Decolonial Mapping, Same-Sex-Loving Women, and Erotic Autonomy

Krystal Nandini Ghisyawan, Erotic Cartographies: Decolonization and the Queer Caribbean Imagination (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2022); 276 pages; ISBN: 978-1978821361 (paperback)

• June 2022

For Krystal Nandini Ghisyawan the erotic is the source of knowledge that guides the same-sex-loving woman into the beyond of colonial boundaries. Here she can be fully herself while in the intimate company of other women. Yet this cartography is not fixed, instead bourgeoning at the feet of these women who walk in step with their erotic knowledge. This queer decolonial praxis, as Ghisyawan notes, is spatial, ontological, embodied, and subjective and makes room for same-sex-loving women to “contest limits placed on the body” by reshaping and remapping space beyond the rigid boundaries of colonial discourse (205). Erotic Cartographies is an interdisciplinary text that brings together fields of literary and sociocultural analysis. Ghisyawan engages with thinkers such as Maria Lugones, Audre Lorde, M. Jacqui Alexander, Gloria Anzaldua, and Katherine McKittrick, whose work spans the fields of philosophy, geography, education, literary, and cultural theory. Her research process includes interviews and participatory mapping exercises, which are her primary archive for considering the erotic lives of same-sex-loving women in Trinidad specifically and the Caribbean more broadly.

Erotic Cartographies is divided into three parts, mirroring the sensual, the (personal as) political, and the spiritual of Lorde’s erotic.1 Part 1 defines the ways same-sex-loving women affect space by the simple fact of being present, even and especially in moments of what Ghisyawan refers to as “queer absented presence,” or how “queer people within the diaspora are . . . discursively erased from spaces where they legitimately exist and act” (26).2 Ghisyawan’s primary intervention, subjective mapping, offers a decolonial method that centers the embodied knowledge and erotic lives of Trinidad’s same-sex-loving women as subjects who resist erasure while continuously remapping the Caribbean according to the spatial relations of women who love women against the grain of colonial exclusion and conditions for public participation. Each participatory map begins with a question—“Where do you feel safe to express yourself regarding your sexuality?”—and elicits varied expressions and interpretations of what it means to map, moving from abstract representations of an interior world, to islands of refuge represented by a bar here, a bed there, to an idyllic setting from a recent past or imagined future. Depending on one’s race, class, and gender expression, spaces considered safe on one participant’s map might be excluded from or marked as unsafe on another’s. Time also matters. As in the difference between walking through a public space at night and in the daytime, or between negotiating relationships at home and enjoying the privacy of home when other members of the household are away, time suggests the transience of safety and how what might be a safe space in one moment can change with the sudden intrusion of a threat.

This relationship between space and time is also picked up in part 3, “State, Religion, and Personhood,” which emphasizes the ways same-sex-loving women defy their conditional belonging by juxtaposing the constraints of religious nationalism with the liberating potential of spiritual knowledge. Ghisyawan makes clear the historic role of religion in sustaining Caribbean people in the face of colonial violence, while acknowledging how “colonial violence and trauma through religion gets reenacted daily through the continued use of religion to deny bodily autonomy” (170). It can be generative, then, to look to spiritual workers and Hinduism before exegesis to understand: “Fixating on sense-data misleads one to believe they are the body, when in reality they are an energetic being (soul) that is part of an infinite cosmic soup. To know the self is to know the soul, the spirit. To know the spirit is to know all of existence” (172; italics in the original). For Ghisyawan, the body is the means by which we obtain this spiritual knowledge and erotic fulfillment as made possible through creative expression of the spirit, spiritual activism, and the erotic as the love of self and other.

The text’s more capacious section is part 2, “Confronting Binaries: Space, Gender, and Social Class,” in which Ghisyawan challenges the false binary between the public and private spheres. Here performance becomes an essential mechanism in navigating the terrain of visibility; masculine-identifying women dress in ways to pass as femme, while queer women also perform forms of legibility to feel seen when in queer spaces. The class dynamics of privacy, which dictate who can own a home and who stays with family, highlights uneven access to peace of mind. Yet visible divergence from the heteronormative family structure makes any degree of privacy tenuous, since private affairs can quickly become public gossip. In one instance, “though the couple kept their relationship hidden and private, rumors of its occurrence were enough to breach the accepted societal norms, resulting in their rejection and ridicule” (123). The concept of the safe space, then, is less about how queer women create spaces for unconditional loving and more about how they negotiate the difference between spaces that are unsafe and safe enough. Thus “home” at the level of the dwelling and of the nation is difficult to reconcile. Across the Caribbean, nationalist ideals regulate queer locals while often offering relative space to the foreigner who is recognized as queer. For example, when Teila left Trinidad to study in Barbados, her experience contradicted that of her Barbadian girlfriend’s: “I never faced discrimination in Barbados, and my girlfriend told me that it was because I was a foreigner. They kind of expect this kind of behavior from us, so they don’t really care what foreigners do, but for locals it’s an entirely different scenario” (97). The relational disparities between being a queer woman in but not of a particular Caribbean island are devastating because they offer a glimpse at what it could be to feel safe at home amid more limiting conditions for national belonging and citizenship. The greater Caribbean becomes an extension of the possibilities of a home where same-sex-loving women can more fully inhabit their erotic selves.

Included in the text are reproductions of participants’ subjective mappings. These make visible Erotic Cartographies’ own textual performance of community, coauthorship, witnessing, and amplification. The ethics of Ghisyawan’s work are clear: to represent the experiences of same-sex-loving Caribbean women authentically and make visible the practices of erotic autonomy that move us beyond spaces structured in coloniality. Still there are moments when I wish the author had taken the time to more closely read the participant’s maps, the symbols they chose to use, and the possible latent narratives that might live in the illustrations beyond those articulated in the context of interviews. However, with more than twenty participatory maps in the book, it is no wonder Ghisyawan chose to track general patterns and themes between maps and interviews rather than probing individual illustrations. Regardless, the illustrations included provide more than enough fodder for further analysis. In map 6, for example, Jaya labels Port of Spain as an unsafe place. In this map Jaya draws herself at the top of a building to demonstrate the distance she feels having to hide parts of herself from others (81). However, the fact that this distance is vertical rather than lateral suggests the potentially fatal consequences of stepping more fully into herself in public spaces. As she looks down over the edge of the building, her placement also suggests a desire to cross that distance, a refusal to be a spectacle, and a search for a way out.

Adding to a growing body of work that builds on Lorde’s 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Ghisyawan too parses out the capacious ambiguities and contradictions that Lorde gifts us.3 Still what Lorde makes clear are the ways the erotic is a wholistic knowledge that allows us to more fully feel in what we do so that we may move toward a transformed world that offers us the most satisfaction in our lives. Ghisyawan’s interpretation stands out among many to suggest the erotic as an additionally spatial knowledge that guides same-sex-loving women toward spaces that allow them to embody their combined sensual, political, and spiritual selves as an essentially cartographic relation. For Ghisyawan, the erotic is a kind of self-knowing that allows us to reshape space into safe havens, shifting and eliminating the boundaries of what it means to transgress, while also intuiting unsafe spaces and knowing the kinds of performances that become necessary around the potential hostilities of family members, friends, coworkers, and strangers. Ultimately, Erotic Cartographies challenges us to consider the role the erotic plays in our lives as what moves us toward decolonial spaces that are more than just safe enough. By allowing ourselves to inhabit our erotic selves more fully, we also allow ourselves to map the world anew. 

 

 

Jessica Díaz Rodríguez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University. Her dissertation, tentatively titled “Erotic Errantries: Mapping Improvisation, Migration, and Freedom in the Americas,” centers the erotic ways novelists, poets, and musicians navigate the sociopolitical topography of statelessness, debt, queer persecution, and forgetting.

 


[1] See Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1978), in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Ten Speed, 2007), 53–59.

[2] Here Ghisyawan draws from Katherine McKittrick’s notion of “black absented presence”; see Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 34.

[3] See also Jafari S. Allen, ¡Venceremos? The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Lyndon K. Gill, Erotic Islands: Art, Activism in the Queer Caribbean (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018); Mimi Sheller, Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Donna Aza Weir-Soley, Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009).