Web presence of Larry Chang

Larry Chang: Essays

Where Are My People? - Identity, Alienation, Exile


The condition of exile has been dissected at length in literature as it has been in criticism. It is one which, even if not experienced directly, each of us has come to know intimately as synonymous with an alienation more complex than the philosophical quest of coming to terms with one’s individual self. The condition of exile crosses the boundaries of self and other, of citizenship and nationality, of home and homeland; it is the condition of consistent, continual displacement; it is the radical uprooting of all that one is and stands for, in a communal context, without loss of the knowledge of those roots.

- Myriam J. A. Chancy
Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile

Anyone born into a Caribbean society, full of the contrasts, contradictions and insecurities that result from being a displaced, Creole, post-colonial people is faced with the challenge of defining who they are. Sure we are known for our warmth, our vibrancy, our ready laughter; our creativity and accomplishments are universally recognised. These have been achieved despite our tendency to carp, to ridicule, to judge and reject anything that falls outside the narrow confines of a morality we purport to uphold. So focused are we on the sufferings and injustices of the past that we are often blinded to present opportunities and the realities of our intrinsic self-worth and limitless potential.

In identifying with the degradation and destruction of our ancestors and ancestral culture, we have condemned ourselves to a psychological dependency on the material culture of the West and an addiction to the emotional extremes of guilt and self-righteousness proffered by the church. At the other end of the spectrum, some of us have retreated into an idealization of ancestral Africa, replacing self-doubt and white supremacist notions with a brittle racial pride and an equally invidious black exclusivity. The schizoid effect this has on those of mixed ancestry is unimaginable unless they manage successfully to expunge or excoriate their non-black heritage.

These are issues which have exercised the minds of the region’s writers from the earliest stirrings of nationalism and self-determination to the present. When other dimensions of self such as gender and sexuality are added to the discussion, the complexities increase geometrically. Only now, as we have matured as an identifiable aggregate, diverse and dispersed though we may be, has the discourse shifted from root-seeking and defining identity to affirmation, criticism and protest. As Gandhi declared and demonstrated, the political begins with the personal. Caribbean diasporic writers, Audre Lorde 1, Makeda Silvera, Michelle Cliff and Rosa Guy, directly confront not only issues of racism, sexism, and classism, but also homophobia and homoeroticism which have been integral themes in their work. With few exceptions, like Assotto Saint and Thomas Glave, Caribbean male writers have been conspicuous by their reticence in addressing homoeroticism, perhaps reflecting the relatively more ease with which lesbians live and express in Caribbean societies – once they have fulfilled their childbearing obligation. Perhaps now we are finding our voice. Saint writes:

These flags are not chips on my shoulders
i carry them as beauty spots
markings of a double brotherhood
they shine like mirror beads
to reflect prejudice …
one unfurls the future of queers
the other salutes african ancestors …
these flags are not crossbones on my life
i carry them as amulets
emblems of double brotherhood …2

It was suggested to me, “since you're so ‘intersectional’"3, that I may be able to add another dimension or two to the construction of a gay Caribbean identity, chisel yet more facets in the jewel of our self-definition. If I were to carry flags, I would not have hands enough to bear the multiple emblems of my identities. This has been a challenge: to resist the temptation to put some down, to unfurl each in synchronized sequence, or to proudly display them all. Regardless of our ethnic origins, we are heirs to a confluence of ideas and cultures ranging from Amerindian, through the Columbian encounter and all the infusions that flowed from that. To acknowledge and focus on only one of these is to deprive ourselves of an inestimable richness and expedient predisposition to embody homus novus, an opportunity not as accessible to members of older, more established societies bound by tradition and moribund with the restraint of certainties.

From birth I was already set up not to fit in anywhere. As the only boy and last child, eleven years from my closest sibling, I was thrust into an almost all-female world, my autocratic father being distant and removed from my daily upbringing, nurtured and cosseted as I was by my mother, three sisters and an African-Jamaican nanny whose constant presence, even at my bedside as I fell asleep, I recall fondly. I was outnumbered and forced to surrender the flag of my maleness. Ironically, my birth had been long awaited and celebrated as the propitious arrival of the male heir who would continue the family line and bring honor to my father and the Chinese ancestors. This obligation placed onerous expectations on me to live up to and conform to, assumptions that did not coincide with my own sense of self. Needless to say, I have not fulfilled my filial duties and my parents have joined the ancestors without grandchildren bearing the family name. Not having followed the culturally determined program that has prevailed for millennia, I am aware I may have been regarded as an embarrassment to the family, a disappointment to my parents, a letdown and a disgrace to my ancestral heritage and race.

Growing up in small-town Jamaica, I clearly put down the flag of that Chinese heritage in an attempt to stand out less, to find common ground with my black, brown and white playmates. Being taunted in the street with racial epithets reinforced this automatic coping mechanism. “Rice again?” I would complain, preferring to eat yam and green banana drenched in coconut oil out of Nanny’s pot rather than the family meal. I never learned to speak Hakka, the language of my parents, and even now I use chopsticks only with difficulty. Yet the sacrifice of these and other cultural markers for the sake of assimilation did not pay off. As black, as Jamaican as I became and expressed, I was still immediately perceived as representative of a “minority” phenotype, first and foremost. I was subject to racial profiling and racism in reverse. Regardless of what my character, personality, sensibilities, mode of being, and accomplishments were, I was always “Chainiman” or “Misa Chin.” Even my abhorrent sexuality was not exempt from racial qualification: chaini batiman . Neither would the possession of these emblems alone guarantee comfortable access to or equity within Chinese or Asian society without the requisite cultural markers and symbols of successful compliance with the demands of patriarchy, namely wealth and position, a wife and numerous children; nor to incipient gay Asian groups, many of whose members are focused on the security found in assimilation into Western society by pandering to, mostly older white men.4

I didn’t know for a long time what the flag of my sexuality was. I didn’t put it down; it was there, but unfurled. I recall my first homoerotic experience at the age of four when I would follow one of my father’s workers to the bathroom and watch while he urinated. He would let me shake off the drops; I can still remember the man-scent on my hands afterwards. I suppose he was narrowly heterosexual, based on the attendant explanation of the other use to which he would put his tool, so he was merely indulging my childish curiosity. To me though, the experience was the harbinger of a world of wonder and mystery, an indication of a powerful force, coiled within my being and connecting me undeniably and irresistibly to other men, hidden, secret, not to be told. I had no idea what “it” was, or how it came to be, much less accepting responsibility or any sense of guilt or wrongdoing. Only after puberty did I begin to associate my occult feelings with sexuality and the associated mythology and phobias that my peers and society attached to it. I learned avoidance and evasion, but not denial; it was too integral a force of me. So that flag remained unfurled until I came out in college years later.

With an unconscious, yet overriding sense of not being good enough, I compensated by being the perfect child: docile, obedient, quiet, industrious, talented and studious. Without near-age siblings and few approved playmates, whose boisterousness I preferred to avoid anyway, I grew up in relative isolation, a lonely child with a secret. Solitude became a friend, a refuge where I could just be and not worry about anyone finding out. I could play by myself for hours, drawing and painting, cutting images out of magazines, scaling and exploring the mountains formed by sacks of rice and sugar in my father’s shop, snuggling in hideaways constructed from cartons. Later I would lose myself in comics and books, and I took refuge in piety as a devout and faithful adherent of the Catholic Church. I became disillusioned with and left that community when it became clear to me that it denied my very being and offered me condemnation rather than solace. Its patronizing and hypocritical acceptance of the “sinner but not the sin” continue to haunt it. The schizoid policy, maintained for centuries, of condemning homosexuality while being an institution that depends on, and attracts, homosexuals may prove to be the gates of hell which prevail against it. In relinquishing that association, I removed myself from the matrix of my faith, cast adrift from the source of my spiritual underpinnings. Alienation from the external world, of family, of friends, of society, and from the Communion of Saints, drove me inward into myself, asking questions, seeking, searching for answers, weighing, assessing, exploring.

Some of these answers came all at once in the late 1960s while at college in Oakland, California, during the ferment of the Black Power, Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation movements which all brought to the fore issues which touched me directly: racism and white hegemony, patriarchy and chauvinism, and homosexual identity. The effect was to radicalize me, inculcating a political consciousness where before there was only naivete and compliant timidity. As much as I absorbed and was reinforced by, and supported these movements, however, my position was still that of an outsider, an observer. Their cause was not, and could never be, fully my own: I was not Black, obviously not female, and less than sanguine about a primarily white-male definition of my sexual identity. During this period also, my inner life was given renewed focus as I became more aware of metaphysics and Eastern philosophies.

My adult life has been characterized by attempts to use my abilities, nascent or nurtured, to fulfil my inner needs, and in the process, serving others and furthering causes that I espoused. I believed in making a difference, in changing the system from within. This direction often took me into uncharted territory forcing me into the role of reluctant leader and pioneer.5 “As for accomplishments, I just did what I had to do as things came along,” as Eleanor Roosevelt once demurred.6 Even so, ennui would set in and a sense of no longer quite fitting. I would resign from the very institutions I created once they were weaned, took on a life of their own and were no longer creatures of my imagination only. Like a hermit crab, I disposed of my containers once I became restricted by their intrinsic limitations, and moved on to more accommodating spaces. As the Jamaican social environment became more virulently hostile and violently homophobic, crystallized around inflammatory dancehall lyrics7, my life as a known homosexual was under threat. James Baldwin, himself an exile from American racism and homophobia, observed,

A person does not lightly elect to oppose his society. One would much rather be at home among one’s compatriots than be mocked and detested by them. And there’s a level on which the mockery of the people, even their hatred is moving, because it is so blind.

And the Jamaican expression of that hatred did move me, right out of the country. It was no longer simply a matter of moving on to wider fields; the survival imperative demanded it.8

As an eternal stranger, to my own family, society and country, voluntary exile was a natural, logical extension of the recurrent anomaly and alienation themes in my life, not a difficult decision for me to take. If, as Haitian writer-in-exile, Miriam Chancy, avers, exile is “synonymous with an alienation more complex than the philosophical quest of coming to terms with one’s individual self,” then I have been long and well prepared. She bemoans that the experience of exile is “so painful for what one has lost is carried in this forced nomadism from one geographical space to another; all that one has lost remains ‘over there,’ in that place once known as home, now a distinct vague shape on the world map, no longer the place in which we, the exiles, find ourselves.”9 I find this statement befuddling. In my own “forced nomadism,” I have carried all that I am with me. When asked if I miss Jamaica, I reply in the negative since wherever I am is Jamaica; I am a piece of Jamaica.10 As Maya Angelou said, “You can never leave home. You take it with you wherever you go.”11 Certainly I have ‘lost’ the vibrancy and company of friends and familiars, the incredible landscape, and the full –bodied taste of island fruit, but this cost is preferable to the alternative, outlined tellingly by Chancy:

… the threat of governmental/political persecution or state terrorism; poverty enmeshed through exploitative labor practices that overwork and underpay; social persecution resulting from one’s dehumanization because of color, gender, sexuality, class standing; the forever of lack of choice in one’s profession; the impossibility of imagining moments of leisure, moments for the nurturance of the soul; the flickering wick of hope extinguished through despair.12

To this list, I would add the enervation of corruption in high places and widespread venality coupled with a daag niam daag (dog eat dog) mentality, both brutally blatant and thinly concealed under bourgeois sentiments.

Michelle Cliff posed the question: “When did we (the light-skinned middle class Jamaicans) take over for them [the whites] as oppressors? I need to see when and how this happened. When what should have been reality was overtaken by what was surely unreality. When the house nigger became master.”13 The pointed response to that situation from the oppressed has been a marked increase in indiscipline, thuggery and violent crime as they assert “black man time now,” the era of the lego biis 14. It brings to mind Charles Chestnutt’s observations, though in a different but related African-American context, “Our boasted civilization is but a veneer which cracks and scrubs off at the first impact of primal passions.”15 As the “brownings” lose their pretensions to the veneer of British colonial authority and civility, the uncowed underclass forages and feeds. It may be too much to expect the descendants of slaves who had their humanity torn from them to exhibit other than predation and bestial behavior driven by base appetites unmodulated by self-restraint. Three hundred years of Christian indoctrination have served mostly to inculcate an Old Testament posture of self-righteousness, vengeance and intolerance, and the notion of a jealous, capricious God who is as quick to strike as to spare. Yet fear of the Lord, or of ubiquitous, disembodied dopis , seems no longer an adequate deterrent to sociopathic behavior.

The Jamaican “massive”, finding its voice through popular media, like talk-shows and dancehall, is now determining the agenda of what it is to be Jamaican, reflecting their values and attitudes, and not those of the middle class who, having assumed the place of the colonial masters, held on to the remnants of the status quo in pursuit of their narrow self-interests.16 Like the early Israelites, beset by hostile tribes, and attempting to build a sense of cohesion and nationhood by the strictures of Leviticus, the new vulgarchy, with a not-surprising penchant for selectively quoting Chapter 20, is codifying what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Homosexuality (nor, for that matter, other expressions of sexuality such as cunnilingus) does not fit in with their chauvinist, misogynist, patriarchal values or self-image, despite the fact that it is an integral part of the country’s history and culture dating back to our Taino predecessors17 and the African ancestors.18 Though I was never fully accepted, always on the periphery, I would have even greater difficulty fitting into the new oppressive orthodoxy, even if extermination were not a danger.

Rather than view my homosexuality as a liability, however, I see it as a gift and a responsibility. It has afforded me a vision which I would otherwise not have. Being always “other” has forced me to question received wisdom, challenge the status quo, and find new ways of seeing and being. In writing about the French poet lovers, Rimbaud and Verlaine, Paul Schmidt describes this perspective:

To be homosexual, even bisexual, is to be constantly aware of one’s life in a way that heterosexuals are not forced to be. It is to be aware of another possibility, another dimension … Homosexuality is a permanent extension of … liminality … It is an alienation from the order of society, and it provides, as all alienations do, a view of that order from the outside, from the other side. But being permanent, it is more – it is a refusal of that order.19

Being permanent, a continuous state of being, and by no means a voluntary identity, homosexuality is, in comparison to ordinary consciousness, an altered state. It “is able to constitute itself as an exemplary and natural state of exaltation. It is thus one with the states of trance, of contact with the extraordinary. From this point of view, homosexuality may well be … a state of permanent quest for vision … It can be a source of instantaneous illumination.” 20 The alienation of otherness, combined with the alienation of exile is a powerful matrix for the numinous. Tibetan Buddhist Master, Milarepa, now makes perfect sense to me: “Leaving one’s homeland is to accomplish half the Dharma.”21

Cut loose from one’s moorings, deprived of the comfortable and familiar yet threatening, and thrust into the uncertain, one is forced to turn inward and draw more deeply on one’s resources. I can begin to understand , rather than merely appreciate intellectually, the paradoxical Zen-like position of medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, “As long as I am this or that, or have this or that, I am not all things and I have not all things. Become pure till you neither are nor have either this or that; then you are omnipresent and, being neither this nor that, are all things.”22 When you lose everything, you gain everything. When you are nobody, you can become anybody. As a baseless, rootless, property-less person, one has more options, or possibly sees more options, being in a state of flux, transition. Perhaps much like AIDS-related opportunistic infections, one can go and goes where the going is good. I go wherever the possible me has a greater chance of becoming. There’s a saying daag ab tomoch yaad go widout dina , (if a dog has too many homes, he goes without dinner) but that insecurity and instability necessitates and brings forth flexibility, spontaneity, resourcefulness and a high degree of internal organization. In the Jamaican idiom, one should know how to flex, jogl ahn fit iin . American lesbian poet, Thea Hillman, discloses, “What I didn’t know is that I’d feel at home on the road, that home, as an object, as a feeling, as comfort broke into little pieces, broken glass that reflected me over and over as the light hit me in each state.”23 Barbadian literary icon, George Lamming, had experienced this enigma many years ago, underlining, “The pleasure and paradox of my own exile is that I belong wherever I am.” 24

There is nothing like adversity to urge one into the inner life; thrown back upon myself, I have been forced to cultivate those inner qualities that would allow me to survive. In trying to discover myself, I have created myself, confirming Chancy’s conclusion that “through exile, we are made to know more clearly how we have become who we know ourselves to be.”25 Distance lends clarity and perspective. The journey continues, but I have come a long way, had many insights and experiences, transformations, reformations and reinventions of myself. I am doing it now as I write, gathering yet more flags to wave. Like Walt Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes."26 Interestingly, as opposed to size, “large” and “broad” in current Jamaican parlance denote similar multidimensional potency. “How I wish I could pigeon-hole myself and neatly fix a label on! But self-knowledge comes too late! By the time I’ve known myself I am no longer what I was,” muses Nigerian writer, Mabel Segun.27

This fluidity and uncertainty allow one to become more adaptable, and therefore more universal. The focus shifts from concerns with the “little me” to more expansive inclusions. Carl Jung examines his own process: “The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things. In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself.” 28 Psychologist, Abraham Maslow, describes the “authentic person” as one who “not only transcends himself in various ways; he also transcends his culture. He resists enculturation. He becomes more detached from his culture and from his society. He becomes more a member of his species … this is clearly a basis for universalism.”29 University of California at Berkeley professor, David Hollinger, argues that our voluntary identities can become as powerful as our involuntary identities in directing our lives.30 I am no less Jamaican, Chinese, batiman , nigga-lover, or any of the other identities I could claim, but the gestalt or total, becomes greater than the sum of its parts. As such, like it or not, I will remain an anomaly, a rule-bender and boundary-breaker, always on the periphery but yet at the center of my own perceived universe which shifts inexorably towards increased hybridization and creolization. “How glorious it is – and also how painful – to be an exception,” exclaims 19th Century French Poet, Alfred de Musset.31 But tyrannous majorities will one day be superceded by amorphous multiplicities.

In evolutionary terms, organisms respond to changing environmental conditions with higher degrees of organization and increased complexity. Tribal fealty, racial purity, patriotism, and religious orthodoxy, all patriarchal structures, may have been once appropriate, but are no longer adequate responses. Despite the efforts of those “people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealized past,” in Canadian writer, Robertson Davies’ words, they will go the way of the dinosaur and the dodo. The perturbations of Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin, Mugabe, Bin Laden and assorted religious fundamentalists, all of them notably male, misogynist, racist, heterosexist homophobes (what would they have done with me?) are the death throes of a now anachronistic organism struggling to survive. One thing we have learnt from the Human Immunodifficiency Virus is the value of mutability, the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. In the petri dish of the Caribbean Basin, we are favorably predisposed with hybrid vigor resulting from the cross-fertilization of genetic and cultural strains from Africa, Europe and Asia, allowing us not only to survive, but to thrive. Uncertain identity, possible alienation and likely exile is a common Caribbean combination. Ironically, it places us well for becoming global citizens, universal beings, cosmic souls.

Released from your cell
yet prisoner on your island
Write us books
to rediscover our identity.
- Sandra Maria Esteves
“For Lolita Lebron,”
Puerto Rican Writers at Home in the USA


  1. Audre Lorde, African-American lesbian-feminist icon born of Grenadian immigrants to the USA. Many writers of African descent in North America and Britain have Caribbean roots.
  2. Assotto Saint, “Heart and Soul,” in The Road Before Us: 100 Gay Black Poets , ed. Assotto Saint, (New York: Galiens Press, 1991), 116-117. Saint was Haitian-American.
  3. Correspondence from Thomas Glave, 2002 January 21
  4. Jason Chang, “The Truth About Gay Asian Men,” aMagazine , February/March 2001
  5. As a founder and leader of Jamaica’s and probably the Caribbean’s first gay organization, Gay Freedom Movement (GFM), in 1977, I was also the first Jamaican to come out publicly. Other dubious distinctions to which I can lay claim are Jamaica’s first and only gay art exhibition, and, as an alternative lifestyle activist, I established a whole-foods vegan restaurant, a monthly outdoor “Alternative Market,” and published articles and a guide.
  6. In “Diligence,” Wisdom for the Soul: Five Millennia of Prescriptions for Spiritual Healing , Laurence Chang , ed., unpublished manuscript
  7. Described by many commentators including Eugene Pitter, “Culture or Creativity,” The Sunday Gleaner , November 11, 2001. The US-based media watchdog, GLAAD, has mounted protests against dancehall artistes, Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton, affecting their sales in North America and Britain, but the tide of homophobic death-dealing lyrics continues unabated. It is almost obligatory for dancehall artistes to record anti-gay songs.
  8. Besides receiving death threats myself, over 30 gay men, some I have known personally, have been killed in Jamaica in the last 10 years. The authorities do little investigation and are likely to abuse victims fortunate to escape death but brazen enough to file a complaint. Therefore, many incidents are unreported.
  9. Myriam J. A. Chancy, Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 1-2
  10. Winter Solstice Letter 2000
  11. In “Self,” Wisdom for the Soul
  12. Chancy, 2
  13. Michelle Cliff, “If I Could Write This In Fire, I Would Write This In Fire,” The Land of Look Behind , 1985
  14. Literally “let-go beast,” wild, uncontrolled animal. A study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) – Violent Crime and Murder Reduction in Kingston, Executive Summary and Strategies – concluded, “So urgent is the issue of crime to the lives of Jamaicans that it is fair to say that unless there is a virtual sea change in the crime issue the country’s very existence is in danger,” Washington, D.C., January 2001, pp. i. “Exacerbated by poverty, domestic violence, drug and politically motivated violence, the murder rate escalated throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, peaking at 1938 reported homicides in 1997; one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. The most recent report from the US State Department indicated a homicide rate exceeding 30 per 100,000 persons. It is a phenomenon affecting all levels of society.” Amnesty International Report – Jamaica, 2001
    In addition, Amnesty International alerts, “The rate of lethal police shootings in Jamaica is one of the highest in the world. An average of 140 people per annum have been shot and killed, according to official statistics, for the last ten years, in a country whose population is only 2.6 million … The practice of torture and ill-treatment by the security forces continues.”
  15. Charles Waddell Chestnutt, The Marrow of Tradition
  16. , 1901

  17. Much has been written about “two Jamaicas.” For a current commentary, see Mark Wignall, “Nothig to Crow About,” Jamaica Observer , 2002 July 29

  18. A speculation so far, as I have no specific documentary reference for homosexual practice among the Tainos but it has been recorded in almost every other Amerindian culture in various forms.
  19. Despite protestations from many Africanists, indigenous, historic homosexuality in Africa has been thoroughly documented. See Benjamin C. Ray, “African Religions: An Overview,” Encyclopedia of Religion , ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987); Hermann Baumann, Das Doppelte Geschlecht: Ethnologische Studien zur Bisexualitat in Ritus und Mythos (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1955); Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities , eds. Stephen Murray & Will Roscoe (New York: Palgrave, 1998)
  20. Paul Schmidt, “Visions of Violence: Rimbaud and Verlaine,” in Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts , ed. George Stanbolian and Elaine Marks, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 234
  21. Paul Schmidt, 236
  22. ‘Milarepa’ Jetsun Mila, quoted in Lama Surya Das, Awakening to the Sacred: Creating a Spiritual Life from Scratch , 1999
  23. In “Enlightenment / Realization / Transcendence,” Wisdom for the Soul
  24. Thea Hillman, “Home on the Range,” Depending on the Light
  25. George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile ,(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959/1960)
  26. Chancy, 217
  27. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass , 1891-92
  28. In “Growth / Expansion,” Wisdom for the Soul
  29. Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections , Aniela Jaffe, ed., 1963
  30. In “Enlightenment / Realization / Transcendence,” Wisdom for the Soul
  31. David Hollinger, Post-Ethnic America , (New York: Basic Books, 1995)
  32. In “Conformity,” Wisdom for the Soul

© 1996

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