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writer, activist, performer Ramabai Espinet

by Reshma Budhu | December 9, 1997

“Caribbean, Indian, rural, urban, unplaced, angry, lyrical” to which one can add ... powerful, expansive, crucial, thoughtful and female ... Caribbean yes, but also Canadian. Born in Trinidad, Ramabai Espinet has, since the 1970s, divided her time between Canada and the Caribbean. Active on both the stage and page, Ramabai’s extensive body of work includes her one book of poetry, Nuclear Seasons, poems published within a variety of Indo-Caribbean and Caribbean anthologies, her plays – Indian Robber Talk and Beyond the Kalapani – a wide range of critical writings, short fiction and essays and two children’s books. While teaching at both York University and Seneca College and active in the women’s movement of both Canada and the Caribbean, poet, essayist, activist, author and social commentator, Ramabai Espinet evades simple description.

If there is one identity by which Ramabai Espinet continues to affirm herself, then it is through that of the Indo-Caribbean-Canadian woman. In her essay, “Representation and the Indo-Caribbean Woman in Trinidad and Tobago,” Ramabai writes:

The presence of Indo-Caribbean women has not been felt, in the public sphere ... absent from art, from literature, as scholars and thinkers, as doers ... They are functionally equipped to operate in the world of work, but once that is done, they revert to the seclusion of the patriarchal culture which has always kept them in women’s quarters.

The struggle to re-assert the importance of the Indo-Caribbean woman within the popular body of knowledge can only be outdone by women’s actual presence throughout Caribbean history, as life-giver, life-keeper, worker, teacher, partner in the struggle for democracy and nation-builder. Even as Canada takes its place within the shared identity of the Indo-Caribbean-Canadian woman, history begins to repeat itself.

... after Robber Talk... Canadians came up to me, people who didn’t know anything about it, and asked questions like dates and times and when did this happen and what does it mean ...

— Interview, 1995

Literally meaning “black water,” kala pani – comparable to the Middle Passage of African-Caribbean history – not only signified geographical distances separating Indo-Caribbeans from their ancestral homelands, but also a sense of rootlessness; lost in the memories of these left behind and alienated from those societies of which they were to become a part. Helping to dispel the ignorance surrounding the arrival of South Asians onto Caribbean shores, Ramabai’s Beyond the Kalapani and Indian Robber Talk document the hazardous and heart-wrenching crossing of those waters linking the two regions. While the servitude and indentured labour of Indians became the white colonizers’ answer to the emancipation of black slaves, the Indo-Caribbean woman ultimately came to experience the dual reality of both gender and, now, race oppression – a situation which is critical to understanding the status of many non-white-Canadian women today.

Throughout the great scope of her work and her association with such organizations as OSSIC (Ontario Society for Services to Indo-Caribbean Canadians), Fireweed: A Feminist Quarterly, CAFRA (Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action) for which she has edited A CAFRA Anthology of Caribbean Women’s Poetry, etc. Ramabai has helped to create an unrivaled space for the Indo-Caribbean woman within the art and activism of Canada and the Caribbean. Though primarily speaking through the Indian-Caribbean-Canadian triple experience, Ramabai’s voice has extended far beyond national borders. Having read her works at the NGO Forum on Women ’95 in Beijing, as well as in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean, Ramabai’s vision is quickly being transported across a global landscape.

Presented as a Canadian woman in China, seen as Caribbean in Canada (especially when dancing along the Caribana parade route), writing as a person of Indian descent in the Caribbean, no wonder Ramabai Espinet may bristle, like so many people of colour, at the question of “Where are you from?” While the Indo-Caribbean identity may be a proud reminder of the past, it is still too simple an answer when in response to “Where are you from?” For as such a query may be based on one’s physical race, the Indo-Caribbean-Canadian woman’s culture, history, sentiment and struggle are ultimately debased to a single question of colour.

Writer, activist, performer, poet, artist, mother, Indian, Caribbean and Canadian, Ramabai Espinet’s contribution to Canadian women’s writing and activism is made all the more significant as she continues to speak from within the outer margins of mainstream society – a space inhabited by the woman of colour. Joining the ranks of many exceptional Canadian women and women in Canada, the multiple roles of Ramabai Espinet are perhaps most easily understood when explained as a result of a singular talent – that extraordinary ability to be heard from an invisible place.

You cannot provoke the ghosts of the collective ancestors of all our dark races forever, and receive no comeback. A lash is coming from beyond, and the spirits riding that lash (all the swarthy spirits) will show no mercy as you.... fall before their wrath. We call such force a spirit lash.

— Ramabai Espinet, from the poem “Spirit Lash”

resources for this story

  • The Swinging Bridge, by RAMABAI ESPINET, HarperCollinsCanada, ISBN 000 2255 200 | 2003
  • “Orthodoxies”, by RAMABAI ESPINET, Nuclear Seasons: Poetry by Ramabai Espinet, Sister Vision Press, Toronto, p. 33 | 1991
  • “Spirit Lash”, by RAMABAI ESPINET, Ibid.
  • “Representation and the Indo-Caribbean Woman in Trinidad and Tobago”, by RAMABAI ESPINET, in Indo Caribbean Resistance, ed. Frank Birbalsingh, TSAR Publications, Toronto | 1993
  • Creation Fire: A CAFRA Anthology of Caribbean Women’s Poetry, by RAMABAI ESPINET, ed., Sister Vision Press, Toronto | 1990/li>
  • Robber Talk ... Canadians,” interview between Ramabai Espinet and Reshma Budhu
  • Beyond the Kalapani, was a collaborative effort with the OSSIC Women’s Collective
  • NGO Forum on Women, Beijing ’95
  • Becoming An Ally: Breaking the Cycle of Oppression, by ANNE BISHOP, Fernwood Press, Halifax (second printing) | 1995

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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