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“I see a more visible gay life and I know fellow Trinis who are out in one way or another—something I couldn’t say before I left for Canada all those years ago. In a way, I envy that they have stayed and prevailed among our own—and didn’t run, like I did.”
Natasha Barsotti paid this loving tribute to local activists’ and their work in a review last Monday of Maria Govan’s film set in Paramin and Blanchisseuse, Play the Devil.
It is a tribute to the power of imagination. To those who—unlike older generations—have not learned the things they could not imagine.
To those who imagine that choices for those born in the Caribbean are larger than the two our region’s “it” writer of the moment, Jamaican Marlon James, offered in a 2015 New York Times magazine essay, as he came out as gay.
“I knew I had to leave my home country—whether in a coffin or on a plane,” the editors’ subhead paraphrased James.
Barsotti’s words honour those who do not have the choice to do either of these. Who have to live. Here.
My activist politics have always been a politics of imagination. That it’s more important to teach ourselves to widen our imagination to encompass the change we need to realise to live here—than it is to invest in ensuring the imagination of our lives (or the place we live) is so narrow that we are guaranteed rescue, by other places, or judges.
Like activists, the job of artists is to provide us imagination—to give you, in Audre Lorde’s phrase I shared here in March, “words you do not yet have.”
That is why James’ essay drove me to Facebook-whining, the moment I finished it, how that narrow narrative of the Caribbean “exhausts and enrages me.” Galled that one of the most irreverent provocateurs against stereotypes of the region would slip into so cant a reduction of the complexity of sexual citizenship. (In his non-fiction, at least.)
It is also my critique of Govan’s gay-themed feature film, which followed fellow Bahamian Kareem Mortimer’s 2010 Children of God as the darling of the T&T Film Festival—cinematographically beautiful—lead roles played by foreign actors—and ending in death. A frustrating inability by our most applauded artists to imagine Caribbean LGBTQI life differently—seven years apart.
Who is responsible for the stubbornness of this idea that if one does not leave the region one dies—spiritually or in the flesh, as an artist or queer person? An idea thoroughly useless to anyone who stays. Or ends up going back. To homophobes staying and dying artless deaths in Embacadere and Enterprise.
I know Barsotti’s envy well. It overwhelmed me hugging Godfrey Sealy under a century-old baobab in Bandabou, Curaçao, 20 years ago. Lone US resident at a groundbreaking gathering of 70 LGBTQI Caribbean activists, I joined the weeping end to its spiritual ceremony, blubbering my jealousy “of all of this” into Sealy’s ear.
It was my third trip back in one year after 14 in exile. It was the year another writer, Staceyann Chin, left the Caribbean. In a video tribute 16 years later, she shared similar emotions.
“I certainly have nothing but deep admiration, deep—even—envy for the people who stayed, for the people who carved a life out for themselves there on the island…You have come such a long way, and you’ve done it without those of us who ran. And I have all kinds of complicated feelings about that. But at the heart of it, at the belly of it, is mad love and admiration.”
She spoke of the bravery of sexy, swag young Jamaicans “with rings in places no one can mention,” whom she invoked to “keep making sure we show up with what it is you prescribe”—the role for those who “ran.” Perhaps Sealy was saying nothing different in 1997, even as he ridiculed my similar sentimentality. “Jealous? I jealous of you. I want your job.”
There are two endings to tell this story.
In one, it’s a time when everywhere imagination is failing, the ability to believe politics changes anything growing smaller and smaller. When I imagine Keith Rowley calls the election this year. Before rivers of political sludge snaking toward him meet and overflow? To plant a new crop of MPs in the desert one looks out at from the Parliament gallery? When, as he offered in Pt Fortin, voters discover there are no new options.
A time when, to paraphrase a recent newspaper ad, government has so little to offer citizens that creating equality of opportunity to crime and retrenchment is the best idea. Yet, even that is withheld. A time to imagine it is time to run, to reach toward jealousy instead of imagination, to retire to the hillside of another place and follow young people’s prescriptions. A time when those other places are making themselves smaller, when Donald Trump makes Robert Mugabe seem statesmanlike.
The second ending is different.
It’s this talented, working student, a 20-year-old visual artist and writer building a creative practice he calls artivism, whom I’d discovered week-before-last. Who shares Thursday that his is the Letter of the Day in the Jamaican papers. With the same “sense of pride,” the letter talks of “what it meant to be young, black, and gay,” to participate in a Pride festival that drew thousands. Followed by his email address.
And I panic. Remembering young Trinbagonians who, year after year, showed bravery for the cameras on the International Day Against Homophobia, only to be punished by their families, I quickly message colleagues, lament his youthful carelessness, beg them to protect his safety.
They dress me down. I have shown up with the wrong remedy. As an old man “constantly instilling fear.” Imagination is what is prescribed.
Before this ending, I had not been able to imagine this young man.
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