How to Step Out of Comfort Zones


Sometimes readers need to work to leave their comfort zones. Charged with writing down her mother’s story, one woman—in Marlon James’s novel, The Book of Night Women—yearns for a different kind of reader. This fictional writer, in James’s words, longs for a reader ready to leave behind their comfort, “somebody who know that one cannot judge the action of a niggerwoman who only wanted to be everything and nothing.”

Not judging, as a reader, may be hard enough. But the harder task remains: seeing and honoring someone else’s true self. In her new book, A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being, Kaiama L. Glover purposely chooses to zoom in on “narcissistic” female characters like James’s heroine, Lilith.

In her investigations, Glover draws from the novels of Caribbean authors like Marie Chauvet, Maryse Condé, René Depestre, and Jamaica Kincaid, as well as Marlon James. And Glover focuses especially on Caribbean women at odds with the group they are supposed to belong to, each one a “disorderly being” whose “true self” and unfettered ways unsettle common usage and praxis. These women have taken the party of “self-transformation,” like Xuela, Kincaid’s character, who has chosen to embrace her true self, realizing at an early age the power of free will, body, and voice: “I had, through the use of some words changed my situation; I had perhaps even saved my life …. It is in this way that I came to be so extremely conscious of myself, so interested in my own needs, so interested in fulfilling them, aware of my grievances, aware of my pleasures.” Tituba, Hadriana, Lotus, Xuela, Lilith: these are the names of fictional characters who have chosen “not revolution, barely resistance,” the offside ways of “self-regard” and “true self” over the imperatives and constraints of communal discourse.

Readers should be able to work their ways out of the boxes that define texts and approach them closely from less controlled zones. As such, Glover’s A Regarded Self is a timely and much-needed book, in these times when readers may feel compelled to pay allegiance to the labels and theories in vogue before actually regarding the source book itself.

Let us then not place too large an umbrella over the variegated, original, daunting imaginative writings produced by writers from the Caribbean, or by so-called postcolonial authors. Glover brings together a corpus of Caribbean voices and works that to my knowledge have never been put into direct dialogue, and interweaves characters and authors from Haiti, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, and Antigua.

Reading Glover’s book made me think of the symbolic renovated location—the “open house, grounded yet generous in its supply of windows and doors”—that Toni Morrison reimagines and discusses in her essay “Home” (1997). Glover likewise opens up free passages. “This most simple of movements, the turning of your back,” explains again Kincaid’s Zuela, “is among the most difficult to make, but once it has been made you cannot imagine it was at all hard to accomplish.”

A Regarded Self—the uncanny title calls for immediate attention; it also maps out a global relational space between artist Udé Iké (“The Regarded Self,” 1995), writer Toni Morrison (The Source of Self-Regard, 2019), and Glover’s own discursive space. At the core of her book are singular, fictional, and authorial selves.

Glover meticulously probes the political, social, historical, cultural, and personal contexts undergirding the emergence of those Caribbean authorial voices, their ensuing fame and critical reception, and what it takes to become a writer and a public figure in the 20th and 21st centuries. Thus, she foregrounds an insightful cartography of places from all over the world, filiations, and occasions for dissent concerning, for instance, writers’ “political obligation” or “responsibility” to their place of origin.

A Regarded Self is a reminder of fiery pan-African cultural and political debates. It remembers René Depestre’s harsh critique of revered poet Aimé Césaire for being too much of an “assimilationist” trying to be in “conformity to a French poetic ideal.” It reads Maryse Condé, labeled “recalcitrant daughter” or “postcolonial renegade” by some, who dared to write back and challenge the “totalizing” nature of créolité as framed by Chamoiseau, Confiant, and Bernabé.

The book vividly addresses the stamina and engagement it has required for those writers to have their singular voices heard and published—through forced or chosen exile, imprisonment, temporary ban, relocating outside the island of origin for political or personal reasons in Cuba, China, Guinea, Ivory Coast, the US, or France.

Most of those writers have chosen to move outside and leave their island at some point. Marlon James, for one, has written about why he chose to leave for the US to escape “disgrace” and the homophobic pressures he felt when growing up in Jamaica in the 1970s and 1980s.

Through defiant, supposedly selfish means, these female characters indulge in intimate gestures of resistance: suppressing maternity or loving body and self.

A Regarded Self is about regarding the self. “You think is woman, Homer say. Me think me is Lilith, Lilith say”: this is how Marlon James’s character simply, bluntly declares and posits herself outside the category of “woman.”

A Regarded Self is also about ways of coping with invisibility, of foregrounding presence, body, senses. “You’d have thought I [Tituba] wasn’t even there …. I was a non-being. Invisible.”

Through defiant, supposedly selfish means, the female characters indulge in intimate gestures of resistance: suppressing maternity or loving body and self: “whatever I [Xuela] was told to hate I loved and loved the most. I loved the smell of the thin dirt behind my ears.”

Those fictional women derail and symbolically interrupt a continuum of stable motifs (the good mother, the prostitute, the sacrificial figure) and narratives and claim a new kind of birth. Depestre’s surreal Hadriana unexpectedly dies on her wedding day and turns into a zombie before coming back to life again to love and write her own story. In another mode, Condé’s rewriting of Tituba, Caribbean Indian witch of Salem, ousts the silent and passive witch figure as represented in the American literary landscape and gives another life and scene to self-empowered Tituba.

Interestingly, those characters’ disorderly ways unsettle the boundaries between fictional frames and outside reality, forcing their authors to make do with critiques on “coherence,” on the unfair treatment of the place of origin, on the necessity of political engagement.

This issue reaches beyond the academic sphere and talks to “the tyranny of the ‘we,’” the growing pressure that one should conform to a supposedly communal “I.” In this unstable period of migrating, relocating, and changing places, how can one fruitfully show that the private self is part of the common body but can never embody the whole? How to escape being pigeonholed in both sites of departure and sites of arrival?

Depestre’s troubled relationships with Haiti and his many migration routes back and forth between his native island and the rest of the world; Chauvet’s search for “the roundabout ways to scream the truth,” divorce, exile in New York, ambivalent editorial and intellectual correspondence with Simone de Beauvoir; Condé, Kincaid, and James being lampooned for having taken the so-called easy routes to the US—these writers’ itineraries testify to the difficulty of escaping fixed positions, of enunciating self from just one location, one country, one color. Readers wary of following the highway of certainties will draw much from their challenging books and continue to explore ways of “unsettl[ing] all things endlessly.”

Embedded in Glover’s book are some fundamental questions of reading, publishing, and getting access to books; her volume brings to the fore of the US scene Caribbean francophone books that might have remained unread for lack of translation. But this, in turn, raises the question of the disappearance of the original text in the body of the volume in English.

This is a point for us all to ponder—the question of where and why books get published, their life duration, the crucial need to keep books alive despite market laws, to (re)translate works so that they can better circulate. A Regarded Self resists summarizing and simplifying what Caribbean literatures and reading Caribbean literatures should be about; it is a book written by a Caribbeanist, a “nonaligned” woman scholar, a translator, a citizen of the world, who has read in various languages and delved into various sources from the world at large. Condé, Depestre, Chauvet, Kincaid, Marlon James—the writers she has examined point to the plural diasporic and transnational routes they had to take for one reason or another.

Let us continue reading, writing, creating, conversing, translating, and dissenting across languages and places. That is essential for a number of us, readers, citizens of the world who are dwelling in various languages, locations, and texts by virtue of circumstance. Let us use that as a vital and inspiring force to circumvent the “anxiety of belonging” and declare ourselves to the world. Let us preserve and pay tribute to the word, imagination, and the “motley” self.

 

This essay is the sixth and final installment in a series on citizenship, part of the University of Michigan’s Democracy and Debate Theme Semester for fall 2020.

 

This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabrielicon

Featured image: Melanin Goddess (detail) (2018). Photograph by Jessica Felicio / Unsplash



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