April 14, 2005
Vol. 24 No. 13

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    ‘Queer Islands?’ symposium will offer opportunity to discuss gay, lesbian life in Caribbean literature

    By Jennifer Carnig
    News Office

    The University’s Lesbian & Gay Studies Project is holding a two-day symposium Friday, April 15, and Saturday, April 16, to explore the art and activism of queer Caribbean writers and artists. The symposium, titled “Queer Islands?,” is the first academic gathering devoted entirely to gay and lesbian literature from the region and will include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender poets and authors from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Puerto Rico, Martinique and St. Maarten.

    The conference is motivated by the unprecedented blossoming of queer Caribbean literature over the past decade, said conference organizer Natasha Tinsley, a postdoctoral fellow in Comparative Literature, who earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley. “This should open conversation between novelists, spoken word artists, activists and singers who consider how their art and activism bring together Caribbean, queer and community identities.”

    Tinsley said this conference serves a pressing need because the only public discussion currently taking place about the Caribbean and gays and lesbians usually focuses on homophobic lyrics in dancehall music, instances of violence against gay men in Jamaica or gay cruises being turned away from their vacation destinations. “This is all true, but there is much more to being queer and Caribbean than the high-profile press for those events suggests.”

    Tinsley explained that many in the Caribbean see gay life as a North American import and something to be rejected. But that does not mean that gayness does not exist or that it is seen across the board as something to be shunned. “Naming oneself as lesbian or gay can be dangerous, but in some ways there is more space and acceptance for queerness there than in North America,” Tinsley said. “There are queer spaces in the Caribbean—they just don’t look like the queer spaces in North America.”

    In an attempt to better understand what some of those spaces are and what Caribbean queerness can resemble, the “Queer Islands?” conference is bringing together artists from the Spanish, French, English and Dutch islands, as well as writers from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. Among the artists presenting are:

    • Makeda Silvera, an award-winning essayist, novelist and short story writer from Jamaica who founded Sister Vision: Black Women and Women of Colour Press, where she has edited numerous anthologies, including the groundbreaking Piece of My Heart, the first lesbian-of-color anthology in North America.
    • Thomas Glave, one of the founding members of the Jamaican Forum of Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, whose short story collection Whose Song? And Other Stories was named a Notable Book of 2000 by the Lambda Book Report. An English professor at the State University of New York, Binghamton, Glave won the O. Henry Prize in 1997, and he was a Fulbright fellow in 1998 and 1999.
    • Emanuel Xavier, a queer Puerto Rican whose spoken-word performances and published poetry reflect a crossroads of experiences as a Latino and gay man coming up and coming out in Brooklyn. Winner of the Marsha A. Gomez Cultural Heritage Award, his published poetry and fiction includes Pier Queen, Christlike and Americano.
    • Cheryl Boyce Taylor, a poet and artist born in Trinidad, has been a leading figure in the queer and women-of-color performance poetry scene in New York. Boyce Taylor is the author of two collections of poetry, Raw Air and Night When Moon Follows.
    • David Murray, a professor of anthropology at York University in Toronto and author of the groundbreaking study Opacity: Gender, Sexuality, Race and the ‘Problem’ of Identity in Martinique. Murray’s work looks at how performative genres, such as theatrical plays, dance and Carnival (Mardi Gras), are fertile sites in which to investigate gender and sexuality in the postcolonial world.
    • Iya Ta’Shia Asanti, an award-winning writer, poet, filmmaker and activist, who is founder and executive director of the International African Pride Organization and STAIRS, the Society of Two-Spirited African Indigenous Research & Spirituality.

    “Queer Islands?” will open with a literary reading and book signing from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, April 15, at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St.

    The symposium will continue from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 16, in Room 122, Social Science Research Building. For more information about the conference, visit http://humanities.uchicago.edu/orgs/cgs/lgsp.html, call (773) 834-4509 or e-mail lgsp@uchicago.edu.