Dear Shani, Hiya Richard... (1995)
A Dialogue by/with Richard Fung and Shani Mootoo
As we launch our dialogue on landscape, I think not only about our mutual interest in the land as the principal icon of Canadian national identity, but also of our actual journeys across geography. I'm truly convinced that our sensitivity to the political construction of landscape comes out of these displacements.
Our trajectories mirror each other: you, born in Ireland, growing up in Trinidad, then arriving in Ontario to study; I, born in Trinidad, finishing high school in Ireland, then also coming to Canada. This movement continues the nineteenth century journeys of our ancestors to the Caribbean, yours from across the black waters in India, mine from Southern China. Our histories are so overlapped, yet when we talk about Trinidad ‹ still at the heart of both our work ‹ it is such a different place for us. A lot of this is social ‹ the differences between your family's South Trinidad Hindu culture and the creolized Catholic Chinese of Port-of-Spain that is my family. But in an island barely fifty miles long even the land itself is different, almost as much it seems as between your Vancouver and my Toronto.
My house in Port-of-Spain was at the foot of the Northern Range. You could see the rain showers moving down the Cascade valley and everyone would go around shouting "rain coming," closing all the windows and putting out buckets and basins for the leaks. I think of San Fernando as dry and hot. Although hilly, I associate the town with the long drive (probably all of one hour) across the Caroni planes, first rice then sugar fields, dead flat, the horizon broken by temples and mosques and oil rigs. Returning to Trinidad as a birder, I'm struck that even the wildlife is different in the South.
The picture I'm sending you was taken in our back yard in the early seventies, just before I left for Dublin. It shows my sister Nan, who died about six years later. Nan was the closest in age to me and at this point we were the only two siblings left in Trinidad. All of the others had already gone abroad to study ‹ none of us returned to live in Trinidad. Nan and I were often bored and that afternoon we had decided to play model and photographer with her instamatic. This photo is part of a series with Nan in different mod outfits ‹ hot pants, minis, flares ‹ taken mostly from low angle and with the camera tilted to one side.
Nan is wearing a piece of cloth tied in the front; if you look carefully you can see where the un-hemmed end of the fabric hangs down the middle. Suffering from thalassaemia major from birth, Nan had left school when she was about ten. Dress design was one of several courses that my parents financed to keep her active mind occupied. As a result she had a large stash of cloth, waiting to be turned into clothes whenever she could muster the energy. This fabric reflects the African vogue of the black power period. First generation, middle-class and Chinese, Nan and I were nevertheless both distant supporters of the rise in black consciousness. At about this time she also delighted in owning a copy of Mao's Red Book, given to her by a cousin visiting from New York. Her other favourite books included the work of Lopsang Rampa, the Tibetan monk born into the body of an Englishman, and The Prophet by Khalil Gibran.
The other notable fashion elements in this photo are Nan's half-bangs which were fashioned after a character in a TV western, and the chain and medallion Nan had bought me as a souvenir from Carnaby St. in London. It is actually quite a long chain ‹ about a foot is hanging down her back, out of view ‹ and went with a brown turtleneck sweater. Neither got much wear from me: the sweater either because it was too hot for the climate, or, more likely, because I was very self-conscious about being skinny and it exaggerated my boniness; the medallion I didn't wear because I was already victimized for being a sissy, and I didn't want to call more attention to myself with such a flamboyant fashion statement.
Nan is standing in front of our lime tree, behind which was a Jamaica plum and an orange tree whose fruit was too sour for anything other than juice. I would be sent out to harvest limes from under the prickly branches whenever Nan or my mother was baking. A curl of rind would always be beaten with the eggs for a cake. In this instance, we obviously decided that the lime tree wasn't exotic enough, because amidst the shiny green leaves we had arranged red blossoms from the Flamboyant tree down the street in front of the Mahabir's house.
These photographs were not intended for eyes other than our own; certainly any Trinidadian would see through our transvestite lime tree. What is striking to me now is how we set out so self-consciously to exoticize the Trinidadian landscape ‹ and my sister. As an adult I recognize the aesthetic of forced hybridity from tourism publicity, restaurant menus and hotel decor I've seen in many neo-colonial tropical countries: elements of Hawaii are blended into the Caribbean by way of Mexico and Indonesia until any cultural specificity dissolves into one big fantasy of (first world) escape. I'm not sure from where we devised our ideas of "tropical island beauty." It could have been from the British or American popular culture that saturated the country, or it could have come from Trinidad's own self-promoting publicity. In any case, when I look at this picture now I see the struggle of the newly postcolonial subject to represent her or himself. In the search for visual signifiers of specificity, English-speaking West Indians rummaged through the international clothes chest, trying on, borrowing, discarding. In the quest for authenticity one remains entangled in the mediation of imperialism; so even the physical body of the nation is viewed through a thick lens. The prominence of the beach in public representations of the Caribbean can't be seen outside of the economic need for tourism, for instance.
This photo may simply come from the antics of one boring afternoon, but the elements in its composition indicate a far larger social and historical context. I think for both of us our work is fueled by this constant going over, a continuous reevaluation of what we once took for granted, a look at the past as a way of understanding the present. My invocation of Trinidad is a way of understanding Canada: lands apart, lands connected ‹ like your Vancouver and my Toronto.
Just to let you know, man, South Trinidad is not "dry and hot:” when I am asked up here about Trinidad seasons (not "seasonings" as the Fung culinary mind might well read), the "do you have winter in Trinidad?" type question, I immediately think of the coldest time down in that particular south when the temperature drops to about 70 degrees and we pull out sweaters and wool blankets and walk around hugging ourselves, necks tucked deep into shoulders. The strongest image that comes to mind actually is that first year when I planted string beans in a Styrofoam cup and transplanted them to the back garden when they were about ten inches high. Every morning before school I would go and look in awe at their new height and then in the evening I would carefully dribble water on them, making sure not to give too much too heavily. Then before the plant was a good foot and a half rain came, (we too could see it coming‹around the corner and up the road) and it came and it came and it was as if it would never stop. That time, I watched my string beans from up by the dining room window as they were first beaten down by heavy rain, and then with helpless quiet panic I watched the water in the yard rise inch by inch. Rich black manure from the flower beds slid into the rising water. I watched the lawn disappear into it and saw my string bean plant first float on the black coffee-coloured water, then get totally submerged. I have another memory of a different time when the street flooded from heavy rain, and people's belongings were just floating down the street. That happened often, but this particularly striking memory was of a man in half an oil drum paddling down the street grinning, quite pleased with himself.
So, Mr. North Trinidad, keep in mind that it's not so dry in the South!
And another thing: you had to mention the hills, of course! You northerners just love to heckle us about our hills in the South, eh! "How can you tell a person from San Fernando?" "By their calves" (meaning that muscle at the back of the lower leg... not the little animals that one does indeed see just about everywhere ‹ except on hillsides ‹ in the southern country landscape). Do you think it's scripted that you would choose to live on fairly flat terrain in Toronto and that I have settled in hilly Vancouver, content with the familiarity of forever developing my calves?
The photo that you sent is terrific. Its dimensions and the particular hues of the emulsion are exactly the same as a whole batch of photos that I have of back-home. You know, the memories of the events that many of my old photos mark are so very fixed in time, their beginnings and endings fixed right there in the emulsion. Your photo brings back to me memories, not of Trinidad per se, but of my photos, the little 4 x 5 pieces of paper. My childhood is now like a muddled and fading dream: here, my Trinidadian past has been exoticised away (by myself as well as by others), and I am afraid that I am losing my grasp on what I once considered banal details, but which now I long to snatch back as precious specificities that might keep those early Trinidad days alive in me ‹ banal details which I tended to omit because they were not easily translatable to the uninitiated. Most of what is left now is photos that speak to me only of themselves. Precious moments with, at best, a blurry context.
I could also just imagine you and Nan inventing yourselves in the heat of a lazy afternoon. It's not much different from the time that my sisters and I were on holiday in England with our parents.I was about 14 and they were younger. For some reason, (I want to invent the reason‹but something holds me back, perhaps the fear of that unfortunate practice of reconstructing events to ensure specialness, to inscribe a politic) we found ourselves, the only children, on a busy street corner, very much aware of our difference in skin colour and clothing. Gray and cream coloured public buildings surrounded us, and fashionably suited severe looking white adults were hurrying by us. I remember feeling small and... well, invisible ‹ a word we might not have used then. It was as if we were failing, not matching up, to the promises our colour held. Until the three of us spontaneously broke into a language we invented right there and then, a language made up of words, mostly nouns, strung together in sentence-like structure, words brought to Trinidad by it's immigrant populations from India, parts of Africa, and those that were sewn into a patois that included Spanish and French elements. We thought that this language would turn us into toucans like the ones in the Central Range back home. We thought that we'd be truly exotic, not just brown children who didn't even have a language of mystery, an intrigue to compensate for their browness. Not long ago I wrote a poem based on that memory:
Richard, your Trinidad culture seems so much different from mine. In a word, richer, actually. It intrigues, and infuriates me that my fifth generation family is not in touch with local bush remedies, barks of trees, teas from plants, that your mother has passed on to you, and that your mother knows how to speak patois, while none of my family for as far as I could remember knew more than a word here and there, and that one tying up the tongue on its torturous exit. I wonder where is the "creollised" part of the, or rather, my, Hindu Indian identity. When a phrase in patois glides out of your mouth I admit to a feeling of having been robbed of authenticity, a feeling that I don't remember having had in Trinidad, but experience here, in Canada. Here having a language of one's own can be a double edged sword: exoticisation on one edge, dismissal and banishment on the other. Patois is not a living language and so is no threat to anyone, inflicting then the edge of exoticisation, and sometimes, Richard, with your knowledge of things Creole you do seem so much more exotic than I! I am wary of falling into an easy stereotyping when I attribute the multiplicity of Trinidads to race and its specificities in relation to region, and/or to class. The Chinese in Trinidad... or Northerners were more... than... Indians in the South tend to...
In Trinidad race, culture, class and region has so many jumbled up permutations! Trinidad with all this complexity sure is a mirror for the possibility of Canada. Now, what we really must begin to emulate here in Canada is that line from our Trinidad and Tobago national anthem: "every creed and race"‹ by allowing everyone to celebrate each religion's festivities with a different national holiday for each and every one, don't you think?! Not just Christmas and Easter, but how about Eid, and Divali, and Chinese New Year, and Yom Kippur, and...
It's so ironic that you and I come from such different Trinidads where the crossing of our worlds might only have resulted in muddled collision, and here in Canada, I almost always think of you as my primary audience, in spite of the fact that I often feel pressured to respond positively to the assumption that the South Asian woman, and in particular, lesbian, is my true audience.
Take a look at the photograph I have sent you, Richard. It was taken at Chung's Photo Studio by the Library Corner on Cipero Street in San Fernando. It is a classic formal studio pose of the time, made all the more ceremonious with the Greek column on which I stand, taken to send to my parents who were living in Ireland at the time. Can you puhleeze tell me what my Grandmother is doing in a Chinese style dress with her Indian orinee, which she never left the house without wearing, dutifully draped over her head and tucked in at the waist! Only in Trinidad! I remember the dress well: dark-cream coloured heavy linen. The bamboo plant and Chinese characters were printed in brownish black to suggest ink and brush work. This is way back in 1962. Just down the road from our house, next to the San Fernando Mosque, was a Muslim Indo-Trinidadian family who frequently received suitcases of linen from China which they sold from their house. (Did they receive these suitcases, or did they actually go to China, I wonder?) I remember the whiter than white tea towels we took home and the pillow cases with invisibly attached mint-pink flowers, mouth-freshener-green leaves and dots of egg yellow stamens. And the crocheted doilies my grandmother liked to give away as wedding presents. There was such a fascination with things Chinese then. On the other hand as far as I can remember there were no signs of attachment to India or Indian identity in my grandparents' house. Sure Ma wore an orinee and we ate food of Indian origin as if there were no other, but there were no colourful pictures in our home of deities like the ones I like to use in my art work nowadays, and no ornaments from India, no fabric, or filigree furniture from over there. I know that Ma had a lot of heavy gold jewelry that was passed on to her from her ancestors in India, but she preferred to wear colourful costume jewelry, clip on earrings and the like. What we "other," privilege and exoticise then, as now, had everything to do with where and how precariously, or firmly, rooted our culture and "place" were ‹ case in point is my not-too-long-ago born again Indianness here in Canada.
(Ma went to the Open Bible Church three times a week. Which may well have had something to do with the erasing of Indian ties and the creation of a vacuum yearning to be filled with the richness of someone else's culture.)
Check me out! I was about five years old here. So many years later I can still feel the scratchiness of the stiff frilly crinoline under my dress. I don't remember this occasion specifically, but I bet that the dress wasn't easily put on me. I kicked and screamed pathetically whenever they tried to get me to wear one. (Not much has changed!) Even then I preferred shirts and pants ‹ and nothing in pink! ‹ clothing as signifiers that didn't confine me and mark me as different from my boy cousins who, unlike me, were not discouraged from running wild around the yard, and from falling, or climbing. In spite of the wide platform of the pedestal, Ma's hand is placed protectively behind me. Years later, this gesture still means the world to me. She died about two years after this picture was taken. Looking at her image now, I can all but smell her cool, always slightly damp, fleshy skin, and even though this is a black and white photo I clearly recall her light yellowish colour, a paleness prized in my family. With perverse pride she had always been teased that perhaps her mother, my great-grandmother, had been visited by the white overseer on the sugar estate that she and my great-grandfather had worked on. A truly perverse pride. But not entirely improbable ‹ this allowance is not a reflection of anything that is known about my great-grandmother, but putting aside prudishness, who really knows what goes on behind the closed doors of ordinary mortals?
When I look at this photo with my grandmother now, and think that her body might well be a map for mine, images of the outdoors and outdoor sports come charging at me as if in reaction. In her fleshiness is marked her gender and her class as a woman, and even though this very flesh was my security and assurance of being loved, it's flabbiness and softness, verifying the feebleness ascribed to her from childhood, has always been the marking that I have tried to avoid. Outside of that institution called home ‹ first the garden, then later, mountains, rivers and lakes with faraway shores ‹ has long been a refuge for me, and I speculate now that my passion since youth for the outdoors is an instinctual recognition that here my desperate need for the freedom to self determine, to be, and to become can most be fulfilled. I am constantly battling with the deeply inscribed memory in my body of umpteen generations of gendering. I agree with you that "our sensitivity to the political construction of landscape comes out of... displacements" ‹ through "our actual journeys across geography." But may I include gendering as a displacement for those of us who cannot, will not be placed inside its structure, and landscape as a significant haven and site of reinvention and imagining?
In my late teens, on countless hikes to Mount El Tucuche and to Maracas Waterfall in Trinidad's Northern Range I was the only girl, and at Maracas Beach I dared to go where no girl would go ‹ beyond the breakers where I would rise precariously with the swell of each wave and when it subsided bob there amongst a sprinkling of men. Even there, at the beach, I must admit, the unwelcome attentions of adult men on this little girl sent me swimming even further and further out to sea. What I remember well, now, but have never before admitted, was how terrified I was of snakes and scorpions and land slides in the hills, and of not being able to get back to shore, or of being sucked under by a current. (My mother often chided me for "showing off." If only she knew how scared I was of hurting myself when I preformed my anti-girliness stunts! In those days I was a tom-boy. You and I would have been quite a team!) These risks that I took were not to defy the outdoors or its elements (which were sites of opportunity in fact), but to defy the boundaries that I was expected to be contained within, to prove that my body was alive and capable, and to rebel against this body taking definition and direction from elsewhere. Going deep into the land, or beyond the breakers was something that cowards would never do, and dirty old men proved to be perfect cowards! My childhood fantasies of adventure invariably involved severe challenges to my body, and challenges to other's perceptions of my body, and they always took place away from cities or even towns, across vast continents and expanses of land, the land itself and my closeness to it being of utmost importance. Riding a bicycle from the tip of the North West Territories all way down to Tierra del Fuego. Canoeing up the Amazon River. Trekking over the foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas. In my teens, after I had successfully defied normalcy by playing cricket in the streets with the boys, by helping them build a house in a mango tree, and refusing to wear dresses, my fantasies began to include a girl whom I would rescue, never from the elements or from nature, but from family, from men, from society.
Recently, barely able to stand against an icy and menacing wind in a wide dried out bed of rocks uprooted by ancient glacial action just below Yoho Glacier in the Rockies, I was struck by my own vulnerability in this almost barren landscape. Because of the turning weather I was at the mercy of this wild and fierce environment and had no strength or reasoning against it. But in a place like that everyone is equally at its mercy. When in a wilderness park I cross a tiny plank over a raging river, and am terrified almost to the point of paralysis, the only one who sees my body cowering, and my face crumbling is the woman who respectfully does not rescue me, but holds my hand and passionately tells me that she has every faith in me that I can do it. (Here I am back in my apartment in Vancouver safely writing this to you, so of course I crossed that one successfully‹twice, there and back!)
As I become intimate with geographic regions of the country and their specificities, as I pour over topographical maps, and learn to distinguish the details of flora and fauna, as the land takes me in I find that my yearning for the details of Trinidad quietens. It is not about the details of either landscapes but more about rummaging through the country, past its towns, its people and all its constructs to find that safe place. The Canadian landscape has consequently begun to replace precious imitations of the Trinidad landscape in my work, have you noticed? Significant elements still exists, but the Canadian version of them. Magnolias instead of hibiscus. Evergreens replace coconut and poui. "Red canoes on a glacial jade and turquoise lake"1 instead of the Banana Quit in the tropical broad leafed bush in front of a hot blue sea.
In all of this, I am wary of the risk of a new colonising and exoticisation of this land by those of us who are fairly new immigrants ‹ even if we are immigrants of colour ‹ to the country seeking refuge in land, in one form or the other. On questioning my desire to know and so to own this land, I recognise a need for it to be that necessary place where I fortify myself, and am unconditionally welcome. As I am. Sorry to stop so abruptly, but rain comin and I have to run and close up windows and look for a basin!
I look forward to your reply. Soon, I hope. Keep well.
Love, etc., etc.
Originally published in Felix (editor: Kathy High)