2017 Update

Hi visitors!

This is an update from Andre, the guy who created this website in 2013. When I started this digital humanities project back then (for a college class), I never expected it to attract the readership that it has today. I thought no one other than my professors and (maybe) classmates would check it out. At most, I expected a dozen site views for such a niche topic (what Thomas Glave, the editor of the anthology Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (2008), called “a slice of a slice”). Instead, this site is steadily attracting thousands of visitors per year, with a noticeable upswing this year (2017). It warms my heart to see that the effort I put in organizing some of the works on LGBTQ+ life in the Caribbeans is finding online company, particularly those coming from the countries in which these literary works are set (e.g., Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, the Bahamas…hi!).

Encouraged by your attention, I made some updates to the website. I fixed a bunch of broken links, added some new info on the authors, and made sure everything is working as it should (check out the timeline + map)! It is my hope that I will return and add more contents in the future to reflect new and exciting works on LGBTQ+ Caribbean literature (e.g., The Greatest Films by Faizal Deen, which came out in 2016).

Until then!

 

 

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Desires and Displacement: An Analysis of the Lesbian Expressions in R. Erica Doyle’s “Tante Merle”

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.

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Defining LGBT Caribbean Literature, Part 3: Methodology

To address the difficulties of defining and cataloging LGBT Caribbean literature, as outlined in Part 1 and Part 2, I use an intracategorical approach for the formation and progress of this project. As the creator, I readily acknowledge the shortcomings of presenting literary works on Caribbean sexual minority in easy-to-define terms through categories, whose ideological simplicity gives way to their functional convenience for lay readers and researchers, two groups of users this project targets.

Gender / Sexuality Depicted: Some authors, such as Audre Lorde in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls, readily embraced the terms “lesbian” and “gay.” For Lorde and Arenas, the saliency of their sexual identities is subversively distinct in their works and lives, making the categorization of their works relatively uncontroversial. Other works, such as Shani Mootoo’s Out on Main Street, describe female same-sex partnerships but do not label them explicitly. In cases where an explicit definition is absent, I use “lesbian” to refer to works that prominently feature female same-sex encounters or partnerships and “gay” to those that prominently feature male same-sex encounters or partnerships. These liaisons can be romantic, sexual, gender non-normative, or any combination of above.

Region: I categorize the items according to the locations in the Caribbean in which they are set, or with which they connect to. For instance, though most of the stories in Aldo Alvarez’s Interesting Monsters take place in upstate New York, the protagonists’ family ties with Puerto Rico and later residence on the island lead to my categorization of “Puerto Rico” for the novel. When the setting is ambiguous, I use the location with which the author has strong ties. Such is the case with José Alcántra Almánzar’s “Lulú or the Metamorphosis” (Dominican Republic). In the timeline and map, however, I only use the primary location determined by the aforementioned process, due to functional limitations of the digital platform.

Tags: One way to bridge the gaps among and alleviate the inadequacy of categories is tagging. My tagging process loosely follows the Grounded Theory Method, first developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss. Apart from authors and literary format, I extract from synopses main themes of the works and generate keywords as tags from surface-level interpretations. An example of such process is tagging Reinaldo Arenas’ The Assault “violence,” “dystopia” and “politics,” based on the authoritarian society the novel depicts. I am in the initial stages of tagging and have not worked comparatively across items: that would be the next step. Using tags allows me to describe themes and ideas in an item that categories cannot, for each item contains multiple tags that capture different aspects (e.g. social attitude, format, nature of relationship and social environment), all of which are potentially useful for both lay readers and researchers alike.

Sources: Identifying the works presented in this project is made possible by: Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC), EBSCO databases, bibliography of Thomas Glave’s Our Caribbean, review articles and books (see Bibliography), and other online sources (e.g. blogs and online catalogs; also see Bibliography).

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Defining LGBT Caribbean Literature, Part 2: The What and the Who

In Part 1, I discussed the “line-drawing problem” of categorization when presenting literary works on the LGBT Caribbean experience, as is the main purpose of this project. Drawing lines by categorizing cuts off the intertwining connections among various themes, while not drawing lines leaves the field too blurry to explore and appreciate. In Part 2 here, I present another aspect of consideration: what and who are involved in LGBT writing? What about Caribbean literature?

Neither of the questions is new, but given the paucity of research on this topic, these fundamental questions have to be asked. Both questions concern the distinction between agency and content. Does LGBT writing include any writing by LGBT-identified writers? Does the writing have to mention some type of LGBT experience and if so, how much? Are explicitly or implicitly LGBT-identified characters necessary? Similar questions extend to the definition of Caribbean literature: is it simply the corpus of writers in the Caribbean, or does the writing have to capture some type of Caribbean experience or highlight its uniqueness? Do the characters have to have a connection with the Caribbean? Must the narratives take place there? What about the diaspora? And finally, should we ask all of those questions for LGBT Caribbean literature? Given the historically homophobic environment of the region and the elusive style of some writing on sexuality, should we even rely on identity as a criterion, when its invitation of danger and stigma makes it a poor indicator of sexual attraction, relationship  and reality at large?

Luckily, these questions do not often instigate conflicts, especially when posed to contemporary works on the topic. A significant amount of literary works collected here represent both the identity and the experience of being LGBT in the Caribbean or the diaspora, usually reflecting the reality of the authors and their communities as well. In memoirs (e.g. Staceyann Chin’s The Other Side of Paradise) and fiction (e.g. Aldo Alvarez’s Interesting Monsters) alike, I have included works that unabashedly and courageously embrace the full spectrum of the LGBT reality on and off the paper. Yet the questions (and the distinctions among them) become sharper when tracing the history upstream. Take José León Sanchez’s La isla de los hombres solos, for instance. Based on Sánchez’s thirty-year service in prison on San Lucas Island, off the shores of Puntarenas, Costa Rica, the book made waves when it was published in 1968 for its candid portrayal of homosexual activity (GLBTQ.com). But despite its social impact, the novel might not fit in the label “gay fiction” snugly, for the portrayal of sexual identity is given less weight than that of sexual conduct. A more precise description might be “a novel featuring men who have sex with men (MSM).” Is it “gay writing” or even “gay-themed writing” if identity plays less of a role than experience? Could we argue for or acknowledge the same level of complexity as that from the intersectionality displayed in contemporary works, if the experience presented is—for social, cultural, political or personal reasons—severed from identity?

For my solution to the conundrums outlined in Parts 1 and 2, read my methodology for the project in Part 3.

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Definining LGBT Caribbean Literature, Part 1: More Than Addition

In his introduction to Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, editor and author Thomas Glave describes how some editors and literary agents characterized the anthology as “a slice of a slice.” They saw the collection as a “narrow” book: the non-Latino Caribbean as a “slice” of the literary market, and the lesbian and gay text as the “slice” within the Caribbean “slice” (Our Caribbean, 4). This view of finding “common denominators” among different categories (i.e. “Caribbean” and “lesbian and gay”) is prevalent, yet disturbingly simplistic.

The view contains two problems. First, each of the categories represents an identity and/or a type of experience that denies reduction. The product of merging identities and experiences does not arrive from a mathematical, mechanic intersection. Instead, those identities and experiences shape each other, inform subjective interpretations and understanding of self, and produce realities more complex and intertwined than those from the static addition of one on top of another.

Second, the very assertion of those categories itself conforms to a traditional classification that assumes insularity and rigidity of identity and includes only the stereotypical acts or presentations associated with those identities. The scope of understanding those identities would be further truncated under this framework when we attempt to examine them at once, because we would be limited to and informed only by their common denominating features. As Glave and several other authors have pointed out, Caribbean sexuality in the public imagination, especially that from consumer-directed markets outside of the Caribbean, surfaces primarily as a “momentary wink of sexual tourism,” as in burden-free promiscuity and sexual propriety (Our Caribbean, 4). In that imagination, the LGBT experience paints a veneer of moral decrepitude and indulgence, or is outright neglected. I personally do not know which treatment is worse.

Herein lies the problem of this endeavor to catalog Caribbean LGBT literature, for it is impossible to work without knowing one’s confines of scholarship: what is Caribbean LGBT literature? If I prescribe to the “slice of a slice” view, whose problematics I have touched on, I would be doing a disservice to the richness of the texts and the minds behind them; if I approach it with a critical lens from the second view, this project would be self-defyingly difficult, for the anti-categorical view inevitably leads to the conclusion that every single experience is at once connected but unique. By extension, this implies that the very act of cataloging or organizing to a certain extent means surrender to the traditional framework, whose reductionist, simplifying motivation differs little from the colonial gaze that has exoticized and marginalized artistic work on the Caribbean to this day.

(To be continued in Part 2)

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Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982)

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
Audre Lorde
Autobiography; Biomythography
1982

Plot Summary: Audre Lorde grows up in Harlem asa child of Black West Indian parents. Legally blind as a child, she learns to read before going to school, thus stoking up wrath in the Nuns/teachers at her Catholic school. The family’s landlord hangs himself for having to rent his flat to Black people; later they take a trip to Washington D.C., where they are refused ice-cream because of segregation laws. After getting her first period at age 15, she makes friends with a small number of non-Black girls called “The Branded” at Hunter College High School. She is elected literary editor of the school’s arts magazine after starting to write poetry. After graduation, she leaves home and shares a flat with friends of Jean’s (one of “The Branded”). At the same time, she goes out with Peter, a white boy who jilts her on New Year’s Eve. She is pregnant and decides on an abortion. After some unhappy times at Hunter College, she moves to Stamford, Connecticut, to find work in a factory, where the working conditions are atrocious. Following her father’s death, she returns to NYC and starts a relationship with Bea, which ends when she decides to move to Mexico to escape from McCarthyism. There, she attends university and works as a secretary in a hospital. In Cuernavaca, she meets many independent women, mostly lesbians; she has a relationship with one of them, Eudora, while working in a library. After returning to NYC again, Audre explores the lesbian bar scene and moves in with lover Muriel, then another lesbian, Lynn. Finally, Audre begins a relationship with a mother named Afrekete, who eventually decides to leave to tend to her child. The book ends on a homage to Audre’s mother. (Adapted from Wikipedia)

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Coal (1976)

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Coal
Audre Lorde
Poetry
1976

Synopsis: Of Coal, the poet and critic Hayden Carruth said, “For us these words indeed are jewels in the open light.” Coal is one of the earliest collections of poems by a woman who, Adrienne Rich writes, “for the complexity of her vision, for her moral courage and the catalytic passion of her language, has already become, for many, an indispensable poet.” Marilyn Hacker captures the essence of Lorde and her poetry: “Black, lesbian, mother, urban woman: none of Lorde’s selves has ever silenced the others; the counterpoint among them is often the material of her strongest poems.” (Amazon.com)

Wikipedia page

On Audre Lorde, The Poetry Foundation

Excerpt

Coal

I
Is the total black, being spoken
From the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open.
How a diamond comes into a knot of flame
How a sound comes into a word, coloured
By who pays what for speaking.

Some words are open
Like a diamond on glass windows
Singing out within the crash of passing sun
Then there are words like stapled wagers
In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart—
And come whatever wills all chances
The stub remains
An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
Breeding like adders. Others know sun
Seeking like gypsies over my tongue
To explode through my lips
Like young sparrows bursting from shell.
Some words
Bedevil me.

Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside
Take my word for jewel in your open light.

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Tante Merle (1999)

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Tante Merle
E. Erica Doyle
Short story, Fiction
1999

Anthologized in Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (ed. Thomas Glave).

Full text: http://www.blithe.com/bhq3.1/3.1.4.html

Excerpt

“One day I come by fruit vendor woman. My paper just come through immigration, my sister sponsor me come live in United State take care of she miserable Yankee children.

“‘Well,’ I say. ‘This the last morning I coming here, for tomorrow I leaving on big ship to New York City go live with my sister.’

“Fruit vendor woman look up at me she eyes burning. She take me in, she breathe me out, she drink me like coconut water. She speak first time.

“‘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.’

“She take me mango, slice it as ever still wind blowing slow, slow, slow. Sweat starting to crowd me brow. She bangles tinkle in the wind as she cut with machete slicing through to the seed.

“How I savor that mango that day, yes?”

Tante Merle stop. Tante Merle eyes looking past me, past me. Looking far into the past and the distance. Tante Merle feeling hummingbird wing beat on she face. Smelling orchid growing in front yard. Not hearing rain pounding down on Brooklyn street.

“Is good, girl, you,” she say. “It hard to be fruit vendor.”

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Young Faggot (2003)

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Faizal Deen

Young Faggot
Faizal Deen
Poetry
2003

Anthologized in Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (ed. Thomas Glave).

For a discussion of this poem and Glave, see: The People Who Are Not Even Really People, by Lotusgurl

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