Gossip and the Failure of Community
This carry-go-bring-come, my dear, bring misery.
GOSSIP, AT its most basic, is the spoken word: unauthorized whispers transmitting scandalous secrets from one person to another or the chatter of friends and kinsfolk picking over the actions and transgressions of absent third parties. Gossip’s foundation in orality has made it a key weapon in the linguistic battles that are part and parcel of the Caribbean experience. As Edward Kamau Brathwaite writes, “It was in language that the slave was most successfully imprisoned by the master, and it was in his (mis-)use of it that he perhaps most effectively rebelled” (Development 237). In the British West Indies and its diaspora, gossip has been an important way of staging the willful misuse of language and of allowing writers to push back against linguistic hegemony and assert the validity of their own voices. Indeed, gossip has been one of the few forms through which West Indian writers have been able to introduce Creole into mass-market media publications; writing in the mid-1980s, Hubert Devonish noted that in the postcolonial British Caribbean, mass-market newspapers were published exclusively in English, with the exception of cartoons, select quotations from Creole speakers, and gossip columns. “In the case of articles of a satirical and gossipy nature, these involve writing which is aimed at imitating informal speech. The writers of such articles, therefore, use written Creole as a stylistic device,” he records (32). Many writers from the region and its diaspora have similarly used gossip not only as a means (or consequence) of emulating spoken speech patterns but also as part of a broader project of writing back against British linguistic and cultural encroachment and, in so doing, of asserting their right to build identities and construct communities on their own terms.1 The Guyanan poet John Agard, now based in Britain, makes the urgency and adversarialism of such efforts clear in his 1985 poem “Listen Mr Oxford Don”:
Agard’s wry promise to smash up the grammar and syntax of the English language and make it his own belies the seriousness of his engagement with issues of language and of orality: this destructive assimilation is his Gordian solution to the impasse proposed by Derek Walcott when he asked how he could be expected to “choose / Between this Africa and the English tongue I love” (“A Far Cry from Africa,” Green Night 18). For Agard, the postcolonial writer expresses his love for the “English tongue” by making it his own—by speaking to and for his own experiences, his own community—even if in so doing he must dismantle the very rules and building blocks of the colonizer’s language.
Where Agard focuses on using speech patterns to express his claim on the English language, other writers make more explicit reference to gossip as part of this process. The Jamaican poet Louise Bennett has been at the forefront of efforts to make authentic spoken language part of the written record. Her poetry—and most notably her collection Jamaica Labrish (1966)—uses gossip to capture the voices and lived experiences of Jamaicans but also to explore the linguistic and political tensions they face. Her poem “Bed-Time Story” (1982) splices together an imported nursery rhyme, recounted in the Queen’s English, with a lovingly staged act of gossip:
Mary had a little lamb
—Miss Mattie li bwoy Joe
Go kick May slap pon har doorway—
His feet was white as snow. (6)
The contrast between pleasurable gossip and the dutifully recited rhyme, extracted from a grudging parent by a restless child, could not be clearer. Bennett also inserts gossip into one of her best-known poems, “Colonisation in Reverse” (1966), in which the Jamaican diaspora is explored through the “joyful news” about émigrés that the speaker shares with “Miss Mattie.” The broad-strokes account of diaspora—“By de hundred, by de t’ousan / [ . . . ] / Dem a-pour out o’ Jamaica” (179)—is simmered down to a more personal act of gossip:
Jane say de dole is not too bad
Because dey payin’ she
Two pounds a week fe seek a job
Dat suit her dignity.
At the rate how she dah-look,
For all day she stay pon Aunt Fan couch
And read love-story book. (180)
The transcribed fragment of gossip suggests a reading of the broader poem as an act of gossip about England itself and the “devilment” the colonizing power has coming to it. The narrator’s mock-sympathetic poring-over of England’s problems—“But I’m wonderin’ how dem gwine stan’ / Colonizin’ in reverse” (180)—is very much in keeping with the register of interpersonal gossip. In this sense, Bennett uses gossip to question the authority of the colonial power, in an act of linguistic subversion that itself serves as a reverse colonization of the one-time linguistic oppressor.
Gossip thus allows communities, such as the Jamaicans of Bennett’s poem, to engage in a kind of collective adversarialism, both positively asserting their own group identity and needling the people they define as outsiders. This is a process that works in both directions: gossip is an equalizing force, something practiced by both colonizer and colonized, both the marginalized and the powerful. Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women (2009) offers a barbed reminder that it is not only the downtrodden who gossip: Massa Roget warns that allowing slaves to gossip among themselves is an invitation to revolt, but also acknowledges that there is no substantive difference between the “discourse” of the slave owners and the gossipy speech through which the slaves, if given the chance, will “conspire and plot” (208). Gossip may be especially significant for those who lack other means of gaining a public voice, but it is by no means exclusively deployed by the marginalized; the insular communities formed by colonizers, so deliberately set apart from the communities of the colonized, are perfect breeding grounds for gossip.2 The tendency to denigrate gossip, or to dismiss the speech of the colonized as mere babble, is itself a part of the power structure against which such attempts at linguistic reformulation should be considered.
While many Caribbean writers have embraced gossip as a means of writing themselves and their authentic voices into public discourses, others have viewed gossip with a degree of ambivalence or sought to problematize the equation of gossip with authentic or noncolonial speech. In Michelle Cliff’s 1987 novel No Telephone to Heaven, for instance, Harry/Harriet makes a casual reference to Socrates and, when asked where he had read Plato, reminds his friend that they had been forced to read the Greek philosopher in school: “You forget how them drill us in them labrish? De master mek us read about five of dem dialogue. . . . Teaching us to be gentlemen . . . disdaining us all the while,” he says (123).3 The British teacher, he recalls, told the children that ancient Greece had been a golden age—something that strikes Harry/Harriet as strange, given the era’s treatment of slaves and women. If Greece, with all its problems, can be considered golden, why should Jamaica be treated with such disdain? “It nuh stand as warning for all a we—no matter how light? how bright? how much of dem labrish we master?” he reflects (123). In labeling Plato’s texts as “labrish,” or gossip, Harry/Harriet here poses a challenge: Is he denigrating the classics and the imperial schooling—Walcott’s “sound colonial education” (“The Schooner Flight” 346)—that elevates them and by extension dismisses the validity of Creole speech and thought? Or are we to read this as a more positive, equalizing gesture, an attempt to suggest that “labrish” is a valid and intellectually useful practice, with the chatter of Jamaicans like Harry/Harriet and the classic texts of empire ultimately deserving of the same degree of respect and consideration? Harry/Harriet offers no clear answer; rather, his choice of words echoes the paradox he discerns in the dialogues themselves, with their “golden age” in some ways so similar to, yet perceived by the colonizer as so superior to, his own Jamaican reality.4
Diasporic writers, too, have sought to cast gossip not just as a way for the marginalized to forge communities and assert collective identities but also as a tool of the oppressor.5 In his poem “The SUN” (1992), the British Jamaican writer Benjamin Zephaniah attacks tabloid newspapers as gossip mills whose “witch-hunting to shame a name” serves the interests of those who are “friendly with The State” at the expense of black immigrants, whom he dismisses, assuming the voice of a tabloid reader, as “Jungle bunnies” who “play tom-toms” (58). He concludes:
Don’t give me truth, just give me gossip
And skeletons from people’s closets
I wanna be normal
And millions buy it,
I am blinded by The SUN. (59)
Tabloid gossip, for Zephaniah, is, on the one hand, the cynical exploitation of readers’ ignorance and prejudice and, on the other, the readers’ turning away from true knowledge, and willful immersion in group membership, expressed through an uncritical collective blindness. Gossip, then, is not just an aspect of orality or a way of weaving community and shared identity out of authentic or unauthorized speech. It is also a means of forcefully asserting one’s membership in a given community; of asserting, equally forcefully, the exclusion of others from that community; and of exploring (and challenging or reasserting) the dynamics and narratives of power that exist at the boundaries of that community, or that mediate one community’s relationship with another.
As I will show in the remainder of this chapter, gossip’s uses in the Caribbean thus go far beyond simply the spoken word—and in the process, gossip often becomes not only a tool for self-assertion and the maintenance of intimate communities, but also a means of tracing the fault lines inherent in Caribbean societies and of staging the fractures and failures of the communities they contain.6 I begin by reading Gabriel García Márquez’s novels La mala hora (1962) and Crónica de una muerte anunciada (1981), in which gossip serves to reveal (but not resolve) the tensions and latent violence in small communities, and is exposed as an agent of stasis: the cement that holds a community together, but also a deeply conservative and even paralyzing force. I next explore this theme in the short stories of writers including Roger Mais, Jean Rhys, Luis Rafael Sánchez, Patrick Sylvain, and Luis Negrón, all of whom I take to use gossip as a means of framing the breakdown of conventional neighborliness and the community’s intolerance of outsiders. As Olive Senior notes, gossip is often a means of interrogating difference; in the Caribbean, however, the performance of difference frequently serves not to foster and reinforce the ties between small groups of intimates but rather to accentuate the exclusion of the perceived other. In the texts here studied, gossip mediates and fuels adversarialism: outsiders are persecuted, ostracized, and often subjected to violent acts of vengeance. This system of scrutiny and social policing reaches its apotheosis in Antonio José Ponte’s La fiesta vigilada (2007), which shows Cuba as a surveillance state in which gossip plays a vital and inescapable role. In Ponte’s text, I suggest, neighborliness and convivial chatter give way to a panoptic and totalitarian impulse, with gossip co-opted by the state as it seeks to ensure its own survival.
The Fractured Community: La mala hora
In early 2005, the town of Icononzo, a sleepy farming community about three hours’ drive southwest of Bogotá, became the unexpected focus of global media attention. Local officials, it was reported, had passed a new law making it illegal for the town’s twelve thousand residents to gossip about one another. “To possess a tongue and use it to do evil is like having a mouthful of dynamite,” the decree warned, continuing that since “unfortunately our tongues repeat what we hear,” perpetrators of gossip would henceforth face up to four years in jail and fines equivalent to about $1,600 (El Tiempo May 22, 2005).7 This was no joke, said one functionary: in a country torn apart by drug trafficking and guerrilla warfare, to gossip about one’s neighbors was at best risky and at worst tantamount to actual violence. “I’m less afraid of guerrillas or the paramilitary than of gossips’ tongues,” the official explained (El Tiempo May 17, 2005).
To reporters recounting the episode for European and American readers, the tale sounded like something lifted straight from the pages of Gabriel García Márquez—and while the Colombian author and his magic-realist aesthetic have too often been deployed by foreign journalists as a facile proxy for the Latin American other, this time the press gallery was onto something. Gossip is a constant presence in García Márquez’s work, from the seething, collectively voiced rumors of El otoño del patriarca (1975) and swirling Faulknerian gossip of La hojarasca (1955) to the memorable depiction, in El general en su laberinto (1989), of Simón Bolívar as powerless to prevent chatter about his “secretos de alcoba,” or bedroom secrets (217).8 Moreover, the gossip of García Márquez is not the comforting, familiar chatter that helps women and other marginalized groups to forge intimate communities. Rather, it is something more dangerous, more alienated and alienating—something, in fact, that can corrode, or explode, the bonds that hold communities together.9
This is most vividly apparent in La mala hora, in which a town is plunged into chaos by the appearance of highly personal pasquines, or pasquinades, that are nailed to the doors of the town’s homes and other buildings.10 The word pasquines, typically translated as “lampoons,” here denotes not satire but rather, as Michael Wood suggests, “gossip daubed in blue ink” (“Claims”). Though initially a source of amusement for the less well-heeled townsfolk—“better than a serenade,” Trinidad says (La mala hora 8)—events quickly take a darker turn, with César Montero killing Pastor after a pasquín alleges that Pastor has cuckolded him. The murder is only the first of many violent and dramatic episodes prompted by the pasquinades: based on their gossip, Roberto Asís comes to doubt that he is his daughter’s biological father, the disgraced Tovar women are forced to leave town, and Pepe Amador is killed by the police. Even those not directly targeted swiftly learn to fear the pasquinades. Mr. Benjamin frets about the gossip sheets, as does the dentist’s wife, Angela; the judge’s secretary, meanwhile, muses that “what keeps one up at night isn’t the pasquinades, but the fear of the pasquinades” (77). The agitation they spark becomes an all-consuming preoccupation: the doctor reports that “for days, the rumors had been coming to his practice. [ . . . ] In fact he’d heard talk of nothing else all week” (105). There is a fascination to the pasquinades, a certain lowbrow frisson of excitement; the priest comments that “in the houses of the poor there was talk about the pasquinades, but in a different way and even with healthy enjoyment” (106–7). The rich, who fret about their reputations, believe they have more to worry about than the poor; still, the secretary, who is not presented as a wealthy man, is troubled when he recalls the “story of a town that was wiped out in seven days by pasquinades” (33).11 He, at least, sees clearly that the pasquinades aren’t just a guilty pleasure: they are a direct threat to the social fabric, and perhaps the very existence, of the community.
The nature of the gossipy pasquinades that afflict the town has been the subject of considerable critical debate, with many scholars reading the pamphlets as what Wolfgang A. Luchting calls “clandestine opposition propaganda,” in contrast to the official pronouncements of the town’s leaders (475). “Each time such ‘official’ literature appears—circulars, instructions, ‘levantamientos,’ autopsy-findings—it brings or confirms some repression, i.e., it is conservative; whenever non-official ‘literature’ is mentioned—the lampoons, caricatures, films, ‘clandestine leaflets’—it represents an incitement to or confirmation of rebellion, i.e., it is subversive,” Luchting explains (477).12 But the subversion manifested in the pasquinades is darker and less focused than such readings suggest. In fact, the secretary’s concerns—about being personally targeted, but also about the pasquinades’ impact on the town’s social fabric—are shared by the vast majority of the novel’s characters.13 Mr. Benjamin sees the pasquinades as a “symptom of social breakdown” (124), but they are not just a symptom or consequence of societal decay but are in fact the proximal cause of that collapse. Lynn Walford notes that some critics read in the lampoons a sense of solidarity similar to that of Lope de Vega’s play Fuenteovejuna (1619), in which residents of the eponymous town protect the killer of an oppressive official by saying, even under torture, that “Fuenteovejuna lo hizo”—Fuenteovejuna did it. But as Walford recognizes, such readings miss the mark: the lampoons, “far from uniting the people, serve to deepen the divisions among them” and consist “not of political protest but character assassination; they inspire not defiance but fear” (40). The lampoons’ gossip offers not reassuringly Manichean divisions of the community into us and them but rather a more chaotic proliferation of antagonisms and suspicions. As such, the lampoons neither empower the townsfolk nor allow them to organize into a coherent political opposition; rather, they are a nihilistic force that frays and eventually breaks the ties that, though much strained, have hitherto bound the community together.14
From what, though, do the pasquinades derive their destructive power? It is evidently not, or not only, from the information they disclose. The pasquinades do not, after all, reveal the unknown; rather, they make public that which was already privately circulating as gossip. “They didn’t reveal any secrets: nothing was said in them that hadn’t already been in the public domain for a long time,” Arcadio, the judge, reflects (77). This is a theme to which La mala hora repeatedly returns: playing down the pasquinades’ power—somewhat disingenuously, given the secret affair in which she is embroiled—Nora de Jacob argues that “they can’t say any more about me than what everyone already knows” (141).15 Another character insists: “In this town, you can’t keep secrets” (203). The pasquinades’ potency, then, stems not from their specific content, which is already the subject of gossip, and widely if not universally known, but rather from the strange social alchemy that occurs when the community’s whispers are transmuted into writing and scandalous knowledge moves from the private to the public domain.16 There is a liminality to the pasquinades: as Juan Pablo Dabove notes, they are literally affixed to the walls, windows, and doors of buildings—often people’s homes—as though to perturb the boundaries of the community’s public and private spaces. The pasquinades, Dabove continues, “aren’t ‘political,’ in the sense that they don’t pertain to the polis (the agora as the site of dialogue between citizens), but neither are they private; they do not pertain to the domus” (274). They dwell, rather, in a crepuscular border zone made all the more disturbing by the notices’ anonymity. What makes the pasquinades fearsome, Dabove asserts, is less their content than “the sinister nature of the existence of an enunciatory principle that lurks in the shadows” (279). Even so, the real horror stems less from the anonymity of the pasquinades’ shadowy author or authors than from the transgressive act of exposing private gossip in public spaces: the critical force lies not in the substance of the gossip but in its revelation. What once was whispered is now nailed to the town’s doors, transposed from the private to the public domain, rendered in a form that can no longer be dismissed or brushed aside.
The transposition of gossip into the public domain does not provide the “freedom and permanence” that Jürgen Habermas envisioned when he contrasted the reificatory qualities of the Greek agora with the “transitoriness” and “obscurity” of the private sphere (3). The pasquinades of La mala hora do not exalt or elevate domestic life by bringing it into the public sphere; neither do they offer the enlightened discussion among citizens that Habermas describes, nor indeed spark much discussion at all. It is notable, in fact, that the characters of La mala hora typically discuss the social problem constituted by the pasquinades—their consequences and ramifications, and the responses they engender—far more than they discuss the actual substance of the pasquinades’ allegations. Far from validating private realities by drawing them into the public sphere, the pasquinades instead hold them up for mockery and moral opprobrium, as a shameful spectacle rather than a subject for discourse and debate.17
In this sense, the pasquinades operate by stripping away the social niceties that allow societies to function. That is to say, the pasquinades turn private gossip into public declarations that can no longer be ignored; they are gossip stripped of any pretense at discretion, its challenge to individuals’ reputations made stark and impossible to disregard. The indiscretions exposed by the pasquinades could be disowned or denied before, when their circulation was private; now, made public, they pose a direct and visible threat to individual reputations and, by extension, to the town’s social fabric. Honor and shame here become the driving force behind the gossip, allowing it to stir up old rivalries and unleash new forms of violence and social dissolution. Dabove discerns in the pasquinades “a panoptical principle” that becomes “a pure eye through which nobody sees. Nobody, watching everybody” (279). There is, however, a notable distinction: the paranoid architecture of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon imposed order by leaving inmates uncertain about whether they were being watched, forcing them to self-police in order to avoid punishment. In La mala hora, by contrast, the “pure eye” of the anonymous pasquinades sees through, and rips away, the socially necessary falsehoods and self-deceptions that allow the members of the community to coexist despite their enduring differences and unforgiven grievances. Fear of being watched may often serve to cement group norms, but in La mala hora the certainty of having been exposed makes continued coexistence all but impossible and ultimately tears the community apart.
The trouble stirred up by the pasquinades is a blow against the status quo and serves to disrupt the power dynamics of the town. It is telling, in this context, that the town’s moral and political leaders, the priest and the mayor, initially downplay the notices’ potency. While the entire town fixates on them, with amusement or concern, Padre Angel dismisses them, calling them the result of “envy in an exemplary town” (106); only after he is approached in rapid succession by the doctor, the Asís widow, and a delegation of the town’s women does he begin to take the pasquinades seriously. The mayor is just as slow to understand the significance of the pasquinades, which he initially dismisses as “papelitos,” or little papers (117). The mayor views gossip through a gendered lens—he dismisses a group of men he sees chatting as “faggots” and mentally accuses them of “gossiping like women” (91)—and views the pasquinades as fundamentally degenerate, effeminate, and toothless. He presumes, without evidence, that women are behind the pasquinades—“I don’t know why it strikes me that it’s a woman,” he says (143)—and when he eventually takes action, his agents’ first arrest is of an apparently innocent woman. The mayor’s dismissal of the pasquinades as merely women’s gossip leads him to underestimate their potency and the threat that they present both to the townsfolk and to his authority. Women’s talk, to the mayor, belongs to the domestic sphere and is of little relevance to his own official business; his chief failure, in fact, lies in his inability to understand that the pasquinades (regardless of their author’s gender) allow gossip to permeate through the boundaries between public and private life and threaten the status quo from which his own power derives. It is only after Padre Angel explicitly describes the pasquinades as “terrorism of a moral order” (132) that the mayor finally begins to take serious action to address the threat.
The priest’s and the mayor’s initial reluctance to acknowledge the danger posed by the pasquinades and the energy of their subsequent efforts to suppress them, have quite reasonably led to readings of the pasquinades as a direct challenge to the town’s leaders’ authority. Undeniably, the only clear beneficiaries of the pasquinades are the rebel guerrillas who, toward the end of the novel, emerge once more as a palpable force in the mountains beyond the town’s borders. Still, the pasquinades are not simply seditious; their attacks on individual reputations are so numerous and indiscriminate that they come to constitute an act of aggression targeted at the foundations of the community itself. The pasquinades are adversarial and do indeed undermine the mayor’s authority, but if the rebels benefit thereby, it is simply because the gossip sheets foster chaos and create a political vacuum in which a new order can seek to assert itself. In this sense, the damage done by the pasquinades, and the mayor’s repressive response, can be seen as parts of a spectrum of self-destructive behavior by which the town is gripped.18 The ubiquity of the gossip, and the purported omniscience of the pasquinades’ perpetrators, begin to suggest that the pasquinades are an emergent phenomenon, percolating out of the town’s subliminal and self-targeted anxieties.19 Gossip deals in secrets, and it is implied that virtually everyone in the town has something to hide; in this sense, there is a bleakly democratic impulse to the exposure threatened by the pasquinades. In La mala hora, gossip is a discourse that admits no master and has no favorites: the chaos it engenders may help those who wish to plunge the community back into violence, but the pasquinades themselves are attributed to “the whole town and [ . . . ] no one” (152) and have no agenda beyond the inexhaustible drive to lay bare that which is concealed.
This is not to deny the validity of readings of La mala hora as an allegory of la violencia and its aftermath.20 Still, as García Márquez notes, La mala hora contains no massacres or unmarked graves: it is a tale not of pitched battles but rather of collective guilt and unacknowledged sins. It is also a novel that, through its pasquinades, wrestles with the narrative challenges posed by la violencia and the difficulty of discerning truth and falsehood in an era of impunity. Reading La mala hora alongside La hojarasca, J. E. Jaramillo Zuluaga suggests that novels of la violencia should be read in terms of an “economy of truth” whereby writers challenge the identification of author and narrator in their texts. Writers such as García Márquez, Jaramillo Zuluaga argues, “sought to dissolve this identification, and introduced atypical narrators, multiplied the narrative voices and thereby provoked an amplification of the ‘framework of truth’ in their stories, a presentation of the different versions that existed of the same events” (17). It is perhaps for this reason that in La mala hora, García Márquez appears less interested in gossip’s truthfulness than in its consequences. Many of the pasquinades, after all, fall short of the whole truth: they miss, for instance, the fact that Pastor is secretly engaged to Margot Ramírez—“the only secret that was ever kept in this town,” says the widow Montiel (38)—and also Nora de Jacob’s affair with Mateo Asís. This does not, however, make them less damaging or dangerous: gossip, in La mala hora, is less concerned with unearthing the truth than with exposing unvoiced suspicions, unforgotten grudges, and unforgiven transgressions. The official discourses of the mayor and the priest are shown, through the pasquinades, to be insufficient, and gossip, in its adversarialism and irreverence, is shown to be uniquely well suited to staging the multivocality, the plural and dissenting viewpoints, needed to interrogate the social reality of la violencia.
Still, there is a brutality and a vindictive nihilism to the pasquinades that goes beyond the widened “framework of truth” described by Jaramillo Zuluaga. Implicit in the gossip that plagues the town is the promise that, beneath a genteel veneer of social convention, the causes of la violencia remain, dormant but not dispelled. As José Luis Méndez writes, the struggles of the individual characters of La mala hora point to a larger collective problem, with the real protagonist emerging as “the problematic community that [ . . . ] exhausts its energies in a fratricidal and senseless struggle” (75). It is through gossip—gossip writ large and made undeniable, gossip textualized and dragged forcibly into public view—that García Márquez stages this ongoing fratricidal struggle and, peeling back the comforting hypocrisies of a troubled community, reveals the unresolved tensions that are the enduring legacy of la violencia.
Talk and Apathy: Crónica de una muerte anunciada
Gossip does not have to instigate violence to have a corrosive effect on community. In Crónica de una muerte anunciada, García Márquez uses gossip to reconstruct a community’s collective failure to halt a murder that virtually all the town’s residents knew, or came to know, was about to take place. The town’s resigned inaction becomes the source of retrospective anguish: “The cockcrow at dawn would catch us trying to organize the numerous interconnected coincidences that made the absurd possible, and it was evident that we weren’t doing it out of a desire to clear up mysteries, but because none of us could continue living without knowing precisely what was the place and the mission that fate had assigned to each of us” (126). In piecing together the events of the fatal morning, the narrator finds himself also reconstructing the way knowledge of the impending murder spreads through the community, and tracing the gossip that dominates its social life. One by one, Plácida Linero, Victoria Guzmán, Clotilde Armenta, and so forth are introduced through their contact with Nasar, or with the Vicario twins who murdered him, and each time the text maps what they knew. In the first pages, we learn that Victoria Guzmán “categorically denied that either she or her daughter knew that they were waiting to kill Santiago Nasar” (21); Cristo Bedoya tells the narrator that he thinks his sister “already knew they were going to kill him” (29); and we hear that “many of the people at the docks knew that they were going to kill Santiago Nasar” (30). But Crónica’s development, as Carlos Alonso writes, “is guided primordially by a performative rather than by a logical or teleological drive” (153); the text shows not just what individual characters know but also how they learn it. It is, in short, by studying the text’s meticulous staging of the circulation of information about the murder—which is to say, the flow of gossip through the town—that we can come to more fully understand the fatalism and apathy that grips the community.
It is gossip, after all, that serves as the primary mode of transmission for news about the impending murder. Clotilde Armenta wakes up her husband “to tell him what was happening in the store” (74); Colonel Lázaro Aponte had just shaved “when the agent Leandro Pornoy revealed to him the intentions of the Vicario brothers” (75); moments later, “his wife told him excitedly that Bayardo San Román had sent back Angela Vicario” to her family (75). The revelations are connected: the colonel “put together the two pieces of news and immediately discovered that they fitted exactly like two pieces of a puzzle” (76). The town is abuzz with chatter about the killing—as the colonel leaves his house, “three people stopped him to tell him secretly that the Vicario brothers were awaiting Santiago Nasar in order to kill him” (76)—and in each new telling, we recognize the cadences of gossip, with its urgency, its excitement, and its confidential tone. The gossip continues to spread: “The Vicario brothers had told their plans to more than a dozen people who went to buy milk, and they in turn had spread the news everywhere before six in the morning” (78). But it soon becomes clear that the town is more invested in talking about the “inevitable” killing than in trying to prevent it. “I only know that by six in the morning, everybody knew,” says Flora Miguel (145–46).
Gossip serves as the means for the transmission of the news, yet also emerges as a part of the inexorable force that robs the townsfolk of agency and locks them into their roles as passive spectators. In tracking the transmission of the twins’ plans and the many failures or refusals to try to stop them, or even to warn Nasar, the text establishes the town’s collective guilt. The townsfolk fall back on fatalism to alleviate their guilt or mitigate their responsibility; still, the narrator’s staging of the events demonstrates the degree to which Nasar’s death is attributable not to destiny but simply to the town’s apathy and inaction. This stasis or stupefaction is cleverly concealed, perhaps even from the townspeople themselves, by the narrative energy resulting from their exuberant circulation of gossip. In this way, Crónica represents a failed community: one so immersed in gossip that it sees the twins’ disclosure of their plan less as a warning than as a piece of news, a gossipy morsel to be relished rather than acted upon. As the Vicario twins close in on their victim, “the news had spread so widely that Hortensa Baute opened the door just as they passed in front of her house, and was the first to weep for Santiago Nasar” (83). The performative revelation demands a performative response but no actual action: the townsfolk fail to realize that the information they are sharing is real and consequential, and that a man’s life hangs in the balance.
Hearing of the killing before it happens, the townspeople absorb it as news of an event that has already occurred; like Hortensa Baute, they begin mourning even before the murder is carried out. Part of the problem, in fact, is that the townsfolk take gossip as offering a definitive, and thus nonnegotiable, account of the events unfolding before them.21 It is perceived as a history told in real time: a story already written, and thus not one in which they can conceive of attempting to intervene. The very few inconsistencies in the versions circulating in the town serve to highlight the countless areas where people’s perspectives do agree: “nobody failed to notice” (42), “nobody would have thought, and nobody said” (52), “it was never known” (57), “many people knew” (60), and so on. Here, as in La mala hora, gossip is presented as all-seeing; indeed, Ángel Esteban suggests that “the novel is constructed like a Panopticon” (330), with a “panoptic narrator” occupying a privileged central viewpoint. Still, it is gossip itself that is presented as omniscient, with the narrator simply recording and arranging the versions of events already circulating in the community. Gossip may not actually be all-seeing and infallible, but the town believes it to be so and relies upon it unquestioningly.
Many passages demonstrate the townsfolk’s confidence in knowledge received through gossip or highlight gossip’s preternatural speed and reliability. Even before San Román begins courting her, Angela Vicario has learned, through casual gossip, of his intention to marry her. The narrator, similarly, writes that between sips of coffee his mother would tell him “what had happened in the world while we slept” and continues: “She seemed to have secret lines of communication with the other people in town, above all those of her own age, and sometimes she would surprise us with anticipated news that she could only have come to know through the arts of divination” (31). These divinations are an expression of gossip’s potency—in terms both of the sheer speed with which news travels through the grapevine and, more importantly, of the deference accorded by the townsfolk to news received through gossip. This is not simply speculative chatter: it is “anticipated news” made real and irrevocable in the telling, just as the “death foretold” of the book’s title is inevitable from the moment that it is first announced.
Like the pasquinades of La mala hora, the gossip of Crónica takes on a charge that goes beyond the specific words that pass from one person to another, and that reflects the public scrutiny and attendant questions of honor and shame that gossip brings. The honor killing at the heart of the novel, after all, is set in motion by gossip: the brothers’ actions are driven not by righteous anger but rather by a weary obsession with preserving the family’s reputation. This dutifulness is based more on fear of the town’s judgmental gossip than on any real belief in the moral urgency of killing Nasar. Indeed, the twins’ public display of murderous intent is both an attempt to satisfy the town’s moral arbiters by performing their willingness to kill, and an attempt to create opportunities for the act itself to be interrupted. It is gossip, and the fear of gossip, about their sister that precipitates the twins’ murderous plan, and it is gossip that drives them inexorably forward, even while—as Clotilde Armenta remarks—they hope to encounter “someone who will do them the favor of stopping them” and free them from the “horrible obligation that has befallen them” (77). But gossip’s moral conservatism not only drives the twins forward but also prevents anyone from interrupting their performance. Arnold Penuel writes: “Fear of ‘el qué dirán’ is a potent force in the town, ensuring that the townspeople adhere to their traditional values. This fear colors nearly all the Vicarios’ acts. [ . . . ] Of course the brothers’ observance of the code of honor initially is due obeisance to appearances. In view of their obvious reluctance to carry out the murder and the hypocrisy in the townspeople’s values, honor becomes little more than an institutionalization of the fear of ‘el qué dirán’” (762). Gossip here serves to police group norms and to identify the actions that must be taken to shield the Vicario family from moral condemnation. It is, however, a force to which all are subject: while gossip ostensibly represents the community’s collective moral code, no individual member can shape or redirect the flow of that gossip, or even intervene in the horrifying actions set in motion thereby.
In this sense, the twins’ performance is paradoxically both an attempt to halt the killing to which they have committed themselves and a confirmation that the killing will in fact take place. The second time the twins visit the market to sharpen their knives, they “screamed again so that it would be heard that they were going to rip the guts out of Santiago Nasar” (79). Knowing full well that news of their intentions will quickly spread through the town, they announce their plans to anyone who will listen. In the process, the text tells us, the brothers forgo opportunities to kill Nasar “immediately and without public spectacle” and instead go “to unimaginable lengths to find someone to keep them from killing him” (67–68). The townsfolk, moreover, were well aware of the twins’ purpose in broadcasting their intentions: “No death was ever better foretold [ . . . ] twenty-one people declared having heard what the twins said, and all of them had the impression that they’d said it with the sole purpose of being heard” (69). The twins’ gambit works on one level: word of their intentions spreads so far and so quickly that to Clotilde Armenta “it seemed impossible that it wasn’t already known in the house across the street.” The text continues: “There were very few of us who didn’t know that the Vicario twins were waiting for Santiago Nasar in order to kill him, and their motive was also known in full detail” (78–79). But knowledge does not lead to action, in part, ironically, because the news has spread so widely that it seems inconceivable that it has not yet reached Nasar. “Nobody asked themselves if Santiago Nasar had been forewarned, because it seemed impossible to everyone that he wouldn’t have been,” the narrator asserts (30). It is the town’s absolute faith in gossip’s reach and reliability, in short, that keeps individual residents from accepting their responsibility for preventing the killing.
More than this, however, the town’s paralysis reflects an effacement, in the residents’ interpretation of their own gossip, of the distinction between signified and signifier: the circulating gossip about the twins’ intentions grows indistinguishable from actual facts about completed actions. The gossip and the act itself become all but interchangeable—“noticia anticipada,” or anticipated news—for many of the townsfolk. Luisa “hadn’t finished hearing the news before putting on her heels and the church shawl” that she only used for visits of condolence (33). Indeed, the town’s lived reality appears shaped by gossip: the townsfolk’s near-universal conviction that Nasar is innocent is based largely on the assumption that were he guilty, there would be gossip to show it. “Nobody believed that it had, in fact, been Santiago Nasar. [ . . . ] Nobody had ever seen them together, much less alone,” the narrator states. “The town had never known him to have any relationship, other than the conventional one that he maintained with Flora Miguel, and the tempestuous one with María Alejandrina Cervantes that drove him mad for fourteen months” (117–18). Without gossip to substantiate it, Nasar’s guilt seems inconceivable: the narrator’s sister complains that “nobody could explain to me how it was that poor Santiago Nasar wound up embroiled in such a mess” (32). The town’s shared reality depends, it seems, on public knowledge established through gossip: events passed over in silence might as well never have happened.
This is all the more remarkable because Crónica’s narrator goes to great lengths to establish the unreliability and incompleteness of the town’s gossip. One striking example comes when the narrator reveals his own clandestine liaison with María Alejandrina Cervantes—a secret hitherto concealed even from his three most intimate friends. Hidden from the town’s gossip networks, the affair “opens the door to all kinds of informational uncertainties,” Angel Rama writes, even raising the possibility that it was the narrator himself who dishonored Angela Vicario (15). Rama is correct about the affair’s destabilizing impact, but it is not the only such moment; the narrator is diligent in recording the discrepancies between the various accounts he hears. Not only are there secrets that never become part of the town’s gossip—and so, it might be said, simply never exist for the bulk of the townsfolk—but there are also numerous moments in which gossip, as a depository of public knowledge, is shown to be internally inconsistent or simply incorrect. Most people believe the Miguels sleep “until twelve by order of Nahir Miguel,” but the truth, the narrator informs us, “is that they left the house closed until very late [ . . . ] but they were early risers” (144–45). The narrator likewise stresses the town’s inability to reach a consensus about whether the morning of the murder was sunny or rainy. Indeed, the narrative of Crónica seems almost designed to ring hollow, and to be built around promises that it cannot keep. “The investigative framework of the novel forever seems to imply the imminent uncovering of some hitherto unknown datum that will bestow coherence upon the fateful events of that distant February morning,” Alonso writes. “And yet, the novel constantly thwarts all expectations of revelation through what seems a perpetual game of deferrals, extremely detailed but inconsequential information and contradictory affirmations” (152). The hollowness of the narrator’s implicit promises echoes the hollowness—the performativeness—of the twins’ dutiful outrage, and also of the townsfolk’s outpourings of grief. When San Román’s female relatives arrive, they carefully remove their shoes before walking barefoot in the dust, “tearing out clumps of hair and crying with piercing howls that seemed to be of joy. [ . . . ] I remember thinking that such grief could only be feigned in order to hide other, larger shames” (112). In grief, as in anger or shame, awareness of the observing community takes primacy over authentic emotion: pain and humiliation are reified through rituals of display, as though only when reflected in the townsfolk’s gossip can such responses be truly validated and made real.
On one level, the town’s gossip speaks to a strong sense of community and collective identity. The text frequently uses plural constructions—“us,” “nobody,” “everybody”—to show the extent to which events are understood through collective interpretations and shared moral judgments: “For the vast majority there was only one victim: Bayardo San Román,” the narrator declares. “People assumed that the other protagonists of the tragedy had fulfilled, with dignity and even a certain greatness, the parts life had chosen for them. Santiago Nasar had expiated the injury, the brothers Vicario had proven their manhood, and the scorned sister was once again in possession of her honor” (109). Death and murder, it seems, are of less consequence than the town’s collective understanding of honor and shame. But there is a neuroticism to this shared understanding: “For years we could talk of nothing else,” the narrator records. “Our daily conduct, dominated until then by so many linear habits, had suddenly started to revolve around the same common anxiety” (126). If the novel’s protagonist is the town as a collective entity, then the narrative itself, and the gossip it is founded upon, can be read as a critique of collective morality. The hollowness of the narrative—its resolution striven for but never reached—stands as an indictment of individuals willing to subsume their own agency in the collective and surrender themselves to passivity and gossip.
The tragedy at the heart of Crónica, in this reading, is the townsfolk’s tendency to mistake talk for action. The narrator’s mother, hearing of the twins’ plan, rushes out not to halt them but rather to tell Nasar’s mother what she knows: “It isn’t fair that everyone knows they’re going to kill her son, and that she’s the only one who doesn’t know it” (34). Similarly, Clotilde Armenta “shouted at Cristo Bedoya to hurry up, because in this town of faggots only a man like him could prevent the tragedy” (142). Armenta recognizes the need for action but shrugs off her own responsibility, choosing instead only to tell yet another person about the unfolding drama. Even after Nasar’s murder, the community responds only with more talk: people mob an investigating judge with unsolicited statements, while Angela Vicario recounts her misfortune “to anyone who would listen” (117). To the narrator, this inaction is the consequence of fate, or fatalism; the inexorable pull of predestination both explains and excuses the town’s inaction. But as Penuel notes, the narrator’s insistence on the role of fate serves “an ironic intention” that highlights not the unavoidability of the tragedy but rather the townsfolk’s failure to respond to clear warning signs (763). “Though chance does play a part in their lives, what they consider fate or destiny is principally a projection of their own passivity,” Penuel writes (763). Drawn through morally charged gossip into a stunted and corrupted form of the public sphere, the townsfolk become trapped in pointless discourse: endless chatter that precludes the possibility of action, and collective moral judgment that absolves them of individual moral responsibility. In the end, the town is left paralyzed, with the townsfolk mired in gossip and reduced to passively bearing witness to their own still-unfolding story.
Crónica’s gossip-mediated performance of shame and redemptive violence has parallels elsewhere in the Caribbean. Consider, for instance, the popularity of Los Cantantes’ “El Venao,” a merengue that in the mid-1990s was one of the most-played tunes at Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Venezuelan parties. The word venao derives from venado, or stag, and suggests someone who wears antlers—that is, a cuckold. The singer addresses his unfaithful lover:
Ay, woman, the people are saying round here
That I am a venao, I am a venao
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
That when I went to New York you had many lovers
Pay no attention to this trick, they’re rumors, they’re rumors
And don’t let them call me el venao, el venao
Because it torments me, el venao, el venao.
The singer fears betrayal, but it is not the pain of infidelity but rather the shame of being gossiped about that is uppermost on his mind. In E. Antonio de Moya’s telling, the song quickly acquired a life of its own, becoming a “collective innuendo” targeted at men whose partners were unfaithful:
The untoward song was anonymously whistled to those men by the telephone, or loudly and reiteratively played on the jukeboxes of street-corner colmados (grocery stores) every time they passed nearby. To the despair of the victims, mocking customers joyfully danced and sang to the chorus [ . . . ]. When the fashion of this biting jest faded away in the country several years later, no less than a dozen women had been killed [ . . . ]. Dozens of women had been badly battered and injured by jealous husbands, and some men had committed homicide or suicide as a consequence of the “killing” merengue. (69)
In Puerto Rico, too, police officers blamed a rash of domestic killings on the song: “Every time somebody kills their lover or spouse, they blame it on ‘El Venao,’” said Puerto Rican homicide detective Héctor Urdaneta, while the Reverend Milton Picón, the leader of a local morality group, claimed that venao had become a “fighting word” that was “shredding the social fabric of the island” (qtd. in Ross 121). But singling out cuckolded men also serves a community-building purpose. In the aftermath of “El Venao,” de Moya reports, at least one small Dominican town institutionalized the social policing of masculinity, creating a “Fiesta de Cuernos” in which a single man is named “Community Cuckold of the Year”:
Any unwitting married man could be the year’s chosen antihero, the winner of this catastrophic, discrediting and disqualifying surprise. Even worse, as a disclaimer, he would be pressed to prove to others that the accusation is false; if true, he must guarantee that the infidelity was not culturally “justified” by his presumable lack of masculinity. He must show that he is “still” a man by taking “due” revenge on his wife and her lover. Otherwise he will have to submissively accept the defiling stigma of a cuckold, a synonym for abjection, of being an outcast or a contemptible individual. (69)
The selection of the “Cuckold of the Year” appears to depend on consultations with “key informants,” including eyewitnesses, taxi drivers who took the adulterous couple to motels, friends and acquaintances, and even the paramour who cuckolded the prize recipient. Once the winner is chosen, a crowd gathers and dances to his home, where it announces his selection and demands a performative response. “His reaction, of course, should be one of shock, denial and anger, but the crowd will prompt and encourage him to action,” de Moya writes. “As a result, the ‘celebration’ has invariably ended in violent fights, and one or more deaths have occurred every year in the community for this reason” (70). De Moya perceives in such phenomena the confluence of masculinity and issues of power and social control, and the emergence of masculinity as a totalitarian political discourse.22 We can see here two apparently contradictory but ultimately connected accounts of gossip’s role in Caribbean communities: first, that, as in La mala hora, it can serve as a corrosive force that undermines solidarity and unity and, second, that, as in Crónica, it also emerges as a force—quasi-totalitarian, and certainly indifferent to the suffering of individuals—that binds communities together through the destructive performance of common values. The pasquinades of La mala hora are anonymous, indiscriminate, and unfettered from any performance of community; the gossip of Crónica, by contrast, is entirely an expression of communal values, to the exclusion of individual agency or responsibility. The death of Nasar, in this sense, becomes a blood sacrifice in the name of the community: through gossip, the town performs its values, its collective guilt, and its complicity—and, in its shared performance, finds a way to bind itself together.23
Neighbors and Outsiders: Listen, the Wind and Sleep It Off, Lady
The bleak vision proposed by García Márquez stands in marked contrast to the views of many past scholars who, insofar as they have explored the more oppressive aspects of gossip, have tended to focus on the ways in which the practice defines in-groups and out-groups, and helps police (or encourage the self-policing) of group norms. We can see this function of gossip at play in many Caribbean texts, but in such texts we also frequently see a heightened awareness of the individual costs that come with communal surveillance. In his posthumous short story collection Listen, the Wind (1986), for instance, the Jamaican writer Roger Mais repeatedly showcases the claustrophobia and individual anguish generated as communities constitute themselves through gossip.24 The eponymous short story “Listen, the Wind . . .” describes a woman who wants her infatuation with her lover, Joel, to remain an intimate secret: lying next to him at night, she delights in the fact that she is “an enigma to the neighbors, because in spite of all their unkind gossip and forebodings of evil, she still kept her secret, and it defeated them, thwarted them, so that their tongues were robbed of that spell of evil that drips with slander and gossiping—like a scorpion that has been deprived of its sting” (68). She goes on to contemplate the womenfolk doing their laundry:
Above the noise of the paddles with which they beat the clothes, with the soap in them, against smooth, round boulders to get the deep dirt out of them, would be heard the tongues of the women . . . the cruel tongues that tore secrets from the innermost recesses of homes and spread them out before the world like washing was spread upon the river bank . . . the idle tongues, never for a moment quiet, that slavered over another’s wounds with gloating and laughter.
But her secret would be locked tight within her breast, and she would smile deep down inside herself. (68)
The protagonist’s hatred of the gossiping women is vividly depicted, and the parallels between their wagging tongues and the violent motions of the laundry, with its shaking loose of “deep dirt,” are sharply drawn.25 Despite her disdain, however, the following day the protagonist hears gossip about her lover that proves largely accurate and portends her own disillusionment. The women insist that Joel “needs a strong woman to make a man out of him” and predict that Joel will tire of the protagonist and leave her heartbroken (70). The protagonist rejects the oppressive, threatening warning—“They were vultures all of them . . . great flapping black vultures circling above the still living flesh upon which they hoped to feast,” she thinks (70)—but soon learns that in fact the women’s words are well founded, and begins to succumb to the suspicions they have foretold. The washerwomen’s use of gossip to scold the protagonist and mockingly predict the failure of her love affair is a way of bringing her back in line, and of warning her that her intimate “enigma” is both all too transparent and founded upon a naive misreading of her situation. She may believe that, in the throes of young love, she exists outside the norms of her community, but in fact the community is still there, watching her and judging her and drawing her back in—as inescapable as the wind that clatters at her shutters, “telling her wild and terrible things” as she lies awake at night (72).
Mais explores similar territory in “Gravel in Your Shoe,” in which the unnamed protagonist reflects on her uncomfortable relationship with Miss Matty, a gossiping neighbor. The neighbors’ yards are connected by an overhanging ackee tree that, besides serving as a symbol of Miss Matty’s encroachment into the protagonist’s domestic life, makes encounters inevitable and form “the solid basis of their neighbourliness” (75). Still, the protagonist “hated the old woman’s everlasting gossip” and thinks that “if she only had the courage she would have got a man to chop down the ackee tree, and so put an end once and for all to their neighbourliness” (75). In this way, the tree also becomes a symbol of longed-for isolation: chopping down the tree would bring escape from Miss Matty’s prying eyes. The dream, however, remains unrealized, for the protagonist herself is caught up in, and constrained by, the web of gossip that she disdains. Were she to cut down the tree, she realizes, “she would never be allowed to hear the last of it. All the people in the lane would talk about it for months” (75). Fear of gossip thus leads the protagonist to restrain herself and refrain from challenging the bonds of community. Even so, the protagonist’s fear of gossip proves well founded: in a burst of “neighbourliness,” Miss Matty tells the protagonist of “things she thought she ought to know about where her man went evenings after he left home, and what sort of company he was keeping, and how he was spending his money, and upon what kind of women” (75). The insidious gossip destroys the protagonist’s peace of mind: once the doubts have been raised, she cannot forget or banish them, and her trust in her husband is broken beyond repair.
This is, evidently, a particularly barbed vision of neighborly relations: not only Miss Matty but the entire local community is portrayed as constantly “bickering at each other, or gossiping, over their back fences” (74). Only the protagonist is portrayed as rising above the intrusive chatter, smiling or singing to herself as she strives to stay beyond their reach. Miss Matty’s gossip thus becomes an aggressive act of repossession and a reassertion of the community’s claim upon the protagonist: neighborliness, clearly, is about belonging, both in the sense of claiming membership in a group and in the sense of being laid claim to by that group. There is, then, a latent threat to neighborliness, which in Mais’s text we are meant to read as essential to and inextricable from the realities of community life. Kenneth Ramchand writes that “Gravel in Your Shoe” recounts the protagonist’s struggle against “forces that deny her personhood and her privacy as an individual” (xxi), and her attempts to negotiate the tension between the needs of the community and those of the individual. “One belongs to the group or community, but there is an ultimate aloneness and privacy, a private space necessary to the unique individual,” he writes (xxii). But Mais’s story addresses not the reconciliation of these opposing impulses but their fundamental incompatibility. As in “Listen, the Wind . . .” the protagonist of “Gravel in Your Shoe” expresses her aspirations to exist beyond the reach of gossip in naive, idealistic terms: “She wanted to live among them like neighbours, with love. A woman had her troubles, her bread to eat in secret that no one might share. No one. Her life to live” (79). Mais’s texts suggest, however, that membership in a community makes such privacy unsustainable on the individual level and intolerable on the collective level. The protagonist’s closing cry—“But oh Lord Jesus, sweet Jesus, if only they would let her alone” (79)—is a despairing acknowledgment that to sustain itself, the community must lay claim to the intimate lives of its members. The community exists, in large measure, through its gossip; to set oneself apart from this gossip, to refuse to participate therein, is just as divisive and destructive an act as it would be for the protagonist to chop down the ackee tree she shares with her neighbor.
This is the reality that the protagonist knowingly inhabits; her daydreams of a community founded upon love, respect, and privacy are undercut by her realization that to insist upon privacy, or to symbolically spurn the community by cutting down the ackee tree, would only reimmerse her in the gossip she wishes to escape. “They would build up around her such a legend of wickedness as she would never be able to live down. Never be able to hold up her head again among her neighbours. No one would speak to her,” she acknowledges. “Their children would never be allowed to play with her children. They would be considered outcasts as long as they lived there” (75). The risk of ostracism and scandal is the sheathed blade carried by every gossip: an unspoken threat that serves as an effective means of policing community norms and suppressing dissent. “If she had courage sufficient unto herself to withstand their hate, their jibes, their speech deliberately and pointedly withheld, their sneers behind their hands, their talk among themselves, their innuendoes, their spite, their backbiting, all—she would get a man in tomorrow and cut down the ackee tree,” the protagonist reflects. “But she knew herself in this wanting” (76).26
Read in this light, “Gravel in Your Shoe” is the story of its protagonist’s succumbing to the inexorable gossip upon which her community is built. The failure is all the more wrenching because the woman not only fears gossip but condemns it in moral and religious terms; she has, she claims, “built her life not upon barren gossip, and mistrust, and all things misbegotten” but rather upon a more kindly and dignified personal code (75–76). The trouble with gossip, though, is precisely that it is not barren: rather, it is endlessly, noxiously fruitful. By weaving a “legend of wickedness” about those who transgress group norms, the practice reaffirms its own dominance over the group and its members. But gossip not only threatens those who seek to express their individuality; it also insinuates itself into the lives of those who accept their allotted roles as members of the community. Even the protagonist, for all her qualms, begins to give in to its seductive logic and to entertain gossip about her husband. To reject the community would mean being ostracized and condemned through gossip. But to remain a part of the community, the protagonist must accept and participate in gossip, and reinforce the very system of scrutiny and social policing that she herself so acutely resents.27
A similar tension, born of the individual’s desire for privacy and the community’s intolerance of attempts to step outside its prescribed bounds, runs through many of the stories gathered in Jean Rhys’s Sleep It Off, Lady (1976). As Elaine Savory remarks, the outsider is a key theme in Rhys’s fiction, and Mr. Ramage, the Englishman featured in “Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers,” is just such an outsider: he moves to Antigua in search of “peace” and acquires a remote estate. The town’s initial appraisal of Ramage, guided by the gossiping Miss Lambton, is positive; still, his reserve soon makes him seem “very unsociable” to his neighbors, and he sparks further chatter by rebuffing “all invitations to dances, tennis parties and moonlight picnics” (13). Ironically, Ramage’s reclusiveness fuels the gossip about him: his marriage to a black woman, condemned by the townsfolk through coded references to her “cheap scent” and “aggressive voice,” inspires all the more gossip because, as Miss Lambton reports to Mrs. Cox, “he told me that he didn’t want it talked about” (15). Here, as with the protagonist of “Gravel in Your Shoe,” Ramage’s aloofness, and his disdain for the town’s chattering voices and prying eyes, becomes intolerable to the townsfolk, who root out and seek to punish his idiosyncrasies. When Ramage is spotted sunning himself naked, the townsfolk fan the indiscretion into a major scandal, with some claiming to have seen him striding about the countryside wearing nothing but a cutlass at his hip. Later, when Ramage’s wife takes an unannounced trip to Guadeloupe, her absence sparks a flurry of gossip, anonymous police reports, and even a newspaper article condemning Ramage for “beastly murder” (19).28 Finally, the gossip spurs a rioting mob to pelt Ramage with stones; in the aftermath, Ramage is found dead after suffering what the townsfolk agree to call “an accident” (21). Even at Ramage’s funeral, the town turns to gossip to emphasize Ramage’s outsider status and shape the community’s narrative of his death. While many come to the funeral because “they felt guilty,” their contrition doesn’t last long: “Already public opinion was turning against Ramage. ‘His death was really a blessing in disguise,’ said one lady. ‘He was evidently mad, poor man—sitting in the sun with no clothes on—much worse might have happened’” (21). The graveside gossip foreshadows the children’s chatter, two years later, that frames Rhys’s tale. The children’s talk also pointedly echoes the newspaper article that slandered Ramage: “You like crazy people. [ . . . ] You liked Ramage, nasty beastly horrible Ramage” (11). Even the doctor, who at the time defended Ramage’s reputation, comes to modulate his recollection of Ramage, whom he now sees as “certifiable” and “probably a lunatic” (12). By the time the story begins, the town has fully laid claim to the tale of the vilified outsider: their gossip has cohered into consensus and been accepted as fact.
Gossip thus serves both to articulate the figure of the outsider and as the trigger that sets Rhys’s story in motion. While the text notes many cases of gossip, it also makes clear that “it was Mr Eliot, the owner of Twickenham, who started the trouble” (16) and who “told this story to everyone who’d listen” until “the Ramages became the chief topic of conversation” (17). Rhys’s story features plenty of women and other marginalized individuals who gossip, but it is a wealthy male landowner who starts the specific gossip that leads to Ramage’s downfall. Gossip is shown as a swirling presence that penetrates both male and female discourse, infiltrates public institutions such as the press and the police force, and transcends race and social class: it is an all-encompassing force that cannot be safely ignored but also cannot be stopped. The doctor, whose interactions with Ramage convince him that the town’s gossip is baseless, fails to prevent people from “talking venomously” (19); later, he writes to Ramage urging him “to put a stop to the talk at once and to take legal action if necessary” (20), advice rendered all the more preposterously insufficient by the fact that, unbeknownst to the doctor, Ramage is already dead. Finally, the doctor subjugates his own experiences to the judgments rendered through gossip, accepting that his views had been “all wrong” (12). This is the “price” that the doctor warns Ramage he will pay for distancing himself from the town: once gossip labels Ramage an outsider, the community swiftly moves to affirm and amplify that judgment, and to punish him not just through ostracism but through physical violence.
Gossip, in Rhys’s work, is a heartless and impersonal force: it sustains itself through the communities that it governs but has little regard for the individuals caught up in its machinations. This is evident in “Sleep It Off, Lady,” a story in which an elderly woman wrestles with her neighbors’ condemnation of her alcoholism. Her well-founded paranoia about her public image—“she knew that the bottles in her dustbin were counted and discussed in the village” (164)—maps onto her struggles with a huge rat, dismissed by Tom, her handyman, as an alcohol-induced hallucination.29 Later, she emerges from a blackout to find herself copying out the words “Evil Communications corrupt good manners” into a notebook (163). It is the fear of surveillance, of gossip, that stops the old woman from turning to her neighbors, or even her cleaning lady, for help: “Mrs Randolph would be as sceptical as Tom had been. A nice woman but a gossip, she wouldn’t be able to resist telling her cronies about the giant, almost certainly imaginary, rat terrorizing her employer” (165). When the old woman finally slumps by the dustbin—a half-drunk bottle of whiskey still open on her sideboard—and is unable to get up, her neighbors pass her by without hearing her pleas for help. A child who finally stops to talk invokes the community’s judgment as a reason to leave her lying in the road: “Everybody knows that you shut yourself up to get drunk. People can hear you falling about. [ . . . ] Sleep it off, lady” (171). Realizing, finally, that to protest the community’s judgment is “useless,” and perceiving the depth of her own isolation, the old woman succumbs to a “numb weak feeling” that leaves her unable even to call out to passersby (171). Rejected by her community, and literally cast aside with the garbage, she perishes.
Gossip’s callousness is on similarly stark display in “Heat,” in which the eruption of Mont Pelée and the deaths of forty thousand St. Pierre residents become an excuse for gossip. “It was after this that the gossip started,” Rhys writes, with people quickly blaming the eruption on St. Pierre having been “a very wicked city” (40–41). In “Heat,” as in “Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers,” Rhys suggests that the gossip of Caribbean communities is fundamentally at odds with the discourse of English outsiders: just as Ramage cannot comprehend the risks inherent in his self-exclusion from Antiguan society, so the narrator of “Heat” puzzles over English news reports, based on the testimony of a single survivor, that appear to contradict the popular, gossip-derived understanding of the disaster. Similarly, in “Fishy Waters,” a judge hearing a case involving child abuse expresses frustration at the breakdown of law and order in a community so defined by prejudice and gossip: “I cannot accept either hearsay evidence or innuendoes supported by no evidence: but I have not been in my post for twenty years without learning that it is extremely difficult to obtain direct evidence here” (59). The judge has learned through bitter experience that gossip’s judgments are hard to escape, and the true facts of the matter are easily buried thereby. The defense lawyer makes a similar point, contending that the accused man, having already been tried and condemned in the court of public opinion, can hardly be given a fair trial. “Are you not very ready to believe the worst of him? Has there not been a great deal of gossip about him?” he demands (52).
After the case concludes, Matt Penrice, both the defendant’s accuser and the child’s true assailant, comes to fear that prying eyes will uncover the truth of the matter, and sends the child to live on another island “away from all the gossip and questioning” (60). The gambit fails: in attempting to avoid gossip, Penrice only sparks more chatter about the child’s departure. Penrice laments that there is no way to stop the gossip once it has begun, speaking of the chattering islanders in prejudiced, bestial terms: “Do you think these damnable hogs care whether it’s possible or not, or how or where or when? They’ve just got to get hold of something to grunt about, that’s all” (61). Finally, he says he wishes only to leave the Caribbean and return to England, where he won’t have to worry about “what they say here.” Penrice’s wife, who loves the Caribbean, reminds him that he will find “envy, malice, hatred everywhere” and that he “can’t escape”; Penrice admits as much, saying: “Perhaps, but I’m sick of this particular brand” (62). Rhys insightfully suggests that gossip operates differently—more pervasively, more brutally—in the fraught communities of the Caribbean, but also that the gossiping communities’ hypocrisy and bleak indifference are equally present, if differently expressed, in British society.
Performing Difference: Sánchez, Sylvain, and Senior
Like Rhys’s “Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers,” Luis Rafael Sánchez’s “¡Jum!” (1966), one of the first Puerto Rican short stories to openly explore homosexuality, shows a community deploying gossip to police divergence from social norms.30 The tale’s main character, “Trinidad’s son,” who is presumed to be gay, is described as a “queer bird” and persecuted and ostracized by the townsfolk, who are presented as a faceless collective, a seething “whispering” of indistinguishably plural voices (131).31 Sánchez, always attuned to spoken language, uses the anaphoric que, or that, to reflect the rhythmic syntax of gossip from the text’s opening paragraph: “That Trinidad’s son was tightening his cheeks until he suffocated his asshole. That he was a queer bird taking a vacation on land and sea. That he would don his Sunday best even when it was Monday or Tuesday. And that his vest was festooned with genuine-lace clovers” (131). The story records the transformation of these remarks, first into judgments, then into insults. The title itself signals a similar process: as Juan Gelpí notes, it is an interjection that “denotes threat as much as strangeness. Threatened by strangeness, by the different, the community charges, using anaphora” (119). Trinidad’s son sequesters himself, remaining in his home “like a cloistered nun” (133), but like Ramage, his efforts to avoid gossip only heighten the inescapable urgency of the community’s whispers. Trinidad’s son is progressively abandoned by his cook, his washerwoman, his barber, and finally his neighbor, who installs a fence that literally redraws the boundaries between their houses. Insults, insistent and incantatory, ring throughout Sánchez’s text; finally, Trinidad’s son, irrevocably marginalized, tries to leave the town, only to find as he steps into the street that the townsfolk have coalesced into a mob. He is pushed and shoved to the edge of the town, then driven into the river that serves as the community’s boundary; finally, as the whispers crescendo into a full-blown riot, he drowns, succumbing almost gratefully to the water—“warm water, warmer, warmer” (135)—that also drowns out the jeering of the crowd.
Agnes Lugo-Ortiz perceptively notes that Sánchez’s text is remarkable because its protagonist’s “presumed ‘otherness’ is not a preexistent condition” but is instead reified and amplified by the crowd’s pervasive chatter. “It only comes into being through the utterance of the community,” Lugo-Ortiz continues. “What the story thematizes is the presence of difference within and the process through which it is made into an outside: violent verbal marginalization and deadly suppression” (129). It is through the speech act, through orality, that “a community that aspires to a totalizing self-definition exercises its law and its violence” (130–31). Still, what Lugo-Ortiz refers to as “the utterance of the community” is not mere speech, but speech in a social context—speech, in fact, that demands to be considered as gossip. It is through gossip that the town’s increasing outrage is portrayed: the soft whispers of the opening sentence, “the whispering traveled from mouth to mouth” (131), intensify to become “the whispering flew from mouth to mouth” (132), then proliferate into “an abundant crop of gossip” (133). Finally, the gossip takes a violent turn, becoming a murmuring “like a dart or a sword” (134) that the townsfolk use “to attack him with words” (131). The pain inflicted on Trinidad’s son through gossip is deliberate—“in every corner, the men would fling knives from their mouths” (132), the text states—and encompasses both a social judgment and the implicit threat of actual violence that leads Trinidad’s son to leave town.
As Lawrence Martin La Fountain-Stokes writes, this collective brutality is a fundamentally social endeavor that frames the “malicious use of gossip as a way to discipline unruly subjects and create a general negative social reaction: gossip as a form of ostracism and persecution” (3–4). As in Rhys’s “Pioneers,” once put into circulation the gossip cannot be contained: in both texts, the significance and fragility of individual reputations in small communities is clearly displayed. Reputation, after all, is simply a proxy for that which is said about a person in a given community: gossip, then, becomes self-justifying, with the very fact that a person is being spoken ill of serving to validate the claims made about them. What begins as an acknowledgment of perceived difference gains affective charge and spirals into collective outrage, as speculative gossip coheres into readily accepted fact: accusations, by tarnishing the reputation of their target, serve to cement his position as an outsider, and thus his status as a threat to the community’s integrity.
This can be readily seen in “¡Jum!,” as the details of Trinidad’s son’s divergences from group norms—in appearance, in behavior—are captured and shared through gossip, and distilled into derogatory terms or hateful phrases that are repeated by the faceless residents of the town. The accusations multiply, reverberating and seething formlessly like the procession that drives Trinidad’s son to the river. As in both Crónica and “Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers,” the crowd becomes an unthinking unit, its individual members absorbed into the collective performance of judgment and exclusion. Whispers swell into yells; finally, the mob’s shouted insults blend in with the barking of the dogs they have set upon Trinidad’s son. Stripped of individuality, and thus of individual responsibility or restraint, the pursuing crowd becomes “the town, [ . . . ] then the mutts and finally, always and again, the town” (134).
A similar episode of gossip-mediated mob violence occurs in Patrick Sylvain’s 2011 short story “Odette,” set in the aftermath of the Port-au-Prince earthquake, in which the elderly, shocked, and perhaps senile titular protagonist, after witnessing the death of her granddaughter, takes up residence in a tent city. A kindly neighbor gives Odette a red head wrap, and she falls asleep nervously fiddling with and tapping her walking stick. Soon, however, neighborliness gives way to embittered scrutiny: “Despite the constant chatter of her fellow evacuees, the tapping made a persistent noise in the humid hot air that seemed intrusive to some and meditative to others. Eventually, she began to inspire gossip” (24). Singling out Odette is both a means of entertainment and a form of catharsis for the bored residents of the camp. “The gossip was a way to both pass the time and deflect resentment, which, without an identified target, would have reattached itself to its originator. Odette thus became an unwitting target over the next several weeks, as words traveled from mouths to ears to other mouths,” Sylvain writes (24). In the minds of the gossips, Odette’s senility becomes “a secret code” and her red head wrap “proof of what many had heard for years: that she was such a lougawou, a wretched person, that even her own child had abandoned her” (24). People begin to gossip about her supernatural powers, claiming that she had predicted evil happenings ranging from a car accident to a coup d’état, and insinuating that she caused the death of her own daughter. Odette is excluded from the improvised community of the tent city and unable to defend herself: “People would have been happy to ask her about all of this, except Odette had not uttered an intelligible word since that horrible afternoon in January,” the text notes. Still, she perceives and fears the gossip: “During the long sleepless nights of tent city life, gossip spread at a distorted speed, occasionally ricocheting past Odette’s ears. [ . . . ] She started crossing herself multiple times before falling asleep” (24).
The gossip of Sylvain’s story shows, among other things, the decay of neighborly bonds in the wake of the city’s destruction. A kind gesture inadvertently precipitates gossip that makes Odette the target of her tent-city neighbors; later, as the gossip crescendoes, a former neighbor who has been providing Odette with food merely stands passively—she “just watched and sobbed” (25)—as the tone grows denunciatory and the crowd coalesces into a mob. Odette perceives “the voices discussing her outside” and the “talk [ . . . ] about her flying around in the dark, her being a witch” as an intrusion. “She had been living alone for so many years now that all this sudden company was agonizing,” Sylvain’s text reads (25). Significantly, the fierce gossip of the crowd is perceived as “company,” in a distortion of the ordinary sense of cordial visits and pleasant conversation. In fact, the swelling gossip is the sound of the crowd whipping itself into a near riot; soon, the neighbors’ chatter grows into a rendering of judgment, and then the battle cry of a burgeoning mob:
A small group of stick-wielding women were already inside her makeshift tent. She felt an arm around her neck, which was followed by the tearing sound of the front of her dress and then a slap at the side of her head. All she remembered saying was: ‘Ki sa m te fè?’ What did I do?
As the torrent of slaps continued, she wrapped both her arms around her head. Had it not been for a police pickup that was parked nearby, her body would surely have been hacked. Even in the presence of the officers, some managed to land a kick or a slap. (26)
Gossip, in the aftermath of unthinkable destruction, runs unchecked by the usual social norms; even the presence of police officers does little to prevent the crowd from taking arbitrary, cathartic vengeance against Odette. The tent-city residents’ anger at their own loss is turned outward, fueling a violent upsurge of collective rage that—much as with the chatter of the townsfolk in Crónica—serves to reaffirm the participants’ membership in a community, albeit at the expense of the helpless old woman they select as their sacrificial victim.
Gossip plays a similarly aggressive, if more subtle, role in another story by Sánchez, “Etc.,” in which the male narrator’s account is interrupted by women’s gossip about a man who loiters on the street corner and sexually assaults women he finds attractive. The women turn out to be talking about the narrator, disclosing not just his predatory behavior but also the fact that his wife is unfaithful to him. Through their gossip the narrator is exposed, and his threat diminished along with his narrative authority, as the women hijack the tale and turn the narrator into an object of mockery. Gossip becomes an act of aggression, as Gelpí insightfully notes: “The etcetera of the title alludes [ . . . ] to what is missing in the text. That which is missing in the story, and which interrupts the characters’ routine, is the feminine verbal aggression, the gossip through which one of the Franklin store’s clerks unmasks the character” (118). As Gelpí discerns, Sánchez’s text plays on the homophony in Spanish between two forms of aggression: dar chino and chismear, or to commit sexual assault and to gossip. The clerks’ gossip about the story’s protagonist corrects the narrator’s own account and adds a crucial piece of information: that he himself has been cuckolded. Gossip here becomes a weapon of attack. The airing of dirty laundry—“sacar los trapos al sol” in Spanish—constitutes a ritual of retribution by the community against one of its members, with gossip becoming a means of punishing and emasculating the transgressor. The community once more asserts itself through gossip at the expense of a perceived outsider.
In The Harder They Come (1980), Michael Thelwell similarly tells the tale—itself recounted through a pages-long, carefully transcribed act of gossip—of a “syndicate” of young, poor Jamaican men who gossip both to reinforce their own bonds and to take revenge upon an attractive woman who spurns their advances. The men use gossip to map the woman’s rejection of them and her dalliances with more affluent men, and toy with simply reporting her affair with her wealthy employer to the man’s wife; in the end, however, they are more creative, pooling their resources—a gold watch, a pair of fancy shoes—to make one of their number appear far better off than he is. Next, they plant gossip about their friend to make him seem an eligible bachelor: “It was arranged for her to learn via the grapevine that he was a clerk in a downtown store, who was studying accounting in night school and was assured of a big job when he finished his studies” (228). Finally, when their friend succeeds in bedding the woman, the men gather outside his room, and one takes the friend’s place in the midst of the couple’s lovemaking; the ruse is discovered only when it emerges that the substitute is far better endowed. Both the well-endowed man and the woman become the subject of gossip, but the man is given an affectionate nickname—“Longah”—while the woman is hounded out of her job, in a move presented as just punishment for her rejection of men of her own social class. “So everybody say. You can ask anybody in Trench Town. Ah true man,” insists Bogart, who narrates the gossip (228). The episode recalls anthropologist Peter Wilson’s description of gossip as a reputational contest between men and women, with men gossiping about their sexual conquests to bolster their own standing at the expense of the reputations of the women they describe, and women countering by gossiping about the “foolish” or “ignorant” behavior of the men. Still, Wilson notes, this gendered contest is not fought on level ground. While men gossip about women chiefly in order to elevate their own social standing, the woman’s first priority is defensive: she must protect “that vulnerable part of her social personality, her pretense to respectability” (162). Moreover, Wilson argues, since respectability is relative, women tend to seek to tarnish the reputation of their rivals, with even gossip about male misbehavior often intended to denigrate other women by association.
The tendency to boost one’s own status through gossip about others can be seen in Luis Negrón’s 2010 short story “Muchos o de cómo a veces la lengua es bruja,” in which two “very concerned neighbors” (73) chatter about a long line of people—a child, a brother-in-law, the sons of three acquaintances, a school librarian, and others—who they claim are patos, or homosexuals. The two women egg one another on, in false sympathy for the families of the various people they believe to be gay, but by defining the men they discuss almost exclusively in terms of female relationships—“Alta’s boy,” “Margot’s son” (73, 78)—they effectively use them as reputational props, serving to diminish the women in question. The gossip session is underpinned by the ostentatious performance of anxiety—“Look, my hairs are standing on end,” one woman tells the other (78)—with the pair reassuring one another that they aren’t prejudiced even as they approvingly describe episodes of persecution and physical violence against people suspected of being gay. Negrón’s work is indebted to Sánchez’s, and, as in “¡Jum!,” gossip gives rise to direct action against its targets. Still, in this instance Negrón suggests that the women are fighting a rising tide. The proliferation of patos in the women’s world is described as a “rich threat” (79)—a wry nod to the vicious pleasure the women take in condemning and judging their neighbors, but also to the shifting sexual reality, the Caribbean queering, depicted in Negrón’s stories. The threat is real, and there really are “muchos” homosexuals surrounding the women, the story concludes: “Por lo que se ve, no es para menos” (79)—“from what we can tell, it’s no small matter” (68).32 Society is changing, and while the women resort to gossip to shore up their way of life, for once social condemnation will not be enough to undo the changes, any more than the prayed-straight therapy sessions that the women discuss are enough to render their targets heterosexual.
Still, it is through gossip that the women of Negrón’s story articulate and process the changes taking place—and the others they see gaining sway—in Puerto Rican society. This resonates with the more placid use of gossip in the stories of the Jamaican writer Olive Senior. As Lucy Evans perceptively remarks, Senior’s stories present gossip as “a means through which community is articulated and reinforced” (56)—but while at some times “the gossiping community serves as a support network” for its members, at others it functions as a mechanism whereby “close-knit rural communities can exclude those who do not conform and integrate” (64). These are flip sides of the same coin: often, gossip obtains and maintains its status as a support system for some of a community’s members precisely by excluding, criticizing, or ostracizing those who are deemed to have trespassed beyond the community’s moral boundaries. The female characters of “Ballad,” Evans notes, “are brought together in mutual critique” of Miss Rilla, with whose makeup, jewelry, and general comportment they eagerly find fault. “Their rejection of Miss Rilla brings them together, reinforcing the dominant ideology to which they all subscribe,” Evans writes (64). As Evans notes, Senior’s stories show women playing a wide variety of roles, often defined by their varying degrees of compliance with or resistance to “a European ideal of respectability” (65). The apparently petty social grievances revealed and policed through gossip thus reflect broader tensions inherent in the communities and societies of which Senior writes; the differences in which gossip deals, in other words, are more complex and more significant than they seem. In stories such as “Real Old Time T’ing,” “Lily, Lily,” and “The Lizardy Man and His Lady,” as Carol Bailey writes, gossip serves to challenge the conception of “ ‘difference’ as a primary basis of social organization in colonial/modern Jamaica.” The protagonists of these stories, Bailey asserts, “use gossip as a means of foregrounding the self, and in so doing call into question their own investment in the systems they interrogate” (124). Bailey is aware that gossip can serve as a means of social control, but also sees in gossip’s interrogation of “difference” a means of exposing a society’s defining anxieties about race, class, and morality. “Beyond maintaining control and exposing social codes, gossip [ . . . ] reveals a subject’s own insecurities and investment in the system she critiques,” she writes. “Senior uncovers the social investment that gossip both reveals and embodies” (124).
This is apparent not only in the stories explored by Bailey but also in many of Senior’s other works. Dancing Lessons (2014) features a well-connected “sambo girl” named Millie who defies expectations and refuses to settle down with a single man, sparking gossip that she is “a loose woman” (50)—a claim the narrator questions. “I don’t think she was; though she had a reputation as a ‘walk-bout,’ Millie didn’t care,” the narrator reports. “Unlike her younger sister Vie, who had to stay home to mind the three children she already had at age twenty, Millie was ‘free, single, and disengaged,’ as she liked to describe herself to any who dared criticize her” (50). Millie does not simply ignore the community’s gossip about her: she dives into it, uses it, and makes it a part of her own process of self-assertion:
Millie on her days off was free to walk. And talk. She walked to the shop, she walked to the post office, she walked to visit her friends and relatives when her mind took her, in the process harnessing all news and gossip and trailing behind her the ugly chit-chat that followed women who did not stay at their yard and—even worse—had no children of their own. Yet, because Millie had such a pleasant, smiling face, with dimples, and a temper to match, everyone liked her, even the women, so the remarks passed behind her back were nowhere as stinging as they would have been were she less well liked, or less well connected in the marketplace of gossip. (50)
As the narrator makes clear, not everyone is able to evade the slings and arrows of neighborhood gossip with quite as much dexterity as Millie; it is her ability to do so that makes her remarkable. Still, Senior’s text suggests, gossip is a marketplace from which a savvy trader can come away having made a profit, and in which difference can, for some participants, become a thing to be asserted rather than feared. As Bailey writes, gossip may appear to be about other people, but Senior—writing about “postcolonial societies that are still haunted by the preoccupation with difference that created them” (131)—sees clearly that the differences about which people gossip are actually a commentary upon their own self-image. The things people gossip about reveal their hopes, prejudices, and fears, and speak eloquently about the uncomfortable truths and frailties upon which their communities are founded.
Community and Society: La fiesta vigilada
The scholarship on gossip and community can be loosely divided into what might be called traditional and revisionist schools. The former asserts that gossip is fundamentally corrosive to community, and that through its assaults on reputation and dignity it breaks down the fraternal neighborliness and mutual trust upon which the community depends to sustain itself. The latter, which might also be termed the Spacksian reading, suggests the existence of “good” gossip, which strengthens such ties by brokering and bolstering intimate relationships, and by allowing marginalized groups to assert their views.33 In the texts examined in this chapter, however, a third possibility reveals itself: that gossip can serve to trouble the distinction between Gemeinschaft (“community”) and Gesellschaft (“society”) proposed by Ferdinand Tönnies, and elaborated upon by Jean-Luc Nancy and others.34 In the Spacksian view, gossip—or at least “good” gossip—is a prototypical discourse of Gemeinschaft: it allows the ties of kinship and friendship to proliferate and strengthen themselves, and authentic, intimate relationships to spring up amid the institutional affiliations and obligations that mediate the drab modernity of Gesellschaft. As we have seen, however, Caribbean writers tend to view gossip’s role in mediating community with suspicion. Community itself, in fact, is a particularly fraught concept in the region—a consequence, Celia Britton convincingly argues, of the region’s uniquely troubled past. Caribbean societies are the “pure product of colonization,” Britton writes, and consequently “there could be no ‘natural’ sense of community evolving peacefully over the years; rather, the problem of community, conceived both in terms of collective practices and institutions and on the subjective level of collective identity, generates a deep-seated anxiety” (Sense of Community 1). In such a context, gossip appears not as a means of generating utopian, pseudofamilial microcommunities but rather as a decidedly dystopian force: the intimate communitarian structures of Gemeinschaft placed in the service of the Gesellschaft, and used not to reinforce neighborly bonds but rather to oversee and enforce the bleaker reality of a society seeking to sustain itself. Gossip, in other words, evolves into a totalitarian force seeking to stifle individual self-expression and to punish those who challenge the status quo or wander beyond the community’s carefully policed boundaries.35
This can be seen, to varying degrees, in the texts examined in this chapter. Even Senior’s portrayal of gossip, which of the texts discussed leans closest to a Spacksian approach, is marked by an acute awareness of the societal tensions and postcolonial anxieties manifested in the intimate interactions she describes. If La mala hora hews closer to the traditionalist view, showing a society torn apart by gossip, meanwhile, Crónica shows a society held forcibly together by gossip, but at the expense of individual agency. Rhys and Sánchez show gossip being used to brutally punish, or label and exclude, transgressors, with deadly results. Mais, pointedly, describes a woman who longs for Gemeinschaft—to “live [ . . . ] like neighbours, with love”—but who is frustrated by gossip’s impersonal policing of community behavior and by the apparent impossibility of self-actualized existence in such a society. And if Negrón’s ironic portrayal of gossip’s social policing hints at the waning power of the moral arbiters in question, it also acknowledges the immense power such gossips have long exercised, and still seek to assert, over the sexual and romantic lives of queer Puerto Ricans. Gossip is shown as not simply a means for small, neighborly groups to constitute themselves but also as a tool that binds communities together without regard for intimacy, authenticity, or individuality. It becomes, in short, a means for the Gesellschaft to assert and sustain itself more forcibly, by co-opting the prototypical discourse of the Gemeinschaft.
The texts hitherto examined explore gossip’s totalitarian aspect chiefly via its deployment in informal social and power structures. In some Caribbean works, however, the connections between totalitarian gossip and authoritarian politics are made more explicit. This is the case in Antonio José Ponte’s La fiesta vigilada, a novel-essay—told in the first person, as opposed to the ensemble visions of many of the preceding texts—that shows the irreparable damage done to a community, and to its individual members, when gossip is co-opted by the state.36 The state’s suffocating presence is, as many have noted, the central concern of Ponte’s work. María Guadalupe Silva writes that Ponte’s texts are marked by the “constant presence, in each space of public and private life, of the Cuban state and its regimes of authority” (70), which are depicted as “an expansive and totalitarian system” (72). Less often remarked, however, is the degree to which this system is dependent upon networks of friends and neighbors who become “espías,” or spies, prying into one another’s private lives and reporting each other’s intimate secrets to the government. The spies to which Ponte refers are actually just gossips, like the prying neighbors of “Gravel in Your Shoe”: private citizens who engage in conventional chatter about which of their neighbors have more money than they should, receive strange visitors, or behave “suspiciously.” But where Mais’s neighbors gossip among themselves, Ponte’s transmute their chatter into espionage by reporting it to the government. The text’s insistence on calling such people spies is both an ironic gesture, mocking the informers by inflating their status, and a serious one that acknowledges the effects of their intrusion. Similarly, Ponte speaks of “the surveillance of the neighborhood committees” and “that of the uniformed forces” in the same breath, both puncturing the self-importance of the gossips and signaling their assimilation into the state’s surveillance apparatus (236).37
Above all, however, Ponte stresses that his lived reality is one in which every friend, neighbor, or even bystander is potentially a spy.38 Everything is observed, and everything must be observable: “Better that no tree should stand between the buildings; frankness should reign between comrades,” he wryly notes (184). Here, once more, the tropes of community life are perverted to serve the needs of the impersonal and uncaring but powerfully self-sustaining surveillance state. Gossip becomes a dispersed form of surveillance, in contrast to the central and unitary surveilling eye conceived of by Bentham and described by Foucault. Still, the assumption by Cubans of responsibility for their own surveillance is very much in keeping with Foucault’s conception of the panopticon as an instrument for creating a self-policing community; it should, he argues, “be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relationship independently of the person who exercises it; in short, the detainees should be caught up in a situation of power of which they themselves are the bearers” (Surveiller 203).39 The gossip-mediated social surveillance practiced in Cuba is notable for combining peer-to-peer social scrutiny with a centralized government structure: in Ponte’s text, gossip obtains its power not simply through the subject’s awareness of being watched and judged, but through the acutely felt threat that what is seen by one’s peers will be repeated to state security agents and will filter back into official networks of oversight and control. This is a plausible concern: Lillian Guerra’s Visions of Power in Cuba details the Castro government’s use of “eavesdropping, snooping, gossip gathering, and shouting matches on the street” as a form of social control, with particular reference to the role of the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (209). Guerra argues convincingly that the CDRs mediated “a unique system of power best described as a grassroots dictatorship,” with cederistas given the right to assess the revolutionary credentials of their neighbors and to forge new identities for themselves as self-appointed agents of the state—both tasks in which gossip became a vital and widely used resource (200).
Ponte sets his own experiences among a constellation of other spy stories, primarily English, pulled from history and literature. Pondering Graham Greene’s 1958 novel Our Man in Havana, Ponte discerns a similarity between the novelist’s fascination with the lives of others and the prying eyes of the gossip-spy. He also reflects on the journalist Timothy Garton Ash’s discovery of his Stasi file in the former East Germany, noting that the file is composed of three kinds of documents: photocopied letters, transcribed phone conversations, and “reports from neighbors and acquaintances of the surveilled” through which Garton Ash “was able to reconstruct a day from more than thirty years ago” (214). Ponte is especially fascinated by this last set of documents, which Ash uses to recompose “successions of Bloomsdays” through reports describing the way he “would come in and carry his bicycle to the landing of the staircase that led to his floor” (214–15) and so on and so forth, in tedious detail. This trivia is the stuff of mundane gossip, not spy novels, but it is precisely through the accumulation of such quotidian information, Ponte suggests, that the surveillance state obtains such sweeping control over its citizenry. Ash’s discoveries feed Ponte’s exhausted sense of being constantly watched, a well-founded paranoia that seeps into his own daily experiences. When the economy changes and money starts flowing in to Havana, Ponte immediately recognizes that “the suspicion of someone who lived above their means would become a motive for frequent snitching” (127). During a Celia Cruz performance, meanwhile, he can’t help but assume that among the orchestra members there is “some colleague (or several) ready to snitch” (133). The state thus achieves oppression through perceived omniscience: Ponte’s paranoia, and his sense of living in a panoptical surveillance state, penetrates all aspects of his life.
Despite this suffocating paranoia, the guarded tone of La fiesta vigilada appears motivated by the pursuit of a kind of restrained intimacy that suggests a frustrated yearning for kinship and for connections between the narrator’s experiences and those of others. For Adriana Kanzepolsky, La fiesta vigilada raises important questions: “How to appropriate [ . . . ] the memory of the city, and above all one’s own memory, when the discourse of the State threatens with its presence to seep into all the cracks? That is, how to narrate a discourse in the first person when [ . . . ] the ‘I’ insists, page after page, that the public has taken the place of the private?” (64). Ponte’s watchful first-person narrator grapples with these questions, offering himself as a voice for the destroyed community, a “we” that finds its sense of self precisely in the shared experience of persistent isolation and mistrust. “We were all the police,” Ponte writes, fusing the first person and the destroyed community in the dual experiences of watching and being watched (236). Ponte thus also reflects upon the alienation of the individual in a surveillance state in which “one was always under suspicion” and in which even introspection becomes a sterile, carefully regulated activity, with communal acts of self-criticism serving as “a bad mix of the agora and the confessional box” (123). Despite this, Ponte’s paranoia is not limited to his own stifling sense of being watched but encompasses the suffering of others, too, such as the orchestra members in the example above, or the construction workers who, as Ponte observes, are “always at risk of losing their job due to someone’s denunciation” (201). Paranoia, Ponte suggests, is a simple fact of life for those living under surveillance.
Perhaps because he himself understands the impulse to scrutinize—as he reminds his reader, the novelist is a kind of spy—Ponte senses the alienation not just of the watched but also of the watcher. “The Muscovites needed to spy incessantly due to a profound incapacity for understanding,” he writes. “Given that they did not understand the contemporary world, nor the history that since 1917 had been carrying them towards the most absolute darkness and the peak of horror, they spied. Because of emptiness, because of idleness” (150–51). Not just the victims of the gossip-spies but the entire community—the entire city—is corroded by the pervasive prying that paradoxically also serves to hold it together. Anke Birkenmaier notes that in Ponte’s text, “the city is conceived of as an entity threatened by ‘others’: visiting foreigners, spies, surveilling neighbors” (250). It is telling, then, that Ponte makes explicit the connection between the figure of the gossip-spy and the motif of ruination that runs through La fiesta. “All spying aspires to the simultaneity of the interior and the exterior that is an attribute of ruins,” Ponte writes (203). The spy—like the gossip, one could argue—is concerned with revealing that which lies within and rendering public, through a process of destructive exposition, that which others wish to keep hidden from view. In such an environment, in the ciudad vigilada, the society sustains itself, but there is no real sense of community: there is Gesellschaft without Gemeinschaft. “The city belonged, in the long run, to nobody,” Ponte writes.40 “Life in each neighborhood became a collective shipwreck, with surveillance between neighbors as the clutching of a drowning man that drags another to the depths” (202–3). There is no sense of belonging or of fraternal bonds, no real kinship: only a shared sense of loss, of paranoia, of hopeless resignation. Gossip, in such a setting, is a far cry from the Spacksian chatter that allows the forging of bonds between small groups. In these Caribbean texts, gossip is at best vestigial, a reminder of lost intimacy. More typically, gossip becomes a powerful but impersonal, even totalitarian force: a means of binding the social group together, but one that shows little concern for the freedoms lost or the individual lives sacrificed along the way.