains where Toussaint was imprisoned by Napoleon. In his cell,
Toussaint is visited by spirits and ghosts of the past, and by people he knew
or should have known. In one scene Toussaint is visited by Delgres, the
mutinous Guadeloupean officer who perished with his men in the fortress of
Matouba rather than submit to the French general, Richepanse, sent to restore
slavery in the Antilles. In imagining the fictional encounter of Toussaint and
Delgres, Glissant connects two important moments of Caribbean history and
the struggle against slavery and colonialism. Glissant, the poet, draws both
men out of the solitude and exile to which official history had condemned
them. In defining his project, Glissant indicates that it is not politically inspired;
rather it is linked to what he calls "a prophetic vision of the past" (17).
From the rise of Toussaint "into the sun" to his demise; from the ascent of
Christophe to Olympus to his thunderous fall, Haitian history as reflected in
the works of Cesaire and Glissant appears to follow an Icarian trajectory.
What the two authors uncover in their meditation on Haiti's history is not a
traumatic past to be forgotten or erased, but rather a unique event that has
changed forever the course of world history. It is also for them a defining
and empowering moment of Caribbean history. For these two Caribbean
writers, reclaiming the Haitian past is as much an existential imperative as a
Turning now to the Anglophone Caribbean, one sees two different
representations of the Haitian revolution: one by C.L.R. James; the other by
Derek Walcott. James published his famous essay The Black Jacobins in 1939
and an augmented version in 1962. Walcott's Haitian Trilogy (2002) assembles
three previously unpublished plays: Henri Christophe, produced for the first
time in 1949; Drums and Colours, commissioned and produced for the opening
of the First West Indian Federation in 1958; and The Haitian Earth, produced
in 1984 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of emancipation.
There may be an obvious impropriety in juxtaposing the historical essay
of James, The Black Jacobins and the plays of Walcott. The two enterprises
respond to different motivations and intentions. One acquires its significance
in providing coherence to a long chain of events; the other examines the
events of the Revolution as fragmented, disjointed, and incoherent. One
approaches history with a sense of exhilaration and the other with profound
angst and sadness. For one, the idea of revolution is liberating; for the other,
it is alienating and destructive. James believes in the power of humans to
transform the world, despite the contradictions of history. Walcott distrusts
14 MARIE-DENISE SHELTON
the motivations of men and rejects the idea of history. In both instances,
however, there is the powerful call of Haitian history and the desire to search
through the Caribbean memory.
The Black Jacobins published in 1939 sets the tone of the dominant
interpretation of the Revolution found today in Haiti and in the Caribbean in
general. Vivid and passionate, it is as much an historical essay based on
archival punctiliousness as a literary performance with its own narrative
style and dramatic tensions. It is also organized like a musical composition
with its movements, dynamics, melodic lines, and repetitions. James reorders
events, analyzes human motives providing a stunning coherence to the
twelve-year struggle of the Haitians toward independence. For James, the
slave revolt in Haiti is one of the most extraordinary events of human history.
Here is what he says in his preface of The Black Jacobins:
The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history, and the odds it had to
overcome is evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved.
The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white
man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful
European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle
and achievement. Why and how this happened is the theme of this book. (ix)
For James, the Haitian Revolution is not a disembodied process. It was
forged, hammered so to speak on the anvil of history. Like C6saire and others,
James sees Toussaint as the man who defined the circumstances that brought
the Revolution into being. Toussaint is a "whole man" who made the
Revolution possible and was made by it. Like others before and after him,
James favors the image of Toussaint as the tragic hero and depicts the solitude
of power: "The hamartia, the tragic flaw, which we have constructed from
Aristotle, was in Toussaint not a moral weakness. It was a specific error; a
total miscalculation of the constituent event [...] Greek tragedians could
always go to their gods for a dramatic embodiment of fate, the dike which
rules over a world neither they nor we ever made. But not Shakespeare
himself could have found such a dramatic embodiment of fate as Toussaint
struggled against" (291-292). James compares Toussaint to great figures of
mythology and literature: Prometheus, Hamlet, Lear, and Ahab, who dared
human fate in the face of sure destruction. Unlike C6saire, James does not
view Toussaint as a sacrificial lamb. He depicts him as a political animal who
in the end could not properly translate the aspirations of the masses. He
had to "be removed from the scene" for history to be accomplished.
Dessalines entered the scene and through his radical action brought the
revolution to its ultimate end. For James, the outcome was both necessary
and regrettable. "The massacre of the whites was a tragedy; [... ] the tragedy
was for the blacks and the Mulattoes. It was not policy but revenge, and
revenge has no place in politics" (373).
IMAGINING THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION: THE CARIBBEAN PERSPECTIVE
For James, the Haitian Revolution initiated and epitomizes the modern
quest for national identity throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and
Africa. Thus, James sees a direct line connecting the disparate movements
of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led by Toussaint, Bolivar, Marcus
Garvey, Kenyatta, Nkrumah, George Padmore, and Fidel Castro. The Appendix
to The Black Jacobins added in the 1962 edition is evocatively subtitled "From
Toussaint Louverture to Fidel Castro."
In Derek Walcott's Haitian Trilogy, the representation of the Revolution is
not a matter of celebration, nor is it motivated by a desire to find coherence
and meaning. Walcott approaches the history of Haiti with skepticism and
something that resembles anger. With him, we are very far from the idea of
history as progress. In fact, the plays that form the trilogy illustrate the idea
that Revolution ushers in chaos, misery, and tyranny. It is as if Walcott sought
to deconstruct the very paradigm upon which James had built his historical
In the first play in the trilogy, entitled King Christophe, the action unfolds
in the post-revolutionary era, the time in Haitian history that saw the rise
of Christophe to power and his reign as king. The Revolution accomplished,
Dessalines ascends to power and proclaims himself emperor. The story
told by Walcott is neither a heroic saga nor the tragedy of a misunderstood
visionary. It is a grotesque carnival in which despicable men grimace and
make frightful contortions. Walcott scoffs at Haiti's black monarchs: the
Emperor Dessalines, and Christophe, the king. He depicts them not as
heroes to be admired but as tyrants to be loathed. Brutal, murderous, and
corrupt, they do not possess any redeeming qualities. P6tion, the president
of the republic of the South, is the only one in the gallery of Haitian historical
figures to have garnered Walcott's sympathy and admiration. In contrast
to Dessalines and Christophe who are depicted as evil and incompetent,
Potion appears as a genteel and wise statesman. This Manichean
representation reflects to some extent arguments formulated by nineteenth-
century Haitian historians such as Beaubrun Ardouin who asserted a sort
of moral superiority of mulattoes over blacks. One wonders where Walcott
derived his view of Haitian history. Is it from specific readings or from his
singular subjectivity? Walcott's Christophe is not the cosmic figure imagined
by C6saire. He is a fumbling brute who led Haiti to the abyss. In the play,
the memory of colonialism, the suffering of slaves, and the Revolution are
hardly evoked. All hopes and aspirations have been shattered. The central
argument of the play seems to be that Christophe and other leaders were
not only incapable of building a nation but that the Revolution itself
degraded the collective soul and doomed the incipient nation to failure. In
his essay, Nobody's Nation, Paul Breslin makes the following observation:
"Walcott's postrevolutionay tristesse contrasts with James's revolutionary
fervor. For James, the Haitian revolution is a sign of hope for the future,
pointing the way for the colonies in Africa. For Walcott, the event is one of
16 MARIE-DENISE SHELTON
many in Caribbean history that can be understood as both a birth and death,
or as still-unfinished beginning" (Breslin 76).
Drums and Colours, the second play in the trilogy is an ambitious and
fragmented epic that embraces the vast historical expanse of time that
goes from the Columbus' "discovery" to the Haitian revolution and beyond.
Historical facts are mingled, events are misplaced, as the author seeks to
capture the movement of history rather than achieve factual accuracy. In
the foreword to the text, the author notes the following: "In one or two
instances, for purposes of thematic cohesion, I have rearranged dates and
incidents, but the general pattern of discovery, conquest, exploitation,
rebellion and constitutional advancement has been followed ... the scenes
are so arranged that interested producers can excise shorter, self-contained
plays from the main work ...." (113). Despite this expressed intention, the
play gives the appearance of a disconnected and disorganized collection
of vignettes. Scenes of Caribbean carnival are interwoven with events
happening in various places, in Europe and the Americas; in Haiti and
Jamaica. Several scenes deal with Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution.
Toussaint is represented as an indecisive and confused leader and the
Revolution as a misguided enterprise of revenge. One of the characters,
Deacon Sale, warning against the evil of revolution, seems to give voice to
Walcott's own sentiment:
The man who whips you cuts his own flesh, Aaron. For you are a piece of that
man. Do not hate him. Twenty years ago, in Haiti, the slaves turned on their
masters and butchered them. When the great generals of the Haitians
revolution came to power, their cause was corrupted by greed. Even that
great general Toussaint caught the contagion of hate. (255)
Among all the figures of Haitian history, none is more reviled and despised
by Walcott than Dessalines. The image he gives is furiously negative.
Dessalines is portrayed as a ruthless and sadistic murderer who took the
Revolution to the extreme limit of atrocities. In the third play of the trilogy,
The Haitian Earth, Dessalines is depicted as a shirtless and vulgar glutton
who takes advantage of the disorder created by the slave revolt to give free
rein to his base instincts. He is a barbaric figure who ignores all basic human
values and moral principles. There is a macabre scene in which Dessalines,
drunk with power, kisses the severed head of Boukman and hurls it away. In
all three plays, there is the recurrent theme of betrayal. Toussaint is betrayed
by Dessalines and Christophe; Dessalines by P6tion and Christophe;
Christophe by his soldiers; and the nation by its leaders. Among the three
plays, The Haitian Earth, is perhaps the most pessimistic. In it, the poet's
language becomes coarse. Shedding the decorum of the iambic verse, Walcott
adopts the raw expressions and the syntax of an irreverent creolized language.
The judgment cast is without appeal: the Haitian Revolution, in Walcott's
IMAGINING THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION: THE CARIBBEAN PERSPECTIVE
eyes, was a human disaster. The plays in the trilogy while providing a
depressing and, at times, reductionist view of Haitian history, constitute a
remarkable and powerful inquiry into the corrupting and contradictory
aspects of the revolutionary process. Walcott's aversion to violent upheavals
is antithetical with C.L.R. James's belief in the unlimited spiritual and political
value of revolutions. His point seems to be that Haiti is the example not to
follow and that the Caribbean must conjure up an alternative model for
constructing its collective identity. With this trilogy, we have an insistent
plea by the Nobel Prize poet to "disremember" history.
I will note in this context that the image that Walcott and, to some extent,
C.L.R. James give of Dessalines stands in sharp contrast with the view that a
great majority of Haitians have of Dessalines' place and role in history.
Haitians readily attribute the birth of the nation to Dessalines and his radical
"scorched earth" strategy. His rallying calls to action: "Coupe tit boul caye"
(kill and burn); "La liberty ou la mort" (freedom or death) are indelibly
engraved in the Haitian psyche. More perhaps than Toussaint, it is Dessalines
who is celebrated in Haiti as the ultimate national hero. A number of respected
Haitian writers and historians have represented Dessalines as a progressive
leader who defended the interests of the masses of former slaves against
the interests of the new ruling class of anciens libres and light-skinned generals
after the Revolution. According to Trouillot, "By 1804, following the seizure
of properties that accompanied the massacre and exodus of the French
masters, the state had become the most important owner of cultivated land
in the country. Dessalines wanted it to remain so" (State Against Nation 44).
The "uncivilized" monster depicted by his detractors inside and outside Haiti,
Dessalines is presented as a thoughtful statesman who enacted policies that
today would be considered progressive. "Ironically, many such policies,
including freedom of religion, equal rights for children born out of wedlock,
and marriage and divorce laws favorable to women have since become
hallmarks of "civilization," writes Trouillot (44). Walcott, in a sense, has left
out these facts because they are incompatible with his interpretation of
history. In the same way, the literary images of Christophe formed by C6saire
or Walcott do not coincide with the prevalent view in Haiti. Indeed, for the
most part, the Christophian project, the court, the palaces, and the Citadel
are not considered despicable follies of a despotic ruler. They have been
adopted by Haitians as authentic "sites of memory" and sacred symbols.
Even today, despite the tragic political circumstances, Haitians derive great
pride in the Revolution and remain convinced that their country has given a
lesson of freedom to the world.
Movements of racial and cultural awareness from the 30s to the 60s, to a
large extent, account for the interest of Caribbean writers in Haiti and its
revolution. From James' Black Jacobins to Cesaire's Tragedy and Walcott's
Haitian Trilogy, there is an unbroken line, beyond personal and ideological
divergences. A driving force has led these important writers to reflect on
18 MARIE-DENISE SHELTON
Haiti's past. The events that marked Haitian history may remain for them
puzzling, opaque, and even incomprehensible. However, they entered into
Haitian history, as if into a labyrinth, in search of an answer to the post-
colonial condition. Even Walcott manages to find some redeeming value in
the Haitian Revolution. Despite everything, he was forced to acknowledge it
as "a necessary rejection of the debasements endured" under slavery (The
Haitian Trilogy, viii).
Today, Caribbean writers increasingly preoccupied by the internal
contradictions within their own countries or eager to reclaim their own
history have turned their eyes away from Haiti. The Haitian Revolution
has perhaps become for them a remote event with no immediate relevance
to their lives or their creative projects. The prevailing sentiment in the
Caribbean today is that Haiti is a nation in crisis and a country on the
verge of disintegration. Shame and pity have supplanted curiosity, passion,
pride, and a feeling of solidarity. Nevertheless, the link between the Haitian
Revolution and the rest of the Caribbean is real. One will recall that
Boukman, who led the slave revolt that marked the beginning of the
Revolution, was from Jamaica. Christophe, the nation builder, was born in
Grenada. "To remain silent about Haiti would be a lie, or fear"1 wrote Jose
Marti in 1894 in the context of the struggle for Cuban independence (321).
Alejo Carpentier's famous novel about revolutionary Haiti, The Kingdom of
this World, has defined the dominant aesthetics of magical realism in
Caribbean and Latin American literatures. TomAs Guiti6rrez Alea in his
remarkable film, La iltima cena (The Last Supper), showed the connection
between the Haitian Revolution and a slave uprising in Cuba in 1843. In
various ways, therefore, the story of Haiti is woven in the larger narrative
of the Caribbean. These links are perhaps not widely known or remembered,
but they serve to forge what could be considered a collective Caribbean
consciousness. Today, references to Haiti's past can be found in popular
Caribbean music by Haitians in the diaspora and other Caribbean artists. A
case in point is the song by the Trinidadian reggae artist, David Rudder,
entitled "Haiti." In lieu of a conclusion, here are the words of this song that
reflects a keen historical sense, a call for solidarity, and a nostalgic dream of
Toussaint was a mighty man
And to make matters worse he was black
Black and back in the days when black men knew
Their place was in the back
But this rebel he still walked through Napoleon
Who thought it wasn't very nice
And so today, my brothers in Haiti,
They still pay the price
IMAGINING THE HAITIAN REVOLUTION: THE CARIBBEAN PERSPECTIVE 19
Haiti I'm sorry
We misunderstood you
But one day we'll turn our heads
And look inside you
Haiti I'm sorry
Haiti I'm sorry
But one day we'll turn our heads
Restore your glory.
20 MARIE-DENISE SHELTON
Breslin, Paul, Nobody's Nation, U of Chicago P, 2001.
C6saire, Aime. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Trans. Annette Smith.
Ed. Clayton Eshleman. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2001.
Toussaint Louverture. Paris: Presence Africaine, 2000.
The Tragedy of King Christophe. NY: Grove P, 1970.
Glissant, Edouard. Monsieur Toussaint: A Play. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2005.
James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins. 1939. NY: Vintage, 1963.
Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. U of Michigan P, 1992.
Marti, Jos6. Our America. NY: Monthly Review P, 1977.
Olaniyan, Tejumola. Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance. NY: Oxford UP,
Rudder, David. "Haiti." Perf. Rudder, David and Charlies Roots. Haiti. Arranged
by Pelham Goddard. Lypsoland, 1988.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolf. Haiti, State Against Nation. NY: Monthly Review P, 1990.
Silencing the Past, Boston: Beacon P, 1995.
Wordsworth, William, "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" in A Wordsworth Anthology.
London: Collins, 1949.
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
n Chapter VII of his autobiography, Gandhi writes of landing in Durban,
the port of Natal in South Africa:
As the ship arrived at the quay and I watched the people coming on board to
meet their friends, I observed that the Indians were not held in much respect.
I could not fail to notice a sort of snobbishness about the manner in which
those who knew Abdulla Sheth behaved towards him.... Those who looked at
me did so with a kind of curiosity. My dress marked me out from other Indians.
I had on a frock-coat and turban, an imitation of the Bengalee pugree ....
Such is Gandhi's remembered experience of his first moments in South
Africa, an expatriate for the second time in his life thus far. I want to mark
in this moment a migratory consciousness teetering on the edge of a
diasporic "modern" nationalism. When face to face with the melange of
ethnicities in a colonial outpost: Muslim traders, Tamil and Telegu
indentured workers, the Gujarati Gandhi in a "Bengalee" pugree designates
them all as "Indian." Thus Gandhi's moment of embarkation is, in Benedict
Anderson's terms, a "nationalizing" moment in the space of the diaspora
(314). The year is 1893, and the Indian nation is as yet "a thing without a
past" and as such is "radically modern" (Kaviraj 13). While excavations
*A much earlier version of this essay was presented at the South Asia Conference,
Madison, Wisconsin, October 1997; this later version was presented at the West Indian
Literature Conference. Thanks to Keila Bermudez and Margarita Castroman for help
with preparing the manuscript. Though Durban is on the coast of the Indian Ocean,
"Atlantic" refers to the history of indentured servitude across both oceans, to which
I connect Gandhi in this paper.
and constructions of a collective cultural tradition have a dense discursive
history (Chatterjee 1-13), the nation as a fitting "modern" successor to this
collectivity is amorphous -its contours are as yet vague, its territoriality
as yet undetermined (Kaviraj). The diasporic Gandhi, I argue in this paper,
is the precursor of the nationalist Gandhi. It is from the experience of the
scattered migrants of the Indian diaspora, in South Africa, the Caribbean,
and elsewhere, that Gandhi constructs the nationalist doctrine that he then
imports to India. Through the agency of Gandhi's friend, C.F. Andrews,
Gandhi's focus on the diaspora has an impact on Caribbean societies as well.
The epithet "Indian" has been used by Gandhi only one other time in the
Autobiography thus far, to describe "Indian students" in London (54). Earlier
identifications he has mentioned are "Vaishnava" (religious), "Modh Bania"
(caste), "Kathiawari" (regional), to name a few. A man whose experience
before the diaspora was markedly local, confined in his own words to the
"local and petty politics of Kathiawad," the nationalizing moment comes,
as always, in the midst of a "thorough" crdolito' and "unhomeliness"
(Anderson 314). Gandhi lived outside India for over twenty years before
returning to lead the National Movement and take it into new directions.
Exile, so Acton's well oft quoted truism (see Anderson, below) goes, is the
"nursery of nationality." But this ephemeral perception of nationality in exile
is consolidated by the back and forth movement of Gandhian print
productions in which "the unstable, imagined worlds" of nationality solidified
In contrast to Gandhi's relatively privileged arrival, embarkation is also
a moment recalling dispossession in the trauma of Asian arrival on Atlantic
and other oceanic shores when indentured workers forced to famine by
the indigo plantations in India began their history of colonial servitude.2
Gandhi's experience in South Africa,3 I will argue in this paper, becomes
his first encounter with the "subaltern" diasporic populations and leads
him to reflect on the possibility of a political doctrine that connects them
with each other and offers them better treatment overseas.
Gandhi really initially represented the rights of the Indian property
holders in the South African province of Natal, protesting against the
colonial lack of distinction between the "caste Hindus" (i.e., Hindus of the
three upper castes of Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaishya), and the lower castes
(derisively called "the kaffirs," by South African whites) but through his
diasporic period, his consciousness expanded considerably. He noted how
the indentured laborers (in distinction to clerks and traders) could not
pay the dues and were hence outside the pale of Indian organizations in
South Africa (Autobiography 127). I am cautious, however, of any claim of a
radical politics in Gandhi's "diasporic" awareness. Though some could argue
that asserting the humanity of a group hitherto treated as "subhuman"
could itself be radical, Gandhi's unwillingness to question the hierarchies
ATLANTIC GANDHI, CARIBBEAN GANDHIAN 23
of the caste system (the majority of the indentured were from the lower
castes) and his lack of attention to the native Africans deny him any badges
of radicalism. However, he did work towards respect for the lowest class
of "coolies" in South Africa, and tried to reform caste feeling from within.
But, the forging of what has been called the "revolutionary Atlantic"
proletariat (Linebaugh and Rediker) across ethnic and national divisions
was certainly no part of Gandhi's resistance; indeed such a formation was
impeded by Gandhi's discourse as I will discuss in this paper.
Gandhi and the Modernity of Diaspora
The indentured diasporic experience is modern in that it suddenly and
abruptly brings its subjects into a new frame of reference and in this case,
one intimately connected to processes of world capitalism.4 From being
landless labor in a remote part of India, the hill "coolies"5 and subsequently
indentured populations from plains all over India were recruited mainly
through the ports of Calcutta and Madras, and transported to South Africa,
Mauritius, Fiji, British Guiana, Trinidad, and other areas, to become workers
in the plantation mode of production in the Americas and elsewhere. No
longer were they insulated from the sufferings brought on by caste ideology
(or those of other religious frameworks such as Islam). Now, whatever
memories of India they held on to, were those of choice, although later in
the history of migration these memories began to be reconstructed
according to caste and gender dictates reinstating thereby the oppressions
left behind.6 For indentured laborers from South Asia in the Caribbean,
this process of detribalization proceeded at a strange momentum. It
responded to different factors: the specific groups brought, selected as
they were from different sections of the Indian population,7 the successive
waves of migration, each one transporting intact the customs of rural India,
the social class and number of the women, and the importing of bearers of
culture such as Brahman priests.8
Gandhi's intervention in the history of Atlantic labor has a twofold
consequence: first, his project of cultural affirmation for the diaspora which
is closely connected to his construction of Indian nationhood; and second,
his subsequent arresting of the formation of a "revolutionary Atlantic"
proletariat where Indians bond with other exploited races in a militant
consciousness. In this sense, Gandhi, the revered organic national hero, is
an Atlantic cosmopolitan, and one who embraces non-modernity not as a
retreat to tradition, but as a consciously chosen path which can define
itself by using the institutions of modernity (such as newspapers,
pamphlets, and other media in the public sphere). This makes his project
more formidable than a simple withdrawal. He thus attempts to annihilate
the "racial terror" underlying plantation capitalism and its methods of
24 NALINI NATARAJAN
forging a violent modernity on its victims (Gilroy 36). This modernity
requires its victims to forget their past identities (though they
surreptitiously did hold on to them) in the new void of their role as racially
subjugated persons who pay for their racial difference through forced
migration in conditions of semi-slavery and unpaid or underpaid labor. In
the Indo-Caribbean case, this process of de-tribalization, de-culturation,
and de-racination was affected by many factors specific to its own history.
For instance, the importing of bearers of culture such as priests would
have a decided effect on the trajectory of this modernity, for the priests
often reintroduced customs from the homeland.9 But there is little doubt
that Gandhi's own efforts significantly affected the "modern," "non-
modernity" of the diaspora. They pursued their traditional identities, but
along the decidedly modern lines established by Gandhi's projects, though
as I will argue, such projects are paradoxically imbued by a deep distrust
Gandhi's Modernity of Method
To elaborate on how Gandhi's engagement with diaspora is "modern," I
return to Gandhi's perception of Indian nationality in the Atlantic harbor in
Durban. Symptomatic of modern procedures of surveillance, it is connected
to his attitude of power symbolized, textually, by his gaze. The moment of
arrival is dominated by metaphors of the visual: "I watched," "I observed,"
"I could not fail to notice." Thrust into a "new" space, the arrivant cannot
but see (and be seen) differently. The gaze is customarily read as a "look
that the subjects) whose perceptions organize the story directs at the
characters and acts represented" (Newman 1029). One may read in the
Autobiography the role of scopic control in the Gandhian project in South
Africa. His role as an overseer in the sense of a careful, litigiously conscious
reader -of newspaper items, legal details, minutiae of constitutional
rights- help him trace the legal disabilities suffered by Indians in South
Africa. The Gandhian gaze is later, in Indian national space, to take the
form of the benevolent super-vision of bapuji, (Hindi/Gujarati for "father"),
the familial figure of pre-modern succor. In Gandhi's South African sojourn,
this gaze is to be a gaze of surveillance -gendered, classed and privileged
in other ways- in the interest of his new constituency, displaced peoples
from the subcontinent. Gandhi's centrality as a "nationalizing" agent in South
Africa is behind a very unusual counter public space (Fraser 57-59) he
constructs there. He follows closely the discussions about indentured
"Indians" in the Caribbean in the parliamentary debates. He notes in his
writings the deprivation of the lower caste Indians in servitude and their
tenacious survival skills. An anglicized lawyer himself, this tenacity of India's
transplanted peasant agricultural classes affects him profoundly, and he
ATLANTIC GANDHI, CARIBBEAN GANDHIAN
analyses the factors that have caused the envy-driven backlash against
Indians in South Africa:
The Indians gave more than has been expected of them. They grew large
quantities of vegetables. They introduced a number of Indian varieties and
made it possible to grow the local varieties cheaper. They also introduced
the mango. They entered trade. They purchased land for building, and many
raised themselves from the status of labourers.... (Autobiography 130)
As he begins to organize in the space of diaspora, Gandhi is at the center
of, in Nancy Fraser's terms, "an ... arena of discursive interaction....
[C]onceptually distinct from the [colonial] state" (57-59). However, such
an oppositional counter-public also presupposes the agency of the
sovereign subject (in this analysis Gandhi) with an "absolute knowledge of
the 'real'" (Raj 32). But Gandhian sovereign subjectivity, the basis of his
construction of a "nationalist" subject out of the crdolitO of the Indian
diaspora, is not merely a derivative reflection of nineteenth-century Western
Cartesian humanism. It always remains a site of struggle for marking
Gandhi's distance from both Cartesian humanism and its political corollary,
the modern Indian national state which, as the child of colonialism, is to be
the chief harbinger of widespread and unprecedented change in ways of
living for the colonized. Gandhi's construction of a new concept of nation
exploits what Bhabha has called the essential "ambivalence" of the nation
as a cultural idea (1). One of the propelling forces in Gandhi is his terror of
the nation as harbinger of a destructive modernity.
The nation, says Sudipta Kaviraj, adapting Gramsci, "fears to face and
admit its own terrible modernity because to admit modernity is to make
itself vulnerable;" hiding in its "subterfuges of antiquity," it seeks to disguise
its "modernity" (13). There is both more opportunity for subterfuge and a
keener terror in an imagined space of nationality, in migration, expatriation,
or exile. The Indian immigrants whom Gandhi found in South Africa (as his
associate and disciple C.F. Andrews did in the Caribbean) were surrounded
by the institutions of a modern colonial state, yet they were denied a place
in it. In reaction, they retreated to their imagined and remembered
traditions, which existed in a sense, in a space outside the modern. Gandhi
draws these traditions into the "ambivalent" nature of the modernity of
nationality (Bhabha 1) -its Janus face as both "new" and building on older
cultural systems (Anderson 314).
Gandhi and Non-modernity: Hind Swaraj
Gandhi's exposure to the condition of expatriate labor, its anti-modernity
that sought to annihilate a brutal plantation modernity, in C.L.R. James'
sense, supplies an illuminating context to his manifesto against modernity,
26 NALINI NATARAJAN
Hind Swaraj written at exactly the midpoint of his experience in South Africa.
I have thus far spoken of Gandhi's "modernity" in his nationalist mobilizing
of diasporic protest and yet his worry that nationality could bring about a
de-cultured model of modernity. It is in this contradictory space that Hind
Swaraj may be located.
Hind Swarafs history as a printed document illustrates the connection
between national imaginings and trans-oceanic print movements. It was
written, significantly enough, on a ship, the Kildonan Castle and on the
ship's stationery. It was thus a startling image of migratory print. It was
first published in two installments in the Gujarati section of Indian Opinion
(11 and 19 December 1909), then in book form, first, by Gandhi's own
International Printing Press in Natal, and later by Ganesh and Company,
Madras. The history of the text itself bears evidence to the striking
transcontinental mobility of the print medium. Anderson, notwithstanding
his problematic privileging of the literate over the non-literate,10 says, "the
essential nexus of long-distance transportation and print capitalist
communications prepared the grounds on which, the first nationalist
movements flowered" (316). In this sense, Gandhi's maritime writings are a
part of "the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of
key cultural and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and
choirs" in Paul Gilroy's compelling view of the Atlantic as "rhizomorphic,
transcultural, international" as opposed to the nationalistic space (4).
But if Hind Swaraj reflects the connection between maritime print
capitalism and thus a "modern" imagining of nation, it imagines the Indian
nation as avowedly non-modern. Partha Chatterjee has taken issue with
Anderson's account of the derivative character of post-colonial
nationalisms, writing: "If nationalisms in the rest of the world have to choose
their imagined community from certain 'modular' forms already made
available to them by Europe and the Americas, what do they have left to
imagine?" (5) Gandhi's expatriate nationalism consolidated by print, while
suggesting a very Andersonian model, proves nevertheless that the content
of the imagining may be radically un-European. Hind Swaraj declared
Gandhi's uncompromising opposition to European post-Enlightenment
modernity as mediated and choreographed by the modern national state
-the institutions of Science and Medicine, Law, Communications,
Rationalism, Materialism, and Consumerism (Chatterjee 153). Hind Swaraj
may be understood as countering the terrifying implications of the
modernity of nationalism, precisely by its interpretation of "Indianness"
as non-modernity. And it is explicitly the South African settler from India
whom Gandhi characterizes as non-modern. Subaltern diasporic
experience, exposed to the terrors of capitalist modernity -"capitalism
with its clothes off" allows Gandhi to formulate his views on the non-
ATLANTIC GANDHI, CARIBBEAN GANDHIAN
The colonial community in South Africa believed that they were the
representative of Western civilization and India, that of Oriental Civilization.
If peoples belonging to such rival civilizations met, the result would be an
explosion. It is not the business of the statesman to adjudicate between the
relative merits of these civilizations. His business is to try to preserve his
own. Indians are disliked not for their vices but for their virtues -simplicity,
perseverance, patience, frugality, and otherworldliness. Westerners are
enterprising, impatient, engrossed in multiplying their material wants and in
satisfying them. They are afraid that allowing Indians to settle as immigrants
in South Africa is tantamount to cultural suicide. (qtd. in Parel xxiii)
The curious elements in this passage are the assertion and hyperbole
which result in Gandhi's tendency to look at "Indianness" as already given.
In fact, his discourse draws from a lot of contradictory elements:
"orientalist" construction of Eastern culture and his own personal lifestyle
preferences which he projects on to the immigrants. His reading of all of
these elements as "Indian" was in marked contrast to his first impressions
in South Africa -his recording of the fragmented nature of the expatriates
there. Their claimed identities prior to Gandhian influence appeared to
abjure all territorial connection to Indian national space and emphasize
instead, earlier ethnicities. Thus, Muslims call themselves "Arabs" and
I could see that the "Indians" [quotes mine] were divided into different groups. One was
that of Mussalman merchants, who would call themselves "Arabs." Another was that of
Hindu and yet another that of Parsee clerks. The Hindu clerks were neither here nor there,
unless they cast in their lot with the Arabs. The Parsi clerks would call themselves
"Persians."... But by far the largest class was that composed of Tamil, Telegu and North
Indian indentured and freed laborers. (Hind Swaraj 89-90)
Gandhi has reached South Africa in the 1890s, when by many accounts,
the colonial construction of India's inhabitants already reflects Europe's
epistemes. It has shifted from the taxonomic (description of the many ethnic
types) through the Social Darwinist (ranking these on a scale of "primitive"
to "civilized"), to a coherent discourse of alterity (embodied in Hinduness
as Indianness) (Raj 34). In the history of South Asian indenture (from the
1840s to the early twentieth century) the British racist ideology ranking
colonized peoples in the primitive-civilized continuum plays a part. At the
same time, the period marks a transition, in Kaviraj's terms, between
nineteenth-century anti-colonial cultural ideologies and the post-Gandhi
programme of political decolonization as a feasible project, i.e., between
cultural and political nationalism. Gandhi confronts this transition headlong
in South Africa, by combining territorial, political claims -the right to
franchise, to property, to citizenship- with cultural and chiefly religious
28 NALINI NATARAJAN
Here we must note his lengthy apprenticeship in understanding all of
India's religions. Noteworthy, too, is how the African inhabitants of South
Africa are marginalized in Gandhi's attempt to claim South Africa as a space
for constructing "Indian" nationality. I shall return to this point later.
Gandhi's Construction of the Indian
In South Africa, over a long period of time, and cross-fertilized by trips to
India, Gandhi begins a systematic construction of "Indianness" as a platform
for linking the disparate groups in ways that would yet keep the "newness"
of nationality at bay. Thus, though the immigrants themselves might not
have had the luxury of a return home, Gandhi provided it for them. His
"subjects" include representatives of all his political constituencies.
Beginning with the Muslim traders, widening to include the "coolies" of
Transvaal and Orange Free State, the Christian Natal born Indians who
had earlier been aloof from the rest, and women dispossessed by racist
laws, his territorial, civic struggles are always buttressed by cultural
experimentation -in diet and hygiene, satyagraha, and ahimsa (Brown;
Sarkar). In his writings he names the elements of the new "Indianness:"
an all-India consciousness drawing from many religions but sharing the
trait of being antithetical to "modern" civilization, purged of undue
regionalism and religious and caste bigotry (Parel xxiii). Phoenix and
Tolstoy Farms are his crucibles for constructing "Indianness": Phoenix is
intended to be a nursery for producing the right men (and women) and the
right Indians "...suitable for making experiments and gaining proper training"
The contradictions in Gandhi's method of forging and constructing
"Indianness" in diaspora must be acknowledged, for such contradictions
continue to plague diasporic populations especially in issues of gender."
One of the challenges in approaching Gandhi is the fact that in his many
experiments, the anarchic/transgressive and the traditional always seem
to be in tension.12 His experiments with "Indianness" in South Africa
intersect erratically with both the "modern" and the "traditional." One
episode at Tolstoy Farm illustrates the slipperiness of Gandhi's experiments.
In his construction through social experimentation of the sexually
controlled "Indian," Gandhi has young men and women bathe together in
the Farm's pond.13 (Such an experiment would have been well nigh
impossible to carry out in India.) When this provoked some teasing of the
young girls, Gandhi ordered that the girls' long hair be cut off, so they
could bear the mark of their dishonor, and as a deterrent to future offenders.
The punishment, which was initially opposed by several women in the
community, bears too troubling a relation to widow tonsure (as depicted
recently in Deepa Mehta's film, Water) to be seen as moving towards a new
ATLANTIC GANDHI, CARIBBEAN GANDHIAN 29
definition of gender relations. Such circularity recurs in many Gandhian
Interestingly enough, Gandhi's experiments in the non-modern are
discursively co-coordinated by as many like-minded European texts he can
muster to the effort (Socrates, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Ruskin). These texts,
as Patrick Brantlinger has demonstrated, themselves reflect a post-
Renaissance though not post-Enlightenment global transcultural modernity
made possible by print. We observe an interest in social and civic discipline
which includes, but is more than, the essentialist "Indianness" he hails in
the passage quoted earlier. His "Indianness" also involves a conscious
distancing from certain sectors of expatriates living abroad -the radical
terrorists who advocate a violent end to British rule (Parel xxiii). Gandhi's
version of "Indianness" would include those who obeyed his strict,
sometimes even cruel regimen in Phoenix Settlement and Tolstoy Farms,
but exclude those who wished to confront Western civilization through
other means. But most important, for its strategic use of "modernity," it
does so not by abjuring the principles of civil society, as asserted by
Chatterjee, but by working out a mode of civil fashioning which imposes
his private vision on the public sphere. This mode, I claim, is one perfected
in conditions of diaspora, a point I will return to after some attention to the
indirect impact of Gandhi on the Caribbean.
Caribbean Gandhian, C.F. Andrews
Gandhi's work in South Africa set off a chain reaction, involving other sites
of indenture like Fiji and the Caribbean. Gandhi's chief collaborator was
C.F. Andrews, an English clergyman who became involved in the struggle
for Indian independence. Andrews, incidentally, met Gandhi for the first
time on New Year's Day, 1914, on Durban's quay, the very spot where Gandhi
began his diasporic discovery. The occasion itself is symbolic. Gandhi was
dressed in the clothing of indenture ("a slight ascetic figure in a white dhoti
and kurta of such coarse material as an indentured laborer might wear"
[Chaturvedi and Sykes 94, hereafter referred to as CF Andrews]) and
Andrews, much to the chagrin of the white community there, swiftly bent
down and touched his feet in respect. Gandhi's famous costume, generally
associated with peasant India, is here acknowledged as a "coolie's" -a
transplanted indentured worker's costume. Gandhi adopted it when
imprisoned with other "coolies" in South Africa protesting racist laws. In
many ways this encounter linked Andrews, Gandhi, and the indentured
The voyage to South Africa had been traumatic for Andrews and made
him aware of the sufferings of the transplanted. While on the voyage an
Indian cook from Calcutta killed himself, jumping overboard. Andrews' own
30 NALINI NATARAJAN
seasickness and feeling of being in a void gave him an existential insight
into the fate of the indentured. In Durban, in Gandhi's Phoenix Farm he was
witness to the misery of a runaway Tamil "coolie", bearing on his body the
marks of a brutal beating, to whom Gandhi gave comfort. Apparently the
scene moved Andrews to tears (CFAndrews 95). But it was not only "coolie"
misery that Andrews witnessed. Andrews chose to live in the "squalid"
Indian section on the outskirts of Pretoria. He noted their hospitality, their
graciousness, their cleanliness: "the dhobis washermenn) of Pretoria
became my great friends.... Their great delight was to give me a 'khana,'
either a breakfast or a dinner. They also gave me clothes to wear; they
fitted me up with shoes and slippers, they were eager to wash and iron my
white summer suits every day" (CF Andrews 96).
It is this hidden subtext -the extraordinary capacity for human survival
in the midst of inhuman conditions- that I want to emphasize. Back in
India, working with Gokhale's anti-indenture campaign and committing
himself to working in Fiji, Andrews read Totiram Sanadhya's account in
Hindi, My Twenty-one Years in Fiji and informed himself about the anti-
indenture campaign spearheaded by the Australian Colonial sugar refining
company. He personally visited every immigration depot between Allahabad
and Calcutta and realized the extent of the trickery and subterfuge used by
the recruiters to lure labor to Fiji (CFAndrews 113). In his five weeks in Fiji,
Andrews worked on land settlements for the indentured, liquor controls,
labor contracts as free rather than coerced contracts, the campaign for
recruiting whole families, housing, a public steamer service instead of
"coolie" ships, and village schools in Hindi (CF Andrews 113-124). These
became the model for his later work in many indenture situations,
culminating in his visit to the Caribbean. While Gandhi's work addressed
the socio-moral side of indenture, Andrews' focused on the legal-material
side, using his nationality to negotiate successfully with the planters.
Later, Andrews traveled to the Caribbean region, to Guyana, where he
noted both the wretched conditions in which the "coolies" lived, and the
tremendous potential for their prosperity in the beautiful landscapes of
the Caribbean. Enroute to Guyana, Andrews' "ship called at the Bermudas,
Santa Lucia, and Port of Spain, and everywhere Andrews went ashore and
gathered information about the numbers and welfare of the Indian settlers"
(CF Andrews 239). Once in Guyana, Andrews visited the sugar plantations
in the East Coast of Demerara, "where Indians were still living in the ruinous,
unhealthy old indentured labour quarters.... Morning and evening he spoke
in Hindi at church services to which the Hindu people crowded, hungry for
Indian news and the sound of their own language" (CF Andrews 240).
However, here Andrews' impression that the isolation from India of the
community and the consequent religious decline with an increase in social
vices such as rum-drinking and gambling, is not offset by any sense of
ATLANTIC GANDHI, CARIBBEAN GANDHIAN 31
cultural resilience. Looking closely at Andrews' journal, however, it might
be possible that he gave a significant role to such resilience.
As he had done in Fiji, Andrews discussed crucial aspects of Indian life
with the community: the improvement of communications with India, the
registration of Indian marriages, the land grants to substitute for return to
India, cooperation between African and Indian in matters such as the control
of alcohol and gambling, cooperative credit to facilitate the growing of rice,
the induction of Indians into education (Andrews was instrumental in
making the dream of a University of the West Indies a reality), the police
force, and social reform within the Hindu community on issues such as
child marriage (CF Andrews 245). Of housing, he asks: "Why should the
houses on even the best estates be set up in rows like beans on a
beanstalk?....Why should not the Indian choose his own type of house,
provided that sanitary requirements were met?" (CFAndrews 242-243)
Narratives by Indo-Caribbeans do testify to the effects of Andrews' visit,
in writers like Maya Tiwari, Lakshmi Persaud, and others. Writing of the
period after Andrews is observing, for instance (1929 or so), here is
Persaud's description of the thirties and forties:
At dusk it was easy to believe you were in India: shadows and sounds of
bullock carts, the aromas of roties on chulhas; fresh water in buckets and
cut grass in bales; offwhite houses with thatched roofs and glowing wood
fires in the yards; the soft gentle sounds of Hindi in the night carried by warm
winds along red earth tracks. Even as late as the 1930s it was easy to believe.
Persaud also describes Andrews' dream of the Indian style house achieving
Andrews' devoted attention to practical matters provides the material
backbone to the Gandhian alchemy of changing material wretchedness into
cultural strength, of drawing from the affliction of the body into a struggle
for deliverance and welding this alchemy into the nationalist program of
cultural identity. The claim of this paper is that it is initially in the context
of indenture in diaspora, in the longing for India which is transformed into
a great national program for self-definition, that Gandhi draws his impetus.
A scene narrated by C.F. Andrews is a visual reminder of how the "nation"
is never far away in Gandhi's and Andrews' consciousness of migrant
The strain of a long day of unwearied ministry among the poor was over. In
the still after-glow of twilight, Mahatma Gandhi was seated under the open
sky. He nursed a sick child on his lap, a little Muslim boy, and next to him was
a Christian Zulu girl from the mission across the hill. He read us some Gujerati
verses about the love of God, and explained them in English.
"What is India like?" said a young Hindu to me with eager eyes. "India," I
replied, "is just like this. We have all of us been in India tonight." (CFAndrews
Gandhi's Diasporic Negotiation of Public and Private
I contextualize the two ideas I began with -a "constructed" nationalism
ambivalent towards modernity and a personally-impelled civic
"surveillance," within the particular Gandhian negotiation of "public" and
"private" in his quest for influence in colonial society. In recent studies of
social patterns in Western society, the civil, public sphere is approached
and analyzed in contradistinction to both the private sphere (family,
sexuality) and the State (Freitag 2). In colonial India, the anomalous place
of "culture" and "religion" as both public and private already complicates
the model (Freitag 2). For expatriates from colonial situations, the model
is triply complex. As an expatriate, Gandhi's private sphere was distinct
from that in his home space. His situation, like that of the indentured
peoples, entailed isolation from conjugal life, family, reliable sources of
economic support, community of origin, and domicile. Moral choices (like
Gandhi's Vaishnava bhakti or his ahimsa),14 which for him were always the
basis of political action, could not be regarded as either sanctioned by
culture or family, or as motivated by filial/psychological motivations like
obedience, rebellion, or guilt (regarding meat eating/smoking). At the same
time, the expatriate sphere would allow certain activities denied to him in
the highly stratified "publics" of colonial India (Fraser).
I conclude with two examples of how some of these "essentially" Indian
traits were constructed by Gandhi and how his expatriate experience was
personally implicated in them: frugality and vegetarianism. Both have
become associated with Indian diasporic populations, and often (in times
prior to New Age fashions promoting vegetarianism, yoga, and the like)
with an accompanying suggestion of rigid non-adaptability to Western life.15
Frugality of the body, a key Gandhian idea, becomes the determining
sign of "Indian" resistance to modernity. It is possible to read frugality as
structurally connected to Gandhi's experience of expatriate life. He explicitly
traces his economy with money and with the body to his survival strategies
in London (Autobiography 47). Frugality becomes his version of self-
containment in an alien land and culture. Thus, from the time of his days as
a student in London, he chooses walking instead of mechanized transport,
a habit he adheres to throughout his life. The socio-economic "denials"
suffered by Indian in South Africa further allow Gandhian constructions of
Similarly, and by way of linking Gandhi's two expatriate periods, I take
Gandhi's success with vegetarianism in his earlier student phase in London,
ATLANTIC GANDHI, CARIBBEAN GANDHIAN 33
as exemplary. Although vegetarianism is often dismissed as a Gandhian
fad (Sakar 179), I consider it crucial in Gandhi's negotiation of expatriate
experience. It is an issue which can be approached through a multifaceted
conception of the private. It reflects a particular practice among the
Vaishnava sect in Gujarat responding to the immediate cultural influence
of Jainism (Erikson 134). In Gandhi's life, it also represented psychic familial
conflicts (thus privacy in the sense of the emotional and sexual experience).
His older brothers ate meat and he himself as the youngest son, responded
to a pre-modern, matriarchal pressure to abjure it. Yet vegetarianism is
never merely a cultural, religious or filial/psychological matter reflective
of gender ambivalence. Even in adolescence, Gandhi is concerned with
how it may intervene in public issues. His meat-eating dinners in the State
House in Gujarat reflect his attempt to reconcile a habit associated with
public power (as the rulers ate beef) with his own private shame. Unable
to do so, Gandhi arrives at a characteristic compromise. Filial obedience is
more important than a power which denies one's personal commitments.
Henceforth he seeks a path where political and personal are more aligned.
In the polarized world of Kathiawad, where opportunities for negotiation
are few, and parental authority omniscient, such a path is difficult.
The same subtext of struggle informs the second encounter with meat-
eating and vegetarianism, this time in England. Gandhi begins by recalling
the vow to his mother. In Erikson's analysis, the premodernn" "vow" is
crucial in Gandhi's conflict at this time. Once again, his autobiography builds
up a dramatic opposition between the religious pre-modernity of the vow
and the pragmatic modernity (adaptation to change) enjoined on him by
those who advise him to take meat. He is still seeking a way out of the
public/private dilemma posed by his vegetarianism. How is he to frame a
public discourse out of his personal traits of filiality and connection to his
mother, the cultural values embedded in Jainism and ahimsa, and his desire
to counter the masculine ethic of colonial beef eating? In other words, how
is he to rescue the pre-modern from its ahistorical space of "otherness,"
and bring it into the space of the modern, as its equal adversary? If he can
do so, maybe he can then handle the terrors of modernity.
Typically, the expatriate condition allows him the space for a "new"
compromise, and yet another field of experimentation. Far from being a
pre-modern way of life discarded in the move to progress, he discovers in
London a "counterpublic" of vegetarianism and its print discourse. He reads
the works of Salt (Vegetarianism), Anna Kingsford (The Perfect Way in Diet)
and Howard Williams (The Ethics of Diet), most of whom wrote in the 1880s.
He writes in a weekly journal, makes his first public speeches, and assumes
executive office in their Society (Erikson 134; Parel). But in this rational
discourse of "modern" vegetarianism, his first obligation remains to insert
his mother's definition. Of the three scientific definitions he names in the
34 NALINI NATARAJAN
Autobiography, of vegetarianism, he chooses the one compatible with his
mother's wishes, that involving the abjuring of eggs. Thus does Gandhi's
vegetarianism enter the public space of modernity and the narrative of his
To conclude, my foregrounding of the expatriate phase in Gandhi's life
departs from readings which, in highlighting Gandhi's Nationalist
contribution within India, see South Africa as merely a preparatory phase.
Scholars like Sarkar, Parel, and Brown have traced the connection to South
Africa of Gandhi's all-India vision, his belief in Hindu-Muslim unity (many
of his clients in South Africa were Muslims), and his experiments with social
reform, protest movements and satyagraha. In these accounts, South Africa
is a mere training ground for what Sarkar has called a "basic Gandhian
style" (178-79). I argue for a much more structural intervention of the
psycho-social and political experience of diasporic (dis)location in the
forging of Gandhian nationalism both in his definition of nationalism and in
his encounter with an Atlantic modernity. Nationality, hitherto only
experienced as local or regional, enters the consciousness as an
apprehension of exile, as a separation from and hence desire for, a lost
home. This essay has implicitly argued that such desire is neither merely
"personal" nor "subjective" in any timeless sense but historically produced
at specific power-knowledge axes, which both the "chosen" and "forced"
migrations occasioned by Empire brought into being. And a salient element
in this equation between exile and nationality is precisely modernity:
modernity as the birth of a new translocal consciousness which can live in
one place and claim (and construct) allegiance to another. This double
identity, essentially a "modern" condition, is enabled primarily by
movement and communication, in Anderson's terms, of bodies and of print.
I argue that in both the London and South African sections, the bracketed,
artificial conditions of expatriate life help Gandhi to realize the paradoxical
demands of Indian nationalism -its negotiation of the anti-modern, within
the space, and the terror of the modern. By applying Anderson's model of
nationality constructed in migrant creolite to Gandhi, (but extending it
beyond Anderson's notion of "derivative" nationalism, as also the notion
of "nation" as building on primordial systems which preceded it) I have
hoped to show that Gandhi's imagining of nation in diaspora is in fact quite
different. Rather it dares to imagine the Indian nation as the diametric
opposite of the European nation.
Gandhi's version of "Indianness" in South Africa unfortunately ignores
the space of Africa as a home for Africans and of other Creole cultures in
the diaspora, to an exclusive consideration with "Indians" and their
nationalism. In other regions of the Indian diaspora, the process of crdolite
and its resistance by Indian settlers has been a subject of much interest.
Gandhi might thus be read as a participant in the process of Indian separatism
ATLANTIC GANDHI, CARIBBEAN GANDHIAN
in diaspora, discernible everywhere in the world today. In the Caribbean
such debates are prominent in the controversies surrounding the "dougla"
-the mixed offspring of Indian and African.
I have argued in this essay that Gandhi's construction of nationality in
the space of diaspora is a reaction to the "unhomeliness and creolitd of
migration. In this sense, Bhabha's claim of the subversive potential of
"unhomeliness" is both problematized at one level and affirmed at another.
In Gandhi's case, "unhomeliness" does not lead to a deconstruction of
essentialising notions of identity: rather it leads to an affirming of Indianness.
' For an enabling discussion of creolite, see Glissant, 263.
2 See histories and ethnographies by Klaas, Tinker, Ruhomon, and Weller.
3 Though Durban is on the coast of the Indian Ocean, "Atlantic" refers to the history
of indentured servitude across both oceans, to which I connect Gandhi in this paper.
4 See Beckles' discussion of C.L.R. James and Eric Williams who posit the "Caribbean
as a primordial site of Atlantic modernity" (1), where "commercial capitalism
[integrated] ...the continents of the world into one economic system" (9).
5 "Coolie" was the catch-all phrase used to describe indentured labourers; in Tamil
the word "coolie" means "to rent."
6 For the reconstruction of Indo-Caribbean womanhood in the post-indenture period
see studies by Mohammed, Reddock, Puri, Niranjana.
7 For tabulation of regional/caste/religious origin of groups brought, see appendices
in studies by Laurence, Tinker, Ruhomon. For the situation of female indenture see
Mohammed, Reddock, Puri, Niranjana, above.
8On Brahman priests brought to Guyana see Tiwari.
9 See Tiwari, and Moutosaamy.
10 See my discussion of Anderson's non-applicability to India in Natarajan.
II See for instance, Niranjana, and Puri for discussions of gender in Trinidad.
121 thank Radhika Subramaniam for our discussion on the "anarchic" in Gandhi.
13 I thank Meena Alexander for pointing out this incident to me. See her essay on
Tolstoy Farm in her book Shock of Arrival (1996).
14 Vaishnava bhakti refers to the path of devotion to a personal God, in this case,
Vishnu; ahimsa refers to the Buddhist/Jain doctrine of non-violence.
15 A good example of these traits being viewed as comically eccentric is in V.S. Naipaul's
representation of vegetarianism in Mr. Biswas and frugality in the Tulsi's, in A House
for Mr. Biswas.
36 NALINI NATARAJAN
Anderson, Benedict. "Exodus." Critical Inquiry 20 (1994): 314- 327.
Beckles, Hilary. "Capitalism, Slavery, and Caribbean Modernity." Callaloo 20.4
Bhabha, Homi. "Introduction: Narrating the Nation." Nation and Narration.
London: Routledge, 1990.
Brantlinger, Patrick. "A Postindustrial Prelude to Postcolonialism: John
Ruskin, William Morris, and Gandhism." Critical Inquiry 22 (1996): 466-
Brown, Judith. Gandhi's Rise to Power. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1972.
Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial
Histories. Delhi: Oxford UP, 1994.
Chaturvedi, Benarsidas and Marjorie Sykes. Charles Freer Andrews. NY: Harper
and Brothers, 1950.
Erikson, Erik. Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Non- Violence. NY:
Freitag, Sandra. "Introduction, Special issue on the Colonial Public Sphere."
South Asia 14.1 (1991): 1-3.
Fraser, Nancy. "Rethinking the Public Sphere." Social Text, 25/26 (1990): 57-59.
Gandhi, M. K. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
Ahmedabad: Navjivan, 1927.
Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. Ed. Anthony Parel. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 1997.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness.
Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Charlottesville: UP
of Virginia, 1992.
Kaviraj, Sudipta. "The Imaginary Institution of India." Subaltern Studies VII.
Delhi: Oxford UP, 1992: 2-39.
Klass, Morton. East Indians in Trinidad; a Study of Cultural Persistence.
NY: Columbia UP, 1961; Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland, 1988.
Singing with Sai Baba: The politics of Revitalization in Trinidad.
Boulder, CO.: Westview, 1991.
Cultural Persistence in a Trinidad East Indian Community. NY:
Columbia UP, 1965.
Klass, Sheila Solomon. Everyone in this House Makes Babies. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday, 1964.
ATLANTIC GANDHI, CARIBBEAN GANDHIAN 37
Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves,
Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston:
Mohammed, Patricia. "Writing Gender into History: The Negotiation of Gender
Relations among Indian Men and Women in Post-indenture Trinidad
Society 1917-47." Engendering History: Caribbean Women in Historical
Perspective. Ed. Verene Shepherd, et al. New York: St. Martin's, 1995:
Moutosaamy, Ernest. "Indianness in the French West Indies." Indenture and
Exile: The Indo- Caribbean Experience. Toronto: TSAR, 1989.
Natarajan, Nalini. "Woman, Nation and Narration in Salman Rushdie's
Midnight's Children." In Woman and Indian Modernity. New Orleans: UP
of the South, 2002.
Niranjana, Tejaswini. Mobilizing India: Women, Music, and Migration between
India and Trinidad. Durham: Duke UP, 2006.
Newman, Beth. "'The Situation of the Looker-On:' Gender, Narration, and
Gaze in Wuthering Heights." PMLA 105.5 (October 1990): 1029-1041.
Parel, Anthony. Introduction. Hind Swaraj and Other Writings. By M.K. Gandhi.
Ed. Anthony Parel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Persaud, Lakshmi. Butterfly in the Wind. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1990.
Puri, Shalini. "Race, Rape and Representation: Indo-Caribbean Women and
Cultural Nationalism." Cultural Critique 36 (1997): 119-163.
Rai, Amit. "India On-line: Electronic Bulletin Boards and the Construction of
a Diasporic Hindu Identity." Diaspora (1995-6): 31-57.
Reddock, Rhoda. "Freedom Denied: Indian Women and Indentureship in
Trinidad and Tobago." Economic and Political Weekly, Review of Women
Studies 20.43 (1985): 79-87.
Ruhoman, Peter, ed. Centenary History of the East Indians in British Guiana
1838-1938. East Indian 150th Anniversary Committee, 1988.
Sarkar, Sumit. Modern India. Madras: Macmillan, 1983.
Tinker, Hugh. A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labor Overseas
1838-1920. London: Oxford UP, 1974.
Separate and unequal: India and the Indians in the British
Commonwealth, 1920-1950. London: C. Hurst, 1976.
Tiwari, Bri. Maya. The Path of Practice: A Woman's Book of Healing with Food,
Breath and Sound. New York: Ballantine, 2000.
Weller, Judith Ann. The East Indian Indenture in Trinidad. Rio Piedras, PR:
Institute of Caribbean Studies, U of Puerto Rico, 1968.
Pantomime, Touristic Performance,
and the Difficulty of Revision
California State University, Northridge
Contemporary representations of Caribbean tourism often seem
benign, especially to tourists from outside of the area, since such
representations are not usually framed as aesthetic constructions. I
am thinking especially of the sorts of images and related narratives utilized
to help market the region's tourism industry. Consider, for example, the
well-worn, tropical postcard image -now prevalent as a "screen-saver" on
Windows computers throughout the globe- of the empty, palm-tree-filled
beach awaiting the tourist's "Discovery." And then there is the travel
brochure featuring the smiling, dark-skinned hotel worker eager to fulfill
every whim of the North American vacationer, or the iconic symbol, such
as Puerto Rico's garita, the phallic-shaped sentry box (of which I will have
more to say later) that juts out from San Juan's old fortresses and serves
as a central marketing image for the island's tourism industry. Perceptive
of the strange alignment of modern tourist spectacle, colonial history, and
still-lingering stereotypes -especially as developed in Defoe's Robinson
Crusoe- Derek Walcott's Pantomime explores the Crusoe-like implications
of Antillean postcolonialism through a contested play-within-a-play that
both subverts and embraces the ideological implications of Defoe's story
as the play's two characters rehearse, rewrite and argue about a Robinson
Crusoe "panto" (and related ideological scripts) in a run-down tourist hotel.
At the outset of Pantomime, Harry Trewe, the White expatriate who owns
the decrepit Castaways Guest House in Tobago, wants to put on a
pantomime about Robinson Crusoe and Friday, and he is trying to convince
his "factotum," Phillip Jackson, a Trinidadian and former Calypso musician,
to perform in the show that will feature Harry's script, which is based on
Defoe's novel. Adding to the complexity of the play-within-the-play that is
constantly being negotiated by both actors is the historical script that
designates Harry as the European boss and Jackson as the Caribbean
40 RICK MITCHELL
servant, although even the supposed master-servant roles are no longer
as set as they once purportedly were. Harry claims that he is "liberal" and
willing to rewrite the script a bit, casting Jackson as Crusoe and himself as
(the presumably black-faced) Friday, in order to create "a heavy twist, heavy
with irony" (100). He is unwilling, however, to allow Jackson to revise
radically the basic relationship between heroic Crusoe and submissive
Friday. Nonetheless, Jackson's performance throughout the play calls into
question the validity of various scripts (including the superficial sorts of
scripts beyond which tourists rarely venture) while at the same time
showing that it may be impossible to operate completely outside of scripted
roles and actions and still survive.
Eschewing easy answers, Pantomime suggests that the postcolonial roles
that Trewe and Jackson find themselves playing -outside of Trewe's
pantomime as well as within it- are less clear-cut than the earlier, more
rigid colonial script suggested by the performance of the guest house's
parrot, who constantly repeats (only) one word, "Heinegger," the name of
the guest house's former European owner. Jackson, the play's "creole actor,"
is a much more fluid performer since he is always on the lookout for
opportunities to veer from a given script in order to alter a situation. The
play's "classical actor," however, remains unwilling to shift substantively
from an outdated script and thus -as Jackson implies- Harry's plight
could end up resembling that of the parrot who cannot update his
performance: "That parrot survive from a precolonial epoch, Mr. Trewe,"
Jackson warns, "and if it want to last in Trinidad and Tobago, then it go
have to adjust" (100). The bird does not adjust, though, so Jackson
eventually kills it. Infuriated by this brutal action for which Jackson refuses
to take responsibility -"Him choke from prejudice" (155), he says-
Harry accuses Jackson of the same sort of unthinking mimicry that led
to the parrot's demise: "You people create nothing. You imitate
everything. It's all been done before, you see, Jackson. The parrot. Think
that's something? It's from The Seagull, from Miss Julie. You can't ever
be original, boy. That's the trouble with shadows, right? They can't think
for themselves" (156). Ironically, Harry's insistence on following the tried
and true formula of his Robinson Crusoe pantomime, which once featured
back in the UK his ex-wife as Crusoe and himself as Friday in blackface,
suggests that the hotel manager is more prone to unthinking imitation
than his "shadow."
For the creole actor, however, who is an accomplished mimic, mimicry
remains a central tool of both survival and resistance. As Jackson
demonstrates during his performance, creole mimicry is never just a mere
copy. Rather, while copying something the creole actor also alters it,
subverts it, and/or he uses mimetic role playing as a mask, as Jackson
does while playing the "stage nigger" (140). Throughout the play, Jackson's
PANTOMIME, TOURISTIC PERFORMANCE, AND THE DIFFICULTY OF REVISION 41
mimicry remains antithetical to the sort of slavish mimicry Harry attributes
to the postcolonial subject. As Graham Huggan points out in "A Tale of
Two Parrots: Walcott, Rhys, and the Uses of Colonial Mimicry," mimicry
should not automatically be disparaged, since it can provide the
(post)colonial subject "with a means of undermining the 'secure'
relationship between European centers of power and the colonies that they
seek to create in their own likeness" (644). This sort of mimicry, Huggan
argues, "does not connote subservience, but rather resistance: by showing
the relationship between metropolitan and colonial cultures to be based
on changing strategies of domination and coercion rather than on the static
comparison of "essential" attributes, mimicry may paradoxically destabilize
as it reinforces" (644). Harry's essentialist comparisons suggest that binary
opposition (i.e., classical/creole, black/white, owner/worker, etc.) are, in
fact, static and "real," although Jackson's mimetic wizardry continually
chips away at this idea, suggesting that such opposition are merely fiction.
In his book on Walcott's dramas, Dirk Sinnewe observes that by the end of
the play "the false opposition of classical and creole as mutually exclusive
binary has finally been disqualified" (86). And this is largely attributable, I
would argue, to Jackson's performance, which undermines what Harry had
considered rigid roles and a "secure relationship."
Pantomime, like any play, relies on mimesis, which is also a central
concern of several (post)colonial writers.' But the play also interrogates
mimesis, and the work utilizes many other conventions of drama -threats
of violence, potential weapons (a hammer and ice-pick), rising action, and
cathartic revelations. Additionally, Walcott's personal perceptions of
everyday life in Tobago, the island upon which Robinson Crusoe was
shipwrecked, inform the text. "I had been living in Tobago for a long time,"
the dramatist explains, "and [the writing of the play] was a lot to do with
the experience of being there in Tobago, looking around and seeing the
situation there" (qtd. in Gunness 291). Seeing the situation is something at
which the creole actor is particularly adept. As the play progresses, Jackson
continually takes advantage of opportunities to alter the script, to
interrogate it, and he is better equipped to do this than Harry because, in
addition to being an expert, active mimic (as opposed to an unthinking
"shadow"), Jackson remains conscious of everyday life's inherent
theatricality: "You see," he tells his boss, "two of we both acting a role here
we ain't really believe in, you know.... We faking, faking all the time" (138).
Unlike the creole actor, who must constantly adapt out of necessity, Harry's
"classical" performance is much less flexible, since -as Walcott himself
points out in an interview- Harry, performing his own, more rigid brand
of mimicry, is hiding behind "that stolid facade, that mask of the Englishman,
that wall behind which there is much horror and fear and trembling" (qtd.
in Gunness 290). Nonetheless, the play progresses and "(t)he cracks appear,"
42 RICK MITCHELL
as Walcott explains, "and it is where these cracks appear that Jackson darts
in and widens them" (qtd. in Gunness 290).
Jackson's ability to see the cracks and then take immediate advantage
of them, moving into openings as soon as they present themselves, is an
example of what Michel de Certeau calls a "tactic," which "depends on
time -it is always on the watch for the opportunities that must be seized
'on the [fly]'.... It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them
into opportunities. The weak must always turn to their own ends forces
alien to them" (xix). According to de Certeau, the person attacking
hegemonic forces alien to his interest is always scanning people, moments,
and places for sudden openings, and then inserting himself and his
oppositional ideas into the gaps in the script, thereby altering it, although
not in a lasting, revolutionary way. As de Certeau observes, "Whatever
[the tactic] wins, it does not keep" (xix). Indeed, this seems to be the plight
of Jackson, whose tour-de-force performance (and mimicry) destabilizes
the status quo through tactical interventions but does not, ultimately,
radically alter it.
De Certeau believes that the "weak" regularly utilize "tactics" throughout
their everyday lives as a form of cultural resistance. Guy Debord, the former
leader of the Situationists, a sixties (primarily), French-based movement
that featured radical, performative interventions in the streets and quotidian
life, remains less optimistic about everyday cultural resistance. Unlike de
Certeau, he believes that the modern subject is, for the most part, a passive
consumer/spectator, and that "spectacle is the chief product of present-day
society" (Debord 16). Harry, of course, wishes to produce a spectacle (the
pantomime) for passive consumers. Jackson, on the other hand, suggests
that he desires a type of theatre which shows the process of performance
while encouraging both active thinking and political intervention. Such
performance, it seems, is similar to Taylor's liberating narrative, as well as
to Bertolt Brecht's epic theatre, which, in opposition to the static, classical
performance championed by Harry, features frequent disruptions of scenes
while showing the process and constructedness of the roles and ideologies
that we normally take for granted. As Brecht writes, with his epic theatre,
"the world could and had to be represented as caught up in development
and continuous process... The passive attitude of the spectator, which
essentially corresponded to the passivity of the great majority of people in
life, made way for an active one" (Brecht qtd. in Wright 27).
What Brecht calls "the passivity of everyday life" seems especially
present within a tourist resort, where, for example, questioning the
relationship between one's cheap island vacation and the island's gross
economic inequities would normally be discouraged at all costs, at least
by the resort. Since tourists in search of a carefree holiday would not feel
too welcome in a place that foregrounds the inherent conflicts of Caribbean
PANTOMIME, TOURISTIC PERFORMANCE, AND THE DIFFICULTY OF REVISION 43
tourism in a threatening way, Harry cannot afford to have tourists see
Jackson's subversive performance.2 He does, however, need spectacle since,
like other touristic "cathedrals of consumption" (Ritzer 104), his guest house
needs to "be reenchanted if [it is] to maintain [its] ability to attract a
sufficient number of [passive] consumers" (Ritzer 104). One of Harry's
attempts at reinvigorating the guest house is his off-season renovation,
which is currently taking place in the empty hotel. There is also, of course,
the reenchanting panto that will offer something "new," perhaps a "white
cannibal" and a Black Crusoe, as well as (primarily) something familiar,
i.e., the Robinson Crusoe myth of welcoming, idyllic islands and subservient
natives. And this sort of different/familiar dialectic is at the heart of tourism.
Alterity and "authenticity" remain desirable to the tourist, as long as the
touristic place's difference -something that Harry wants to make easily
digestible for the tourist- is rendered safe by the familiar (including a
familiar and comforting social hierarchy), which Jackson's confrontational
performance both threatens and subverts.3
Throughout the Caribbean, formerly neglected islands that were once
viewed as not-quite habitable -at least by people from outside the region-
have been reenchanted for tourists through the magic of advertising, a
type of spectacle that can render previously forgotten, neglected, or even
once-feared places and objects desirable. In Puerto Rico, for example, a
massive fortress that Spain built way back in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, in order to repel pirates and foreign navies, is now a tourist
magnet. And one particular aspect of the mythic fortress has become the
island's most visible tourist symbol: the garita. These sentry boxes, once
inhabited by Spanish soldiers on the lookout for enemy ships, are now
ubiquitous, appearing on the doors of virtually every tourist taxi cab in
San Juan, as well as on t-shirts, key chains, license plates, wallets, coffee
cups, caps, and countless other items, and the garita remains a major
symbol in TV and print advertisements promoting tourism in Puerto Rico.
Having seen images of the garita over and over again, often with a blazing
sunset in the background -or superimposed over images of beaches and
sea- I, myself, felt a pleasing sense of recognition upon seeing a garita for
the first time, and subsequent times, as well. Back in 2003, I had the not
unpleasant opportunity of experiencing an idealized image of the garita
while swimming the side-stroke about a mile down the coast from Old San
Juan's El Morro fortress. As the reddish-orange sun set not far from agarita
which hung out over the Atlantic, I felt happy, relaxed, because -while
floating in the warm waters of the Caribbean- I was able to watch, "live,"
the "authentic" garita after seeing so many enticing reproductions of that
Although some of the garitas utilize locked iron gates today to prevent
entry, at El Morro one can actually walk into the garitas since -as in olden
days- some of El Morro's garitas do not have doors. When not viewed
from the requisite, romantic distance displayed in the tourism ads, however,
the garita can be quite unpleasant. I was not privy to the local knowledge
about the intimate use of these historic spaces until recently, after I had
mentioned to a couple of Puerto Rican friends how, as I approached the
entry of an inviting garita enveloped in the ocean breezes of El Morro, white-
capped waves swaying in the background, I was suddenly greeted by a
disgusting stench, along with a wet floor covered with urine-soaked paper
wrappers and a hypodermic needle. Such alternative uses of the garita,
i.e., as place to urinate or shoot up, are examples of what de Certeau calls
tactics, in which the weak "turn to their own ends forces alien to them."
And this intimate, tactical usage of the garita undermines their ubiquitous
images, which are always uninhabited and pristine, usually detached from
the fort, and portrayed as something to contemplate, but not to use. Up
close, the garita, that venerable icon of Puerto Rico, does not always match
up with the way in which it is regularly framed for the tourist: as an upright,
ocean-hugging, empty vessel that suggests romance and authenticity,
including Puerto Rico's romanticized Spanish colonial past, and its idealized
links to Europe.5
But what might the stench of the interior of the garita (which the
government rarely if ever cleans) suggest? Is there some connection
between the smell of urine, sweat, and the bodies of African and Taino
slaves whose lives were sacrificed to enhance Spain's riches? Is there a
relationship between the historic, unjust violence that is central to the
fortress's history and today's economic inequities in Puerto Rico which
may, perhaps, encourage some people to do things in a garita that they
would otherwise do in a house? One thing that is quite evident: the walls
around San Juan, from which one can see a regular stream of jets and cruise
ships entering Puerto Rico, no longer repel, nor even evoke, for most tourists
(external as well as internal), any sort of substantive historical
understanding, hegemonic or otherwise.6 Much like Harry's ideal spectacle,
which attempts to erase the violent, colonizing exploration of the Americas
that makes Robinson Crusoe possible, the touristic reenchantment of San
Juan's famous fortress helps to turn a symbol whose history is intertwined
with the barbarism of Western civilization into a dehistoricized, happily
Monuments do not always mesmerize, however. Unlike Harry, Jackson
views Harry's reenchanted Robinson Crusoe spectacle critically, which leads
to disagreement between Jackson and his boss over how the script of
Crusoe and Friday should be interpreted:
Here I am getting into my part and you object [Jackson tells Harry]. This is
the story...this is history. This moment that we are now acting here is the
PANTOMIME, TOURISTIC PERFORMANCE, AND THE DIFFICULTY OF REVISION
history of imperialism; it's nothing less than that. And I don't think that I can
-should- concede my getting into a part halfway and abandoning things
just because you, as my superior, give me orders. (125)
An ex-actor, Harry believes that theatre -like most tourist spectacles-
must offer only light entertainment. Tourists -especially the tourists from
North America and Europe whom he hopes that his show will attract- do
not want art, he says, because it makes them think, and if they are forced
to see Jackson's version of the script, it could get offensive. "We're trying
to do something light, just a little pantomime, a little satire, a little picong.
But if you take this thing too seriously, we might commit Art, which is a
kind of a crime in this society" (125). In a (Western) society that priorities
passive consumption, critical engagement is a type of crime, since its
function -disenchantment- is averse to the reenchantment that is so
important to the promotion of passive consumption.
Significantly, Harry's and Jackson's performances during Walcott's play
take place behind the scenes, out of view of the tourists, most of whom
would prefer to keep their distance from radical challenges to a status quo
that enables them to vacation, safely and happily, in a place where poverty
is rampant. Jamaica Kincaid, another West Indian writer who, like Walcott,
has examined inherent conflicts of Caribbean tourism, emphasizes the
tourist's desire to experience a guilt-free vacation. In her bookA Small Place,
she forces the tourist/reader to acknowledge his complicity in Caribbean
oppression. As Kincaid tells the tourist:
you needn't let that slightly funny feeling you have from time to time about
exploitation, oppression, domination develop into a full-fledged unease,
discomfort; you could ruin your holiday. They [people who were once slaves
and are now servants] are not responsible for what you have. (10)
Without successful repression of "that slightly funny feeling," the carefree
holiday that attracts the tourist to the Caribbean in the first place, with its
promises of a conflict-free reprieve from the drudgery of work and the
banality of everyday life, becomes an impossibility. Thus, Jackson's more
radical tactical interventions must, at all costs, remain unseen by the
Castaways' guests in order for Harry's beach-side business to continue, as
it presumably will once the renovations are complete and the show is ready
Much of the play is critical not only of how we define history, but also
objects, such as the table, which Jackson utilizes as boat, and later as a
hut. Harry objects to some of these transformations, as he objects to
Jackson utilizing spontaneously invented words. Naming things in new and
different ways threatens dominant ways of seeing the world, for tourists as
well as hosts. Jackson suggests that tourists are especially prone to seeing
objects as void of significant meaning. He speaks, for example, of the
outhouse which he and the other help at the guest house are required to
use. Walk out there in the dark, he tells Harry, and you might "put your foot
in the squelch of those who missed the pit" (152). Unlike Harry and his
tourists, who have bathrooms with running water, Jackson knows what it
is like to step in shit. Although the outhouse has a very definite use value
and attendant problems, tourists have a completely different take on the
building, which to them, Jackson says, is a "charming old-fashioned
outhouse [that] so many tourists take Polaroids of without feeling degraded"
(152). Similarly, Puerto Rico's garita is an idyllic, charming symbol whose
alternate uses magically disappear.
Even Jackson, who is both highly creative and extremely insightful
regarding postcolonialism, seems to acknowledge the dangers in
foregrounding the horrors of imperialism by the play's end. After telling
Harry that he's resigning and going back to being a calypso musician -
"Caiso [or calypso] is my true work, caiso is my true life" (170)- Jackson
breaks into an improvised calypso song, and Harry eventually sings along,
suggesting that they need to work together. Rather than walking away from
the British hotel owner after the song's conclusion, however, Jackson walks
over to Harry, and says: "Starting from Friday, Robinson, we could talk
'bout a raise?"7 (170) Apparently, Jackson, well aware of the oppressive
nature of postcolonial relationships and related scripts, is also aware that
he cannot afford to be without a job. Presumably, he will be performing
calypso -in Harry's pantomime, which, it seems, will be a bit different
than the British actor had intended (after all, he cannot afford to go the
way of the parrot)- but Jackson will still be playing and singing in front of
the Castaways Guesthouse's tourists, in a show that he would prefer not to
perform in. But, thanks to Jackson's tactical inroads, the script will be a bit
more acceptable to Jackson than Harry's original script, and Harry will
accept the revisions (as long as they do not make the tourists too uneasy),
because the show, even in its less than "ideal" form, will draw spectators,
and thus enable Harry to bring in the tourist dollars on which both he and
Jackson depend. Harry will, however, always be aware of the threat posed
by his "shadow," just as Jackson will remain cognizant of the arbitrariness
of their roles, which -it seems- cannot be abandoned completely without
detriment to both parties, who, Walcott grudgingly suggests, need each
other, in spite of their inherent differences.
PANTOMIME, TOURISTIC PERFORMANCE, AND THE DIFFICULTY OF REVISION
' Major writers who have dealt with the problems and complexities of mimesis in
(post)colonial regions include V.S. Naipaul (Mimic Men), Frantz Fanon (Black Skin/
White Masks), Homi Bhabha ("Of Mimicry and Man"), and Walcott himself ("The
Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?"). For a discussion of their work within the context
of Pantomime (and [post] colonialism in general), see Huggan's "A Tale of Two Parrots:
Walcott, Rhys, and the Uses of Colonial Mimicry."
2 Some tourists, of course, will seek out the underbelly of a particular tourist
destination. "Sex tourists," for example, may frequent squalid areas of a city. In my
experience, most tourists in the Caribbean seem content staying within areas
proscribed for tourists, although, of course, there will always be some who wander
off the beaten path, to places such as Old San Juan's infamous La Perla, the one area
of the city that tourists are frequently told is crime-ridden and warned to avoid.
3 For further insight into the importance of "authenticity" to the tourist, see Dean
MacCannell's The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class.
4 Walter Benjamin suggests that "mechanical reproduction" itself might at times abet
the concealment of history by detaching "the reproduced object from the domain of
tradition" (221). Such detachment, however, also creates, according to Benjamin,
democratizing, revolutionary possibilities (particularly within film). For further
insight into Benjamin's complex ideas about the political implications of mechanical
reproduction, see his "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Dean
MacCannell, evoking Benjamin, believes, as Michael Harkin observes, that the
"relationship between authentic, original, and mechanical reproduction is essential
to the marking of an authentic tourism object or sight" (Harkin 653).
5 Part of the appeal of both the garita and Puerto Rico's forts may be nostalgic. As
Michael Harkin observes, "much 'third world' tourism expresses a nostalgia for
6 Nonetheless, the walls maintain a certain importance in contemporary contexts on
the island. Thus, when part of one of the fort's centuries-old wall system collapsed
due to rain recently, the municipal government spent over six months rebuilding it.
This required blocking an adjacent, frequently travelled road.
7 Patrick Taylor points out that Jackson's request refers not only to a salary increase:
"The multiplicity of meanings in this question, the double meanings of 'Friday' and
'raise,' suggest not that Jackson is merely a servant asking for a salary increase, but
that Friday, all Fridays, demand that their statuses be raised; they demand recognition"
48 RICK MITCHELL
Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."
Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. Illuminations. NY: Schocken
Books, 1968. 217-252.
Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial
Discourse." October 28 (1984): 125-33.
Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall.
Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith.
NY: Zone, 1994.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1998.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin/White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. NY:
Gunness, Christopher. "White Man, Black Man." Critical Perspectives on
Derek Walcott. Ed. Robert D. Hamner. Washington, D.C.: Three
Continents Press, 1993. 290-291.
Harkin, Michael. "Modernist Anthropology and Tourism of the Authentic."
Annals of Tourism Research 22.3 (1999): 650-670.
Huggan, Graham. "A Tale of Two Parrots: Walcott, Rhys, and the Uses of
Colonial Mimicry." Contemporary Literature 35.4 (1994): 643-660.
Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. NY: Plume/Penguin, 1989.
MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. Berkeley:
U California P, 1999.
Naipaul, V.S. Mimic Men. NY: Macmillan, 1967.
Ritzer, George. Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means
of Consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 1999.
Sinnewe, Dirk. Divided to the Vein? Derek Walcott's Drama and the Formation
of Cultural Identities. Wurzburg, Germany: Konigshausen & Neumann,
Taylor, Patrick. "Myth and Reality in Caribbean Narrative: Derek Walcott's
Pantomime." World Literature Written in English 26.1 (1986): 169-177.
Walcott, Derek. Pantomime, in Remembrance and Pantomime. NY: Farrar,
Strauss and Giroux, 1980.
"The Caribbean: Culture or Mimicry?" Journal of Interamerican
Studies and World Affairs 36 (1984): 130-145.
Wright, Elizabeth. Postmodern Brecht:A Re-Presentation. London: Routledge,
Implications of Travel in Novels by Kathy Acker,
Margaret Atwood, and Mary Morris
he tourist narrative is always a tale of escape, adventure and the
exotic with the underlying but unspoken possibility of sexual
freedom. Gauguin in Tahiti is the model, Byron in Greece, Margaret
Fuller in Italy. It is a tale in which its protagonist escapes his life at home
and gains a freedom he does not ordinarily have. Away from home, after
all, the tourist is anonymous. The place he goes to is, in one way or another,
primitive, backward, its poverty unbelievable, its society inefficient, its
government corrupt. As the tourist looks out on the landscape from the
balcony of a hotel, he does not question that home is superior to what he
sees. "His role is made possible," lan Littlewood writes, "by an imbalance
of cultural and economic power" (183). Club Med, goes the Situationist
International slogan, a cheap holiday in other people's misery.
The traveler seeks out the untouched and exotic distant land, in part,
because the simpler lives of its people are seen to be more authentic than
his. ("For moderns," Dean MacCannell writes, "reality and authenticity are
thought to be elsewhere in other historical periods and other cultures, in
purer, simpler life styles" ). From the vantage point of the island beaches,
he convinces himself further that this land has not been ravaged by
development. In this sense, the tourist novel may serve to promote tourism
for its middle-class reading audience as much as the Fodor guide or travel
section of the Sunday paper.
At the same time, the ways in which the tourist understands and controls
life at home may not work here. In the literature of travel, hardship and
danger are always possible; uncertainty at some point a certainty; ignorance
a given. In some way, whether it is metaphorical or not, nature threatens,
and fear lingers at the edge of consciousness of the stranger in a strange
land. He might lose his way at any point and experience that dizzying
moment in which he does not know where he is or what might happen. If
revolution in the tourist novel is often the fulcrum around which the plot
50 ROBERT BUCKEYE
turns, it may not only be the catalyst that causes destabilization but also
its symbol; uncertainty leads to disorientation.
These circumstances play themselves differently for women. If the
woman traveler finds she has greater independence on the road, she is
also more vulnerable, since she leaves behind the regulated circumstances
of home. If the male tourist may prey sexually upon the native -he may do
away from home what he will not do at home- the female tourist may be
both predator and prey -the native may assert a power his encounters
with the male tourist deny him. If the travel narrative, then, is about the
desire for adventure, the authentic or the exotic, it is also about capitalism,
first world domination, and sexual politics.
Although the tourist novel, as I understand it, touches upon by-now cliche
elements of tourism, it is closer in its outlook and perspective to that of its
pre-modern predecessor, the account of a traveler. The protagonist of the
tourist novel sees tourists in Bermuda shorts with cameras around their
necks ask stupid questions, understands that much of what he sees has
been staged for him, what McCannell calls "staged authenticity," sites of,
say, craftsmen at work, and regrets the extent to which craft, art, service,
even smiles, have become commodities, but it his goal to see what is to be
seen, not what has been staged for commercial gain: the island's people as
they are (even if he may recoil from what he sees); the beauty of the
landscape and, at times, its unbearingly sublime, pleasure; and if it is love
that he seeks, that it be passion, not a transaction. (Even the put-upon,
cliche tourist seeks experience beyond what his tour can provide him. In
Alessandro Jodorowsky's film, The Holy Mountain, one of the film crew
begins a mock rape of an actual tourist in a Mexican village. Get this on
film, she tells her husband. They won't believe this in Dubuque.) As much
as the tourist novel may distance itself from the elements of tourism that it
presents, however, it also incorporates them.
It is a one-way street. The tourist narrative is always the first world writing
of the third, and that means novels of the middle class written for the middle
class. Jamaica Kincaid's writings of Antiguans in the United States are not
tourist novels. The tourist does not see that the poverty that overwhelms
him is caused by first world exploitation and that the "laziness" of the native
is not nature but his resistance to tourism and global capitalism. The sexual
possibility he may seek resists the market in sex tourism he cannot miss (a
subset of pornography is the tourist experience, although, more recently,
it has been the subject of serious work, the novels of Michel Houellebecq,
for example, or Laurence Cantet's film about first-world women in Haiti,
Heading South). Even though the traveler knows little, if anything, of the
land he visits, he appropriates what he sees for his own purposes, much as
the colonial government did before him.
IMPLICATIONS OF TRAVEL... 51
Kathy Acker, Margaret Atwood, and Mary Morris have written tourist
novels which are characteristic of their work, but, at the same time (as
different as, say, Acker's writing is from the other two), demonstrate the
extent to which the tourist novel coheres. Atwood is the best known of
these writers and has come to be the voice of middle-class realism and
feminism. Bodily Harm (1981), her island novel, is her fifth novel, and, after
Lady Oracle (1976) and Life Before Man (1979), establishes Atwood as a
major novelist of social and domestic realism. Bodily Harm is political in
ways her fiction has not been before, her pessimism far more profound,
and prefigures her later, better-known novels.
Acker's Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978) is an early work, published after her
first books had been sent through the mail anonymously to readers. It is
characteristic Acker in its efforts to confront readers and convention (not
only literary) through its break-up of textual narrative (influenced by William
S. Burroughs and Black Mountain poets); its emphasis on sexuality,
particularly the perverse and forbidden; its punk, outsider sensibility; and
its use of Situationist de-tournement and appropriation (a term artists use)
to re-draw the map of art (as Dada attempted). If Atwood questions but
does not challenge progressive middle class feminine ideals, Acker
considers them false, delusionary.
"With any writer," Cesare Pavese writes, "one can apply the term
'mythical' to the central imaginative idea, quite unmistakable, which moves
him most fiercely and to which he always turns" (Pavese, 173). If Acker and
Atwood write about life elsewhere, it does not occupy a mythical place in
their work as it does for Morris. Her first book, Vanishing Animals (1979),
sent her to Rome with a prize from the American Academy. Three of her
books (a trilogy she says) are travel books -Nothing to Declare: Memories
of a Woman Traveling Alone (1987), Wall to Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by
Rail (1991), and Angels and Aliens: A Journey West (1999)- and she has
edited two anthologies of travel writing. Travel and, in particular, the tension
between home and where she is, is the subject of her writing. Her Caribbean
novel, House Arrest (1996), plays it again.
These three novels utilize conventions of the tourist narrative in order
to subvert them. Each begins with descriptions of poverty, neglect and
corruption. ("This is what Kathy sees. First paper-thin paper-like-wall shacks
on thin wooden platforms." [Acker, 8]) In two of them, their protagonists
find romance. The adventure they find is less thrilling than threatening
(Bodily Harm ends with revolution). In each of the novels, they meet
American women, who live in the Caribbean, but whose lives are markedly
different from their own. In each of them, their protagonists carry with
them memories of a traumatic experience with men. Their escape from
home only sharpens the circumstances they fled -vacation on an island is
a mirror reflection of the life they left. In this sense, the island setting
52 ROBERT BUCKEYE
becomes a vehicle to dramatize life at home. That all three female
protagonists were raised by mothers after their fathers left suggests
obliquely that, even when absent, patriarchy cannot be ignored.
The first sentence of Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm -"this is how I got
here,"- echoes Northrop Frye's question about Canadian literature -
Where is here?- which reflects Canadian uncertainty in general about home
and identity. Near the end of the novel, Atwood writes, "This is what will
happen," which in the mind of her protagonist, Rennie Wilford, means the
Canadian consulate will free her from prison. Whether the Canadian
authorities will do so, however, remains uncertain, since it is something
she imagines. How Rennie got here and what will happen become larger
questions of identity and place. Atwood's shifts among present, past, and
future tenses, her use of two narrators, and her movement between first
and third person narration only emphasize the difficulty -and
uncertainty- of understanding identity and place.
Rennie has just had a mastectomy, the man she lives with leaves, and
she comes home one day to find that her apartment has been broken into.
She tells her editor she needs to get away and he assigns her a travel article
on St. Antoine. She cannot write about the poverty, ruin, and corruption
that she sees everywhere because it is not what the prospective tourist
wants to read. "This is the effect she aims for," she thinks to explain how
she must write. "Neutrality" (20).
She meets two Americans, Paul and Lora, and picks up a box at customs
for Lora. St. Antoine is about to have an election, and Paul tells Rennie
there is more going on than she can understand and it could be dangerous,
but she tells herself, "There's nothing to worry about, nothing can touch
her. She's a tourist. She's exempt." (182). On election day, Dr. Minnow, a
candidate for president, is killed, and revolution breaks out. Rennie is put
in prison as an accomplice of Lora's. The box she picked up at customs
had guns in it. "Some things it was better not to know anything about"
(188), Rennie thinks when she hears screams outside her cell, but she finds
it impossible not to see what she sees. The stench in the cell is unbelievable,
and Lora sleeps with guards for gum, cigarettes, and bread. "She'd give
anything for a Holiday Inn" (238), Rennie muses.
For the first time she understands how much Jake, her lover in Toronto,
is a sexual predator; and that the greater freedom of Toronto she sought to
escape her puritanical small town in Ottawa is, for the most part, a license
for men. She dreams of the man who had broken into her apartment and
left a rope on her bed and thinks, "She's afraid of men and it's simple, it's
rational, she's afraid of men because men are frightening. She's seen the
man with the rope, now she knows what he looks like. She has been turned
inside out, there's no longer a here and a there. Rennie understands for the
IMPLICATIONS OF TRAVEL...
first time that this is not necessarily a place she will get out of, ever. She is
not exempt. Nobody is exempt from anything" (256).
After Lora is brutally beaten, Rennie remembers the day when she was a
child that her grandmother came into the kitchen and asked her if she
knew where her hands had gone. Rennie says the obvious, that her
grandmother's hands are "on the ends of her arms." (57) But her grand-
mother doesn't mean those hands, but "My other hands, the ones I had
before, the ones I touch things with." Rennie is unable to do anything, and
her mother comes in, takes her mother's hands, and says, see, they're right
here, while looking at Rennie with disgust. In prison, Rennie takes Lora's
hand in hers after Lora has been badly beaten. "She can feel the shape of a
hand in hers," Rennie thinks. "It will always be there now" (264).
What has happened not only shatters the life she has led but also, in a
way she could not have anticipated, sustains her. For the first time Rennie
recognizes that to live life as a tourist is to stand back from life, not see it
for what it is. As different as we might be we are the same. One can longer
be innocent. "She will never be rescued," Rennie thinks. "She has already
been rescued. She is not exempt. Instead she is lucky, suddenly, finally,
she's overflowing with luck, it's this luck holding her up." (266). Whether
this is meant to be ironic or not -a delusion of Rennie's- is immaterial.
"I have to go on this trip," Maggie Conover thinks at the beginning of
Mary Morris's House Arrest. "I had to get away because something is wrong
and I can't quite put my finger on it" (104). That something has to do with
her life in the states, her marriage, the recent break-in of their home. When
she returns to the island she had written a travel piece about last year, that
something from its government's point of view is her complicity in the
escape of Isabel, the troublesome and unacknowledged daughter of the
island's president. The government fears that Isabel might lead an
insurrection. Maggie is confined to her hotel under house arrest and
The narrative shifts back and forth between the present and the year
before, when she met Isabel, became friends with her, and gave Isabel her
passport and plane ticket so that she can leave the island. Maggie finds her
circumstances unsettling. When the phone in her hotel room rings, she is
not sure where she is. If she admits she has given Isabel her passport and
plane ticket, she fears what will become of her. She thinks back to how she
felt after Isabel left: "I had no identity. No passport, no way out" (252).
Maggie talks to the prostitutes who solicit clients in the bar and one
evening they dress her as one of them to get her out of the hotel. After she
returns, she thinks men see her as no different from them. The image of the
man who has broken into their home will not go away: "who is the masked
man, peering into the window? Who is that masked man coming up the
stairs?" (231). She wishes she had the courage and independence of Isabel
and acknowledges, "I have never lived particularly close to the edge" (204).
She tells the police, finally, that she had given Isabel her passport and
plane ticket the previous year, but the government does nothing more than
put her on a plane home. "Before long the trees will be in bloom," she
thinks of her home in Brooklyn. "In the red oak out back there will be birds
-ordinary gray birds. And I will know that I am home" (271). However, she
will never be at home again. The ordinary is no longer ordinary, and the
masked man is coming up the stairs no matter how Maggie tries to convince
herself otherwise. For once, she has come close to the edge, and though
she wishes to step back from it, she no longer knows if she can.
In her introduction to Young Lust, a collection of early novellas, Kathy
Acker writes that Kathy Goes to Haiti "was also my version both of a Nancy
Drew book (an American girls' book) and of a travel journal" (viii). "Every
other chapter is a porn chapter," she adds. Acker rewrites these genres
-she takes the term versioning from the art world to describe her method-
to subvert them. Nancy Drew books are pre-teen, domestic mysteries in
which Nancy is adventurous, daring, clever, but never, finally, at risk. In the
Acker novel, Kathy is never anything but at risk, regardless of what she
does. One reads pornography to be erotically aroused, but Acker's version
of it demonstrates the power, exploitation, and violence of patriarchal
Kathy is a twenty-nine year old, middle-class American, and on her first
day in Haiti, "She's scared to death because she doesn't know anybody,
she doesn't know where to go in Haiti, and she can't speak the language"
(5). She receives seven marriage proposals that day and is told American
women come to Haiti to get laid. "Tourists mean money," a boy tells her.
She makes her way to Cap Haitian and falls in love with Roger, a wealthy
Haitian married to Betty, an American woman from Kansas. She learns that
Roger exploits the poor and women, traffics in drugs, and ignores the
problems of Haiti. Kathy is appalled. "There are almost no roads," she tells
him. "Most of the people can't read. The rivers are polluted. There're almost
no hospitals" (91). "The main thing is to have love in your heart" (99), she
reminds him in her role as Nancy Drew. She also tries to convince Betty that
she has to leave her bedroom if she is to live; it is the prison she must escape.
Women have no freedom in Haiti, Roger tells her. Men sleep around.
Women stay home. "If you fuck around," Kathy replies, "I fuck around" (84).
Haitians refer to her as la folle Americaine, but she realizes "I have to be
two different people if I want to be a woman" (77). Nevertheless, she refuses
to give up the idea that, "Someday there'll be a new world. A new kind of
woman.... In that future time a woman will be ... able to control her own
If Acker disassembles and rewrites traditional genres in this book, we
can nevertheless see that Kathy Goes to Haiti is also a conventional
IMPLICATIONS OF TRAVEL... 55
bildungsroman, the education of a youth in the ways of the world. One
night in her room in Cap Haitian, a man tries to break in. "I freaked," she
tells Roger. "I mean in New York City women get raped all the time" (86). If
she has come to Haiti to escape New York, she finds Haiti to be New York
writ large. "Having any sex in the world is having to have sex with capitalism"
(Blood and Guts in High School, 135). Acker does nothing less than hold up
patriarchy as the crime.
There is a darkness at the edge of these texts. At the end of these novels,
Rennie is in a prison cell, Maggie in what she feels to be some time capsule,
Kathy dazed and not sure where she is. The woman they thought they
were is not the one men see. The woman they know is not the one they
have become. The woman who stood aside can no longer be neutral. In
Ingeborg Bachmann's novel, The Book of Franza, Franza Jordan sees a
woman bound, tied, and tethered by a man in the Cairo train station. "This
woman will always be here," Franza thinks, "for I have become this woman....
I am lying in her place" (132). In these novels, its protagonists ally
themselves, as Franza Jordan does, with all women.
All travel writing presages a return. No matter how long we have been
away, we never cease to think of the trip home. No matter how much we
travel, we never leave home. No matter how much we get lost, we travel
the same paths. However, when we return, we cannot understand why we
have not returned. We left home to travel and come back, unexpectedly a
stranger, who looks out on the world with the eyes of the alien. "What she
sees has not altered," Rennie thinks. "Only the way she sees it. It's all exactly
the same. Nothing is the same" (264). The tourist novel is a cautionary
tale, and contains in it the seeds of revolution.
56 ROBERT BUCKEYE
Acker, Kathy. Blood and Guts in High School. NY: Grove, 1989.
Kathy Goes to Haiti in Young Lust. London: Pandora, 1989.
Atwood, Margaret. Bodily Harm. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Bachmann, Ingeborg. The Book of Franza & Requiem for Fanny Goldmann.
Trans. and intro. Peter Filkins. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999.
Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.
Cocker, Mark. Loneliness and Time, The Story of British Travel Writing. NY:
Delbanco, Nicholas. "Anywhere Out of This World." Harper's Magazine. (2004):
Fanon, Frantz. A Dying Colonialism. NY: Grove, 1965.
Irvine, Lorna. "The Here and Now of Bodily Harm." In MargaretAtwood Vision
and Forms. Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro, eds. With
an Autobiographical Foreword by Margaret Atwood. Crawfordsville, IL:
Southern Illinois UP, 1988.
Kaplan, Caren. Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourse of Displacement.
Durham: Duke UP, 1996.
Kincaid, Jamaica. At the Bottom of the River. NY: Plume, 1992.
A Small Place. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1988.
Littlewood, lan. Sultry Climates: Travel and Sex since the Grand Tour.
Cambridge, MA, De Capo, 2002.
MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist; A New Theory of the Leisure Class. NY:
Morris, Mary. House Arrest. NY: Doubleday, 1996.
Pavese, Cesare. This Business of Living; a Diary: 1935-1950. Trans. A. E. Murch.
London: P. Owen, 1961.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes; Travel Writing and Transculturation. New
York: Routledge, 1992.
Roger, Janine. "Getting There is Half the Fun: Travel and Female Pleasure in
English Erotica." The Dalhousie Review 84:3 (2004): 349-371.
Rosenberg, Jerome H. Margaret Atwood. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1984.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. NY: Knopf, 1993.
Siegle, Robert. Suburban Ambush; Downtown Writing and the Fiction of
Insurgency. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.
Zilcosky, John. "The Writer as Nomad? The Art of Getting Lost." 6:2
Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (2004): 229-
Publishing Jamaican Fiction:
The Return to the Metropole
University of the West Indies, Mona
Recently, after extended negotiations, Macmillan Caribbean finally
concluded a deal with the Jamaican publisher LMH Publishing
whereby Macmillan bought (for an undivulged, but hefty sum) the
rights to the four novels plus one autobiographical work by Jamaican writer
Anthony Winkler, all previously published by LMH in its former incarnation
as Kingston Publishers. For Macmillan it was a victory in its current
aggressive foray into the publishing of Caribbean fiction: that company
has an impressive list of new Caribbean titles, and an even more impressive
list of forthcoming ones. For Winkler, it was undoubtedly cause for
celebration. For me, on the other hand, it was a sad moment, a signal of a
trend: the return of the publishing of Jamaican fiction to the metropole.
Let me at this early stage declare a former interest here: I used to work
as an editor at Kingston Publishers, and was the editor of all five of Winkler's
books published by that company, a fact of which I was and continue to be
proud. So this sadness was no doubt at least partly a sense of loss of
I want to feel, though, that the sense of loss was caused by more than
that egotistical consideration. There were also ideological considerations:
to me, the relinquishing of rights of the work of one of the Anglo Caribbean's
most talented contemporary writers by a small Jamaican company to a
large British conglomerate signaled the extinguishing of one of a few short-
lived flickerings of hope for an industry which, like so many others, had
originally been the domain of an imperialist enterprise, and was now
returning to that domain. LMH, a small, struggling house, had invested in
developing Winkler for twenty-plus years, had brought him to fame, and
now Macmillan would reap the benefits.
Globalisation is the prevailing economic order, of course; and those of
us who live in small states with their developing economies are keenly
58 KIM ROBINSON-WALCOTT
aware that small, underdeveloped industries cannot compete with large,
capital-endowed ones. It would be expected that small independent
Caribbean publishing houses could never compete with large metropolitan
ones with their large budgets and their access to large international markets.
The reality is more complicated than that, however. It is not only large
first-world publishers like Macmillan that are publishing Caribbean fiction.
Peepal Tree Press in the UK, for example, is an independent house which is
smaller than LMH in Kingston, yet has shown a commitment to Caribbean
fiction, publishing some seventy titles since the late 1980s. In a venture
started as what founder Jeremy Poynting calls "a labour of love"' (though
admittedly propped up by grant funding which is of course unavailable to
publishers in the Caribbean), Poynting and partner persevered with their
dream despite numerous challenges, so that Peepal Tree now publishes
some twenty-five to thirty fiction and poetry titles per year.
Perhaps more critically, it is not simply that the valiant efforts of small
Anglo Caribbean publishing houses have been gobbled up by the big bad
first-world wolves: in fact, the efforts of small Caribbean publishers to enter
the arena of fiction publishing have been few and far between, and fraught
with weaknesses, while first-world publishers have made a major
contribution to the development of the canon of Anglo Caribbean literature.
Although a few works of fiction had been published sporadically in the
West Indies in the late nineteenth and particularly the early twentieth
centuries -and I am thinking especially of the twenty-plus novels produced
by the prolific early twentieth-century Jamaican author H.G. de Lisser2-
and a few others appeared under US publishers' imprints in the latter
period,3 the coming of age of the West Indian novel is generally felt to have
taken place in London, in the 1950s. The migration of Caribbean creative
talent to the perceived cultural mecca of the mother country, combined
firstly with a growing intellectual interest in the newly independent ex-
colonies by enlightened ex-colonists, and secondly -most critically- with
UK publishers' recognition of potential new markets, led British publishers
to sign up new voices such as Edgar Mittelholzer (breaking through early
with Corentyne Thunder, published by Secker and Warburg in 1941, then
with A Morning at the Office, published by The Hogarth Press in 1950),
Samuel Selvon (with A Brighter Sun, published by Allan Wingate in 1952),
George Lamming (In the Castle of My Skin, published by Michael Joseph in
1953), Roger Mais (The Hills Were Joyful Together, published by Jonathan
Cape in1953), John Hearne (Voices Under the Window, published by Faber
and Faber in 1955), and later V. S. Naipaul (The Mystic Masseur, published
by Andr6 Deutsch in 1957). As Kenneth Ramchand noted in his seminal
1970 work The West Indian Novel and Its Background, "Since 1950, most
West Indian novels have been first published in the English capital, and
nearly every West Indian novelist has established himself while living there"
PUBLISHING JAMAICAN FICTION: THE RETURN TO THE METROPOLE
(63). Ramchand showed that for the period 1950-1964, of the ninety-seven
novels first published, eighty-five were by British publishers, eight by
Jamaican publishers, and two each by U.S. and Australian publishers,
and concluded that "London is indisputably the West Indian literary
In her book Stet, editor Diana Athill, who worked with Naipaul and Jean
Rhys among others while at Andre Deutsch, recalls:
There was, of course, something else at work as well as literary and /or political
interest. There are, after all, a vast number of Indians, Africans and West
Indians in the world -a potential reading public beyond computation- and
nowhere, except in India on a tiny scale, were these masses able to produce
books for themselves. Certainly no British publisher was foolish enough to
suppose that more than a minuscule fringe of that great potential market
was, or would be for years, accessible, but I think most of us thought it would
become increasingly accessible in the foreseeable future. The feeling in the
air was that freedom would mean progress; that the market out there was
certainly going to expand, however slowly, so that it would not only be
interesting to get in on the ground floor of publishing for and about Africa
[and, she implies, other territories like the West Indies]: it would also prove,
in the long run, to be good business.4
In the 1970s the interest of UK publishers in West Indian fiction waned;
and notwithstanding the sporadic appearance of works by West Indian
novelists in the lists of US and Canadian publishing houses, an opportunity
arose for West Indian publishers to fill the gap. A few took the plunge: in
Jamaica, for example, Kingston Publishers launched a fiction list in 1983
and since then has published some forty fiction titles, including the four
novels by Anthony Winkler mentioned earlier. Most Jamaican publishers,
however, were reluctant to venture into this high-risk area, preferring to
remain in the safe zones of textbook and scholarly publishing. As Jamaican
publisher lan Randle says, "fiction publishing requires large investments
in marketing and promotion which small publishers find hard to make."5
Mike Henry of Kingston Publishers, now LMH Publishing, has been more
willing to take the plunge, but perhaps without the necessary resources to
adequately invest in marketing; and even he has always maintained that a
fiction author must be able to convince his publisher that he or she will be
able to produce more than one novel in order to persuade the publisher
that the investment in him is worthwhile, because the investment required
to build up the name of a fiction author is a large one.
Then there is the matter of the size of the market. It is often suggested
that Jamaica is an oral not scribal society; furthermore, literacy levels in
countries such as Jamaica are low. Whether the difference in readership
levels between societies like ours and those of, say the USA, is as great as
60 KIM ROBINSON-WALCOTT
is often suggested is in my opinion disputable; what, however, is
indisputable is that in terms of sheer numbers the markets for fiction in
the USA and the UK are much larger; so that a novel produced in the Anglo
Caribbean will be considered an unusually successful "bestseller" if it sells
10-15,000 copies a year, while one considered merely a moderate success
in the USA will sell well over a 100,000 copies. Furthermore, publishers like
Jeremy Poynting have long complained that small as the Anglo-Caribbean
market is, it is hardly ever experienced to its full potential because readers
in each individual island or country are rarely interested in reading any
writers other than their own.
This therefore begs the question: why would an author choose to have
his work published by a Caribbean publisher rather than an American or
British one? The reality is, of course, that few would. When Anthony Winkler
brought his first novel The Painted Canoe to Kingston Publishers it was only
because the manuscript had been rejected by a dozen American publishers,
all of whom suggested that the material was too Jamaican and would not be
of interest to an American audience. I am not sure whether Colin Channer's
first novel Waiting in Vain was rejected by American publishers before he
brought it to Kingston Publishers, but I do know that it arrived on my desk
because Channer contacted Winkler and asked for advice on how to get
published. On the other hand, both internationally acclaimed author Lorna
Goodison and publisher lan Randle, who recently published her collection
of short stories, Fool-Fool Rose is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah, have stated
independently that Goodison wanted that collection to be brought out by a
Jamaican publisher. According to a report in the Jamaican daily newspaper,
the Gleaner, "The decision to use a Jamaican publisher reflects [Goodison's]
belief in the island's and the region's possibility. She explains that while in
the past writers had to leave the region to write and get published, times
have changed and so established writers should use Caribbean publishers
to encourage the art in the region."6 And Winkler himself has stated more
than once that he was happy to be published by a Jamaican publisher because
recognition by his countrymen is what he has craved over all else. Channer
too, like Winkler a migrant to the USA with yearnings for recognition in his
homeland, in the early days of his association with Kingston Publishers
told me that he was excited about being published back home. His decision
to terminate the contract with Kingston Publishers was due to delays in
publication which were in turn due to that company's severe cash flow
constraints; but he has frequently publicly bemoaned the inability of local
publishers to take on a project such as his. And Winkler's decision to move
to Macmillan was primarily due to those same financial constraints
experienced by his Jamaican publisher (so that the collection of royalties
by Winkler became a major challenge).
PUBLISHING JAMAICAN FICTION: THE RETURN TO THE METROPOLE
Undeniably, though, both authors will have reaped considerable financial
benefit from the switch to first-world publishers: while The Lunatic may
have sold 75,000 copies in its eighteen-year life (a record, incidentally, for a
locally published novel), Winkler's short story collection The Annihilation
of Fish published last year sold, according to Macmillan, 11,000 copies in
the first two months; and Waiting in Vain, which Kingston Publishers would
have printed in a first run of 2,000 copies, hoping nervously that all would
sell so that they could break even before reprinting, has so far sold in excess
of 250,000 copies since publication in 1998.
To what extent, though, has the publishing of Caribbean fiction by non-
Caribbean houses affected content? Garfield Ellis, whose novel Such as IHave
was published by Macmillan in 2003, tells of a stressful relationship with his
copyeditor whose lack of familiarity with the Jamaican language resulted in
such gaffes as making a global substitution of the word "fi" to "for"so that
Ellis encountered in the proofs, a change from his original expression "you
have fi live first fi get it" (meaning "you have to live first to be able to get it")
to "you have for live first for get it." He reports that with Such as I Have he
had to "fight" with his editor to retain passages because the editor "did not
understand the rhythm of the language."7 It is easier to excuse instances of
inauthenticity in the works of distanced second-generation Jamaicans such
as Zadie Smith, who in White Teeth declares that "Jamaica is a small place,"
so small that "you can walk around it in a day, and everybody who lived
there rubbed up against everybody else at one time or another" (306), or
Andrea Levy whose Jamaican protagonist Hortense in Small Island refers to
"geckos" rather than croaking lizards (the term "gecko" is unfamiliar to
Jamaicans) and all of whose Jamaican characters speak a dialect that is not
quite "right." Especially in the case of Andrea Levy's work, these may be
small, inconsequential, nitpicking points. And here the blame may lie not
with the editors but with the authors themselves -though of course an editor
familiar with the language and culture being written about would spot such
errors. Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press has acknowledged such
potential difficulties but has rightly questioned whether "some of the same
issues might not arise vis-a-vis a Jamaican editor and a Guyanese book," and
has suggested that such challenges "are not insuperable with acquired
knowledge, some sensitivity and an awareness of what you don't know."8
To be honest, in contacting a number of Jamaican authors in the research
for this paper,9 I was hoping to find many more instances of such struggles
with editors and compromises to authenticity. Unfortunately for my agenda,
but fortunately for Jamaican fiction, most of the authors with whom I
communicated had no complaints. According to Colin Channer:
I have never had the kind of problem that you've asked about .... I think this
is the case for several reasons. One of them is I don't write what one would
call "stories of Caribbean interest." I write interesting stories populated with
Caribbean people. Because of this the editorial concerns are larger, the con-
siderations take place on a larger page, on the level of things like character,
theme and the grand symphonic movements of story design.
When a writer works on the level of "stories of Caribbean interest" he or
she is inviting considerations on the microscopic scale appropriate to the
work, which too often amounts to the authentic representation of spoken
language .... In other words, good stories, that is, stories that drape funda-
mentally interesting conflicts in a culturally specific robe will travel. Those
that do otherwise, generally speaking, just won't...
In the Caribbean we like to quibble over small scale issues of representing
voice, for example. Should it be "nutten" or "not'in" when the work itself
naah say nutten .... I am ... a writer who does not create a false problem
when it comes to authenticity. I rarely use phonetic spellings for example,
for the same reason that Australians don't -they believe that their
pronunciation is valid. But like Australian writers often do with
uniquely Australian expressions or words, I use Jamaican words and
expressions in a way that the meaning is either clear or unimportant.
But on another level, I work like Woody Allen. Woody understands that
there is a certain percentage of his films that gentiles or non New Yorkers
just won't understand and his attitude is, "Fuck em. They get most of it."10
Charmer may be more relaxed than some. But as even Garfield Ellis put it,
"If you stick out for what you want you will get it in the end, even if it takes
a bit of effort.""1
Ellis is one writer who is sad that he had to go abroad to find a publisher
who would pay royalties without being threatened or begged and who would
be capable of the sort of marketing and distribution that his work deserved
-sad because of the energy required to work with an editor who does not
understand his nuances, and sad because the long-distance working
relationship with his publisher makes him feel less able to be involved not
only in the editorial process but more so in the planning of promotion,
advertising and distribution in the region, a region of which he feels he has
more knowledge than does his British publisher.
Ian Randle has suggested that a solution to this dilemma is for more
authors to pressure their overseas publishers to do co-publishing deals
with local publishers who know the region better; or for the local publisher,
if the originator of a title, to aggressively seek an overseas co-publisher.
His recent publication of Austin Clarke's The Polished Hoe was an example
of the former arrangement (as he told me, he could never have originated
a writer of the stature of Austin Clarke who required a six-figure advance,
sight unseen).12 More arrangements such as this one would not only satisfy
some of the concerns expressed by Ellis but would enable some of the
economic benefits to be derived from publishing to be channeled back to
the author's home territory.
PUBLISHING JAMAICAN FICTION: THE RETURN TO THE METROPOLE
Easier said than done. But this would be one step in the right direction.
Because surely there must be not only economic costs but also other costs
to the society when the centre of fiction publishing is located abroad. For
example, there may be a cost to creativity: for every one manuscript that
gets accepted by a publisher abroad there may be twenty that are rejected
and another hundred that are never even submitted for the simple reason
that sending a manuscript the fifty miles from Ocho Rios to Kingston would
have been a lot easier, or certainly cheaper, than sending it the couple
thousand miles from Ocho Rios to London. And so the one manuscript
that gets accepted is not necessarily the cream of the entire crop.
Again, certainly in Jamaica, functional literacy levels and levels of
proficiency in the English language, as reflected in the performance of high
school students in regional exams, are worryingly low. Surely reading should
be encouraged, and the more creative writing we produce of the type to
which our readers can relate directly, because it reflects them and their
culture, the more readers we will create. And surely the chances of
producing the volumes of work required to give this necessary stimulation
to expand readership are greater if the publishing activity is taking place in
the home territory or home region.
And what about old-fashioned issues such as pride and self-worth? In
the current global economic climate, small states too often find it necessary
to brush these considerations aside. But a pride in one's culture promotes
self-worth. And even the most pragmatic or cynical of us must accept that
there is still some value to these qualities.
Ramchand in his earlier-mentioned study of the West Indian novel quotes
the observation of Robert Herring, editor of Life and Letters and a visitor to
Jamaica in 1948:
There is as yet in Jamaica no general means of publishing books, such as
exists in most other civilized countries in the world. That may sound hard of
belief but it is true. There is no firm in Jamaica which exists simply and solely
to publish books .... There are Jamaican authors and have been for long ....
But there is no Jamaican publisher. Consequently, authors such as [Claude
McKay and Adolphe Roberts] go to America. Until books can be published
there can hardly be expected to be readers. A poet may write on a desert isle
... but readers can't read or develop in reading without books. (73)
Nearly sixty years later, a lot has changed, but Herring's observations still
(notwithstanding the efforts of LMH Publishing) largely apply to the publishing
of Jamaican fiction -and I believe also to the publishing of Anglo Caribbean
fiction as a whole. Does this really matter? I feel that it must, though I
acknowledge that the feeling is largely intuitive. And if it does, what can be
done about it? I do not have all, or even a significant portion of, the answers.
But I do know that incremental improvements are possible, if we want them.
' Jeremy Poynting, email to author, 22 March 2005.
2 Most of de Lisser's novels appeared first in serialized form, in the journal Planter's
Punch, which he edited, and in the newspaper the Gleaner.
3 For example, Claude McKay had four novels published by New York publishers in
the period 1928-1933. (McKay lived in the USA.) W. Adolphe Roberts had six novels
published by New York publishers between 1929 and 1949. V. S. Reid's New Day was
published by Knopf in 1949.
4 Diana Athill, Stet: An Editor's Life (NY: Grove Press, 2000), 103.
5 Ian Randle, telephone interview with author, 21 March 2005.
6 Tanya Batson-Savage, "Lorna Goodison, Fool-Fool Rose and many other things,"
Sunday Gleaner, 6 March 2005: E5.
7 Garfield Ellis, telephone conversation with author, 23 March 2005.
8 Jeremy Poynting, email to author, 23 March 2005.
9 Authors contacted were Colin Channer, Garfield Ellis, Olive Senior, and Anthony
Winkler. All except Ellis were contacted by email since they reside abroad.
10 Colin Channer, email to author, 22 March 2005.
" Ellis, telephone conversation, 23 March 2005.
12 Randle, telephone conversation, 21 March 2005.
PUBLISHING JAMAICAN FICTION: THE RETURN TO THE METROPOLE 65
Athill, Diana. Stet: An Editor's Life. Great Britain: Granta Books, 2000; NY: Grove
Channer, Colin. Waiting in Vain. New York: One World/Ballantyne Books, 1998.
Clarke, Austin. The Polished Hoe. Kingston: lan Randle, 2003.
Ellis, Garfield. Such As IHave. Oxford: Macmillan Caribbean Writers, Macmillan
Goodison, Lorna. Fool-Fool Rose is Leaving Labour-In-Vain Savannah. Kingston:
lan Randle, 2005.
Levy, Andrea. Small Island. London: Review/Headline Book Publishing/Hodder
Ramchand, Kenneth. The West Indian Novel and its Background. London: Faber
and Faber, 1970.
Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton, 2000;
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001.
Winkler, Anthony C. The Painted Canoe. Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1983.
The Lunatic. Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1987.
The Annihilation ofFish and Other Stories. Macmillan Caribbean
Writers, Macmillan Education, 2004.
"Stepping out of the Kumbla"'
-Jamaica Kincaid's AIDS Narrative, My Brother
University of the West Indies, Mona
Kincaid's narrative of her brother's life and death breaks new ground
in the literature of the Anglophone Caribbean. Michael J. Kelly and
Brendan Bain indicate that despite its high prevalence in the
Caribbean region, HIV/AIDS has not been addressed by many of its creative
writers (33). In fact, Kincaid's narrative, published ten years ago, is still
one of only two major literary works in English to do so -the other is
Patricia Powell's A Small Gathering of Bones (1994), though the disease is
unnamed in the latter work. This is in marked contrast to North America,
where, Joseph Cady asserts, AIDS since 1985 has become "a widely
acknowledged literary subject" (3).
In charting the literature treating the subject of AIDS, spanning different
genres -the realistic novel, science-fiction, and most recently detective
fiction- Cady notes that there are two main approaches to writing about
AIDS. There are authors whose priority is to expose readers as closely as
possible to the emergency of the epidemic and the suffering of the affected
individual and others who treat the subject using a distancing device. Such
a distancing device "ultimately shields the audience from too jarring a
confrontation with AIDS" (2). He further argues that this approach
cooperates with the "larger cultural denial of AIDS since it does nothing to
* "to go into kumbla" -a folk expression, popularised by Erna Brodber's Jane and
Louisa Will Soon Come Home, means to enter a protective space, but one which also
has the potential to imprison the person if s/he remains there too long. Here I use it
to mean leaving the protective space created by a denial of AIDS -a denial that
comes in many forms e.g. believing that only a few people in the Caribbean are infected,
and that these few belong to a particular group or that the statistics for AIDS in the
Caribbean is a false representation of the region as a whole, as only one country is
really seriously affected.
dislodge readers from it" (2). Kincaid's narrative does not, strictly speaking,
fall into either category, as it both exposes its readers to the suffering of
the affected individual as well as distances them from the situation by
various structural devices.
Further distinctions about the production of AIDS narratives have been
made by other critics including David Pear who explains that these
narratives are either first person narratives, generally factual and written
by persons who are infected by HIV, or fiction which is usually produced
by those not infected by HIV. He further contends that "heterosexual writers
with first hand knowledge of HIV have been thin on the ground" (1).
In making these distinctions Pear concurs with Cady's views that most
AIDS narratives have been produced by gays and lesbians. Lisa Garmire
also agrees and adds that it is primarily by white gay male writers. Perhaps
then the silence in Caribbean literary works has been the result of the limited
number of published gay and lesbian writers. There is also the fact that
there are sections of Caribbean society that have difficulty in accepting
homosexuals. I suggest, however, that the silence about AIDS is a silence
that comes because of its association with sexual contact and a traditional
Caribbean reticence about speaking publicly about sex except in the
transgressive space of dancehall and calypso music. A disease like HIV/
AIDS that is transmitted primarily through sexual contact in most countries
(Kelly and Bain 9) is, therefore, very much a taboo subject in the Anglophone
In Powell's A Small Gathering of Bones, AIDS is not named as the disease
that affects one of the main characters, lan. But the description of the illness
clearly indicates that it is AIDS. The novel itself focuses on the intimate,
turbulent and homosexual relationship between Dale and Nevin, who have
to deal not only with the homophobia of their society but also with the
conflict within their relationship. Powell's characters, however, are ignorant
of the nature of AIDS; plan's illness is seen as strange and puzzling but peculiar
to him. In effect, plan's illness could be read as a consequence of society's
hate, specifically his mother's. She has rejected him because of his
homosexuality, though the writer is careful to indicate the connection
between his contraction of the disease and the casual and unprotected
sex in which he engages. And though the novel is one of the few Caribbean
works of fiction that openly treats the issue of homosexuality, its very
title, A Small Gathering of Bones, and its refusal to name the disease suggest
an unwillingness to depict a subject that is still very much "unspeakable"
and "untouchable" -to use Cady's terms- in Caribbean society (1). Yet
even with this distancing, Powell's work has to be acknowledged and
applauded for forcing its Caribbean readers to confront the disease of
AIDS since so many other novelists of the region have remained silent on
the issue, including the sexually explicit (for mainstream Caribbean
JAMAICA KINCAID'S AIDS NARRATIVE, MY BROTHER 69
literature) novels of Colin Channer which are remarkably free of any
reference to HIV/AIDS.
Ironically, it is in the oral and impermanent media of dancehall (and
much less so in the permanent discourse of the printed texts) that a space
for literature on AIDS has been created. Admittedly, some of these dancehall
artists have been commissioned for public service ads to build AIDS
awareness by the United Nations and other organizations, like Non-
Governmental Organizations and so include in their performance cautionary
narratives about the disease. But they go beyond this as Rupee, the
Barbadian entertainer, who lost both of his parents to AIDS explains, "I
make sure I mention [HIV/AIDS] as much as I can during performances ..."
(Trotz 3). As early as 1990/1991 there was Peter Ram's song "Dangerous
Test" which points to the seriousness of the disease: "It's a dangerous
disease that nobody can't test. AIDS" (Trotz 6). More recently there is Buju
Rude bwoy don't be silly
Put some rubbers on onoo willy
AIDS a go round and you
Don't want to ketch it. ("Willy (Don't be Silly)")
which advocates the use of the condom. Similarly there is Lady Saw's very
explicit song urging condom use:
You see when you're having sex
Saw beg you use protection
A condom can save you life (men)
Use it all with your wife (yes). ("Condom")
Sensual, witty and frank her song identifies and refutes the arguments
against condom use as presented in lyrics promoting unprotected sex, for
example, I-Wayne's "we haffe do it/skin to skin/so bun de dutty condom
ting/she clean, she clean, she clean" ("In I Arms"). Lady Saw asserts instead:
Safety first and trust go to hell...
How do you feel when you get
you banana peel
The wickedest slam to make you pedal and wheel
Only to find out that you have AIDS disease
You no want know, so get you condom please. ("Condom")
These narratives, speaking to various aspects of sexual relationships
and cautioning about the disease of AIDS, extend the literature on AIDS
which abounds in posters, medical articles, books, and UN reports.
Specifically, they manage to present the topic from a more personal
70 LORNA DOWN
perspective. Yet even with these dancehall narratives, the human dimension
of the subject is limited; there is no face to these stories, no account given
of someone living with HIV/AIDS. Another entertainer, Alison Hinds
responds to this, where she emphasizes the importance of humanizing the
subject of AIDS through entertainers sharing of their real life experiences.
She makes the point that "medical people speak to them of statistics, [but]
you need real people to come in and talk to those kids" (Trotz 1). Pear
argues that what creative narratives can do is highlight "the traumas and
heartbreaks, as well as the victories and conquests, [being] sources that
no clinical account could, or should, ever emulate" (3). It is within this
context of silence by most Caribbean literary writers, of faceless factual
narratives about AIDS, of cautionary messages in advertisements by the
State, and of commissioned songs by popular entertainers that Kincaid's
narrative of her brother has to be placed, a narrative in which she takes us
through the painful journey of discovering and responding to her brother's
Kincaid's narrative thus challenges typical responses to HIV/AIDS by
breaking the silence and speaking openly about HIV/AIDS, in effect, stepping
out of the kumbla. Moreover, in writing about her brother's illness Kincaid
is breaking the Anglophone Caribbean convention of not talking about
private family business outside the family. She also qualifies as one of the
few heterosexual writers on HIV/AIDS to which Pear refers. Of course,
Kincaid is writing from outside the Caribbean; she lives in Vermont, USA
and, therefore, has a certain freedom in writing a personal account of AIDS
that other writers living in the Caribbean would not have. Moreover, Kincaid
emerged and developed as a writer in New York, so she would have a more
liberal attitude to the issue of writing about AIDS and sexuality in general.
But Kincaid employs a certain indeterminacy in her personal account of
her brother's illness, not fitting into Pear's two categories for AIDS narratives
(1); that is, her representation is not strictly factual or fiction. Mainly using
the form of a memoir, Kincaid gives us select details of her brother's life
that are verifiable and so prevent us from defining the work as fiction. Yet
the lyricism, the poetic evocation of a place, of events, of people and a
language that slips from rendering details "objectively" to a vocabulary
that is highly stylised with its apparent simplicity, along with its condensed
metaphors and images, suggest a fictionalised narrative. Sandra Pouchet
Paquet does, in effect, treat My Brother as an AIDS elegy (243). The poetry
of the prose takes the narrative beyond the form of a conventional memoir.
I suggest that this combination of fiction and fact, this indeterminacy of
form and content, represents Kincaid's use of a discourse that corresponds
to the tension and uncertainty that marks the life of this AIDS victim. On
the one hand, Kincaid writes of a supposedly "insignificant" life whose
author had apparently failed to take charge of its construction, and presents
JAMAICA KINCAID'S AIDS NARRATIVE, MY BROTHER
her narrative as giving meaning to this life. On the other hand, she treats
this "insignificance" as part of the stereotypical narrative of the AIDS victim
that has to be contested.
This indeterminacy in Kincaid's narrative of her brother's life, a brother
who had died of AIDS, is thus foregrounded. The indeterminacy can be
seen as the correlative of the writer's struggle to come to terms with the
brother's contraction of HIV/AIDS, his lifetime choices that led to that
disease, and finally his death. Yet, this indeterminacy creates a space in
which the brother's life can be re-constructed, in which the brother's voice
amidst all the other voices in society can be heard.
Specifically, this paper shows how the narrative representation of the
brother's life as indeterminate, marginal and unimportant is continually
being deconstructed so that another narrative emerges. And though one
narrative layering another, in a kind of palimpsestic way, produces this
indeterminacy, it is an indeterminacy that challenges any rigid response to
the victim of AIDS. This "other" narrative, in effect, contests the
stereotypical reading/writing of the brother's life as well as other HIV/AIDS
victims as insignificant, as "wutless" (My Brother 29), by interrogating what
constitutes significance and reveals a life that has its own meaning. Likewise,
I examine how Kincaid's writing of AIDS not only reflects on how language
creates reality but also challenges that notion. The image of the person
living with HIV/AIDS is produced through our words, yet there is a space
between that naming and the "real," the thing itself. The narrative attempts
to reach that space.
Some critics have seen Kincaid's representation of her brother as harsh.
Instead, I argue that the narrative problematizes the situation of HIV/AIDS
and, therefore, its complexity cannot be minimized. AIDS is at once de-
familiarized and made familiar because the writer not only confronts us
with its harrowing facts but, in the continuing probing of her brother's life,
she awakens us to other dimensions of his life. Yet the predictable identity
of the HIV/AIDS victim is foregrounded. For the greater part of the narrative
the brother is not named. It is only when his death is announced by the
writer's husband that he is named. Such referencing is in keeping with the
stereotypical narrative of the nameless victim. However, that referencing
also points to the writer's role of re-constructing the face of the AIDS victim
-a face often destroyed because of the stigma attached to the disease-
and of giving a name to such victims.
Unlike the conventional memoir with its sequential organization in
describing major events in an "important" person's life, Kincaid's My Brother
meanders over time, detailing events that cumulatively act more like a
commentary on what is represented as an "unimportant" life. Writing, in
effect, against the standard memoir that sets out to show the importance
of its subject, Kincaid instead uncovers a life that by conventional standards
72 LORNA DOWN
is insignificant. But because the narrative does recall the traditional memoir,
it keeps in the forefront the expectations of that kind of account, with the
effect that the question of the significance/insignificance of the brother is made
central. And the primary narrative -representing stereotypical responses to
a person with HIV/AIDS- centres on the "unimportance" of the brother, a
small islander who, the writer is quick to point out, has not managed to escape
to the "bigger islands" of the north. An earlier work by Kincaid, A Small Place,
in fact presents the small island as a place of narrow-mindedness, pettiness
and insignificance -a place from which one needs to escape. Reading the
primary narrative of My Brother in relation to that of A Small Place, the reader
is confronted by Kincaid's starkly reductive figure of Devon.
In fact, the racist script of AIDS produced through the association of the
disease with marginal groups and specifically by what Susan Sontag explains
was the early "speculation about the geographical origin of AIDS" (140), is
suggested by the image of the poor black young man from the small island
suffering from HIV/AIDS. Representations of both the brother and the island
of Antigua are conflated. As Pouchet Paquet notes, Kincaid's "descriptions
of island space are marked by colonial and postcolonial neglect and decay
and a reciprocal representation of the prostrate, disfigured body of her
dying and deceased brother" (230). But as this paper shows the initial
familiar representation of the black male HIV/AIDS victim is continually
deconstructed; in a similar way, Kincaid's representation of the island is
not fixed. She counters AIDS stigmatisation by details such as her discovery,
when her pharmacy is out of AZT, that there are "quite a few" AIDS victims
in her small US community (My Brother 60). Moreover, the image of the
hardworking and successful other brother, juxtaposed against that of Devon,
nullifies any simplified reading of the black male. Even as she points out
the isolated room in the hospital, with limited medical intervention and no
AZT available to treat Devon because it "is felt ... that since there is no
cure for AIDS it is useless to spend money on a medicine that will only slow
the progress of the disease; the afflicted will die no matter what ..." (My
Brother 31), the creative artist is attuned to the complexities and layers in
Kincaid does not spare her readers the awful details of the emotional
and physical pain of the AIDS sufferer. She explains that the "entire mouth
and tongue, all the way to the back of the inside of his mouth, down his
gullet, was paved with a white coat of thrush" (My Brother 15), and that he
"had a small sore near his tonsil, [that she] could see ... when he opened
his mouth wide, something he did with great effort" (My Brother 15). She
also speaks of the "look of agony [that] would come into his eyes" (My
But AIDS is not only presented as fact, it is also presented as a metaphor
for a life lived apparently without care, without its owner taking
JAMAICA KINCAID'S AIDS NARRATIVE, MY BROTHER
responsibility for it. And Kincaid in doing so succumbs to what Sontag
argues against -the use of metaphor to produce the stigmatising of those
with AIDS (182). Kincaid's summary of the brother's life: "he lived a life
that is said to be typical in contracting the virus that causes AIDS; he used
drugs ... and he had many sexual partners ... He was careless; I cannot
imagine him taking the time to buy or use a condom" (My Brother 7) recalls
what Sontag points out are the typical AIDS narrative where "shame is linked
to guilt," and where victims are part of "a tainted community that illness
has judged" (Sontag 112, 134). It is a summary that Kincaid, however,
acknowledges is a "quick judgment" (My Brother 7).
But the sister's acknowledgement of a "quick judgement" also refers to
that of society. In making Devon's sexuality a central issue in the narrative,
she focuses our attention on this typical judgement, this quick reading by
society. It is a reading that is dismissive and exclusionary as the tone of the
narrative underlines. The AIDS victim is so configured, that s/he has no
face, no context -the label "drug taker," "sexually careless" writes her/
him off. It is a reading, however, that the sister cannot ignore. Various
incidents are recalled in order to examine the brother's attitude to sex:
Devon in hospital, "diseased and dying, looking as unattractive as a long-
dead corpse" (My Brother 43) is presented as "staring pointedly at [a
woman's] crotch" and calling out to her "that would fit me very nicely, you
know" (My Brother 43). It is also shown in Kincaid's inclusion of Devon's
attempt to date one of Dr. Ramsey's nurses, his having unprotected sex
with a number of women during the remission of his illness with the help
of AZT, and his declaration, when told that HIV was dose-related and that if
more of the virus entered his system he would become worse, that "he
could not go two weeks without having sex" (My Brother 67).
A climactic moment in the narrative is the writer's recall of her brother
uncovering himself and with "a sort of thrusting gesture" (My Brother 91)
revealing his penis "covered with sores and on the sores was a white
substance, almost creamy, almost floury, a fungus" (My Brother 91). His
voice is full of deep panic and deep fear as he urges, "Jamaica, look at this,
just look at this" (My Brother 91). The scene makes clear that Devon has
configured his spent/wasted penis as the signifier of his life. He has
determined his significance by his sexuality and, therefore, when its
expression is stymied, he sees himself as nothing. Kincaid's bewilderment
at her brother's construction of his life's significance in that way is reflected
in her declaration that she is unqualified to understand her brother's
"compulsion to express himself through his penis, his imagination passing
between his legs, not through his hands..." (My Brother 70).
She concludes, therefore, that his life was a passive one -a judgement
that she was also to state in an interview, despite her uncovering of his
"other" narrative: "his life was a passive event. It had no shape. His life was
sort of waiting to happen" ("Jamaica Kincaid Hates" 1). More scathingly,
she categorizes him as part of the group of men, "who are only urges to be
satisfied, men who say they cannot help themselves, men who cannot save
themselves, men who only know how to die, not at all how to live ..." (My
In a similar way, the structural pattern of contrasting the potential of
Devon's life with its reality emphasizes the limited view of him. Devon, for
example, is presented as possessing the potential to be a writer of books
on gardening. The writer notes: "I looked at my brother, for he was a
gardener also, and I wondered, if his life had taken a certain turn, might he
have written a book with such a title" (My Brother 11). The brief description
that follows highlights his love of gardening and her pleasure at seeing his
garden -small but flourishing. But the contrast, with Kincaid's privileging
the writer of books about gardens over gardener marks the standard that
her brother's life fails to meet. His potential aligned with other's
achievements acts as a signifier of his failure.
The juxtaposition of life events also serves to reveal Devon's failure.
One event changes the other. His proclaimed faith, that of Rastafarianism,
a positive event, is undermined by his lack of meaningful rituals and
community as metonymically represented in the description of him smoking
"fat marijuana cigarettes" and taking coke, as well as the fact that his Rasta
friends never came into his hospital room to visit him. Only a fleeting first
visit at the door and "they never returned again" (My Brother 42). The desire,
too, to be a reggae singer, another self-affirming event is undercut by his
narrow and limited definition of a successful singer -a man for whom "gahl
a take ahff she clothes" when he sings (My Brother 68). Moreover, each
figure -Rasta, reggae singer- is a figure of cultural authority, defined by
their virility. And Kincaid in undercutting her brother's appropriation of
these icons calls into question his definition of self.
Similarly, there is the narrative's insistence on the "facts" of the brother's
life, emphasized in short summaries of his life. The more detailed of the
short summaries or biographical snapshots within the main narrative gives
us the facts, facts she poses in rhetorical questions as she plots the events
in his life to find the shape, the truth of the person who was her brother:
.. I did not know which Devon she meant: Was it the baby a day old almost
eaten alive by red ants, or was it the two-year-old boy who was left in my charge
and whose diaper I neglected to change as it became filled with still-baby feces
because I had become absorbed in a book; or was it the Devon who was involved
in the homicide of a gas-station attendant; or the one who played cricket so
well and learned to swim at Country Pone ... (My Brother 190)
This emphasis on the "facts" in effect draws our attention to what is the
"fiction" in the narrative, and focuses our attention on the sister's need to
JAMAICA KINCAID'S AIDS NARRATIVE, MY BROTHER
distinguish between what is her interpretation of his life, her inferences,
and what actually is.
But the facts are shown as only part of the story that the memoir
captures. They are shown as unreliable for a final reading of Devon as the
sister/writer continually searches for the other narrative. Moreover, the
continual crossover between the fact and fiction of the life, of this which is
and is not a memoir, dramatizes her unease and uncertainty about making
any final judgement calls on her brother's life. The primary narrative is the
acknowledged quick judgement. It is judgement that begins to deconstruct
as the writer uncovers her brother's life, a life presented as being unravelled
by AIDS. As the writer fills in the context and other aspects of his life are
disclosed, we recognize that this is only a partial evaluation of her brother's
life. In effect, the tale of a meaningless and irresponsible life is disrupted.
This disruption is most evident in the more contemplative second part
(not named as such but the un-numbered page falling between two other
pages suggests this division) which opens with, "My brother died" (My
Brother 88), in contrast to the first section which begins: "When I saw my
brother ... he was said to be dying of AIDS" (My Brother 3). The prose in
part two eschews chronology, meandering through descriptions of the last
visit, Devon's death, and the funeral. Some events appear unconnected to
each other, random and unimportant. Others can be categorized as a
distillation of the brother's life experiences. One memory, however, of the
writer lying on her brother's bed, looking up at the ceiling and recognizing
that it was rotting away, unites them. The memory overlaying the image of
the dying brother forces her to recognize the similarity of the two, provoking
the response that at the time of the incident (1986), she could not know
that her brother would one day "come to resemble the process of [this]
decaying house" (My Brother 113). In other words, she could not then attach
any significance to the image. Only in retrospect can she do so. And in
recognizing this Kincaid reveals to her readers that significance is not
inherent but is conferred, is imposed, is in a sense arbitrary.
Paradoxically, significance is also discovered as inherent. Reflections
on the destruction of the passion fruit vine by her mother, its subsequent
rebirth and then death force an acknowledgement that there is a significance
to things whether one recognizes or admits it: "I could only notice [the
absent passion fruit] not attach any significance to it, but there is
significance to it all the same" (My Brother 127). What the narrator has
come to accept is the notion that something/someone can be significant
without being named so or recognized. Someone/something is significant
simply because of its being, because it exists.
This discloses the contradiction that is at the core of the book. On one
hand, there is Kincaid's representation of her brother's life as a life "that is
said to be typical in contracting the virus that causes AIDS," a life lived
irresponsibly, carelessly and, therefore, unimportant (My Brother 7). On
the other hand, there is Kincaid's interrogation of what makes for a
meaningful life. She thus compels a reading of the other narrative, almost
hidden under the primary one. Moreover, her non-chronological ordering
of Devon's history and the way she introduces topics and then returns to
them later and elaborates on them underlines the at once muted and open
interrogation of what constitutes significance. In effect, this amplification
of a situation (in wave-like fashion, each "situation" rippling out/dramatically
expanding) and her reflections act as a rider to how a life marked by a
seeming lack of direction and of substance would "normally" be constituted,
in effect, how the AIDS victim is configured in the "cautionary" and general
Reading Devon's life then with this proviso we begin to uncover another
life. He has chosen to live a life that is clearly opposed to that of a
conventionally western defined one of success. And though he is no Aldrick
(in Lovelace's The Dragon Can't Dance) who also challenges society's
definition of success, Devon's unrealised potential is not, as the narrator
emphasizes, an indication of an unrealised life. Furthermore, her
acknowledgement that he was "someone who had lived in extremes,
sometimes a saint, sometimes a sinner," suggests a life that was fully lived
(My Brother 83). What is disclosed is a life lived with its own rhythms and
on its own terms.
His casual affairs are initially understood only as the expression of an
irresponsible attitude towards sex; but with the uncovering of the "other"
narrative, they must also be read as a life focused on the present, a letting
go of the future. And though such a life can be easily dismissed as passive,
as valueless, as in "[he] doesn't make anything, no one depends on him, he
is not a father to anyone, no one finds him indispensable," it is a life that he
has constructed himself, like the house that he built himself in his mother's
yard (My Brother 70). The complexity of Devon's life is thus acknowledged.
There is no single, fixed reading of his life. The interpretations are multiple.
The narrative in this manner repeatedly demonstrates that to interpret, to
judge, is problematic. Kincaid's deferral of the description of his homosexual
relations towards the end of the narrative has also to be seen in this light.
On one hand, this severs the stereotypical connection of homosexuality
and AIDS. On the other, it again discloses the complexity of the brother's
life and her limited knowledge of him, even as she represents it as his
inability to reveal himself: "... he had died without ever understanding or
knowing, or being able to let the world in which he lived know, who he was;
that who he really was -he could not express fully" (My Brother 162). And
the withholding of this knowledge by the sister-narrator until the end of
the narrative, moreover serves to emphasize the limitations of knowing
another, that it is all another "quick judgement."
JAMAICA KINCAID'S AIDS NARRATIVE, MY BROTHER
Furthermore, the disconnected narrative flow also raises the question
of how connections are made. It is not so much that meaning "is elusive ...
because the narrative shifts back and forth, continually interrupting itself
with unexplained juxtapositions..." as Pouchet Paquet observes (254). It is
that Kincaid forces us to search for new patterns of connections so events,
ordinarily unconnected, are placed together to suggest a relation. By
juxtaposing the incident of the red ants -some small things- attacking
Devon at birth, with his dying of AIDS -some small things attacking him
internally- Kincaid suggests that there is meaning to be made in those
contrastivee and incongruous juxtapositions" that Pouchet Paquet identifies
(254). Again Kincaid points us to the complexity of people, events, AIDS
and cautions us that meaning is to be found not on the surface of things,
not in the usual connections. Devon appears to be an insignificant small
island man dying of AIDS because of the superficial connections that we
make between people and events. The narrative impels us to search for
connections that we would not ordinarily make.
But the naming of these incidents as "significant" could also be
understood as the arbitrariness of the signified "significance" and perhaps
the futility of searching for connections, for meaning. At the end of the
narrative Kincaid concedes "... this [i.e. Devon's life] now has a meaning
only because my own life can make it have one" (My Brother 128). But the
narrative itself subverts such self-conscious posturing; Devon's life exists
in and of itself, like the tamarinds that she noted in her final walk with
Devon as being "not good" and "not bad, just tamarinds" (My Brother 80).
The sister's assigning of meaning to her brother's life is, in effect, her
definition of what constitutes significance. Furthermore, the method of her
narrative, with its privileging of indeterminacy, simultaneously compels
us to question the very act of assigning meaning, of seeing only familiar
In reading Kincaid this way what emerges strongly is the recognition of
"being" as having its own importance, as having an 'essence' separate from
its construction by others. This is emphasized, too, by the writer's
representation of HIV/AIDS. It is the "death that lives," "flowering upon
flowering with a voraciousness that nothing seems able to satisfy and stop"
(My Brother 20). And possessing this power it escapes the limitations of
any reading/any construction/any representation. Kincaid's rich imagery,
the nurses' and visitors' fear of it, the Antiguan government's negative AZT
policy, and Devon's references to HIV/AIDS as that "chupidness" neither
enlarge nor diminish its potency (My Brother 65). In contrast, Patricia
Powell's refusal in A Small Gathering of Bones, to name the strange disease
affecting one of the main characters "AIDS" does not reduce its damning
effect. In other words, the meaning of AIDS is not confined to its
representation in language. What these representations of the disease
uncover is their writers' attitudes towards it, not what it is. Its significance,
like Devon's, like any small place or thing, like everything else, exists in
that space before/beyond language. Language is in the end an approximation
of what is -not its only arbiter. The question of significance then is more
than a question of language, or our representations.
In making this distinction between the "essence" of the object or person
and its representation, Kincaid forces us to confront the various constructs
of AIDS victims as constructs. Her narrative, in effect, displaces these
constructs and creates a community of readers with a new understanding
and language for AIDS. It is a language that as Mark Doty in commenting on
his AIDS memoir notes "is one of the things we have developed as a
community of people devastated by the epidemic ... a kind of language
with which to talk about death and dying" ("The Brilliance" 2). Kincaid
begins to create this community of readers by first collapsing the usually
erected barrier between the AIDS victim and others, by removing the victim
from the isolated ward and giving him a face, his individual context. His
body as affected by the disease is bared to the readers; there is no hiding
from it as many in Devon's society attempt to do. She exposes the body,
positioning it in a space between life and death as in:
On one side, there is life, and the thin shadow of death hovers over it; and on
the other, there is death with a small patch of life attached to it. This latter is
the life of AIDS. (96)
The writer acknowledges the body ravished by AIDS but equally insists
that Devon was much more than just this.
Kincaid's exploration of what constitutes significance, of what it is to
make "quick judgements," leads us to understand that the matter of reading/
interpretation and determining meaning is a complex undertaking. To read
AIDS, therefore, without an awareness of the complexity of doing so is to
fall into the trap of reducing people who live with HIV/AIDS to simplistic
sloganese. Doty, too, in Heaven's Coast warns of the danger of reducing the
epidemic to "a familiar set of conventions" (2). He points out how our
"culture loves to simplify things, to come up with a story and say, "This is
the story, this is what AIDS is" (Heaven's Coast 2). In sharing her brother's
story in the way she has done, Kincaid rejects what Doty calls the "covering
up, the notion of AIDS as shameful or unspeakable" (48) by naming it and
particularizing it. She steps out of the kumbla -that seemingly safe space
of silence and of denial.
In summary, the mix of fact and fiction, which I have argued makes for
indeterminacy in the text, allows for the emergence of insights and
understanding not otherwise achievable. The facts call our attention to
the disease, opens up the intimate dialogue on sex and AIDS. The recall of
JAMAICA KINCAID'S AIDS NARRATIVE, MY BROTHER
the brother's response to it -denial and anger, expressed in his attempts
to spread the disease, his referral to it as "that chupidness," his having sex
without a condom- is the writer's attempt to have Caribbean people (and
others) confront the disease, the secrecy and denial surrounding it. The
poetry of the prose takes us into another realm. Metaphor as Doty posits
"is a way of knowing the world, and no less a one than other sorts of gaining
knowledge" (25). So Kincaid's fiction allows for the easy commingling of
paradox, ironies and images filled with similes and metaphors that clarify
meaning for the reader, that elaborate on the affective aspects. It is in
acknowledging this context that we can understand the writer's abundant
use of nature images that speak to the mystery of life and AIDS in particular,
as well as to the ordered life and death cycle. So she not only captures
poignantly Devon's death but suggests too another life.
Moreover, this crossover of poetry and prose, metaphorical and factual
narrative, often leaves the reader to fill the gaps and make the necessary
links. So there is the irony of the sister, who regularly visits and who provides
the needed AZT, being omitted from the brother's roll call of his family
during his last moments: "That night as he lay dying and calling the names
of his brothers and his mother, he did not call my name, and I was neither
glad nor sad bout this" (My Brother 174). And then there is a gap between
the brother's promiscuous relations with women, his loud insistence on
his desire for women and later the revelation of his homosexuality. These
remain like unconnected lines in a poem for the reader to determine the
necessary links, and ironically show that the connections made are more
an exposure of the reader's beliefs about AIDS and sexuality than any
Furthermore, Jamaica Kincaid shows that facts have to be interpreted.
Her summaries of the facts of Devon's life placed in different sections of
the narrative in different contexts suggest different readings. Placed at the
beginning of the narrative, the summary emphasizes the quick judgement
usually passed on people with HIV/AIDS. Towards the end, with a few
additions including a gentle tone of acceptance this same collation of the
facts of Devon's life expresses strongly the limitation, the inaccuracies even,
of facts and statistics in describing him.
In reading My Brother this way we are returned to one of the primary
functions of literature, that is, literature as an intervention into society's
discourses. Specifically, Kincaid's narrative provides an intervention into
the hegemonic discourse on AIDS. The laudable posters, advertisements,
testimonials, and the medical texts, which form most of the written AIDS
discourse in the Anglophone Caribbean, ironically contribute to the
stereotypical AIDS narrative. Posters and advertisements in Jamaica, for
example, advocating the inclusion of HIV/AIDS victims in mainstream
society with the messages such as: "you can't get HIV/AIDS by working
80 LORNA DOWN
with an infected person"; "it's ok to touch a person living with HIV/AIDS";
"be a friend, don't discriminate," as commendable as they are, also
communicate, at the subtextual level, their antithesis, their binary
opposites: one needs to be careful with persons suffering from that disease.
The pariah status of the victims is thus subtly reinforced. Kincaid's
narrative, on the other hand, because it acknowledges that status, can be
read as extending beyond this public discourse of otherness.
Indeed, Kincaid's presentation of her brother's life replaces the arm's
length treatment of an AIDS victim with the intimacy of the sister's grappling
to understand his life. The indeterminacy of the narrative not only produces
what Samuel R. Delany calls "a restraint of judgement and a certain
complexity" (187), but also impels the reader to share in the construction
of Devon's life, to determine, like the perfect reader imaged in Delany's
character, William Shawn, whether the narrative is "either not true or
incomplete" (196). Ultimately such a perfect reader replaces the
stereotypical primary AIDS narrative of shame, guilt, and judgement with
the far more nuanced, complex, useful and human narrative that lay covered
only to emerge when that reader, like the author, refuses to passively read
the troubling body of HIV/AIDS. In a discursive site that threatens closure,
Kincaid's achievement in breaking the established boundaries of the
Caribbean AIDS discourse is extraordinary.
JAMAICA KINCAID's AIDS NARRATIVE, MY BROTHER
Banton, Buju. "Willy (Don't Be Silly)." Original recording. Voice of Jamaica.
Island Records, 2002.
Cady, Joseph. "AIDS Literature." glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian,
Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Claude J. Summers, ed.
Chicago: glbtq, 2002. 13 May 2005
Davidson, Diana "Interview with Felicity Aymer: AIDS, AIDS Activism, and
Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother." Anthurium, A Caribbean Studies Journal
Delany, Samuel R. Flight from Neveryon. Hanover and London: Wesleyan UP,
Doty, Mark. "The Brilliance of Mark Doty." Interview. Queer Cultural Centre.
Website. Pamela Peniston, Exec. Director. San Francisco CA. 6 June 2005
SHeaven's Coast, A Memoir. NY: HarperCollins, 1996.
Garmire, Lisa. Resisting the Apocalypse: Telling Time in American Novels about
AIDS, 1982-1992. Diss. U of California Santa Barbara, 1996. 6 June 2005
I-Wayne. "In I Arms". I-Wayne-In IArms. Don Corleon, 2005.
Kelly, Michael J and Brendan Bain. Education and HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean.
Kingston: lan Randle, 2005.
Kincaid, Jamaica. "Jamaica Kincaid Hates Happy Endings." Interview.
MotherJones.com News. September/October 1997. 9 Dec 2004
My Brother. New York: Noonday, 1997.
A Small Place. New York: Noonday, 1998.
Lady Saw. "Condom," quoted in Carolyn Cooper, "2000 Lady Saw Cuts Loose:
Female Fertility Rituals in Jamaican Dancehall Culture." Paper presented
at Dancing in the Millenium: An International Conference, July 19-23,
2000. Washington Marriot Hotel, George Washington University,
Kennedy Center, Washington, DC. ["Condom" was first released on Lady
Saw's Give Me a Reason by VP Records, 1996.]
Lovelace, Earl. The Dragon Can't Dance. Essex: Longman, 1979.
Pastore, Judith Laurence, ed. Confronting AIDS through Literature. Urbana and
Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1993.
Pear, David. "HIV/AIDS and Literature: An Introduction." National Academies
Forum. Website. Parkville, Victoria, Australia. 15 May 2005
82 LORNA DOWN
Pouchet Paquet, Sandra. Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-
Representation. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2002.
Powell, Patricia. A Small Gathering of Bones. Oxford: Heinemann, 1994.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. AIDS and Its Metaphors. NY: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1989.
Trotz, Maya. "Excerpts of Jouvay.com Interviews." phiva: publicity for HIV/
AIDS awareness. Website, 2003. 13 May 2005
Constructing Awareness via
Sexual Political Discourse & Riddims:
AIDS in Caribbean Music & Literature
University of Puerto Rico, Cayey
he Caribbean has been severely affected by the spread of HIV/AIDS;
statistics indicate an estimated 450,000 people (or more) are living
with HIV or AIDS in the region.' The number of cases is rapidly
increasing annually and is affecting young adults, women, and children at
faster rates than in the past.2 These figures highlight the extent of a malaise
that demands being addressed in every possible domain of Caribbean
society if we wish to combat this epidemic effectively, attempt to create
awareness, and aid in its prevention. It is a topic that requires discussion
within various spaces because AIDS is not only a medical issue, but also a
sociocultural one that pertains to society as a whole.
The impact of AIDS in the Caribbean has generated the development of
literary and musical works that address issues concerning HIV/AIDS. Some
writers and musical artists address the topic as a means of social
commentary, others as a reflection of the times and the reality of society
today, while others discuss it to create awareness concerning how to avoid
its spread, methods of confronting the disease, and its effects on human
relationships. In addition, some focus on altering society's perceptions.
For this reason, it has begun to emerge as a topic generating groundbreaking
discussions within various literary, social, cultural, and political spaces.
This essay discusses a number of literary and musical works that address
HIV/AIDS. It presents an analysis related to the scope and effectiveness
with which writers and musicians discuss the topic of HIV/AIDS, how they
reflect society's perceptions of this disease, and how they have possibly
contributed to the shaping of a multiplicity of such perceptions.
Since its identification in the early 1980s, AIDS has increasingly become
a theme in both literature and music in the Caribbean. Writers from the
region -Dennis Scott, Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid, and Patricia Powell,
84 DAVID LIZARDI
to name a few- have included characters affected by the disease within
their work.3 Music genres such as calypso, soca, dancehall, reggae, salsa,
and reggaet6n likewise contain references to AIDS since music prevails as
one of the region's most viable modes of creative expression. These musical
genres are highly accessible to specific audiences throughout the region,
demonstrating Caribbean people's' interest in and affinity and general
attraction to music. These forms are an organic and effective way for artists
to address social conditions and convey messages that audience members
embrace or accept as relevant to their reality.
Dennis Scott's The Crime ofAnabel Campbell (1985) and Derek Walcott's
A Branch of the Blue Nile (1986) are probably two of the earliest Caribbean
works published in English that allude to AIDS. Neither playwright openly
indicates that the characters (Johnny and Harvey, respectively) were
suffering from AIDS or die from health complications due to it, but the
descriptions about their physical conditions, deaths in exile in relative
isolation, especially Harvey's swift death upon departure, evokes the
disease in the latter stages of their lives. Scott makes several subtle
references to the death of Johnny, the son of the protagonist, by describing
symptoms and conditions that suggest his death as being AIDS related. For
example, when Anabel's husband is returning with their son's ashes (a
practice which in some contexts has been represented as a standard
procedure used for the disposition of the remains of persons having died
with the condition), she laments: "for there is nothing I can think of except
my husband and my son Johnny that he brings home today with him dead
and burnt to fine grey ash in a clean jar" (31). A second reference again
presents the voice of Anabel, "You, sick already with a cold that would
never heal?... Do you think I would have turned you away knowing you
were sick? All the time I wrote you, come back, come back, Johnny, and
she knowing you needed help, and sending nothing.... Could you think I
knew your desperate need and mocked you, Johnny?" (38-9) Immediately
afterwards she asks, "How long did it take you to die, Johnny? Two, three,
four months?" (39) Another reference to Johnny right before his death
presents Dimity indicating, "I had grown so used to his coughing and his
thin body beside me" (37). The quotes do not clearly indicate Johnny's
cause of death, but several of the descriptions of his condition recall some
of the symptoms developed by AIDS patients in its latter stages, such as
pneumonia and weight loss. Additional reference to Dimity's thinness, her
recurring fever, the girl's delusional state, and Bernie's statement that
Johnny "had been drained dry" (37) likewise situate the disease as part of
the play's subtext, suggesting that Dimity herself may be HIV positive too.
In Walcott's play AIDS also appears to be a subtextual element. Harvey
St. Just, the director of the Trinidadian theater group rehearsing
Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra, dies at the end of the play of a mysterious
CONSTRUCTING AWARENESS VIA SEXUAL POLITICAL DISCOURSE & RIDDIMS 85
illness. His death is revealed in a conversation between two actors of the
company, Sheila and Iris. Iris coldly states, "Harvey is dead, Sheila. He died
last week in London. He got suddenly thin down here. He left before all the
others. It was in the papers" (310). Harvey's death occurs two weeks after
his departure from Trinidad, and in his last appearances in the play he
makes a series of ironic statements that foreshadow his death. In one of
his last lines in the play he says, "I am dying, Egypt, dying..." (305). The
line not only evokes Cleopatra's final speech in Shakespeare's play, but
presents a tearful Harvey stating these words while awaiting the departure
of his plane at Piarco Airport. Other characters likewise make reference to
his increasing thinness and delicate health leading up to his departure.
That Walcott, like Scott, portrays what appears to be a character afflicted
with AIDS without stating it outright, that is, treating it covertly, is
representative of the manner in which HIV and AIDS were often addressed
during the early 1980s, when much was unknown about the disease and
the various means and consequences of infection. At that time a great part
of society perceived it as a "homosexual disease," but also extended the
category of people most directly affected by it to include prostitutes.
Referring again to Scott's work, Dimity's promiscuity suggests that she may
have been placed in such a category, at least in the eyes of Anabel. At one
point in the play Walcott has Sheila ask Harvey if he is gay. Yet there are no
assertions or (mis)judgments about Harvey: he is simply presented as a
character among other characters. That situation was not the norm in the
music of the period, where to speak of AIDS was to speak of homosexuality.
As suggested below, many performers made it clear that the AIDS victim/
subject of their songs were gay males, in other words, they had contracted
the disease due to homosexual lifestyles.
During the same period as Scott and Walcott's plays, New York-based
Puerto Rican singer Willie Col6n recorded "El Gran Var6n" ["The Great
Male"] (1986).4 It was a song that quickly became a sensation in both the
US and Puerto Rico. This hit reflects to a great extent the predominant
male standards of machismo in latino society in the US and the Caribbean,
a construct that is generally shared with cultures of the Anglophone
Caribbean as well. "El Gran Var6n" presents a gay character named Sim6n
who eventually contracts and succumbs to an AIDS-related illness. Most
listeners at the time probably inferred that he dies from the disease, since
it was considered terminal, if not a death sentence, at that time. Some took
it as a statement denouncing homosexuality and the outcome of being gay,
to die of AIDS. For them, the song quickly became used as a chant, or
mocking commentary men (and male adolescents) would mutter when
labeling or implying that another male (a passerby/someone who was
present) was gay or had sex with other men. Sim6n quickly became the
"gay" name among adolescent males.
The song roughly depicts Sim6n's life from birth until his death to AIDS
(from 1956 to 1986). Being the male child, Sim6n was meant to be the pride
and heir of his father, Don Andr6s. His role was to follow in his father's
footsteps. The song describes the early stages of his life as a rigorous and
disciplined one with established roles and expectations: "Fue criado como
los demds/ Con mano dura y con severidad/ nunca opin6.. .Cuando crezcas
vas a estudiar/ La misma vaina que tu papd/ Tendrds que ser, un gran var6n"
[He was raised like the others (boys)/ With a strong hand and severity
(discipline)/ He never expressed his opinions.. .When you grow up you will
study/ The same thing your father did/ You will have to be a great man].
Sim6n leaves his home to escape the strict and oppressive dictates of
his patriarchal upbringing. Under these circumstances, he relocates to New
York City, becomes a transvestite, and lives life on his own terms. It is only
when he migrates that he sheds the inhibitions that life on the island and
his family have imposed on him. His migration leads to his coming out and
transition into life as a gay transvestite, which the song details as a
progression. First, he changes his style of walking, dressing, and eventually
conduct: "Al extranjero se fue Sim6n/Lejos de casa se le olvid6 aquel sermon/
Cambi6 su forma de caminar/ Usaba falda, lapiz labial, y un carter6n." [Sim6n
migrated (or in Caribbean terms, he went foreign)/ Away from home he
forgot the sermons/ Changed his manner of walking/ He used skirts, lipstick,
and a big purse]. Col6n portrays Sim6n's transvestism as deviant from social
norms, since he does it without the family's knowledge. The song also
suggests he becomes a prostitute as well.
The song continues narrating how Don Andr6s discovers the truth about
his son: "Cuenta la gente que un dia el pap6/Fue a visitarlo sin avisar, iVaya
que error!/ Y una mujer le habl6 al pasar/ Le dijo, "Hola papd, gqud tal,
C6mo te va?/ gNo me conoces? Yo soy Sim6n. /Sim6n tu hijo, el gran var6n."
[People say that his father / Paid him a surprise visit, Oh What a mistake! /
And a woman spoke to him as he passed her by / She said, "Hello dad,
What's up? How are you doing?/ Don't you recognize me? I am Sim6n. /
Sim6n your son, the great male.] The patriarch's chauvinism and
homophobia do not allow him to accept Sim6n's sexuality (because of what
people would say). Sim6n is ousted not only socially, but rejected by his
father and the rest of the family; the father refuses to speak to him even up
to Sim6n's death: "Se dej6 llevar, por lo que dice la gente./Su padre jamds le
habl6/Lo abandon para siempre." [He (the father), fearing people's gossip,
followed their suit / His father never spoke to him again/ He abandoned
The manner in which the performer describes Sim6n's lifestyle connotes
libertinism and frivolity. He parades up and down the streets of New York
(with great ability) disguised as a woman to the extent that even his father
fails to recognize him. Throughout the song the character's lifestyle is
CONSTRUCTING AWARENESS VIA SEXUAL POLITICAL DISCOURSE & RIDDIMS
criticized and condemned. It is evident throughout the song's entirety that
the title is a sarcastic play on hegemonic masculinity, because Sim6n is not
a great male at all according to most dominant latino and Caribbean social
constructs of machismo. In the middle of the song, Col6n portrays Sim6n
as rebellious and unforgiving, as he has cut off communication with family.
However, the singer never makes any judgments about Don Andr6s's initial
rejection and condemnation of him for being gay. In fact, the brunt of the
fallout is placed on Sim6n. The father is mentioned to have curtailed his ire
as years pass, but this is not necessarily so in the case of the son: "Ymientras
pasan los afios/ El viejo cediendo un poco/ Sim6n ya ni le escribia / Andres
estaba furioso." [And as years passed/ The old man was changing his mind/
Sim6n did not even write anymore / Andr6s was furious]. Sim6n's censure
in the song is also supported by the chorus: "No se puede corregir/ A la
naturaleza/ Palo que nace dobla'o/ Jamds su tronco endereza" [We can't
correct nature; a twisted tree will never right its trunk (roots)]. Underlying
its infectious rhythm is the message that homosexuality is deviant,
incorrect, and therefore needs correcting, but it also concludes that any
attempts at righting the "deviant" conduct/nature of the person are futile.
Years later the family receives a telephone call from a hospital indicating
that the son is dying, "Por fin hubo noticia/ De d6nde su hijo andaba/Andres
nunca olvid6 el dia/ De esa triste llamada." [Finally there was news about
his son's whereabouts/ Andres never forgot that day/ Of the sorrowful phone
call]. However, nobody from the family rushes to his side at his hour of
death. Sim6n dies in the city, alone, dejected, and rejected by family and
society, "En la sala de un hospital/ de una extrafia enfermedad muri6 Sim6n/
Es el verano del 86/Al enfermo de la cama diez/ nadie llor6...Sim6n..." [In a
hospital bedroom/ from a strange (my italics) disease Sim6n died./ It's the
summer of '86/ The patient in bed number ten / Nobody mourned...]. The
song ends repeating the chorus, while Col6n inserts verses alluding to the
need for understanding and forgiveness; however, these verses seem more
geared towards Sim6n's failure to reconcile with father, family, and society
rather than the father's lack of forgiveness and acceptance of his son.
It seems that Sim6n's death occurred under very similar circumstances
to how Harvey St. Just dies in Walcott's play and Johnny in Scott's (to some
extent due to John's forced retrieval of his "wayward" son). Col6n stresses
that Sim6n's death was due to a "strange disease" and refers to Sim6n as
an anonymous patient (a number, the patient in bed number ten). At the
same time, the upbeat chorus breaks the dirge-like stanza, as if to imply
that Sim6n's death is a form of punishment, perhaps poetic justice for a
"El Gran Var6n," as well as the two Caribbean plays, represents the initial
perception and attitude towards HIV/AIDS that would remain relatively fixed
during the early period following its emergence. This attitude focused on
AIDS and its victims: it was a disease of the homosexual community (and/
or intravenous drug users). In many instances it was interpreted as
punishment for an "unnatural/immoral/ sinful" lifestyle.5 Col6n's song was
just one of the more popular Caribbean songs which can be seen as
addressing AIDS jocundly, condemningly, in a way that lacks social insight
-or in controversial terms- a trend that would continue until more was
learned about the disease, its worldwide spread, its impact on
heterosexuals, drug-free people, and its effects across generations.6
Eventually new insights would lead to songs and literary works that engaged
AIDS more seriously. Musicians and writers would come to express
sympathy for its victims, intending to create awareness, as evident in
Domingo Quifiones's song "Cuando se Necesitan Mis" (1993), Jamaica
Kincaid's memoir My Brother (1997), and Patricia Powell's novel, A Small
Gathering of Bones (1994).7
In the mid-1980s, songwriters in other Caribbean musical genres also
approached the topic of AIDS in a way similar to its treatment by Col6n.
For instance, Calypso throughout the region became one of the more
prominent forums for the theme of AIDS. Barbadians Viper (Roderick Lewis)
and Gabby (Anthony Carter) were two of the first to have calypso songs
from the period that commented on AIDS. Viper's song "Jesus" appeared in
1984, a year before the Ryan White case came to the public eye (White was
a thirteen-year old hemophiliac who received a tainted blood transfusion)
which then extended knowledge of other means by which contagion could
occur. In "Jesus," the singer assumed a fundamentalist position that
denounced, blamed, and condemned homosexuals for promoting
promiscuity and spreading the disease while advocating religion/faith as
Dem homosexuals such undesirables that we have down in de city
Contaminating & destabilizing all de youths with dem philosophy
Dem prostituting worse than the women
So let we shun dem or better yet burn dem.
AIDS is a problem and we don't want dem
If yuh get de point help me clear de joint
Cause we don't need prostitution, we don't need cheap tricks
Woman don't sell yuh body for no kinda tricks.
We don't want blue movie we don't need sex show
Women respect your body don't do um no more
Viper's song is problematic not only because it presents AIDS from a
homophobic perspective, but also because it attributes the spread of the
disease to women's promiscuity, thus presenting woman as an accomplice
to the epidemic, without mentioning male licentiousness/promiscuity and
CONSTRUCTING AWARENESS VIA SEXUAL POLITICAL DISCOURSE & RIDDIMS 89
unprotected sex as factors. On the other hand, Gabby's "De List" (1988)
expressed fear, gossip, and suspicion concerning people infected because
it also refers to the disease as being a condition linked to homosexual
Nurse Babbles say yuh won't believe it
They try to keep da thing a secret
But that don't suit Bajan character
Dem know we mout, ain't have no cover
Big names, popular names
Make love to de boy at least dat is what he claims
So now even married women saying they insist
De hospital show them all de names pun de list.9
(Gabby "De List")
The song eventually mentions that the list includes politicians, doctors,
sports figures, and calypsonians.10 Viper and Gabby pose abstinence,
curtailment of sexual activity, and/or the embracing of religion as ways to
avoid contracting AIDS. They blame homosexuality for the disease, and
levy unfounded accusations against women."
Trinidadian calypsonians Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco), Gypsy
(Winston Peters), Lord Nelson (Robert Nelson), Black Stalin (Leroy Calliste),
Shadow (Winston Bailey), Cro Cro (Weston Rawlins), Delamo (Franz
Lampkin), Singing Francine (Francine Edwards), Singing Sandra (Sandra
DeVignes Millington), and others also addressed HIV/AIDS in the early
period. Mighty Sparrow sang "Ah Fraid of the AIDS" and Gypsy sang "Where
Do We Go from Here" in the mid-1980s.12 The first song expressed fear and
mistrust, as suggested in its title, and commented that the disease
endangered "romance," but also blames its origin on homosexuality. The
second song questions morality and points at social degradation as a cause
for the spread of AIDS. Lord Nelson's 1988 "Warning" moves away from the
typical representation of AIDS as a gay phenomenon. It reflects a more
complex understanding of the disease and undermines some of the earlier
stereotypes, without attempting to blame any group in particular. Lord
Nelson has been a long-time resident in the U.S. and may have been
expressing more current and liberal views concerning HIV/AIDS awareness.
This distances it from attitudes and perceptions of earlier calypsos that
discussed the topic. The singer refers to the disease as one that anyone
who engages in risky sexual practices can contract.
It was on the news this morning, the authorities
Giving everybody warning about this disease.
They say it's infectious and contagious and it's deadly, too
Once infected with the virus...nothing you can do. (chorus)
90 DAVID LIZARD
Warn your brother, tell your daughter, neighbor have a care
It's not safe to have a lover with outside affair
If you're homo or you're bio or you're heterosex
Or you put it where you don't know you could get it nex'. (Chorus)
Now it's plenty cause for panic, here's what I said
It's a worldwide epidemic and its quick to spread
Check your actions, use protection, cover up your head
Or just disregard this caution if you want to dead.
(Lord Nelson "Warning")
Its chorus repeats, "No more funny business outside" four times then
exclaims, "AIDS!" In a refrain Nelson warns, "Be careful when you do your
do, be careful who you sock it to." The calypsonian expresses concern and
advises listeners of various practices that should be exercised. Among these
are counseling, education and communication, fidelity, and safe sex. He
also reveals the worldwide impact and scope of AIDS and mentions potential
consequences if the advice/warnings are not heeded.
This impulse is more evident in contemporary recordings. In 2000,
Shadow came out with "HIV," which serves as advice to the younger
generations, the age group whose rate of infection is increasing the most in
recent years. He advises "young ones" to be careful, to control their
emotions, to take necessary precautions, or suffer the dangers and
consequences that unprotected sex may have.
Young ones, you're young and you're restless
Young ones, you're young and you're full of zest
You've got to be careful, you've got to be mindful
You got to be cautious, you got to be curious
There is a virus, called the HIV,
A terrible virus that leads to the cemetery.
(chorus) HIV don't sorry for nobody, HIV don't worry about nobody. No, no, no!
Don't fool around because you're young,
You got to be cool, you got to be careful.
HIV don't respect anybody, HIV won't reject anybody.
Young ones you are the new generation
Young ones, you got to make preparations
To preserve the future of humanity
To put things in order, to have families
One little mistake is a hell of a heartbreak.
One little quickie, and it's down to the cemetery. (chorus)
[...] Young one, it's good to be loving
Young one, it's good to be caring
But quickie romances, is dangerous chances
CONSTRUCTING AWARENESS VIA SEXUAL POLITICAL DISCOURSE & RIDDIMS 91
Can cause suffocation, and end in frustration
Who would protect you, if you don't protect you.
Many may worry, there is no cure named sorry.
(Shadow "HIV" 13)
"HIV" is representative of the calypsos of the nineties and afterward,
when musicians began to address AIDS as a general social problem and
not as a gay issue. It appears to be a deep concern for Shadow (and other
calypsonians) because he takes it up again in "Find Peace" (2002) where he
states, "Something wrong in this world we living in/ Poor children are dying/
Innocent humans dying by the millions/ The HIV catastrophe/ An enemy
with high degrees..." and other songs.14
Soca music, a derivation of calypso, has generated endless critique for
promoting promiscuity, abandon, slackness, and has become (unjustly) a
scapegoat for soca's detractors in Trinidadian society, a label once
attributed to the calypso."5 Because it has remained intimately connected
to the fete, wine, jam, and Carnival -principles that its style promotes and
has made extremely popular- critics have been quick to point out that
soca artists fail to tackle serious social issues.'6 Soca is perceived in the
same light as its Jamaican counterpart, dancehall, which has received harsh
critique for its sexual explicitness.'7 Yet recent soca performers have begun
to take up AIDS within the contents of their songs. Although not as
prominent as calypsonians, a handful of performers exists who incorporate
discussions of AIDS into their songs, perhaps indicative of a new trend.18
During Trinidad Carnival 2004 soca artists Nadia Batson and Diamond
Cut (Kirk Hernandez) performed the song "I be Careful," which presents
both performers in a dialogue where the woman warns not only the man
about his promiscuous conduct and its hazards with HIV/AIDS propagation,
but also speaks to women listeners/fete participants. The female uses the
lyrics, "Yuh gotta be careful/ how yuh living your life/ Yuh gotta slow down,
take your time...Ah know it's Carnival, but yuh gotta live to see another
day" (Nadia Batson & Diamond Cut). Other songs that address HIV/AIDS
awareness are: General Grant's (Curtis Grant) "More Gal Fuh We;" Bunji
Garlin's (Ian Alvarez) "Doh Play with Meh" and "Girls Gone Wild;" Benjai's
(Sheldon Benjamin) "Cool it Son" and "Think is Joke;" and Barbadian Peter
Ram's (Peter Wiggins) "Dangerous Disease."19
St. Vincentian artist Touch's "Sex Education" also deals with the topic. It
calls for the incorporation of sex education into the school curriculum and
comments on the need for parents and teachers to assume active roles in
counseling youth. Touch argues that keeping children ignorant of the issues
is the ultimate danger, saying:
92 DAVID LIZARD
Sex education make it a part of productive school curriculum
And this one it should be planned
School's where they meeting/
Where they courting
There is where most dating begins among other things
Teachers likewise parents have a role to play
In preparing children for the cruel world out there
This knowledge is vital all the way...
Hey they'll find out somehow, don't keep them ignorant
(Touch "Sex Education" qtd. in Best)
As more performers of soca incorporate discourse on AIDS and its impact
on Caribbean youth, their music can make a vital contribution to enhancing
awareness among members of the genre's target audience. By incorporating
messages of AIDS awareness and safety into their work, these performers
may prove their detractors (who claim that soca has little content in its
lyrics and misleads youth by its constant call to jump and wine) wrong. In
this manner they can, in the long run, continue to convey positive messages
through this genre, one that youth understand and seem to relate to well.
Throughout the Caribbean many prominent performers have begun to
address the issue in this way. They have been involved in musical, public,
and social campaigns to create more awareness. Among these artists are
Buju Banton (Jamaica); Peter Ram (Barbados); Denyse Plummer, Bunji
Garlin, and Shadow (Trinidad & Tobago); and Domingo Quifiones, Zion and
Lennox, Rakim, Ken-Y, Ivy Queen, and Don Omar (Puerto Rico).
The struggle against the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout the Caribbean
has expanded substantially since the discovery of the illness. It has gone
from being a silent, anonymous, and ignored threat that people were afraid
to mention directly to becoming a more common theme of conversation,
as well as the subject of literary, musical, and artistic creativity. What
writers, musicians, and performers once merely hinted at in their work has
developed discursively through their intention to spread knowledge and
awareness and to prevent more victims from falling prey to this
contemporary epidemic. Fortunately, many creative forces have united in
developing discussions in literature, music, performance, and other areas
of public life. Spaces for literary and musical creativity appear to be
appropriate mediums for spreading the message throughout the region,
but they are not the only sites. However, the control of HIV/AIDS is an
arduous task and has not been embraced by all social institutions. There is
no reason to not engage in every possible means available to awaken
people's interest in combating this epidemic on different fronts. It behooves
Caribbean agencies and governments to assess Caribbean music and its
performers and other areas nationally and internationally, to seek out even