My 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:
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