Saturday, December 08, 2007

Down and Out at a Westin Beach

Is blogging well the best revenge? I’m wondering if my thoughts are pure enough to write this article as I lie by the pool at the Sunshine Suites Resort in Grand Cayman, having just come back from a supposedly public beach. Come back being a euphemism for being run off, asked to leave if you rather.

There I was, or rather here I am, at a wonderful hotel that promised unrestricted access to the beach, and after 3 months of Minneapolis’ 10,000 lakes I could do with a real sea. So with beach chair and stolen towel in hand I made for the sand. It’s tempting to think of all beaches, especially in the Caribbean as the same but they’re really quite different. A Jamaican beach spits out from the mountain, as if a reward for a mad dash or a tumble from a high peak. A Cayman beach—because the land is so flat— is downright indivisible from the land. A walk from land to sea is so effortless that you only notice that you’ve gone from dry to wet as an afterthought. Maybe that’s why I didn’t notice where I was.

Under a tree, I took off my shirt, sunk into warm white sand and granted myself one cliché (this is the life—groan, I know). With my glasses off, everything became a haze, so I thought nothing of the black and white blur coming towards me. By the time I got my glasses on, the security guard was hovering overhead. I thought finally, somebody is impressed that I'm reading Borges! but instead he apologized for bothering me (Caymanians are nothing if not unfailingly polite) and then asked if I knew that this was private property. Not only that, but that anyone who wasn’t a guest of the Westin Resort was only allowed within 10 feet of the water. Like any animal stunned I was immobile and for a long time, speechless.

But that doesn’t make any sense, I said. I’m a guest of Sunshine Suites, not a local. Anybody who lives in the Caribbean knows of Tourism’s tricky racial dynamics. If a black woman is at a tourist resort she’s either the chambermaid or she works in the office. If a black man is at a resort, he’s either cleaning something, hustling something or banging a late 50’s white woman for cash. This was extremely awkward for both of us and we knew it. He apologized again and said how much he hated this part of his job. It was one of those scenarios both in and out of body at once. We both knew that were seeing ourselves and how others were seeing us at the same time. A black man lying down on a beach. Less than 10 minutes later, another black man, in uniform, approaches. He says some words to the lying black man who then gets up, folds his chair and leaves, to go to the ‘public’ section of the beach. We know what we looked like, even as I explained to him that going down to the beach made no sense since a suntan was rather redundant on a black man. He laughed, I think because he didn’t want what might had been his umpteenth scene from a black person screaming racism. I've seen it countless times, but never ever thought I would find myself being either of those men.

But I had to ask myself? Did he make sure that all the white people here were from the Westin and not some other hotel? Does whiteness immediately grant one the privilege of going wherever he pleases?—a rhetorical question, I know. Or could it be that in a tourist location white skin immediately legitimizes one presence? That’s the case in Jamaica, Barbados, and Antigua, so why should it be any different in the Cayman Islands, a country for the most part given over to tourism and banking? There was just no way to play this situation correctly and we both knew it. Even playing for time was painful, since we both knew how this was going to end and I was getting angry. I have nothing against tourism or private property but as a citizen of the Caribbean I sometimes like to assume that I have some natural right to its mountains and beaches and yes, it stings, it downright offends when foreigners, interlopers tell me where I can and cannot go in my own territory. It reminded me of the Godfather's Nightclub in Kingston that used to turn away Jamaicans for flouting the dress code but allowed white tourists who did the same thing. Then I ran into my friend Lisa who reminded me that as a light skinned person she never has any incidents like this. But I've had quite a few. I remember after a business meeting at The Pegasus Hotel in Kingston, a waiter came up to us and said that he noticed our habit of congregating at this hotel and that we need to cease doing so. Immediately. People can say that this isn’t about race all they want, but they’re not on the black end of the stick.

So instead of walking down to the free, meaning local end of the beach where I can presumably disappear in the vagueness of black skin, I went back to my hotel’s poolside where I’m writing this blog. Who knows, maybe the waiters think I’m here for a 1:00 sex appointment with some 54 year old woman who saved all year and wants to ball a blackie. Or maybe that’s just Negril. Lord knows that when I’m at a Jamaican hotel and get ribald thumbs up from all the locals who work there, it’s not because they heard about the rave review in the New York Times.

I thought of going back to the beach the next day with a tape measure to make sure I’m within my ten feet. Best to prevent any incident, International or otherwise. Make no mistake— I don't confuse Cayman with the Westin and the reader shouldn't either. I had a fantastic time : the people were wonderful, I made great new friends, the food is some of the best I've had in the Caribbean and Books and Books is easily the finest Caribbean bookstore I've ever been too. Besides, it turns out that the manager, Sally Machado and I are old friends going back from 1988 ! I don't define my time there by this barely 10 minute episode, but given all that we've have been through in the Caribbean, and all that we may still go through, I can't ignore it either.

ED: The heading said Caymanian before, but I've realised that I would never have like d someone to put "Jamaican" after an experience of one beach. Hey, I'm learning here.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Problem With Reading

Books rarely upset me, but readers appall me all the time. I remember the first. Way back in 1989 in the late legendary Professor John Ingledew's class, a student in reply to his question about a novel said she couldn’t identify with it. Back then I thought the response smacked of horseshit, and I think so even more now. I could not get past the arrogance of it, as if all the stories of the world had some duty to conform to her worldview—as if the only legitimate way to enter a literary world was to recognize oneself in it. And here I though the whole point to literature (certainly the literature I read) was to get as far way from myself as possible. It turned out that I was in the minority.

I’ve always believed that since I have a fully functional mirror, 300 pages spent reading about one would be a waste of time. One of the great joys of reading was encountering The Other, but here I was in the midst of my own generation that saved The Other for the News and wanted fiction that spoke to them about themselves. Not surprisingly these people soon went from memoir (not to be confused with biography or autobiography) to the ultimate in narcissism: The self improvement book. Many are presumably writing their wretched memoirs as we speak.

This is just one of the preposterous outgrowths of Post-whatever literature. And, as if seeing ourselves in books is not enough, we also want to see the writer. There may be some truth to all writing being autobiography, but it is also an irrelevance made relevant that has resulted in a slew of bad books and bad readers; people who have no idea what to expect or what to get from a book. The point to a fictional world is a suspension of disbelief, but too often— certainly with several readers I have spoken to, they read a book to see the writer. So a novel with an unsympathetic German had a friend of mine asking if the writer was Jewish. We do this with film as well, watching Angelina Jolie, not Grendel's mother. Even in fiction we want to be surrounded by fact. We want to see the strings, not the puppet, the “making of” instead of the video. The writer, not the novel.

This is not only lazy thinking (hearing people try to guess at the purity of the Bronte sisters’ from the content of their prose seems to be tedious only to me) but it ultimately causes a divorce from literature. We become preoccupied with a writer’s catalog, his life, and his letters, even his back-story at the expense of his book. Of course there is nothing wrong with reading several books from one writer. There’s nothing wrong with being so impressed by an author’s novel that you immediately buy the all others (we need to eat after all). The problem is that too often literature moves from an artistic and critical experience to a forensic one. A friend of mine did that with one of my stories and we were both surprised by how upset I became. He them compounded my displeasure by mistaking it for a fuse; going through my novel to tell me about myself, quite fascinated by his detective work. He thought I was upset that he had read me like a book when I was upset by how easily he tossed the book aside. The novel had become evidence of my mental state and ceased being anything else.

And here’s the nasty outgrowth: if you have absorbed enough of the writer then you do not have to read the book. As soon as the writer re-enters the literary equation the book forfeits its space. There is a myth that one enriches the other but that’s similar to saying a play is better if the playwright is sidestage commenting on his life as the performance goes on. Even before his disgrace, I've had arguments about James Frey and have never read a page in his book. I have had long and illuminating discussions on EM Forster and DH Lawrence, two authors I have never read. I have taught The Great Gatsby in Literature and Creative Writing courses and have never read it. I can even give you a one-hour lecture on the proto-postmodern fiction of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and still cannot name a single character without checking Wikipedia first. I know enough about these writers and even more about people who read writers and not books to bullcrit a novel without even being found out. Hell, I was paid for a review of Don Delillo’s Underworld even though the first Delillo novel I ever read was Falling Man.

But is this the best we can do? And even when we do read several books by the author, literature still loses. BR Myers in his Reader’s Manifesto noted that the reading of writers, not books have resulted in less, not more books being read. In that sense book clubs may have had it right all along. Because we read writers and not books, we become busy with finding the writer, seeing him in marginalia and forgetting the rest of the story. Because we read writers, not books, everybody has an opinion of V S Naipaul, few about his books. Ditto Norman Mailer. Because we read writers, not books too many mediocre works from writers get read—dulling the overall joy of reading. When put in the trajectory of the writer, any book becomes redeemable. While looking for veiled biography the reader loses the joy of entering the fictional world. It is far more likely for someone to have read Faulkner’s Sanctuary than John O’hara’s Appointment in Samara, despite the latter being by far the superior book. But O’Hara’s life doesn’t lend itself to biography the way Faulkner’s does. It doesn’t matter that Faulkner really only wrote 5 truly great books. It also doesn’t matter that you can beat pretty much any literature exam set on Faulkner without reading a book—I did it twice.

Maybe this is just the manifestation of our tabloid culture. We no longer want the myths of Hollywood but the warts. Forget Oz; show us the wizard, preferably in flagrante delicto. So Brad Pitt can become one of the world’s most famous celebrities even though nobody watches his films. In fact you don’t even need the pretense of being attached to any creative work anymore, just ask Paris Hilton. So I wonder if people are really reading the Jonathans or are they watching how each brand will develop. Maybe James Frey really is the prototype for the future of reading and writing. Should I start working out and try to get my body fluids inside one of Lindsay Lohan’s orifices? Because right now I’m thinking of bringing up War and Peace in my next class and I haven’t read the book. But I do know Tolstoy.