A couple of months back, I had the pleasure of listening to Marlon James read from his latest book “Black Leopard, Red Wolf“. Before his visit to Houston, I read the New Yorker article on him. The VERY long New Yorker article that just was so…LONG. OMG! What do people write mini-novels as profiles!
Okay, after I got over the length, I was very much enthralled with this writer in perhaps a different way than the rest of the literary community had been. It was this quote that got me:
“ I just want to de-exoticize Jamaica.”
And that sentence, despite the other hundreds of sentences in that piece, was the one that made me do a double take.
It’s a Caribbean thing, I suppose, that everything piece of art about an island or country is exotic or layered in smoky nostalgia. It’s like that with Cuba. Just the mention of my father’s ancestral home conjures images of 1950 cars cruising down the seawall, or tattered Spanish streets with crumbling buildings, or forlorn exiles in Miami, or tobacco, rum, and dancing girls. That island in 90 miles from the southern most tip of the United States that was a playground for the rich so long ago. Cuba, the place everyone wants to visit before it “changes”.
That exoticism of the island, and all the islands of the Caribbean, have done more hard than good. Like, why did it take a hurricane to understand how Puerto Rico was screwed over for decades, unable to be either their own place or be fully part of the United States. When one think about Jamaica, it’s about how Stella got her groove back.
Here’s what I’m not saying, that these islands aren’t places to be admired for their beauty. They are, quite simply, paradise. But even paradise has a dark side, a real side. People live there, beyond the edges of resorts and getaways for vacationers. There’s a reality there that, if understood, would burst the bubble.
This how places stay frozen in memories, how stereotypes take hold, and how things move as slow as you like because nostalgia and exoticism exist in a different dimension. Like a half-baked Doctor Who episode I’m expecting the Cybermen to be the explanation for all this, but, alas, it isn’t to be so.
I’d almost rather the Doctor Who episode, half-baked and all.
This otherness also extends to our stories. Oh how different and cool it is to read a story from a Jamaican writer, how vogue or in fashion. (Cubans were so last year!) Often times, literature from these islands are the flavor of the season and only worth studying or considering as part of a Caribbean studies program.
Question: Is the British colonized Jamaica, why isn’t some of early Jamaican literature studied along side Jane Austen? Question: If the Spanish colonized Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Dominican Republic, why wasn’t our early work studied next to Cervantes?
Answer: We are the other. The tropical cousins that no one really wants to know more about but only acknowledges when required.
I understand Marlon James and his thought of de-exoticizing his home land. It’s only when we look at something in it’s truth can we know what is really going on. Until then, it’s still a dream, a memory, a nostalgia that’s better kept at bay.