I have finally accepted that I am as American as I am Jamaican. I was born in Jamaica and partially raised there, but I have spent the better part of my life in this country, to which I owe so much of my personal and political development and achievements. To be more specific, I am as African-American as I am working-class Afro-Jamaican, meaning that my life experiences have been formed by that dual identity and all of the political, social and cultural nuances that are part and parcel of being part of two marginalized cultures and multiple marginalized identities. In many ways, I share more in common with working-class African-Americans than I do with middle-class Jamaicans. In other specific ways, I am so Jamaican, that I even surprise myself sometimes when I discover rigid cultural habits or waysof thinking/being in the world that I know I learned as a child. Home for me is a constant negotiation of identities, jumping emotional mine-shafts of childhood memories (nurturing as well as abusive), reaching across divides to create and sustain community for myself and my children, walking alongside kindred spirits I recognize as part of my tribe, as well as going only part of the way with others with whom I share a common humanity and culture, but no common values.
I think it would be crazy for me to think of my work as singly representational, like I represent all of Haiti or every Haitian, but I have always been proud to be connected to Haiti, to have Haiti in my blood and to rep Haiti, as the kids say, whether I was a chef, and taxi driver, like my dad, a seamstress like my mom or anything else. One person can’t speak for ten million people. I can only write from my perspective. And I hope it hits home for some people. And I know that perspective might be outright rejected by other people. So I’m not forcefully trying to be representational. I think it would be arrogant to say I’m representing anyone but myself. I think artists need that freedom to tell their stories. Or you’ll be shackled by everyone.
I am very proud of the work that is coming out of Haiti and the Caribbean right now, but that’s because I know of it and I wonder if the rest of the world is as aware. I love the representation we have now, but it is never enough. There are so many more emerging from the Caribbean, including those just now putting pen to paper, hoping to be published one day. What’s great, however, is that we all write literature in different styles. My hope for myself is to contribute something different to Haitian literature, the kind that mixes the political, the thrilling, the intrigue, the passion, the poetry, all of that together like a big pot of stew.
I believe my writing hails back to the tradition of immigrant narrative beginning with the English who arrived at Jamestown in the 1600s. Every immigrant group is different but very similar in the challenges it faces. Issues of identity and displacement are not only immigrant problems; these are shared by the population at large as well. There are really very few minority writers, Cuban or otherwise, in the American literary world.
What do we do about the lack of diversity in publishing? Or what can you do? There’s plenty you can do. If you’re a reader, you can start by reading widely and diversely, by looking for books written by writers of color, for example, by putting diverse books in the hands of young readers. If you’re a reviewer, you can read and review books by people of color. If you’re an editor, you can publish more people of color. And if you don’t have any/enough submissions from people of color, start soliciting! Reach out to writers of color and queer writers at conferences, at readings, at residencies. Put out a call on your website, on social media. But that’s not enough. Not even close.
At 16, when I began my writing career in Haiti and the other French Antilles, I embraced horror as my genre. I didn’t want to write about reality. Why would I? I was just a kid and, as I explain in A Sky the Color of Chaos, I barely understood people and politics. I also didn’t want to dwell on my fears and insecurities. In retrospect, however, I see that my fantastical tales foreshadowed my interest in nonfiction as I usually established a link between my stories and the political/social atmosphere in Haiti.
When people are constantly asked what they want to "be" and how they want to live and speak, and whether they "feel" more or less American, all for political gain, as if those things were up for discussion every day, you create a dearth of identity, a hunger for a sense of self. But being the resourceful people that we are, we've dealt with it by becoming creators of art, and through that art, I believe, succeeded in preserving our national soul, separate from whatever the politicians do.
A writer could spend a lifetime filling pages about the concept of home and its many definitions. Our mother is our first home, both physically and emotionally. Many of the complications of life spring directly from the memory of losing a primal home, whether that home was an actual place, or a parent, or both. Every break-up, estrangement, or emotional severance can contain a dim echo of its original impact.