Last week I picked up the Alice Walker collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and reread the very first essay, “Saving the life that is your own: The importance of models in the artist’s life”. I’ve read this essay before, many times, in fact, over the years since I first got the book back when my teenager was a little baby. The essay’s theme, that artists need to have templates to follow in order to live their lives, is one that I have always believed in. The templates are knowledge of the very existence of other artists like them. The timing of my rereading of the essay proved prescient, as this weekend I was fortunate to meet a woman writer whom I have admired for years, Nalo Hopkinson.
Nalo Hopkinson. Photo from http://nalohopkinson.com/
A brilliant writer, Nalo is one of the few Caribbean sci-fi/fantasy writers who have been internationally published. Her first books Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber are bonafide sci-fi classics. She writes brave feminist fiction; it is outstanding not simply because of its themes and Caribbean characters of colour (and the fact that in speculative fiction black writers are few and far between) but also because she’s a fine writer with a gift for lush, descriptive writing.
I treasured the time I spent listening to her and in the writing workshop she gave at the 30th WI Literature Conference, which took place at UWI, St Augustine, this weekend. Here is a writer who more or less forged her way in the publishing world without compromising her vision or her voice. This is a model I would be happy to emulate.
Possibly because my mom was an avid Mills and Boon reader, I was weaned on romance novels. I loved these books for their ability to translate dreams and fantasies about love and happiness into 200-page packages in which the girl always got her man AND the amazing career she wanted, a perfect house and babies, to boot. A bonus was the settings–I learned about Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Kenya, Fiji, the Seychelles, all through the writings of such romance stars as Barbara Cartland, Penny Jordan and Margaret Way. Later, I learned about the US through the Desire brand and Harlequin Romances. All the characters were white and the men were rich and the women mostly middle class. Somewhere along the line I discovered that the characters didn’t have to be white; there were black–even Caribbean–romances, too. Trinidadian author Valerie Belgrave has written some, including one called Tigress, which I planned, once, to write a thesis on.
Another Trinidadian author, Roslyn Carrington, has made a career writing black romances under the pen name Simona Taylor. (Full disclosure: Roslyn has been a speaker and a judge for various aspects of my NGO, The Allen Prize for Young Writers.) She gave me a copy of her latest, Intimate Exposure (Kimani Press, 2011), a couple of weeks ago and I read it hungrily. I found to my delighted surprise that not only was her story intriguing and captivating like a good romance novel ought to be, I liked her characters as well.
Romance novels rely on a formula that is seldom, if ever, deviated from: the male lead is very rich, charming and a chick magnet, while the female lead is unspeakably beautiful but for some reason in an awkward spot. They meet and he immediately falls in love with her but tries to deny it (and she does the same for him). After triumphing over some betrayal, they live happily ever after. (Think Pretty Woman, except that Julia Roberts’ character is a secretary, not a whore.) That holds true for Intimate Exposure, but with some surprising twists–which I won’t give away because I don’t want to spoil them for you.
What most impressed me was the writing of the characters as feminist. The woman enjoys sex thoroughly (all the time, not just with this magical man in the book) and has an actual career in which her intelligence and education–not her great fashion sense–are paramount. She rescues herself from the betrayal, albeit with a push from the male lead–hey, it’s still a romance novel, and some things are inviolate here, including the man’s role as leader. She is, in short, a three-dimensional, smart, self-motivated woman. The male lead is allowed to cry and show weakness, and while he abets her in her struggle, he’s not the one who “saves” her. She saves herself.
The writing is tight and carries the reader along nicely, and there is the requisite stop in an exotic, pastoral destination–in this case the Caribbean island of Martinique; and the sex scenes are spicy and credibly written. In short, it provides all that a romance novel needs to be an entertaining escapist read, and more.
The past couple of weeks have seen the pillorying of Nizam Mohammed, erstwhile chair of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service Commission, culminating in the revocation of his appointment by our nation’s President George Maxwell Richards. Mr Mohammed was effectively fired for saying there were too many black people in the high echelons of the Police Service; he made the statement before a parliamentary Joint Select Committee on March 25, 2011 (this Trinidad Express editorial nicely sums up the whole case and its upshot).
The outcry following Mohammed’s statement about the imbalance was loud and ugly. He was called a racist, even though as he himself reminded the public he had been on the side of Black Power insurgents and long supported racial equality. Now the hue and cry has drowned out his protestations of unbiasedness. There are many factors at play–Mohammed made an ill-advised move earlier in his appointment in a confrontation with two police officers and lost a lot of credibility thereafter, and there was subsequently a national petition to have him removed from office–but surely the bigger picture is that he is right about the imbalance in the Police Service and that it ought to be addressed.
“The relationship between group composition and performance in general is clearly complicated, but from a strictly decision-making perspective, both sides of the debate regarding diversity effects are compatible with the hypothesis that groups often benefit from racial heterogeneity. The extent to which racial diversity facilitates information exchange and problem solving certainly indicates advantages for heterogeneous groups, especially for complex decisions. But even interpersonal conflict— often mentioned as the principal negative result of diversity—may be useful when a group’s primary goal is not boosting morale but rather good and thorough decision making.
Although equal access and the attempt to remedy historical injustices are important, and many would say noble considerations, the present findings provide evidence for another, often overlooked justification for promoting diversity: In many circumstances, racially diverse groups may be more thorough and competent than homogeneous ones.”
—”On Racial Diversity and Group Decision Making: Identifying Multiple Effects of Racial Composition on Jury Deliberations”
Anybody who has ever had to manage a group of any size would tell you a diverse group brings different things to the table than a homogenous group.
Members of a homogenous group, such as the upper ranks of the Police Service largely is, think similarly on problems in many cases. Shared ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago means that, class notwithstanding, the roots and leaves will be similar among the officers. One cannot effectively police a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious society with only black police when more than half the society is not black. (Although, as one Facebook denizen recently implied, voicing an opinion shared by many, if you got rid of all the black people in Trinidad and Tobago crime would vanish, so, by that logic, if all the criminals are black then maybe all the police should be black, too.)
Whether or not we would admit it, racialism is strong and vibrant in our country. Pretending that “all ah we is one famalayyyy”, in the immortal words of Lord Nelson, will not make the problem go away. We all know the stereotypes:- White people are rich and snobbish; Syrian and Lebanese people are corrupt and incestuous; Indians are stingy and racist; black people are lazy and criminals; Chinese are cheap and have small penises/sideways vaginas. All ah we might be one famalayyyy but I wouldn’t want to be there when the gloves come off after that reunion dinner.
Policing is not merely solving crime. It is preventing criminal activity and relating to a community. How can the police do that when they, at the very least, can’t well understand more than half the society? When they fear, despise or resent the “other”?
Making the Police Service more racially balanced, at all levels, is not the job of the Parliament, it is true. But whoever has responsibility for it now is not doing his job. Perhaps we ought to mandate quotas to ensure more equitable representation of all races in the public service–and put measures in place to protect civil servants from the racial purging that takes place every time a different government comes into power.
One of Miss Thing’s friends is a willowy beauty. She’s caramel coloured, with exotically slanting eyes and neat features. She’s a natural model, if I ever saw one. It’s not that she’s prettier than any other girl, but she seems to have that fortunate coincidence of height, slender build, perfect skin and good deportment that makes a good runway or photo model.
She went to a casting call the other day and came away feeling like, for the first time since she started this nascent career, she might not have nailed the job. Why? She wasn’t dark enough.
Yup. The casting call asked for a model who was “dark”. My girl went anyway and her caramel colour was too light for what they were looking for.
This particular call drew the annoyance of at least one person, who wrote in response to the call on FB: “Perhaps you didn’t realize publicizing skin preference in a model search … would register as discrimination…it does. And now you know. It’s not like you’re casting an actress to portray Rita Marley or Heather Headley…naturally she would need to fit unique and narrow aesthetic parameters. Caribbean Beauty in 2010 is defined by a melange of aesthetics, not just ‘dark’ complexions.”
I thought about the post, the comment and my own outrage (particularly on behalf of my daughter’s friend) that the call was so restrictive. But was it racist? That’s another question. In 2010 are we doing the opposite of what our grandparents did 50 years ago? Are we turning the “brown paper bag” code on its head with reverse discrimination? Is it now, “Black, step up, brown, get down”?
I subscribe to a Yahoo group called TT Arts, which is used as a message board of sorts for all kinds of things. Publicising shows, advertising services, and yes, even casting calls. It was my friend Aaron’s misfortune to post a casting call for models for a commercial with the following requirements:
LIST OF MODELS NEEDED
GENDER COMPLEXION AGE
1) FEMALE BROWN approximetely 8 – 10
2) FEMALE BROWN 30
3) MALE BLACK 55
4) FEMALE BROWN 50
5) MALE INDIAN 30s
6) MALE BROWN 30s
7) FEMALE BLACK 25
8) MALE INDIAN 45
9) MALE BROWN 30s
10) FEMALE LIGHT BROWN 28
11) MALE CHINESE 30
12) MALE LIGHT BROWN 40
13) MALE BLACK 36 )
14) FEMALE BROWN 35 )
15) MALE BROWN 15 ) ALL ONE FAMILY
16) FEMALE BROWN 13 )
17) FEMALE BROWN 10 )
18) FEMALE LIGHT BROWN 35
19) MALE BROWN 50s
20) FEMALE BROWN 30s
I first wondered what the ad was for, because that is a huge cast. I next considered how far we’ve come in just 20 years; back when my ex- worked in advertising in T&T, the complexion he called “Cannings Brown” (a light, honey colour, not quite “red” but not as dark as sapodilla) was de rigueur in locally produced advertisements, whatever the product being advertised. Seeing actual dark skinned black people, not to mention dark skinned Indians, on TV in local ads was pretty rare.
I dismissed the casting call (I wasn’t interested in applying), but many others didn’t. A sudden and angry wave of emails followed:
“The true issue is that the terms such as ‘darkie’ have been used in the States and abroad to insult people with darker skin. Let us not forget the slave trade as well. People of all colours must be aware of the history of darker skinned people and understand why casting in such a light is frightening and disturbing to not only them but others who are aware of the racial ills in this world. Therefore, I suggest that next time you are casting do not make a list of different races. Simply state that you are a looking for various races to fill roles, ranging from men to women, young to old etc.”
“thanks man, every time i think i’m in the 21st century, you people are here to remind me the Caribbean is as racist as ever…what could you possibly need all those ‘brown’ ppl for…oh lemme guess, its a high class/colour commodity?”
“Only 1 ‘black’ female required for an advertisement in which several ‘brown’ or ‘light brown’ females are (with a similar ratio applying for the men). We are still heavily mired in an unhealthy colonial legacy.”
There was one voice in poor Aaron’s defense:
“If art imitates society then there has to be room for selective casting when aiming to depict life with true accuracy.
“Where is the line drawn between indiscriminate casting and casting for an accurate depiction of our society without being criticized for stereotyping and/or for contributing to racial divides?”
I don’t know if Aaron got his models. I can say for sure he got at least one response (from an actual model) from the call on TT Arts, from someone who wrote:
“I am available as a female brown 28/35. What’s your phone no?”
I wrote a manuscript some years ago and gave it around for some friends to read. One responded that one striking thing about it was how everyone’s colour was painstakingly described. He got tired of it, he said. I hadn’t before really considered how much I think about skin colour in my characters. But I didn’t change it, and continue to write characters’ descriptions that include their skin colours. I’m not colour blind, and I don’t want to be. The rich and various colours of our people are one of the things I like about this place. We are not homogenous.
Back to the model casting call. Were they right to call for a “dark” girl? Who defined “dark”? If they were white, my daughter’s friend would be considered pretty dark—but they’re not. They’re black, just like me, just like her. I wonder what will happen in the end with all of us colour conscious folk—conscious of colour but not necessarily restricted by it—when all the world is one uniform colour as Wayne Browne predicted?