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What “Caribbean” can mean

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in the Guyana Arts Journal, volume 2, number 2, March 2006

What does “Caribbean” mean? What a vast weight of confusion and possibility and debate those four little syllables have to bear. Is “Caribbean” a geographical region defined by proximity to a body of water, by insularity (in the literal sense), by lines of latitude? Is it a group of nations and proto-nations defined by a common history or culture, or by political links? Is it an aspiration, an attitude, an illusion? Is its meaning determined by presence or absence? Has it an antonym?

This is a knot of questions unlikely ever to be completely unravelled; scholars and politicians and ordinary people will be picking away for foreseeable decades. And these are questions that snag through the pattern of my professional life, not abstractions but practical worries, tightropes to cross and tripwires to vault. I edit a magazine called Caribbean Beat. The question of “Caribbeanness” is one I confront every day.


Some overcast afternoon, perhaps last June, I sit down at my laptop to write a six-hundred-word introduction to a feature headlined “Cover stories” that will appear in the September/October 2005 issue of Caribbean Beat. That edition will be a sort of milestone: the magazine’s 75th since its launch more than thirteen years before, and we have decided to mark this “anniversary” with a variation on the standard cover gallery with which magazines often show off their longevity. I have asked six other members of the editorial staff each to choose from the 74 covers we’ve previously published images that are particularly meaningful — “perhaps a favourite cover, perhaps one with a revealing story attached, perhaps one that was simply unforgettable” — and to tell the stories of those images, suggest what they say about the magazine, what they say about the Caribbean, the pocket of the world we are supposed to be covering. My hope is that these images and stories can be assembled into, as I put it then, “a sort of collective meditation on who we are, what we do, and why we do it”.

The cover images we choose in the end include portraits of the Martinican film director Euzhan Palcy, of the Guyana-born writer Oonya Kempadoo, of Trinidad and Tobago’s Miss Universe 1998, Wendy Fitzwilliam, of an unnamed Carnival masquerader in a costume from Peter Minshall’s band Red, and a “triptych” of portraits of the always controversial Jamaican dancehall artists Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, and Buju Banton; shots of a classic 1950s car in Old Havana and of a young batsman standing at the crease; and a delicate illustration of an Indian dancer by Trinidadian artist Shalini Seereeram that may be the most popular cover we’ve ever published. Many of them colourful and bright, many of them depicting “beautiful and strong” faces; and, perhaps tellingly, not a single image of a beach.

I begin my six-hundred-word introduction in the usual editor’s-note prose:

From the beginning, the magazine has tried to do two things: to show the Caribbean as it really is, from the perspective of Caribbean people; and to celebrate the best that the region is, our most brilliant achievers and proudest moments.

In a Caribbean magazine — especially a Caribbean inflight magazine — people expect to read about holiday destinations and to see images of beaches, turquoise water, coconut trees. We’ve certainly featured lots of those; they’re an undeniable part of our lives and our landscapes. But the Caribbean is far more complicated than that. These islands stretching between two continents are home to a sometimes bewildering, always fascinating mix of peoples and cultures and languages and ideas, combining and colliding to create something new and unique. Over the years, we’ve reported on almost every aspect of Caribbean life — music and art, sport and science, festivals and fashion and cuisine — always trying to reflect the richness and unexpectedness of this place and its people.

I conclude with this three-sentence manifesto:

In its own way, Caribbean Beat has always been engaged in trying to define what the Caribbean is, what “Caribbean” does and can mean. The definition is always changing, and so are we. But the great goal remains the same: to understand ourselves, in our own terms, and to share that understanding with the world.

Brave, ambitious words — especially to describe a magazine whose ostensible purpose, after all, is to entertain airplane passengers for the duration of their transmarine flight. Frankly, no one expects much from an inflight magazine, except for lavishly illustrated travel features, perhaps with the relief of the occasional celebrity puff-piece. The fact that Caribbean Beat tries to do something more seems to surprise some new readers. Our editorial staff is accustomed by now to hearing that ours is the “best” inflight magazine one reader or another has encountered in years of frequent flying. “It’s certainly the most cerebral inflight magazine I’ve read,” a British book editor once told me.

Naturally I am always grateful for compliments like these, but at the same time they prompt misgivings. I would rather that readers did not look at what we do through the “inflight” lens; I myself generally describe Beat as an arts and culture magazine. Distribution via BWIA seatpockets is crucial to our business plan, yes: Beat is supported entirely by advertising, and guaranteed distribution of seventy thousand copies per issue is a major factor in our ad sales. (BWIA in more way than one keeps the magazine aloft.)

And the airline logo perched above our masthead does inevitably set some limits on our editorial freedom: we cannot cover political figures or questions, or controversial subjects that might rouse animosity against the airline. To some, these might seem unacceptable strictures, and I do sometimes feel cornered by the requirement to produce a (resolutely upbeat — no pun) magazine suitable for “family” reading, i.e. containing nothing that minors should not read or see. Over the years, we’ve got away with printing reproductions of artworks depicting tasteful nudes in profiles of artists like Jamaicans Barrington Watson and Laura Facey, but a photo-essay on dancehall, including shots of dancers in skimpy outfits and enthusiastically provocative poses, caused some consternation at Sunjet House, BWIA’s corporate headquarters. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, cabin crews had a hard time keeping this issue stocked, because so many passengers took the magazines home.) We routinely and gently excise risqué language from interviews, but once we got away with some mild swear-words when we ran a piece on the Trinidadian soap opera series Westwood Park, which included a racy sample of dialogue from one episode. And we always caution our writers to avoid mention of politics as far as possible, though sometimes it’s hard to predict where politics will pop up. I once got a letter of complaint from a Guyanese politician who was annoyed that we ran a short piece on the first Carifesta in 1972 — all of four hundred words long, an extended caption to a photograph — and neglected to mention Forbes Burnham.

On the other hand — just as the formal restrictions of the sonnet or villanelle paradoxically free a poet to make fresh, unpredictable choices — Caribbean Beat’s alliance with BWIA, while delineating strict editorial boundaries, frees us from the not inconsiderable anxiety of finding and keeping an audience. Our seatpocket snuggery precludes some topics of investigation, but simultaneously guarantees a diverse readership (in the Caribbean, everybody flies BWIA sooner or later) and allows us to engage in a kind of serious cultural coverage otherwise scarce in the regional media.

And precisely because there are so few general interest and genuinely regional periodicals in the anglophone Caribbean, Caribbean Beat is far more visible, plays a far bigger cultural role, than an inflight magazine could be or could play in another part of the world. We have a small cluster of scholarly and literary journals, often with institutional affiliations; another small cluster of lifestyle magazines disclosing secrets of fashion, and flirting with entrée into the living- and bedrooms of the wealthy; and two or three newspapers wield some kind of clout beyond national shores. Connect these three nodes, and Beat perhaps is suspended near the centre of the resulting triangle.

You could argue that Beat is just another example of the Caribbean’s creative improvisation, of taking whatever materials circumstances provide, however unpromising they might seem, and inventing something unexpected and unique. Hence traditional Caribbean cuisine transforms the dirt-cheap rations of the sugar plantation — the trotters and tails of various beasts, salted cod and mackerel shipped from colder parts of the British Empire — into rich and succulent feasts; and budding musicians in Trinidad during the Second World War turned cast-off metal barrels into musical instruments that, within half a generation, were capable of rendering the most complex harmonies of Bach or Mozart. Lloyd Best has written: “Pan turned literally to the dustbin and emerged as the essential metaphor for transforming nothing into something, the magic of creation. It translates into making music wherever you go, with whatever you find. The ultimate capacity to invent”.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Derek Walcott famously summoned up the image of a vase assembled from the fragments of many broken vessels to describe the Caribbean’s hybrid culture; “the love that reassembles the fragments” is our acceptance of our glorious impurity, and “the glue that fits the pieces” is the power of our imagination, glimpsing affinities and continuities among history’s jagged edges, beauty (or its possibility) in the cultural flotsam washed up on these New World shores. I am boldfaced enough to think that Caribbean Beat stands in that tradition, looking at the Caribbean with clear but hopeful eyes, preferring to focus on joys and triumphs, on the lovely, strange symmetries of Walcott’s vase, not its chips and cracks.


Brave, ambitious; but some Monday morning I arrive at my office, sit down at a desk heaped with papers, books, notepads, and must set in train the series of mundane steps that will lead, ultimately, to the publication of a new issue of the magazine. Caribbean Beat has a long lead time, which means that it is usually six months between our first planning meeting for a particular issue and its appearance in BWIA seatpockets and subscribers’ postboxes in the Caribbean and elsewhere — for though our subscription list is not enormous, the magazine does make its way to some surprisingly remote corners of the world. And from an editor’s day-to-day perspective, the questions that truly matter are not the grand, impossible ones about cultural identity and history and self-definition, but the smaller and perhaps possible ones like: how many pages must I fill this time? Why hasn’t writer A replied to my emails? Can we afford writer B? Will writer C turn in her copy on time? Has anyone ever photographed X? We’ve covered Y before; can we find a fresh angle? Z has fallen through and we go to press in less than a week; how do we fill the space? How have three pages of marked-up galleys gone missing?

I sometimes wonder if our readers guess how great an influence practical matters like budgets and deadlines and print schedules have on the content of the magazine. I am, of course, wincingly aware of this, and when I look at the printed magazine what I inevitably see are its flaws and failures: errors that might have been caught had there been another day for fact-checking or proof-reading; stories that might have been more interesting, more memorable, had the writer or editor been able to go over them once more; or the ghosts of stories we wanted to print but could not pull together in time, photos we wanted to run but could not clear the rights for. I imagine this is true of any magazine editor anywhere, though the editor of a big international magazine with a staff of dozens and a budget of hundreds of thousands perhaps does not feel so much at the mercy of such worries.

My consolations are, first, the thought that a magazine, by its periodical nature, is a permanent work in progress; each new issue is a chance to address the deficiencies of the last, to start afresh; and however satisfying a single story may be, a magazine’s true strengths are cumulative (but so are its true weaknesses). And, second, the knowledge that, at its best, Caribbean Beat has real documentary value, telling the stories of creative, ambitious men and women who in many ways and through many media — art, music, literature, drama, sport, science — are shaping the evolving concept of “Caribbeanness”.


It is a Wednesday afternoon in January, and, as I often do when I want to know what the world thinks of us — and by “us” I mean the Caribbean — I consult the great 21st-century oracle, Google. A nifty trick known to arch-googlers like myself is the wildcard search: you supply the beginning of a phrase and use an asterisk to tell the search engine to fill in the blank — for example, the Caribbean is *

From the tirelessly humming giga-servers in Mountain View, California, comes a string of replies:

The Caribbean is
• best known for its magnificent sun drenched beaches surrounded by turquoise waters
• a magestic [sic] and tropical land with a rich history and a bright future
• hardly known for its food but you can expect to eat well in St Barts and Anguilla
• richly layered, highly complex and a wonderful example of people’s resistance
• famous for its legacy of Pirates
• accustomed to its turbulent weather drawing headlines
• dominated by the history of sugar
• popularly known as the place where the online gambling concept got started


Is there such a thing as a Caribbean identity or spirit or culture, shared by all the territories clustered around the Caribbean Sea, regardless of language or political status? Yes, is the answer that many of the region’s artists and thinkers and visionaries have given and continue to give. But pinning down that identity, naming its essence or essences, and using that knowledge to guide the Caribbean’s young societies through the minefield of the modern world, these are problems we are yet to solve (and one particularly intractable problem is the very question of “we”, the practical ways in which Caribbean citizens do or do not, may or may not, act as members of a community or a culture that extends beyond the shores of individual islands).

And they are problems complicated by the fact that for great periods in our respective or collective histories, the “Caribbean” (or “West Indies” or “Antilles”) has been defined by outsiders looking in. Even today — see the above evidence for what Google, the global mind, thinks of us — the Caribbean as most of the world understands it is a tropical paradise where long ago there were pirates and more recently Bob Marley was born. Or else by insiders — Caribbean men and women — who were trained and educated “outside”, at metropolitan universities, their systems of investigation and comprehension derived from the historical experiences of older, colder countries. Only in the last thirty or forty years have thinkers begun to recognise the imperative for the Caribbean to understand itself in its own terms, to look at itself through eyes unblinkered by imported theories, define itself in a language of its own invention. Lloyd Best’s seminal essay “Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom”, first published in 1967, may be the definitive statement of the case:

[S]ocial change in the Caribbean has to and can only begin in the minds of Caribbean men. If we are to act for change, our philosophers and our theorists have first to understand how we relate to ourselves and to the wider world in which we live.

Forty years later, we are still depressingly far from achieving this apparently simple, actually titanic ideal. But we are surely drawing closer, and the basic work of knowing ourselves better can, I tell myself, in very modest ways be advanced by a magazine like Caribbean Beat, despite all the limits on what we can publish and how. Inevitably, we’ve thoughtlessly perpetuated some stereotypes, committed some errors, overlooked much that is vital, but I am genuinely proud of the occasional achievement of telling our readers — both Caribbean and non- — something unexpected yet true about the territories we cover.

And perhaps the range of those territories is worth remarking. Beat has always aimed to be a pan-Caribbean magazine (a constant struggle for a small editorial staff all based in Port of Spain, without the time to travel as much as we ought), taking “Caribbean” in the widest possible geographic sense, to include not just the islands strung between North and South America and the historically “Caribbean” territories of Belize, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, but also those northern cities with major concentrations of Caribbean immigrants. Some neighbourhoods of New York, London, Toronto, Miami, are distinctly Caribbean places, and since the term “Caribbean” is already so imprecise, why not circle those (and other) cities on the map too? (And remember that half of London is built on West Indian sugar capital, and New York started out as a trading port valuable for its sea links to Bridgetown and Port Royal.)

“Diaspora” is a word long fashionable among Caribbean scholars (as “transnational” is now becoming), and of course in this context it refers not just to citizens of the Caribbean — descended from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, but cut off by history and geography from those ancestral lands — but also to the Caribbean diaspora in the rest of the world: Caribbean people and their descendants who for one reason or another have left the islands of their birth, taking elements of Caribbean culture into the wider world, creating new connections and fusions. Louise Bennett invented the phrase “colonisation in reverse” to describe the migration of the Windrush generation to Britain, and perhaps we should also think of this phenomenon as a new form of creolisation, as elements of an already hybrid Caribbean culture go forth to negotiate with other (already hybrid) cultures to create new and unpredictable hybrids.

Caribbean Beat’s coverage of this Caribbean diaspora has always been, I think, one of our strengths — no surprise, since BWIA aircraft are primary vehicles for communicating with that diaspora, and what Caribbean person doesn’t have a relative or friend who has left for the “cold”? So we run stories about Carnival in Notting Hill and on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, about a reggae festival in California and a small publishing house in Leeds that specialises in Caribbean books and a big art show in London that includes works from the Caribbean, and we interview and profile people like the writers Jamaica Kincaid, Caryl Phillips, and Andrea Levy, the golfer Stephen Ames, the classical conductor Kwame Ryan, the entrepreneur Michael Lee-Chin, the artist Janine Antoni, the actress and theatre director Yvonne Brewster, the scholar Stuart Hall, who may no longer live (or never have lived) in the Caribbean or have Caribbean passports, but who we still consider “ours” — and who are actively changing the meaning — the breadth — of the word “Caribbean”.

A word that is both noun and adjective — and, at least for the Trinidadian filmmaker Robert “Yao” Ramesar, almost a verb: “Caribbeing”. Is it surprising then that “Caribbean” is so elusive of definition? Constantly in motion, like a cloud, so that two people can stare at it simultaneously and see two different shapes; and, like a cloud, apparently solid from far off, disappearing into vapour up close, impossible to grasp, yet we can feel how it changes the weather as it passes. Can such a word, a sensible reader may ask, mean anything at all? Yes, we say — artists and thinkers and visionaries (and magazine editors) and ordinary people. The word does mean something, because we are its meaning. Sumus ergo sumus. We know “Caribbean” means something, because we know we are “Caribbean”. And, word by word, sentence by sentence, gesture by gesture, chord by chord, Beat by Beat, we are trying to figure it out. We are trying to understand ourselves.


I began with questions, and end with a personal account.

The older I get, the better I understand myself, the more I see of the territories strung through and around this body of water, the more I realise that (and how) I am a Caribbean person; and the complicated and very real divisions of ethnicity, language, class, island, and nation (whatever “nation” means!) that run through these territories do not and cannot fundamentally threaten that notion of “Caribbeanness” that I share with thousands — millions? — of people who I have no trouble conceiving of as compatriots.

It may be true that the average individual living in this messy little pocket of the world, eyes firmly on the basic goals of survival and happiness, thinks of himself or herself foremost as Jamaican, Kittitian, Vincentian, and so on. But enough of us accept and believe in a bigger, genuinely, and distinctively Caribbean identity for the word — the definition — the aspiration — to carry the weight of validity and the charge of possibility.

And the path by which I have come to think, feel, and believe all this has run directly through the magazine I edit. In the four years I have spent working on Caribbean Beat, my understanding of the place I am from, my roots and role and responsibilities here, have changed in ways sometimes subtle, sometimes radical. I was born thirteen years after Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence, and a year before we became a republic, cutting our formal ties with the British monarchy. I grew up thinking of myself sometimes as Trinidadian, sometimes as a citizen of the world; but Caribbean mostly (and merely) in the geographic sense. As Beat’s editor, I have had to learn a great deal about places, phenomena, and people across the rest of the region, widened my circle of contacts to include almost every Caribbean territory. I have noticed sometimes surprising differences, but more often even more surprising similarities between islands, cities, ways of life separated by hundreds of miles of sea.

The breakthrough moment, perhaps, occurred on a trip to St. Lucia in February 2004. Walking in Castries — a city I had never visited and where I was about to get lost — I was struck by this thought: this place is mine too. From that moment I have thought of myself as — paraphrasing Ian McDonald — Trinidadian by birth, and Caribbean by conviction, even if I am still trying to understand quite what that means.