“I met History once,” the St. Lucian writer Derek Walcott said in his sprawling poem “Schooner Flight,” “but he ain’t recognize me.” As a transgender woman from the Commonwealth of Dominica, I recognise that lack of recognition on multiple levels, the way one can exist in a mirror as a woman and yet have no reflection as one, the way you can be and not be all at once, depending whose eyes are the ones perceiving. My island’s best-known words are braided to women, from the Kalinago name for Dominica, Waitukubuli, “Tall Is Her Body,” to the novels of Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey, and as a woman myself I feel tied to a tradition, yet distant all the same, for I wonder, so often, how a writer who is not cis will fit into that constellation of women’s names.
In the Caribbean, we have had to rebuild and justify our history against the eliding forces of colonialism and racism and inferiority complexes both from outside and inside our own homes, to walk up to History and tell him-her that it must be broad enough to include us or it cannot bear such a name. And our rich literary history is a testament to that attempt, a history all the richer today for the many powerful women who add to it today. We havEe always drawn from ghosts to make flesh, to make art, to grow newness from the past. Some of us have literally written from tempests, like Elizabeth Nunez and Aime Cesaire. Now, I want to see my literature grow, again, to be more unafraid, to more loudly include more of the voices that have been submerged for so long—including the voices of women like me who so often struggle to be accepted as women at all, rather than madmen in the attic.
I often feel like a person who lives with a foot in multiple worlds. For over twenty years, I denied who I was as a queer transgender woman, partly out of ignorance, partly out of fear for the consequences of coming out. I grew up in a culture where being openly queer simply wasn’t something you could be; LGB persons were the distant Other, and I did not even know the “T,” the word “transgender,” existed for over a decade. Many years later, when I finally came out, I decided I would not return home and would stay in the United States, where I was attending school. Although there are movements in many islands that are doing important work to raise visibility for LGBTQIA individuals, many of which are spearheaded by women, we still have a long way to go towards full acceptance as equal citizens. Some of us are lucky to find a happy life; some of us are not so lucky, and live in a kind of exile in the very nations we call home, or leave our homes, or simply deny who we are in order to avoid harassment, hammering fists, broken glass. Some of us live like sleepwalkers. Some of us live under the lamps of insomnia. Some of us have been accused of not being “black” by being queer, have been beaten senseless, stoned, run over and stabbed, lived in gullies and lost families. And those of us who have found some kind of peace are still too generally invisible, with trans women and trans men amongst the least visible, least understood of all as citizens of our nations.
For me, citizenship and selfhood are braided together. Being a transgender woman and being a transnational woman are linked; my identities intersect. I am both Dominican and American, black and white and part Carib and part who-knows-what-else in the long map of my family’s history. And, for me, that is a part of being Caribbean, this braiding-together, this way that multiplicities and contradictions can live together and be connected, like the strange, hybrid figures in Wifredo Lam’s paintings. Multiplicity is Caribbeanness. Wandering towards selfhood is Caribbeanness. To be in exile is to be Caribbean, like Jean Rhys or George Lamming, just as to reject exile is Caribbean. Caribbeanness must be vast and all-encompassing, including anyone who identifies as “Caribbean,” anyone who is connected in some way to our region and who wishes to enrich our tradition, wherever their feet tread—and those of us who tread on the ground of multiple worlds are as Caribbean as those of us who never leave our islands, for our histories are connected over sea, ocean, and land. Our unity is submarine, as Kamau Brathwaite put it. The Ghanaian writer Taiye Selasi spoke of being Afropolitan, meaning “African” and “cosmopolitan” all at once; we must speak, too, of “Caripolitans” when we speak of being Caribbean.
It is difficult not to be some kind of cosmopolitan, isn’t it, when your political systems, school systems, language, and religious majorities come from Europe, even as so many people in the Anglophone islands have begun to use American English in places that are not America, even as America’s shadow has been largely cast over us since the American soldiers came onto a number of our islands in the Second World War on bases given to them by the British and offered us American money, American segregation where the soldiers wanted it, American dreams. It is odd, or not, the way imperialisms do not disappear, but simply change faces—and perhaps, that, too, is an inevitable part of Caribbeanness, and of world-ness.
Our history itself has histories, including a long history of denial that we have one at all. And this denial extends to the continent so many of us are linked to by the transatlantic trade. In the racist view of the white British historian Hugh Trevor Roper, Africa simply had no history at all, prior to European colonialism, for “the rest is largely darkness…And darkness is not a subject for history.” For V. S. Naipaul, a Trinidadian who often seems desperate to be a member of the country that colonised his own, the West Indies, too, has no history, as it has, according to him, achieved nothing. “History,” he infamously claimed in The Middle Passage in 1962, the year of Trinidad’s Independence from Britain, “is built on creation and achievement and nothing was created in the West Indies.” And I grew up hearing my family and friends casually saying similar things; we often, like our politicians, talked of what would happen in the future with a kind of half-humorous, half-sad futility.
In the United States, I have become accustomed to people assuming in ignorance that the Caribbean is no more than a string of resorts and beaches where Rastas smoke the sacred herb and listen to some Bob Marley, that the Caribbean exists as a product for white consumers and not as a vast region of different places with connected but unique histories. I have become accustomed to people believing that we have only consumable present, not the richness of our past and our present and our future. I have become accustomed to white American men calling me “an exotic” with no sense of why that is demeaning. And at one time, I did not call any of it out. As a teenager in college in Florida, I became so embarrassed when Americans mocked my voice that I tried to drown my accent and pretend I was solely American; I was too weak then, letting myself feel my family’s home was not good enough, letting others construct who I should be. I subconsciously wanted to let myself vanish, become ghost.
This is how you erase a person or place, by denying that they have enough worth to have a history—or by not believing, yourself, that you have that worth.
So often, I have felt like a ghost on the margins of my own literature. Transgender men and women have a history in our literature, in our art, but it is one largely submerged, in a place deeper than where our shipwrecks lie—and this is not surprising, really, given how so many of us have either lived our lives in secret or in denial in our islands, walking around in the dream-daze of a sort of living death. Or we have simply been rendered as effeminate gay men and, less commonly, butch lesbians. In Black Skin, White Masks—which was published in 1952, the same year that America’s first celebrity trans woman, Christine Jorgensen, appeared in the media—Frantz Fanon describes Martinicans who are either cross-dressers or transgender women as homosexual men. And while it is unsurprising that Fanon, who believed homosexuality was merely a kind of white European psychiatric disorder, would have little time to speculate about gender identity, Caribbean literature has a long history of its queerness being dominated by discussions of gay men. Lesbians certainly exist in our literature, as well as cross-dressers and explicitly transgender individuals—but the latter is least visible of all, the group often the most ghostly and ghastly all at once. Naming has power, as does not-naming; and to leave us out is to be reminded, as Miyazaki tells us, how easily one can be spirited away to a land of phantoms by the theft of one’s name.
I want that to change. I want more narratives in which we are real, in which we are the women and the men and the non-binary individuals we are, like Shani Mootoo’s Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab. I want us to become flesh rather than phantasm. And I am excited at how our literature is growing, is pushing ghosts from old zinc-roofed houses, how contemporary female writers like Nicole Dennis-Benn and Naomi Jackson create human queer characters in their fiction, and how, more broadly, we have so many women pushing boundaries and doing important work, like Vahni Capildeo and Wendy Guerra with their powerful free-form poems; Nalo Hopkinson with her innovative sci-fi strongly infused with a Caribbean mythos; Sharon Millar with her haunting lyrical prose; Shivanee Ramlochan, who, alongside writing lush and lovely poems, works tirelessly to promote, review, and make visible literature from across the Caribbean; and so many more. Our literature contains so much.
But trans women remain marginal. To many people, we not only aren’t women; we are abominations, too, something that is wrong. Ugly, the thought of it, across many literatures, many minds. We are what James Baldwin’s narrator, David, describes us as in a passage from Giovanni’s Room that I found myself reading and rereading over and over in surprise and unsurprise and, finally, sadness. While observing a group of people in a bar who present as female and call each other by female pronouns—people who David believes are flamboyant gay men but who certainly could be trans women before the term existed—David sees only hideousness, due to their femininity in a “male” body, claiming that our “utter grotesqueness made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people’s stomachs. They might not mind so much,” he continues, “if monkeys did not—so grotesquely—resemble human beings.” It is difficult not to see shades of the Conrad of Heart of Darkness in such a passage, whose main narrator, Marlowe, struggles, too, with accepting the humanity of the Others, of the black Africans he describes as grotesque and inhuman and unbearably human all at once. Even when you are the Other, someone else can always be the Other to you.
I want to create dangerously, to bridge the gap between where I walk and where I used to walk, so as to help someone like me with a girl inside a cage of bones see, if they do not, that they, too, must shout to be heard. So we can just be ourselves, seen in our beauty and banality and dread, rather than living under a medieval mind-set where we are a simplistic binary of heroic or hated, Good or Evil. So we can stop seeing people casually calling for us to be gunned down on social media posts about trans women in the Caribbean. So there are not more bodies like Dwayne Jones’, knifed and run over by a vehicle for presenting as a woman, not more bodies beaten into the loud silence that played in Beethoven’s ears.
And this is why I write about trans individuals most of all: to help fill a vast gap. The novel I am writing will be as much about gender-non-conformity as it is about race, religiosity, the British Caribbean in the World Wars and their aftermath, and the persistence of coloniality. And I do not write to fill a label marked “trans writer” but because writing is what I must do. I write not to preach but to learn, un-learn, and remember the lunar fear of my own doubts.
Let us fight against fear. Let us fight against being accepted just for people to later exoticise, tokenise, or sentimentalise our identities. Let us voyage in the dark through our wide seas of shellfish and sargasso and the reef-bleaching pollutants of hotels, cross through the shacks and grand houses where orchids and immortelles bloom over the graves that hold phantoms many of us are still hesitant to confront.
Let us fight against ghosthood, so we do not have to fear becoming such silenced bodies again, forgotten in the dark where too many still believe history does not happen.
GABRIELLE BELLOT is a writer from the Commonwealth of Dominica. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Slate, Guernica, The Normal School, The Caribbean Review of Books, the blogs of The Missouri Review and Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She is a doctoral candidate in Fiction at Florida State University and is working on her first novel. gabriellebellot.com