Stereotyping, cultural appropriation and such

Alan Sullivan has posted a poem called Long Bay Jump, both to his blog and to Erato, which is in a West Indian voice. It starts:

Sun drop down with a flash of green.
Moon lift up, and the palm tree lean.

Jack fish bake in banana wrap.
Pi-dog snatch all the table scrap.

Ganja and rum, ganja and rum–
Long Bay jump ’til the morning come.

Not surprisingly, some people were uneasy with it. Or, as Alan put it:

I posted this reggae-style lyric at Eratosphere today and got a face full of PC, just as I expected.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole thread at Erato because, well, other people’s pissing matches get dull fairly quickly. But I was somewhat struck with this comment:

Although I can see why someone might be offended by the association of a whole group of people with ‘ganja’ and a careless demeanor, the practice of friendly caricature is generally accepted. No one would bat an eye at a poem that portrayed a British man with a cup of tea in one hand, a cane in the other, and a ‘Jolly good day’. No one would be shocked at a poem about a racist Southerner who irresponsibly uses Biblical quotations to justify cruelty — a far more offensive caricature, in my opinion, because it is a negative and unsympathetic stereotype. No one would even blink at a poem about fat and boisterous Americans visiting foreign nations. So what’s wrong with a friendly caricature of a non-white group of non-European descent?

Nothing, in my opinion.

Now there are various cans of worms there which I think I’ll leave unopened, and just comment on the bit which jumped out at me. “No one would bat an eye at a poem that portrayed a British man with a cup of tea in one hand, a cane in the other, and a ‘Jolly good day’.” Umm, well actually, speaking as an Englishman, that would annoy the fuck out of me. It’s outdated, inaccurate and patronising. So I guess that’s one point – you may not be as good a judge as you think of whether a caricature comes across as ‘friendly’.

I’m not going to try to judge how Alan’s poem would come across to someone from the BVI . But actually it makes me uneasy without having an opinion about whether it’s inaccurate and/or insulting.

It’s not the fact that it’s ventriloquising a West Indian voice, although that’s certainly relevant. Nor is it related to post-colonialism or the legacy of slavery or any other specific political issue associated with the region, though those are also relevant. It’s that it’s a stereotype. Not just a stereotype, but the stereotype of the Caribbean – rum, ganja, palm trees and music. Alan says, in response to some of the comments:

I tried to avoid a POV in the poem. It bears witness. It does not judge. Every detail is true, and known to me at first hand.

I have no doubt that every detail is true. And yet somehow all they manage to add up to is the obvious stereotype. That’s the thing about stereotypes – they usually have some basis in truth. There really are effeminate gay man and Nigerian con artists. The reason stereotypes are insidious is precisely that they are somewhat true; that you can look at the person and just see the stereotype. It’s a short-circuiting of thought.

I think I’d have been happier if he had offered a POV, if he had judged. That would at least be an explicit attempt to engage with the culture. Attempting to neutrally portray a culture which is not your own strikes me as fraught with difficulty, not from any kind of cultural relativism but because the perspective of the visitor is so partial.

This is perhaps an over-analysis of a light poem that doesn’t seem to be attempting much more than local colour. I just wanted to try to articulate my sense of unease.

12 Comments

  1. 13 August 2006 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    The poem strikes me as having a distasteful shallowness, rather like me walking around my house singing the Banana Boat song in the most atrocious imitation of Harry Belafonte ever heard by feline ears (I never torment humans with it). He considers himself safe, of course, since he smugly assumes no one from the lampooned culture will call him on it.

  2. 13 August 2006 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    I’ve been following the thread over at Erato, purely for the entertainment value.

    I have no problem with people who write poems in voices (or genders, or skin colours) other than their own. What I don’t understand is how someone could want to formalise a set of cliches into a strict pattern (XoXooXoX, though L9 – Rasta Man blow – is bollixed) and post it up for serious critique. Yes, it is technically excellent. Yes, it does capture a feel of the West Indies (through stereotype cliches). Yes, there is a hint of a scenario in the poem once you’ve clambered through those cliches. But so what?

    As a poem it fails because it says nothing we don’t already believe (stereotypically and wrongly) about “Caribbean” culture and it’s interaction with tourism. Where’s the challenge? Where’s the revelation?

    Where’s Scavella when you need her?

  3. 13 August 2006 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    You guys don’t need me. You’re doing just fine on your own.

    I read the thread at Erato too, and flirted with the idea of answering it. My position is really rather like Rik’s — no problem with appropriating others’ voices, but didn’t think that the poem was worth the kerfuffle it stirred.
    If I had the energy I could muster up some offence to take. But the piece is too vanilla to bother.

  4. HowardM
    13 August 2006 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    Part of the irony of that thread is the juxtaposition, partway down the same page in “The Deep End,” of another thread (by Mary Cresswell) whom AS takes seriously to task on the grounds that she isn’t willing to accept any criticisms of her work except positive ones that reinforce her attitude about her work.

    “Physician, heal thyself . . . .”

  5. 13 August 2006 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    I’ve only read Harry’s post but I think I feel the same as him when he says, “I’d have been happier if he had offered a POV, if he had judged” because then I see where the writer is coming from, and there is some basis for rational agreement or disagreement. What feels so wrong to me is that the writer assumes he can be neutral and impartial when representing a different culture, an assumption that is, to call a spade a spade, imperialistic.

    Like Rik and Scavella, I don’t have a problem with writers imagining (I won’t use the word “appropriate”) other voices but I am disturbed when writers imagine a representative voice of a different culture because that depiction so often becomes a caricature, a simplification. Even so sympathetic a writer as E. M. Forster loses credibility in his sentimental portrayal of Muslim India in Dr. Aziz in “A Passage to India.” Dr. Aziz is all Mughal poetry and courtly virtue; his crisis is one of injustice, not of spiritual turmoil, unlike his white counterpart. I guess all I am saying is that I am disturbed when writers stop describing individuals, and depict types instead.

  6. 13 August 2006 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    What feels so wrong to me is that the writer assumes he can be neutral and impartial when representing a different culture, an assumption that is, to call a spade a spade, imperialistic.

    Agree wholeheartedly, Jee. On a lighter note, was I the only one who was delighted like a driveling baby by the improbable line, “Rasta man blow Jamaica toke”? And am I the only who now desires to break into Julie’s house in hopes of overhearing her atrocious imitation of Harry Belafonte?

  7. 13 August 2006 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    Yes, Jee, if I were accurate I wouldn’t use “appropriate” either, and I agree that it would have better if the poet had judged. Taking a stand allows one to engage.

    I agree with you re Forster, by the way, and would argue that even his presentation of Aziz is better than his caricature of Godbole.

    On the other hand, I find Paul Scott’s characterization of (say) Hari Kumar (the 1970s answer to Passage to India) in the Raj Quartet more successful. But then Scott stays away from characters he can’t find a way to empathize with, and rarely attempts to get inside the heads of “full” Indians.

    The thing about the whole Sullivan poem deal is that the piece that inspired all this buzz was so very slight, and hardly worth the trouble.

  8. Harry
    13 August 2006 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Yes. But then I increasingly lack patience with slight poetry and light poetry. If I want to be lightly entertained, I can watch TV or play a computer game. If I read poetry, I want it to at least have the ambition to be interesting.

  9. 13 August 2006 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    I don’t mind slight poetry, in its place. And its place is on a blog or in a challenge thread, not posted for critique by someone who delights in sneering.

    But, well, I despise Alan Sullivan and have since he arrived at Erato, so I am so damned biased I almost have to take the opposite position just so I don’t hate myself!

    I’d say that most modern formalism is slight. It has no ambition other than to fit whatever metric goal the poet has. I always end up going too far in the other direction, making poems that are awash in death and carnage. There has to be a middle ground, somewhere.

    “And am I the only who now desires to break into Julie’s house in hopes of overhearing her atrocious imitation of Harry Belafonte?”

    You know not what you wish for. DAY-O!

  10. 13 August 2006 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Well, the guy is very right-wing and I’m sure he posted it deliberately to wind up the “PC crowd”, as he would think of them. The poem is drivel, but I suspect he knows that.

  11. Harry
    14 August 2006 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    ‘very right-wing’ is true enough. You’re probably right that he posted it to be provocative; who knows whether he really believes it’s a good poem of its kind. I’ve seen worse poems than that offered up in all seriousness by people who you’d think would know better.

  12. 14 August 2006 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    So why did none of the Erato crowd think to ask AS what he was hoping to achieve from the workshopping of the poem, and where he was hoping to place the poem once he’d reworked it to his satisfaction?

    I’d laugh if the poem got published in the New Yorker – and ended up being the only poem people remembered Alan Sullivan writing. A sort of Pooh Bear epitaph, if you like.

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