There is a saying in Jamaica – mi throw mi corn, mi nuh call nuh fowl. (I threw my corn, I didn’t call any fowl). And another one – ‘throw stone inna hog pen, him who squeal a him it lick’. (when you throw a stone into a pig’s pen, the one who squeals is the one who was hit). Both sayings are about words that are aimed and yet pretend (disingenuously) to have no directions – words that hit targets but then shrug. ‘Oh? Did I hit you? I am so sorry!’
Mel Cooke’s recent article in the Jamaica Gleaner, ‘Bye-Bye, Boom-Bye-Bye’ did a lot of throwing. He was throwing corn, throwing stones, and throwing word. His target? Oh – the usual of course. Every Jamaican DJ who wants the crowd to go wild, every Jamaican pastor who wants a louder Amen, and every Jamaican newspaper writer who wants to create a buzz knows who to throw word at – the LGBT community.
Let me say quickly – because in Jamaica it seems sometimes necessary to say these things – that I know Mel. Not particularly well, it is true, but I know him, and more than that – I like him. He seems a good, generally thoughtful guy and has written a lot of damn good articles. As well, several of my friends who know him even better always speak very highly of him and that is good enough for me. It is true that I am not the greatest fan of his poetry which is never bad, but for my tastes, always a bit too gimmicky – always seeming to nudge a little too hard – often too earnest with its message, too conscious of its puns and its various attempts at cleverness. His are the kinds of poems that work well with certain live audiences, but leave me a little cold. I’m also weary of a certain performance of masculinity that often takes place within the poems.
Now this performance is not stereotypical. In several ways Mel wants to challenge Jamaican norms and he asks us to reconsider what it means to be a man. What does the performance of man-ness entail? Rather than being a man who has simply fathered children and then left (as is often the case in Jamaica) he is a present and constant father to his (three?) daughters. And rather than being the kind of outdated husband from the thirties who expects his wife to wait on him hand and foot, Mel declares that his role is to support his wife as much as she supports him, even in the domestic chores. In one of his more popular poems he is not ashamed to wash his wife’s undergarments. This might not seem incredible in the rest of the world but is damn near revolutionary in Jamaica. So I love that Mel Cooke challenges the Jamaican status quo, but sometimes there is something so self-congratulating and almost (though not quite) self-righteous in what he advocates that I worry that he is simply replacing one dogma with another. You see, Mel takes on an easy target – the worthless, irresponsible man, and the modern man that he endorses and tries to perform in his own self is a bit familiar as well.
How men perform their gender is important to Mel Cooke, and so he writes with strange mocking of a transgendered man that he witnesses in a Jamaican furniture store. He reduces the man to the pronoun ‘it’, robbing him of any humanity. It should be said that this is the point of Mel’s portrayal. He is trying to show us how the man evolves from being a performance (or an over-performance) to being simply a person with differences that Mel is actually ok with. This pronoun ‘it’ which has rankled so many is not my bone of contention here.
In truth, though it was published a week ago I had not read Mel’s article until this morning. The same quality in his poetry that I don’t easily warm to is present in the article – that overt nudging, that winking, that ‘look-at-me-I’m-so-goddamn-clever-and-controversial’ – was present even from the opening paragraph and so I opted not to read it. Maybe I’m just contrary, but any article that begins like this:
WARNING: This edition of Music and More with Mel could be particularly dangerous to your sense of well-being. You will find yourself either overly irritated or enthusiastic, maybe concurrently. You will find yourself cheering or booing, maybe consecutively. These extreme vacillations are not good for your heart. However, despite this warning, you will still, at least, begin to read this column today. And, if you finish, you will read it again, to more stable results.
Well…it just turns me off. I think, really?? I ‘will…at least begin to read this column’? Actually, sir. I won’t. So I didn’t. But this morning someone directed me to Afifa’s rather eloquent response to ‘it’, and so I thought I it was time to read the ‘it’ that she was responding to.
Reading Mel’s column, at last, I found what I have often come to expect – an obsession with male gender performance on one hand and a strange anxiety to underline instances of cleverness on the other. ‘Look! Look!’ The article beseeches us. ‘Did you see that pun? Did you get it!?’ or else ‘I could have used a pun here, but hahaha! I decided not to. Because I’m just too bad! Aren’t I just too bad?!’
I know – it might seem so far that my problems with this article are literary and that I’m not engaging with the actual content, but I find that these things spill over, and HOW we talk/write about things is intimately bound up with WHAT we are writing about.
Take for instance the most common problem I find when I teach Creative Writing Fiction to both undergraduate or MA and MFA students. Here is a kind of passage that is all too typical:
I walked into the doctor’s office in my red hot pants and halter top. The nurse was sitting behind the desk. I met her eyes. She looked at me and curled her lips in scorn, thinking that I must be some kind of prostitute coming in from work.
The astute reader will tell you that the problem here is Point of View. We enter the clinic inside the head of the narrator. We have access to her thoughts and her perception of the world – but not to anyone else’s! From her eyes we are able to see the nurse curl her lips, but that is where the description must end. She simply cannot enter the nurse’s mind. Those two simple words, ‘in scorn’ changes the Point of View from the narrator to the nurse and then we suddenly have access to thoughts that we shouldn’t have access to. It is the mark of a lazy and to some extent, an irresponsible writer. There are tricks a writer can use of course. ‘as if thinking’ for instance would have suggested the nurse’s point of view without being definitive about it. And there are other ways.
When Mel writes about his experience seeing a transgendered man in Courts Furniture, this becomes his exact problem. His problem is one of Point of View. He writes:
‘It preened and smoothed down its hair and revelled in an oddly bronze complexion and surreptitiously glanced around to see the effect on those who were around. It was disappointed. No one batted (and that is a pun, in case you missed it) an eyelid.’
But how does he know this!? How does he have such godlike access to this person’s inner thoughts, to their intentions and disappointments? Mel claims that the transgendered man doesn’t raise an eyebrow, but it most certainly raises his, so much so that he follows him through the store and then writes about it in a national newspaper. And so it is, Mel delves even further inside this man – though maybe I shouldn’t write that since puns and innuendo seem to worry him so much:
‘upstairs I saw a person reclined in one of the chairs on display, pouting as he looked at his telephone, which he was suddenly very interested in now that there was no potential audience for the it which he had projected. The costume was the same, but the persona totally different – deflated and different. Simply a person, different from me but certainly not intent on and failing to disrupt sensibilities.’
Now someone is projecting, but I’m not certain it is the transgendered man. I mean really, isn’t it possible that what Mel Cooke saw at first was a man who was simply annoyed that the person he was to meet in the furniture store wasn’t there yet? Isn’t it possible that what he then saw was a man going on his phone to contact said person to ask, where the hell are you!? I don’t know. I can never know. And that is the point. There could be a million reasons.
That Mel assumes to speak from the Point of View of this transgendered man is not just a literary problem, it is an ethical problem as well. Who speaks for whom is one of the most profound questions that energizes Cultural Studies, Post-Colonial studies and Gender Studies. Can the Sub-Altern Speak? Whose voice and perspective is allowed in public spaces? Whose isn’t? In writing his column Mel falls victim to a situation that the Scottish poet Tom Leonard once described: ‘[t]the works assume that those supposedly described don’t read the literature that supposedly describes them.’
The problem of Point of View goes beyond this article and affects the discourse that too often surrounds sexuality and gender in Jamaica. There is much to chew on in Mel’s article. His use of ‘it’ is probably the least. There are sweeping statements made about the nature of advocacy and how it should proceed and a sometimes helpful attempt to read through the real roots of Jamaica’s homophobia. There is a lot in here – a lot that probably needs expanding, a lot that we can agree on, but a lot that we can disagree on as well. To mount any such disagreement however can be like walking through a minefield.
On Facebook, one of Mel’s colleagues, Erica Virtue, runs to his defense:
“Why can’t people disagree on LGBT issues without being called offensive! Mel is my colleague and one of the most reasoned persons I know. He has a right to disagree, and disagree publicly. If we don’t have anything good to say we must what, shut our damn mouths. This attack is really becoming tiresome!”
In fact, it is this kind of defense that is becoming tiresome. Erica affirms Mel’s right to public discourse while denying that right to others – closing off the very conversation he has begun. It is time for us to stop this foolishness. To publicly challenge things that are said publicly is not the same as being censorious. To point out (sometimes with vehemence and rigour) how some things can cause offense, or how they might be homophobic or racist or whatever, is not the same as saying that thing should never have been said. That is reductive thinking. Of course I affirm Mel’s right to say what he wants to say, to share *his* point of view if not the assumed Point of View of the Other. But I also affirm everyone else’s right to contend, to debate, to come with new arguments and counter arguments. Isn’t that what discourse is?
My own Point-of-View ? Yes, Mel’s use of ‘it’ annoys me, but more for its gimmickry than for its purposeful dehumanization. By using ‘it’ he means to throw corn or stone or word. It’s just a little too cheap for me. His concept of appropriate male performance which really does try to be expansive but is ultimately limited, is more interesting. But that’s just my Point of View. The point is, let all points of view contend.