Month: June 2016

Caribbean Voices: Lana C. Marilyn | Brooklyn via St. Vincent And The Grenadines

tumblr_o5py750y9t1qzcnzqo5_1280My very first Caribbean Voices interview features Afro-Caribbean writer and artist Lana C. Marilyn. I came to know Lana through the writing and poetry on her blog, always finding her insights on her own life both fascinating and well written. Lana was born to West Indian expats in the United States and I interviewed her to learn more about her perspective on feminism and Caribbean identity given her experiences as a member of the Caribbean diaspora. Lana recently published a book “Wet Sand In An Hourglass” which you can buy here: 

https://books.pronoun.com/wet-sand-in-an-hourglass

Lana C. Marilyn | 21 yrs old | St. Vincent

I asked Lana to tell me a little bit more about her interests and what she does in her spare time: 

Well, my biggest thing is that I’m a writer. I just published my first book, Wet Sand in An Hourglass, which touches on growing into my identity, embracing my culture (in a less superficial sense) and exploring other facets of early womanhood. I currently study screenwriting and linguistics in school, and enjoy supplementing my free time with cardmaking and stationery crafts, attending art shows and parties, reading articles online and analyzing the writing in films and television.

I wanted to talk to you today about sexuality and identity as it pertains to your Caribbean heritage. In your community/family, how do you think your sexuality is perceived?

I’m not “in the closet” but I’m not overly out to my immediate or extended family. I think (some of) my siblings know, and a few of my cousins know, but for aunts and uncles, I present as ‘straight’. I’m a femme bisexual cis woman, which means that there’s nothing flamboyant about my appearance that triggers direct and targeted bigotry towards me.

Because of this, I have to deal with the discomfort of heteronormativity a lot. Many of my relatives are religious Christians, and make comments and assumptions about my “future husband” and what I should or shouldn’t do if I want to have or keep one. That gets exhausting.

My parents do often openly exhibit homophobia around me, though I see it more towards gay men than women. I try not to really engage them in conversation about it. I also get the sense that there are some relatives I could “safely” come out to, and there are others who I would worry about sharing that with. Because I am not currently (and have not before been) in a same sex relationship, I get to avoid the subject. I’m not sure yet what would happen if that changed.

If you could change anything about how Caribbean communities view sexuality, what would it be?

There’s so much to start with, but I think the idea that there’s a right and “wrong” when it comes to sexuality would be a start. Or that it’s a punchline to a joke. I have a fourteen year old brother who likes to use “batty man” as an insult with his friends, and when I hear him say that around me, I check him for it, but he doesn’t “see the big deal”. What’s more disheartening is that I know if I tried to actively combat his homophobia in front of say, my mother, she would probably just enforce it and then scold ME for giving him the wrong idea.

We need to break away from the standard of marriage and family as an aspiration. i think this is the biggest stigma. the idea of being “gay” is seen as a direct affront to that Goal. Every deviation from heterosexuality is immediately countered with, “Don’t you want kids? Don’t you want to get married?”

And then there’s the whole thing of how we even stigmatize woman’s sexuality alone. In addition to identifying as bisexual, I also kind of consider myself to be asexual in certain aspects, and credit that to the very destructive way I was raised to understand my own sexuality. There’s a chapter in my book where I describe how when I was thirteen, and decided that it would be fun to hang out with friends after school, I was being called a slut and a whore for coming home late. I was having my body policed in certain ways according to what I wore and being taught that I didn’t even have the right to ownership of my own body because I wasn’t “allowed” to dye my hair, or have piercings, or tattoos. Whether I wanted them or not, it was instilled in me many times that my mother had more right to my body than I did. And it’s little things like that which created a sort of terror within me towards men and their advances, and complicated the relationship that I have with my body, men, and sex. Asexuality is easily left out of the conversations that focus on the LGBTQ community but it’s an important thing to highlight in a world that both demonizes sex while making it a huge expectation.

So these ideas of marriage vs “right and wrong” sexuality, both orientation-wise and in terms of when it’s acceptable, influence how people go on to feel about themselves and how they develop healthy relationships.

As a Caribbean person who grew up abroad, what’s your favorite part of your heritage?

I think I like the stories. It’s hard to choose a favorite when I feel like I’m only growing up with the bare minimum as it is — a lot of what we’re given to hold on to is music, food, and (unfortunately) …some of the dysfunctional habits that our families bring over. But I think what I love the most are the stories I get from relatives and strangers alike of what their experiences were actually like. I value that the most because I feel like it helps me to not romanticize the Caribbean but still be able to appreciate it. Stories about struggle, stories about my grandmother’s memory of fresh hot cross buns on Easter Sunday while she makes some for us from scratch, stories about old friends and neighbors, those are the things that stick to me the most and help me feel most connected to my heritage and culture.

In line with the previous question, do you feel like you missed out on anything? If so, what would that be?

I wish I had been able to visit St. Vincent more often growing up. I went once, as an infant, and I haven’t been again since. Most of my father’s family all live in America now, and my mother is estranged from the siblings who are still back home. Her not having a stable unit of people to rely on either here or in her home country meant we didn’t have aunts or uncles we could have spent summers with, and that she didn’t have anyone to trust in America with her children if she wanted to go back for an occasion that wasn’t a funeral. That disconnect has really made me sad even though I understand it. It simply just makes me want to go back and make that a regular thing for myself and possibly my future family.

Is English the only language you speak? Are you interested in learning Creole?

I do only speak English for now (though I’ve learned a great deal of Spanish in school). And I would love to learn Vincentian Creole, especially since I’m a linguist! For fun, I try to keep track of little phrases we use that aren’t quite “creole” but wouldn’t be very common in “standard American English”. It’s hard to recognize those kinds of things because some are so ingrained to me as normal until someone points it out. I find that very often the history of colonization is embedded in the language, from the development of the accents, to the words we use and the way we pronounce them.

Is being a feminist acceptable in your community?

The word “community” is kind of throwing me off here. Among other women in my generation, yes, being a feminist is acceptable. But we never really call ourselves feminists out loud, instead I think we just recognize the things that we need to unlearn and combat that we can’t rely on our parents and their generation to change or understand. I meet other Caribbean-American women all the time and these are things we discuss often among ourselves: “Hey, XYZ is NOT okay.” But I don’t know if I have a stable network of Caribbean feminists. It’s hard for me to speak for West Indians outside of my circle because I don’t know for sure if feminism acceptable to, important to, or even properly executed within a broader community.

As a Caribbean feminist, is there something specific you would care to change about the Caribbean community?

Open-mindedness is a big thing for me. And I know that sounds vague, but it applies to so many things. If people could just be more accepting, we wouldn’t laugh at or ridicule different body types, we wouldn’t police a woman’s expression of her sexuality, we wouldn’t spew hatred at the LGBTQ community. I think just an ability to reason all perspectives and to humble yourself to alternatives that work for other people…that would go a long way.

Do you think that your Caribbean identity impacts your writing and art? If so, how?

I’m sure it does, though if you asked me how, I’m not sure I would be able to pinpoint in what ways. Prior to publishing my book, I really just wrote fiction and things about young girls in magical worlds, and so I didn’t really write about or pull much from the experiences of my own reality. Until recently, there was a point where I feel I didn’t have a sure sense of myself that was rooted in relation to a Caribbean identity.

But there are little things — I think for example, the ways I characterize women stem from growing up seeing the women in my family being the real Head of Household. For example, even though my parents are married to each other and raised us together, my mother was the one who we spent our time with the most. I see my uncles take a laidback approach to how involved they get raising their kids, too. I was raised to be self-sufficient and I don’t write about about women who are “weak” or idle but who are confident, complex and creative. And sometimes stubborn or self-sacrificial.

When it comes down to it, the influences are subtle, but the things that I carry forward are more like the values, customs and relationship models I’ve grown up around and internalized. I’ve never consciously sought to represent my culture in my writing, nor do I want to oversimplify it in any attempt to do so. But moving forward, I would like to look for ways to do so without feeling like I’m overstepping, you know?

Is there any other aspect of being a Caribbean woman you ponder often? If so, what would that be?

I know it might be counterintuitive or ironic but I think a lot about our relationship to men, and the ways that they disappoint us whether as fathers or partners. We’re always performing so much emotional labor. I think a lot about how that harms us, and so on. I think a lot about what it means to be a Caribbean woman who grew up in America and how the things that we (other women who grow up abroad) take up as emblems of our culture – alcoholism, being “crazy” as a badge of honor, abuse on a number of systemic levels – are actually destructive and harmful. There’s a lot of our livelihood that is unfair and harmful. It’s hard. I think a lot about how that weighs on a person, how it affects choosing better partners and holding ourselves accountable. I ponder a lot about the role of ‘sacrifice’ in our lives and our communities.

I was really grateful to find such a thoughtful and interesting person to interview for my first installment of Caribbean Voices! As a part of this project, I also want to take the time to highlight artists/authors etc. work. So I hope you get a chance to check out Lana’s book and her website. See the links below for more information:

Purchase her book here: https://books.pronoun.com/wet-sand-in-an-hourglass

Visit her website here: lanalbxe.com

Intersectional Feminism: Alcohol Addiction, Our Silent Public Health Emergency

alcohol-1198642_960_720

West Indians seem to think that binge drinking and massive amounts of alcohol consumption are a hilarious joke and signify the “free spirited” nature of the region. Just look at songs like Kabawé by DYP or Rum & Redbull by Beenie Man. Although both songs are good songs, they do glorify a culture of irresponsible behavior with one of the most dangerous drugs anyone with a twenty dollar bill can buy over the counter with absolutely no interference. Today, I’m not going to go into the root causes of alcohol addiction, but hopefully I will highlight why this public health emergency presents a far graver danger than marijuana, our governments’ current scapegoat for every social ill under the sun.

I’ve written briefly about alcohol before, comparing it to marijuana but today I’m mostly going to shy away from comparisons and delve into the social/physical implications of alcohol addiction. I say that alcohol addiction presents a far more serious problem for a couple primary reasons:

  1. Alcohol is ridiculously easy to buy in the Caribbean. At least in Saint Lucia, you can’t drive 100 ft without passing a bar. You can buy alcohol in the grocery stores and there is no enforced drinking age. (You can act like a drinking age is enforced but I have hard evidence that suggests otherwise…)
  2. Alcohol is linked to social issues that disproportionately impact women such as intimate partner violence and sexual assault. (To any cretins reading… No, I don’t mean women’s alcohol consumption causes sexual assault. Rather, men seem to commit sexual assault when binge drinking.)

But what impact does alcohol have? Why can’t it just be fun and games?

Here is how easy it is to get hooked on alcohol according to two different scales averaged together:

comparecht
Source: drugwarfacts.org

 

 

 

On this chart, you can see that some aspects of alcohol addiction are more potent than nicotine and cocaine. Alcohol is certainly more addictive than caffeine or marijuana. Additionally, the biggest “advantage” alcohol has over all these drugs is that it’s incredibly easy for anyone to purchase at any time, for any reason, in any quantity. Addictions are most easily formed in younger people, so this accessibility of alcohol means the public health burden of alcohol will certainly be greater as more people are permitted (and encouraged through media/family influence) to start drinking early.

Drinking too much over time (whether you can be diagnosed with alcoholism or not) has negative impacts on many parts of your body for example:

Sources: [x][x]

  • Heart problems: stroke, high blood pressure, arrhythmias, cardiomyopathy
  • Liver: alcoholic hepatitis, cirrhosis, fibrosis, fatty liver (which is unhealthy)
  • Pancreatic issues
  • Increase your risk of developing certain cancers: mouth, esophagus, throat, liver, breast
  • Weakening your immune system so you’re more likely to develop illnesses like pneumonia and tuberculosis than non-drinkers or moderate drinkers
  • alcohol poisoning
  • nerve damage and/or permanent brain damage
  • sexual problems
  • ulcers / gastritis
  • increased risk of unintentional injuries (such as car accidents, falls, misuse of dangerous weapons)

Don’t forget that alcoholism is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. In a region with far fewer restrictions on alcohol, and higher rates of alcoholism, you can safely speculate that the numbers are at least equal, if not worse.

Alcohol abuse additionally has big social implications for example:

Source: [x]

  • Pregnant women who drink are at risk of having their children develop fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Drinking impairs anyone’s ability to contribute to the household function (this may include earning capacity, or capacity to engage in general maintenance of the household)
  • If one party spends a lot of money to feed their addiction, this can negatively impact a poor family, draining them of most of their resources. Taking these resources away can lead to poor health outcomes for everyone, not just the alcoholic as money is diverted from other health care or child care needs
  • Drinking can lead to home accidents and domestic violence
  • Alcoholism can lead to loss of family income due to inability to work OR due to premature death of a provider
  • There are substantial mental health problems that accompany alcoholism (some examples include depression & anxiety)

The effects of mens’ heavy drinking in the household have strong negative impacts on the women in the household in these regards: 

  • Increased instances of domestic violence
  • Increased risk of HIV infection
  • increased economic burden on their partners

This is just examining the social effects of alcohol in one specific lens. Of course, there are other aspects of social functioning to consider like the ability to function in the workplace. If these social problems don’t resonate with you, visit this reddit thread of “adult children” of alcoholics filled with heart wrenching personal stories that just begin to highlight the negative impact alcoholism has on families.

Overall, this isn’t to shame alcoholics or to suggest that there is something inherently wrong with them. In this culture, getting caught in a dangerous cycle is beyond easy. Breaking a habit of heavy drinking and/or alcoholism however is — in contrast — far more difficult. Here, we don’t have Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon. We don’t have the facilities for medical detoxification when necessary. Our society encourages one thing, but when it gets out of hand, drinkers are blamed and vilified rather than helped to heal. And of course, this post will never be able to cure someone’s alcoholism or heavy drinking. Education and knowing the facts isn’t enough to stop addiction; this is a moralistic (and incorrect) myth about addiction that leads to placing the blame on addicts. We need a public health intervention that includes education but doesn’t stop there.

And no matter what needs to be done on an institutional level, we also need to change our culture surrounding alcohol. Binge drinking isn’t fun or funny. Our “carefree” culture isn’t actually carefree at all. It’s flat out irresponsible and dangerous. Alcoholism and calling rum “therapy” isn’t a joke. When you take alcoholism lightly, you diminish one of the most serious health issues our nations face.

This is a serious public health issue that has damaged our countries and will continue to damage them until something changes.

If you suspect that you or someone close to you may be heading down a dangerous path with alcohol, please view some of these resources linked here:

Am I an alcoholic self test[x]

I drink, but how can I tell if I’m an alcoholic?[x]

Am I alcoholic dependent?[x]

 

Intersectional Feminism: The Spectre of White Supremacy in the Caribbean

intersectional feminism white supremacy in the caribbean

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Caribbean is a melting pot where race doesn’t matter!” Every time I hear that, I grit my teeth and wonder when omitting the history of the Caribbean became a trend to hop on. It’s natural to want to defend the Caribbean against the harsh criticisms first world people heap upon us, but saying that race doesn’t matter in the Caribbean is an ahistorical lie that denies the lived experience of millions of people in the region.

Black people came to the Caribbean on slave ships and from that moment, everything in the Caribbean has been about race. Of course, race and class then became intimately intertwined. Today, having the name of a former slave master (the slave masters were all white) is a point of pride. White people make up the wealthiest populations in our islands. Many of my Caribbean friends from various islands have said, “I don’t know anyone poor and white here.” That coupled with whiteness is known to help in school, with employment and with other situations one may experience throughout your life.

Our countries all have a massive hatred of black features… White hair is seen as clean, tidy, neat and professional whereas black hair is automatically wild/unruly or something that needs to be “fixed”. For those who think it’s about “curls” and not whiteness… White people with curly hair are NOT subjected to the same treatment as black people. Throughout the Caribbean, black hair styles are often seen as “untidy” and “unprofessional”. Another belief about blackness being inherently bad is the idea that if you go into the sun you will get “too black” — the same belief doesn’t apply to getting “too white” however. People are applauded for their physical proximity to whiteness and punished for being black. Darker skinned people experience worse treatment and excessive teasing for their skin color. These damaging beliefs about their physical appearance and identity have long lasting effects in people’s life, causing them to perpetuate race based abuse on others as well as themselves. Any woman who has transitioned from relaxed to natural hair in the Caribbean can tell you that they faced significant pushback, indicating that the issue is widespread.

Some of the more subtle cultural preferences towards white people is the tendency for black people to refer to any white man as “boss”. I’ve seen this with my father as well as my boyfriend (who is biracial but that often gets coded as white down here) where people who have no reason to, refer to them as “boss”. It’s a subtle, yet powerful way of indicating status and frankly, black people often believe themselves to be lower status than white people. There is no reason for black people to speak to white people differently from how they speak to black people, yet in the Caribbean this is all too common.

Another common experience of black people in the Caribbean is poor treatment by customer service staff. White people (thought to be tourists especially) are treated with politeness, respect and the gamut of perfect customer service. Black locals on the other hand are often treated poorly by those serving them for no reason other than their skin color. This poor treatment could be slowness, blatant rudeness or asking black people to leave certain areas for “being loud” even if they were not in fact being loud. (Yes! All of these experiences are real and have happened to various WI people I have spoken to on these issues.)

We pretend that whiteness is non-existent here, yet it is clear that being white in the Caribbean leads to better treatment overall. The occasional instance of bullying or someone charging you a higher price is NOT indicative of the larger experience of racism which occurs at an institutional level. Receiving less respect just because you’re black can have a big impact. This can impact your job search for example or can have even more dire results when you’re dealing with medical professionals who judge you simply based on your appearance. (Example: Do you look poor? Do you look rich? Guess which people look rich and which look poor. If you can guess, congrats, you just identified white supremacy in action.)

Wealth being concentrated in the same white population that owned our ancestors is also a clear cut case of institutionalized white supremacy. We make the mistake of thinking you need a white cloak to be a white supremacist, but really white supremacy is a system that ensures white people have total dominance over every aspect of our society from economics to social interactions. It is something that clearly exists and affects the Caribbean today and something that we cannot ignore if we ever want equality of any kind whether it is for women, for the poor or any other marginalized group. If white people always have it better, we will never have liberation from oppression.