A few months ago an artist friend invited me to attend a “workshop” for artists put on by the Ministry of Tourism. Apparently they wished to teach me how to shape and form and express and present my art so that it better pleased the tourists, so that they might have a better vacation experience in my town. I declined. It is not my job as a feminist writer to help that ministry sell hotel rooms. That is their job and I wish them well with it.
It so happens that for ten or fifteen years I was a house slave on the tourist plantation, I was a Maryann sifting sand in a comfortable place. I wrote and published many stories for the tourism masters. Some said I was good at it. I was rewarded with a little public acclaim, and a trophy. I quite forgot I was a slave. I remembered again (or realized for the first time) when a story I wrote for the masters turned out to be a complete lie, and was causing outrage in Exuma. Obediently I had written that this community was happy that a huge influx of foreign yachts was coming through their harbor, thanks to a new marketing campagne. The truth was that these enormous boats were causing an environmental disaster, pollution was threatening to ruin a pristine ecology, and for added outrage, the people aboard these floating hotels never had to set foot in town, they spent not a penny. The islanders were in an uproar to see a story in the paper that erased them so effectively and so cruelly. I was horrified, and ashamed. That was the last story I ever wrote as a house slave on the tourist plantation.
I sacrificed my dear checque book, my wardrobe, the happy hour budget, dinners out and the esteem of the gainfully employed. Because I am a privileged person I was able to hand my mortgage over to my Beloved, and though saved from outright homelessness became his dependent. I haven’t made money as a writer from that day to this. I have depended upon him and a few others for my daily survival ever since. I gave up the independence I’d had since my first job at the age of seventeen. I gave up my whole identity that I’d imagined for myself in slavery days, the idea that I was a person of great importance. (You imagine such things for yourself to stop from thinking about the iron shackle on your leg.) I gave up the comfort of the Big House and found that outside the gates there was a long journey to begin, the bushland was foreboding, the walking got hard. I had to get a stick.
What have I gained? On one level I gained the TIME needed to spend days and years journaling toward the next poem. These days I have a manuscript of poetry on the desktop that is growing. I get to spend long, blessed days writing journals and poems, meditating, thinking, imagining, reading, remembering, dreaming, writing letters, receiving letters, researching, critiquing and submitting poems online, writing and publishing blogs, reading the columns and poems of other writers and being read by them, right here at home, in the concrete cottage where I grew up, now engulfed in a lovely wood of old trees and young trees and wildlife…. All my decent poems have sprung up here in this place far away from the plantation. Sometimes the isolation has been unbearable, sometimes feelings of self-inflicted disempowerment took me down (“Why can’t you just learn to get along and get a real job and be like everyone else?” And of course, “What kind of feminist are you, having to ask the man for money every day?”) But then I spend a morning making a poem worth keeping and I am centered again in the rightfulness of my freedom, and to what purpose I wish to put my creative voice. I remember the amazing community of friends and writers that I now connect with every day, locally and globally and am so inspired and supported by them. This community is a part of my personal support system, I would never have found it as a tourism slave.
How to collectively turn our backs on the tourism plantation? Let the artists take the lead in this. For example, let there come up a new generation of painters who paint because they have to, who paint all day every day until the canvases are spilling out the door, who are willing to sell $30 and $50 paintings in great numbers so that we can buy ten or twenty or fifty of them, so that every house in the neighborhood is full of art and everyone is a joyful collector.
Let the artists stop with the pretty pictures with the $4,000 price tags in hopes of a tourist sale. Let them remember that fame does not equal significance, and that making the big sale is not what the good painting is firstly about. Let them (us) set about becoming painters who paint because that is what painters do. They paint. The rest of us must then all become the avid buyers of all this reachable art, each one of us must then become loving givers and receivers of all this art, we become our own market, we paint because everyone on the street wants to buy one, or ten, and can afford to do so. Lives and houses and spirits will be transformed. Paintings that come out of this new model will look different from the paintings made inside the plantation confines. The art we make with and for each other will be ABOUT something, it will not be for
the purpose of sucking the next thousand from a hapless tourist. It will be about us. It will be about our lives, our evolving communities, our changing, metamorphosing, transforming identities, our hearts and souls and voices… It will be most beautiful, and most dear. It will be immortal, telling the stories of our generations into the forever. Let every one of us become such artists, not because Atlantis has an empty wall in lobby number ten, but because to make it and to receive it sooths and inspires the collective native soul. Let the tourists catch the overflow.
I know, easy for me to say. But it always bothered me to see another artist friend who turned her house into a store front and
allowed plantation masters to bring tourists there by the van load. Many bought big, expensive paintings over the years. But it was clear that not one single person in her neighborhood could ever hope to afford to buy a painting. The artist was always preoccupied with whether she was known or appreciated by her community. After all, she’d been making paintings and selling them to the tourists for twenty odd years, didn’t they know her, didn’t they appreciate her? The answer was, no, they did not, because her art has never touched their lives, it has always been out of their reach, out of their experience. What were they supposed to appreciate? Her acclaim meant nothing to them. Why should it? Her art was invisible to them, it spoke to people other than them, it was priced for people other than them. If artists want the people to embrace them, they have to
embrace the people. Then they will be turning their backs on the plantation.
All of us can collectively turn our backs by remembering that tourism is a job that we do, it is not who we are. It is a necessary evil, it is not our reason for being. Serving tourists well is not the greatest achievement we can aspire to, and it is not the mandate of the cultural community at all.