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Facing the gansta grannies

Published: 
Monday, November 20, 2017

You haven’t encountered gangster until you’ve met the Indo-Caribbean grannies of Toronto’s Jane and Finch area. Originally from locations such as Berbice, Wakenaam and Beterverwagting in Guyana, these wisened ladies helped to fill the audience at Thursday’s University of Toronto launch of the collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, which I co-edited with Guyanese scholar Lisa Outar.

In their sweaters and wool hats, their sharp gaze was nothing less than inquisitive and intimidating. They looked like is two good whack for any backchat, for belonging to the wrong kind of mafia, for dotishly playing gunman like you have nothing better to do, or for not knowing how to conduct yourself like a fearless and good-speaking beti when your family sacrifice to send you to school.

Especially when you edit a collection with a lofty word like ‘thought’ in the title, you have to be able to convince nanis and ajis, with more common sense and experience than you, why that book matters. That’s what we set out to do in an event less like an academic book launch, and more like a chutney fete. Not because there was rum and “Coolie Bai”, though there was roti and coolie boys, but because the gathering was community-centred, multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and joyfully inclusive of multiple expressions of sexualities.

There was the girl, just seven, dancing in garara and gold after women musicians played sitar and tabla, and while a young woman painted, because art and film give us language when words fail. There were bright, next generation students, confident, political and completing PhD theses. Now playing the role of mentors, were mothers with professional careers, able to be there because grandmothers were at home with our children. There were Indian women writers whose ideas provided a home, since the 1980s, for nurturing our thinking about Caribbean theory. In this choka, were feminist badjohns with their solidarities and their laughter, who teach with love across racial divides. Then, in the centre, were these matriarchs, representing their community organisation and its challenges to immigrant experiences of violence and poverty.

So, why should the collection matter? It’s a jahahin bundle, crossing oceans with many inheritances knotted in its pages. Tucked within are the legacies of Indian women in the Caribbean, and all the ways that they and indentureship have transformed us all in the region. It’s a remembering of foremothers who wanted more and pursued better for themselves and those who came after. It’s a warm enfolding of douglas and other mixes who are just as Indian too. There are cuttings of everything from carnival freedoms to matikor celebrations, from trance spiritualities to poetry. Finally, it’s a package tied with the gold threads of feminist work to live without violence, inequality or hunger, and to live with respect for matriarchal leadership and power.

And, were we able to talk good and show that education might not alienate us from our cultural histories as much as empower us to remake their relevance anew?”‘Is how much fuh this book?,” shouted one granny, at question time. And another, later, “I getting one too?”

So, in this collection’s travels from Guyana to Trinidad to New York, this week’s encounter is with the elder women of Jane and Finch’s concrete suburbs, our toughest crowd yet, who we managed to convince that another book mattered.

They left with copies because they came up and asked after, knowing it was deserved, and we were too honoured and terrified to say no. Lisa and I just handed over books, forget their cost or sale. Despite our degrees, when facing steely-eyed, no-nonsense grannies, who could wield a bilna like a gangster, we default to betis who know you just keep quiet and do what you are told. Our jahajin bundle was an inheritance from them, and our book might be the rare kind in which they recognise themselves as knowledge-bearers, feeling warm pride amidst Toronto’s cold.