Award-winning Jamaican-American author Thomas Glave continues to explore the volatile taboos, politics and social issues of Jamaica with his latest book, “Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh. ” Unlike his previous fiction work, “Among the Bloodpeople,” this is a collection of essays tackling social issues that are prevalent in the country, like antigay bigotry, as well as the risks and seductions of gay sex.
Glave, an English professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, talked to PGN about his new book and the state of LGBT rights in Jamaica and the rest of the world.
PGN: Which essays in “Among The Bloodpeople” do you feel are the most profound and thought-provoking? TG: I’d like to believe that they all are. Each one is thought-provoking and, I hope, profound in distinctly different ways — and writing every single one of them required me to think and reflect on various points and in ways that I might not have done before. Just about all of them, of course, arose out of particular concerns connected with a specific place and time — as would be the case with just about all writing, whether nonfiction or fiction. This is actually the case with all art, in every art form.
PGN: How much do you think religion factors into the antigay atmosphere in Jamaica? TG: As in the United States, fundamentalist religious fervor and mania in Jamaica attempt to silence all humanely imaginative discourse, permitting no room for a broader, more compassionate discussion of diverse human sexuality and possibility. In Jamaica’s case, the need for clearer knowledge and analysis demand that one always remember that the problems of Christianity and homophobia are a direct result of British colonialism — a legacy and consequence which many Jamaicans and non-Jamaicans alike often never want to think about. Until quite recently, Europeans consistently tore each other’s throats out in Christian holy wars across Europe, over millennia, and the U.S. is still struggling with its own religious fundamentalism. One of the most difficult ongoing problems in Jamaica is that so many religious leaders are so terrified of what acceptance of homosexuality might ultimately mean for Jamaican society that they absolutely refuse to consider the possibility, and so instead fall back on an uncritically read Bible for their spurious and extremely heavy-handed moral authority. These religious leaders generally take little heed of the grotesque irony that the very Bible and Christian dogma they invoke today were repeatedly used throughout the Atlantic slave trade to justify enslavement, torture, decimation and ultimate control of indigenous peoples as well as Africans imported to the Americas specifically for the slave trade.
PGN: Do you feel like your writings can change the status quo for LGBT individuals in Jamaica? TG: I suppose that my writings could do many things, but I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about that. There’s still so much to write and think about across a vast terrain of subjects. And I have no real control over who reads my writing or what they think of it. On the other hand, it certainly is extremely important to me to bear witness, in a sense — to take note of and bring to wider attention — to some of the awful things that are happening and have been going on in Jamaica for some time. I engage in this work partly because Jamaica obviously means so much to me, and because I consider the violence toward and loathing of homosexuals there to be just plain wrong: deplorable, and ultimately morally repugnant. I should stress that such hatred is repugnant wherever one finds it, in whichever country. Some gay men very dear to me, with whom I worked side by side as an activist in Jamaica, were later murdered there. When people close to you are killed, the proximity of the violence does make a difference in how you live every day. If only because of them and not wanting to feel that their deaths have been forgotten, but also for so many other reasons, I’ll want to go on doing this work in whatever way I can, for as long as I can, until the work itself is really no longer necessary. Whatever happens, Jamaica will always be the country that I feel more deeply within myself than any other, on the most primal level, no matter how it feels about me and other queers. So one tries to do one’s small part to help make it a better place for all of us to live in, irrespective of our sexuality, gender, color or social class.
PGN: Do you feel like the international community does give the antigay policies and attitudes in Jamaica the same attention that other countries get? TG: What one might call the “international community” seems over the years to have been composed mostly of North American and European countries whose citizens consistently feel that they have the right to dictate to global south countries, like Jamaica, how the global south should “behave,” instead of listening to the experience and recommendations of global south activists, who after all know their own countries better than anyone else. It does anger me especially to observe some less-sophisticatedly analytical sectors of the North American and European LGBT media’s constant insistence on what is “wrong,” homophobia-wise, in a country like Jamaica, when many of those voluble people have never expressed any interest in Jamaica itself except as a sunny “paradise” resort, or as the place where Bob Marley came from, or as a place to score some great marijuana, or as a place — perhaps — to interact sexually with some “taboo” black flesh locally on sale. But someone made a great point recently in a conference discussion: The international LGBT “community,” principally in the West, has recently made a lot of critical noise about, for example, homophobia in Uganda. But why don’t those same queer activists make noises about Ugandan child soldiers, which is a deeply grave problem in the country, and to some extent in the region? And why don’t more “first-world” LGBT people question their own ignorance about the Caribbean, and change it? Jamaica and Barbados and St. Lucia are not interchangeable, and they are countries with complex government systems and extremely complex cultures. I become extremely irritated whenever I hear people speak blithely about “the islands.” Americans and Canadians are notorious in this regard, and Europeans can be just as offensive.
PGN: What can people do to affect change in the attitudes and laws regarding gays and lesbians in Jamaica? TG: People already are working to change the attitudes and laws in Jamaica. The work isn’t, to say the least, easy, and it’s made even more difficult by the Jamaican dollar’s continuing devaluation, which makes Jamaica an extremely expensive place to live and work in. People living outside Jamaica who want to help can consider supporting J-FLAG by making a financial donation, or by offering to donate books to their library. LGBT books and magazines have been very welcomed there in recent years, and obviously are pretty much impossible to find in Jamaica (and books tend to be expensive in Jamaica anyway). Ultimately, the lead for LGBT activism in Jamaica must be taken by those doing the work on the ground there and who have a long-term investment in living in the country. But finally, we should remember that anti-LGBT attitudes in Jamaica — like anti-LGBT attitudes anywhere — don’t exist in isolation. They connect directly to the country’s attitudes, by and large, about women, gender and gender roles. The occasional violence directed toward a queer person there is directly linked to the extremely complex issue of Jamaica’s general violence these days, including an enormous amount of violence against women. But whether in Jamaica, the U.S. or the U.K., negative attitudes have changed and will continue changing. An enormous amount of hard work has made these changes possible. It’s extremely exciting, and also moving, to see Jamaica moving, even if slowly, more toward the greater country it really can become.
Thomas Glave hosts a reading from his new book 5:30 p.m. July 8 at Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St. For more information, call 215-923-2960.