Forging Space: Scholars Expanding the Field of Indo-Caribbean Feminist Though

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This article by Krystal Ghisyawan appeared in The Stabroek News.

When I first went to Toronto from Trinidad in 2007, I thought of myself as Indian, having been raised to take pride in being Indian. I was drawn to South Asian Studies, wanting to know more about the history and rich cultures of my people. I definitely found this, but I also found that these conceptions of Indian culture did not describe me or represent my social and material reality. I became increasingly aware of the distance between the Indianness that I knew, and what I was learning from my South Asian friends and classmates. Being physically dislocated from my Caribbeanness, I sought an understanding of the Caribbean part of myself and tried to locate my community in this foreign context.

Coming back to Trinidad in 2011, I began working in Caribbean sexuality studies, and discovered Indo-Caribbean writings on race, nationalism, gender and sexuality. I began reading about a culture that I was familiar with, but had never seen theorised and contextualised in scholarship before. This literature was bringing together my ancestors’ South Asian roots and their cultural transformations and navigations in their New World context.

On November 5th-6th, 2015, on the University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus in Trinidad, I had the honour of participating in something truly historic. The scholars, authors and activists whose work I had been reading were all to be gathered in one room for two days to discuss the trajectory of Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship. I recalled my first meetings with Rhoda Reddock and Patricia Mohammed years earlier, feeling a similar mixture of anxiety, dread, excitement and sheer happiness. I anticipated being able to meet with, learn from, and foster personal and intellectual cross-generational relationships with the women who have been foundational in building the field of Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship, wherein I now situate my own work.

Organised by Gabrielle Hosein, Lisa Outar and the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, a Symposium entitled “Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Beyond Gender Negotiations”, brought together some of the many people working to expand this field. The Symposium facilitated the discussion of papers being prepared for a book collection entitled Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Genealogies, Theories, Enactments, to be published by Palgrave in 2016, and edited by Gabrielle Hosein and Lisa Outar.

Distinguished academics such as Patricia Mohammed, Rhoda Reddock, Rosanne Kanhai, Rawwida Baksh, Shalini Puri, Sheila Rampersad, Ramabai Espinet, and Aisha Khan offered their guidance to the works of established scholars like Angelique V Nixon, Kavita Singh, Andil Gosine, Gabrielle Hosein and Lisa Outar; and to emergent scholars including Kaneesha C. Parsard, Preeia Surajbali, Sue-Ann Barratt and myself. (For a full list of participants, their affiliations and biographies, see the Symposium website: http://sta.uwi.edu/igds/Indo-CaribbeanFeministThought_Nov2015.asp). Still, this gathering represented only a small percentage of the people who have, and are still, involved in furthering Indo-Caribbean feminisms and feminist thought.

This collection aims to “constitute a body of thought that is also a movement, a consciousness, a public engagement and so on that can be called Indian, Caribbean and feminist and that is taking shape in literature, art, culture, scholarship and activism” (quoted from the description of the project by Gabrielle Hosein and Lisa Outar). Contributors to the book collection presented and discussed their papers, raising debates, forming connections and negotiating their differences of opinion. Amid discussions of Indo-Caribbean masculinities, religious practices, queer sexualities, and indentureship literature and experiences, race came up as a central issue. All of the papers are working through “Indianness” and conscious navigation of Indo-Caribbean identities, particularly in the Anglophone Caribbean, though also establishing connections to the Francophone Caribbean and Mauritius.

According to the aims of the symposium outlined in the agenda, it sought to “critically examine more than thirty years of Indo-Caribbean feminist thought as an intellectual trajectory within Caribbean feminist scholarship,” while allowing for “new collaborative scholarship.” This means carving out a space for Indo-Caribbean feminisms within Caribbean feminisms, not as anti-Afro-Caribbean or anti-Black, but rather in conversation with each other as part of what makes up the Caribbean, while still recognising the particularities of the social experience of “Indianness” and the unique knowledges derived from that experience.

One panel directly attempted to bring together Indo and Afro-Caribbean feminisms, focusing on Dougla. Once shamed, the Dougla is now an identity proudly claimed by persons of mixed Afro and Indo-Caribbean descent. Sue Ann Barratt outlined Trinidad-born rapper and hip-hop superstar Nicki Minaj’s (née Onika Maraj) performance of her mixedness. Gabrielle Hosein discussed coming to understand her own Indianness through relating to her daughters mixedness and the different social experiences their differing physical appearances would allow. Kaneesha C Parsard looked at violence within the Indo-Caribbean community, particularly that of men against women, through Andil Gosine’s mixed-media series WARDROBES (2011-2013) and journalist Gaiutra Bahadur’s non-fiction book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (2013). She employed a “dougla feminist approach” to interrogate the anxieties around Indian women’s sexual choices and work relations between African free-labour and Indian indentured workers. As outlined in these papers, while still a contested framework and identity category, Dougla allows for the consideration of these identities in conjunction rather than in opposition.

Including “Caribbean” in the term “Indo-Caribbean” alludes to an inherent douglarising or reimagining of Indian identities to include the particularities of the Caribbean experience. The contemporary moment requires new theories, as we live in a different world than scholars of the past generations. It is essential to recognise that this theorising cannot occur in a “pure” space. It must be properly situated within the field and connected to the relevant discourses, yet recognise and respond to the divergences. That is one of the great merits of this collection. Paying due homage to the theorising of past generations of scholars, the collection pushes forward, reflecting the contemporary experiences of Indo-Caribbean peoples.

One area that has not received much attention in Indo-Caribbean literature thus far, is same-sex desire. My own paper used data acquired through interviews to interrogate how same-sex loving women, of Indo-Trinidadian and mixed descent, navigate Indianness and sexual difference. It was one of four papers, each using different mediums to discuss non-hegemonic genders and sexualities within Indo-Trinidadian spaces. Andil Gosine used his Baby album to look at his mother’s gender performance and silent rebellions, as well as his own un-policed gender transgressions while a boy in George Village, Tableland.  Angelique V Nixon’s paper discussed the artwork and activism of Indo-Trinidadian artist Shalini Seereeram through her latest collection “Intimate Moments.” Tuli Chatterji tackled the transgender subject in Indo-Trinidadian novelist and poet Shani Mootoo’s 2014 novel, Moving Forward Sideways like a Crab. Through our analyses, we situated queerness within Trinidad and Tobago’s political economy and cultural spaces of Indianness. These discussions of sexual diversity were welcomed in the space of the symposium, as they filled a recognisable gap in currently existing scholarship.

Another aim of this collection, that I find it is doing well, is redefining “Indian” and “Indo-Caribbean” to show the many facets of Indianness that exist — including sexual difference, social and economic class, various religious practices and patterns of cultural consumption such as involvement in Carnival and Caribana, as well as the mobilising of Indo-Caribbean feminist thought through social justice movements. There are still gaps in the collection leaving space for the field to grow. For instance, apart from Parsard’s paper, the collection does not take on issues of violence and cycles of abuse. There is also absence of discussions addressing differences in ability, issues of health including mental health, and poverty. As mentioned before the works mainly focused on the Anglophone Caribbean, and particularly Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. There has been outreach to Martinique and Guadeloupe and the Spanish Caribbean is also an area for further study. Many of the papers are also literary and cultural critiques, while there is less work being done in the social sciences, including participatory methodologies like interviews and ethnography. There is a lot of room for this field to grow to truly encompass Indo-Caribbean experiences.

In the last moments of the Symposium, I found my hands shaking, my voice faltering and my eyes welling with a deeply emotional response. I felt honoured to be included in this project, but also empowered by my participation in defining the trajectory of the field of feminist Indo-Caribbean studies through my individual work and my collaboration on the project. It is so important for us as young scholars to feel supported in this work. The symposium created an inter-generational forum where we can build on the work of our predecessors yet still have the space and courage to forge our own way forward. This support and agreement to disagree is integral for the development of our collective theorising. As I have found bits of myself in the writings of the past generations, I believe this collection can potentially allow young Indo-Caribbean men and women to see themselves partly or wholly reflected in its pages. And if not, then I guess that’s the next place we need to take our work.

Krystal Ghisyawan is currently a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad. She holds a Double Honours B.A. in Anthropology and South Asian Studies. Her current PhD research focuses on same-sex loving women in Trinidad and their experiences of citizenship and belonging.

For the original report go to http://www.stabroeknews.com/2015/features/11/16/title-forging-space-scholars-expanding-the-field-of-indo-caribbean-feminist-thought/

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