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Women and the Global Imagination: The Isle of Exile
by Gabrielle Bellot
In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Gabrielle Bellot reflects on her experience being a transwoman from the Caribbean, and how, in her words, "The global imagination must contain all dreams and nightmares, all bodies, all mediums for art, all selves." We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.
The Isle of Exile: The Definitions of 'Woman' in Global Literature
I am a woman who shouts into the sea.
I grew up on the edge of a mountain in the Commonwealth of Dominica, nestled between Martinique and Guadeloupe, the island where most of my vast family lived; my mother’s thirteen sisters, after having been sent off to a convent in Grenada as girls, largely returned to Dominica to live out the rest of their days, as did many of their brothers and the siblings and cousins of my father. Our island’s great writer was, and remains, Jean Rhys, and she cast a shadow over me as soon as I read Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time as a teenager. Yet the idea that my own woman’s shadow might one day stretch alongside hers did not enter my mind, seriously, for over a decade; I was convinced it was impossible for me not to be a writer, but to be a writer who was a woman—because I was a transwoman, and for most of my life I did not meet or see anyone like myself, anyone who lived in silent agony at the knowledge that one’s true self lived behind a bolted door in the heart, and I did not think I could ever live my life as a woman, until I left the island and began to learn more.
In my earliest days, I had been so naïve as to think I could not write about the Caribbean because so many of the books I read and had access to were by Americans and Europeans; after I began to learn that the region of my birth had its own powerful, if continually self-defining, literary tradition, I felt I could perhaps be a Dominican writer, but one who would have to masquerade as a male. I was naïve, then, but not fantastically wrong; after all, it is still a law on our books that men who engage in “sodomy” can go to jail if “caught,” and identifying oneself openly as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender back home is a move that comes with both power and great risk.
I had always been a stargazer as a teenager, looking up at the vast universe from somewhere on the grass lit blue from the moon, usually with one of our faithful German Shepherds yawning or nipping at my side, and because we lived relatively alone on the edge of a mountain I could see the night sky with little light pollution. Yet I did not realize until I journeyed to a place where I could rarely see the stars at night that there were constellations I had never seen, right in front me. It took years and years, took more experience of the globe, to learn that there are star fields that make up “man” and “woman” and whatever else there may be, and that the star field of womanhood contains many constellations, one of which described me.
And that is how it should be. In the globe we live in, I, a transwoman of colour from the Caribbean, exist, and there are more of us. Our voices may not yet reach the shores of most of our islands, where it is often unheard of to be transgender and often punishable by law, stigma, or violence to be openly—or by suspicion—queer in some way. Too often, our voices simply do not exist in the islands we come from; too often, the presumption back home is that a writer will simply be part of a simple binary of male or female, and always heterosexual. But we exist in the global imagination, even if we are ghosts in our homes; and to teach Global Literature, as I do at my university in the United States, I believe, is to teach about what it means to be human, in all of its messiness, complexity, and beautiful strangeness.
But the reason I shout into the wide sea—and I am hardly alone here, on this otherwise lonely isle out lost in the Somewhere—is that so many of us have had to flee from our homes, or feel we cannot return home, because our status as transwomen has made us so often feel we do not, or cannot, live in the land of our birth or development. And this goes beyond where I grew up. Indeed, while the literature and media of transgender experience are slowly gaining more cross-cultural visibility, with the rise of powerful memoirs and critical texts by Janet Mock, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and Susan Stryker, amongst others, and powerful series like The Pearl of Africa about a Ugandan transwoman’s journey through a society that does not generally accept women like her, and even simpler moves like when VICE took a Jamaican dancehall song by Vybz Kartel—Jamaica being an island that contains widespread anti-LGBT discrimination—titled “Beautiful Girls” and created a new music video feauring Jamaican transgirls who live a dangerous impoverished life in Kingstown’s gullies—despite all this, the texts that constellate transgender experience really do feel disproportionately balanced in favour of nonfiction. Certainly, there is a growing number of novels and stories about what it means to be a transwoman or transman—Ariel Schrag’s Adam, Kim Fu’s For Today I Am a Boy, Rachel Gold’s Just Girls, and many others—but these, like trans* experience broadly, lack visibility and risk being closeted away under categories like “trans* fiction” that, while accurate and useful, may further lower their wide-scale visibility.
And in a world where so many transwomen know visibility itself can endanger, we so often feel we must go to another isle, some distant place of Exile, where we may finally be accepted as the women we are, or at least where we may be left alone. I know this feeling well. It is a deep blue sadness, in many ways, for me to teach my students about the multiple ways “identity” is messy and strange and varicoloured by reading literature from around the world, and yet feel so voiceless in my own home because my constellation of “woman” does not fit the constellation so many other people there think “woman” must look like. It is a strange thing, to teach in a classroom and live on a sort of isle of Exile all at once, and find that both look the same, and to find, as I taught Salman Rushdie’s “Imaginary Homelands,” in which Rushdie speaks of the experience of writing about India from afar, that my own homeland is becoming imaginary because of my fear to return there, presenting as myself.
I shout because I want to be heard, not as a madwoman in the attic, not as a ghost in a hallway, but as a fellow woman of the world because I will not—I cannot—be otherwise.
“If one day I cannot do anything of that,” Marjane Satrapi said in an interview with Sundance in 2013 of her ability to draw and write graphic texts, “I will die.” It is a statement worth unpacking from its black and white box, since there is much within it: the need to live and fight through art if art is what we love and can use, the power of graphic novels alongside more traditional text-based texts, and—above all—the fact that it is no longer really feasible to imagine our place as women—of all kinds—in world literature, in a global framework, unless we acknowledge that the imaginative landscape is always expanding in terms of what kinds of mediums are available, useable, and powerful.
The global imagination must contain all dreams and nightmares, all bodies, all mediums for art, all selves. I yearn for the day not when it is no longer strange for a transwoman to be oneself and to publish openly as the kind of woman one is in the island I grew up in, but rather for the day when it is no longer something that feels like an application for a passport to a quite different island, that well-known unknown island, on which we must exile ourselves out of fear for loss of life and love and voice. I yearn for the day when “woman” is understood not simply as saint or cis-woman or as the soucouyant woman who becomes a firefly in the night and sails through the dark towards children’s homes to steal their blood, these archetypes of virgin and “normal” woman and predator. I yearn for the day when the globe does not shrink to include us, but rather grows as it does.
And yet there is something perversely good, a sudden revelation of moon upon the dark, in knowing you may have little choice but exile. As much as it hurts to see the island recede behind me, the world in which I grew so many memories like wildflowers, as much as it hurts to think that the sea-hiss of the Caribbean I once thought I would hear forever might fade into the silence around Beethoven’s ears—as much as all that, a small part of me knows that I am still here, and I can still fight with my words, and perhaps more. I can shout. Even from the shores of that isle of exile, I can shout.
As the narrator of Derek Walcott’s “Schooner Flight” put it, either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.
There are other women of colour in this isle of Exile like me, and women of all kinds from across the globe. Some build, some live anew, some scream to the new sea, and some build new ships. We are here for many reasons, yet we are joined by one: as women of the world today, we’ve found, so often, that the imagination of the globe, the maps of what-is-today, does not sufficiently include us, indeed at times outright pushes us to the side, or into the shadows, or into the depths of the sea altogether. There is no one fight—that is too naïve. But that we must fight to be heard is not. And our voices will reach.
One way is through our literature. I am fascinated by the ways that global literature can at once widen the globe for readers and students—by showing places, practices, people, and worlds they might not have encountered before—and shrink it simultaneously, as this very literature shows that humanity does not vanish on opposite sides of oceans. I am intrigued by the way that such literature can show the ways in which what it means to be a woman—the many constellations that make up the star-field of womanhood, from cis- to trans- to genderqueer women—are complicated: we are humans writing about the wider experience of being human in the globe, with one of the hopes of global literature being that we can simply write as ourselves without being marginalized merely for being women, yet at the same time we cannot avoid the fights that often come simply for being women in whatever constellation we may best fit—the ways we are so often publicized differently from men, the ways we lack representation on literary lists often simply because our work is overlooked on the assumption it might focus on this theme or that and that said themes are less interesting to the presumably male list-setter, the ways we must fight simply to be allowed to be writers. And in the long night’s face of these realisations, it is easy to feel that we are not a recognizable constellation, but rather a lone shooting star, visible briefly and beautifully, a bluewhite streak across the dark, and then gone, forgotten, done.
We must be prepared to voyage in the dark.
We must shout, so page and world, so mind and body, can come together, and so another closed cage door, be it metal or a cage of bones around a heart, may open.
Gabrielle Bellot, who also writes under J. Bellot, holds an MFA from Florida State University, where she is currently pursuing her PhD in Fiction. Her work has appeared in The New Humanism, Small Axe, Transnational Literature, BIM: Arts for the 21st Century, Belletrist Coterie, and in other journals. She was born in 1987 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has lived since the age of nine in the Commonwealth of Dominica, where she is a member of a committee for the Nature Island Literary Festival. She is working on her first novel.