Queer Marronage and Caribbean Writing

Close-up_of_a_specimen_of_a_night-blooming_cereus_(Cereus_greggii),_ca.1920_(CHS-5503)

A review of Queer Marronage and Caribbean Writing, by Ronald Bancroft Cummings.

Traditionally, marronage is the slave’s flight from the plantation to communities built in the mountains. To date, maroon studies has memorialized maroons as largely masculine, heterosexual figures. However, contemporary Caribbean writers have expanded the historical definition of marronage, depicting marronage and vagrancy, or absenteeism, as a challenge to slavery, colonialism, and heteronormativity. Among this body of writing, Cummings examines queer marronage in Michelle Cliff’s Abeng (1984), Dionne Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here (1996), Patricia Powell’s A Small Gathering of Bones (1994), and Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night (1996). Cummings’s framework of queer marronage builds upon insights in queer studies as well as maroon studies. While queer theory has disrupted gender and sexual norms, displaced the ideal, heterosexual family, and questioned the assumed link between progress and time, these “practices which have been read and theorized as queer are also already maroon” (p. 31). Queer marronage does not have a single destination or direction. One may move about mountains, the junction–where paths or roads meet–and the cane fields. One may take flight, return and depart again.

Chapter 1 focuses on Michelle Cliff’s Abeng (1984), which depicts the girlhood and adolescence of Clare Savage amidst the history and legacies of slavery and marronage in Jamaica. The guiding symbol of the novel, the abeng, is a conch shell with which proprietors called slaves to work on the estates and with which maroons sent messages. It is an instrument both of marronage and forced labor. Accordingly, Cummings’ reading is in conversation with Houston Baker and Homi Bhabha’s discussions of marronage as doubleness as well as Francoise Lionnet’s reading of coding and decoding in Abeng. The novel traces affective as well as biological genealogies. In addition to Clare’s maroon and slaveowning ancestors, there are historical and fictional foremothers: Nanny of the Maroons, the historical figure who challenged British troops in the First Maroon War in Jamaica, and Mma Alli, the fictional keeper of the abeng. Abeng itself is also a “site of gathering” that references other writings on marronage, such as Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnography of Haiti and Jamaica, Tell My Horse (p. 51). Specifically, Mr. Powell is an Abeng character who travels to Harlem and socializes with black queer writers of the New Negro Renaissance. This character critiques Tell My Horse for its investment in “(Black) American progress and (Jamaican) maroon backwardness” (p. 70). While his analysis echoes the novel in emphasizing “touching between women,” Cummings closes this chapter by examining Clare’s memories of queer men who have been murdered or committed suicide. Abeng expresses connections across time and community among the living and the dead.

If Michelle Cliff explores marronage through connections across time, chapter 2 demonstrates that Dionne Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here (1996) explores marronage through connections across space. Following the relationship between an activist and a field worker, Verlia and Elizete, the novel presents possibilities for flight from heteropatriarchy not to the mountains but through the junction. In Another Place, Not Here maps several historical, physical, and affective crossings through the junction: the Middle Passage, Elizete’s flight from a relationship with Isaiah and into a relationship with Verlia, and Elizete and Verlia’s journeys between a fictional Caribbean island and Toronto. To this end, the novel exhibits “junction poetics,” an itinerant narrative structure (p. 83). Cliff’s language and plot move with these crossings, breaching the generic conventions of the neoslave narrative and the maroon novel. While Cummings moves away from the mountain as the singular site of maroon community, he does not fix marronage in the junction, either. Rather, as he argues, marronage is an “imaginative space” through which enslaved peoples and their descendants might flee “plantation servitude, institutionalized patriarchy, heteronormativity and neoliberal capitalism” (p. 80-81). Departing from “normative regimes” of sexuality and geography, In Another Place, Not Here presents alternative kinds of affective bonds and movements (p. 115).

Chapter 3 analyzes Patricia Powell’s novel A Small Gathering of Bones (1994), which portrays the lives of Ian Kaysen and Dale Singleton amidst political violence and the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1978 Jamaica. Engaging with Judith Halberstam’s In A Queer Time and Place, Cummings argues that the early deaths of the main characters demonstrate that marronage can be brief and shifting rather than rooted and enduring. The novel narrates “radical appropriations of space in response to circumstances of social death” (p. 122). To this end, Cummings first meditates on how these characters experience social death, building upon the work of Orlando Patterson. Notably, Mrs. Kaysen rejects her son, Ian Kaysen, because he is gay. Thus, Ian experiences natal alienation, central to the notion of social death, because he can no longer rely upon his blood ties to his mother. Still, before his death, Ian forges community and kinship networks through his relationships with Dale and another character, Nevin. There are other spaces and communities in which Ian may take refuge: Gay men congregate in Clovy’s Bar and go to Nanny Sharpe’s Park to cruise. Appropriately, the fictional park is named after historical maroons Sam Sharpe and Nanny of the Maroons. These space-making practices are marked by “loss and negation”—a marronage without a future (p. 155).

In the final chapter, Chapter 4, Cummings addresses Shani Mootoo’s novel Cereus Blooms at Night (1996) with particular attention to the practice of vagrancy. In contrast to the other works under consideration, this novel centers on the descendants of indentured Indian laborers and accordingly does not reference marronage. Instead, Cummings draws on vagrancy to think about how the main character Mala and the narrator Tyler, a resident and a nurse at the Alms House, respectively, flee the “patriarchal and heteronormative arrangements that define and structure home” (p. 165). Both the characters and the novel are errant. As a vagrant narrator, Tyler arrives from the Shivering North Wetlands, where he studied nursing, on the same day that local authorities take Mala to the Alms House. He addresses the text, containing Mala’s story, to Mala’s sister, Asha. Mala “practices narrative vagrancy” by speaking in unintelligible language and at unusual paces, a strategy she has employed since she killed her abusive father (p. 180). Throughout, the cereus flower—which is unattractive until it blooms at night—is a symbol for the relationships that emerge in spite of abuse and exclusion. Tyler meets Otoh Mohanty, a visitor to the Alms House, and they would walk and talk through a cane field that adjoined the house grounds. Citing Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley on the cane fields as a space of work, Cummings deems the cane fields “landscapes of queer desire” (p. 191). Carrying forward the floral metaphor, Cummings posits that vagrancy and marronage, as Indo-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean strategies of flight, are only two parts of an “‘enormous branching narrative’ of relations” (p. 197).

This dissertation examines contemporary Caribbean novels in order to understand queer marronage in locations within and without the Caribbean, and charts a conversation between flights past and present. While this dissertation examines Caribbean literature, it analyzes the four novels against genre and focuses on their depictions of queer marronage as “critical practice” (p. 44). Cummings’ study intervenes most consciously in queer studies and maroon studies but also makes contributions to black feminist geography and studies of sexuality and space. Linking marronage to vagrancy, this dissertation resolves the distinction between permanent, or grand marronage, and temporary flight, or petit marronage. And, it emphasizes the space-making practices of queer women and men in a landscape of heteropatriarchy. Slavery and colonialism were structured by gender and sexual dominance, and the works under consideration also push us to consider and challenge queer politics and relations today. Caribbean writing is the imaginative terrain on which Caribbean people move and touch—and, indeed, the stuff of marronage itself.

Kaneesha Cherelle Parsard
Ph.D. candidate in American Studies and African American Studies, and a certificate candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Yale University
kaneesha.parsard@yale.edu

Primary Sources

Cliff, Michelle. 1984. Abeng (New York: Plume)
Brand, Dionne. 1996. In Another Place, Not Here (Toronto: Vintage)
Mootoo, Shani. 1996. Cereus Blooms at Night (Vancouver: Press Gang)
Powell, Patricia. 1994. A Small Gathering of Bones (Boston: Beacon Press)

Dissertation Information

The University of Leeds. 2012. 220 pages. Primary advisors: John McLeod and Andrew Warnes.

Image: Close-up of a specimen of a night-blooming cereus, Wikimedia Commons.

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