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Queer Coolie-tudes (2019): a REVIEW

Nalini Mohabir

Note: Queer Coolie-tudes (2019) is showing at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex in Miami this Sunday, February 9 at 11 am as part of the Third Horizon Film Festival.

The Caribbean in its free-ness –multi-racial, creole mixing and sexual expression— has always been open to difference. Yet for a long time, the Indo-Caribbean was set apart. So I was excited to see Jovanté Anderson’s introduction to Pree’s special issue of the Queer Caribbean pose the question  “are we free or not?” through a bending of Naipaul’s phrase “In a Free State.”  In the unsettling story of the same name, Naipaul’s main character Bobby is alienated from his country of origin (Britain) due to his queerness. He takes up a position in a post-colonial African country where he finds an exploitative sexual liberation with “the native.”

With all our free-ness, how is the complicated condition of the queer “coolie” living outside the Caribbean experienced and perceived? In a troubled free state, where is the Queer Indo-Caribbean visible? Given the existence of “queer coolies” in Canada, where is their archive of queer sexuality? Not in the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives as Amar Wahab, one of the participants in film-maker Michelle Mohabeer’s documentary Queer Coolie-tudes (2019), tells us. Wahab is filmed sitting on a verandah, his being and conversation queering that quintessential Caribbean space of “old talk”.[i] He urges us to re-visit the archives to imagine an “ocean erotic archive” for queer coolies by sharing the horrifying case of Nobibux and Mohangu who were accused of sodomy on board a ship from Calcutta to the Caribbean (1898). As punishment for pleasure, Nobibux was put in irons and Mohangu’s penis was blistered by the ship’s doctor to prevent him committing sex again. Wahab has made a papier mache mask, plastered with key lines from the doctor’s colonial report: “I’ve actually thrown brown and purple paint on [this] face as a way of representing cum, the residue heat of this brown sex in which the white doctor has no part in that intimacy and therefore desires that intimacy.”  

This is what Mohabeer’s ethnographic documentary Queer Coolie-tudes allows us to see: the Indo-Caribbean diaspora in Canada, queerly and complexly visualized, for the first time. It is ground-breaking.

Born in Guyana, and living in Toronto, Mohabeer was recently recognized as the best female filmmaker for the 2020 film submissions by the Berlin Underground Film Festival, and has made a variety of feature essay documentaries and shorts. Building on her aesthetic style developed in Coconut/Cane and Cutlass (1994), Mohabeer traces a creative archive of queer Indo-Caribbean lives in Canada by asking how Caribbean people negotiate the freedoms and limits of queer life in Canada, attendant to the body through race, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, illnesss, pleasure and desire.

Two theories—coolitude and opacity—frame the film. The former re-contours the history of the “coolie,” foregrounding indentured humanity through an interplay between the perceptible and the imaginative, attending to the traditional archives, fiction, poetry, and spaces in-between.[ii] In conversation with Negritude, Coolietude also suggests entangled encounters between Indo- and Afro- peoples. Opacity pushes back against the Western need for visibility.[iii] For Glissant, opacity holds distance, it is “a right to not have to be understood on others’ terms, a right to be misunderstood if need be.”[iv] These twinned impulses— to document and imagine, to mask and reveal—underpin generative interviews with the seven participants in the film.

All the narratives are set against a layered visual poetics: the liminal shore of Lake Ontario, becomes a saturated colour, an inverse space, and accented presence; fresh waters in Toronto flood connections to a saltwater sea beyond.

Mohabeer’s own journey sets the scene. We see Mohabeer, as a dignified beti, in a frilly dress and little purse, arriving in Canada as a young child and then her shift to vintage leather coat and short hair as she recounts the ways her queer desire clashed with white supremacy. For Andil Gosine, “it never occurred to me that I had to act like a boy …[I had] a strong sense of human dignity in Trinidad.” In contrast, he was immediately confronted with the violence of the slur “Paki” when he reached Canada. Wahab too foregrounds that queernesss exists in the Caribbean, before arrival in any so-called “land of the free.” Wahab was always out “in a Trinidadian sense,” playing with his mother’s ohrni and jewelry, even though his behavior became self-censored in school. At the same time, he informs us “something was coming in, western cultural imperialism, if you want to call it that, also prying open space for different possibilities.”

Yet despite the queer possibilities in Trinidad, the “queer coolie” remains unseen in Canada, as the implications of cultural imperialism can also flow through state institutions. Official state multiculturalism in Canada produces discrete and broad categories of race (e.g., South Asian), without historical context, as Wahab points out. So the figure of the “coolie,” and even more so the queer “coolie,” becomes invisible. As Gosine states: “I’m not sure where the Indo-Caribbean is meant to fit. I think it used to fit within a Black identity category, a broad Stuart Hall notion of blackness that included Drupatee [but] … I don’t think it happens anymore. And in terms of thinking about people who are queer and Indo-Caribbean, it’s true, they disappear.”

But even if you do not see yourself in the multicultural accounting for race and culture in Canada, you must not remove yourself from your own story.

We witness this impulse in the other interviewees and the questions they raise. For example, how can we find ourselves when Canadian categories of race, sexuality and place seem tilted towards erasure? Mars invokes a kind of Bollywood on the beach aesthetic, while also explaining that until recently they were not aware that Indo-Caribbean was a possibility, nor that the language of genderqueer was available. What does it feel like when your geography and body do not quite match place and history? For Lindsey Addawoo, who embodies a dougla queerness (she does not “live a monoracial straight life”), her  dougla-ness is often invalidated by those who seek  the comfort of essentialist labels.  For some, Addawoo does not fit the exotic role of a dougla: she appears more African than mixed, and moreover, she has lost her hair due to cancer. Vulnerability is not only due to racial and queer violence, can also be the result of unseen and unexpected trajectories of illness or disability (also explored through the narratives of activists Lezlie Lee Kam, and Anthony Mohamed). Another question raised by the film, is what are the identities of queer coolie desire? For Ryan Persadie it’s his soca-chutney drag queen, Tifa Wine— a drag persona that allows him to play with masculine and feminine forms as a way “to make room for [his] own Indo-Caribbeanness.” In the process, he is making space for a complex representation of diaspora— a visiblizing of the queer Indo-Caribbean that reflects his own life.

The film Queer Coolie-tudes greatly enriches our understanding— and questioning—of free-ness, pleasure, and desire in the Caribbean-Candian diaspora. To return to the idea of opacity, masking for survival, for liberation and culture, or for seduction (the desire to see behind the mask) have always been forms of cultural expression in the Caribbean and its multiple diasporas— across race, sexuality, and place. Naipaul might have chosen to live his life (and that of his characters) in alienation and exile. But for the queer “coolie” diaspora at the water’s edge of a free state, the seen and unseen are coming into being. 

[i] See Edward Baugh’s poem, “Old Talk, or West Indian History” in The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry (eds. Ian McDonald and Stewart Brown), Oxford: Heinemann, 1992, p.7.

[ii] Carter, Marina and Khal Torabully. Coolitude. London: Anthem Press, 2002.

[iii] See Edouard Glissant’s chapter “Transparency and Opacity” in Poetics of Relation, Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1997.

[iv] Cole, Teju. “A True Picture of Black Skin” NYTimes, February 22, 2015.

Nalini Mohabir is assistant professor of postcolonial and feminist geographies at Concordia University, Montreal. Her research focuses on diaspora and decolonization. Her writing has appeared in various academic publications including Small Axe, Journal of West Indian Literature, and Caribbean Review of Gender Studies.

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