In early April at a workshop on Ole Mas, Tony Hall completed by saying to the group that if people aren’t able to immediately recognize what you are doing then you must figure out another way to deliver the message. In the same room were veteran mas performers and artists. When we were done and getting ready to leave I thanked Tony for sharing with us that day. He delightfully received my greeting and returned with a note that I should not hesitate to blend Carnival arts with feminist activism. I smiled, because that is exactly what I had been doing and I intended to continue on a larger scale. Later in May, as I was moving hurriedly along to Alice Yard to open Culturego’s LIT Night, I remembered Tony’s words. I was supposed to read my short story ‘Rainy Season’ and though I had presented this work several times before, my nerves were getting the better of me. However, through the storm of anxious feelings came clear thoughts about how all of this work I was engaged in was related to playing mas. In that understanding I started feeling more secure.
In the story, Xochiquetzal finds herself in Port-of-Spain after being expulsed from the Aztec kingdom because she refuses to dance with the Sun King. In Trinidad, she finds adventure and love with the indigenous spirit Tessa. Yet Xochiquetzal insists on personal freedom and is thus torn between their relationship and her desire to play mas. ‘Rainy Season’ investigates intimate female-female as well as female-male relationships in the pursuit for security, care and love against the foreboding threats of betrayal and pain. The story narrates a history of Trinidad prior to the presence of its indigenous peoples showing connections with the contemporary urban centre of Port-of-Spain. ‘Rainy Season’ is part of a collection of short stories called ‘Under the West Indian Sky’ that have been periodically published in Womanspeak: Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women. In these stories the weather illustrates ideas about the transference of myths and the process of myth making through interwoven narratives. Other pieces in this collection include ‘Petite Careme,’ that was published in 2016 and ‘Grande Careme’ that I read during the showing of my ‘For Cynthia’ series of photographs at The Burg Vintage store in Woodbrook. Patrons came to see the selection of images and as part of the offering I sat with each person and read excerpts from the work. The narratives all have Carnival elements in their structure that are used to illustrate feminist and queer thematic concerns.
I am an active member of the Carnival Mas band Vulgar Fraction that is led by Robert Young. Vulgar Fraction hosts two seminars each year, one before and another after Carnival. These are titled ‘Independent Mas Speaks’ and guests present about aspects of cultural advocacy in Trinidad and Tobago. In 2017 my contribution investigated the past, present and future viability of Carnival and this year my talk explored race relations in Trinidad and Tobago with reference the band’s 2018 theme, ‘Playing White in a Shithole Country.’ The band operates out of Propaganda Space located in the Granderson Lab in Belmont. The band invites its members each year to participate in the construction of their costumes. This is a practice I have extended to events outside of the Carnival season. Vulgar Fraction has entered twice in the Ole Mas competition hosted by the Bocas Literary Festival in collaboration with the National Carnival Committee. Last year we won with an overview of the social justice movement in Trinidad and Tobago. This year we placed third with our presentation LGBTQ-I-LAND which told the story of the human rights defender Jason Jones.
Years ago, Jason and I got to know each other via email. I began to actively support his human rights struggle. He would also be either physically or virtually present for my projects in feminism. When I gave the key note address at the commemoration of International Women’s Day hosted by Women Everywhere in 2017, Jason was there. When the first regional solidarity rally hosted by Life in Leggings took place, I was part of the team that organized the local leg. When the march was done, I saw Jason coming across the Savannah with the brightest smile. In the years that I have known him he has shown himself time and again to be a feminist ally, not just because he attends events, or personally supports my work but because his own efforts as a human rights defender. He not only calls women his equals but constantly publicly recognises their work while showing how gender and sexuality intersect with matters of race, age and class, and how these affect not just our day to day lives but the challenges we have encountered in activism. In this sense we are fighting together on a common, intersectional frontline.
Further to writing and cultural activism, I am one of the co-directors of the Caribbean feminist organization WOMANTRA. In the years of its establishment we’ve had two installations of the Sistah 2 Sistah mentorship programme, at least five incarnations of the ‘Silent Silhouettes’ initiative which honours the lives of women and children who were killed in situations of domestic violence and intimate partner violence. The online presence of the organization is a space for the curation of specifically Caribbean feminist scholarship which simultaneously takes into account how the movement manifests in other parts of the world. The organization has organized a campaign towards HIV awareness that targeted Lesbian and Bisexual women. In 2015 we were the local leg of the international ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile’ initiative organized by artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh against street harassment. WOMANTRA has been active in a myriad of collectives, including the team that successfully advocated for the amendment of the marriage acts to discontinue the legal marriage of children in Trinidad and Tobago.
I am just one person in the WOMANTRA organization and we collaborate across different approaches and focuses because we know that together we can bring about changes.
Jason and I spent the evening before the court hearing together. He picked me up earlier in the day with the promise that we would be going to the beach but instead we got some take away food and went to a rumshop. Sitting there with salads and beers we talked about all that happened in the past year regarding his case and what we imagined would happen the next morning. We had to wrap up our lime because a film was about to start in a few minutes at the Alliance Francaise. Thankfully it was in walking distance from where we were, so we quickly passed through the maze of St. Clair and arrived with the ushers cheering us on, as we made it just in time.
‘120 Beats Per Minute,’ is set in France and documents how the ‘Act Up Paris’ group advocated in the late 80s and early 90s for policy change, research as well as better health services to counter the HIV and AIDS pandemic. The film also documents the group’s strategy of guerrilla activism. When the lights came on again I struggled to collect my scattered emotions after watching activists, who were themselves infected, tragically dying and leaving the struggle behind. One of the film’s minor messages seemed to be, “It all goes on without you. You make a little contribution and then the world moves on.” We left the building to have dinner in Woodbrook, collected Jason’s lawyer at the airport. Minutes past midnight they dropped me off at my home and a few hour later Jason sent me screen shots of death threats he received in his social media inbox. I sent him a note of comfort and best wishes for the day.
Jason’s case sought the repeal of the buggery law and addressed Section 16 of the Sexual Offences Act that specifically criminalizes the stimulation of genitals by persons of the same sex and thereby made illegal all sexual acts between people of the same sex. Jason’s work was a struggle to decriminalize the same-sex sexual practices of lesbians, homosexuals, bi-sexuals and transgender persons. Later that month after Literature, Carnival arts and advocacy intersected in my presentation at Bocas I told him how well the band did in the competition and he responded,
“I am an Ole Mas. My life is now complete.”