El Secreto Abierto

Kofi Omoniyi Syvanus Campbell, The Queer Caribbean Speaks: Interviews with Writers, Artists, and Activists (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); 209 pages; ISBN 978-1137364838 (hardcover)

Rosamond S. King, Island Bodies: Transgressive Sexualities in the Caribbean Imagination (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014); 261 pages; ISBN 978-0813049809 (hardcover)

• February 2016

As companion pieces, Kofi Omoniyi Syvanus Campbell’s The Queer Caribbean Speaks: Interviews with Writers, Artists, and Activists and Rosamond S. King’s Island Bodies: Transgressive Sexualities in the Caribbean offer a comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective on the representations and behind-the-scenes motivations of contemporary Pan-Caribbean cultural workers. While Campbell’s collection consists of a series of transcribed interviews with such figures as Shani Mootoo, Nalo Hopkinson, Thomas Glave, and even Rosamond S. King herself, King’s comparativist, transnational feminist analysis offers rich theoretical perspective and an innovative vocabulary to discuss works of Caribbean literature, music, film, and visual art. Both works remain committed to complicating imported Western LGBTQ frameworks by offering place-based glimpses into transgressive expressions of gender and sexuality in the greater Caribbean region. Campbell accomplishes this by selecting a diverse group of interviewees who reflect on how their nationally imposed norms of gender, class, regional, ethnic, and religious upbringings and affiliations come to affect their identity formation. King does so through the concept of the “Caribglobal,” a useful term that “includes the areas, experiences, and individuals within both the Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora” (3), as well as by engaging with an impressive collection of texts that span the Dutch, francophone, hispanophone, and anglophone Caribbean. Indeed, both works seek to excavate an intersectional, “on-the-ground” understanding of how sexually marginalized Caribbean subjects negotiate their agency in a daily way, in addition to interrogating how these real life experiences interface with the realm of contemporary representational practices.

A deceptively slim collection, Campbell’s book addresses contradictions of being “queer” in the Caribbean (a term his interviewees do not hesitate to situate and problematize). At once addressing contributing factors to targeted violence against gays and lesbians in the region (which various voices attribute to “murder music,” fundamentalist Christianity, colonial legacies, and legal codes) while contesting the Caribbean’s international reputation as an exceptionally homophobic space, the interviews seeks to account for how “gay and lesbian Caribbeans can and do find ways to live normal, fulfilled lives as part of their communities” (3). A second, equally important function of the book is to challenge Euro-American theories of queerness, particularly by addressing what Campbell takes to be a much more fluid understanding of gender and sexuality in the region (“queer” as something one does rather than what one is), arguing that unsituated, “imported” queer theory reinstates a stifling form of cultural imperialism.

While the polyvocality of Campbell’s collection proves productive in challenging any one unified understanding of “the queer Caribbean subject,” the interviews themselves are relatively dense and unwieldy in their current form, with the chapters organized as one per interviewee. Because Campbell asks each interviewee basically the same questions, perhaps a more stylized approach would have been to organize chapters framed around a specific theme and question (for instance, “How do you see the relationship between Caribbean queerness and Western queer activism?”), allowing readers to more fully process interviewees’ answers in terms of the parallels and departures, with Campbell potentially providing an analysis of emerging themes and questions at the end of each section. Also, there is no clear logic offered for the order of the chapters; the collection begins on a very masculine note, with queer women’s voices not appearing until halfway through. Finally, while exciting in how the collection features many high-profile Caribbeans (many living abroad), given the book’s goal of attesting to the cultural vitality of “ordinary” Caribbean gays and lesbians, it would have been wonderful to hear more perspectives of people like Ryon Rawlins, a financially struggling Guyanese activist living in Guyana whose voice closes the collection.

Regardless of these stylistic shortcomings, The Queer Caribbean Speaks is a valuable addition to queer Caribbean studies. Offering an array of perspectives within the anglophone Caribbean and the diaspora (St. Vincent, Jamaica, Guyana, Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Toronto, Montreal, Brooklyn), it shines in its attention to economies of desire and how varying degrees of power and privilege—especially in terms of class—contribute to the relative ease or difficulty of expressing one’s queerness in the Caribbean. One notable theme running through the interviews is how despite “Western” models of queer theory that separate gender expression from sexual orientation—suggesting that one cannot “look” gay because one’s gender is completely unrelated to one’s sexual preference, and explored in detail in Gayle Rubin’s widely anthologized “The Traffic in Women”—for Caribbean gay men especially, this division does not easily exist in practice. Indeed, several male interviewees discuss how their more feminine gender performances marginalized them at a young age. This reality is more theoretically addressed by Patricia Powell in chapter 6, “A Search for Caribbean Masculinities,” in which she actively theorizes how masculinity and femininity become culturally regulated and dichotomized, a highlight of the collection. Powell provocatively suggests that gay men’s nonconforming gender performances are often seen as a threat to the state, marking gays as cultural traitors to the heteropatriarchal order.

King’s Island Bodies, a self-described comparativist project rooted in close readings, builds on this notion of the interconnection of gender and sexuality, suggesting that in the Caribbean context these categories can never be untangled. As such, King’s understanding of “transgressive sexualities” expands Campbell’s fairly normative use of “queer,” to more broadly explore non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality outside a strictly lesbian, gay, bisexual model. Drawing on the work of Omise’eke Tinsley, Gloria Wekker, Audre Lorde, and M. Jacqui Alexander, King deeply explores the notion of erotic resistance in its discussion of an impressive range of economies of desire that challenge the heteropatriarchal order.

Like Campbell, King is concerned with Caribbeanizing the queer. Arguably, one of the strongest contributions this collection makes is her impressive creative lexicon that enables such work to be done. King’s prose is peppered with an expansive vocabulary that allows her to build a theoretical framework through the use of Caribbean colloquial phrases—“force-ripe,” “el secreto abierto [the open secret],” “foreign-local,” “the cult of true oomanhood”—that gain meaning, context, and depth through her close readings.

King’s collection opens with a discussion of the representation of trans and gender nonconforming Caribbeans, moves to a consideration of how Caribbean women challenge the “cult of true oomanhood” (125) by owning their sexual agency, and closes with an exploration of interracial relationships, particularly between men of color and white women, as various forms of “transgressive” sexuality. Despite this range, King still attends to the Caribbean norms that regulate men who desire men and women who desire women, suggesting that “in the Caribglobal public sphere hyper-visibility is associated with men who desire men, invisibility is the trope used most often in relationship to Caribbean women who desire women” (14). It is in this arena that Campbell’s and King’s projects are most actively in dialogue.

This theme of the contradictory politics of visibility is especially well taken up by King in chapter 1, “The Caribbean Trans Continuum and Backhanded Re/Presentation.” King begins by writing against an uncritical use of the Westernized term transgender in the Caribbean context, providing a condensed history of colonial relations and cultural imperialism as well as providing a list of indigenous terms (mati menmanroyalbattymen), which of course do not all have positive associations. Still, King settles on trans as “an umbrella term for unconventional genders” (21) and sets to work on exploring how trans characters are represented in Caribbean culture and cultural work. King’s main point is that too often, representations of trans characters frame them as idealized rather than as realistic and three dimensional, leaving them to be portrayed as “tortured but benevolent angels” (25). King builds on Omise’eke Tinsley’s work to provide a context for understanding how people in the Caribbean with nonconforming genders are often viewed as spiritually privileged in Santería and Voudoun, even as they face material difficulties in their daily lives.

I find King’s strongest discussion in this chapter to be on the genderqueer Nurse Tyler in Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night (1996). As King highlights, Nurse Tyler is used as a framing device to tell the story of protagonist Mala Ramchandin; Tyler’s life story takes a backseat to hers. Not only does Tyler remain on the periphery, his position within the story is quite literally that of a caretaker: he is a nurse. As King notes, the nursing trope is used broadly for trans characters in the Caribbean, as also evidenced in her discussion of the character of Harry/Harriet in Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven (1987) who is a “medical officer” (31). As King notes the danger in unequivocally framing trans characters as emotional healers, it circles us back to Campbell’s collection in which Shani Mootoo, among other writers, is asked to discuss the extent of how her personal life informs her writing. As we read Mootoo’s painful account of how her nonconforming masculine demeanor was rejected by her parents, it raises some fundamental questions on where and how our own desires as queer readers and writers to create “positive” representations of queer lives travel into our written and interpretive practices and the unintentional consequences of this. Indeed, clearly Mootoo does not seek to do harm to the real lives of trans people in the Caribbean, but when specific scripts, tropes, and romanticizations prevail, the realm of representation often unconsciously trickles into daily life.

In short, The Queer Caribbean Speaks and Island Bodies work well as companion pieces. Both offer a deep understanding of the sociohistorical realities of the Caribbean, with detailed accounts of colonial and recent histories, legal codes, the effects of tourism, and pop culture phenomena. In their own way, each collection contests the notion that the Caribbean is somehow “more” homophobic than other places. As King notes, “El secreto abierto allows an understanding of Caribbean same-sex sexuality that is very different from the ‘closet’ metaphor and ‘coming out’ narrative that are dominant in Euro-America. Instead of a mandate of constant revelation, in Cariglobal communities there is a mandate of discretion, which is not (always) the same as hiding” (64). Not all that is different must be measured on a hierarchal scale, and, indeed, those of us interested in queer rural studies in the United States can find many parallels in such an analysis. What is more, both Campbell and King maintain a hopeful tone, even as they discuss the challenges queer desires face in heteropatriarchal Caribbean states. Their underlying message? Queers have always existed in the Caribbean, and there are scholars devoted to making these legacies more visible.

 

Patricia K. DeRocher is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Adirondack. She holds an MA in English literature from the University of Vermont and a PhD in feminist studies from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research focuses on transnational approaches to women’s literature, particularly in regard to questions of power, language, and representation, as well as to the relationship between resistant writing practices and social change.

 

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