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ON THE BENEFIT OF EMIGRATION

 

By Nicolette Bethel, PhD.

 

Saturday, September 12, 2009.

 

It’s said that one of the things that sets Bahamians apart from other West Indians is our tendency to avoid emigration. We travel a lot. But unlike Jamaicans, Haitians, Trinidadians, Barbadians, Guyanese and others, we always come home. We Bahamians have been fortunate enough to have had economic prosperity for so long that we’ve built a society out of people who travelled abroad for education and came back to contribute to their country.

 

It hasn’t hurt that most of us who have come back have learned that, to some degree or another, life is truly better here. We may pay more for a pound of butter or a leg of beef, and the cost of a gallon of gas may make us swear, but we have the unenviable advantage of being the architects of our own destinies — a rare condition indeed for descendants of Africa, wherever they may be found.

 

I’ve lived long enough now to watch with some amusement the return of many of my contemporaries who made the final life move. The last ten years have brought with them the return to Nassau many of my friends and family who swore that they would never come home. But the air is cleaner, the drives are shorter (despite traffic), the views are prettier, and, for many of them, business is better in the Bahamas.

 

So it may surprise many of you who are reading this column that more and more I have been considering the attractiveness of exile.

 

The Barbadian novelist, George Lamming, once wrote a book called The Pleasures of Exile. He knew what he was talking about. His is the generation of West Indian writers on which the whole genre of Caribbean literature in English is built; his contemporaries number among them V. S. Naipaul and Derek Walcott, the Caribbean Nobel Prizewinners; his fellow Bajan, the great Kamau Brathwaite; Wilson Harris, one of the earliest postmodernist novelists; Samuel Selvon, one of the funniest men ever to put pen to paper; and Michael Anthony, without whom BJC students of literature would have nothing to read. What every one of these writers share with Naipaul, with the exception of Anthony, is that they left their islands to become great. They had to. Their exiles established their careers.

 

Now. The Bahamas has a great track record when it comes to retaining its citizens. We are not a people-exporting nation. But neither are we a great cultural force in the world. And I am not at all sure, at this point, that the two things are completely unrelated.

 

Bahamian cultural products fit overwhelmingly into two main categories. On one level, we make things we think the tourists will buy. When we produce Junkanoo statues and paintings of Poinciana trees and candles made of gelatine with sand on the bottom, we imagine we’re catering to the tourist market. But how many of us have taken the time to do market research and find out? How many of us know somewhere deep down, that what we’re selling is really junk that has no real connection to our souls, that are just products knocked out for commercial purposes, to be sold to wealthy people who are ignorant of who we really are?

 

On another level, our most popular entertainment is self-referential. The plays that populate our stages these days are more often than not commentaries on recent local events, and speak only to people who are very, very like us. They don’t last; they don’t travel well; when removed from their contexts, they are curiosities, little more. The same thing goes for our contemporary music. Ultimately, our cultural production falls into two categories: trinkets that we sell to foreign people who don’t know any better; or in-the-moment social commentary that has limited appeal to anyone who isn’t us.

 

It’s no surprise, therefore, that we aren’t a culture-exporting nation. We don’t have all that much culture that can be exported. Instead of placing our culture and its products in a global context and measuring it by international standards, we tend to insulate ourselves and expect what we produce to exist in a vacuum of its own. And when people arise who challenge what we think should be, we marginalize them, as we did Tony McKay and Amos Ferguson, underestimating their very greatness by the limitations of our own experience.

 

But I’m coming to understand that the value of exile, as places like Trinidad and Jamaica and Guyana have learned is that when you leave your homeland you’re able to put your culture in a global context. You’re able to judge it from a perspective that is informed by more than the standards and expectations of people exactly like you, and those standards are often highly critical.

 

All too often it’s exiles, not locals, who can really see what’s good and strong in their culture.

 

When you travel, when you pull up your roots and move somewhere else, your culture becomes important to you. You carry it with you, and you develop it, delve into it, produce it, simply to survive. It is no accident that Jamaican culture has become the world culture of the twenty-first century. Jamaicans don’t have the luxury of staying at home; more Jamaicans live outside Jamaica than live in the country, and they have carried home with them. In so doing have infected the world. By exporting people, Jamaica has exported itself.

 

We Bahamians, on the other hand, are comfortable and overfed and making good money. We don’t do exile. And for us, it seems, SUVs and digital cable and good meals on Sundays is enough. We have material riches; culture is a luxury we believe we can live without.

 

And so the attractiveness of exile. Ours is a society that is so stifled by the material that it has no room for the language of the soul. And so, for those of us for whom life is more than conch salad and self-referential writing and recycled Junkanoo and the same story sung to the same tune, options are limited. Like Sidney Poitier almost sixty years ago, exile for us looks very attractive indeed.

 

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