Thomas Glave is no stranger to controversy, nor is he afraid of challenging the status quo. And in his latest book, Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent ( University of Minneapolis Press, 2005, $25.95 ) , his first piece of non-fiction, this American-born scholar of Jamaican parents tackles issues that are close to his heart and his island homeland.
With a style reminiscent of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Glave presents his readers with a series of powerful essays that draw on his experiences as a politically committed, gay Jamaican American and confronts the prejudices, hatreds and inhumanities that persist in the United States and around the world.
Glave, a Fulbright Scholar and assistant professor of English at SUNY Binghamton, was in Chicago recently on his book tour and spoke with us about his latest work, his life and his dreams for gay men and women, in America, Jamaica and other lands.
Identity: The essays included in your book cover a broad range of years, beginning in 1994 with a reflection about your childhood and extending to 2004. What inspired you to write this book and what has been the response?
TG: When I wrote the earliest essay, 'Baychester,' I had no idea that it would be part of a book one day. Some of the essays were written as lectures and public addresses. A few years ago, one of my relatives asked me if I was writing and speaking so much in order to publish all of these works in a book. I started to give it some thought and, well, here we are.
In terms of response to the book, I am currently on the second half of my tour, which I began in November on the East Coast of the U.S. It's a lot of work—going from city to city but folks are coming out to hear me read and to ask questions or give their opinions on the essays. We really have a tremendous turnout in Toronto, Canada. It's hard to gauge the response of my readers because the book has so much information. There are 17 essays. But I would say that what is interesting is how people tend to respond to those essays that speak directly to them. African Americans respond to the Black American-related stuff and Jamaicans to that which deals with Jamaicans, especially on the topics of class and color. Because of my background, I straddle both fences, American and Jamaican. And then of course, there's the added dimension of my identity—I'm gay.
I: Speaking of your ethnic background, how do you deal with the several hyphenated parts of your identity—American, Jamaican and gay?
TG: On the cover of my book I am seated and looking out at the sea. In a sense that is how I explain my purpose or, perhaps, identity. You see, I believe I am a bridge that connects people who feel they are different when, in fact, we are really connected and more the same than any our perceived differences.
Just consider the ocean that separates America from Jamaica. There are millions of bodies—our ancestors—who jumped overboard rather than be sold into slavery. Some remained on the island in the Caribbean while others were brought to America. I speak the language of Jamaica and my parents were born there, but America is my adopted home. My soul resonates with the Black church; the music; and the history and struggle for civil rights.
I: Your essays deal with some really heavy issues: gay bashing, homosexuality and discrimination among your own people—provocative issues. Was it painful for you as you completed this work?
TG: Some of my friends who are gay have been attacked or killed. Yes, this was a personal challenge. Here in America, the gay issue is Black and white, racially speaking. But in Jamaica it's more difficult to analyze. We are still very much a British colony and conservative in our views. Jamaicans are therefore very homophobic but we also have the added dilemma of color—in Jamaica being light or dark really matters. And then, your class and economic status plays a significant role in whether you are accepted or ostracized.
Jamaica is a very small island with 2.6 million people, so you don't have much privacy unless you have a lot of money. Those who are really poor tend to be the most homophobic and strangely enough, they will accept a feminine gay man much easier than they will a gay man that is macho and more in keeping with gender role expectations.
In one of the included essays I talk about gay marriage. I don't know exactly where I stand on the issue yet. Maybe I'm more conservative in some aspects than I thought. But the point of legalizing gay marriage is its symbolic value—it's a bonding ritual. And it's also about intimacy because it tells the world that I have access to your body and you have access to mine. We have the right to make that claim a public one.
I: What is like for you given the multiple pieces to your identity as a professor in upstate New York?
TG: Sometimes I do get lonely and it is a bit bleak but then I am only three hours from New York City. I think it's important, however, that I am a member of the faculty because for my students I have become a beacon. There are quite a few Black students and gay students and they look to me for guidance and support. But I don't do it alone—I have several colleagues who are of color and/or gay. The only regret I have is that I would like to more active in political events and programs in New York City, but I just can't get there as often as I would like.
I: What can we expect from you in the near future?
TG: I am currently editing an anthology of pieces from authors, living and dead, who hail from the Caribbean. The works cover the period from 1956 to 2005 and it's a conversation the different people from the islands who although they may be French, Dutch, Spanish, English or other ethnicities, as people who grew up on the Caribbean islands, we have more in common than we might realize. The problem for us has been historically that we are separated by the sea. In America, people of color can stay connected just by taking a bus ride or traveling by car from one state or region to another. We don't have that luxury.
I also hope to have more opportunities to talk about life as a gay Jamaican among other Jamaicans. Some members of my family don't even want to speak to me about the whole gay issue. Some don't even know how to name it, much less talk about it. But change is coming, very slowly. But it's going to take sacrifice. I guess I'm prepared for the sacrifices that lie ahead.