To be a Caribbean artist in diaspora is to simultaneously find home, belonging and artistic opportunities in a new place, even while knowing there is a “home home,” as Lisa Allen-Agostini recently termed it. Born in Jamaica twelve years apart before migrating to the U.S in the 2000s, visual and performance artist Cosmo Whyte and novelist Marlon James might seem at first glance to have little in common beyond their native island. But both artists craft border-crossing, multimodal works that upend generic form, as well as gender and identity. In pieces such as “The Expat” and “Nkisi,” Whyte’s own body is transformed by marine and sartorial decorations, not merely a marker of queer fashioning but as a present archive of black trauma and death that can only be salvaged through the body, the performative, the visual. James’ oeuvre is replete with shape-shifting characters, gender-norm bending long before he writes his African fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The music, popular culture and history of Jamaica and the wider Caribbean also infuse both Whyte’s and James’ work. James’ Booker-winning epic, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), spirals outward from the 1976 assassination attempt on reggae superstar Bob Marley. Marley is there too in Whyte’s artwork (in the title of the 2019 “Get Up Stand Up” exhibition), as is Jimmy Cliff as Ivanhoe ‘Rhygin’ Martin in the iconic film The Harder They Come (see the piece “Shotta,” in the Playing Mas collection), and sound system speakers (in “Sole Imperial” from the Mother’s Tongue installation).
In this wide-ranging conversation, the two artists think together about their overlapping journeys and their craft, and the ways their Jamaican roots inform their work and complicate their sense of identity even as they navigate life in the fraught racial climate of the U.S.
– Njelle Hamilton
Njelle Hamilton: You are both born in Jamaica and living and working in the US. Do you think of yourselves as exiles or migrants, or some other term, and has that shifted over the years?
Marlon James: I never considered myself an exile but I always thought it was interesting that when you leave a country like Jamaica people think you are. Nobody says, “Did you exile from Denmark?” And when they hear, “Oh he’s queer,” they think, ‘Oh, he must be [an exile].’ I’m not knocking it, because I know people who left Jamaica because they couldn’t live there, but that wasn’t my case. You can leave a country because you have done as much as you can for it and it has done as much as it can for you. And sometimes it can be even simpler than that: Homeboy got a scholarship, or that place is different, or “I’m going to make more money.” Or: “I want to be in a same city as Beyoncé.”
Hamilton: Is there in those assumptions too, perhaps, a kind of discourse around Jamaicanness? I’m also thinking that this discourse is not just from outsiders, but even Jamaicans, in our very festival songs and tourist board brochures: It’s Tinga Stewart’s, “Nuh Wey Nuh Betta Dan Yard,”—as in, “why would you ever want to leave a place like Jamaica?”
James: Yeah, but the reasons they give are always nostalgic. It ties into this impulse you see every now and then in Jamaica where, if we’re going through a really rough time, there are people who say we were better under colonial rule. And I always point out to people that the Back O’Wall slum, which is one of the worst underclass structures in the history of this planet, was [built] under colonial rule. The murder of over 400 Jamaicans because they were fighting for civil rights in Morant Bay [in 1865] was under colonial rule. As poor as people think Jamaica is in certain parts of the country, the suffering is nowhere near what it was. Also, there’s that little thing called slavery.
Cosmo Whyte: I don’t consider myself an exile, either, and I still have deep connections and I’m fortunate enough to be able to go back. There are moments of feelings or estrangement when you realize that every time there’s a departure, you leave Jamaica in a static state in your mind and when you arrive back it has moved beyond that point, so there’s a negotiation of that. But my decision to migrate is also not one of trauma.
Hamilton: When you left the first time, were you intending to migrate?
Whyte: No, no. I view my departure in two stages. I came to the U.S to be an undergrad in 2000. But the intention was always to return [to Jamaica]. And then shortly after graduating, there was the untimely death of my father and that shifted my perspective. I decided it might be better to stay here and work. Technically I left in 2000, but in my mind the real departure doesn’t happen until, like, 2005, or 2006.
James: I left around 2007 for a teaching job in Minnesota. I just thought there were no more options for what I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to write books. I was in advertising, but in advertising you write by committee, and it’s product and it’s fine—you can make a lot of money from it, but it’s like the difference between a graphic artist or an artist doing graphics, you know? Are you a copy writer or a writer doing copy? There’s nothing wrong with either, but you’ve got to know. One of things I will say about my friends in Jamaica, some were cautionary tales of what happens if you never return to your art. I’ve been surrounded by friends in their 50s and 60s saying, “I’m going to write that novel now,” and they realize free time is not exactly what you need to make art. One of the things that painters and writers sometimes don’t know, and that dancers do know, is if you’re in art you have to practice, you have to practice your craft and you have to get to the point where that craft becomes more important than anything else. Dancers know this, singers know this, writers and artists—boy, we sometimes need our heads knocked.
Whyte: That has always been the intention for me in terms of trying to put my art first and when I feel I’m butting up against that, I understand it is time to move from this place, whether mentally or physically, to extricate myself from this location, get to another location where I can again put my practice before any other obligation.
James: I think that’s what migration means for an artist. Sometimes it’s heading to a physical or a mental space that allows you to make the work, sometimes it’s mental. There are a lot of writers and artists who didn’t leave Jamaica and who are doing great work. And there’s some who simply had to.
Whyte: Particularly in the U.S., there’s this romanticization of migration in liberal circles. Especially when I’m asked to talk about my own migration story it’s a way of also talking about how beholden I am to be in the U.S. and how great it is, often to the detriment of those who stayed behind and are thriving, or who are doing the work to improve the conditions for the arts.
James: Yeah, it’s a way in which so-called First World people take credit, this assumption that this sort of liberal, welcoming country is a place where you’re able to grow and function as an artist, and learn. When I moved to America I’d already written two novels.
Hamilton: It seems to me that Jamaica is a space that’s still part of who you both are, of what’s in your artistic toolkit. Cosmo, in a lot of your performance art you return to and engage with Jamaican spaces. Marlon, except for your most recent novel, Black Leopard Red Wolf, your fiction is set in Jamaica. Where is Jamaica in your imagining and in your sense of who you are as artists living in the U.S.?
James: Even though I’m a citizen of the United States now, I still primarily look at myself as Jamaican.
James: I had to remind myself last year, Oh wait, I can vote this guy out. And I think the reason why I still look at myself as a Jamaican is that I still use Jamaican-ness as a vantage point of viewing the world, and also because I think I’m in a better position to look at Jamaica critically. For example, when you live in America for a while and go back to Jamaica you can see racism there. Cosmo was talking about colonialism and colonialism did a number on us [because often Jamaicans will claim that] in Jamaica, it’s not about race, it’s class.
Whyte: It’s class, yeah.
James: Colonialism taught you that. So, if you’re a Black kid and you got your Rhodes scholarship and you speak properly and you go to the U.K. and you see a sign that says, ‘No Blacks, no Irish, no Jews,’ none of those three are you because you’re Jamaican.
Hamilton: “I’m not Black, I’m OJ.”
James: At the same time, I’m surroun-ded by dark-skin male friends with light-skin wives. And I’m sure they love each other, I’m not knocking it or being cynical, but I also see what’s at play here. One thing I didn’t learn until I was in America and came back to Jamaica is that you don’t have to be white to practice white supremacy. I remember, back in Jamaica thinking it was normal that The Courtleigh Hotel could look at me and my friends and go, “You can’t come in to this nightclub, you’re not dressed appropriately,” and then seeing a bunch of white men dressed the very same way being let in and just thinking, Oh, that’s just how it is, we’ll just dress better next time. And I think that to be a Jamaican interrogating Jamaican-ness, you start to say things other people don’t necessarily like or want to hear. For me at least, being able to love a country critically was new but it wasn’t always welcome.
Whyte: I want to also piggyback on that and say I was born in Saint Andrew and my family left Kingston when I was seven and moved to Montego Bay, and I always felt a sense of discomfort being in the tourism capital of the island because of the heavy reliance on nostalgia. And I remember going into these places that were built to be like a simulacra of colonial times and thinking, Man there should be a performance piece where you just have a slave just run through this, just to re-contextualize what this architecture actually means and what is embedded in this architecture. So, I always felt at odds with this heavy reliance on nostalgia within the country and it ended up making me feel estranged at home. But I think that is a really good place to be as an artist any way.
James: In my recent trips to Jamaica, I find that the nostalgia industrial complex is really now more in the diaspora. Sometimes we have this idea that people living abroad, living in America, may be more open-minded, and sometimes they are. But I go back to Jamaica as a queer person, and I go anywhere I want. In the States, I can’t remember the last time that a Jamaican organization so much as acknowledged my presence. Whereas I go back to Jamaica, I’m at university and I’m talking to the Queer Students Association and I have my “It gets better speech” ready, and they’re like, “We don’t want to hear that shit. Do you know Beyoncé?” What I found, especially with queer teenagers in Jamaica, is a kind [of attitude] of: “No, we’re not losing the right to be a teenager and think about teen things,” and for Beyoncé versus Rihanna to be their drama as opposed to, ‘Will I be beaten?’ I’m not letting Jamaica off the hook at all, but I’ve also found more forward thinking on the island and I find the nostalgia here. When you hang onto nostalgia you also hang on to the prejudices.
Hamilton: I’m glad you brought that up because I wanted to pivot from nostalgia to the future. Marlon, one of the many lines I underlined in Black Leopard is this one: “There is no future in your form.” Both of you create art that questions the limitations of your art forms, work that pushes the boundaries of form, work that engages the past without being preoccupied with nostalgia. So, what do you see as the future of the forms you’re working with, and why might that involve transcending, transgressing these still entrenched borders around genres?
James: I think it’s interesting with Cosmo’s work, and with my work, that we’re very, very forward looking, and we think about the future but we reference the past an awful lot. Actually, it’s not reference, because one of the things I like about Cosmo’s stuff is how he annotates the past. I’ve been called a historical novelist and I actually prefer to call myself a corrective novelist—corrective in a sense that sometimes you have to go back to the so-called truth and realize it was a version, and this truth that we were given should’ve come with some disclaimers, or shouldn’t have even come in the first place. In order to move forward, you have to sort of respond to the erasure of the past. That’s one of the things I like about Afro-futurism, is that it sort of jumps way back and jumps way forward in order to comment on the present. That’s a very Black thing. I have a saying that if you’re a really good rock and roll artist eventually you have to go back to blues or you’re going to run out of stuff to say. And for me, I had to jump back in order to say something new. I gave the J.R.R. Tolkien lecture a few years ago, and one of the things I was talking about is what a privilege it is to take your mythologies for granted. If you’re an average British person, you probably don’t think about King Arthur much, but Camelot is an essential mythology because Camelot reinforces that civilization was always in Britain, and there was always chivalry and so on, at least as far as we care to remember, even though Britain was one of the most appalling and backward pieces of ditch in Europe, you know? Julius Caesar showed up in Britain and was appalled. The Gauls weren’t all that advanced either. But it’s an essential mythology and I don’t think the average British person realizes that they’re standing on the shoulders of a mythology. What does that mean as a Black person when you don’t have it?
Hamilton: Or you don’t know you have it.
James: It’s like when you look at folklore. Folklore comes from something, and I realize the reason why Black Leopard and these other novels were happening is because I had to dip back into that kind of reservoir before I could try this as something new.
Hamilton: And that in itself is new, right? Because we don’t give ourselves permission to tell stories with that kind of breadth of the past, and with the kind of scope for the future?
James: Or we use somebody else’s past. The problem when you’re writing fantasies is most fantasies are medieval stories with fairies in it.
Hamilton: And dragons.
James: That said, I have a great love for them.
Whyte: Yeah, for me this new annotation works. I refer to them as new because it’s only within the last two years that I’ve been working with them and it’s a natural evolution of what I was doing before, but it was also born out of this frustration during the last administration of constantly hearing that this was unprecedented. It felt like there was a disconnect with the lessons that history has provided us. And also, as you start critically looking at this history, as Marlon said, it needs to come with certain caveats because there’s all of this erasure. And so, I’ve been haunted by these archival images, in particular the Brixton riot [in London in 1981]. I was in a show in London in 2019 and I got a chance to go and I was interviewing my aunt who was part of the Windrush generation [of post-war Caribbean immigrants to Britain], who talked about Brixton as this mecca for Caribbean folks, and then talked to her son, who is first-generation British-born. It’s interesting to see how those two generations talked about their relationship to England. Like with all my other works I wanted to try to create this larger diasporic conversation, and not just centralize the American experience of resistance
Hamilton: A lot of what both of you do really well is not just bringing together past, present and future, though, is it? Cosmo, you have this incredible piece called, “You Are In The Black Car Burning Beneath The Highway” (2020), that brings together visual art and annotations, that straddles multiple timezones and multiple spaces. Marlon, your novels, particularly the last two, are similarly capacious in both their temporal and spatial range. I wonder if either of you feel like that comes from your migrant perspective, from the interconnectedness of the Caribbean past and the present?
Whyte: On one hand I think it’s the Black experience and then layered on top of that is the migrant experience, where you’re also considering spaces outside of an American context.
James: The multiple narrators in A Brief History of Seven Killings happened almost out of necessity because that’s not what I was planning to do. In fact, Brief History started as a series of failed short novels. Because my previous novel was one person telling a whole story, I was still waiting for this magic person to tell the whole story, and every time I ran in to a dead end with each character, I’d find another character and start over and say, “Okay this is what the novel is.” It was a friend of mine who said, “Why do you think it’s only one person in the story?” And I realized that if you’re going to tell stories about places like Jamaica, it can’t be one person’s story and it can’t be one time period. When you’re trying to tell these stories you realize it’s not one story, and that most of the time you’re telling several stories at once. And I think that Black people, in particular, are uniquely equipped to do that, partly because that’s the tradition we come out of, whether we know it or not. You don’t have to be well-versed in African folklore or African story-telling, or Indian story-telling for that matter, to know of the story that leads to another story that leads to another story. It’s African story-telling, but it’s also Arabian Nights. There’s certain things that slavery just couldn’t get rid of. And I think Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie] is right: there is danger in a single story because there is no such thing.
Hamilton: I’m thinking here, too, of how Cosmo’s art integrates Carnival and masquerade, even just those kind of shape-shifting body morphing figures.
Whyte: Yeah, I’m fascinated by the idea of the trickster, whether it’s Anansi, or Jimmy Cliff and “The Harder they Come,” it’s something that I’m constantly playing with. For instance, to use the [legendary Jamaica outlaw] Ivanhoe Martin trope, there was an opportunity in Jamaica to have that piece placed in a hotel, and that premise intrigued me, because there’s an incongruity to having [a trickster like] Ivanhoe Martin in an uptown hotel in Jamaica. But also, my parents openly talk about not being able to go into hotels. My mother’s a dark-skinned woman [who was] told when she was growing up, “You can’t enter a hotel through the front door,” so the idea of a trickster is something I’m always trying to play with. Marlon you referenced Chimamanda in terms of the danger of the single narrative and it was fascinating to hear you talk about the genesis of the multiple characters for A Brief History of Seven Killings. I use the different mediums as a way of channeling a different type of narrative, for the want of a better term—to allow me to address an issue from a different angle, so the use of sculpture or insulation, photography, performative photography, performance, and drawing and now these hand-painted beaded curtains. Oftentimes I try to exhibit them all at once. And the challenge in doing that is to have it feel cohesive and at the same time create the sense of entering the space from different vantage points.
James: I’m curious about the link to Carnival which is very Caribbean but it’s not necessarily Jamaican.
Whyte: Yeah, and I’ll be honest with you, growing up in Jamaica I could not stand Carnival.
James: I love Trinidad Carnival, can’t stand Jamaican.
Whyte: Exactly. But it wasn’t until experiencing it in Miami, and multiple times in New York, that it kind of shifted. It felt on one hand like a complete liberation to be in a mass gathering of Caribbean people, and I was also fascinated by the clash of different myths around masquerading and how there was a slippage in legibility that was happening. So, I could understand certain things, but only from my Jamaican perspective, and vice versa and I viewed it as fertile ground to create my own set of mythologies that I would juxtapose to these more readable works on resistance.
James: It makes me wonder if Jamaica would’ve had more of a Carnival culture if we didn’t relegate masquerade, and by masquerade I mean Junkanoo, this little middling sort of curiosity that happens every Christmas. Masquerade is a major, major part of our African heritage. It’s one of the things that so many other cultures whether it’s Yoruba or Akan or Dogon have in common. Every time I see Junkanoo, I feel sort of very proud and very sad.
Whyte: Exactly, same.
James: Junkanoo should be huge, it should be the biggest thing about Christmas. Is it that we are not a Carnival culture, or is it that we didn’t recognize that ours was? •
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