My brother laughs to speak. His words, even when lacking humorous intention, arrive in chortles and chuckles. Rarely does he stifle this inclination. I’m not much different.
If collective wisdom has told us that not all skin teeth is grin, then it is similarly established that laughter’s forms are many. Canned laughter hints staleness. The last laugh pairs with cold revenge. Maniacal laughter throws the head back, but laughing one’s head off, funnily enough, holds one together. Laughter heals. Laughter dismisses. Laughter camouflages, prettying shame.
Wanting to understand if laughter makes us cohere and coherent, I turn to my Ajee, my paternal grandmother. Ajee was a different story. Her words came out of firmness, though she remained soft and pleasant. Her self-expression and self-presentation were informed by different forces than mine, forces that Stuart Hall maps in Redemption Song, the 1991 BBC2 television series that depicts the Caribbean. In the fifth episode, Hall travels to Guyana and introduces Mr. Ramroop, a wizened East Indian man speaking to his years of labour in the canefields. He, in Guyana, and Ajee, in Trinidad, remain united by the history of indentureship, their work having engorged the same beast. The camera frames the face of this familiar stranger whose eyes shine under the wild greys of his eyebrows, and he recalls nearly being burnt alive in the canefields. His telling is not cathartic. Now seventy years old and with fifty years of cane-cutting behind him, he receives a meager pension. He explains, “Well I tell you, I am a pensioner, and the money what we get can’t maintain the home. The money too small.” He pauses. His voice trembles. “So I have to work. I got my old lady…” His telling is incomplete. His tears reveal his vulnerability briefly, but he recoils into himself. Erecting a protective façade, he ends his telling soberly, “Yes, I like work.”
The fantasy of fairness never could survive the Caribbean. Justice is always over the horizon, not here and now. How to bare one’s vulnerability while still in the maw of human greed? A bargain. You have chosen when there is no choice. In a system designed to run roughshod over you, your words and demeanour are always acts of haggling. Individuals cope, but the conditioned compromises of a collective work differently. Bravado, deference, big talk, stoicism. Camouflage is a must because to risk attention is to risk more. I can’t know Mr. Ramroop from this isolated clip, but I read for familiar patterns. Mr. Ramroop, like Ajee, reframed reality to not be overwhelmed by its brutality. They deferred not to simple stoniness, but to hardiness.
Hall also engages Mr. Ramroop’s son, Roy, who doubles down on Mr. Ramroop’s façade. He and his generation and mine extend Mr. Ramroop’s negotiation with reality into a full-fledged mythology of work.
But there is play too. We played cricket in the road. Its narrow strip was the pitch. My mother’s water buckets stood at wicket-height. The bag ball—that I would later learn to call a tennis ball—was guaranteed by the collective promise of lost-ball-buy-back. We attended to the score vigilantly, as we did to the inevitable but infrequent approach of a vehicle whose passage we graciously granted like proud proprietors. It was usually me, my brother, my cousin, and five other boys from the village. Four of them have since taken their lives. Reynold, Johnny, Brian, Rishi. I only have brief memories of them: playmates, ushers of each other’s laughter. I had long since lost touch with them and belatedly learnt of each suicide over the years I have lived and worked in Canada. Their deaths belie any presumption that hardiness is anything more than desperate attempts at survival.
Hardiness is sometimes a laughing matter. Consider Sam Selvon. Born in Trinidad in 1923, he moved to England in 1950 and to Canada in 1978. His depictions of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants to England have been sufficiently acclaimed to warrant him being digitally cured with the google doodle preservative. He is notorious for his lonely Londoners who defer to laughter. Short stories like “Brackley and the Bed” and “Waiting for Aunty to Cough” draw readers in because they are funny, disarmingly playful and unusual. Yet, his humour deserves further delineation. Take another Caribbean writer whose humour draws an audience: Junot Díaz and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz’s humour is based in nerdy wit. Selvon’s humour works differently. He more closely approximates a feature of Caribbean speech that Édouard Glissant describes in Caribbean Discourse:
…the Creole language in Martinique has gone beyond the process of being structured by the need for camouflage. But it has been marked by it. It slips from pun to pun, from assonance to assonance, from misunderstanding to ambiguity, etc. This is perhaps why witticisms, with their careful and calculated element of surprise, are rare in this language, and always rather crude. The climax of Creole speech does not release an appreciative smile, but the laughter of participation.
Selvon creates space for the laughter of participation, not to compromise his characters’ dignity but to appreciate their compromises. Critics have noted that Selvon’s fiction makes use of ironic tone, ironic turns of fate, or ironic moments of conversation. To perceive irony readers have to be alert to broader contexts. Selvon’s sense of humour is one that invites readers into a relationship with the text and that creates opportunities for missteps, miscommunication, and misbehaviour to be appreciated within such contexts. His writing does not comprise comedic skits loosely strung together, but rather is a cohesive whole that exposes the social systems determining the lives of Caribbean immigrants.
Gallows, from The Housing Lark, makes this strategy clear. Gallows is consumed by his search for the elusive five pound note that he supposedly lost years ago. When Teena tries to shake the boys into taking the plan to secure a house seriously by contributing the money she was going to use for her children’s winter clothes, many of the male characters give whatever they have, but all Gallows can do is search for the five dollar bill more desperately. Teena’s gesture triggers Gallows’ desire for community, but he is ironically driven back into himself and his neurotic behaviour. His behaviour invites a laugh, but it also invites readers to appreciate his compromised ability to construct meaningful relationships.
Yet Selvon’s humour is often misinterpreted. Critics have read his work as demonstrative of how Caribbean aesthetics and social practices are transferred to London, thereby Caribbeanizing that city. I prefer not to jump to the conclusion that resorting to these practices demonstrates immigrant agency. One conspicuous example is how critics talk about Tanty from The Lonely Londoners. She certainly exemplifies the transformation of London to an extent as she gets a shopkeeper to handle her purchased goods in the way she prefers. Her ability to establish the practice of trust or credit, however, is not transformative as some claim. Asking for trust is a fraught act that involves feelings of resentment and opportunities for social jockeying. I turn to Ajee again. She minded parlour to make ends meet. As a child, I was made aware of the significance of keeping track of who asked for trust, for how much, and until when. These formal recordings of debt were moments of rawness as social hierarchies were literally inscribed. If anyone could avoid having to ask for trust, they would readily do so because to be recorded in that book was to risk judgment. Tanty’s assertion of trust in a metropolitan space may make her life easier in immediate moments of need, but it is also a realization of how her current circumstances limit her. She cannot effect any real change. To read her as humorously haggling for an appreciation of her practices is to naturalize her dominated condition.
Selvon’s humour, of course, is not definitive of Caribbean humour. His close friend, the Barbadian writer, Austin Clarke, offers a telling contrast. Clarke aided Selvon in his transition to Canada, having established himself in Toronto from 1955 until his death in 2016. They affectionately lambasted each other in their correspondence, and Clarke’s letters to the likes of Frank Collymore, Jan Carew, and Andrew Salkey display the ribald joshing that often typifies male camaraderie.
The humour in Clarke’s fiction is more caustic. Victor Ramraj has previously compared the tones of Selvon and Clarke, arguing that Selvon’s humour is more philosophical and Clarke’s more militant. I agree that the humour present in Clarke’s fiction often sprouts out of indignation but I would stop short of suggesting that Clarke’s humour arises out of bitterness. Clarke’s humour is not resentful but aimed at getting his readers to interrogate their complicity in larger systems of domination. His perhaps best known and most anthologized short story, “Canadian Experience,” tells the tale of George, a destitute Black Bajan immigrant readying himself for a job interview that he never attends. Throughout the story, he can only laugh. The narrator notes, “He does not know why: he just laughs.” Clarke reminds us that laughter can be the reprieve of the forlorn. Clarke dares readers to share in this laughter throughout the story up to and including its final moments, as George readies to hurl himself into the path of an oncoming train.
I do not know what to do with the suicide of my friends or George’s. But I can add another to this list I did not mean to compile: Eric Roach, Tobagonian poet. He speaks to me through his poem “At Quinam Bay” in which he states, “beyond Mendez, in a green plain / of old oil wells and planted teak, / it is land’s end in Quinam Bay.” This is the only time I have found mention of my village in a published work. If God is a Trini, as the saying goes, Mendez is behind God’s back. The speaker of Roach’s poem tracks the horrors of slavery as enslaved African peoples and their descendants make sense of these islands. The final stanza speaks of he who has “seen and known and done too much,” who is “bone-weary,” “soul-wretched,” and “heartsick,” having inherited the psychic conditions generated by slavery. He anticipates the “quiet death” that the sea promises while the poem anticipates Roach’s end in his suicide in the waters of Quinam in 1974.
I wonder how his death was met by his loved ones and his former playmates. I wonder if it was announced as death used to ring through Mendez. Customarily, a gravelly voice crackled through the loud speakers mounted atop a white Datsun that wormed its way through the village artery: “I’ve been asked to announce the death of…” It was as practical as it was communal. The announcer’s tone was spare, a stark contrast to the fish van’s boast of come-see-my-bounty or the bread van’s hasty horn tooting get-it-while-we-got-it. The Mic-Man took his time listing the familial relations of the dead, his words technologically enhanced to rattle each house, battered through your privacy and made those close to the loss ache. It was an invitation to a wake and a cremation but also an incantation that made a death primary, if only for a moment. My father tells me it is still done this way.
But new rites have emerged. Now, we also mourn within the pages of Facebook: happy born day starrr, RIP. These are electronic memorials, collective works in progress that add to the data mined. Here, the bereaved list themselves one post at a time, offering intimate expressions of grief that manifest as doleful, playful, and even jokey. These expressions of grief and the pause they give operate within the frenetic pace of social media, the newest venue for mythologies to overlap and collide. Unsurprisingly, it is where Caribbean humour continues to morph in form and content. Pages like Coolie Times and programs like What Yuh Know blend stereotypes, social commentary, political picong, and ole talk. They reveal and camouflage, shame and shelter unequally and unpredictably. I flip through tabs, click on every new headline, pause one video to begin another.
I search out hardy laughter. On the radio show Sway in the Morning, Jamaican dancehall artist Marion Hall, better known as Lady Saw, spoke about the abuse she endured as a child. After detailing what it was like to be tied to a tree and beaten by her father, she ends with “but it’s funny though,” before adding “…but that’s what you call abuse.” Hall’s dancehall persona and her performance of slackness have merited their own critical scholarship. Here, however, Hall provides a moment that recalls Mr. Ramroop’s haggling with reality. She promises further telling in the form of an autobiography, but this telling, even when emphasizing funniness, appears as hardiness. Mr. Ramroop’s façade frustrates the attachment to his pain that the viewer was initially allowed; now, I relate to his refusal or inability. Hall’s interview is similarly unsettling because the dominant framework for laughter is insufficient. I have to hear her differently, for laughter here is not contagious. And hearing, as fellow Jamaican artist Ophlin Russell or Sister Nancy explains, matters. Russell recalls a different father-daughter relationship, describing what it was like to share her first radio single: “Turn up them radio high and carry it for me father could a hear it—because that time my father was sick—and me carry it come make him hear it. Me say, ‘A me that.’ Him say, ‘A you? You sure a you?’ Me say, ‘Yes a me, a me! Hear my voice there.’ It was a joy, pure excitement.” Our telling, in song, literature, or interview, can reveal how we trade hardiness, funniness, and joy for our coherence, but who listens and how?
I cannot access what drove each of my friends to their ends. Roach shows me there is no art to be had in their deaths. They are not vindicated by my telling of their absence, especially to those who find bitterness in Clarke or cheer in Selvon, those peering outsiders who will their fascinations onto those mangled by colonial machinery. I am left with something between biting anger and silent resignation amongst Canadians weirdly hung up on firm handshakes and maintained eye contact, but uncomprehending of the lilts of Caribbean laughter. I glisten with feeling through workaday dealings, and remember Audre Lorde, in Sister Outsider, telling me plainly that I will sicken and die of everyday tyrannies if I am not careful. She told me to find the words I do not yet have, to do so urgently and with others. I listen to the joy of Ophlin Russell’s telling and to the funniness of Marion Hall’s. And I know that I, like my brother, must ease my words out with laughter.
Kris Singh is originally from Mendez, Trinidad, and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at the Royal Military College of Canada. His scholarly attention spans the legacy of indentureship, the relationships between Austin Clarke and Sam Selvon, and the ways in which social media and popular culture shape each other.