A Conversation with Evelyn O’Callaghan
A Conversation with Evelyn O’Callaghan
Evelyn O’Callaghan is central to the foundation of West Indian feminist criticism. She has taught West Indian literature in the Department of Language, Linguistics, and Literature at Cave Hill since 1983, and she has served in various editorial positions for journals such as Ariel and Callaloo and is presently on the editorial boards of Anthurium, Ma Comère, and Caribbean Quarterly, as well as on the advisory board of Shibboleths. Her monograph Woman Version (1993) was published as West Indian women’s writing became more visible; in it, she establishes a distinctive West Indian aspect of feminist literary theory by reading women’s literature in its local context. Her more recent projects include the book Women Writing the West Indies, 1804–1939: “A Hot Place, Belonging to Us” (2004) and a collaboration with Alison Donnell that addressed sexual diversity in the twenty-first-century Caribbean (“Breaking Sexual Silences,” 2010–2011). I had the privilege of speaking with Professor O’Callaghan at the University of the West Indies’ Cave Hill, Barbados, campus in August 2011.
Sheryl Gifford: You chose to open Woman Version, a seminal text in Caribbean feminist critical history, with Velma Pollard’s “Woman Poets (with your permission).” How might that poem relate to your experience as one of the first critics of Caribbean women’s writing?
Evelyn O’Callaghan: When I started researching Caribbean women’s writing as a distinct group, or genre, I suppose there was a certain amount of condescension among the male critical “big names” about this “charming new literature.” That said, if it wasn’t for Mervyn Morris, I would never have started reading Erna Brodber’s work, and if it wasn’t for Erna Brodber’s work I would’ve never gotten into Caribbean women’s writing. I was a “dyed-in-the-wool” fan of West Indian literature, but that would have been the canonical male writing, from Roger Mais and V. S. Reid onward. It never occurred to me until I read Brodber’s work how different the writing was, and then from there on, it was just an easy broadening of the net to include other Caribbean women writers and women’s writing. So while I still think there was a certain amount of “ghettoization” of these writers among the critical mainstream, there was also very encouraging support from established critics in Jamaica, in the Caribbean.
And from abroad, too: Woman Version would never have been published without the encouragement of Stewart Brown, the eminent Caribbean critic and poet in his own right, who said to me, “You know, you have all these essays on this aspect of West Indian lit. Why don’t you put them together in some kind of coherent form?” So I think the time was right for the work to be given serious analysis, and I think the time was a different time than that about which Velma was writing. In other words, the writers faced a lot more difficulty in having their voices heard than we did in writing about their work. I think that they braved the first wave of, “What is this stuff?,” and by the time they had established a voice, by the time I came along, there was no need to argue the case anymore. They were worthy of studying, worthy of any kind of analysis that any of us cared to bring to it.
SG: Yet critics initially valued West Indian women’s writing using an outside—namely, African American—feminist critical perspective, though this literature characterized by its connection to place had established a voice within it. If the literature was worthy, why wasn’t it first read contextually, or as the “remix” or “dub” version you proposed in Woman Version?
EO: Because it needed legitimacy. That was the time when you had to be part of a theoretical or other school in order to be taken seriously abroad; therefore, we had to affiliate ourselves with some stream, some mainstream of critical theory, and at the time African American literature seemed the obvious place to go for critical models, not to mention the fact that scholars of African American women’s writing were very quick to appropriate Caribbean women’s writing. Still are, and that is a problem I have, because the work constructs an entirely different reality; it’s developed out of an entirely different tradition. I think that probably it was a combination of those two factors: the [need for legitimization and the] readiness to appropriate it as part of “black women’s writing” generally. But it didn’t do our writing any favors. And that’s why in Woman Version I think I tried at the time to say, “Well, we don’t need to read the work only in that way. We don’t need to buy into somebody else’s canon; we can look at our own and find ways of adapting as creolization always does: borrows and adapts.” [Yet] there was at the time a strong suspicion of “theory” in West Indian academia. I’ve actually heard it said at a conference, [that] this “theory business” is a bit like homosexuality, it’s a Western fashion that you’re bringing to impose on us, it’s colonization all over again. But really what that meant was, “I can’t be bothered to read it and understand it, so I’ll just criticize it as foreign.” There was a knee-jerk reaction, and I remember having long arguments with my colleague Glyne Griffith, who [was] here, about this, and [us] both agreeing that you had to do the work first. If you’re going to dismiss European or French feminism, you’ve got to read it first. You’ve got to engage with it, and you might discover some [approaches that] can be applied to West Indian literary analysis. So I think the writing needed the legitimacy of a kind of a . . .
SG: . . . a more recognizable critical frame, albeit a developing one?
SG: In your article about Frieda Cassin’s With Silent Tread, you describe the West Indian academy’s perception of that “theory business” as “imported, white, and thus irrelevant to the material culture of the local context.”1 How has the academy’s perception of theory and its relevance changed, and might any particular changes be attributed to Caribbean feminist criticism?
EO: Well, it’s not the kind of rarefied and suspect practice that it was in the nineties. Decades have gone by in which students have, in the Caribbean as well as in the diaspora, been thoroughly grounded in all kinds of theory. And it has been owned in the Caribbean; there are strong West Indian voices that have contributed long before the term had currency. Wilson Harris was poststructuralist long before there was such a term. I don’t think we’re as nervous of theory as we were, I don’t think it’s in any way seen as a foreign imposition any more, yet somehow—I’m speaking just from my experience—somehow I don’t think theory is quite as “cutting edge” as it used to be. I find people are no longer required to show their theoretical credentials up front when they are writing about literary work. [Has] the theorizing of Caribbean women’s writing made a difference? Well, I think there’s no going back to a pre-feminist position here. It’s very much squarely in the mainstream, at every level of literary analysis from, I would say, secondary school right up to the postgraduate level. I think it’s done its job. That said, I find that if you’re reading the work of some of the newer critics now, it doesn’t seem to be as theoretically dense as was the fashion in the nineties. [Like] Bhabha; much as I love his work, I think the language he uses just turned off so many people that they called for a more grounded analysis. And certainly that’s the case in the Caribbean, where you have a duty to try and reach the widest number of possible readers, and that’s going to be a very small number of readers for obvious reasons here. So, to fence yourself off into the very specialized language of literary jargon is counterproductive for the majority of us who are actually involved in teaching as well as writing.
SG: Your teaching clearly informs your scholarship—in the first few pages of Woman Version, you describe how your female students’ responses to the literature defined your search for a syncretic approach to Caribbean women’s writing. And in a later article, you ask how women’s literature can be taught to effect social change.2 How does your critical approach help you accomplish that?
EO: When you confront students with challenging fictions, and then you make a link with current political- or gender-related issues that are problematic in this particular place at this particular time, they respond very well. When you use the same fiction or poetry or drama to serve as a tool for an arcane theoretical unpacking, they turn off. I’ve really had to develop my teaching practice to, as Sidney said, “sugarcoat the bitter pill of philosophy,” to [make] them receptive and then open their minds. And again, the changes since the nineties are phenomenal. We have a much more confident, to a certain extent open-minded, sexually liberated (and not hypocritical-about-it) group—I’ve seen them develop considerably. However, there’s a clash for some with fundamentalist Christianity. Some students’ beliefs make transgressive stories [of texts], particularly when it has to do with the representation of alternative sexualities, in which I’m more interested of late. Non-heteronormative sexual desire is absolutely taboo for these students, and there’s no point in engaging in a debate. However, the majority of them do engage with the writing. Perhaps it’s to do with the way that I am asking the questions, presenting the literature. Perhaps I’ve learned a little bit more over time. For example, there’s still a great deal of homophobia here in the Caribbean. If you go straight into the class and wear your politics on your sleeve and say, “You know, this is wrong, homophobia is wrong, and we’re going to [read] Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night,” say, or one of Patricia Powell’s novels to prove it wrong, you’re going to have a confrontational encounter.
SG: Immediate resistance.
EO: Exactly. If you, by contrast, start off by asking, “Have any of you experienced name calling, or being marginalized because of, say, your weight, or your race, or your class?,” they begin to respond positively to that, and of course follows several personal anecdotes and then you ask, “Well, then, how is it possible that having experienced that kind of discrimination, that kind of marginalization, you feel able to do it to somebody else who happens to love in a different way than you do?” Or, you go in and you just teach the text as neutrally as you can, and then ask for their responses, and even against their beliefs, they will come up with sympathies for characters they should doctrinally demonize, with questions of right and wrong that enable that whole area to be unpacked in the classroom.
SG: So you begin with those binaries they already accept, or their “oppositional logic,” and you use that as a way to get them out of it.
EO: Precisely, precisely. And I do believe—I’m not paying lip service to it, I’ve seen it happen—that reading literature in a sensitive and informed and critical way, not just consuming it like a soap opera like they watch on TV, can open minds, can change ingrained ways of thinking, can [help them] envision, as Jacqui Alexander says, “another kind of citizenship.”3 And if the only thing I have managed to do over my working life is to make those changes in a couple of people, then I think I’ve done a good job. Up till last semester I saw evidence of this. I was in England at a conference in Essex, and I checked my e-mail, and there was a student from . . . oh, I think she’s from St. Vincent, who was writing to say (and this is after one semester of Caribbean women’s writing in which we dealt with marginalization [and] the demonization of homosexuality, or alternative sexualities), that—I think it was in Uganda—they were proposing outlawing homosexuality and making it punishable by years in prison, or flogging, or something, and she was furious about this and wanted to sign an online petition censoring the law. She was trying to whip up support among her friends and they all turned on her, apparently, and asked, “Where is she getting these kinds of ideas?” So she was writing for some kind of backup, some kind of support . . .
SG: . . . an explanation for her actions that might also get her friends to reconsider their support.
EO: Indeed. I said, “Well, for people who have for four or five hundred years experienced racism and marginalization and dehumanization to turn around and do it to one of their own, surely there’s something wrong there.” And maybe she did take that, maybe she didn’t. But the fact is that in one semester, her thinking and her courage in expressing a different way of thinking had changed. This particular writing is speaking to them in a way that I don’t think that of V.S. Reid would, or even Derek Walcott. Caribbean women’s stories are about having your first period, stories about difficult relationships of a daughter with [her] single mother, stories about illegitimacy and how sex can lead to a girl’s dropping out of school. Everybody has some friend who’s a little different in terms of their supposed sexual preference. These are stories that relate to them, and I think that they can engage with them in a way that allows them to see the writing as actually or possibly inflecting their own experience so that it’s not simply part of their formal education. In fact, the hardest thing for me is to keep students focusing on the works as texts!
EO: Because mostly they want to relate to them as true stories. They want to get into arguing about why didn’t she do this and why didn’t she do that, and I have to say to them, “Guys, this is a construct. [It’s] only made of words put together in a certain way, and you are here to unpack it, not to assume that there is a given answer and that it’s all like a nice film with a beginning, middle and end.” When I say they engage personally, I mean they really engage. They start quarreling! I hope I’m not disturbing other people nearby, because it gets very hot.
SG: And that engagement becomes a tool to broaden their perspectives.
EO: Yes. You have to do that, play devil’s advocate, or encourage somebody to say something you know will set off a reaction in the rest of the class or with others. I’m not under any illusions: it’s a second-year survey course of Caribbean women’s writing. The serious work gets done at the graduate level, or [in] final year courses, which are advanced seminars. But this is my one chance to reach as many as possible, young men as well as older women, and expose them, because they’re never going to get exposed to it again. There are not that many other courses that are focusing on Caribbean women’s writing, so this is my chance to “get to them.” And I will cater to the majority, so I don’t attempt particularly sophisticated analyses. My intentions [are] quite political; I want to open their minds, question certain things that they think about gender and identity in particular, and suggest the possibility of other ways of being [and/or] being woman.
SG: To what degree does an African American critical framework inform their understanding of the literature?
EO: African American writing is obviously very popular here, and a lot of the critical studies that they have read about West Indian texts does come from the US academy, and much of it does speak about these commonalities, so that there is that temptation to homogenize the specificity of the writing. But the corrective is a grounding in postcolonial theory, which has become very strong here; we call our department “Literatures in English,” not “English Literature” anymore. And the postcolonial demand to always historicize, always specify, helps to counteract that assimilation into the African American tradition, because they know perfectly well that the problems faced by, say, Dionne Brand’s characters in Canada are very different from those characters in a Barbadian [or] Grenadian setting. The temptation to homogenize, to essentialize black women’s writing . . .
SG: . . . and experience . . .
EO: Yes. And the writing of the experience is always there, but is one which they’re always pulling against. Remember that the students, like a lot of us, want easy simplicities. We don’t want things to be complicated. We like our binaries. They like to know that there is this one thing called identity, and it is shaped entirely by race or gender, and that therefore all of these kinds of people are the same [and] have the same politics, and all [they] have to do is learn one or two clear statements about this and [they’ve] solved the problem of who they are. They don’t like having to unpack that complex weave of cultures that has made up the Caribbean, because it demands unraveling it, demands looking at the sophisticated and intricate patterns that emerge in this writing. Such analysis isn’t easy to synopsize, meaning the texts are not easy to use for propaganda purposes. I stress the need to fight the urge to essentialize, so much so that students are delighted to say to me, “You’re essentializing, Miss!” I just keep trying [to tell them that] each case, each text, each writer has be read within [a] context, and that context is not something that you can just dispense with. [Essentializing] of gender and race is reinforced everywhere. It’s reinforced in popular culture, it’s reinforced in media, and it’s reinforced on the bloody internet over and over again.
SG: Speaking of that, you recently collaborated on a project with Alison Donnell that addressed the reinforcement of normative sexual identities in the Caribbean.
EO: Yes, the project is called “Breaking Sexual Silences,” and it was just a one-year, very intense effort to open up the question of alternative sexualities in a more quiet space outside of the huge battlefield with its very decided, drawn sides that has blown up over the issue of homophobia in dancehall music. We wanted to take it out of that sphere. [Alison] had done work on this before, and will continue to, I’m sure. There is a strong feeling that the intervention of the Western anti-homophobia, gay rights lobbies have done no favors for correcting the marginalization of homosexuality in the Caribbean; quite the opposite. Such groups have wagged their fingers and said, “You savages, you’d better change, or we’re not coming to your country to spend money.” And they remind us that the pink dollar counts. What we were trying to do was look at the field of Caribbean writing by men and women, and say, “Look, alternative sexuality has been treated here, it’s been discussed here, it’s been exposed here, it’s been aired here, but in a quite different way.” And the literary discussions are not for proving ourselves to an outside audience or judge, but instead engaging with the subject in a local context by people who are involved. That was what we tried to do—quite bravely, I think. We tried to shake things up a little, move away from the “Boom Boom Bye” uproar. You know the song I’m talking about? It’s a very popular Buju Banton song which basically incites murdering “batty men,” killing gays. There’s an element of that rhetoric in dancehall, without a doubt. But we’re trying to say, “Leave that aside—not all of us are proponents of that political perspective.” Many of us think a bit more carefully about these issues. And quite a few of our younger writers have actually expressed them.
We were also talking about opening up conversations about sexuality generally, and issues of sexual preference secondarily, because there’s such a contradiction, especially in Barbados, between the valorization of liberated female sexuality and the depiction of the female body as lush, very much exposed on the road, in carnival and dance and so forth, which contrasts with a kind of prudish, almost Victorian idea of what constitutes correct female behavior, especially once you’re in a partnership. Probably the best achievement of the project in local terms was when we had Oonya Kempadoo visiting. [She] was reading from her novel [Buxton Spice] about children exploring their own sexuality and laughing about it and treating it as something natural, which makes for some uncomfortable listening, because she’s very up front. And then Thomas Glave [read] from his anthology Our Caribbean, which consists of gay and lesbian writing by people from the Caribbean.4 He chose quite raw, quite explicit material to read, and we had an absolutely packed house on a Monday evening. They sat on the floor, they stood at the doors, and it was wonderful that people from all walks of life had come to the university to hear these voices. I’m quite pleased about that, because it means that the “ivory tower” impression of the university is being revisited, and we were trying to present it as a safe space for the discussion of more progressive views legitimated by a body of respected and talented writers, and to suggest that you don’t have to be an academic to read novels that deal with these issues.
SG: You were able to challenge violence, traditionally the sole response to alternative sexualities, on many levels.
EO: Yes. It’s terrible, because you do feel implicated when you’re at a party, or a fête, and you’re dancing and all of a sudden you hear the lyrics that you’re dancing to. And then the whole party will be jumping and putting up [hands] in the air to words that are actually inciting violence and hatred. So it’s not just about the actual violence, but the popularizing and disseminating of the rhetoric of violence, and [countering] the smug self-righteousness that justifies it. You read the letters in the local newspapers, and at least every two or three days will be some religious letter writer, or preacher, or reverend, or “A Christian” saying that we’re being punished for something, we’re going against the Bible, moral standards have fallen, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. As I’ve written somewhere . . . probably [in] Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean—it’s just come out, edited by Faith Smith—the biggest student association on all three [UWI] campuses is the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. There’s a very strong evangelical movement worldwide, and especially in developing countries, and I think that there’s always a return to tried-and- true beliefs in times of turmoil and unease. As long as it doesn’t condone any attack on other people, that’s fine. When it does, then I have issues with religion. And that’s not a popular thing to say in the classroom, I’ll tell you that.
SG: Even though your issue is with the situational rejection of fundamental Christian principles?
EO: Yes. “First, do no harm”—that’s the message of Shani Mootoo’s latest novel, and I think that whatever you believe in, whatever your faith, that should be a central tenet.5 If it isn’t, then I have problems with it. I try not to get into that in the classroom. Their religious convictions are not really something I think is any of my business, but they know where I’m coming from.
SG: You’re also engaged in breaking critical silences; for example, your work on writers like Frieda Cassin counters the myth that Caribbean women’s writing emerged relatively recently. How would you characterize your critical work and its effects?
EO: When I think now of what we’ve achieved over the last thirty years! Nobody would dream of referring to the West Indian canon in terms of the boys only. Ever again. Ironically, a couple of years back, I came to think, why am I teaching this course, Caribbean Women’s Writing? Every course on West Indian literature now includes Caribbean women’s writing. Am I just doing something that’s passé? Should I now be [taking] a more comparative approach? And then the issue of alternative sexualities became interesting to me, or just more urgent, I suppose, and I felt that Caribbean women’s literature was still a good body of work to use in addressing this issue up front. Yes, [work on women writers] is a small field within the larger body of critical studies; there’s a huge industry of [Kamau] Brathwaite studies, of [Derek] Walcott studies, of [V. S.] Naipaul studies. But there are writers that were very prominent in the canon when I was first at Mona in the early eighties that have fallen out of fashion. Alison Donnell’s work engages with that, with which critical moments established certain writers at different times, and how it changes. Still, I think that there’s a small but hardworking group of critics that has put women’s writing very much on the map—Elaine Savory, Carole Boyce Davies, Denise deCaires Narain, and many others—and that it will never be omitted again. I think that the critical legitimacy of our work over time has been a good strong matrix for that development. Funny, I never think about these things, you know? It’s just part of what I do, but when I look at books on my shelf, that whole top shelf is all feminist theory, African American women, and madness, the next shelf is early English and early writing by women, right through to West Indian postcolonial and specifically Caribbean women’s writing. So it’s there, you know? It can’t be “un-there-ed”; it can’t be taken back.
To return to your question, because I am an academic as well as a feminist, and because I have an old-fashioned view of research in certain respects, I also feel the need to keep digging at the other, more scholarly side of the writing. So my last book was all about early [nineteenth-century] Caribbean women’s writing. I enjoy that kind of archival scholarly work, too. The Frieda Cassin edition was a part of that project, and I have just finished an introduction for Peepal Tree’s reissue of Elma Napier’s book A Flying Fish Whispered. Elma Napier was a writer in the thirties. She’s Lennox Honychurch’s grandmother, in Dominica, the first of a long line of famous Napiers-Honychurchs, and she has written two novels, and this one, I think, is quite interesting from an ecofeminist angle. I’m always working in the background as well as the foreground, looking at contemporary, cutting-edge women’s writing and what it brings to the table in terms of political issues and gender and sexuality issues, but also shoring up that tradition by seeing how far back we can trace it and how it has developed.
SG: And those voices from the past can’t speak until you do that work. You’re stretching out what being a Caribbean woman writer means by uncovering what it meant, extending the history of that voice.
EO: Yes, exactly. By stretching it out, you are expanding the term. This focus is not a popular move for some critics, one of whom asked me, “Why didn’t you call the book White Women’s Writing?” And I said, “Because Mary Prince is not white.” Neither are the Hart sisters, Mary Seacole, et cetera. The implication is that including long-dead white women within a study of West Indian literature is suspect. There’s always that temptation, that knee-jerk reaction, to say that opening up a category too much renders it meaningless. But for now, I think Caribbean women’s writing can be broadened in terms of who’s in and who’s out in a productive way rather than a “flattening out” kind of way. And I hope we can continue to do it, because [I have encountered] lots and lots of writing, not always of the same quality, that is completely unknown. And I like digging, so the line is not exhausted by any means yet, in my opinion. Of course, in the here and now, new talents keep emerging. I really like Kei Miller’s work, and Marlon James’s also. I think that [they] are some of the male writers [who] are going to even up the balance a little bit, because I think they’re good writers, and they’re accessible, and what they’re writing about is important to Caribbean women as much as men.
SG: You mentioned wondering how pressing gender issues are in contemporary West Indian literary scholarship. What have you concluded? Are gender studies passé?
EO: I’m very torn about that because sometimes I do feel work on gender is regarded as almost passé. There’s always a time, as feminists understand, when you have to prioritize the work of the marginalized at the expense of any links to, or developments out of, other traditions. And that’s necessary to give the marginalized writing space, to allow its voices to be heard. Caribbean women’s writing needed that authority, needed that kind of respectability in order to be taken seriously. But now, I think that perhaps the work—I hope I’m right in saying this—is so much part of the mainstream that it sometimes seems counterproductive to separate women writers out into a group. I mentioned that this is what I thought about a couple years ago in terms of changing this course on Caribbean women’s writing, and perhaps teasing out more and more connections with the same kind of issues, the same kind of stylistic conundrums, in writing by men of the same generation. But something always holds me back . . . because I see how students respond to these texts in a way that they do not respond to the traditional works of West Indian literature. There’s still some kind of excitement and novelty for them encountering this literature that I feel I should nurture, even though for me, the work is as canonical as that of Brathwaite. And so I keep teaching the course. It’s my area, [and] I’ll always be interested in it. The only [other] thing that interests me that I would like to develop outside of this field of Caribbean literature, specifically by women, is the idea of visual representation. I’m fascinated by that field and have been doing a bit of research. Oh, and ecocriticism too. But they’re easily adaptable—they’re easy enough to incorporate into the study of Caribbean women’s writing. For me, anyway. I’ll find a way.
Sheryl Gifford is a PhD candidate and an instructor of English at Florida Atlantic University.
1 Evelyn O’Callaghan, “‘The Unhomely Moment’: Frieda Cassin’s Nineteenth-Century Antiguan Novel and the Construction of the White Creole,” Small Axe, no. 29 (April 2009): 96.
2 Evelyn O’Callaghan, “Form, Genre, and the Thematics of Community in Caribbean Women’s Writing,” Shibboleths 2, no. 2 (2008): 107–17.
3 See M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).
4 Oonya Kempadoo, Buxton Spice (London: Phoenix House, 1998); Thomas Glave, ed., Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
5 Shani Mootoo, Valmiki’s Daughter (Toronto: House of Anansi, 2008).