“Sexually Undone”

Faith Smith, ed., Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011); 304 pages; ISBN: 9780813931135 (paperback)

• July 2014

Moving beyond a banal discussion of sex and citizenship in the Caribbean, Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean, edited by Faith Smith, employs a postcolonial approach in examining how diverse sexed and gendered bodies in the Caribbean are configured inside and outside of “nationhood” and national parameters of what it means to belong, or not belong, to a given place, space, or location.1 Therefore, discourses of citizenship produce, and reproduce, what I call “exclusionary politics of belonging” because gender, sexuality, race, and class determine which individuals are granted full rights and privileges within a given nation-state.

At first glance, Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean appears to be an assemblage of literary criticism of novels, but it surprisingly unfolds as a dynamic multidisciplinary tapestry of critical essays that offer many entry points into discussing the dialogical interplay of different cultural transplanting(s) and transposing(s) with gender, sexuality, race, and class through the lens of competing colonial and postcolonial worldviews, migratory movements, and diasporic experiences in the Caribbean and beyond. In this edited collection, the writers unapologetically complicate “sex” in many different ways—corporeally, erotically, symbolically, and politically—in relation to citizenship. By doing so, they center how power relations imbue sexuality, bodies, and our intimate lives in legitimizing certain types of sexual identities and sexual practices (in particular, white, male, and heterosexual) over others, whether it is for pleasure, production, and reproduction or as a commodity of exchange. Sexual morality and taboos in the Caribbean have certainly been influenced by European Enlightenment gender ideologies and colonial Christian heteropatriarchal religiosity along race-class hierarchies. But despite these internal and external hegemonic impositions, Sex and the Citizen ruptures essentialist notions of “Caribbean-ness” through contesting “truth claims” about sex, gender, and culture. In addition to this, some of the contributors in this book, through their critical reading of novels, have shown the valuable contributions that Caribbean women writers have made in addressing the “messiness” of sex and sexuality alongside gender in their literature, despite the limited recognition given to them in mainstream Caribbean feminist thought.2

In the section “Contemporary Package Deals,” there is uncertainty about “who gets what” and “what is traded off” in the sociosexual interactions and encounters of the commodification and consumption of bodies in an unequal global economic arena. In “Buyers Beware: Hoodwinking on the Rise Epistemologies of Consumption in Terry McMillan’s Caribbean” Patricia Saunders provides a nuanced reading of how the sex tourism in the Caribbean is linked to transnational capitalism and how American popular culture consumes the Caribbean—racially, sexually, and culturally—as “exotic” commodities reminiscent from slavery’s past. This cuts across race and class lines because black Americans also participate in the consumption of local poor people. But this is not always a one-sided exchange; Caribbean people return the gaze. Through intersectional power relations, both locally and internationally, black men in the Caribbean not only are consumed as hypersexual “Third World” products by foreigners but also market themselves as such through hetero-masculine performances in order to elevate their social status and acquire money, vacations, and material goods from their foreign benefactors.3

Globalization has also influenced how notions about culture, citizenship, and nationhood get played out on a transnational level through media and technologies unevenly transmitting or disseminating information, knowledge, music, fashion, and fads across, and between, nation-states. While the Caribbean has its own local cultural productions, a lot is also consumed from abroad. Caribbean modernity cleverly reproduces itself through what it rejects as “foreign” depending on the circumstances. In “Nobody Ent Billing Me: A US/Caribbean Intertextual, Intercultural Call-and-Response” Carmen Gillespie discusses how local angst about homosexuality, particularly male homosexuality, reinforces what is rejected and policed as “different” and “deviant” in an attempt to rally around collective national identity in setting Barbadians apart from others—in this case, the United States.

Given the diverse cultural diasporas (European, African, Asian, South Asian, etc.) in the Caribbean, the section “Diasporic Citizenship” really complicates how people locate themselves inside and outside the region and how they move between, and across, nation-states. Diasporic citizenship obscures the singularity of nationality and belonging through people migrating to work or resettle. Symmetrical gender relations and patriarchal ideologies inform how the nation is imagined as feminine or as Woman who needs protection from attack or invasion (really, the fear of them being raped and impregnated by foreign men), who has to bear or nurture the nation (offspring of the dominant racial/ethnic group), and who is the transmitter of culture through a collective racial, ethnic, national identity.

Tejaswini Niranjana’s “Indian National and Female Sexuality: A Triniadian Tale” presents a rich and complex reading of Indian nationalism and modernity, in light of the Indian indentureship in the Caribbean. Indian nationalism relied on modernizing discourse, selectively borrowed from Western ideology, which incorporated middleclass gender ideology. The “new” or “modern” Indian woman has to be educated and cultured, while maintaining her spiritual role in the family as good mother and wife. Clearly, with the East and West colliding, socioeconomic, political, and cultural changes were inevitable, with upheavals, contestations, and negotiations taking place between and among different groups. Niranjana cleverly “engenders” the discussion by juxtaposing how indentured women were disavowed as non-Indian women of the nation because they had been tainted by “outsider” influences, along race, class, and caste lines, which leave them less respectable and less worthy of representing the Indian nation. As a result of the inability to strictly police indentured women (from the homeland) to ensure their compliance, they had to be repudiated. Niranjana argues that indentured women were doubly dishonored, first through their creole reality as cheap laborers for the Europeans and then through their exposure to black creole culture that fostered personal and sexual freedoms.

With the Caribbean being cast into modernity from its colonial inception, the section “Desiring Subjects and Modernity” brings to light how laws were reinvented or reframed by the state to manufacture “moral consent” to ensure that decision-making power remains in the hands of the few. Yasmin Tambia’s “Threatening Sexual (Mis)Behavior: Homosexuality in the Penal Code Debates in Trinidad and Tobago 1986” discusses the background of the infamous Sexual Offences Bill 1986 that sought to enshrine “Trinidadian values” into state law. Tambia argues that while Jacqui Alexander provides a textual reading of the situation by focusing on the criminalization of sex between women, the overall aim of the law was to weigh the threat of public indecency with individual rights.4 While penalties for serious indecency did not change, “buggery” was deemed inherently unnatural to all; therefore, it was a criminal offense for anyone to engage in such sexual activity, and while the main focus was on homosexual men, gender-equality measures were applied, in turn incriminating women (lesbian women in particular). The context that Tambia provides on the revisions to the Sexual Offences Bill strengthens the links between patriarchy and heterosexism in restricting women’s sexual rights and autonomy through the marital rape exemption.

The section “Reimaging Pasts and Futures” uncovers that despite dominant discourses about gender and sexuality in the Caribbean, there is a rich history of sexual diversity and expressions in the Caribbean across linguistic and geographical boundaries. The sexual créolité that is represented here is a testament to a Caribbean existential understanding of selfhood that has emerged out of European and African contact or some other combination. While sexuality has been framed in both androcentric and heterosexist terms, it is refreshing to read the pieces by Antonia MacDonald-Smythe and Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, both of which deal with same-sex female friendship and desire. Tinsley discusses the social and erotic relationships that women have with one other within a dual sex-gender system and makes the critical point that “gender [is] as much a site of hybridization as of race.”5 Creolization may hold some of the answers to the questions we have about nonconformist sexual relations in Caribbean.

In excavating the past, it is quite apparent divergent gender and sexual expressions and identities were in existence in the Caribbean before the deployment of “queering.” Rosamond King’s “New Citizens New Sexualities” is case in point. King notes that in the nineteenth century black men and women cross-dressed and bodacious jamette women ran the streets, contravening Enlightenment gender and sexual norms of the time. For King, the “newness” that she is capturing about sexuality in the postemancipation period is the unbridled, disorderly, and dangerous gender and sexual expressions and performances that were visibly represented in the public domain. As second-class citizens, sexually and gendered divergent black men and women could not pass normative social standards on multiple counts—race, class, gender, and sexual expression—so they had to be controlled. Not surprisingly, there is historical amnesia when it comes to accounts like these in the Caribbean.

It is important that alliances between feminists and LGBT groups be forged in the fight for social justice. Through multiple efforts, postcolonial and transnational feminists have already led the way in mobilizing women across difference. This edited collection by Faith Smith is a scholarly contribution that should be seen in a similar light in forcing us to stretch our minds and consider ideas and epistemologies that seek to disrupt normative notions of gender, sexuality, and citizenship based on exclusionary politics of belonging in the Caribbean and diaspora.

 

Charmaine Crawford is head and lecturer at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, Nita Barrow Unit, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados. She completed her graduate work (MA, PhD) in the Women’s Studies Programme at York University, Toronto. Her research interests include gender and sexuality in Caribbean culture, Caribbean women and transnational motherhood, Caribbean domestic workers, and postcolonial, black, and queer feminist theorizing. Her publications include “‘It’s a Girl Thing’: Problematizing Female Sexuality, Gender, and Lesbophobia in Caribbean Culture” (2012) and “Who’s Your Mama?  Transnational Motherhood and African-Caribbean Women in the Diaspora” (2012). 

 


1 Faith Smith, ed., Sex and the Citizen: Interrogating the Caribbean (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).

2 Authors such as Kamala Kempadoo, Shani Mootoo, Patricia Powell, and Jamaica Kincaid have tackled serious and controversial topics, from homophobia, rape, incest, sexual morality, and religion to diasporic experiences of gender and sexuality.

3 Kamala Kempadoo, “Theorizing Sexual Relations in the Caribbean: Prostitution and the Problem of the “Exotic,” in Eudine Barriteau, ed., Confronting Power, Theorizing Gender: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from the Caribbean (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2003), 159–85.

4 See M. Jacqui Alexander, “Redrafting Morality: The Postcolonial State and the Sexual Offences Bill of Trinidad and Tobago,” in Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres, eds. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 133–52.

5 Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, “What Is a Uma? Women Performing Gender and Sexuality in Paramariba, Suriname,” in Smith, Sex and the Citizen, 249.
 

 

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