Mapping the Political-Sensual-Spiritual Potential of the Lordean Erotic

Lyndon K. Gill, Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018); 336 pages; 978-0822368700 (paperback)

• February 2019

In Audre Lorde’s formative 1984 collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, Lorde declares, “In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”1 Urging her interlocutors for a deeper connection with a praxis of the erotic, Lorde identifies the heteropatriarchy as the oppressive agent at work in the estrangement of the erotic as power. She insinuates that a hegemonic corroboration of the erotic, repurposed as the pornographic, becomes the virus plaguing feminine agency. Drawing on Lorde’s call to annihilate this intrusive myth, Lyndon K. Gill’s Erotic Islands innovatively repoliticizes the erotic and further expands the scope of its potential by offering readers a praxis of queer reading that is simultaneously a brilliant mosaic of personal narrative and a rigorous theoretical embrace of a rich and compelling visual archive.

Gill contextualizes the intricate colonial, cultural, and historical contributors to the myth of contemporary Trinidad and Tobago, while interweaving opportunities for the reader to glimpse and evaluate the needs and objectives of its vibrant queer community. Employing a variety of ethnographic, anthropological, and art historical methodologies, Erotic Islands unravels the queer histories of calypso music, carnival, and HIV/AIDS support and advocacy organizations as they illustrate the ways queer Trinbagonians have cleared and established public space for themselves despite multiple oppressions. In mapping this space, Erotic Islands illuminates the specific subjectivities these networks may work to cultivate. Gill transcends colonial regulatory paradigms that value a distanced academic objectivity by constructing his analyses around four interludes in the text that present themselves as journal entries in his “From Far Afield: A Queer Travelogue.” This decolonial methodology frames and strengthens the three principal areas of inquiry in the study: the political, the sensual, and the spiritual. Gill takes these three principles, or “island elements,” as cornerstones of his project (xxx). The archipelago formed by the three systems creates a new Caribbean cartography for the Lordean erotic and represents the port of entry into this text. 

In chapter 1, “Inheriting the Mask: A History of Parody in Trinidad’s Carnival,” Gill recounts the historical development of the Trinbagonian carnival and the possibility it provides for satire through racial play. He creates links between the colonial period and the present to focus on an aesthetics of parody that distinguishes carnival as an opportunity for resistance against enduring colonial norms. In chapter 2, “Peter Minshall’s Sacred Heart and the Erotic Art of Play,” Gill highlights the political traces of the erotic in the work of contemporary bat mas artist Peter Minshall, whose 2006 carnival band, the Sacred Heart, brought to life the painful lived experience of HIV-positive Trinbagonians and the public paranoia of proximity to said individuals that continues to exist despite twenty-first-century medical knowledge. Essential to Gill’s reading is the culminating moment of the performance delivered by Les Dames Lorraines, a group of queer figures conjured from the history of French creole performance in Trinidad and Tobago, whose “transfigurative ecstasy” spans the sensual and spiritual aspects of the erotic potential of carnival and speaks to a human sacredness (70). Erotic Islands posits that Minshall’s Sacred Heart relishes in this tension of the sensual and spiritual due a need for a multifaceted comprehension of HIV/AIDS in its materiality of fragile bodies and the abstract and evanescent nature of the spiritual strength it necessitates. Armed with the erotic as power, Gill argues convincingly that the creation of Minshall’s Sacred Heart finds its resonance in its ability to expand HIV/AIDS as a metaphorical prism through which to perform “aesthetic warfare” against the hetero-patriarchy (76).

In chapter 3, “Echoes of an Utterance: A History of Gender Play in Calypso,” Gill offers a comprehensive history of the gendered nature of calypso music as the means par excellence of expressing the polyphonic culture of Trinidad and Tobago. His attention quickly turns to Linda McCartha Lewis, better known by her stage name Calypso Rose, whose 1968 song “Palet” Gill reads as an artfully coded and subversive recasting of female same-sex desire as pastiche. With a brief segue into chapter 4, “Calypso Rose’s ‘Palet’ and the Sweet Treat of Erotic Aurality,” Gill takes the liberty of reimagining the lyrics with his reader, evoking the songstress walking the streets with her cart selling palet, or frozen popsicle desserts, to passersby, offering the pleasure of “giving suck” to the melting phallus she wields in the Caribbean heat (110). Pondering her vehicle of expression, the text asks the reader to consider the voice as metonym for sexuality that then creates a sugary substitution of the phallus that can be shared “without the penis getting in the way” (112). The chapter then diverges to discuss Lewis’s androgynous gender expression and marriage of convenience, while Gill’s subtle ethnographic analysis of her dancing speech signals her avoidance of the terms lesbian, homosexual, or queer. Remaining faithful to his threefold lens of the political-sensual-spiritual that illuminates enduring ephemera of the erotic, Gill ends his analysis of Calypso Rose by considering her strong attachment to the Spiritual Baptist Church. For Gill, “Palet” can be read as a triptych that gives new life to the erotic not only as a secondary aesthetic language through which the erotic speaks but by constituting the “sensory matrix” that transfigures Lewis’s lyrics into a “gospel of eros.” (121)

Building off the analysis cultivated in the performance art of Peter Minshall in the second chapter, chapter 5, “A Generation with AIDS: A History, a Critique,” offers an extensive data-driven history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean world with special attention to the relevance of Caribbean-based activist organizations and their tactics as models to be developed transnationally. Inspired by Gill’s personal experience as a volunteer with Friends for Life, a Trinbagonian NGO striving for increased education for same-sex-desiring men about HIV and safe/preventative sex practices, chapter 6, “Between Tongue and Teeth: The Friends for Life Chatroom as Erotic Intervention,” adopts a very personal narrative-driven ethnography practice that centers the role of the erotic as an organizing practice. Both Gill’s personal observations and those of the participants in the Friends for Life community chatroom experience call attention to the largely nonverbal culture surrounding the investigation of sexual permissibility in Trinidad and Tobago that, Gill affirms, poses specific challenges for the teaching of HIV prevention initiatives that these men were meant to employ before or during sexual encounters. Gill posits that these difficulties can be overcome in the chatroom model not only since it functions as a forum for open communication but more specifically owing to the allure of the potential for taboo speech. Given the political goals and sensual allures of the chatroom, as well as the spiritual communion of the gathering to speak about collective trauma, Gill demonstrates the capacity for the erotic to transcend communities, finding the desire to connect amid the chaos-inducing rhetoric of contagion.

The conclusion to Erotic Islands, “Black Queer Diaspora and Erotic Potentiality,” provides a much-needed return to the writing of Audre Lorde, with the political and spiritual aspects of Gill’s archive and the sensual bridge that links them carefully drawn together as inseparable pillars of a new expansion of the erotic as power. By situating the present study within the ongoing debates in the emergent field of black queer diaspora studies, Gill offers compelling justifications for the utility of his study for scholars in the fields of anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, cultural geography, and African diaspora studies. With Erotic Islands, Gill makes a deeply personal and decolonial foray into the Lordean erotic—“that archipelagic antiparadise of bridged epistemologies” (216)—sounding a beckoning call for other scholars to follow his example.  

 

Eric J. Disbro is a doctoral student in French and francophone studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the Pennsylvania State University. His research interests concern the intersection of queer and decolonial theories and aesthetics of resistance and diaspora in contemporary francophone island literatures and visual cultures of the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and French Polynesia.

 

1 Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: Crossing, 1984), 58.