The word paradise is a noun used to identify a specific place, wherein the person who arrives at said place, experiences a particularly individual feeling of blissfulness. Merriam-Webster defines paradise as:
1. A very beautiful, pleasant, or peaceful place that seems to be perfect.
2. A place that is perfect for a particular activity, or for a person who enjoys that activity.
3. A state of complete happiness.
But what happens when our normative views of the individual experience, and privilege to experience paradise, becomes the broad brush with which society paints an entire established region and its indigenous population? Millions of travelers and tourists visit the Carribean region every year to plant their flag in paradise and await bliss. Tourists who save all year to lay beachside with a frozen, blue beverage, that negates the very character of the land they lay in repose upon claim to require such vacations to function properly. Too often, there is too little, or no consideration, for the absurdity of an entirely unsustainable industry built by the collective involvement of its residents, for the benefits of a tourist population. But when has that ever stopped you from throwing a bikini and a new Paulo Cohelo novel in your bag and booking it to spring break in The Islands? As if an entire region of individual countries, territories, private lands, currencies, governments and their cultures, can be reduced to a general area where, for the right price, your visit can be an all-inclusive exercise in self indulgence, without consideration to the true cost of such an individualized experience upon the labor force which sustains such amenities.
I recently had the pleasure of conversing about some of these questions and others with Angelique V. Nixon, PhD. Nixon is a writer, scholar, teacher, activist and poet, who is currently a Lecturer at The Institute for Gender and Developmental Studies with The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. Dr. Nixon is also the author of the 2015 book, Resisting Paradise: Tourism, Diaspora, and Sexuality in Caribbean Culture, published by University Press of Mississippi. In her book, Nixon makes a critical analysis of the effects of tourism on the African diaspora, through a mixed-methods approach of interviews, literary research, personal experience, and site-specific research of festivals and events. With her book, Nixon seeks to identify the material effects of tourism on Caribbean cultures, identities, and the collective sense of self.
When asked how it is that she came to be motivated toward themes of tourism, diaspora, and sexuality in Caribbean culture; Nixon explains that she was essentially born into it. A native of the Bahamas, Nixon worked in the tourism industry from 11 years old. From her first job passing out flyers to newly docked cruisers, to bartender and server, off-shore banker and ultimately scholar and educator, Nixon knows first-hand how the effects of tourism and neocolonialism on the indigenous people of the Caribbean region impact even her own heritage. She notes, “When you grow up in an intense tourism economy, it’s difficult to have a critique of it, because literally one’s bread and butter comes from it. I grew up in a really poor working class family. My mother worked in a hotel when I was growing up. She was a dancer in the cabaret at Resorts International &Paradise Island. My grandmother was a cook and a domestic worker. My aunt worked in a hotel. It was just everywhere.” Her tendency toward academic analysis of tourism economy and its effects on her people, would be further inspired by her literary research during graduate school. She notes that her own socio-economic mobility was “mediated through a tourism economy” as Nixon financed her education while working at an off shore bank, where she was awarded a scholarship, but not one large enough to satisfy the entirety of her educational aspirations.
Nixon says of this time, “I saved up for two years by bartending at night and also working my bank job. I came home every single summer, spring break and Christmas, and worked at those times as well. So, my own ability to get an education was mediated through this industry and offshoots of the industry.” The tone with which Nixon explains this suggests that she is expectant of criticism in response to such an honest and difficult conversation about an unsustainable industry; being wholly sustained by the people who are most adversely affected by its existence. Nixon goes on to note, “I didn’t come to this project just wanting to criticize the industry. I wanted to talk about and investigate the really complicated ways Caribbean people have to negotiate within this dominant industry. We are one of the most overly dependent regions on tourism. It is completely not sustainable for many, many reasons. I came to the project from a very personal space; it was not only about doing this for a very academic scholarly work. Also it was very personal.”
It was through her PhD work with the writings of such luminaries as Audre Lorde, Jamaica Kincaid, and Paula Marshall, that Nixon began to notice that a lot of Caribbean writers and artists respond to tourism in particular types of ways. Whether or not the authors were criticizing the colonial establishment, fetishizing tropical and illicit affairs in novels, or composing gripping poetry from otherwise invisible native worker narratives; Nixon decided that she wanted to talk about it. She employed mixed-methods and examined the experience from a perspective of the people who have lived within the tourism economy, yet thrive despite its inherent problems.
In her examination of the nature of Paradise and how one might learn to reject it, Nixon discusses a multi-platform research methodology that covers all of the potential tactics to make tourism more sustainable for the people of the Caribbean region. Moreover, she spends time calling to attention the objectification of the black body. The body of the community, the men, the women, the whole experience, is a collective erasure of individuality that serves to quicken one tourist’s shot at Paradise, one million tourists at a time. And what of the effects of this hyper-sexualized hedonism which colors the perception of the region as wanton and illicit? Nixon’s research called her to consider the ways in which paradise is consumed across the region, and the ease with which black bodies are gobbled up along with poolside dance contests and coconut milk.
Nixon mentions that we tend to think of the exploitative tourism images as benign “We think of it as just another poster, or an image; just a woman dancing.” The reality is that sexual labor is a reality of the world in which we live. Society demonizes people who work inside informal economies such as the sex labor industry. The damaging effects of tourism is that people end up having to do all kinds of work, who are then criticized. She suggests that society needs to develop a different relationship with sex, sexuality and sexual labor. “That sexual labor is deeply a part of tourism; which needs to be unsilenced and acknowledged.”
What can we, as informed urban travelers, do to reduce cultural objectification and increase sustainability in the places where we go to seek paradise? Nixon is certainly not waiving a sign that reads “Go Home,” by any means. She is, however, suggesting that there are some minor changes that we can make in the way we discuss and experience other places, that could have major impacts for the tourism industry and the workforce keeping it alive.
- Google it – simply being an informed traveler can mitigate some of the privilege we take along as nationals of the US, Canada and Britain. Doing enough research to simply acknowledge independent governments, currency, and local customs, could make a huge difference in the way that a traveler might actually experience a place and the people who inhabit it.
- Practice mindfulness– The whole way the region is understood and framed as a tropical “paradise” can be quite attractive. But, be careful not to allow that framework to cause you to reduce the way that you see the place and the people living in the region.
- Resist– Resisting the ideas of objectification and exoticising of bodies. Instead allow yourself to be drawn more closely to a connection that is more than sexual. Perhaps one that allows you to actually see the beauty which surrounds you.
- Buy local – Skip the resort and research some amazing bed and breakfast sites. Visit the local markets for produce. Eat at local restaurants and make sure that your dollar supports local indigenous economies instead of tourist corporations.
You can expect a more public discourse from Dr. Angelique V. Nixon in the near future as she explores ways in which we can identify and resolve oppressive concepts, by changing the narrative around sex, gender, sexuality, and how the Caribbean region is influenced by global discourses.
A 2006 National Poetry Slam Champion, and recipient of
Westword’s Mastermind Award in Literary Arts for her work
as hostess of Café Nuba; Ebony Isis Booth is committed to
her work. She continues to fuel her drive toward art-ivism as
Programs & Communications Coordinator for Harwood Art
Center while simultaneously writing and performing original
poetry, heralding social justice, self love, and perseverance in
and around New Mexico.