Associate Professor Tinsley looks at same-sex desire in Caribbean literature
Associate Professor of English Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley is teaching a freshmen seminar on Post-Colonial and Anti-Racist Coming of Age Narratives this fall. Her introductory bio for students notes that when Tinsley was a girl, she wanted to be a writer, dancer, and mother--all of which goals, Tinsley writes, she still finds exciting. In recent years, the California native has performed with the Twin Cities modern Indian dance company Ananya Dance Theatre. She has a baby daughter. And last summer she published her first book, the elegantly incisive Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature (Duke University Press).
"The book started in some ways from an answer I got in 1996," Tinsley recalls, "when I asked a prominent professor of Caribbean lit about titles in Caribbean 'lesbian' literature. She told me that that didn't exist in the Caribbean, probably because homosexuality didn't exist in Africa until European colonization. I knew all of that was wrong but couldn't prove it . . . and so started to be on the lookout for evidence not only that same-sex desire existed and had been given words in the Caribbean, but that there was a long-rooted tradition of both."
Moving from early 20th century Afro-Surinamese mati song performances to contemporary Caribbean-Canadian poet Dionne Brand, Tinsley investigates texts in which women writers "redeploy" woman-as-nature tropes to imagine the landscape and other women belonging not to a colonial master but to themselves. During the writing process, Tinsley met some unique challenges: "First, really thinking more and more deeply about what 'woman' means in an African diaspora context," Tinsley explains, "how chattel slavery changes the stakes of reclaiming that word, how radically and powerfully it becomes divorced from biology. And, second, rethinking what it means to write academic prose: trying to find pleasure in the prose, to look for how to make a sentence beautiful . . . to write creatively about creative texts."
That she has succeeded is clear in the words of prominent Caribbean anthropologist Gloria Wekker, who calls Thiefing Sugar "[l]uscious, abundant, and rich." Next up for Tinsley, who was promoted with tenure last spring, is the monograph Desiring the Blue Lagoon: Sea Crossings and Fluid Identities in Caribbean Literature, which focuses on contemporary Caribbean authors. She is also venturing into fiction writing, with a novel in progress about women shipbuilders in World War II.