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Searching for the ‘Queer Caribbean’

Zach Myers in Stuart Hall Library with the publication Art in the Caribbean

Zachary Myers, Stuart Hall Library volunteer, reflects personally on the resources in the library’s collections on the ‘Queer Caribbean’

Content warning: homophobic slur

I don’t remember the moment when I knew my aunt was a lesbian. When we would visit Trinidad to see my family it wasn’t something that we really spoke about – it never seemed important. What I remember is her laugh pealing above the low growl of her voice. I remember how big she was, how strong her hands seemed even as they glid across the guitar when she tried in vain to teach me how to play. I remember everyone saying that we looked alike; for a time when I looked at her, I would see myself, feeling that deep down in some unspoken and grasping way, we were the same. I remember the air reverberating with a half-beat of silence after someone would say she was ‘zamian’. This word, I would learn, comes from zami, a Caribbean word for women who work together as friends and lovers. I’d known that it was the title of Audre Lorde’s ‘Biomythography’, but it wasn’t until I found it again in the Stuart Hall Library that I thought of my Aunt Leslie, whispering the word to myself, pulling each syllable softly from my mouth like the beads of a pearl necklace. Audre Lorde, the child of West Indian immigrants in Harlem, isn’t someone that I’ve seen claimed as ‘Caribbean’ very often. I remembered my grandfather, who apparently tore a room apart when he first found out about my aunt, the word zami breaking him in a way that years of the gruelling life of a sailor never could. I wondered if Lorde’s father, Frederick Byron, reacted the same way.

When I started looking for the ‘Queer Caribbean’ at the library I started elsewhere, in England, in America, in Canada, and worked my way back. One of the challenges of studying the ‘Queer Caribbean’ is that it’s so often a diasporic story; many of the writers and artists in the library’s collections that I could claim as Caribbean have either left the region or know it in their parents’ endless talk of ‘home’, repeating the word as if it would keep them warm. Many of the artists in the Small Axe editions on ‘Caribbean Queer Visualities’ make their living elsewhere, with some of them listed by their painfully familiar divisions: Trinidad/Canada, Surinam/Netherlands, Haiti/Germany. In Isaac Julien’s artistic autobiography Riot, he describes growing up as the eldest child of St. Lucian immigrants in London. His parents would speak to each other in French Creole and in English to him and his siblings, but unbeknownst to them, he understood when he overheard someone say: ‘Gadé sé petit gason kon on makoumè’ – Look at that effeminate little boy. (Julien, 2014: pp.13) Julien’s life and work are in part a quest to articulate that sense of dislocation from the Caribbean, the syncopated rhythm of Creole spoken over the rumbling of the tube. In a wider diasporic frame, his film Looking for Langston is a lyrical exploration of the private life of American poet Langston Hughes, but is more than anything an answer to the question: how do you portray black gay desire?

June Jordan, American poet and activist, has an essay titled ‘Report from the Bahamas’ I found in her collection On Call: Political Essays. The child of Jamaican immigrants to New York, the essay is a personal narrative about her ‘return’ to the Caribbean as a tourist. It’s rife with issues of identification; she balances race, class, and gender, questioning whether these categories can really provide a sense of collective identity and wondering about the possibilities of working across difference. There’s a moment where the woman cleaning her hotel room asks her what she’s doing in the Bahamas without her husband:

‘I cannot imagine how I would begin to answer her.

My “rights” and my “freedom” and my “desire” and a slew of other New World values; what would they sound like to this Black woman described on the car atop my hotel bureau as “Olive the Maid”?’ (Jordan, 1985: pp. 41)

In this moment she is two things and both of them mean stranger: she is American, and she is bisexual. Her ‘desire’, which she doesn’t acknowledge explicitly here, is placed alongside the empty slogans of American political mythology – it’s another thing that separates her from this woman, even if it doesn’t speak itself as loudly as Jordan’s accent or the US dollars she leaves for her on the nightstand.

The beauty of Lyndon K. Gill’s book Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean, is that he refuses to parrot the endless story about the Caribbean’s homophobia. If you’re reading this in England, then it’s one that you know well because you invented it. Yes, you -you Britons, you pale, sneering people. The endless monologue springs from your mouths every day just like it always has: the Caribbean is homophobic, dangerous, illiberal, uncivilized – everything is so backwards there, we’ve moved on and you’re stuck behind the times, maybe we should have never let you go, but maybe one day we’ll set you free again. Does this sound familiar? It’s your voice! It oozes from the lips of all of you ‘well-meaning’ queers too, always preaching sympathy from your pulpits raised just high enough for you to look down on the rest of us. What makes Lyndon Gill better than me is that he isn’t interested in criticising any of you: he isn’t interested in the colonial history of the buggery laws, in your creation of the ‘problem’ that you’ve so benevolently ‘overcome’, or in the stench of hypocrisy that reeks from every one of your pores. His book is about the lives that queer people in the Caribbean have carved out for themselves despite you: the beauty they’ve been able to create in Carnival, calypso, and in their activism. He claims Lorde’s legacy and he writes that zami is not something that one is, but something that one makes. When I found this book, it was the first time that I really knew that the ‘Queer Caribbean’ is something that we could create, an act of love nurtured like a flower growing up through the cracks in rain-soaked asphalt the colour of faded blood.

When I started writing about the ‘Queer Caribbean’ I was only thinking about myself. I remembered growing up in Bermuda, the years of silence building up in my throat like bile thinking that maybe every night the treefrogs were screaming just for me. I remember wearing the word faggot on my back, even if I could only ever hear it behind me in whispers or feel it tightening in my chest when a boy couldn’t look me in the eye. I remember praying – yes, praying! – that if God wouldn’t make me normal that he would please, please, let me leave. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? It wasn’t until I kept researching that I started to think of my Aunt Leslie, one of the ones who stayed. I cried for her for the first time in the library. I remembered her death, the conversations that we never had, the funeral that I didn’t attend because I was too young and the ocean too wide, and all the things that went unspoken between us because I didn’t know that zami meant refusing to go through life always leaving and never living, despite everything.

Biography

Zach Myers is a current postgraduate student from Bermuda at University College London, studying for an MA in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre.]

Bibliography

“Caribbean Queer Visualities.” Small Axe : a Journal of Criticism, vol. 19, no. 1, 2015, pp. 118–122.

Gill, Lyndon Kamaal. Erotic Islands : Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean / Lyndon K. Gill. 2018.

Jordan, June. On Call : Political Essays / June Jordan. First ed., South End Press, 1985.

Julien, Isaac., et al. Isaac Julien : Riot / Isaac Julien with Cynthia Rose ; [Contributions by] Paul Gilroy … [Et Al.]. Museum of Modern Art, 2013.

Loewe, Rudy. “Claude McKay: Queer, Black and Radical.”

Lorde, Audre. The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. Norton, 1997.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Lorde, Audre. Zami : a New Spelling of My Name / Audre Lorde.Crossing Press, 1982.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications : Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics / José Esteban Muñoz. 1999.

Romain, Gemma. Race, Sexuality and Identity in Britain and Jamaica. 1st ed., Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017.