Written by Domenic Rotundo
Liminal Spaces: Migration and Women of the Guyanese Diaspora, offers the reader an intimate and insightful experience. In the Introduction to her edited volume, Grace Aneiza Ali asks, “when we have more Guyanese living outside the country than within its borders, what becomes of our homeland?” This question and much more is addressed in this selection of thought-provoking essays, poems, photography, and artwork from fifteen women of Guyanese ethnicity. This book examines the implications and experiences of migration: from the separation of family (and friends), and the great hardships faced in a different country (including anti-immigrant hate), to the mindset of those women that left Guyana (as well as the impact their movements had on their children). Personal narratives are explored against the backdrop of wider issues—Guyana's poverty, corruption, racial violence, and the potential impacts of offshore oil. The age-range of the contributors is wide, and the stories cover seven decades (1950s to present) of Guyana's history; as Ali states in the Introduction, “Liminal Spaces centers the narratives of grandmothers, mothers and daughters, immigrants, and citizens—women who have labored for their country, women who are in service to a vision of what Guyanese women can and ought to be in the world.” Their emotional journeys are explored, and their relationships with Guyana dissected: as Ali puts it, “remaining connected to a homeland is at once beautiful, fraught, disruptive, and evolving.”
Beginning with affecting epigraphs and informative “curatorial notes,” the four parts of this book are all-encompassing: (I) Mothering Lands, (II) The Ones Who Leave. . . The Ones Who Are Left, (III) Transitions, and (IV) Returns, Reunions, and Rituals. In Part I, Ali states:
Mothering Lands engages the tensions between our place of birth (motherland) and the space of othering (otherland). For artists Keisha Scarville (United States), Erika DeFreitas (Canada), and journalist Natalie Hopkinson (Canada/United States), all first-generation daughters, their relationships with their Guyanese-born mothers serve as a metaphor for their relationship with Guyana—a space frequently wrestled with as a mythical motherland.
The importance of photography, documentation, and memory is clear, as is the pain of loss: as DeFreitas notes, “when I look at that photograph, I see my grandmother as my mother as myself.” In “Surrogate Skin: Portrait of Mother (Land),” Keisha Scarville states, “the death of my mother left me with a sense of displacement and an internal fracturing.” By photographing herself in her mother's clothes (from the series: Mama's Clothes, 2015), Scarville pays homage to her and eases “the anxiety of separation by conjuring her presence within the photographic realm.” Along with the moving photographs, Scarville brings powerful description: “beneath the weight of her clothes, I exist as beneath a veil. I breathe my mother into me and feel her presence in my body.” This first part of the book also includes engrossing letters between Natalie and her mother Serena Hopkinson.
Part II deals with those leaving (including their feelings of guilt)—and especially those left behind. Ali's “The Geography of Separation” is a travelogue of four vignettes, each focused on a woman or girl encountered in distinct geographic spaces, and as Ali notes, “I find myself weaving the stories of these places and the people I’ve encountered with those of Guyana.” The generations-old karahi is special; it carries memories of Ali's grandmother, as we see in Ali's description of her mother's packing: “in her suitcase bound for America, there was no prized jewelry, no priceless antiques, no precious silk saris. There was only the karahi—the sole possession she had after her mother died. It was not going to be left behind.” Objects like the karahi connect the past with the present, homeland with new land. Dominique Hunter speaks of each of us [immigrants] as being, “a body and a tree, flexible and fixed,” shapeshifting, uprooting and transplanting, and, in this vein, provides an insightful, “guide to surviving transplantation and other traumas.” Khadija Benn provides impressive black-and-white photography of elder Amerindian women living in Guyana's remote villages; in interviewing these women, Benn shows that they are essential to Guyana's history and its migration stories. In their stories we hear the negative consequences of migration: loss of traditional cultures, languages, and communal ways of life; we also see the important role of matriarchs, as well as the pride and resilience of those who stay. Ingrid Griffith reveals the pain for those leaving: “my mother tilted her head up at us; tears filled her eyes. ‘Mammy loves you,’ she said.” We are shown the feelings of a child left behind, including Ingrid's heartbreaking letter to her parents, that was never sent.
Part III focuses on the space between departure and arrival—the acts of processing life in a past land and constructing life in a new land. We see how women leaving their homeland is a matter of necessity, not desire—as expressed by poet Grace Nichols. Artist Suchitra Mattai targets colonial power and its consequences, producing artistic acts of “appropriation.” Landscapes and symbolism are also central to her work; as Ali observes, “Mattai’s landscapes, used to explore her relationship to the idea of homelands in transition, teem with texture, materiality and laborious detail.” Christie Neptune's art essay deals with memories of her mother and crocheting (popular among Guyanese women): as Ali points out, “for Neptune, the art of crocheting becomes a metaphor for the necessary acts of unfurling a life in a past land to construct a new life in a new land.” We see the heartbreaking impact of migration for Ebora Calder, an elder who, like Neptune's mother, migrated to New York in the late 1950s. Artist Sandra Brewster brings to the forefront the voices of the matriarchs in her family, with memories, telling photographs, key questions, and stories: Brewster observes, “they want us to experience what they experienced by flying us there, on the backs of their words.” Brewster records the process of migration and shows, as Ali states, “it takes the driving force of women to get to a place of not merely surviving and adapting but thriving.”
Part IV deals with returning to Guyana, reuniting with relatives, and learning deeply about their homeland—as well as keeping a strong connection to it. As Ali explains, “collectively, the essays in Returns, Reunions, and Rituals explore how daughters of immigrants like Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and Maya Mackrandilal have rekindled, restored, and repaired frayed bonds. They illuminate, for those in the diaspora still estranged from Guyana, how to rediscover a place once lost.” Michelle Joan Wilkinson's curatorial essay discusses the objects bound up in migration; she explores two very personal, contrasting objects (a concrete house; and filigree jewelry), one left behind and one taken. Wilkinson also speaks of lost language and lost space. In her memoir-essay, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen focuses on the relationship between father and daughter, and unpacks the complexities surrounding cultural identity and migration: “this was a time when every institution that carried authority attempted to convince immigrant parents that a sense of cultural identity was an obstacle, rather than a lifeline and a necessity.” Maya Mackrandilal deals with loss and death in her art essay, “Keeping Wake.” Here, water is an important symbol; as Ali notes, “Mackrandilal connects generations of those who ventured into the kal pani two centuries ago with those who embark on symbolic crossings of their own twenty-first century dark waters.” This book concludes with, “A Brief History of Migration from Guyana.”
The rich variety of contributors, methods, and styles that coalesces in this book brings a powerful experience for the reader. These fifteen talented women of Guyanese ethnicity express themselves in their own unique and authentic ways, giving us a genuine look at their stories. In Liminal Spaces, we encounter visual storytelling and multimodal creativity in the photography; great depth and symbolism in the artwork; and stimulating essays and poems. In addition, there are telling official documents, expressive memoirs, as well as family letters and snatches of dialogue. This deeply personal and sensitive look at the full migratory experience of generations of women from Guyana is truly revealing. For those interested in the migration of women, Guyanese diaspora, or diaspora in general, this creative and informative book is a must-read.
Banner image: Grace Aneiza Ali, The SeaWall, Georgetown, Guyana (2014). Digital photo by Candace Ali-Lindsay. Courtesy of the artist, CC BY-NC-ND.
About the Editor
Grace Aneiza Ali is Curator and an Assistant Professor and Provost Fellow in the Department of Art & Public Policy at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University in New York City. Ali’s curatorial research practice centers on socially engaged art practices, global contemporary art, and art of the Caribbean Diaspora, with a focus on her homeland Guyana. She serves as Curator-at-Large for the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute in New York. She is Founder and Curator of Guyana Modern, an online platform for contemporary arts and culture of Guyana and founder and editorial director of OF NOTE Magazine—an award-winning nonprofit arts journalism initiative reporting on the intersection of art and activism. Her awards and fellowships include NYU Provost Faculty Fellow, Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellow, and Fulbright Scholar. She has been named a World Economic Forum ‘Global Shaper.’ Ali was born in Guyana and migrated to the Unites States with her family when she was fourteen years old.