Thiefing Sugar

Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); 288 pages; ISBN 978-0-8223-4777-49 (paper).

• December 2011

Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s insightful study Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature considers the multiple ways in which women’s erotic love for other women pushes against regional phenomena ranging from the aggressive heterosexuality of slaveholding colonial society to the more subtle gendered constraints of contemporary postcolonial discourse. Exploring in particular women’s relationships to various insular landscapes, Tinsley sets out to highlight and, ultimately, to undermine the “interlocking fictions of power” (2) so constitutive of Caribbean identity.

Tinsley’s consistently interdisciplinary approach guides both the structure and the content of the volume; the literary analysis in each chapter is framed by discussion of a present-day instance of erotic transgression that illustrates the reception and de facto activism of queering subjects in the region. This approach takes as its point of departure a thorough analysis of the origins and significance of the term queer and its legitimacy in the Caribbean context. Indeed, not only does Tinsley set out to establish the fundamental transgressiveness of women who love women, with respect to heteronormative, masculinist Caribbean discourse, but she also puts forward a provocative interrogation of the ostensibly liberal discourse of Euro–North American queer theory. She argues forcefully that Creole terminology expresses a de-centered, organically nonbinarist understanding of gender complexity, and explores the significant theories that emerge out of the creative and political feminist practices of Caribbean women.

Thiefing Sugar is divided into two at once distinct and intricately related parts: an initial three chapters that consider the ways in which the voices of women who love women reconfigure multiple postcolonial sites in the Caribbean, and three additional chapters that issue multipronged challenges to Euro–North American queer theory. Evoking the implicit and explicit (re)constructions of sexuality proposed in the works of her wide-ranging corpus—a corpus that includes novels, poetry, ethnographies, legislative documents, and folklore collections, among other texts—Tinsley intervenes in existing critical debates surrounding both postcolonial and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer studies. She draws upon and dialogues with such theorizing foremothers as Carole Boyce Davies, Hortense Spillers, and Audre Lorde as she makes her case for the “transformative power of the erotic” (20).

The volume’s first chapter takes us through an analysis of Surinamese mati performance poetry, a black, working-class feminine Creole practice that dates back as early as the seventeenth century. Tinsley posits these mati rituals in opposition to colonialist binaries at once sexual and spatial, and she examines in particular the symbolic resonance of the interactions between female bodies and the flowers they bear. Considering the genre’s reliance on floral metaphors to represent Afro-Caribbean women’s shifting and multiple selves, Tinsley celebrates the fluid gender-play long practiced by indigenous networks of women who love women. These depictions of the mati women’s yards as liberating sites of normalized same-sex desire at times risk tipping over into a vision of colonial Suriname as something of a feminist utopia. Yet despite this tendency to a certain romanticization, Tinsley’s readings convincingly evoke the power of the mati’s gender-destabilizing practices “to unsettle the hegemony of imperial eyes” (47).

Tinsley opens her second chapter with a discussion of the putative homophobia of Jamaican dancehall lyrics and of their reliance on constructions of homosexuality as uniquely foreign. This discussion functions as a prelude to her close reading of Eliot Bliss’s 1934 novel Luminous Isle. Debunking the myth of the white “predatory lesbian” (71), Tinsley considers the inextricable interrelation and intimacy of Afro- and Euro-Caribbean femininity in the novel and in the wider Caribbean. She describes a black female erotic—the “generous sensuality black women’s bodies teach” (87)—that, historically and in Bliss’s text, has served as an “affective colonization in reverse” (79), disturbing the heteronormative foundations of colonial white womanhood. The black co-wives and mother-nannies that circulated promiscuously in the great houses of the plantation undermined, Tinsley argues, white women’s work in the islands. That is, their tempting proximity and bodily availability would have been profoundly troubling to Creole mistresses expected to perform a “desireless” (77) reproduction of whiteness via strictly heterosexual relations.

Focusing primarily on the poetry of Haitian bourgeois writer Ida Faubert, Tinsley explores in the book’s third chapter the notion of the “tactically obscured” (104)—that is, the space of the dark as one of possibility, resistance, and disruptive erotic freedom. Moving through a schizophrenic yet coherent palate of primary sources, she reads Faubert’s poems alongside contemporary Haitian women’s literature and early twentieth-century “sexologist” photographs. Her expansive application of Edouard Glissant’s concept of opacity to those questions of gender and sexuality elided by the Martinican theorist provides a valuable critique of the limits of even the most ostensibly libratory postcolonial discourse. Less convincing—or more forced, perhaps—are her readings of gender probabilities into Faubert’s verse. There is a certainty and conclusiveness to Tinsley’s presumptions here that seem somehow at odds with the uncertainty and ambiguity of the works she considers.

The fourth chapter of Thiefing Sugar addresses contemporary links between queerness and class—between “queer cosmopolitan” (138) tourists and the same-sex-loving Caribbeans who serve and service them. From this evocation of class in the present-day context, Tinsley moves to a consideration of Mayotte Capécia’s Je suis martiniquaise (1948) as a revealing narrative of the author’s class aspirations. Importantly, Tinsley’s analysis adds something new to postcolonial discussions of the novel that rehearse the now-requisite condemnation of Frantz Fanon’s notorious excoriation of Capécia and her text, in Black Skin, White Masks (1952). First, she very rightly notes the extent to which Fanon overlooks the material realities of class in the novel. In addition, she points to Fanon’s tunnel-visioned consideration of the second half of Je suis martiniquaise, given that “the longer first part narrates the protagonist’s childhood and young adulthood . . . and focuses on her relationships with a series of women” (146). Finally, Tinsley calls Fanon on his failure to fully appreciate the complexity of the power relations between the brown female Mayotte and the white male André—his failure to consider the “disguise of submissive femininity” (162) via which, trickster-like, Mayotte may have been seeking self-empowerment. In the absence of explicit instances of same-sex desire, however, Tinsley at times oversignifies in her close reading: all flowers are labia, a rushing river is an “orgasmic flow” (153), and oranges are, predictably, “cunnic” (156). Working within such a frame, Tinsley reads the child Mayotte’s hunger for bananas as a “pursuit of compulsory sexuality” (153), a metaphor for the thwarting of her natural same-sex desires by alienated middle-class dreams of security and respectability on both financial and social levels.

Centered on Michelle Cliff’s 1987 No Telephone to Heaven, Tinsley’s fifth chapter considers the viability of “the ‘both/and’ [as opposed to the ‘either/or’] as black feminist praxis” (171). She credits Cliff with having begun to imagine “an alternative vision of wholeness” (180) in her novel, one that resists commonplaces concerning gender fracturing or the oppressions of phallic power and black masculinity. Referencing Glissant’s well-known cane field scenario, whereby the black penis becomes a tool/weapon of self-assertion and reclamation for the slave male at the expense of the complicit, compliant black female slave, Tinsley is interested in the alternative Cliff provides, one in which the penis is not interested in penetration and (black) masculinity need not construct or assert itself through violence. She looks both at Cliff’s narrative representations of the flexible, contextual, and relational nature of gender identity and at the ways in which this complexifying of gender interrupts language and its conventions in Cliff’s prose fiction.

The concluding chapter of Thiefing Sugar is devoted to close readings of poetic works by Dionne Brand, the Trinidadian writer from whom Tinsley’s provocative title is borrowed. Tinsley evokes Brand’s challenges to the external political spaces of revolutionary Marxism and conservative neocolonialism alike, and notes Brand’s committed positioning of her politicized aesthetic practice within an Afro-Caribbean space. Interrogating the rhetoric of black male Creole radicalism for having done battle with white patriarchy only to “reinvent heteropatriarchy in black and brown, in Creole” (208), Tinsley admires Brand’s creative defiance of the indigenous bigotries of postcolonialism. Her finely tuned analyses of the formal and stylistic innovations that mark Brand’s poetry home in on the processes of “erotic decolonization” (226) that link Brand’s creative praxis to the whole of her own critical project.

This critical project is at once humble and ambitious. Shying away from the definitive and the absolute, Tinsley works hard to maintain an open-ended fluidity in her theorizing on par with the boundary-busting achievements of those whose works she so passionately explores. There is certainly much more to be said on the topic Tinsley has mined so richly (one wonders what Tinsley might have done with the work of Marie Chauvet, Maryse Condé, or Julia Alvarez, among others), and Thiefing Sugar has generously opened the door and set the bar high for ongoing discussion.

 

Kaiama L. Glover is an assistant professor of French and Africana studies at Barnard College. Her book Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon addresses the issue of canon formation in the French-speaking Caribbean and the fate of the Haitian Spiralist authors vis-à-vis this canon. Her current work considers the ethics of narcissism and writings of the feminine in literature of the French-speaking Caribbean.

 

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