AMERICAN TROPICS: TOWARDS A LITERARY GEOGRAPHY
Sex and the Caribbean
An Interdisciplinary Symposium at the University of Essex
Tuesday 3 May 2011
Ronald Cummings (Leeds)
Queer Marronage and the Politics of Urban Space
This paper focuses on Patricia Powell’s novel A Small Gathering of Bones and her textual mapping of the spaces of gathering, solidarity and pleasure shared by gay men in urban 1970s Jamaica. I argue here that Powell’s work, while acknowledging the significance and importance of gay bars and clubs, as communal sites and counterpublics of identification, also directs our attention to an alternative queer maroon geography—one that is difficult to definitively map but which exists alongside the more visible and located spaces of gay life. These queer maroon spaces include transient, contingent sites of gathering and identification such as Nanny-Sharpe’s Park where men come together to engage in anonymous outdoor sex. It is significant that in naming this park Powell invokes the maroon figures: Nanny of the Maroons and Sam Sharpe. In doing so, she links the politics of claiming space by gay men in late 20th-century Jamaica to the practice of marronage which in the context of slavery represented a radical and subversive appropriation of space.
In this paper I use theoretical discussions of queer space such as that offered by Judith Halberstam’s work as well as Michael Dash’s concept of ‘urban marronage’ to explore the complex ways in which Powell’s characters negotiate these urban spaces which Dash describes as ‘a new forest of symbols for the urban maroon’.
Reading a Caribbean Queerness
Rather than beginning with the glaring issue of homophobia and the impossibility of queerness in the Caribbean, this paper adopts an opposing perspective, arguing that the two concepts of queerness and Caribbeanness have significant areas of contiguity and overlap. The Caribbean is an invented place - re-made by the ragged and ruptured history of colonialism and the plantation economy. The differently marked arrivals of Africans, Indians, Chinese, Irish, Syrians and Europeans, who were brought to the region as part of forced, misled and opportunist migrations, and the decimation of the majority of the indwelling populations, engendered a relationship between people and place that was discontinuous, layered and precarious. Similarly queerness takes its analytical force from refusing alignment to any essential identity category, functioning rather as a marker of ruptures, discrepancies and fictions. My point is that as a place without clear or single origin, without guaranteed lineage and therefore without the inherited, deterministic signatures of being, the Caribbean could be seen as a queer place - a place where identity is unmasked as a performance, as what can be crafted, invented and styled rather than what is discovered or known.
In particular, this paper proposes a queering of sexual categories in recent novels that are defiantly heteronormative and yet have a strong attachment to writing of, and as, fantasy. Discussing Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Ana Menendez’s Loving Che, my attention comes from a queering of queerness away from same-sex erotic intimacy towards the expression of surplus desire and historical yearnings that take libidinal forms.
Ian Dudley (Essex)
Scientific Subjects/Objects of Desire: Amerindian Bodies in Edward Goodall's 'Sketches in British Guiana', 1841-1843
Edward Goodall (1819-1908) was a London-born, Royal Academy trained, watercolourist. In 1841, the twenty-two-year-old artist travelled to Guyana, then British Guiana, where for three years he worked as the official illustrator for the surveying expeditions of Prussian explorer Robert Schomburgk. In this role he produced over 250 watercolours, concentrating largely on Guyana’s indigenous populations, of whom he made over seventy individual portraits, as well as recording geography, botany, zoology, geology, architecture, colonial society and expedition scenes. As befitted the documentary imperatives of a scientific mission, Goodall rendered his Amerindian subjects in a measured and naturalistic realism and the paintings were later used by Schomburgk to illustrate his ethnological lectures. However, from the writings of Robert and Richard Schomburgk we know that Goodall was by no means a dispassionate observer of the Amerindian bodies he represented, particularly with regard to the female form. Such was the beauty of one young Arecuna woman for example, that the artist immediately proposed marriage, much to the astonishment of his fellow travelers and potential father-in-law. The paper will therefore explore the passionate heterosexual gaze belying the 'scientific' mask of Goodall’s Amerindian portraits.
Kate Houlden (Queen Mary)
The Plantations of the Americas: Sex in the Writing of John Hearne
The work of Jamaican author John Hearne (1926-1994) is now little discussed, its focus on the lives of a white, plantocratic elite proving incompatible with the nation-building imperatives and subsequent racial tensions of the post-independence era. I suggest that his importance lies, however, precisely in this attempt to envisage a continuing function for Jamaica’s plantocratic class in the face of the cultural and political upheavals occurring across the Caribbean. The novels stand within the tradition of what Kim Robinson Walcott identifies as those white writers from the region, whose ‘burden […] involves struggling with a sense of marginalisation as a dwindling minority in an environment of increasing Afro-or Indo-centricity’. Hearne’s fiction of the 1950s reveals a clear tension between his attraction to a regional, pan-American form of unity and his locally based and emotionally loaded nostalgia for the plantocratic world. It is his portrayal of sex, I suggest, that most clearly gives away the contradictions between these two forms of thinking. While his factual writings celebrate a fluid linguistic and sexual legacy more in line with the ideas of a figure such as Glissant, much of Hearne’s fiction – like that of his idol, William Faulkner – compulsively returns to the plantation estates of his youth. Hearne makes a compelling, though flawed attempt to invite those previously excluded on racial grounds into his gentrified plantation world. Yet it is in the writing of his hypermasculine protagonists’ sexual lives that the novels take on the exoticising gaze of white, male privilege. When this occurs, the ‘racial mixing’ the author champions bleeds into a more prurient inspection of the animal, or the savage, mind and body.
Wendy Knepper (Brunel)
Eros & Citizenship: The Fragmegrated Body Politic in a Globalising World
Wendy McMahon (UEA)
The Origins of Man: Contemporary Literary Representations of Masculinity in the Caribbean
Patricia Murray (London)
Men Without Women: Exploring Male Relations in Three Trinidadian Writers
In macho societies, replete with violence, repression and unfulfilled desires, it is often the relations between men that need to change before society at large can change. Taking its cue from Hemingway, this paper will explore the representation of masculinity, and particularly the desire on the part of the men to connect and interact, in selected fiction by Earl Lovelace, Lawrence Scott and V.S. Naipaul. From their different class and ethnic locations all three writers are brutally aware of the pain of isolation and colonial deprivation. In this context it is the relationships between the men that are vividly drawn, creating intimate spaces alongside moments of confrontation, picong and bravado. The paper will explore the liminal spaces of desire and distrust, the transgression and reassertion of macho ideals and the limits of intimacy. While emphasis will be on the subtlety and depth of male representation the paper will also explore how the women are positioned in these relationships and ask whether the sympathy we feel for the men is sometimes at the expense of the women.
Jak Peake (Essex)
Sex, Desire and Generation in Trinidadian Fiction: From the Sweetman to the Vampire
The Beacon group, which emerged in 1930s Trinidad and comprised figures such as CLR James and Alfred Mendes, created a new genre of fiction centred on the yard. The genre was underscored by a preoccupation with sex, violence and crime. The sweetman, the jamette woman and the cuckold all feature as prominent figures in this richly sexualised literary tapestry. In their libidinous acts, each figure is related through webs of desire, cycles of generation and regeneration. In their congress, characters perpetuate a yard in which men are largely absent or ephemeral and matriarchal stewardship the norm. At heart, the Beacon group’s output reveals a fascination with the sex acts of its protagonists—a fascination which is inevitably linked to the outcomes of sex: generation.
This paper considers the gendered roles of sex, sexual exploitation and generation in the Beacon group’s works and De Wilton Rogers’s 1944 novel Lalaja. Connections between the sweetman and the vampire inter alia are investigated in relation to local and regional sexual myths, tropes and allegories.
Readings and Discussion from:
(Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Best Book in Canada and the Caribbean, 1999)
(Orange Prize Shortlist, 2010)
'Against Stereotyping the Whore'
With extracts to be read from her novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle and her memoir With the Kisses of His Mouth
American Tropics: Towards a Literary Geography (AHRC project)
Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies
Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies