Freedom is a tense language. It is the now that demands a yesterday, and always returns to tomorrow. It is somewhere, out there, always already moving against the terror that seeks to foreclose it.
It fits and fidgets into where it does not belong. It is the litany of unmarked rebellions too ephemeral, too reckless, to enter the archive. We dream of it but it is not a dream. And here, in this here Caribbean, while we wait for it to arrive, we feel it already here, waiting on the rest of the world to catch up. In this fourth issue of PREE, I feel privileged to serve as guest editor, to be challenged by this issue’s writers to meditate on freedom— on the ways it inhabits us and our landscapes, the ways it evades us, the ways it only ever visits, and the ways it stays.
I was delighted to engage the work of younger thinkers all over the Caribbean who, in response to this issue’s call—to query our current gender and sexual hegemonies and imagine otherwise— took up the very sites that are often central to the production of our selves: the body, the home, the nation-state, diaspora, or the cane field, for example.
Across genre in this issue, there was a concern with the everyday, with the ways in which bodies are the sites onto which culture and politics congeal, sediment, reconfigure. In Topher Allen’s spellbinding poem, Cane Piece Road, the materiality of colonial history ripples into the intimacy of bodies in the dark:
There is a man like mist loitering
in the shadows of sugar cane
waiting to roll himself into a spliff
for me to puff, blow and be blown.
He clouds his car, reclines the front seats,
pounds me into the sprawled out blackness
of a spilled barrel of molasses.
In this poem, pleasure and violence give birth to a queerness that is shaped by, but not beholden to, the affect of the plantation. In fact, by its end, Allen attempts to reimagine these erotic energies in a regenerative way that exceeds colonial articulations of gender and sexuality.
Adam Patterson’s deeply affecting “Bikkle” takes us to the sea. Water, here, is soft and gracious, but also violent, painful. The sea is, after all, a dangerous and beautiful place. It makes and unmakes in the various ways it holds and touches. Patterson charts water that parallels the complexities of desire and intimacy (or its lack thereof) between men of various sexual and gendered identities:
Facing a spite-eyed Atlantic while craving the softness of water, each wave rose to meet me as a domino-smack of muscled hard-foot violence. His thrashes, these men of waves promised, touched me in fury but touched me nonetheless. Each wave announced his name – Shotta, Badman, Gallis – and wave after wave grew atop me from man-child seas of vengeful arousal.
Masculinity is a tense space of contestation here, and Patterson writes to imagine a space:
Where spikes melt to sponge, where man is porous, man can be held, man can be loved and man can find power without the need to steal it.
In the photographic work of Lisandro Suriel, La Belle Creole evokes an otherwise for the black body that is not tethered to violent histories of colonization. It is inspired by a pre-Columbian time of Atlantic voyage and exploration by the Mandingo Empire, in which, for Suriel, the black body exists outside of European conceptions of gender. The subject of the image, “trans-model, Jasmine Hassan” represents “a trans-Atlantic identity rooted In A Free State,” as Suriel asserts. The background suggests an opacity that marks this trans body somewhere within multiple temporalities that precede and are implicated in colonial gender.
Other works attend to questions of freedom through the present. For example, in an incisive essay, Better Spent: Gender and Energy in the Caribbean, Marsha Pearce calls for us to preserve and rework our energy. Instead of getting caught up in reactionary discourse that leaves us exhausted with defending our right to be, our energy might be better “liberated for use in self-making; for redefining scenarios of being.” Pearce explores how artists such as Sheena Rose rework the Jamaican slur “fish” to meditate on the liberatory potential of its transgressive intimacies in Cathartic. “[Sheena] plays with clothing, subverting norms of dress and therefore moving the dividing line between notions of “man” and “woman.”” Pearce also examines how Ryan Huggins’ Billy III uses (un)dressing to complicate the politics of (in)visibility:
“These androgynous figures are free of the metaphorical closet. Masking is not used in these works to hide. Instead it is a means of creating hyper-visibility. It is a tactic of standing out. Masking also forestalls easy, fixed definitions and categories.”
Likewise in Kaleb D’Aguilar’s intricate and deceptively charming short story, Cruising on Wrangler Avenue, self-making is a complicated, often obscure process entangled in the relationship between desire, capital, and freedom. Set on a fictive Caribbean island, D’Aguilar is brutal and romantic in his writing, tarrying in an ambivalence that throws into crisis any easy articulation of freedom under the terrors of capitalism:
This trio of black men, like boys, lying in the middle of the road, staring up at the big black and blue sky, an ocean of endless constellations— stars floating towards and away from one another.
“Guys…” Paul’s voice was direct. “You really think this is it?”
And the fireflies kept a steady twinkle as the other boys tried to come up with an answer. Jonah slowly sat up, looking down Wrangler at the sea of bodies still in the fever. Could this really be it? But then he see someone—Rico, come from out the dark smoking a cigarette, and turn left down towards the party. And Jonah turn and look at Fedi right as he come up with an answer. Calm, but with the words able to travel straight through, Fedi said, “This, is what we make it.”
Similarly, for Beatriz Llenín Figueroa, being in a free state means eschewing any facile notions of freedom under state-sponsored, state-oriented projects. The poem, in a state of freedom, is ripe with what Tina Campt might call refusal:
…a rejection of the status quo as livable and the creation of possibility in the face of negation (i.e., a refusal to recognize a system that renders you fundamentally illegible and unintelligible); the decision to reject the terms of diminished subjecthood with which one is presented, using negation as a generative and creative source of disorderly power to embrace the possibility of living otherwise .
Llenín Figueroa writes in a different register that ushers in a refusal of liberal subjecthood that turns away from both a capitulation to American imperialism and away from a celebration of Puerto Rican nationalism, and the political parties that gestate this circumscription.
The poem declares:
And so the party, the joy, the freedom begins at the end of a commitment to statehood. It also begins as refusal, as waywardness, against the prescriptions of the beginning after the end such as in On the Puerto Rican Summer 2019 Revolution, where Llenín Figueroa declares;
and no master
—not even a marxist prophet—
will tell us no more
that only the material is real,
that there is only
the underwater currents
the profane miracles
the immaterial signs.
Simon Tatum also embraces “the immaterial signs”, “the underwater currents,” in his work, Tropical Form Study. It is an image that invites looking as much as it refuses it, as it infuses the sensual and the geographic to give us a queer Caribbean terrain that is dynamic, vibrant, and fugitive.
Diana McCaulay raises multiple questions in The Mad Man on South Avenue about liminality, precarity, and madness in Jamaica. Madness, here, is not a state of insanity, nor a pathology of the mind. Rather, it is a state of suspension, an outside, a way of looking and being looked at in the Caribbean that forcefully marks out space for those that transgress the social and political boundaries that delineate the nation. Macaulay carefully peels back the figuration of madness to ruminate on its queerness, on the queerness that takes up space within it. Madness is queerness and queerness is madness in the Caribbean.
And so it is unsurprising that in Yashika Graham’s Birdie we meet a cantankerous elderly woman who is queer not as in an identity, but queer as in “marking disruption to the violence of normative order and powerfully so” (Tinsley, 199). Her queerness, her desire for freedom, is marked as madness: “But I know is that these people want me to believe that me mad.” Constrained to the confines of a nursing home, Miss Birdie plots for her own freedom against the heteronormative and ageist assumption that she belongs there, as co-signed by the staff and her own nephew. To be in a free state, in Graham’s enchanting tale, is to be in the struggle for a free state. Throughout the story, Miss Birdie struggles for her autonomy:
What I really need is to leave this place, to pack all my notes, move out and go run wild in the bush like I was meant to. The sunflower on my desk bloom and gone and I see now what can happen when people try confine you. Or maybe all it means is that time will pass, that things have a way of refusing to stand up one place, despite how much you protest.
I been going pale from no sun and my desk seems on the verge of turning to dust from all the things I been scratching into it. Truth is, I’ve been talking. I’ve been talking a whole heap and the desk is feeling it hard.
And then the figure of the granny appears yet again in Kedon Willis’ Granny Nanny in which he writes:
My grandmother was a soldier; she bared her breasts in the line of fire just like Bustamante did.
My grandmother was a warrior; the morning she woke up and her husband was gone, she went to work anyway. When he stumbled up the dirt path a few moons later, she stood inside the front door with a machete. With my mother in her belly, she pointed the machete at him and dared him to take another step.
As Ronald Cummings argues about Nanny of the Maroons, we must consider the “politics of the signification of heroic masculinity in relation to the female body” (150). In Willis’ depiction, a grandmother’s gender performance frustrates the category of the woman, particularly within the domestic sphere. Willis writes a grandmother whose wielding of power calls our attention to the ways in which black genders and networks of kinship, already defy the normative order.
These networks of kinship are also what Kelley-Ann Lindo explores in her artwork titled “Waving Gallery” which depicts a young girl watching her parents leave on an airplane to travel and work abroad. She writes that:
Home carries with it many meanings. Home triggers memories, sometimes reminding us of painful or happy moments. My ongoing body of work seeks to establish a conversation around the dynamics surrounding home and its meaning—and how absence within that space alters its meaning.
Home in Lindo’s work is not a stable, universal place of nurture. Home is a site of contestation that ripples through and through with the economic and political structures of the state that produces the phenomenon of “barrel children.” Lindo’s work foregrounds the absence-presence of the home to raise questions about its supposed inherent natural place in the nation and demonstrates the ways in which it is constantly porous, vulnerable to the structural conditions in which it is situated.
And so, I’d like to end this exciting fourth issue with some words from soca artist, Lyrikal:
Close your eyes and feel
How freedom does feel
Close your eyes and feel
How freedom does feel
These young creators have taken this proposition seriously in PREE 4 and are rigorously and continuously thinking about the possibility of the coming decades. Represented in this issue is a body of work that underscores the complicated, sometimes fraught, visions of personal and other kinds of freedom. Stop by, spend some time with them, and meditate with us on the state of freedom, here, in this here Caribbean.
Jovanté Anderson is a first-year student at the University of Miami, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature. His current research areas include gender and sexuality studies, theories of space and place, and diaspora studies. He is also the first recipient of the Poet Laureate of Jamaica and Helen Zell: Young Writer’s Prize for Poetry. He is originally from Harbour View, St Andrew. As a young poet and scholar, he is always trying to learn more about his craft and how he can use it to impact the world, or at least, make a mockery of it. He spends his everyday navigating always-interesting, mostly-amusing American spaces that do not always feel like home, but always feels like adventure.