Update May 14, 2018: This letter responded to the essay “The White Women and the Language of Bees” by Kei Miller, as originally published on the PREE website. This essay was removed from PREE, in the heat of the controversy it generated and at the author’s request. It was on May 3 replaced by a substantially revised version.
I have been reading the inaugural issue of Pree. It is a good effort and I welcome it, although I would have been even happier if the contributing authors were not almost all part of the social circle of the editors. It is a bit self-perpetuating and, I need to add, self-congratulatory that way. And it is also very uptown, as uptown as Calabash–this does not detract from Pree’s importance (or the importance of Calabash) but it is worth noting, especially in light of the discussions you had on Facebook recently.
Your essay was the first text I read. And I had to re-read it a couple of times, digest it, and read it again. And I am still digesting, hence this open letter. I understand that it is your intent to think through race in the Caribbean and that the current essay is thus part of a broader and indeed very important and necessary project. I’ve read the other three essays you had posted and I was hoping then that there might be a fourth one like that, about you and your own place in those issues. Perhaps that is yet to come.
But yes, race is a big factor in the arts in and from the Caribbean, and one that people have difficulty talking about, so your essay in Pree is a milestone, as it presents a rare such effort. That I welcome, and parts of the essay are indeed breath-taking, because of the writing and because of the sublime insights you offer — “It have to do with the where that we choose, and the where that chooses us.” But there are also a few things that bothered me about this essay and I have questions about why you opted to frame it in the way you did. Perhaps you can answer some of my questions and, if you do, please consider this as an invitation to dialogue.
Most people who read it will know who that the essay alludes to actual persons and incidents, which is very different from your first essays on race, which used fictional but plausible characters. I could identity at least two of the women and the incidents in question are fairly well known. So why not get it over with and name them then? Or, conversely, create fictional, composite characters that allow you to address the same issues without getting personal, as you did in your first essays on race?
And it struck me that some of your account pertained to things that the women in question said to you, or confided to you about, in what appear to have been very private conversations. Conversations they had with you because they trusted you, because they thought of you as their friend. Did they know at any point, then or now, that you were going to write about what they told you, about what happened in your presence? And if so, were they consulted about how they would be represented? If not, I’d have a bit of a problem with that. We all have our vulnerable moments, when we do unusual things and say things to friends that we do not expect them to share with others, let alone having to read about in published form. I’m sure you’ve had such moments too.
You accuse one of the white women writers of not understanding or respecting her character’s voice, of speaking through him despite being at a significant social and cultural remove, of ventriloquism, really. But are you not doing the same thing to the women whose voices and positions you claim to represent in your essay? Are we hearing their voices, really; do they have any agency in your essay? Why did you not empower them more and let them speak to your readers directly, on their terms and in the present moment? Why did you not give them the opportunity to reflect on what had happened, years ago? That would not have prevented you from commenting independently.
And talking about power, why have you exclusively focused on white women? There is no shortage of white male writers in the Caribbean, born ya and elsewhere. Why is it that their legitimacy is less frequently challenged, if at all? Why did you not acknowledge that particular bit of gender bias? And as Brian Heap quipped in his comment on your timeline, why stop at white women? Why not add the “red” ones too? What about their legitimacy and status in the Caribbean literary world? And why not go through the whole register of social and racial privilege, while at it?
I know that “white fragility” is a hot topic, and that may have seduced you a bit, but it strikes and bothers me that some of the women you are alluding to are presented in a way that suggests that they are unhinged, needy, overly dependent on the ways in which they are judged by others, unable to move productively beyond the relatively minor racial slights they have experienced. Why focus so much on these women’s perceived failings and vulnerabilities? Why focus on their bodies and on their weight, Kei? And yes, I am writing this as a white, overweight, foreign-born woman whose body has also been brought into the equation when her legitimacy in the Caribbean is questioned. Would you have brought any of this into the discussion if they were male? Does the way in which you paint them not conform to the most one-dimensional clichés about women, and specifically about white women?
What bothers me also is that you seem to focus on women who are willing to put up their race and origin for discussion, to make themselves vulnerable to exactly the sort of criticisms they have experienced, instead of doing what is the easiest thing to do for white people here, which is to retreat comfortably into the castle of their privilege and almost guaranteed position in the socio-racial pecking orders of the Caribbean. If they had done the latter, would they have been criticized in the way they were and discussed in this essay? And why discuss these white women as if they live in an insulated white world of their own, in which they expect to be supported, and judged, only by their “own kind”?
And I also need to say something about how you represent the black male writers who “attacked” them, their critics: are they, too, not deprived of their own voice and reduced to caricature? Why, save for one moment of hesitation and second-guessing, do you exempt yourself from their alleged predicament of smallness and “carry-down-ness”, presenting yourself in a more open-minded and benevolent vein, the wise and balanced arbiter of it all, all while writing an essay that goes much further than they ever did in terms of how your subjects are targeted as persons, and has much broader reach?
And finally, as I said earlier on, Kei, I would really like to hear more about you in all of this. Because I sense that these essays are ultimately about you and about understanding your own place and role in these dynamics. I suspect that your readers would get a richer and more revealing discussion about race, and class if you would make yourself more vulnerable in this, in the same way as you have made these women vulnerable.