Post 350.

As Carnival takes over airwaves, we can explore its representations of music, culture and sexual pleasure. These representations are often contradictory, drawing us into debate. They are sometimes more important than first appears, charting a historical moment, or highlighting generational change or US influence, or showing what adolescents, tuned in on Instagram and Youtube, are learning from us about empowerment and gender.

Destra’s recently released ‘Rum and Soca’ video is an intriguing mix of representations that signal much about our time. The video’s narrative is basically like the African-American movie, ‘Girls Trip’, which is a story of women’s friendship and a wild weekend of dancing, drinking, and romancing to excess.

This narrative is at home here in Trinidad and Tobago, with its long history of “girls’ limes”, and women drinking and wining with each other in fetes and on the road. It’s a welcome story as there are far too few videos of women enjoying themselves without performing at men’s command or for men’s pleasure or to attract men or as backdrop to a dominant male voice. “Party done” may have been the last time women were out like this on their own.

There are almost no men in Destra’s video and none on the mic. Those in the scenes are mere background to the social intimacy that affirms a right to woman-centred fun. The take up of a particular brand of consumer and celebrity feminism in Port of Spain is symbolized by the wealth and status of a limo, mansion, long blond wig and closet full of clothes combined with the Carnivalesque bacchanal of bam bam, and its emphasis on women’s licentious freedom as empowerment.

There’s much to say about such empowerment. It seems to be symbolized by drinking to excess, a privilege traditionally reserved for men. Destra herself has at least eight drinks, and I found myself wondering about the messages to adolescent girls. Such drinking has historically costed those who may find themselves assaulted and then blamed for getting to a point where they can’t remember their last name. Such risks of victim blaming are real and I wondered about the counter warning to young women that excessive alcohol consumption easily turns a sense of power into vulnerability.

The drunkenness is simply Destra keeping up. Men have been triumphing such excess for decades, from “Drunk and Disorderly” to “Rum till I Die”, and it’s debatable whether it’s fair to hold women to a higher standard. Indeed, one can argue that the video is also an Afro-creole version of a matikor, the Caribbean’s longest and most iconic historical expression of rum-drinking, women-only wining and queer potential in a safe space created by women themselves.

Yet, one can’t be naïve about alcohol marketing in the Caribbean. Only four brands are visible in the video. It’s almost blatantly an extended Angostura ad, following in the footsteps of Machel, who introduced advertising for his own rum into his repertoire of songs, because scraping the barrel in this way as an artist makes good business sense. Company branding conflated with cultural production should compel us to question the role that alcohol companies play in sponsoring and profiteering from fetes, bands, artists and videos, and encouraging young adults to become drinkers.

The video’s major intervention, however, is its erotic intimacy among women. Women’s same sex sexual attraction has been going mainstream with videos by Rihanna and Shakira, Shenseea, Rita Ora and Cardi B, Kehlani and Teyana Taylor, Janelle Monae, and more.

In these videos and in Destra’s, women are also holding hands, near kissing, and touching bodies in ways that blur the line between heterosexuality, bisexuality and lesbianism, or in ways that ‘queer’ being straight. Whether it’s alcohol, or sexual experimentation, or sexual fluidity, Destra’s video can be simultaneously read as straight and gay, as deliberately ambiguous, and as defying easy identity labels.

Such queering has a long history in the region. Yet, for lesbians in Trinidad and Tobago, same-sex desire isn’t something that happens when you’re drunk or that is about a night out. It’s an identity that isn’t taken on and off, and still carries great social stigma. One can only hope that women celebrities’ openness to ambiguity, play and enjoyment normalises challenges to homophobia and an inclusive world for women beyond its rules.

Cultural representations of empowerment, sexuality, womanhood and feminism in the Caribbean can be problematic as well as emancipatory, but shouldn’t simply be dismissed. Signs of our times, and their shifts and debates, continue to come in Carnival music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 202.

In 1999, Nesha Haniff wrote that “Indian women’s writings are only now emerging and the scholarship by Indian women on Indian women is slowly developing.” Almost twenty years later, enough of that writing now exists for a new generation of scholars to look back at it and ask a number of questions. How does it enable us to think about life today? What does it contribute to the Caribbean intellectual tradition? How has it defined feminism? What are its radical elements? What does it say about sexuality, race, family, religion, empowerment and more?

Most people think Indo-Caribbean women have not produced a lot or even particularly important scholarship, and that it is now coming into voice. But, it isn’t that the scholarship has been missing, it is that it has been marginal to how the region and its gender relations have been thought about.

Even as only a starting point, I want researchers to know that that Indians in the Caribbean can’t be studied as if this scholarship doesn’t exist, and neither can mixed and complex societies like Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, and even others like Jamaica and Martinique.

This means getting to know the research about the intersections of gender, race and region along with generation and nation. It means getting to know how its concepts draw on myths and traditions, using words like ‘matikor’, ‘bindi’, ‘jahajin’ and ‘dougla’ to create theory, or ways of explaining who we have been, are becoming and should be. It means asking how the work of those creating art or writing books, or the lives of pioneering women negotiating power relations, from family life to business to politics, can be documented using the frames that Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship offers for reflecting on our ambitions, struggles and communities.

For these ideas to turn into the collective conversation that it should, with others in and beyond the region, eighteen scholars are being brought together here to present their research. They are doing so in order to examine the Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship that exists, and to show its contribution as well as how it can be advanced, nuanced or completely revised. Those scholars will presenting at UWI on November 5-6, 2015, on be everything from dance to literature, from sexuality to masculinity, from religion to family, and from visual art to violence in Indo-Caribbean life.

I am hoping that bringing them together here makes Trinidad and Tobago a leader in mentoring and producing knowledge about Indo-Caribbean, Dougla and Caribbean feminisms. I am hoping that it helps us to recognize and shape how a new generation of scholars is writing about Indian womanhoods and manhoods, from the ground up rather than importing theory. I am hoping that the publication of these papers in 2016 will shape Indo-Caribbean research on women and gender relations for at least the next decade.

To make this happen, I’ve spent these last weeks asking those in business to support the flight/hotel costs of one or more of the scholars who will be presenting on those two days, supplementing funds raised through university research grants. This way, there’s a collaborative investment by a wider community in producing much needed knowledge about Indo-Caribbean contemporary life, particularly women’s lives, and an investment in the intellectual leadership of our young women scholars.

It’s been a challenge. Most understand the importance of giving to charity, sports or even medical research. Social science, which studies family, culture, changes to tradition, power inequalities, and how we relate to each other in contemporary life, seems less urgent. Good at teaching and writing, rather than fundraising for research, I’ve also surprised myself by how shy I feel about confidently convincing those who can easily give funds why they should do so. Care for this project is forcing my skills to grow.

The scholarship I’ve read since beginning research on Indo-Trinidadian girlhood fifteen years ago has shaped the woman and scholar that I’ve become. My vision is to give back to the younger, emerging scholars documenting and explaining ideas, theories and experiences over the next fifteen years. If you can connect to that vision and want to help make such contemporary, collaborative, Indo-Caribbean feminist research a reality, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Post 93.

Every year for my anniversary, bridal mehendi is etched on my hands and feet. It’s a ritual symbolizing more than the marriage. My wedding mehendi was first done at my matikor, organized and attended by women of all hues and mixes, religious beliefs, sexualities, feminisms and politics. This was no ordinary matikor, though it did draw on the divine and feminine in Hinduism and in the ceremony itself, and it did feature women and sisterhood, song and rhythm, ritual decoration, invocation, fire and, of course, educational dancing with a baigan. The women who attended all came as goddesses and warrior women from various mythologies and histories. Athena, Gaia, Poolan Devi, Oshun and more descended in dress and spirit to mark my transition.

 That night called upon more than one tradition, and did so in ways that were creative and invented. While some might look askance at such unorthodoxy, it also brilliantly showed how cultures combine and emerge with new meanings as each generation makes them their own in relation to their time. In no way do these inventions replace those enactments that seek consistency and continuity, but they do open spaces for resistance, reinterpretation and even rejuvenation, which are how we have formed the sacred practices that distinctively represent Trinidad and Tobago today, whether it’s the hybrid blessings of Siparia Mai or the high mass of Jouvay.

 What followed was a wedding whose rites equally combined the old and authorized with the imaginative and unsanctioned. At ten am in the morning and wearing a wedding kurta suit and a red sari, Stone and I were married in our back garden by his godmother, who is a Reverend in the Church of the Nazarene. Muslim blessings were also given. Because he’s a music producer and I’m a poet, we walked down our aisle to our own beats and rhymes, which we hoped would remind us that after nine years of bliss, promises kept don’t need a wedding to be declared.

 In the evening, we held another service whose steps I devised for no other reason than they mattered to me, like amulets strung around not only the bride and groom, but the whole occasion. One Wicca sistren drummed as we joined our friends and this time I wore my aunt’s sari from her wedding thirty-five years ago along with my great grandmother’s earrings. Another Carib sistren lit sage and chanted, mentioning all the corners of the country that hold indigenous value and within which we live today. Our friends wrote our vows and then read them to us, giving us the blessing of their collective hopes and wishes. We jumped over a cocoyea broom, hand-made with cowrie shells by another sistren. That’s when it all became complete.

 Maybe it’s being feminist that makes me feel empowered to choose the traditions and rituals that feel right regardless of whether others agree. Maybe it’s being just sort of contrary. Maybe it’s being from a country where our greatest legacy is our inventiveness, which has enabled us to not only survive, but also to thrive. Maybe it’s being an anthropologist and knowing that culture is always being made anew. Maybe it’s learning from a generation of women around me who draw on every religious and cultural resource of the land regardless of their race or creed. In sweet T and T, you can have a dougla matikor and wedding which draw on diasporic and local beliefs, generations of female collectivity and generous amounts of love. Beyond being a bride, this is what I remember as the mehendi is being drawn on my body. All histories are ours to claim and make sacred, uniquely.