As we launch our dialogue on landscape, I think not only about
our mutual interest in the land as the principal icon of Canadian
national identity, but also of our actual journeys across
geography. I'm truly convinced that our sensitivity to the
political construction of landscape comes out of these displacements.
mirror each other: you, born in Ireland, growing up in Trinidad,
then arriving in Ontario to study; I, born in Trinidad, finishing
high school in Ireland, then also
coming to Canada. This movement continues the nineteenth century
journeys of our
ancestors to the Caribbean, yours from across the black waters
in India, mine from Southern China. Our histories are so overlapped,
yet when we talk about Trinidad still at the heart
of both our work it is such a different place for us.
A lot of this is social the differences between your
family's South Trinidad Hindu culture and the creolized Catholic
Chinese of Port-of-Spain that is my family. But in an island
barely fifty miles long even the land itself is different,
almost as much it seems as between your Vancouver and my Toronto.
My house in Port-of-Spain
was at the foot of the Northern Range. You could see the rain
showers moving down the Cascade valley and everyone would
go around shouting "rain coming," closing all the windows
and putting out buckets and basins for the leaks. I think
of San Fernando as dry and hot. Although hilly, I associate
the town with the long drive (probably all of one hour) across
the Caroni planes, first rice then sugar fields, dead flat,
the horizon broken by temples and mosques and oil rigs. Returning
to Trinidad as a birder, I'm struck that even the wildlife
is different in the South.
The picture I'm
sending you was taken in our back yard in the early seventies,
just before I left for Dublin. It shows my sister Nan, who
died about six years later. Nan was the closest in age to
me and at this point we were the only two siblings left in
Trinidad. All of the others had already gone abroad to study
none of us returned to live in Trinidad. Nan and I
were often bored and that afternoon we had decided to play
model and photographer with her instamatic. This photo is
part of a series with Nan in different mod outfits
hot pants, minis, flares taken mostly from low angle
and with the camera tilted to one side.
Nan is wearing
a piece of cloth tied in the front; if you look carefully
you can see where the un-hemmed end of the fabric hangs down
the middle. Suffering from thalassaemia major from birth,
Nan had left school when she was about ten. Dress design was
one of several courses that my parents financed to keep her
active mind occupied. As a result she had a large
stash of cloth, waiting to be turned into clothes whenever
she could muster the energy. This fabric reflects the African
vogue of the black power period. First generation, middle-class
Chinese, Nan and I were nevertheless both distant supporters
of the rise in black consciousness. At about this time she
also delighted in owning a copy of Mao's Red Book, given to
her by a cousin visiting from New York. Her other favourite
books included the work of Lopsang Rampa, the Tibetan monk
born into the body of an Englishman, and The Prophet by Khalil
The other notable
elements in this photo are Nan's half-bangs which were fashioned
after a character in a tv western, and the chain and medallion
Nan had bought me as a souvenir from Carnaby St. in London.
It is actually quite a long chain about a foot is hanging
down her back, out of view and went with a brown turtleneck
sweater. Neither got much wear from me: the sweater either
because it was too hot for the climate, or, more likely, because
I was very self-conscious about being skinny and it exaggerated
my boniness; the medallion I didn't wear because I was already
victimized for being a sissy, and I didn't want to call more
attention to myself with such a flamboyant fashion statement.
Nan is standing
in front of our lime tree, behind which was a Jamaica plum
and an orange tree whose fruit was too sour for anything other
than juice. I would be sent out to harvest limes from under
the prickly branches whenever Nan or my mother was baking.
A curl of rind would always be beaten with the eggs for a
cake. In this instance, we obviously decided that the lime
tree wasn't exotic enough, because amidst the shiny green
leaves we had arranged red blossoms from the Flamboyant tree
down the street in front of the Mahabir's house.
were not intended for eyes other than our own; certainly any
Trinidadian would see through our transvestite lime tree.
What is striking to me now is how we set out so self-consciously
to exoticize the Trinidadian landscape and my sister.
As an adult I recognize the aesthetic of forced hybridity
from tourism publicity, restaurant menus and hotel decor I've
seen in many neo-colonial tropical countries: elements of
Hawaii are blended into the Caribbean by way of Mexico and
Indonesia until any cultural specificity dissolves into one
big fantasy of (first world) escape. I'm not sure from where
we devised our ideas of "tropical island
beauty." It could have been from the British or American popular
culture that saturated the country, or it could have come
from Trinidad's own self-promoting publicity. In any case,
when I look at this picture now I see the struggle of the
newly postcolonial subject to represent her or himself. In
the search for visual signifiers of specificity, English-speaking
West Indians rummaged through the international clothes chest,
trying on, borrowing, discarding. In the quest for authenticity
one remains entangled in the mediation of imperialism; so
even the physical body of the nation is viewed through a thick
lens. The prominence of the beach in public representations
of the Caribbean can't be seen outside of the economic need
for tourism, for instance.
This photo may
simply come from the antics of one boring afternoon, but the
elements in its composition indicate a far larger social and
historical context. I think for both of us our work is fueled
by this constant going over, a continuous reevaluation of
what we once took for granted, a look at the past as a way
of understanding the present. My invocation of Trinidad is
a way of understanding Canada: lands apart, lands connected
like your Vancouver and my Toronto.
Just to let you know, man, South Trinidad is not "dry and
hot": when I am asked up here about Trinidad seasons (not
"seasonings" as the Fung culinary mind might well read), the
"do you have winter in Trinidad?" type question, I immediately
think of the coldest time down in that particular south when
the temperature drops to about 70 degrees and we pull out
sweaters and wool blankets and walk around hugging ourselves,
necks tucked deep into shoulders. The strongest image that
comes to mind actually is that first year whenI planted string
beans in a Styrofoam cup and transplanted them to the back
garden when they were about ten inches high. Every morning
before school I would go and look in awe at their new height
and then in the evening I would carefully dribble water on
them, making sure not to give too much too heavily. Then before
the plant was a good foot and a half rain came, (we too could
see it comingaround the corner and up the road) and
it came and it came and it was as if it would never stop.
That time, I watched my string beans from up by the dining
room window as they were first beaten down by heavy rain,
and then with helpless quiet panic I watched the water in
the yard rise inch by inch. Rich black manure from the flower
beds slid into the rising water. I watched the lawn disappear
into it and saw my string bean plant first float on the black
coffee-coloured water, then
get totally submerged. I have another memory of a different
time when the street flooded from heavy rain, and people's
belongings were just floating down the street. That
happened often, but this particularly striking memory was
of a man in half an oil drum paddling down the street grinning,
quite pleased with himself.
So, Mr. North Trinidad, keep in mind that it's not so dry
in the South!
And another thing: you had to mention the hills, of course!
You northerners just love to heckle us about our hills in
the South, eh! "How can you tell a person from San Fernando?"
"By their calves" (meaning that muscle at the back of the
lower leg. . . not the little animals that one does indeed
see just about everywhere except on hillsides
in the southern country landscape). Do you think it's scripted
that you would choose to live on fairly flat terrain in Toronto
and that I have settled in hilly Vancouver, content with the
familiarity of forever developing my calves?
The photo that you sent is terrific. Its dimensions and the
particular hues of the emulsion are exactly the same as a
whole batch of photos that I have of back-home. You know,
the memories of the events that many of my old photos mark
are so very fixed in time, their beginnings and endings fixed
right there in the emulsion. Your photo brings back to me
memories, not of Trinidad per se, but of my photos, the little
4 x 5 pieces of paper. My childhood is now like a muddled
and fading dream: here, my Trinidadian past has been exoticised
away (by myself as well as by others), and I am afraid that
I am losing my grasp on what I once considered banal details,
but which now I long to snatch back as precious specificities
that might keep those early Trinidad days alive in me
banal details which I tended to omit because they were not
easily translatable to the uninitiated. Most of what is left
now is photos that speak to me only of themselves. Precious
moments with, at best, a blurry context.
I could also just imagine you and Nan inventing yourselves
in the heat of a lazy afternoon. It's not much different from
the time that my sisters and I were on holiday in England
with our parents.I was about 14 and they were younger. For
some reason, (I want to invent the reasonbut something
holds me back, perhaps the fear of that unfortunate practice
of reconstructing events to ensure specialness, to inscribe
a politic) we found ourselves, the only children, on a busy
street corner, very much aware of our difference in skin colour
and clothing. Gray and cream coloured public buildings surrounded
us, and fashionably suited severe looking white adults were
hurrying by us. I remember feeling small and... well, invisible
a word we might not have used then. It was as if we
were failing, not matching up, to the promises our colour
held. Until the three of us spontaneously broke into a language
we invented right there and then, a language made up of words,
mostly nouns, strung together in sentence-like structure,
words brought to Trinidad by it's immigrant populations from
India, parts of Africa, and those that were sewn into a patois
that included Spanish and French elements. We thought that
this language would turn us into toucans like the ones in
the Central Range back home. We thought that we'd be truly
exotic, not just brown children who didn't even have a language
of mystery, an intrigue to compensate for their browness.
Not long ago I wrote a poem based on that memory:
Richard, your Trinidad culture seems so much different from
mine. In a word, richer, actually. It intrigues, and infuriates
me that my fifth generation family is not in touch with local
bush remedies, barks of trees, teas from plants, that your
mother has passed on to you, and that your mother knows how
to speak patois, while none of my family for as far as I could
remember knew more than a word here and there, and that one
tying up the tongue on its torturous exit. I wonder where
is the "creollised" part of the, or rather, my, Hindu Indian
identity. When a phrase in patois glides out of your mouth
I admit to a feeling of having been robbed of authenticity,
a feeling that I don't remember having had in Trinidad, but
in Canada. Here having a language of one's own can be a double
edged sword: exoticisation on one edge, dismissal and banishment
on the other. Patois is not a living language and so is no
threat to anyone, inflicting then the edge of exoticisation,
and sometimes, Richard, with your knowledge of things Creole
you do seem so much more exotic than I! I am wary of falling
into an easy stereotyping when I attribute the multiplicity
of Trinidads to race and its specificities in relation to
region, and/or to class. The Chinese in Trinidad. . . or Northerners
were more. . . than. . . Indians in the South tend to. . .
In Trinidad race, culture, class and region has so many jumbled
up permutations! Trinidad with all this complexity sure is
a mirror for the possibility of Canada. Now, what we really
must begin to emulate here in Canada is that line from our
Trinidad and Tobago national anthem: "every creed and race"
by allowing everyone to celebrate each religion's festivities
with a different national holiday for each and every one,
don't you think?! Not just Christmas and Easter, but how about
Eid, and Divali, and Chinese New Year, and Yom Kippur, and...
It's so ironic that you and I come from such different Trinidads
where the crossing of our worlds might only have resulted
in muddled collision, and here in Canada, I almost always
think of you as my primary audience, in spite of the fact
that I often feel pressured to respond positively to the assumption
that the South Asian woman, and in particular, lesbian, is
my true audience.
Take a look at the photograph I have sent you, Richard. It
was taken at Chung's Photo Studio by the Library Corner on
Cipero Street in San Fernando. It is a classic formal studio
pose of the time, made all the more ceremonious with the Greek
column on which I stand, taken to send to my parents who were
living in Ireland at the time. Can you puhleeze tell me what
my Grandmother is doing in a Chinese style dress with her
Indian orinee, which she never left the house without wearing,
dutifully draped over her head and tucked in at the waist!
Only in Trinidad! I remember the dress well: dark-cream coloured
heavy linen. The bamboo plant and Chinese characters were
printed in brownish black to suggest ink and brush work. This
is way back in 1962. Just down the road from our house, next
to the San Fernando Mosque, was a Muslim Indo-Trinidadian
family who frequently received suitcases of linen from China
which they sold from their house. (Did they receive these
suitcases, or did they actually go to China, I wonder?) I
remember the whiter than white tea towels we took home and
the pillow cases with invisibly attached mint-pink flowers,
mouth-freshener-green leaves and dots of egg yellow stamens.
And the crocheted doilies my grandmother liked to give away
as wedding presents. There was such a fascination with things
Chinese then. On the other hand as far as I can remember there
were no signs of attachment to India or Indian identity in
my grandparents' house. Sure Ma wore an orinee and we ate
food of Indian origin as if there were no other, but there
were no colourful pictures in our home of deities like the
ones I like to use in my art work nowadays, and no ornaments
from India, no fabric, or filigree furniture from over there.
I know that Ma had a lot of heavy gold jewelry that was passed
on to her from her ancestors in India, but she preferred to
wear colourful costume jewelry, clip on earrings and the like.
What we "other," privilege and exoticise then, as now, had
everything to do with where and how precariously, or firmly,
rooted our culture and "place" were case in point is
my not-too-long-ago born again Indianness here in Canada.
(Ma went to the Open Bible Church three times a week. Which
may well have had something to do with the erasing of Indian
ties and the creation of a vacuum yearning to be filled with
the richness of someone else's culture.)
Check me out! I was about five years old here. So many years
later I can still feel the scratchiness of the stiff frilly
crinoline under my dress. I don't remember this occasion specifically,
but I bet that the dress wasn't easily put on me. I kicked
and screamed pathetically whenever they tried to get me to
wear one. (Not much has changed!) Even then I preferred shirts
and pants and nothing in pink! clothing as signifiers
that didn't confine me and mark me as different from my boy
cousins who, unlike me, were not discouraged from running
the yard, and from falling, or climbing. In spite of the wide
platform of the pedestal, Ma's hand is placed protectively
behind me. Years later, this gesture still means the world
to me. She died about two years after this picture was taken.
Looking at her image now, I can all but smell her cool, always
slightly damp, fleshy skin, and even though this is a black
and white photo I clearly recall her light yellowish colour,
a paleness prized in my family. With perverse pride she had
always been teased that perhaps her mother, my great-grandmother,
had been visited by the white overseer on the sugar estate
that she and my great-grandfather had worked on. A truly perverse
pride. But not entirely improbable this allowance is
not a reflection of anything that is known about my great-grandmother,
but putting aside prudishness, who really knows what goes
on behind the closed doors of ordinary mortals?
When I look at this photo with my grandmother now, and think
that her body might well be a map for mine, images of the
outdoors and outdoor sports come charging at me as if in reaction.
In her fleshiness is marked her gender and her class as a
woman, and even though this very flesh was my security and
assurance of being loved, it's flabbiness and softness, verifying
the feebleness ascribed to her from childhood, has always
been the marking that I have tried to avoid. Outside of that
institution called home first the garden, then later,
mountains, rivers and lakes with faraway shores has
long been a refuge for me,
and I speculate now that my passion since youth for the outdoors
is an instinctual recognition that here my desperate need
for the freedom to self determine, to be, and to become can
most be fulfilled. I am constantly battling with the deeply
inscribed memory in my body of umpteen generations of gendering.
I agree with you that "our sensitivity to the political construction
of landscape comes out of... displacements" through
"our actual journeys across geography." But may I include
gendering as a displacement for those of us who cannot, will
not be placed inside its structure, and landscape as a significant
haven and site of reinvention and imagining?
In my late teens, on countless hikes to Mount El Tucuche and
to Maracas Waterfall in Trinidad's Northern Range I was the
only girl, and at Maracas Beach I dared to go where no girl
would go beyond the breakers where I would rise precariously
with the swell of each wave and when it subsided bob there
amongst a sprinkling of men. Even there, at the beach, I must
admit, the unwelcome attentions of adult men on this little
girl sent me swimming even further and further out to sea.
What I remember well, now, but have never before admitted,
was how terrified I was of snakes and scorpions and land slides
in the hills, and of not being able to get back to shore,
or of being sucked under by a current. (My mother often chided
me for "showing off." If only she knew how scared I was of
hurting myself when I preformed my anti-girliness stunts!
In those days I was a tom-boy. You and I would have been quite
These risks that I took were not to defy the outdoors or its
elements (which were sites of opportunity in fact), but to
defy the boundaries that I was expected to be contained within,
to prove that my body was alive and capable, and to rebel
against this body taking definition and direction from elsewhere.
deep into the land, or beyond the breakers was something that
cowards would never do, and dirty old men proved to be perfect
cowards! My childhood fantasies of adventure invariably involved
severe challenges to my body, and challenges to other's perceptions
of my body, and they always took place away from cities or
even towns, across vast continents and expanses of land, the
land itself and my closeness to it being of utmost importance.
Riding a bicycle from the tip of the North West Territories
all way down to Tierra del Fuego. Canoeing up the Amazon River.
Trekking over the foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas. In
my teens, after I had successfully defied normalcy by playing
cricket in the streets with the boys, by helping them build
a house in a mango tree, and refusing to wear dresses,
my fantasies began to include a girl whom I would rescue,
never from the elements or from nature, but from family, from
men, from society.
Recently, barely able to stand against an icy and menacing
wind in a wide dried out bed of rocks uprooted by ancient
glacial action just below Yoho Glacier in the Rockies, I was
struck by my own vulnerability in this almost barren landscape.
Because of the turning weather I was at the mercy of this
wild and fierce environment and had no strength or reasoning
But in a place like that everyone is equally at its mercy.
When in a wilderness park I cross a tiny plank over a raging
river, and am terrified almost to the point of paralysis,
the only one who sees my body cowering, and my face crumbling
is the woman who respectfully does not rescue me, but holds
my hand and passionately tells me that she has every faith
in me that I can do it. (Here I am back in my apartment in
Vancouver safely writing this to you, so of course I crossed
that one successfullytwice, there and back!)
As I become intimate with geographic regions of the country
and their specificities, as I pour over topographical maps,
and learn to distinguish the details of flora and fauna, as
the land takes me in I find that my yearning for the details
of Trinidad quietens. It is not about the details of either
landscapes but more about rummaging through the country, past
its towns, its people and all its constructs to find that
safe place. The Canadian landscape has consequently begun
to replace precious imitations of the Trinidad landscape in
my work, have you noticed? Significant elements still exists,
but the Canadian version of them. Magnolias instead of hibiscus.
Evergreens replace coconut and poui. "Red canoes on a glacial
jade and turquoise lake"1 instead of the Banana Quit in the
tropical broad leafed bush in front of a hot blue sea.
In all of this, I am wary of the risk of a new colonising
and exoticisation of this land by those of us who are fairly
new immigrants even if we are immigrants of colour
to the country seeking refuge in land, in one form
or the other.
On questioning my desire to know and so to own this land,
I recognise a need for it to be that necessary place where
I fortify myself, and am unconditionally welcome. As I am.
Sorry to stop so abruptly, but rain comin and I have to run
and close up windows and look for a basin!
I look forward
to your reply. Soon, I hope. Keep well.
Love, etc., etc.