Good like cook food
By Stephen Narain
Caribbean Erotic: Poetry, Prose, and Essays, ed. Opal Palmer Adisa and Donna Aza Weir-Soley
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845230890, 368 pp)
Images from the Photobooth (2009) series, by Rodell Warner. Courtesy the artist. As part of the 2009 Trinidad and Tobago Erotic Art Week programme, Warner set up a small temporary studio where visitors could photograph themselves in privacy, after signing a release allowing the images to subsequently be exhibited
In her introduction to Caribbean Erotic, Donna Aza Weir-Soley writes: “Caribbean people are a sexually conflicted group — from ultra-conservative members of the elite upholding ‘standards,’ to those who fight for their right to express themselves.” Weir-Soley suggests sources of this tension: the rigidity of Caribbean class hierarchies, the influence of fundamentalist religious rhetoric, and the perpetuation of cultural stereotypes, be they of the hyper-virile black male or the Latin woman caught in the “virgin-whore dichotomy.”
Weir-Soley ties these dynamics to deeper “pathologies” of colonial and postcolonial power structures. Such theories are tempting. Academics have certainly spent many pages tracing the unbridled homophobia in Guyanese legal codes and Jamaican dancehall lyrics to the emasculation of Caribbean men during slavery and indentureship. Yet Weir-Soley and her co-editor Opal Palmer Adisa — both academics and artists — are keenly sensitive to the reality that, in the “changing-same terrain of human sexual expressivity,” these linear connections prove incomplete. In Caribbean Erotic, therefore, the editors do not advance any particular agenda, nor do they limit themselves to any one style or aesthetic. Rather, they allow individual voices, “block by block, text by text,” to speak for themselves. Their strategy is a success. The sheer diversity of the anthology’s pieces — ninety-three poems, twenty prose extracts, and six essays — forms a powerful, polyvocal protest against the patent misrepresentations and unjustifiable silences that mark our current discourse on Caribbean sexuality.
Nevertheless, the editors take care to reinforce the point that sex resists polemics. Their selections suggest that sex, primarily, is a site for liberation, experimentation, and play. Nowhere is this more evident than in the anthology’s poems. In “On Listening to Shabba While Reading Césaire”, for example, Bahamian poet Christian Campbell does not only ruffle neat polarities — between reggae and poetry, between orality and text — but he collapses them altogether:
& let me say:
cerebral glammity niggerish
luminous numinous stamina
arsonist backshot agony
synapse maroon gallop
torrent wail rudical
I would like to say:
. . . . . .
Campbell’s collage is random, ecstatic — and, like an orgasm, nonsensical. His final ellipsis, an undefined element, neither sound nor silence, leaves room for readers to insert their own words. This is a major pattern that emerges from the poems in Caribbean Erotic. The poets are constantly searching for the metaphors that best fit their sexualities. They at once express a frustration with the limitations of language, and a wicked pleasure in testing those same boundaries. Campbell’s fellow Bahamian poet Aurora Ferguson, in “Ripe”, rejects misnomers like “muff, poonannie, / kitten, cat, / or cunt” used to signify what she defines as her lover’s “whole divided into halves.” “Between her thighs lies,” Ferguson writes, the narrator’s “island paradise,” her “paradox: accursed and blessed.” In “XXI”, Trinidadian artist and writer Leroy Clarke both celebrates and laments “turbulences in the coming of new / Vocabularies: nature multiplies its myth.” He concludes by submitting to the sublime: “the dazzling water of butterflies / There is dancing in the marrow.” Jamaican poet Sajoya is less highbrow in praising her partner:
yu look good yu know
good like cook food
like ital stew.
Readers suspicious of any anthologising, philosophising, or theorising about sex can take comfort. These poems, freely dancing between sense and sensuality, prevent the anthology from becoming either pedantic or, worse, pornographic.
Not everyone is — or can be — as liberal with declaring their sexuality as these poems’ narrators, however, and the anthology’s fiction extracts represent this anxiety. In Geoffrey Philp’s “Sunday Morning, Coming Home”, a Jamaican native is raising his son in Miami, a city where “up could mean down, and down could mean up.” When driving him to church one morning, the two spot a woman riding a motorbike. The father thinks: “Rude bwai, what a glorious batty that gyal did have. So round, so nice, so sweet, it would put marble to shame.” When he turns to his son, he sees “the biggest grin on him face, like a mongoose in a chicken coop.” Aware that his boy is likely formulating some adjectives of his own, the father admits that, though they were both “going to have to fork out a whole heap of extra money for the offering plate to pay for the sin that was on we mind,” in that moment all he could say is “Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Praise Jah.”
In Adisa’s own story “The Language of Touch”, Juanita, a Jamaican-American student from New York, travels to Ghana to do research. During her last few days in the country, she stays with her host’s brother in Accra. At first, she is confused by the affectionate advances made by the man and his wife. As the story proceeds, however, Juanita quickly realises that she must reconsider the codes of behaviour she brought with her from the United States. She reflects: “Everyone held hands in Ghana, men who were friends, but not gay; women held and touched each other a great deal — as did children.” There are Juanita’s rules and assumptions, then there are the wider world’s. Touch, she learns, becomes “a language that needed no translation.” Reared a certain way, characters like Juanita are constantly adjusting their schemas on acceptable sexual expression.
But where should the line between freedom and responsibility, between curiosity and conservatism, be drawn? This is the question running through Weir-Soley’s “Purple Blindness”. Jasmine, a teacher in San Francisco, falls in love with Jarrett, a Jamaican expatriate who presents himself as a “starving but noble artist, who does not need to buy into the Babylon system.” Though enamoured of Jarrett, Jasmine is wary of his breed of self-righteous apathy. Of the abortion she is forced to have without Jarrett’s support, she thinks:
it would have been my freedom that was lost or severely compromised if I had had that baby. And if left up to Jarrett, me and the child would have starved to death in the Babylon system we would have had no choice but to live in.
By the story’s resolution, Jasmine — like Philp’s father and son, like Adisa’s Juanita — is left in a state of rich ambiguity. We, in turn, are left to imagine how, or if, these characters will strike a compromise between fulfilling the pleasures they seek and respecting the community standards they, by circumstance, are challenged to interrogate.
While the fiction extracts in Caribbean Erotic leave many of their narrative questions unanswered, the essays — some of the volume’s most dynamic pieces — place the discussion of Caribbean sexuality in a broader context. The editors cite Audre Lorde’s landmark 1984 tract “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” as the anthology’s philosophical pivot. In her essay, Lorde distinguishes between eroticism and pornography. The latter, Lorde argues, “is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.” The erotic, on the other hand, represents a locus not only for our sensuality, but for our very capacity to feel. “Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion,” Lorde writes, “we can then observe which of our various life endeavours bring us closest to that fullness.”
In “Secrets of Sweetness”, Carole Boyce Davies challenges many of the religious and educational institutions, “end-products” of colonisation, that work to narrow public dialogue on sexual exploration. And, in “Norms and Taboos of Sexuality”, Imani Tafari-Ama describes what happens when this kind of constrained cultural conversation goes unchecked. Tafari-Ama parallels the homophobic sentiments of a group of young men she interviews to the militant rhetoric of dancehall artists like Shabba Ranks, who, in his defense of Buju Banton’s 1992 song “Boom Bye Bye”, declared: “If you forfeit the laws of God Almighty, you deserve to be crucified.” Tafari-Ama’s nuanced analysis is particularly remarkable. Rather than chastise Ranks’s convenient obliviousness to the Sixth Commandment, or caricature Jamaican people as a monolithic sample, her study focuses on how Ranks’s and Banton’s lyrics specifically relate to “the actual attitudes of people in the impoverished central Kingston community of Southside.” Like Tafari-Ama, each of the essayists in the anthology provides perspective, while avoiding broad strokes.
By the end of Caribbean Erotic, the reader senses that the editors are wise enough to have intuited about sex what E.B. White once declared about humour: it “can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Adisa and Weir-Soley do not offer any overwrought conclusions about the state of Caribbean sexuality writ large. If there is any tissue connecting these pieces, however, it is in the editors’ implicit challenge for us to consider where we stand on the continuum between sexual expressivity and moral conservatism — a line that is by no means straightforward. Each piece gives us pause to reflect on how we, individually and collectively, perceive basic human impulses that are so often fixed in opposition to longstanding codes of behaviour. And while it is easy for those in the Caribbean community, especially those marginalised because of their sexual preferences, to call upon the usual scapegoats — the church, the school, colonial ideologies — to explain away our strained discussion, the editors ask us instead to fundamentally reorient our views on the fabric of our most intimate relationships. Following in the tradition of Lorde, who refused to pit sexuality against spirituality, Caribbean Erotic encourages all of us in the Caribbean community to more closely examine
our need for sexual expression in the physical realm and the interrelatedness of this very basic need with other needs that we have as humans: to eat, to live in freedom, to love as seems natural to us, to connect with other human beings on a spiritual level, to explore our senses, to engage our curiosity, to procreate or to choose not to, to enjoy nature, to worship God in our own ways, to dance, to feel the sunlight in our faces in the early morning after a night of hard sweet loving.
Stephen Narain was born in the Bahamas in 1986 to Guyanese parents. He is an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he is at work on a quartet of novels set between Georgetown and New York City.