Assembling the Indo-Caribbean
Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens of New York City is an unofficial haven for Indo-Caribbean immigrants. Also known as Little Guyana, the neighborhood is full of Caribbean restaurants, stores, bakeries, and places of worship. Also in the neighborhood are a few nightclubs that many young Caribbean immigrants attend regularly. Though many aspects of the Indo-Caribbean experience are already queer in a way, as we will discover, investigation of the Indo-Caribbean nightclub will serve to expose even more of them.
Indo-Caribbeans double as both diasporic people, since they were removed from South Asia, and colonized people as well, since they were brought to work in the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean and South America. Due to lack of good record-keeping by the British, most Indo-Caribbeans do not know of their ancestry beyond what family elders can remember, and that knowledge usually does not reach back all the way to pre-partition India. But Indo-Caribbeans did manage to hold on to some of their culture: many practice Hinduism or other Eastern religions, watch Bollywood movies, and speak South Asian words that survived colonization and still live on in the creole. Colonization brought about this ambivalence that dominates Indo-Caribbean identity: feeling close enough to a homeland because you still practice the culture, but feeling removed due to the inability to know where exactly your ancestors came from, or what exact ethnicity your ancestors were.
Just as ambivalent as the Indo-Caribbean identity is, so is the way that that identity is expressed in nightlife. The atmosphere of the club is best summed up in one word: carefree. The word ‘carefree’ has experienced a renaissance on Twitter in the past few years with e-movements like that of #CarefreeBlackGirls dedicated to rejecting racially-charged stereotypes; among Indo-Caribbean folk, such wotlessness is part of the culture and par for the course. The pounding bass and party-happy lyrics are not only appealing to listen to but in fact infectious, first and foremost causing people to dance. The main goal is to have fun, and it seems to get accomplished: women dance with women, men dance with women, and men dance with men. Men sway their hips in a fashion that is oftentimes unaccepted by general American society because it is not masculine; this kind of hip-swaying is called whining, and is actually gyration much more than sway. Another motion that may be deemed “not masculine enough” of Indo-Caribbean men in these spaces that they place less of an emphasis on predatory pursuit of women. Of course, some men in these spaces will pursue women predatorily, however it is not as much of a part of the experience as it would be at, say, a college fraternity party. Men and women dance together freely, changing partners easily, with each song if they want. If someone refuses a request to dance, then that person just moves on. Just going up to someone and dancing with them is actually more common than formally asking, but is as much of an invitation as verbally asking. And, most importantly, dancing with someone does not mean there will be sexual contact afterwards. Even though the dancing itself can be considered sexual, since it entails gyrating movement and a lot of bodily contact, it is just seen as just dancing: nothing more, and nothing less.
This aspect of nightlife is seen in general West Indian culture as well. Director X, producer of the music video for dancehall hit Work by Rihanna, opted to put this more open nightlife culture in his presentation of West Indian nightclub culture: a brief moment in which Rihanna is dancing not with Drake, the rapper featured on the track playing the part of her presumed love interest, but ‘pon female company. In an interview with Billboard, Director X states:
In Indo-Caribbean and West Indian nightlife alike, it seems that there is a sort of openness about the sexuality involved with dancing that allows for a somewhat safer environment. It’s also part of what makes the experience so fun; stripping nightlife down to just music and dancing removes some standards and allows for much crazier things to happen.
The immense indecisiveness that comes with being Indo-Caribbean suggests a shift to assemblage rather than identity. Assemblage is different from identity in that it understands personhood as an amalgamation of experiences that are fluid and constantly in motion, rather than static like identity suggests. As Jasbir K. Puar writes, diaspora can be “cohered through sensations, vibrations, echoes, speed, feedback loops, and recursive folds and feelings.” In this sense, identity is not inherently linked to concrete things such as country of origin; rather, it is based on experiences like the music we listen to, the food we eat, the pain we experience. Puar’s work in her piece entitled Queer Times, Queer Assemblages helps to explain or make sense of the ambiguity surrounding the Indo-Caribbean identity; assemblage functions well here because it “underscores feeling tactility, ontology, affect, and information.” Considering Indo-Caribbeans as assemblages can be more appropriate because of the history of colonization and migration that makes their identity so fragmented. A focus on identity highlights the ways diasporic and colonized people fall short in terms of culture when comparing oneself to the motherland: the cracks in what is there, the new things that do not fit in, and the old things that were lost and are still missing. Rather, a focus on assemblage allows Indo-Caribbeans to view themselves as they truly are; products of global chaos that resulted in a new West Indian culture.
Knowing themselves as assemblages is what brings forth the fun and explosive environment in Indo-Caribbean nightlife. Recognizing that their culture is mixed with African and European influence is what creates the infectious, dance-inducing music. As assemblages, Indo-Caribbeans’ shared, pained history and continued hard work with the rest of the West Indian community create a need to party hard and have fun. Simply existing as an Indo-Caribbean can be exhausting in itself; meeting new people and explaining where we are from requires patience, along with the deliverance of a history lesson to convey how on earth South Asians ended up the Caribbean. The shift from identity to assemblage can help facilitate us seeing ourselves not simply as removed South Asians, but having a culture that is unique and complicated as every bit of our history. As assemblages, we are more whole, and less restrictions are placed upon us. We see it in our nightlife: the gender binary is somewhat dissolved in the club as men lose some masculinity by taking on more feminine dance moves and respecting the space of others where it is wanted, all the while enjoying themselves and having fun. The nightlife scene is often bursting at the seams, full of people constantly dancing, with no other plan than to have a good time and let go in this moment.
Indo-Caribbean assemblage also creates some affiliative networks, which Puar actually wonders about, asking what kinds of alliances could be spawned by embracing queer mechanics and assemblages. The Indo-Caribbean community unites and interacts with other ethnicities within the West Indian community. Because they have a similar history of harsh labor, colonization, and diaspora, Indo-Caribbeans find themselves allying with others of similar history despite divides of race or class. Hence a connection with other diasporic peoples of the Caribbean, including Afro-Caribbeans and Sino-Caribbeans, and Latin@s in the Caribbean such as Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Indo-Caribbeans can even relate to Black Americans, as one twitter user remembered:
History of brutal colonization is not a unique one, and many affiliative networks can be created on the basis of shared similar history.
But the dancehall is not yet the great equalizer of all West Indians. Not too long ago, gay Indo-Caribbean activist Zaman Amin was attacked in a hate crime at Players Restaurant and Bar in Queens. Though many Indo-Caribbean organizations for women and LGBTQ came out against the violent act, including KhushDC and Jahajee Sisters, homophobia and rigid gender roles are still rife within the community. This leads to abuse, especially against women and others along the margins, which can be traced back to our colonized history. Though members of the Indo-Caribbean community reinforce gender roles through violence and homophobia, the fact that it can happen in the nightclub, the same place where we see the breakdown of gender roles, just shows the very fragmented nature of this identity.
Either way, assemblage is necessary to being Indo-Caribbean because of the immense ambiguity and indecisiveness that exists within that frame of being. Identity highlights the negatives of such a frame of being, because it leads to comparison of oneself to homeland and ultimately feelings of not fitting in. However, when Indo-Caribbeans consider themselves as assemblages, true magic happens. A hugely fun and wildly unpredictable kind of nightlife ensues while still remaining open, respectful and consensual. Also, endless possibilities for new alliances pop up, due to an unfortunately common history of diaspora, forced labor, and immigration. However, these unfortunate histories also lead to true cultural diffusion, and expands the possibility for new alliances even more. Assemblage removes the restrictions of identity from a person, and the Indo-Caribbean community is just one of many that can see the benefits from that.
Jennifer Willis is a first-generation American immigrant from Guyana. Currently an undergraduate student at Fordham University, she hopes to delve deeper into diasporic studies and understand more about West Indian culture. More of her writing can be found on tinyletter.