The Jamaica you read about in the works of openly gay, award-winning author and professor Thomas Glave isn’t the sunny, hospitable Jamaica you see in the travel brochures and TV commercials. The Jamaica that appears in his stories, such as his latest collection, “The Torturer’s Wife,” is the dark and oftentimes nightmarish side of the island you see in the news — where LGBT individuals face discrimination and violence from angry mobs, politicians and religious zealots.
The Bronx native, 44, spent time in Kingston while he was growing up and watched Jamaican culture evolve.
“I went back and forth a lot,” Glave said. “I realize now how much an effect that time in Jamaica had on my imagination. I never went to school in Jamaic; I spent summers and vacations there. So, hearing the language and seeing the island change from an English post-colonial place to a now more Americanized place, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see all that.”
Glave said that while the reports of violence and discrimination in Jamaica are very serious and real, it wasn’t a reality he was aware of given the environment he was raised in.
“When I was a child, nobody talked about those things and I certainly didn’t think about it in those terms,” he said. “It wasn’t until later that I became aware of how very hostile the country was to [homosexuality]. But I grew up in a middle-class environment and, in the environment I knew, the kinds of violent things that happened to people didn’t happen. Those would happen more in very deeply religious fundamentalist contexts. I couldn’t imagine anyone in my family burning someone alive in a house or chasing them out of a neighborhood. In my 20s, I became aware how hostile things were.”
Glave said he felt he needed to confront the hostility toward gays and lesbians in his literature.
“The longest story in the book takes place in Jamaica. It’s about the burning alive of a gay man in his home by a crowd of people,” he said. “That kind of thing has happened quite recently. I know people that have been killed there. So that was something that I wanted to write about. I haven’t seen anything like that in Jamaican or Caribbean literature. I also wanted to write about the social context of Jamaica. Coming from the middle class, I don’t see the middle class written about much, either.”
Glave’s writing also touches upon American perspectives on sexuality, race and intimacy.
“The first story deals with two men who are in a relationship,” Glave said of one of the other stories in “The Torturer’s Wife.” “I don’t know if you would call them gay or not. They’re clearly of two different colors, but you don’t know which color which one is or what the colors are. And they make very racist comments about each other in their imaginations and secret thoughts.”
Glave is very vocal about social issues in both his literature and in his everyday life, and helped found the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays in 1998. He said that although starting a pro-gay organization in such a hostile environment was an uphill battle, the struggle has been worth it.
“We did make an impact in Jamaica because the social discourse is now completely different than it was when we began,” he said. “People are actually talking about homosexuality, for better or for worse. Also, Parliament is having to deal with questions now about repealing some of the laws against homosexuality. Things have definitely come to the fore in regards to social change in Jamaica and J-FLAG has made that possible.”
Glave added that, despite any advances, Jamaica and the rest of the world still has a long way to go in accepting LGBT individuals.
“I just did a radio show in Toronto that has a largely Caribbean and Jamaican audience and, I’m sorry to say, it was a very painful experience because they had people calling in and they were saying things based on the knowledge that I had criticized the Jamaican prime minister in public,” he said. “Last year in Jamaica, when I was there for a literary festival, he made some homophobic remarks and I criticized him very severely. People took issue with that and thought that I was disrespectful. So it goes to show you that it is still a very volatile issue.”
Glave hosts a reading at 6 p.m. March 12 at Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St. For more information, visit www.thomasglave.com or call (215) 923-2960.
Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].