All in the family
By Kelly Baker Josephs
Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing
from the Antilles, ed. Thomas Glave
Duke University Press, ISBN 9780822342267, 405 pp
For months before its publication, eager and speculative whispers about Thomas Glave’s new project circulated throughout my various academic and social circles. I encountered excitement, worry, and hesitant celebration, sometimes all voiced by the same speaker. I feel the weight of those anticipations as I sit to write this review. I want to use all the right adjectives to convey the inestimable value of this very necessary anthology — “powerful,” “seminal,” “enlightening.” But I also feel the need to prepare readers for the unevenness, the gaps that caught me off guard. If they are expecting “a good read” or even “an excellent beginning,” rather than the “superb anthology” one of the book’s blurbs promises, then perhaps there will be no residue of disappointment to mar their post-reading satisfaction.
Because there is much to satisfy readers in this ambitious anthology. Its major strength and its major weakness stem from the same root: its inclusiveness. Our Caribbean could very well have been called “Our Many Caribbeans”, from a phrase in Glave’s introduction. Rather than a cohesive view of sexuality in the region (which, to be truthful, Glave does not directly claim is presented, possible, or desirable), this anthology offers various perspectives, fragments that indicate there is no single larger picture. But isn’t the fragment the symbol of the Caribbean? Although Glave doesn’t quite achieve the “conversations” he imagines in the introduction, the give and take of dialogue between the pieces, he does deliver the gathering that the book’s subtitle promises. A gathering of voices: declaring existence, demanding acknowledgement, offering hope. A gathering of fragments proclaiming the queer past of the Caribbean and, to paraphrase the subtitle of Rinaldo Walcott’s contribution, confirming the lives still being lived.
Walcott’s essay encompasses several of the thematic threads of the collection. Its title — “Fragments of Toronto’s Black Queer Community” — and its form — part memoir, part academic meditation — reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of the anthology as a whole. Walcott offers sections, almost snapshots, of black queer life in Toronto, paying special attention to the Caribbean influence in this community. His general focus is sexuality, but masculinity, race, and nationality are also central. Similarly, in most if not all of the other selections, sexuality shares the spotlight with other concerns, intersecting with the usual suspects: race, class, nationality, gender. Despite the primacy of sexuality in Our Caribbean, the authors emphasise its interconnectedness, rejecting the vacuum and single identity choices that often confine queer Caribbean subjects.
As several of the pieces in the anthology demonstrate, this confinement may ease, but not end, with relocation. The familiar Caribbean preoccupation with immigration is particularly prevalent in Our Caribbean, as many of the writers or their characters choose, or are forced to choose, sexual freedom and economic opportunity away from the Caribbean. These writings cover the common destinations: the US, Canada, Britain. A somewhat long (and fragmented) sentence from Walcott’s essay illustrates the complexities of migration:
Links with Caribbean communities, personal contacts, experience with intimate and other relationships, and experiences with other aspects of Caribbean cultures (books, films, music, food, and other ephemera) play a crucial role in how black queer life in Canada — generally lived in moments of dislocation from the Caribbean and often with the desire to share something (such as culture or cultural memory) with those from the imagined or longed-for region — is experienced and enacted.
Other contributions, such as those from Michelle Cliff, Lawrence La Fountain Stokes, R. Erica Doyle, and Shani Mootoo, indicate that this multi-faceted desire and influence exists in various parts of the queer Caribbean diaspora.
Thomas Glave. Photo by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo
The authors’ overlapping interests in the effects of migration, race, and gender on sexuality, and vice versa, simultaneously add to the cohesiveness of the anthology and emphasise the moments of fissure. These moments lead me to question not Glave’s choice of entries, but his choice of organisation. The writings in the anthology are arranged alphabetically by the authors’ last names. I imagine this was not a decision Glave made easily. What with different countries, linguistic traditions, genders, and genres, there was a surfeit of categorisations from which to choose. The result is a strange order, with some patterns forming of their own accord, only to be broken as soon as they begin to be recognisable. At times, the alphabetical order is kind. It allows for an aligning of fiction from Audre Lorde, Shani Mootoo, Anton Nimblett, Achy Obejas, Leonardo Padura Fuentes, Virgilio Pinera, and Patricia Powell. But more often, the choice of alphabetical listing is disconcerting because of the variety of the pieces included. For example, to go from the fluidity of Dionne Brand’s “Elizete, Beckoned” to the academic density of Timothy Chin’s “‘Bullers’ and ‘Battymen’: Contesting Homophobia in Black Popular Culture and Contemporary Caribbean Literature”, and then have to switch reading gears again to appreciate the elliptical, conversational style of Michelle Cliff’s “Ecce Homo”, can strain even the most flexible reader.
In addition to genre, the alphabetical order also results in erratic confluences of country and original language (all the selections have been translated into English). For example, hispanophone contributions are heavy in the first third of the anthology, but they all but disappear in the last third, where anglophone entries are dominant. This gives readers the impression, if they choose to read the selections in the order presented, that Spanish-speaking countries, particularly Cuba, are overrepresented in the anthology. I suppose, however, that any organisational order other than alphabetical could raise similar objections, so I simply caution readers not to approach the anthology as a page-turning, must-finish-reading-in-two-days experience. Rather, they should dally, picking it up and putting it down often, perhaps picking their own order for reading the entries.
Our Caribbean offers several options for self-selected reading patterns. Glave is careful to provide a fairly balanced selection, covering genre, gender, and country in a reasonably equitable manner. Although Cuba, Trinidad, and Jamaica together represent roughly two-thirds of the thirty-seven entries, the anthology features contributors that hail from thirteen Caribbean countries. Unfortunately, the exception to this inclusiveness is the francophone Caribbean, which is woefully underrepresented. There is one entry from a Haitian writer — the late Assotto Saint’s “Haiti: A Memory Journey” — and that is the extent of the francophone representation. This, of course, could be due to reasons other than potential oversight by the editor. As Glave notes in his introduction, there were works he would have liked to include, but he encountered a “very powerful unwillingness of some people to be associated with anything lesbian, gay or ‘queer.’” Glave believes that this unwillingness “illustrates dramatically and often sadly the very great need for this book,” but there is more to it than that. These objections, or at least the two he details in the introduction, demonstrate the power that such an anthology has to define: to define the field, to define the contributors, and to define the content, simply by inclusion. And with the tension between Caribbean and lesbian, or Caribbean and gay, or Caribbean and queer, there will undoubtedly be Caribbean writers, established and upcoming, who will shy away from such projects, regardless of their personal definition of themselves or their work.
That said, there is a variety of delightful pieces included in this ground-breaking anthology. And I do not use that term lightly — Glave is truly breaking some tough ground here. The majority of the pieces were previously published elsewhere, but to have them “gathered” here, in one volume, is indescribably invaluable for those interested in gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer voices from the Caribbean. I found the excerpt from Andrew Salkey’s novel Escape to an Autumn Pavement (1960) a pleasant surprise. Along with “The Face” (1956), by Virgilio Piñera of Cuba, Salkey’s story establishes queer sexuality as more than a passing concern for Caribbean writers. Selections by Lawson Williams, Reinaldo Arenas, and Mabel Cuesta also establish a substantial, if often ignored, history of queer communities and LGBT activism in the Caribbean. Many of the contributions end on a note of hope, bringing to mind other “ground-breaking” anthologies, such as The New Negro (1925), The Black Woman (1970), and This Bridge Called My Back (1981). As with these forerunners, the occasional disjointedness of Our Caribbean is inevitable, as it attempts to clear and claim space for its subject. Our Caribbean deserves all the positive buzz surrounding its publication, more for what it accomplishes than for the details of how it does so. In some respects, it is as the back cover quote from Elizabeth Alexander announces, “a superb anthology”; superb for what it does, for what it wants to do, and for what many of its readers hope it inaugurates.
Kelly Baker Josephs is an assistant professor of English at York College, City University of New York, and the managing editor of Small Axe.