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Freshwater ethics

Monday, October 16, 2017

You know them.

All over Facebook. With trenchant opinions. About everything political or moral in TTO. Full of know-it-all prescriptions. About what happens everywhere. Or nihilism. About what will never happen here.

Another set is the overdoers. Trying too hard to be creole. Or not skilfully enough. Some are academics. Caribbeanists. Eager. But don’t get that delicate balance right. The voice will stress in the wrong place. Pitch up too high. The waist arc too wide on a wine.

There’s the class who are “to de bone.” For one or two weeks out of 52. The Carnivalists. Who jet from the cold into an economy of VVIP entertainment they sustain.

A newer group bear an ugly name. Those Obama’s draconian immigration policies threw back. As will Trump’s. And Theresa May’s. Deportees. Who’ve spent their living memory in another place, but have to make a way in the everyday here. With no family and little support. The vagrant, the bandit with the Yankee or Cockney accent. The foreign voice under the hairnet at the KFC drive-through.

Freshwaters were Dem Trinidad Yankees the calypsonian sang about. With their whining: Can you show me Chawlotte St? I can’t take the blinking heat. My calypso encyclopaediac friend Zeno Constance reminded me it was Conqueror. Who also provides the epigraph for Lise Winer’s Trinidad Dictionary. I mentioned it recently. I looked up freshwater. Someone who affects airs or affectations of Americanness after a short period living abroad. In Bedford-Stuy, Brooklyn, on Franklin and Fulton scrunting, Conqueror sings. Or sometimes, like Cypher’s Freshwater Yankee, even if they born in this country. Grow in this country. Never left the country.

My schoolmate Gregory and I missed each other at Pan on D Avenue. But what we both found was how many non-residents there are in the country on any given day outside Carnival. Or the larger events like Tobago Jazz and Borough Day that are now big on the freshwater calendar. Unlike when we first left home, travel back need no longer be occasional.

The thing is, modern migration is more circular than linear. There’s a Trinbagonian diaspora of millions worldwide. Engaged with the homeland in a myriad of ways. Up-to-the-minute details of crime and politics and culture are on the internet in a second, where people are in the same conversation and as proximate thousands of miles away as next door.

Freshwaterness is no longer small. Nor comical. The freshwater worthy of calypso mockery is more likely to be the driver going the wrong way down the highway than Cypher’s or Conqueror’s characters.

What instead seems comedic are our petty nationalism in response to Dominica’s disaster. That Commonwealth citizens can elect our government. But we need Robert LeHunte to renounce his honorary Ghanaian citizenship to be an unelected Senator.

Sometimes freshwaterness can be magically transformative. Gay/lesbian people who make Carnival hajj year after year with the entitlement of nationals, yet the impunity of non-residents remake what is possible and normal. Push the limits of queer space outward in a way that does not fully contract for those they leave behind.

For me, though, location still matters. I could write this column from Dar-Es-Salaam. It would be meaningful. But the fact that I was there would be important. Though I am reminded my grandparents, and great-grandparents, came to T&T from Grenada, Martinique, Venezuela; their lives were here.

There must be a certain ethics among those of us who wish to comment about what it means to engage and exercise influence and opinion in a place, without the accountability of having to wake up there. As a columnist, it must be how I tell the story.


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