Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature.
According to Caribbean theorists, the lives and history of West Indian people are irremediably linked to a tormented landscape which reflects natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, or more commonly hurricanes. In Thiefing Sugar, Omise'ke Nasta-sha Tinsley uses the very notion of landscape as she applies it to her analysis of "Women loving Women" in Caribbean Literature. This is quite a daring move since eroticism between women is still considered taboo and vastly unexplored throughout these insular regions. Hence this book undoubtedly adds a valuable contribution to this field of interest and expertise.
The author accurately points out the colorful plethora of terms used to describe Queerness in this multilingual Caribbean panoramic view. She challenges established interpretations by claiming that women use their sexuality as an act of resistance. Women slaves reposition themselves from asexual to objects of desire, a (re)conciliation of sex and body. I must vehemently disagree, however, with Tinsley's re-reading of Bernabe, Chamoiseau, and Confiant's In Praise of Creoleness, and her erroneous oversight of the French creolite. "La creolite a feminine substantive, is not gender neutral in the manifesto; it does not encompass feminine gender. In fact, it does just the opposite since it favors a patriarchal elitist Diaspora that completely overlooks women writers. In recent years, the theorists have recanted this viewpoint, and they have now acknowledged a few women as part of their movement. Women had certainly been excluded from the various manifestoes of the 1980s and 1990s, (1) but the movement has since then expanded to creolization which includes other Francophone regions that do not solely reflect the West Indian experience.
After clearly explaining the significance of her title to open the dialogue with her reader and create a new set of poetics and politics, Tinsley attempts to recover the (lost) voices of Surinamese women by underscoring that lesbianism primarily belonged to a White world. She provides an insightful ethnographic and historical description of women in Paramaribo and their relationships in an urban setting. Tropes of women as tropical flowers imagery were assimilated to the images of slaves and wives. The author indicates that same-sex lovers and maroons (slaves that escaped the plantations) received the same punishment from the Dutch settlers. We learn that birthday parties in Suriname gradually became venues for lesbianism in that they led to religious rites. Her initial chapter constitutes a cunning interpretation of hybrid gender as well as complex contemporaneous stances in Surinam.
Tinsley comfortably weaves historical facts to current reality as she pursues her second chapter on Eliot bliss's Luminous Isle. She mixes journalistic information with literary examples topped with a flavorful historical touch. According to the author, at the dawn of the twentieth century, white women poets in Jamaica labored to reproduce whiteness in their work, rendering it asexual at times. Furthermore, she points out that interracial relationships started taking place with an anti-colonial undertone. It was the time for black and white women to become accomplices, thereby transcending the Master and servant dialectic which was still in place. Tinsley draws a parallel in Luminous Isle between the main characters, Emma and Rebekkah, and their failures as they are made neither black nor white but mestizas.
The reader continues his/her journey through the Caribbean islands with a stop in Haiti and its look at homosexuality, a practice which is sometimes accepted, sometimes hidden, and as opaque as Glissant's theory. Tinsley takes us through Ida Faubert's floral metaphors to describe eroticism between women. This literary effect designates a cercle femina. The participation of Faubert's poetry at the exposition universe/le and the first appearances of women of color in 1889 add valuable historical information. Yet Tinsley's reading of Faubert's poetry and her assumption that the poet addresses another female because she uses the French "vous" appears to be an unfounded and results in a particularly bold postmodern reading of this poetry. Faubert seems to address an undetermined gender while she plays on this ambiguity.
Tinsley's fourth chapter starts in an unexpected fashion as she transitions with a modern advertisement for gay cruises. What an odd move to open such a seminal novel as Mayotte Capecia's I am Martinican! Tinsley once again attacks existing interpretations as she stretches manual labor to sexual identity. She even criticizes Fanon's lactification approach to the main character, a widely recognized and acclaimed theory that the main character of Capecia's novel conformed to the white colonialists. It is acceptable, however, to use the blanchisseuses as a metaphoric sexual fluidity between water and the erotic. Images of Mayotte's childhood are sometimes distorted to fit a queer interpretation. Tinsley mixes metissage and sexual fluidity to re-interpret Caribbean mythology using Manman Otto as an example. Her method of using Capecia's river scene to describe feminine complicity could stand if it was not stretched to a "topos of power and desire." Why mix solidarity of sexual class with what it was probably never intended to be? In my opinion, Tinsley fails to prove Fanon wrong. Furthermore, Mayotte Capecia's "Flowing in Andres arms" destroys her erotic gaze for other women, the washerwomen in rivers. Sometimes looking "otherwise" does not comply with cultural and historical realities.
Chapter five offers a rare insight into the world of transsexuals in Jamaica. Tinsley skillfully intertwines journalistic and literary styles to recount the reception of transsexuals in Trinidad. She then makes a connection to Michelle Cliff's No Telephone to Heaven (1987), a powerful love story of a "male woman" or Macommere. Tinsley challenges the elite's (Fanon or/and Glissant) account of black queer gender phobia in the Caribbean. Such phobia is irremediably linked to historical accounts of cane field slavery and their sexual encounters. Once again, it is so overzealous on Tinsley's part to relate this to Glissant's theory of the rhizome! I do appreciate Tinsley's remapping of Lesbian love stories in this slave-haunted, post-postmodern archipelago.
Tinsley's sixth and last chapter crosses between sexual and revolutionary politics, a natural progression illustrated by Mariela Castro's fight for Gay rights in Cuba, an especially homophobic center. She continues her study by accurately examining Dionne Brand's No Language is Neutral, a sexual politics text for same-sex Caribbean living landscapes which offers a metissage of desire and politics. This particular crossing may be found indeed in the heteroglossia between English and Creole, a clear defiance to the heteropatriarchy in place and a statement half-way between political and erotic borders, a third space, which belongs to lesbians. The reader is also made aware that Carriacou, a tiny place in the Caribbean, has served as a refuge for same-sex lovers and other proscribed behaviors, a haven for the unlawful that are rejected from Grenada. Tinsley points out that Donne favors language blending, a process called interlangue (interlanguage) long explained and adopted by Francophone Caribbean writers and theorists. In this, Tinsley's study falls sometimes short. Donne's poetry does constitute an act of resistance just as the other authors of Tinsley's analyses. Indeed, Brand's landscapes, Mati's roses, Faubert's garden and Capecia's waters represent landscapes of same-sex loving and activism. Tinsley demonstrates it in her panoramic exploration of the Islands through texts.
Tinsley should be commended for her attempt to capture the gaze/gays in a variety of Caribbean locations, which makes her study all the more fascinating. It seems, however, that the reading of the Francophone texts, albeit literary or theoretical, lacks a depth of knowledge of either the language or the reception of the works in their critical context. The combination of historical, journalistic, and literary styles offers a perspective that makes the reader travel through a geographical and imaginary space. This interstice, at last created by Tinsley as she writes this scholarly piece, concedes a voice to Female homosexuals.
Texas Tech University