Suzanne Narain – is first generation Canadian, born in Toronto of Guyanese parents. She is currently in the PhD program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her research interests surround the experiences of diasporic communities, oral narratives and activism.
By Suzanne Narain
This summer was my first time back to Guyana in about 10 years. My previous visit was in December 2002, and the bandits were rampant then, in Berbice at least ‒ or so they say. Nonetheless, my level of fear travelling to Guyana was certainly at its peak. In 2002, I went and came back to Canada with scars to bear, but only from mosquitoes. There is always fear instilled into diasporic Guyanese children about their parents’ homeland; there are incessant warnings about not wearing any jewellery or carrying lots of money, or accepting marriage proposals, etc. This fear is not completely unwarranted as the Guyana that many remember was ridden with political, economic and racial turmoil ‒ the motivation behind much of the previous migration out of the country. Some, like my father, have never returned, as their memories of Guyana are permanently tainted with violence and ideas of a ‘backwards’ country that has nothing left to offer them.
I am a first generation Indo-Canadian, who has been raised by my Guyanese grandmother, due to the struggle that immigrants in Canada face to attain economic stability. In many ways, I feel more connected to my Guyanese roots than my Canadian status. My motivation to visit Guyana was simply to breathe the air of my ancestors, to stand on the sea wall and feel the breeze against my skin, to smell the illegal burning of garbage in the villages ‒ to allow my body to experience Guyana, albeit temporarily. My feeling of home has always existed here (Toronto) and through the idea of ‘there’ (Guyana). I exist somewhere in between the imagined borderlands of Toronto and Guyana as I do not fully have access to either. I went to Guyana in search of that home feeling.
There was a great deal of angst about staying in Georgetown. My family is primarily from villages in Berbice where going into ‘town’ was reserved for official business, usually carried out by men. If women or the family had to make the trip into town it was a monumental event, symbolically and economically. The idea of ‘town’ was of a space occupied by Africans and the ‘villages’ by Indians, even though in reality there are Indians in town and there have always been Africans in villages. Much of the anxiety about going into town is ridden with anecdotes of previous violence between Africans and Indians or violence more generally related to poverty. There is a definite shift of who occupies space in ‘town’ as more people are seeking opportunities outside of their village and since it is not election time, the racial tensions are at bay. I refused to be overcome by fear and the stigmas of ‘town’ and decided to walk everywhere I needed to go, instead of taking the advised taxi. There were moments when I felt nervous walking through some streets, not because of my race, but because of my gender. There seems to be a culture in Guyana of men constantly hollering, whistling or sucking their lips together to imitate the sound of a kiss to get the attention of women ‒ not only on the street, but in establishments where women work as servers. I was told this is done innocently and that men believe that showing this type of attention to women is, in fact, what women want. So I ignored the jeering and carried on with my business.
The first item on the agenda was the Painting the Spectrum Film Festival hosted by the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) ‒ an organization that advocates for human rights, health promotion and most importantly, combating homophobia. This June marked SASOD’s 9th annual film festival. The film festival took place in various parts of Guyana. I attended one held in Georgetown at the Sidewalk Cafe and watched Facing Mirrors; a film that tells the struggle of two women in Iran and confronts the issue of transphobia.
After the film, members of SASOD facilitated a discussion surrounding the film and homo- and trans-phobia. People spoke openly about their experiences ‘coming out’, living at home and having queer relationships in Guyana. The room was filled with allies, community workers, and members of SASOD who were engaging in real dialogue about how to combat homophobia, where to get support or strategies that can be used in the workplace. In Toronto there is a constant struggle for queer people of colour to exist, whether it is fighting to maintain representation in the annual and internationally renowned Pride parade or having space to have open dialogues like the one facilitated by SASOD. The discussion of being queer in the Caribbean usually surrounds gay-bashing, hateful music and violence; I do not want to suggest that this does not exist; rather, I want to highlight that there are organizations advocating for the rights of LGBTQ communities in Guyana and the Caribbean. There are very progressive movements being made in Guyana surrounding LGBTQ rights and solidarity building ‒ the queer people of colour community in Toronto, or lack thereof, could learn a lot from SASOD.
Guyana is no stranger to advocacy and activism; there are and have been many organizations and persons who have committed their lives to making a difference on a large and small scale. June 13th marked the 33rd death anniversary of Walter Rodney. To commemorate his life and legacy, the Moray House Trust held an art exhibit displaying the work of Desmond Alli. Mr Alli’s work encapsulated the struggle and strength of the Caribbean and Latin American diaspora, carving images into slates of wood, leaving a mark on history that cannot be tarnished or easily destroyed. The room was filled with those who appreciate art, who wanted to pay respect to Walter Rodney and who were actively engaged in various anti-struggle movements in Guyana. I was able to rub shoulders with many elite members of the activist community. While I revelled in the opportunity, I wondered how accessible this space would be for someone from a village or the working class. I wondered if I grew up like my mother, in Cotton Tree, Berbice, would I be present at a gathering such as this? Many activists claim to work within an anti-oppressive framework, yet there remains unavoidable class dynamics and hierarchies that exist ‒ being present for the memorial of Walter Rodney was an example of this, as it was both inspiring and slightly disheartening.
My search for that home feeling left me more lost than ever. I felt connected to the struggles and advocacy work being done in Guyana, however, I recognized that I was able to participate in that space because I was a ‘foreigner’. I cannot fully speak to what or how my experience would have been if I did come from Cotton Tree, not Canada, but I know it would certainly look different. Nonetheless, I realized that there was much more that Guyana had to offer than a ‘backwards’ country. There were and continue to be progressive movements that advocate for human rights through everyday working class women, through queer communities and through art. The entire country may not be on board yet, but huge strides are being made by very dedicated individuals. There is so much to learn in and from Guyana.
My experiences living in the diaspora have fostered a sense of fear for a place in which there was nothing to fear, except for the mongoose snarls between the rocks and the seawall. With my fears settled, I left Guyana with more questions than answers and a longing to go back.