Reviewd by Dr Cathie Koa Dunsford
OUR CARRIBEAN: A GATHERING OF LESBIAN AND GAY WRITING FROM THE ANTILLES
EDITED WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY THOMAS GLAVE
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS, USA
REVIEWER: DR. CATHIE KOA DUNSFORD
RE-MEMBERING OUR CARRIBEAN CONNECTIONS: AN INDIGENOUS MAORI RESPONSE TO THOMAS GLAVE’S OUR CARRIBEAN: A GATHERING OF LESBIAN AND GAY WRITING FROM THE ANTILLES.
When I was teaching Audre Lorde’s Zami at the University of California, Berkeley and as a guest lecturer at San Francisco State University in the 1980’s , the students at first struggled to understand the huge differences between their own lives and those of the characters. They tended to “exoticise” the characters. I knew Audre and her work well enough to know she’d hate this response. I told them what it was like to grow up on an island not even represented on any map, as Carriacou and Aotearoa were absent from many maps in our youths. I brought in fruit and vegetables that grew in the Carribean and they learned slowly to taste some of the luscious poetry and prose of Audre in other ways.
But it was not until half way through the term, when the USA invaded Grenada, in an act of terrorism that shocked many of us, that they suddenly took notice. The Carribean islands became alive for them on a daily basis. We discussed the implications of such a terrorist invasion and they suddenly began to see Lorde’s words from another perspective. That so much love could surf through the pages despite the harshness of survival astounded them. Neither they, nor I, ever forgot that day. This was the inspiration for a bi-lingual German-English collection, Survivors  where this event was documented in the last poem, Survival.
If only I’d had Thomas Glave’s ground-breaking collection, Our Carribean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles to teach alongside Zami then. But thank Pele we had Zami and now have Glave’s collection. Glave took on this massive task precisely because he lamented the lack of recognisable voices from his own survival as a Jamaican immigrant to the Bronx, USA. As he states “this gathering - as it is titled, which makes its own contribution to an ever increasing conversation – is a book that I and others have been waiting for and have wanted all of our lives.” [Introduction].
I can state with conviction that Audre Lorde would certainly be proud of Glave’s collection. We knew each other from the early eighties up to her death in 1992. I had daily meetings with Audre in Berlin in 1992 when she was in the last stages of her cancer treatments and we discussed many possible future projects and she stated her wish that a Carribean scholar or writer would take on such a collection. She was at the time editing my first lesbian novel, Cowrie,  for publication and she told me I had to write our indigenous Maori lesbian lives growing up on the South Pacific Islands of Aotearoa into reality because nobody else would do it for us. And nor should they. We have to tell our own stories of survival in our own languages and words. I was deeply grateful for Lorde’s words of encouragement at that time as I am deeply grateful for Thomas Glave’s collection now, sixteen years later.
One of the great joys of this collection is the blend of astute academic literary criticism and literary activism. Academic theory without action is not an option for many of us who have survived heterosexist colonial regimes against all the odds. Thomas Glave deftly arranges this “gathering” of words, itself a term recognising the need to come together and speak all our different indigenous voices, so that the authors appear to be talking with each other as well as to us reading the text. One line from critic M. Jacqui Alexander, who for many has taken over Audre Lorde’s role as an astute and pioneering literary activist, connects with another poem or work of prose and the texts interconnect as if weaving a giant flax kete [woven basket].
As the publisher states, the thirty-seven authors come from the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Puerto Rico, St. Vincent, St. Kitts, Suriname, and Trinidad. Many have lived outside the Caribbean, and their writing depicts histories of voluntary migration as well as exile from repressive governments, communities, and families. Many pieces have a political urgency that reflects their authors’ work as activists, teachers, community organizers, and performers. Desire commingles with ostracism and alienation throughout: in the evocative portrayals of same-sex love and longing, and in the selections addressing religion, family, race, and class. From the poem “Saturday Night in San Juan with the Right Sailors” to the poignant narrative “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” to an eloquent call for the embrace of difference that appeared in the Nassau Daily Tribune on the eve of an anti-gay protest, Our Caribbean is a brave and necessary book.
You need to take time with this collection. It is a delicious gathering of voices, all different, but with interweaving themes. You cannot rush this experience. From the luscious, sexy racy prose to the cutting edge politics, every line has shape and depth and plays upon you long after the reading. This book will rock you, rock within you, like This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherie Moraga, did in the 1970’s. Adrienne Rich sent me that collection along with Nice Jewish Girls and Michelle Cliff’s stunning poetry collection, Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise, within a whole box of pioneering texts by feminists and lesbians of colour when we were struggling to set up Women’s Studies and I was lecturing in English Literature at the University of Auckland, Aotearoa. This box of books and that letter saved my life. I had no idea other indigenous lesbians existed, let alone were daring to write their words in print. For many young gays from the Antilles, Thomas Glave’s collection will also have that same impact.
In her letter accompanying the books, Rich wrote, “we must remain present to each other”, in the deepest meaning of this line. The typist [for Rich was about to go into hospital for a knee operation] had crossed out “present” and wrote “pleasant” above it. The typist had no idea what the deeper significance of this presence was to mean for us. This was, though unintentional, the act of a colonising editor which I would come to recognise throughout my academic career and in the book trade, as one which often tries to be kind but shows by its errors, the very need for us to write, edit and where possible, publish our own words. Thankfully for Thomas Glave, Duke University Press have honoured his desire to set the political and activist alongside the academic, as if they could ever be seperated for so many of us. Our lives as indigenous lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gendered people are lived in a political context as “outsiders” to the mainstream and we have to re-situate ourselves in the centre again, as Judy Grahn did with Another Mother Tongue back in the 1980’s.
Thomas Glave is himself a literary activist and academic. He teaches what he preaches in his life and with this collection. He is the author of Whose Song? and Other Stories; the essay collection Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent, winner of a Lambda Literary Award; and a forthcoming short fiction collection, The Torturer’s Wife. Born to Jamaican parents in the Bronx and raised there and in Jamaica, Glave is a founding member of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays (J-FLAG). He teaches in the English department at the State University of New York, Binghamton and is the 2008–2009 Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thomas Glave walks the talk. He knows from experience what colonial forces can do to us.
The role of the church in further colonising our voices is also revealingly exposed in this book and is eloquently articulated in Wesley Crichlow’s essay where he charts a Buller man’s Trinidadian Past using biomythography [originally coined by Audre Lorde] and the astute words of M.Jacqui Alexander, to support his arguments. He quotes Alexander’s assertion how “the naturalization of heterosexuality as state law has traditionally depended on the designation of gay and lesbian sex and relationships as “unnatural” . Religion as a colonising tool has been used in the suppression of indigenous cultures globally and it is a theme throughout this collection also.
The range of voices in this “gathering” are so vast that it would be impossible to summarise them in a literary review and unfair to just pick out some and not others. However, the right for every single voice to be here and the gathering of voices together makes for a powerful impact on the reader. Yet some special mentioning is needed. Glave’s own essay, Whose Carribean – An Allegory in Part, is a literary tour de force with a perfect blend of academic, activist and pure literary imagination. It is a blueprint for future survival. Set alongside Rosamund King’s “More Notes on the Invisibility of Carribean Lesbians”, we see differences and yet strong connecting themes. Each voice has its own role to play in this powerful opera of silenced arias.
Shani Mootoo gives a different perspective from an Irish Trinidadian past, as does Gloria Wekker from a Dutch Carribean experience. The voices in this gathering reach far and wide over the globe and are not, as so often the case, represented only from those who have survived colonisation in the USA or Canada. However, the collection is largely a northern hemisphere gathering and it would be a terrific challenge for those marginalised lesbian-gay-bi-transgendered voices from the Antilles, currently resident in the wider South Pacific and Southern Hemisphere, to begin a new gathering, building upon the sound stepping stones of this collection, so that these voices are also heard and contribute to the wider debate.
Had I known Thomas Glave before this collection was completed, I would have suggested this, especially since we do not have radical university presses like Duke with the resources to take on the voices of such marginalised groups. But should this volume be updated in a revised collection later, as we might hope will happen, since it is a superb teaching text, then maybe this will be possible. Or maybe a southern hemisphere editor from the Antilles will take up the challenge and a willing publisher will emerge from the success of this collection? Let’s send karakia for this possibility.
While the absence of Caribbean writer and literary critic M. Jacqui Alexander from this collection is deeply sad, primarily because she had other priorities at the time [I checked with her and she stated this], it is gratifying that her words endorse the anthology and that her presence is strongly felt within the pages as she is so often quoted in the text. M. Jacqui Alexander, like Audre Lorde, is a powerful pioneer as a Carribean academic and activist who puts her theories and beliefs into action on a daily basis, combining the spiritual and the political with poetic energy. Her own text, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred [also published by Duke University Press] is one of the most powerful and thought-provoking books I have read this past decade. Like Glave’s collection, it is a pioneer in the field, combining activism and academia and showing how vital this combination is.
Audre Lorde talked about the importance of fusing the political, the spiritual and activist energies. These leading Carribean writers, scholars and activists are following her words with a passion that would make her proud.
M. Jacqui Alexander sums up the collection thus: “Traversing boundaries of geography, history, language and desire, Thomas Glave has assembled a poignant testament of how we dare to love differently and yearn for justice in the same breath”. This eloquently and passionately gets to the heart of the collection.
It is my deepest dream that this text will become a teaching resource globally in all areas of education and that it will reach lesbians and gays from the Antilles and other marginalised island communities, giving them strength and arohanui to continue to live their lives with passion and grace and conviction. As the publisher states:
The first book of its kind, Our Caribbean is an anthology of lesbian and gay writing from across the Antilles. The author and activist Thomas Glave has gathered outstanding fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and poetry by little-known writers along with selections by internationally celebrated figures such as Reinaldo Arenas, Audre Lorde, Achy Obejas, Assotto Saint, José Alcántara Almánzar, Michelle Cliff, and Dionne Brand. The result is an unprecedented literary conversation on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered experiences throughout the Caribbean and its far-flung diaspora. Many selections were originally published in Spanish, Dutch, or creole languages; some are translated into English here for the first time.
This accurately sums up many of the reasons that Our Carribean should be used as a primary text in all educational institutions, libraries, community centres, gay, lesbian, bi and trans-gendered centres. At this time on this earth, we desperately need such a diverse literary conversation from those who are often seen as outsiders but who are very much at the centre of what is interesting and vital in literary debates and indigenous survival.
It is a courageous work of literary activism for which Thomas Glave and all the contributing authors as well as Duke University Press should receive the highest respect. For such a spirited political text to emerge in 2008 and defy the conservative forces in education, publishing and the wider community is indeed a miracle for which we should all feel grateful. This is a pioneering work which will split the waves and allow more vessels to enter the waters of our indigenous islands, challenging those forces which would dare to suppress our words, our realities, our dreams.
We have an ancient proverb in Maori:
Ana ta te uaua paraoa: Here lies the strength [or resolution] of the sperm whale.
What this really conveys is a warning that the speaker is strong and that he will stand by his words. That opposition and suppression will not be tolerated any longer.
This gathering infuses such strength into the writers contributing that when experiencing the whole, the collective empowerment is greater than any one voice on its own. Thomas Glave has shown the way forward through this inspirational and courageous collection.
 From 1983-6, I was Fulbright Post-Doctoral Research Scholar and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. My Fulbright was granted as the first indigenous Maori author/scholar to study and teach from contemporary multicultural lesbian literature.
 Survivors: Uberlebende, German-English edition of Poetry, Cathie Dunsford, edited by Dr. Sigrid Markmann, University of Osnaburck Press [OBEMA] – Osnabrueck Bi-lingual Editions of Minority Authors], Obema 4, Werf Verlag, Muenster, 1990.
 Cowrie, Cathie Dunsford, Spinifex Press, Melbourne,1994 [later translated into German and Turkish], first of an ongoing series of six published novels featuring indigenous lesbian activists: http://www.spinifexpress.com.au
 [Not Just [Any] Body Can Be A Citizen: The Politics of Law, Sexuality and Postcoloniality in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas”, M. Jacqui Alexander, Feminist Review, no 34 [1994:9].
[c] Dr. Cathie Dunsford, June, 2008.