Thanks for visiting my blog. I have to warn you though: if you’re looking for topic consistency or some kind of overall theme, you’re in the wrong place. This is a blog about nothing. Whatever comes to mind and tickles my curiosity – that’s what I’ll blog about. In my head, I’ve got so many questions and much less answers. Feel free to leave me a reply or comment. I love intelligent conversation. Cheers!
“Loosed” is the winner of the 2017 John Gardner Memorial Prize for Fiction and is published in Harpur Palate Vol.16 No.2//Vol.17 No.1
The story is about a soured marriage. Is religion the source of Declan and Ruth’s problems? Or are they themselves to blame?
To judge for yourself, click on the story name above to read the full text.
Hollywood is currently in the throes of Weinsteingate.
It is impossible to log into social media or to read any American news and not encounter it. Daily, more women are coming forward, breaking long-silences, admitting to having been the victim of sexual assault at the hands of powerful men. Good on these women for speaking out and facing down their oppressors – that’s damn hard to do.
Thing is, you don’t have to be a Hollywood starlet to know what sexual assault feels like: the powerlessness, the fear, the shame, the is-it-my-fault conversations with yourself, not to mention the rationalisations (“But this is my bread-and-butter. I can’t make trouble.”) Many ordinary women know exactly what that dilemma feels like, though most of us don’t have a platform to talk about it.
Many of us figure it’s just the way of the world. That’s why there’s a word for it, right? Misogyny. The term is enjoying a new popularity these days.
Many of us are trying to forget these incidents ever happened. We balk at making ourselves, even in our own minds, “the victim” of anything. But then, here comes Weinsteingate, stirring up the silt of repressed memories.
That’s what’s been happening to me. I’ve been remembering things. Things I chose to forget. What keeps floating up are the times when I felt the smallest, the times when I was halved and then halved again by some man – two bites of the cherry, so to speak. I’m talking about a special kind of misogyny, not your plain vanilla kind, something a bit darker than that.
Like my first job out of Law School, working for a big, German guy. Him hiring me and saying in his heavy accent, “Yes, I can use you on the Australian and European market.” Me, twenty-four years old, not understanding what he meant until several months into the job, when a private plane landed and a flock of Swiss millionaires alighted on the office conference room. They had come to discuss plans for setting up a private offshore bank. My boss called my telephone extension, ordered me down to the meeting. I grabbed a legal pad and pen, thinking I would jot down his instructions before stepping into the room. I grabbed a copy of the private banking legislation on the way out of my tiny office. I ran down the stairs, rehearsing what I already knew about private banks. My boss was waiting in the corridor, a couple paces away from the conference room door. His only instructions were, “Sit where I tell you. Next to the most important guy. Look pretty and smile. A pretty black girl is kryptonite to them.” I did as I was told.
Months later, the firm hired another lawyer: a hot-shot Italian tax-attorney from the West Coast of America. They put him in the same office as me. We sat back to back. He kept trying to flirt with me. I kept ignoring him, politely declining invitations, skirting his hints and advances. Then one day, he swung his chair around and announced, “You know I don’t need to work, right? I told you before, my family is rich. I’m just here to learn the ropes in this offshore thing.” I confirmed that he had told me all about his family’s pizza empire and all about the money he made Stateside, as an attorney. We went back and forth, I played dumb, he grew frustrated. Eventually, he said, “Listen, honey, I’m a white man.You know what that means, right? I can open up a whole other world for you…in America. I can get you outta this dump.”
I changed jobs. Next job was for a brand-name firm. It included going to meetings with Senior Government Officials, and Captains of Industry. I was early for one such meeting. It was only me, the plate of chocolate chip cookies and a tall, red-faced British guy – a Captain of Industry. His phone rang. He answered, guffawed for a few seconds and then said in an extra-loud voice, “Yes, yes. I’m back in Her Majesty’s Colonies.” I looked up then, at him, he was looking straight at me with a smirk on his face. When the meeting started, he talked over me, rebutted everything I tried to say – by saying it differently. At break time, while we were getting coffee, he brushed up against me.
In a brand-name firm, you get to meet brand-name people from the other franchises. The Managing Directors of all the regional firms came to town. On the last night of their conference, they invited middle management of the local firm – which included me – to dinner. I was seated next to one of the very affable, very fatherly, very light-skinned MDs – probably of European extraction. At some point during the dinner, he mentioned that he couldn’t wait to go see the beautiful beaches, he had made reservations at a resort. Later on, he invited me to join him at said resort. I politely declined, pleading the exigencies of work. At the end of the night, he leaned in, whispered, “I love your skin. Your colour es so beautiful.” A couple months later, my boss told me the same thing.
I changed jobs. This one involved international travel and forging links with international firms. I was sent, along with a male colleague, to a major tax conference in London. We were meant to scout for new business and make visits to business partners. One such person was an old upper-crusty British gentleman – a highly respected academic on certain aspects of offshore financing. He and I had been doing business on the phone and via email for some time. He was attending the conference as well and had agreed to meet in between sessions to discuss future plans. He was not expecting my male colleague to be with me. The gentleman seemed vexed. On the second morning of the conference, he approached me in the breakfast queue and asked how my jet-lag was. He said he had taken a room in the hotel and would gladly prove to me that a good massage was the cure for what ailed me.
I wasn’t hungry anymore. I left the breakfast buffet and got a coffee. My colleague followed. “You didn’t deserve that,” he said. “I heard what he told you. I can imagine how you feel. He made you think he wanted to talk business but that wasn’t it at all.”
I appreciated those words: that my white, male, European colleague had called bullshit. It wasn’t all in my head. Because up till then I had wondered if it – all of it, every incident – had, indeed, been a fiction in my head. Or had I done something wrong? Had my skirt been too tight? Had I laughed too hard at his jokes? Had I done that silly, Caribbean thing and touched him while speaking?
And up till then, I had been confused: how could my law degree, all my qualifications – so nicely typeset and embossed on my business card – how could they be so easily ignored? How could somebody look at me and see nothing but a black hole. Literally, a black hole.
But that day, in London, as I talked to my colleague and explained how betrayed and belittled I felt, my mind jumped backwards and resurrected something I already knew. Something I’d learned in my prestige Catholic high-school, the place where all my ambitions of becoming A Respected Professional were born. I remembered Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling – the great European men we’d studied – and I remembered The White Man’s Burden, and I saw that it extended to black women, to the terrain of our skin. These men thought I was vacant, starving, inherently inferior, but lush and ripe for the taking. They thought I wanted to be taken. They thought they were doing me a favour by offering to possess me. They had decided all of this based on my gender AND my race.
In time to come, there would be other white men, saying the right words and offering “love.” But I could never bring myself to take the risk that it wasn’t that but, rather, jungle fever talking.
Still more years passed and I learned of Sarah Baartman, the African woman who, in the 1800s, was taken to Europe under false pretences by a British doctor. She was stage-named “Hottentot Venus” and was paraded around freak-shows in London and Paris with crowds invited to ogle her large buttocks – her genitalia were fabled to be just as disproportionate. After her death in 1815, her sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains were only repatriated to South Africa and buried in 2002.
Recently, I discovered there was a word for what I had experienced, for what Sarah Baartman had endured: “Misogynoir”. It is a term American professor, Moya Bailey, invented to describe the specific way racism and misogyny combine to affect black women. It’s a term you don’t hear much about in the mainstream media. I can recall encountering it only once, when Twitter blew up with racist abuse aimed at actress/comedienne Leslie Jones: “big-lipped coon” they called her.
I wonder how many black women in Hollywood have been the victims of misogynoir: pursued or pawed for having too much melanin, too much ass, too much lip. I wonder if any black starlets will come forward after Weinsteingate. Perhaps, like me, they won’t say anything and won’t call out any powerful men, but will brush off the abuse and move on with their lives. Or perhaps they will admit the assault but redact some of the hurtful words that were said, edit out the other layer of pain. Why? Because no one wants to survive one misogynoir trope – The Hypersexual Black Woman – only to fall prey to another misogynoir trope, The Angry Black Woman.
Weinsteingate may change things. Some people seem hopeful it will cause an enlightenment in Hollywood, which will positively change workplace gender relations everywhere, for everyone. So why do I find myself reading these predictions and quietly humming Bob Marley:
“They say the sun shines for all,
But ah in some people world,
It never shine at all.”
I’ve heard it said: to be poor is a crime, but to be poor and black is to be invisible. Well, I would add: to be a woman is a crime, but to be a woman and black is to be a hole.
Your mother is worried about you. In all my years of being her friend, I can’t remember ever seeing her this nervous. She tells me you want to be a writer. She says your heart is now set “like ice in a freezer.” She says you’ve just finished your Bachelors in English Lit and you’re getting ready to apply to the University’s Creative Writing Masters program. I’ll be honest m’boy: she asked me to talk to you, to give some insight into the real world of writing because she thinks you may not know what you’re getting into. The wrong Masters degree is too expensive a mistake for your family to make, she says. And she’s right. So, I’m going to talk to you now, like an adult – Big Man ting. It might not be what you want to hear but I hope you can take it.
When you were little, you used to love martial arts movies. Remember? You used to love Steven Seagal. Remember how many times we watched “Marked for Death”? Remember how, every time I visited, you would act out parts of it for me? You and I always agreed that the best lines in that movie belonged to the rasta-man, Screwface. We used to repeat them in our terrible Jamaican accents and then collapse on the floor laughing. This one was always my favourite: “Everybody waan go ah heaven. Nobody waan dead.”
Well, that is an important truth for a writer, Sayvaughn. Remember it.
Like your mother, I used to practice law. Not once did anyone ever say, “God, you’re so lucky. I have this idea for a great lawsuit but I just don’t know where to start.”
Now that I’m a writer, I hear that kind of thing all the time. Now, the mere mention of my occupation and people become starry-eyed. It seems that for everyone, there is a road not travelled and a book not written. Almost everyone thinks their life is bestseller material, and the few who don’t are planning to write a children’s book one day, someday. But not today.
See, that’s the thing: nobody is prepared to do it. Not one person has ever, upon receiving my practical advice about becoming a writer, responded with, “Awesome! I’ll get right on it.” Why? Because their romantic notions of a writer’s life do not gel with the realities I lay bare for them. Their star-shaped pupils quickly retract, glaze over, as I describe a life which involves much more drudgery than they’d imagined, much more…punishment.
The simple truth is: you cannot become a writer unless you are prepared to hang a bullseye on your chest. Writers die a different death every day, Sayvaughn, and here are the most painful:
- Death by economic sacrifice
In the absence of other resources, if you fully commit and give yourself over to the occupation of writing, you might just starve to death before your first publication.
Writing doesn’t pay well. A couple hundred here, a couple hundred there – that’s it. And you have to spend money to make money as a writer. In 2012, after writing a novel and trying (and failing) to get it published, I decided that people – myself included – would have more confidence in my work if I had an MFA. That’s graduate school; that’s money. Sure, the University had payment plans, but it was still money I didn’t have and had to raise every month by making a drastic lifestyle scale-down.
Once I’d finished my MFA and had a minty-fresh body of work to start sending out into the literary world, I had to confront another cost: submission fees. They are usually between US$3.00-$5.00 for each item submitted. Literary contests involve a larger fee, sometimes as much as US$25.00. These may seem small but they add up. You may have to submit to tens or hundreds of journals before getting one acceptance. That’s a small fortune for writers like us, living far from the main publishing centres and subjected to jacked-up currency rates. So start saving.
Most writers will confess to creating their finest work when they are able to put aside all other distractions. And what’s the greatest distraction? Having to go out every day to a non-writing job that pays the bills, puts food on the table, clothes on your back but leaves you no time or energy for the mental isometrics of creative writing. The pondering, the imagining, the crafting and re-crafting of perfect paragraphs – it requires total immersion. Sayvaughn, I know you’ve read all the Harry Potter books. But did you know that series was written during a time when JK Rowling was jobless and penniless, living in a cramped apartment with her daughter and relying on State benefits? She spent her days writing in cafés, with her child sleeping in the pram next to her. Every aspiring writer of young-adult or children’s books wants to replicate Ms. Rowling’s riches; but how many are willing to start where she started, to do time in the rags? Are you?
- Death by social rejection
Parents – your mother included – live vicariously through their children. We know this. When I told my parents I’d decided to switch professions, they were pretty vocal with their disappointment. They had scrimped and saved and sacrificed for me to get a good education so that I could become a Lawyer – a sure-shot at power, influence and income. They didn’t mind if I changed careers, as long as it was for something equally aggrandizing. Instead, I was being cruel and ungrateful, squandering their lifelong efforts and hopes on the dicey wager that is a writing career. How could they face their friends and say their daughter “wrote”? Anybody can write, where was the prestige in that? And how were they supposed to live without the pleasure of watching me prowl around in intimidating, sober-coloured suits?
It hurt me, you know, Sayvaughn – their rejection. But I believe one day my parents will see that the highest return on their investment is for me, their child, to be happy and fulfilled. The only way I can be that is if I write. I believe your mother will come around, too. In the meantime, ask yourself: Could I be happy doing something other than writing? If the answer is yes, then go do that thing.
Friends and colleagues also rejected the premise of me becoming a writer. Although they never said it outright, it was always hovering there, in the vicinity of our conversations, like a bad odour:
Them: So what are you doing now?
Them: Great, that’s so amazing! I always wished I could do something like that, something so….(words implied: “crazy/irresponsible”). I would love to be able to pursue my passion (word implied: “hobby”) like that. Good for you, Celeste!”
Them: Hey, I saw you got something published in a magazine.
Me: Yeah, thanks.
Them: Does that kinda thing pay well? Like, compared to Law.
Me: Actually, that magazine didn’t pay. Many don’t. It’s about getting my work out there…
Them: So why do you keep…I mean, then what’s the point?
It’s sad really: when you’ve taken huge risks, braved all sorts of fears to shed an old skin and birth a new, more authentic you, only to have it rejected by people you care about. The psyche of the novice writer is a tender one, easily (and sometimes, fatally) injured by other people’s negativity. Keep your plans close to your chest, Sayvaughn. Never reveal too much about what you’re writing – it only gives people an opportunity to discourage you. Instead, work like a beast and surprise people with your success.
Are you interested in writing fiction or non-fiction? Hear this: of all of us, non-fiction writers endure the most hostility and rejection. It is impossible to write a memoir, to tell your truth, without implicating other people or impinging on their perceived truths. Family secrets are communal property: it is impossible to stake your claim to them without trespassing on someone else’s feelings. Sure, the best personal essays are the honest, soul-baring ones; but those writers often find professional success at the cost of family ostracism. Prepare yourself.
- Death by professional rejection
For a writer, the very personal act of creating new work is one side of the record; public rejection of that work is the flip-side. They are inseparable experiences and the sooner you, as a new writer, accept that, the better you will fare – psychologically, at least.
Month after month, the MFA student is required to churn out new work. She stands before her computer as if on a deserted beach, waiting for inspiration to surface; and when it does, she searches the horizon of her memory, collects the wreckage of her own subconscious, and combines it all into a new and awesome thing. A creature of the deep. And then, she must lay this creation on an altar, before stone-faced faculty and salivating students who brandish knives and bare their teeth. Beware: MFA workshopping is ritualized torture: to sit silent while a murder of writers (NB. that’s not a real collective noun…I just invented it…but it should be!) eviscerates your best efforts and pronounces on your ability or disability as a writer. But, to my mind, the MFA’s greatest virtue was that it prepared me for professional rejection, for the feeling of being misunderstood, for the biased criticism of the literary world.
Literary publications are as idiosyncratic and subjective as people are. Out of thousands of submissions received, a journal will only publish work which suits its particular tastes. If you, as a Caribbean person, plan to tell our stories and showcase our world and our language authentically, then you won’t be a match for most North American journals. This means when you, the Caribbean writer, submit your beloved story/poem/essay, you’ll be searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack: for a ballsy magazine with a broad world view. You have to kiss many frogs before you find that Prince. Some say the average North American writer must aim for as many as a hundred frog-kisses a year. You, from the Caribbean, aim for two hundred; that kind of promiscuity will greatly improve your chances of finding true love in this time of choleric American politics. And please know, the frog-kiss of rejection isn’t the sloppy, elaborate thing you might imagine. No, it is crisp and dry and so, so cold:
Thanks for sending us (blank). Unfortunately, it’s not right for us. We wish you the best in placing your writing elsewhere.
Two hundred letters like that every year. Ouch! I don’t know of many other professions exacting that kind of toll on the ego. And then…wait for it…there are the literary agents. Most major publishers will not accept enquiries directly from an author, you have to go through a literary agent. So you send your best work to the agency and hope they will accept you as a client. If not, brace for another, more incisive, rejection letter. My first said, “the writing was not what I’d hoped it would be.” I’ve never forgotten that – it still keeps me up at night sometimes.
- Death by self-flagellation
Remember Silas, the creepy Opus Dei guy, from The Da Vinci Code? Remember the scene where he stands naked in front of the crucifix, zealously whipping himself with a cat-o-nine-tails? Remember the blood trickling from his torn flesh? The way the pain made him stand on tiptoe and made spit fly from his mouth. Well, m’boy, that kind of intense self-flagellation is a normal feature of life for a writer.
With so many rejections coming from so many people, is it any wonder that self-doubt scourges us every day? We are always on the verge of giving up. We accumulate hours in front of the mirror asking ourselves if we will ever be good enough. Then there are the long showers, so we can cry privately: snot and tears – but never the pain – dissolving in water.
And then there is the guilt. The opportunity-cost of spending five hours at my desk today, was five hours I could’ve spent with my baby daughter. The opportunity-cost of spending thousands of dollars on my MFA was the modest nest-egg I could’ve started for her. And then there’s the corporate law career I abandoned, in 2011, to write my much-rejected novel. And all for what? For the ignominy of being a hustler, a peddler, constantly knocking on doors trying to sell these little trinkets I keep crafting; and for the privilege of being a dreamer. Is it worth it?
Sayvaughn, if you’ve read all the way through this and if, after everything I’ve said, you still want to write, it means you are a serious contender. I say this because the true writers – not the hobbyists – write because they have no say in the matter. They write because they are impelled to, whatever the risks, by forces over which they exercise no control. For the true writers, it’s a simple choice: write or die trying. That attitude is necessary to endure this calling. Sure, our choice of profession has marked us for death, but that only means we are in the business of resurrection. Every day, every little thing we do to keep our writing careers alive, is an act of resurrection – and there is glory in it. So, I received five rejections this week, but I sent out five more submissions – resurrection. So, my kid was sick so I couldn’t write for six hours today but, while I waited in the doctor’s office, I wrote six lines – resurrection. So, my mom was on my case again today about why I’m wasting my life, but I cut the conversation short and read a cherished book (Tandia, by Bryce Courtenay) for two hours, just to remind myself of why I write – resurrection: “…a dream is often lonely, but providing you are prepared to prevail, it’s invincible.”
Be invincible, Sayvaughn.
With love and admiration,
I don’t live in America so I’ve never had a problem with white people.
I live in a country where white people are the minority. They no longer hold seats in government or the public sector, they no longer run the prestige schools. They live in their little enclaves, mind their own businesses and, generally, stay out of the spotlight.
So, white people have never been a threat to me. Because of this, I am not afraid of them. I did not grow up thinking I needed to be suspicious of them. Life has not programmed me to expect the worse from them. They might be a little different from me, but they’re just people.
This unassuming attitude of mine extends to white folks wherever they are found, including the United States.
To be honest, though, there have been times when I’ve felt other, less charitable emotions toward American whites. Like, after watching the movie, The Butler. An Indo-Trinidadian friend and I went to see it in cinema and, when the lights came up, we looked at each other with tears of rage in our eyes. Struggling for words, I said, “I wish I could…just… go out and lynch a bunch of white people.” And then she said, “Oh my God, yes! I’m so glad you said it. I feel like I hate them right now.” Note the conditional words: “right now.”
After reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, after watching the movie, 13th, and the movie, All the Way (about President Lyndon Johnson’s struggle to pass the Civil Rights laws), I’ve felt a temporary surge of anger and outrage toward American white people. It dissipates over a few days though. Why: because I don’t live in America. I have the luxury of time and distance from the influence of white people. Also, I’ve always been able to rationalize that those stories and movies are all historical, way in the past, America is not like that anymore. The most compelling evidence of this is a two-term mulatto President. By the time I get on a plane to go visit America, I’m singing like Steve Perry, “So now I come to you with open arms.”
But lately, since January of this year, I’ve had to change my mind about some things. If America can elect a self-professed bigot, then perhaps I need to revoke my presumption of the innocence of American white people.
The media gurus keep saying it was the poor, disenfranchised whites who voted for Mr. Trump – as if they are the only ones to blame. Really? Well, these people were enflamed, marshalled and corralled to the polls by rich, entitled whites of the Republican Party. And what of the whites in the middle – the moderates? It seems to me that they let this happen. It seems to me that a good chunk of them don’t feel they have a responsibility to do anything about racism and bigotry. They don’t believe in white privilege, so they don’t understand their own power.
I also need to revoke my presumption that things have changed since the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s; and my presumption that by virtue of America becoming a more cosmopolitan place, more cosmopolitan values are at play today. I only recently decided on this, after watching coverage of the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia. The fact that there was violence at the second march, that someone was killed and many others injured, is heartbreaking. But, unfortunately, it was not entirely unexpected. Death by racism seems to be on the rise in America these days.
The other thing that strikes me about the Charlottesville marches is how emblematic they are of a bigger cultural dissonance – one that reaches far beyond the United States – and sits at the heart of what white privilege means in this world.
At the July march in Charlottesville, the BBC ran a photo of young Klansman, in white supremacist uniform, but sporting dreadlocks. Now, I have no problem with a white person wearing dreadlocks. Locs have been worn, in one form or another, by almost every civilization in history – and usually among spiritual sects. However, dreadlocks are most closely associated with black and brown cultures. As far back as 2500 BC, the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, depict the Hindu God, Shiva, wearing locs. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs also wore locs, as we know from carvings, artifacts and even exhumed mummies. And in modern times, locs have been the most recognizable symbol of Rastafarianism, a religious movement which grew in the ghettos of Jamaica during the last century due to the popular teachings of Marcus Garvey. Rasta life is focused on an African-centred lifestyle, the coming of a black king, the Abrahamic covenants and Nazarite Vows of the Old Testament. In short, Jesus will return as the Lion of Judah so rastas wear locs to symbolize a lion’s mane and to await the Lord’s return. Even the word “Rastafarian” comes from the given name of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia: Ras Tafari Makkonnen.
At the August march in Charlottesville, the white supremacists showed up bearing the Tiki torches which are now common-place and commercially available at any of America’s superstores. Tiki torches are of Polynesian origin, used in religious ceremonies to pay respect to their goddess of fire and light. They are also used as festive decorations in several Southeast Asian cultures. Whichever way you look at it, tiki torches come from brown people.
At all of these neo-Nazi gatherings, the swastika flag is pervasive. Growing up in multi-cultured Trinidad, I have seen swastikas lit up during the Hindu religious festival of Divali. A friend of mine, from a spiritual Hindu background, gave me an explanation. Wikipedia pretty much summarises what she had to say: the swastika is an ancient religious icon used on the Indian subcontinent. The word “swastika” comes from Sanskrit (Devanagari: स्वस्तिक), and denotes “conducive to wellbeing or auspicious”. The clockwise swastika is a sacred and auspicious symbol in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. In Hinduism, the clockwise symbol is called swastika symbolizing surya (sun) and prosperity, while the counter clockwise symbol is called sauvastika symbolizing night or tantric aspects of Kali. In Jainism, a swastika is the symbol for Suparshvanatha – the 7th of 24 Tirthankaras (spiritual teachers and saviours), while in Buddhism it symbolizes the auspicious footprints of the Buddha.
Again, brown people thing.
To me, these Charlottesville marches are a perfect example of the acquisitive nature of whiteness. White people have the privilege of rifling through black and brown cultures and then cherry-picking what they like and what they don’t. They keep what they want, then deride us for the rest. Oh, and they don’t just borrow. No, white people have the privilege of converting black and brown spiritual and religious symbols to their own use and benefit. They can actually erase and invert our meanings, till what was a symbol of universal peace becomes a symbol of war – against us.
Best yet, white people’s privilege means they get to take Christianity, a religion which started in Arabia, a religion which centres around a wooly haired, bronze skinned man, and twist it into a reason to hate Arabs. They get to build whole political campaigns based on these abusive inversions. On these principles, they get to tear down our gods and elect their own demi-god of gold.
When American whites do these things, they attack black and brown people everywhere. Not just in America.
A couple years ago I started writing a short-story about a suitcase falling off the conveyor belt at JFK International Airport, New York City. Then I decided I didn’t want to write about a suitcase – at least not that kind of baggage. I wanted to write about metaphysical baggage: the emotional burdens which illegal immigrants carry back and forth from the Caribbean to America; the personal trade-offs they make in pursuit of green money and a Green Card. The final story, “Six Months,” appears in the current (Spring 2017) issue of The New England Review. The issue is available for purchase in digital and print format on NER’s website. Scroll down here for a sneak-peek of the first page.
Six Months speaks to the “box-and-barrel” Caribbean generation who have, from the mid-80’s, lost one or both parents to the enchantments of America. It speaks to the spouses left behind, waiting in the line at Western Union or Moneygram; to the connivance of all family members in accepting material things as a sufficient substitute for a loved one. The protagonist, Luther Archibald Jr, tells it all in his own words and, in a way, asks the reader “What would you do?”
Luther has lost his job and, he fears, the respect of his wife and young sons. He heads to America with a plan to work until his six-month visa is up. His manhood and self-respect are at stake so he works hard and sends all he can back to his family. But, in The Land of Opportunity, Luther’s cherished moral code begins to slip – it starts with just a stolen can of beans. Before he knows it, Luther has become a stranger to himself, an accomplished liar, a fraudster who preys on the affection of his “friend” Becky, as he pursues the goal of getting a Green Card. Just when he thinks he’s in the clear, that he’ll never have to go back to Trinidad, that he can start a new life in America, a frantic phone call comes from home. What should Luther do: stay in America or go back to his family?
“Badman don’t bathe with him baby-mother rag.
Badman do it hard, make she go ‘round go brag.
Shotta clothes don’t wash with gyal underwear…”
That’s my Semi-Standard-English rendition of dancehall song, “Badman” by Jamaican artiste, Elephant Man.
For me, this song has always been both hilarious and annoying – and for the same reason: the male character overshares personal hygiene and housekeeping details, touting them as evidence of his masculinity, his “badmanness.”
So, he does not bathe with his baby-mother’s wash-rag (although, I can’t imagine why anyone – badman or otherwise – would want to use the rag someone else just rubbed their muck with). He does not permit his clothes to be laundered together, in the same tub, with any female underwear (I’m not sure what’s the risk here…leprosy?) And, when engaging in intercourse with the owner of said female underwear, he does it “hard” to ensure she has no choice but to walk around town telling everyone about his prowess.
If this song is not an advertisement for Jamaican hypermasculinity, I don’t know what is.
“Hypermasculinity” is a psychological term for the exaggeration of male stereotypical behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality.
And you know what? Jamaicans aren’t the only ones who suffer from it. There are Trinidadian men walking around with the same mentality. And you know what’s worse? There are Trini women actively enabling this hypermasculine mindset in their sons, and propagating the acceptance of it in their daughters. I know this is happening because I’ve had some of those conversations, with well-meaning elders, about the finer details of marriage. You know, tips on how to keep a man by being a proper wife/maid/cook/ironer/exotic beauty-queen.
Hypermasculinity is dangerous though. Its effects are debilitating, just like a disease, and it cripples boys. It supplies them with a long list of things they cannot (and dare not) do – if they wish to be seen as men. Schoolwork is one of those things. A recent bbc.com article looked at Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean boys and concluded that these boys chose to perform poorly at school to avoid undermining their masculinity. The article says, “That notion of masculinity says that if as a male you aspire to perform highly it means you are feminine, even to the extent of saying you are gay.”
Hypermasculinity isn’t just an “Afro” problem either. Sure, in Jamaica where the majority of the population is black, only 20% of students are men at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus. However, in Trinidad, where the population is significantly more diverse (2011 Census: 35.4% East Indian, 34.2 African, 22.8% Mixed) men account for a measly 25% of the student body at the St. Augustine campus. Where have all the schoolboys – of all races – gone?
Let’s be real: pernicious masculinity has always been a feature of gender relations in the Indo-Trinidadian community. You cannot study our history without encountering that chapter on “coolie wife murders.” And who can forget VS Naipaul’s classic, The Mystic Masseur? When the protagonist, Ganesh, beats his wife, Leela, on their wedding night, “it meant much to both of them”, for this first of beatings gives her status equal to other Indian wives.
In the traditional Indo-Trinidadian culture, girls are groomed for marriage from childhood. At marriage, the woman becomes part of (read: “the property of”) her husband’s family and she is expected to be submissive to her husband as well as his family. She is expected to cater to their needs and desires at the expense of her own.
Undoubtedly, there have been significant changes in Indo-Trinidadian gender relations now that more women are going to high school and university, and holding prestigious jobs. We can even boast of having had an Indian woman as Prime Minister. But don’t be fooled, hypermasculinity is still alive and well in that community. You need only look as far as local Chutney-Soca music. Let’s take, for instance, the song that copped the 2017 Chutney Soca Monarch title:
“Ramsingh Sharma, the village ram from San Juan.
He have he wife and he dey with the sister.
They buy he visa to take him to Canada.
One give him house, one give him a motor car.
…Them girl does bathe he, dress he, mind he and give him all their money.”
So, Ramsingh Sharma is the Lothario of the town of San Juan. An urban legend. As “The Village Ram”, his sexual exploits make him a kind of Robin Hood – he goes deep into forests that are not his own and reaps where he did not sow. In fact, the man is so good that he’s screwing his wife AND his sister-in-law at the same time, and they both know about it and don’t seem to mind. Instead, they shower him with material things and cater to all his vices.
Although this song originated in the Indo-Trinidadian community, it is the biggest crossover hit of this Carnival and can still be heard everywhere, gleefully sung by everyone – even my two-year old daughter. Why was it so popular? Because it personifies the ultra-masculinity which is most applauded in our society: “the sweet man”. Every male aspires to be Ramsingh Sharma. And females – wives, mothers – are conditioned to accept this aspiration as normal and inevitable.
As adults, we all laugh at the lyrics of Ramsingh Sharma, we treat them like an inside joke and assume that children don’t understand. Or do they? Mind you: this isn’t a case of double entendre, nothing is tongue-in-cheek here, the song is very clear for any half-literate man, woman, or child to grasp: Ramsingh is fucking and living off his wife and her sister. I wonder how many fathers (and mothers) actually took the opportunity, after hearing their sons singing this song, to stop and explain that Ramsingh’s promiscuity – particularly the intra-family aspect – is morally wrong, reckless and nothing worth emulating? Maybe such conversations are too awkward – God forbid we should to talk to our kids about sexual behaviour? Or maybe we expect boys to figure out these sexual and moral do’s and don’ts for themselves, later, after they’ve made life-altering, family-wrecking decisions.
But if we aren’t talking to our sons, the music will. Whether Indo or Afro, Jamaican or Trini, or otherwise, the cultural exhortation to Caribbean boys goes something like this: Badman don’t study schoolwork, he does study gyul. Why work? Just fuck hard and get everything for free.
What about your son, Reader? To him, what are the do’s and don’ts of manhood? Do you know?
I’ve been travelling back and forth, from Trinidad to Boston, quite a bit in the last few years. Naturally, people are curious, people ask questions. Like, “What’s the difference between Trinis and New Englanders.” My standard reply has always been, “Trinis are extremely warm but impolite. New Englanders are extremely polite but not warm.”
I say this because people in New England (much more than any place I’ve ever been) seem to be motivated by the demands of “political correctness.”
In Trinidad…not so much. I’m pretty sure New England females didn’t grow up having to walk down the street with salutations like, “Glasses!”, “Convent Girl!”, “Friend…Family!” being shouted by random men. I’m certain New Englanders don’t, in casual conversation, address/refer to each other by ethnic/racial monikers: “Aye! Chinee, long time no see,”; “Dougla, you looking nice today,”; “Blacks is a fella could real sing,”; “Where Red-man?”
And I’ve never seen New Englanders arbitrarily comment on each other’s physical state: “Sexy Pregnant Thing!”; “How you looking so small, boy? You have worries or what?”; “Like you putting on some size, girl? W’happen the man treating you nice?”; “Tall-man how school going?” In Trinidad, this is all regarded as good-natured, mundane conversation. And should you betray even the slightest sign of feeling wounded, real insults – hot like Moruga Scorpion Pepper – would then be rubbed in, just to teach you a lesson for being so “thin-skin.”
The meaning of “political correctness” has evolved over time. It was first used around 1970 in the United States and its abbreviation “P.C.” started appearing in the late 1980s. The original sense may be summarized as: the political movement and phenomenon, which began in the US, with the aim to enforce a set of ideologies and views on the topics of gender, race and other minorities. It refers to language and ideas that may cause offence to some identity groups and aims at giving preferential treatment to members of those social groups.
However, its meaning has bloomed over the years, from just covering minority groups to basically everybody. Take, for example, this definition from a 2015 Upworthy article: “what it basically comes down to is political correctness means not being a jerk to others. Political correctness is nothing more than treating others with respect. Being kind. Being a nice person.”
Simultaneous with this expansion in meaning, the term “politically correct” acquired derogatory connotations in the United States. As one commentator put it, “it’s often used as an epithet … something we say to people who we think are suppressing necessary truth for fear of offending.”
If the 2016 US Presidential Race is any indication, views on “political correctness” have polarized that country. To grossly over-simplify the debate, I’ll just say that the political left seems convinced that being PC means just being a decent person; the political right seems to view it as a form of speech policing.
Once the USA catches something, the whole world gets a fever. So it’s no surprise the concept of “political correctness” has spread to Trinidad and Tobago. Recently, a friend of mine was on Facebook lamenting this new trend of Trinis copying the US “hyper sensitive society…where everybody is offended for something.”
He raises an interesting question. How does “political correctness” work in a place like Trinidad. How does it work where whites, progeny of the slave-owning class, are the minority? Is it supposed to protect them? Should we never mention the atrocities of their forefathers so as to protect them from embarrassment, discomfort or white-guilt?
And there is this: How does PC operate on an island that was British, but spoke French and Spanish, and was populated mostly by Africans and Indians, with the later addition of Chinese and Syrian/Lebanese immigrants – and then everyone began to have sexual relations with everyone else? When you’re mixed with at least three different ethnicities, who is The Other and who is your brother? When your father’s family is Muslim, your mother’s is Hindu and you’re married to a Christian, which God do you defend? And since there is always some Other in you, wouldn’t you end up being offended every five minutes?
My friend’s objection to PC is not the same as the US complaint that it inhibits truth-telling. He is saying that a too-ready adoption of PC will undermine the School-of-Hard-Knocks in which both he and I were trained and blooded to face the world. He is suggesting that we are swapping out Trini thick-skin for US brittleness; trading in our emotional dexterity for the flat-footedness of taking offence. Maybe he’s right.
In a seminal 1996 article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell tried to analyse the success West Indian immigrants have enjoyed in America. He talked of his Jamaican cousin, Noel, who “had a job once removing asbestos at Kennedy Airport, and his boss there called him “nigger” and cut his hours. But Noel didn’t take it personally.” Instead, Noel rationalized that the boss “didn’t like women or Jews, either, or people with college degrees–or even himself, for that matter.” Gladwell also mentions Noel was aspiring to move his family to a bigger house in Garden City. When a Black-American friend pointed out that Garden City was mostly-white and “no place for a black person,” Noel wasn’t fazed at all – being “fair-skinned,” with a white grandfather, he didn’t consider himself black at all.
Complicate that situation with two or three other family ethnicities and/or religions and you have the average Trini.
Maybe that’s part of our prowess. We can tolerate other people calling us names because we call each other those things first. We mentally side-step prejudice by convincing ourselves that our tangled genealogy makes us exempt. Maybe that is the key to our hardiness. Maybe that’s why Trinis spring up everywhere and thrive, like weeds, some might say. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell is correct: for us, people from a tiny rock marching with our funny accent and non-white skin into a big, hostile world, a too-ready assimilation of American values – like political correctness – may be tantamount to suicide.
I’ll tell you one thing: whenever I step foot in the US -New England or otherwise – I wear my Trini exoskeleton with pride. It’s a good look for me.