English Literature student Starra Clarke explores gender and sexuality in four Windrush stories.
12 minute read
Costumes, Closets and the Caribbean Community in Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman
Halloween is one of my favourite times of the year, I think I would even go as far as to say that I prefer it to Christmas time. Unfortunately, thanks to Ms. Rona, there were no spooky celebrations on the cards this year. I did, however, celebrate vicariously through the images that celebrities were posting online of their costumes, one of which being Lil Nas X, who tweeted images of himself dressed as Nicki Minaj from her ‘Super Bass’ music video. Unfortunately, he soon became subject to homophobic abuse from members of the public and fellow musicians, with rapper Dave East stating ‘And y’all was mad at me about this n***a. Bati mon [sic] bun up!!!!’. Considering that the focal point of East’s criticism was based upon Lil Nas X’s race and sexuality, and that he expressed this hatred through a fusion of Patois and English, one must question whether there is a significant connection between the two. Indeed, the language and terminology used by East is reminiscent of the language used by the group of youths who mugged Barry in a homophobic attack, with them notably exclaiming, ‘Batty man! Bum bandit! Poofter! Anti-man!’. The same hateful language is used in both instances, and coincidentally both Lil Nas X and Barrington are black, gay men, who struggled with sharing their sexuality due to the pressures and homophobia within the black community.
Kobena Mercer investigates the roots of the toxicity surrounding black masculinity, attributing key traits as consequences of slavery, colonialism and imperialism, noting that ‘black men have adopted certain patriarchal values such as physical strength, sexual prowess and being in control as a means of survival against the repressive and violent system of subordination to which they were subjected’. Mercer points out that hypermasculinity has historically been a way for black men to reclaim agency, however, the negative implications of this exaggerated sense of masculinity become apparent when they are thrust upon someone who doesn’t particularly fit these traits.
However, it is clear that throughout Mr. Loverman, judgement isn’t served solely by hypermasculine men. In fact, Barry happily embodies certain aspects of the masculine mould, but unfortunately this mould has no room for homosexuality. Early in the novel, Barry opens up to Morris about his hesitation to be honest about his sexuality, stating ‘I don’t know if I can jump into the great abyss of social alienation with you’. While some readers might be dismissive of Barry’s preoccupation with the opinion of his peers, his hesitation lay deeper than a mere desire to keep up with the Joneses. The dark cloud of homophobia consistently follows Barry around throughout the novel, both from those who knew of his sexuality to those who didn’t. Barry’s awareness that living his truth would ultimately alienate him from his peers inevitably causes him to conceal his sexuality from the world, and maintain a sense of disillusion, even to himself. Indeed, at one point he exclaims ‘I am no homosexual, I am a…Barrysexual! I won’t have nobody sticking me in a box and labelling it’. While Barry’s reluctance to conform to labels is completely understandable, it seems that his disinclination is based more upon a fear of labelling rather than a disregard for it. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Barry’s mindset with that of Morris sets the dynamic for their entire relationship. While Barry spends the majority of the novel in a state of inner conflict regarding his sexuality, Morris spends his time supporting his partner. While social expectations pressurize Barry to supress his sexuality, it is Morris’ loyalty to Barry that forces him to supress his sexuality.
Through a series of events they are finally successful in moving in together, but they never find true liberation and peace from the judging eyes of the Caribbean community. They share a home together, but they must build an attic conversion for the sake of Morris’ children and the neighbours. Even though within the confines of the home they can be open and loving with one another, they would forever live as friends in the eyes of others. After spending a lifetime together, it seems that those judging eyes would prevent them from ever truly living as their authentic selves.
A Taste of the Exotic: Racial Fetishism in Sam Sevlon’s The Lonely Londoners
So, what’s your type? A fairly common question in the world of relationships and dating. A question that is usually answered by criteria of height, personality, aspirations… or maybe the old cliché of tall, dark and handsome. While the latter response could easily refer to a 6-foot tall brunette with an affinity for Sally Hansen, in the case of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, the “dark” element is firmly reserved for race. In fact, the requirements of tall and handsome are basically irrelevant.
Hyde Park acts as a sexual hub of sorts within the novel; a place where the not everything is black and white, but the people are. Moses, a frequent visitor of Hyde Park, ponders upon ‘how this sort of thing happening in a place where only the high and the mighty is’, but he recognises the fact that ‘with all of that they feel they can’t get big thrills unless they have a black man in the company’. Moses’ statement rightfully implies that it isn’t a deep, emotional connection that unites the two races, but rather a sexual desire from the white participants to feel a sense of thrill and danger. After all, if it was a relationship that these people were searching for, they certainly wouldn’t be looking for it in Poet’s Corner with a purse full of money.
Moses is acutely aware throughout the course of his sexual exploits that the white participants are purely interested in the colour of his skin, along with the stereotypes invoked by that colour. He notes that ‘you can’t put on any English accent for them […] or try to be polite and civilize they don’t want that sort of thing at all they want you to live up to the films and stories they hear about […] the cruder you are the more they like you the whole blasted set of them’. Moses’ frustration encapsulates the difficulties raised by the ways white people fetishize black culture. Patrick Herald details the violent incident between the Jamaican man and the white woman from the art exhibit, describing the white woman’s expectations of the ‘radicalized fantasy of blackness as signifying an uncivilised, savage sexuality’. The true conflict of this situation arises when the Jamaican becomes aware of the nature of the woman’s infatuation, and reacts violently. The juxtaposition between the woman’s fantasy of a dangerous, uncivilised black man and the reality of the Jamaican’s violence towards the woman clarifies the role of black people within that society. Although the novel takes place long after slavery was abolished, white power clearly still exists, albeit in an adjusted state. Herald notes that the Jamaican man’s anger stems from ‘his realization that he is operating as a mere placeholder in this woman’s fantasy, an object’. This dehumanisation of the black body is reminiscent of the role of black slaves in which their thoughts, feelings and wellbeing of are seen as irrelevant, and the only purpose they serve is to satisfy the needs of their owners. In this manner, although the black characters in The Lonely Londoners have substantially more agency over their lives, in the eyes of the white characters they now serve to fulfil their sexual fantasies.
This isn’t to say that the black characters in the novel don’t fetishize the white body in return. The use of derogatory slang by the Caribbean men to describe white women as ‘skin’ and ‘white pussy’ exposes how they too can fetishize the white body and reduce the whole to its physical parts. However, this use of language can be viewed as a means for the black men to reclaim the sense of power and masculinity that has been taken from them; a miniscule bargaining chip that pales in comparison to the freedom and autonomy that they wish to hold over their bodies and sexuality.
The Suburban Mouse and the City Mouse: Home, Sexuality and the Subversion of Tradition in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia
When dealing with a novel called The Buddha of Suburbia, I feel that it’s appropriate to begin by discussing suburbia as a home space. Suburbia is initially presented as the stereotypically dull opposition to “the city”; a place lacking in opportunity and, as our protagonist states, ‘I always wanted to be somewhere else’.
Karim’s desire to escape his home, along with the connotations of suburbia as a space lacking in excitement is soon challenged once he and his father leave the space of their own home and voyage to Eva’s. The first venture to Eva’s home almost immediately erases the stereotypes attributed to suburbia, and it is no coincidence that this is done through the mode of sexual exploits. Nathaneal O’Reilly notes that ‘in Kureishi’s suburbia, an evening may contain Eastern mysticism, an extramarital affair, interracial sex, homosexual experimentation…this is hardly boring, conformist behaviour’. However, this subversion of the very essence of suburban, heteronormative life isn’t fully accepted by all of its inhabitants and eventually provokes the breakdown of Karim’s family, and as a result, his home. These events serve to portray the polarity of different iterations of home, trigger a sexual awakening in Karim, and allow Haroon to liberate himself sexually and emotionally. In a nutshell, it’s a fairly loaded passage.
Haroon’s journey is far more straightforward than that of his son. Once he is open about his relationship with Eva, he separates from Margaret, leaves his own home and moves in with Eva. For Haroon, the space of home is clearly interchangeable, and he prioritises his sexual and emotional desires over the importance of maintaining a traditional family life and fulfilling his roles as husband and father. Haroon’s experiences may imply that sexual liberation brings happiness, however, Karim’s tumultuous sexual journey strongly challenge the solace and ease that his father’s actions implicate.
Homi Bhabha discusses the concept of the “unhomely”, noting that ‘it captures something of the estranging sense of the relocation of the home and the world in an unhallowed place’. Bhabha clarifies that the “unhomely” isn’t categorised purely into public and private spaces, although this happens to be the case for Karim. Bhabha further states that ‘in the stirrings of the unhomely, another world becomes visible’. The relevance of this statement to Karim’s situation becomes more apparent as the events of the novel unfold. While Haroon was open about his relationship with Eva, the undercover nature of Karim’s dalliances drove him to transgress the boundaries of other people’s homes, often with harmful consequences to at least one party.
However, on the other side of the fence, Karim’s exploration of his sexual desires played a pivotal role in his metamorphosis into a confident butterfly actor. Karim has a number of sexual relations throughout the text, each one taking him further from his initial home in suburban London and deeper into city life. Indeed, by the end of the novel Karim’s acting work has brought him to New York, where he comes full circle by living with Charlie. Unfortunately, while Charlie initially played the role of idol to Karim for a substantial portion of the text, this relationship takes a turn during their time together in New York. Charlie’s own personal issues overwhelm him and his struggle with fame eventually result in him using sexual humiliation to achieve emotional liberation, as opposed to earlier in the text when he would happily risk social humiliation in the name of sexual liberation. Charlie’s compulsion for self-deprecation and degradation compel Karim to realise that being further from home doesn’t necessarily equate to being closer to happiness; a revelation that is emphasised by Haroon and Eva’s engagement announcement.
These two events reinforce the initial stereotypes of suburbia, however, when taken into account alongside Karim’s growth throughout the novel, the reoccurrence of these stereotypes imply that there is comfort and happiness to be found in the traditional home, and that while sexual exploration plays a role in personal development, it doesn’t necessarily equate to emotional fulfilment.
A Conflict between Modern Culture and “Auntie”-quated Gender Roles in Bhaji on the Beach
Bhaji on the Beach follows a group of South-Asian women who travel to Blackpool in order to temporarily escape from the ‘patriarchal demands made on [them] in [their] daily lives, struggling between the double yoke of racism and sexism that [they] bear’. However, it soon becomes clear that there is a third yoke that Simi didn’t mention, and that is the conflict caused by the contrasting cultural ideals of the aunties and the younger British-Punjabi women. While one may think that issues such as racism would be a bigger issue to the ladies, the hierarchy of judgment is presented perfectly through the scene in the tea shop, where the employee is hurling a barrage of racial slurs at the aunties, while they are simultaneously pre-occupied with unloading a number of unwarranted, judgemental opinions regarding Hasida’s pregnancy and their disregard for the life of her unborn child.
Although it’s easy for modern viewers to regard the ideals of the aunties as outdated, Nandi Bhatia notes that ‘from a gendered position… the homogenized discourse about the “homeland” becomes a contested terrain and assumes a fractured identity that questions these narratives, born, as they are, out of particular conditions of displacement’. Bhatia’s statement concisely explains the fundamental difference between the priorities of the aunties and the younger generation. The older characters were raised in a society where women were expected to fulfil a purely domestic role, however, these expectations conflict with the more liberal Western ideals in which women have more autonomy over their bodies and lifestyles. Bhatia explains that the resistance of the older women to adjust to Western society lies in the fact that ‘Indian women are expected to be more “moral” than western women, more spiritual, more honorable [sic], and completely willing to place the interests of the community before their own’. In a way, the women are acting as representatives of India, and the older women therefore feel obligated to uphold Indian values in the face of hostile Westerners. However, the younger women reject this immense pressure and would rather focus on creating multicultural identities as British-Punjabi women. Throughout the film, the younger women use their sexuality as a means to explore their identities, much to the disgust of the older women who reject modern ideas surrounding sexual liberation. The younger women have a much more relaxed approach to sexuality, with Madhu embarking on a flirtatious afternoon with a local boy, and on a deeper level, Hashida’s relationship with Oliver and subsequent pregnancy.
Notably, it isn’t just the older women that are hypercritical of the actions of the younger generation. The patriarchal beliefs of some in the South-Asian community demand that women prioritise the livelihoods of their husband and children above their own and should purely embody a domestic role within the home. Bhatia states that ‘patriarchies become critical of women’s attempts towards self-empowerment, dismissing acts of resistance as contaminatory [sic] influences of western culture, and a loss of “respect” for one’s own community and cultural ideals’. This mindset not only expresses a strong distaste towards the possibility of women’s agency, but engrains a sense of negativity and criticism towards Western culture and implies that women must reject this culture in order to respect their own community.
While the majority of the film serves to expose and develop these conflicts, it successfully demonstrates growth on behalf of the aunties and an acceptance towards modern gender roles within their community. While it is highly unfortunate that for some of the aunties this acceptance was only solidified when they witnessed first-hand the domestic violence suffered by Ginder, the climactic scene dramatically encapsulates a unification between the generations and hopes of a redefinition of gender roles within their community.
This blog was originally published at https://18076117.wixsite.com/mysite as part of a coursework assignment for an English Literature module.