‘Restrictive Spaces: Guyanese Diaspora Migration and Women’

By Grace Aneiza Ali

Guyanese-born Grace Aneiza Ali is a Curator and Assistant Professor and Provost Fellow in the Department of Public Art and Policy at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Ali’s curatorial research practice focuses on socially engaged art practices, global contemporary art, and Caribbean Diaspora art, with a focus on her homeland of Guyana. She serves as Curator-at-Large for the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York. She is the Founder and Curator of Guyana Modern, an online platform for contemporary Guyana arts and culture and Founder and Editorial Director of OF NOT Magazine – an award-winning not-for-profit arts journalism venture that reports on the intersection of art and activism. Her recent book, Liminal Spaces: Migration and Women of the Guyanese Diaspora (Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2020) explores the narratives of art and migration of women of Guyanese heritage. Its open access edition is available for free to read and download at https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/1208.

Editor’s Note:
On Wednesday, December 2, 6 pm EST, join the contributors of Restricted Spaces: Guyanese Diaspora Migration and Women (at bit.ly/liminalzoom) for an online talk exploring the narratives of Guyanese-Canadian migration and the role of art in telling women’s migration stories featured in the new book. Co-sponsored by the Institute for Women and Gender Studies and Caribbean Studies at the New College, University of Toronto, and the Center for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean at York University.

In 1995, my mother, father, older brother, younger sister, and I immigrated from Guyana to the United States. We became part of what appeared to be a mythical diaspora. It is estimated that more than a million Guyanese citizens now live in global metropolises such as London, Toronto, and New York City, where they are the fifth largest immigrant group.

One of the most defining movements of the twenty-first century is global migration. Few of us remain untouched by its heartbreaking narrative. For the past fifty years, women have been a force in migrating from Guyana as the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada look to the Caribbean as a source for blue-collar, domestic, clerical, and healthcare workers. And more recently, an increasing number of women are migrating independently, becoming breadwinners for their families. For those who leave one place for another, motivated by choice or trauma, remaining connected to a homeland is beautiful, fulfilling, disruptive and evolving. Alongside, the newly edited collection Liminal Spaces: Migration and Women of the Guyanese Diaspora gathers fifteen women of Guyanese heritage to explore their relationship to emigration through literary and visual art forms of biography, non-fiction, creative, poetry, photography, curatorial and art essays. These women – Khadija Benn, Sandra Brewster, Erika DeFreitas, Ingrid Griffith, Natalie Hopkinson, Serena Hopkinson, Dominique Hunter, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, Maya Mackrandilal, Suchitra Mattai, Christie Neptune, Grace Nichols, Keisha Scarville, Michelle Joan Wilkinson, and myself — The artists, activists, scholars, teachers, photographers, poets, writers, playwrights, performers, journalists and curators.

The title of the book, Liminal Spaces, summarizes how these women explore the notion of homeland as fixed and unfettered, an ever-changing idea or memory, and a physical space and space psychic. Their stories reflect the ways in which Guyanese women witness what drives them from their homeland as well as what binds them emotionally and psychologically. Collectively, these narratives reinforce the idea that these women remake, reinvent and rebuild their lives, as many times as needed. The women in Liminal Spaces represent two spectrums of the migration arc: those leaving and those left behind. Some have even stayed rooted in Guyana as they watch their loved ones leave, year after year, for nearby and remote lands. Some, though born in Guyana, carry on the rituals and traditions on the diasporic soils they now call home. Some return to Guyana often, and some infrequently. Some never.

Created as a visual display on the page, the essays and artworks of the fifteen contributors in Liminal Spaces are curated as a four-part tour – one that allows the reader to trace the migration path of Guyanese women from their homeland, up to their moment of departure. , until they reached diasporic soils, to their reunion with Guyana, and everything that flows between them.

‘Part I: Mothers’ Lands ’evokes the tensions between homeland, the place of birth; and another country, diversified space. The essays take us through the voyages undertaken by Guyana-born mothers and their diaspora-born daughters. Artists Keisha Scarville (United States) and Erika DeFreitas (Canada) and journalist Natalie Hopkinson with her mother Serena Hopkinson (Canada / United States) reveal how their mother-daughter relationships are a metaphor for their relationship with Guyana – a space that often wrestles with it as a mythical homeland.

In Part II, there are two spectrums of the migration arc: those who leave and those who are left. Yet, too often the narratives of the latter are constantly closed. ‘The Ones That Leave. . . The Ones Who Are Left ‘counteracts the discourse and creative representations on migration that focus heavily on leavers. Through travel essays, biography, art, and photography, I, Grace Aneiza Ali (United States), Dominique Hunter (Guyana), Khadija Benn (Guyana), and Ingrid Griffith (United States), center the stories of those who wait.

‘Part III: Transformations’ explores how Guyanese women develop past life in a country to shape life in a new country; how they are made, made, and reshaped again. Poet Grace Nichols (United Kingdom) and visual artists Suchitra Mattai (United States), Christie Neptune (United States), and Sandra Brewster (Canada), detail the transition from citizen to immigrant . Their stories force us to reflect: How do we hold on to our dreams, when we have to reduce parts of the self in order to survive? Throughout these essays it is revealed a commitment to using their artistic practices as places for Guyanese women to speak, be heard, and be seen.

For those of us who have left one country for another, how do we return and how do we stay connected? What tangible things do we stick to? In ‘Part IV: Returns, Reunions, and Rites,’ Michelle Joan Wilkinson (United States), Maria del Pilar Kaladeen (United Kingdom), and Maya Mackrandilal (United States) write about their returns to Guyana and the ways they cling to the houses, lands, and sacred heirlooms that are incorporated into their family’s legacies. They explore how immigrant women rekindle, restore, and repair fragmented bonds and illuminate how we lose, rediscover, and reunite with place.

Liminal Spaces traces seven pioneering decades of Guyana history, offering a portrait of an evolving colonial and post-colonial nation. The fifteen intergenerational cohorts of voices range from women in their twenties to seventies. For some women in this book born in British controlled Guyana, witnessing the turbulent birth of an independent nation while struggling to avoid a colonial past catalyzing their departure. The younger women, who have only known their homeland as an independent nation, still made the difficult decision to leave. Other women who contributed to this collection have never lived in Guyana and only connect through their parents’ migration narratives. As first generation citizens of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, they tackle the surviving and the bereaved once their Guyanese-born parents, their direct links with Guyana, disappeared. At one time some of these women lived in Guyana, and later migrated to the country’s largest diasporic cities in New York, Toronto, and London. For the most part, 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 should be in the world.

Guyana’s legacy of migration reflects the broader appearance of the Caribbean people around the world. The narratives featured in Liminal Spaces counteract a legacy of the absence and invisibility of Guyanese women’s stories. This collection – the first of its kind – is devoted entirely to the voices of women from Guyana and its widespread exile. While the contributors share Guyana-specific experiences, their stories speak to migration as the defining movement of our twenty-first century world and the tensions between place and place, nationality and belonging, immigrant and citizen . Engraved through the book’s literary and visual narratives is the grit, agency and artistry required of women around the world who are starting a new life in a new country or watching the ones they love doing that. Within these beautiful, disturbing stories is a simple truth: there is no single story about migration. Instead, the act of emigration is infinite, full of arrival, departure, return, absences and reunions.