Our contributor, Kuchenga Shenjé, offers a personal reflection on the importance of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. Has Kincaid’s text aged well in a Caribbean wrestling with the baggage of colonial rule and its residual prejudice towards queer individuals?
“Petits Pays, Petits Esprits”
I heard the above phrase in Martinique, which basically translates to “small countries, small minds”, from a Bréton man who owned the bar ‘Le Terminal’ on the corner of the open air bus station in Fort-de-France. I had come to the island with as much naïveté as determination, hoping that in the land that birthed Frantz Fanon I could convince this specifically reified black society that I was both comfortably cisgender and worthily straight. I failed, gloriously. I was trying so hard to ‘pass’, but in truth, despite my best efforts of suppression, my black queer femininity is unbridled and thus has always ‘jumped out’. The divine feminine constantly glowing from deep within; she has always been irrepressible.
One particular afternoon, after a work day at a middle school in the countryside, I scurried to Le Terminal to commiserate with my Breton barman over one of my beloved tropical cocktails. I had made the mistake of going to work wearing a milky orange chemise, beige slacks, white birkenstocks and a wicker handbag. I knew this laidback louche look was not masculine, but it was the least feminine look I could handle. The words ‘gender dysphoria’ were not yet part of my vocabulary. I walked through the school courtyard and my ensemble elicited violent outbursts from the outraged adolescents. I felt all respect for me as a teaching assistant sizzle away as they bellowed in chorus: “MACOUMÉ! MACOOOOOUMÉ LA!” The French Creole equivalent of ‘batty boy’ or ‘faggot’. There was no way back from the humiliation of this public roasting. Underneath these breathable fabrics beat the encaged heart of a cocooned body, now lovingly referred to as curvaceous and bodacious by men who categorise me with the honorific of being a ‘bad bitch’. But way back there in 2008, before I had commenced my blossoming as a transsexual woman, my body, in that Caribbean space was deemed to be socially illegal. Sipping tearfully on my piquant pink sugary drink my Bréton barman told me :
“T’inquiète pas… C’est pas toi… C’est juste… En Martinique… Les gens… Ils sont trop… bornés.”
“Don’t worry… It’s not you… It’s just.. In Martinique… People… They are too… small minded.”
I found solace in books as always. The city library was delightfully dark, womb-like and refreshingly cool. It was there, in its healthy bowels, that I discovered Jamaica Kincaid through her polemical book A Small Place, a work that rides the waves of invective without descending into cheap crudeness. This feat is remarkable considering its subject matter; the aftermath of slavery, the evils of segregation inherent in Caribbean colonialism, and the puerile corruption of neo-colonialism fed by the voracious beast that is modern tourism. Written as a letter to her then editor at ‘The New Yorker’, about how her homeland of Antigua came into being, he deemed it to be too angry to be published in the magazine. Its publication as an essay in 1988 received a critical reception that meant Kincaid did not feel it would be safe for her to return to the island for a number of years afterwards. Although Susan Sontag lauded Jamaica Kincaid for her emotional truthfulness, she endured what many black women writers, thinkers and academics describe, finding themselves walled in by misogynoir, suffering a particularised form of castigation for irreverently speaking the truth too well.
Despite my best efforts of suppression, my black queer femininity is unbridled and thus has always ‘jumped out’. The divine feminine constantly glowing from deep within; she has always been irrepressible.
Twenty years after its publication, the incisiveness of A Small Place helped me make sense of the neo-colonial Caribbean locale that hemmed me in with the social mores of the Martinican population. I gained a clearer understanding of how the stringent hierarchy of colourism came to be so entrenched and how white holidaymakers from mainland France could breeze about this island département seemingly wholly unaffected by the status quo that was scarring me daily. The fat black queerness of my body was seen as a worthy target for the vitriol of the islanders. Misguidedly blinkered by their pain, they projected violence onto my otherness.
Thirty years after its publication I sat down in a darkened space at The Gate Theatre in Notting Hill to watch Cherelle Skeete and Nicola Alexis bring the book to the stage in an artfully experimental production that was adapted and directed by Anna Himali Howard. The piece was choppily delivered with the actors popping up here, there and everywhere confronting the audience with the rhetorical power of the text, but also leaving us a bit dizzy. An abundance of props and a moment of interaction, where red string was unwound and held by the fingers of the audience, including myself, as if we were the pins indicating the stops on a cruise ship through the Caribbean Sea, was very effective. The actors’ erudition brought a new oratorical quality to the work, which although refreshing, did not bring much else. Maybe it is not the fault of those involved, but the polite applause at the end confirmed for me that Holland Park’s finest cultural critics were returning to their well-kept homes that night way more comfortable than Kincaid intended her readers to feel.
Politically, A Small Place has aged well. I knew this when I recently watched the Bravo reality television show ‘Married to Medicine’ about the barely tumultuous lives of doctors and their spouses in the metropolitan Atlanta area. Their season five trip to the island of Antigua was significantly uplifted by their benevolent philanthropic endeavour to have a ‘pop up surgery’ where they could give consultations for local residents free of charge. A patient’s blood pressure is found to be so fatally high, immediate serious measures are suggested, but as this woman is a carer, she must first check on the welfare of her dependent before doing what is necessary to save her own life. One is reminded of Kincaid pointedly calling out Antigua’s politicians who fly to New York for checkups instead of investing in the medical services for their own citizenry. In Martinique I bought smoked salmon and cream cheese at my local Leaderprice supermarché and purchased the latest Jean Paul Gaultier fragrance from the tiny Galeries Lafayette in the town centre, flown in by the chokingly carbon-increasing daily deliveries on Air France cargo.
The colonial baggage of Victorian buggery laws and lesbian invisibility with the corresponding queer homicides and the practice of corrective rape of masculine presenting women is both urgent and too harrowing for words.
What has not aged well is the absence of any serious intellectual wrestling with the issue of Caribbean queerness. With regards to gender, one must ask who is the least safe in Caribbean societies and why. It’s a perilously urgent situation. The colonial baggage of Victorian buggery laws and lesbian invisibility with the corresponding queer homicides and the practice of corrective rape of masculine presenting women is both urgent and too harrowing for words. At the Chicago Humanities Festival, Kincaid chortles with the artistic director Lawrence Weschler when recalling the heady days of the early seventies when she died her hair bleach blonde, cut it short and exclusively wore vintage clothing of the interwar period. She says: “… to supplement my income, which was nonexistent, I became a backup singer to a transvestite called Holly Woodlawn”. The audience laughs on cue at the well trusted, crowd pleasing anecdote about the outrageously named man in a dress. But gender non-conformity in a Caribbean context is much more difficult to laugh at.
The Vice documentary ‘Gully Queens’ which catalogues the lives of queer and trans people made homeless by family rejection which compels them to live in a makeshift community in the sewers of Kingston, Jamaica. This subterranean subculture is one of the more severe examples of how the brutal history of the gender binary in the Caribbean has created a class of people who are the sinful detritus that black Christian heterosexuals refuse to acknowledge as human. Escaping the claustrophobia of these small places in the Caribbean archipelago, we do have incredible iconic change makers throughout the diaspora. Cultural creators and activists who are trying to transform the cultural landscape. Whether that be Kid Fury of The Read podcast in New York or Lady Phyll Opoku, the founder of UK Black Pride in London, both of whom are doing their level best to ensure that those amongst us who are black and visibly queer and/or trans can one day return to these small places and do what we can to cleanse them of their current inhospitable traumatic hostility. For right now, there are too many motherless children, lost in the psychic waves of the wide Sargasso Sea, desperate to return to somewhere they could call home.
The feature image is taken from the Trans Wave Jamaica twitter account. The Trans Wave site can be accessed here. Lucy Writers would like to thank Trans Wave Jamaica for allowing us to use this beautiful image.