First published in 1999, R. Erica Doyle’s “Tante Merle” takes on a staple from Guyanese and Trinidadian folklore and gives her a surprising twist. In one famous rendition of the Tante Merle story by the legendary humorist and performer Paul Keens-Douglas, she was a miserable old woman who brought herself continuous embarrassment and bemusement for her socially oblivious or inappropriate behaviors at a cricket match. A conglomerate of stereotypes on non-normative femininity and old age, Tante Merle has such an engrained status in local cultures that her name has been generalized to refer to (often in a negative light) senior women who are irrepressibly “stuck in their ways.” Yet in recent years, the character has been reinvented as a figure of female empowerment, whose stubbornness, assertiveness and other anti-marianismo characteristics are celebrated instead of laughed at. Doyle’s story furthers this role-reversal to explore boldly the guarded tenderness beneath Merle’s appearance by imagining a story of unfulfilled love between two women, adding substance and seriousness to a caricature that might offer us a glimpse into the secret workings of representing LGBT lives in mainstream culture.
Written in Trini, “Tante Merle” is told from the first-person perspective by Merle’s niece, who comes to take care of a sick Merle and learns of her personal story after being asked by her of a special “lady friend.” Merle’s reminiscing brought the readers back to 1956, the year that she left Arima, Trinidad for the United States. She worked as a bookkeeper in town and bought mango juice every day from a female fruit vendor who, according to rumors, “only [took] up with women.” Though they never talked to each other, Merle and the fruit vendor developed a romantic connection through the daily ritual. On Merle’s last day in Trinidad, the fruit vendor finally spoke, knowing she would never see Merle again:
“You know,” she say, “it hard to be fruit vendor these days. They does have all kind of new shop downtown; and each shop does have it own particular fruit; and each fruit does have it own particular seed; and each seed does have it own particular need; and each need does find it own particular root. Each soil, rootless, does have it own particular sorrow. It hard to be fruit vendor on the savannah.”
In no more than 600 words, Doyle distills the passion of two lesbian Indo-Trinidadian women bound by social norms into a lyrical story-within-a-story of longing, a literary device used in ancient Indian literature such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. Though never explicitly revealed, Merle’s sexual identity was established when she heard of the lesbian rumors of the fruit vendor. “Is then I interested!” she recalls. Furthermore, the uniqueness of her relationship with the fruit vendor is apparent:
Fruit vendor look at me everyday, look at me like she seeing me, like no one ever see me before. Is the first time I feel like duppy watching at me, strong duppy.
Merle describes her feelings in an unequivocally romantic way: that the fruit vendor saw her as no one had ever seen her before, and that she felt transparent and exposed in the fruit vendor’s gaze (“duppy” is Jamaican patois for “ghost”). Yet this relationship could not be fulfilled: both women were married (the fruit vendor’s husband was away making “revolution” in a Rastafarian camp), and the social climate prevented any possibility of developing the relationship. The fruit vendor’s final words, therefore, could be seen as a commentary on both herself and Merle’s departure from homeland. Beneath the apparent hardship of being a fruit vendor, she alludes to her feeling of “rootlessness” and “sorrow” and notes its particularity, a veiled reference to her identity of being “different” from everyone else and her unmet “needs (“each need does find its particular root”). The unmet needs and sorrow also apply to Merle, who was leaving the savannah behind and about to experience another layer of rootlessness: that from the diaspora.
Herein lies R. Erica Doyle’s remarkable reinterpretation of Tante Merle: Doyle digs beyond the stereotypes that Merle traditionally represents and builds an emotional, compelling backbone to Merle’s apparent idiosyncrasy and social deviancy. In the story, her refusal to buy a car in Brooklyn expresses her rejection of social conventions, much as her refusal to marry. “I ain’t have a car like I ain’t have a man. If is ain’t me own wheels I turning I not interested!” she explains, asserting her agency of choice in both her lifestyle and her sexual independence. Connecting the “unfeminine and undesirable” traits of Tante Merle with the “unfeminine and undesirable” image of lesbianism, Doyle turns around an old cultural image to offer a contemporary rendition that, along with the burgeoning lesbian characters in writings set in the Caribbean, starts to address the historical oppression of the lesbian expression.