Chisme de chisme, todo es chisme.
—Luis Rafael Sánchez
THE CARIBBEAN is full of gossip. It is in our speech, our songs, and our stories; on our beaches and in our bodegas; in our fictions and our poetry; in our newspapers, our politics, our history, and our memories. Over the centuries this has, perhaps understandably, been a source of considerable consternation: the nineteenth-century Cuban physician Tomás Romay Chacón, for instance, condemns gossips as enemies of society and disturbers of the peace whose sharpened tongues “cause infinite discord and enmity” but admits that to suppress the island’s gossips would be impossible. “To our disgrace, their number has grown too many, and we ourselves have joined their ranks,” he writes (226).1 To Édouard Glissant, the Caribbean’s “obsession with gossip” was the sign of a people picking at its own spiritual and cultural wounds—“since, in the absence of national production and facing global cultural constraints, a people turns against itself” (335–36). V. S. Naipaul describes the gossip of the Caribbean as claustrophobic and oppressive, and writes of longing “to get away from the easy malice of the small place I grew up in, where all judgments were moralistic and hateful and corrupting, the judgments of gossip” (A Writer’s People 49). For Derek Walcott, meanwhile, gossip is a feminine practice—though not uniquely so, “since men are sometimes better at bitchery than women”—that underpins the “comic gift” he dryly perceives as characterizing, and perhaps degrading, Caribbean literature. “Allowing that this is possible, we can understand why [ . . . ]2 our calypsoes generally go no higher than the intimate malice that one woman might share about another. Our so-called asperities, ‘picong,’ ‘mauvaise langue,’ ‘ole talk,’ even ‘liming,’ are the art of gossip,” he writes (“Gift of Comedy” 131). Clearly, there is more to this superficially easygoing speech form than just idle chatter. In this, the first book-length study of gossip in the literature of the Caribbean, I show that, as the foregoing suggests, gossip serves many roles in the region: it circulates information and traverses power structures; it carries weight, causes harm, defines, limits, and constrains; it is often deliberative, sometimes dangerous; it cleaves together and cleaves apart; and, as we will see, it can at times be deadly.
In beginning this task, we should first acknowledge that the suspicion or disparagement of gossip is far from unique to the Caribbean. Plutarch, despite making historical gossip his stock in trade, saw gossips as fools devoured by their own inquisitiveness and talkativeness: “Vipers, they say, burst in giving birth, and secrets, when they escape, destroy and ruin those who cannot keep them,” he notes (431). The Talmud considers gossip to be akin to apostasy, and worse than murder, fornication, or idolatry: “Gossipers, receivers of gossip, and those who bear false testimony deserve to be thrown to the dogs,” believers are sternly warned (Pesachim 118a).3 For Geoffrey Chaucer, backbiting was “spiritual manslaughter” (561), a figuratively violent act of transgressive speech; for Miguel de Cervantes, it was both vicious and an inescapably human vice. Virtually the first word out of an infant’s mouth, insists Berganza in El coloquio de los perros (1613), is vicious slander aimed at his nurse or mother—“There is no gossip, if you examine them closely, whose life isn’t full of vice and insolence,” replies Cipión (32). Michel de Montaigne perceived gossip as mere babble: the idle prattling of chambermaids and fishwives, but by extension also the empty pontificating of the educated classes (Butterworth 6). Later, for Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard, gossip became the willful elevation of meaningless chatter over the life of the mind, while for Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes it represented a form of malicious, even murderous, linguistic nihilism. The common thread in such accounts is the perception of gossip as both frivolous and toxic: idle talk, yes, but also talk that renders more edifying discourse impossible, that ruins reputations and poisons relationships, and that frays the fraternal bonds upon which societies depend.
Despite such readings, in recent decades gossip has undergone a redemption of sorts. Building on the work of anthropologists and sociologists who have viewed gossip in utilitarian terms, a small number of literary scholars have sought to rescue the practice, suggesting that it can be far more than just idle chatter or toxic tittle-tattle.4 Patricia Meyer Spacks, in particular, seeks to redeem gossip by downplaying its risks and emphasizing its role in building intimate communities, asserting that the gossip that seeks to harm others is “probably relatively rare” (4–5). Spacks allows that some gossip may be vapid or vicious but focuses her attention on the “serious” gossip that she perceives as offering “a resource for the subordinated” and representing “a crucial form of solidarity” for the sidelined and downtrodden (5). Based on such readings, literary scholars such as Jan Gordon, Susan Phillips, and Ned Schantz have explored gossip’s role in the construction of intimate communities, of spaces for public discourse, and of means whereby the marginalized can speak back against the powerful.
The value of such work cannot be overstated; still, these scholars have explored gossip largely in British and American texts, predominantly of the nineteenth century, and their readings have quite naturally been colored by their sources. Idle Talk, Deadly Talk is founded upon the assumption that gossip plays a different role in the literature of the postcolonial, postauthoritarian, multilingual Caribbean than it does in the genteel drawing rooms and garden parties of Jane Austen or Henry James. As Joyce Carol Oates notes, where Jane Eyre assures us that “all things of significance are related to one another in a universe in which God means well,” Jean Rhys’s creolized rewriting of Brontë’s text insists instead that “nothing is predictably related and emotions like terror may spring suddenly from the most innocent of sources” (55). Viewed through the former lens, gossip may easily and correctly be understood as an intimate, empowering, and broadly positive social practice. Seen from Rhys’s perspective, however, it may well reveal other aspects: bleaker and more urgent, perhaps, or simply better aligned with the unstable, fraught, and fragmentary realities of the Caribbean. I seek here not to write against Spacks and other scholars who focus their attention on “good” gossip but rather to suggest that the spectrum they envision—good gossip at one end, bad at the other—is broader and potentially richer than their paradigm typically encompasses. In what follows, I show that reading gossip in other places, other texts, and other political or historical contexts can provide new and valuable insights into its deployments and potential significance.
This book examines gossip as represented and mobilized in Caribbean literature since the early sixties, a critical and chaotic watershed for the region coinciding roughly with the triumph of the revolution in Cuba, François Duvalier’s consolidation of power in Haiti, the assassination of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and the independence of much of the British West Indies. This starting point coincides with the onset, as Silvio Torres-Saillant remarks, of several decades of enthusiastic political engagement and intensely creative intellectual production in the Caribbean—and also, I would add, of a more consistent and politicized use of gossip as a literary theme and narrative strategy. That is not to say, of course, that gossip began in the 1960s, any more than sexual intercourse “began / In nineteen sixty-three”; still, the sexual freedom that Philip Larkin perceives as taking root in the United Kingdom “between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban / And the Beatles’ first LP” (167) does in some ways correspond to the outpouring of political and intellectual energy seen in the Caribbean from the early 1960s onward. Torres-Saillant rightly notes that women’s voices gained new prominence in the regional production of this period, as did questions of (homo)sexuality; meanwhile, the discourses of marginalized communities won increasing recognition as important sites of resistance and self-articulation.5 Gossip is not exclusively the province of women, queer communities, or other marginalized groups. Still, this “gender-sensitive way of looking at the past and imagining the future” (Intellectual History 153) created fertile ground for writers and facilitated the literary adoption of gossip both as a theme and as a narrative strategy. In the past six decades, I suggest, gossip—hitherto typically regarded by Spacksian scholars as an intimate, mannered, and cozy practice—has frequently appeared in the literature of the Caribbean as a political, contested, and potentially dangerous narrative form.
In exploring gossip’s place in the Caribbean, I am not describing literary or cultural phenomena that are exclusive to the region. Many aspects of gossip that I locate in Hispanic Caribbean texts are also found across Latin America: Manuel Puig and Juan Carlos Onetti use gossip to foreground epistemological challenges; Augusto Roa Bastos and Miguel Angel Asturias explore gossip’s role in authoritarian regimes; and even the fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, according to Edgardo Cozarinsky, are organized in terms of an ontological revisionism that emulates the process of gossip.6 Facets of the gossip I describe in the Caribbean can be found in other regions, too: the revisionist gossip of Rosario Ferré or Junot Díaz has parallels in the writing of Salman Rushdie; the paranoid and panoptic aspects of gossip traced by Antonio José Ponte resonate with its depiction in Andrei Voznesensky’s Soviet-era poem “Ode to Gossips”; and the exclusionary, rabble-rousing gossip of Luis Rafael Sánchez’s “¡Jum!” echoes that of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.7 One of the reasons that the Caribbean is a fruitful place in which to study gossip, in fact, is that as a multilingual and multicultural crossroads, marked by slavery, colonization, authoritarianism, and diaspora, it shares connections or historical commonalities with countless other parts of the world, from sub-Saharan Africa to South Asia. It should not surprise us, then, if the gossip of the Caribbean echoes, or is echoed in, the gossip found in a great number of other cultural and linguistic contexts.
These resonances between gossip’s role in the Caribbean and its deployments in distant places and disparate traditions can be seen as playing out, in microcosm, within the Caribbean itself: far from monolithic, the Caribbean is a fluid, linguistically and culturally diverse space, a cluster of communities with clear historical commonalities but also with their own cultural identities. Language, of course, is the most obvious dividing line between the literatures and cultures of the region: in the Caribbean, as Torres-Saillant notes, language remains “the ultimate border” between nations and peoples who might otherwise find shared ground in common histories and geographies. “When it comes to mediating the rapport between Caribbean societies, linguistic difference, more than any other obstacle, has the power to encourage and preserve the otherness of neighbors,” he warns (Intellectual History 26). I aim herein to engage with, if not overcome, this problem. By highlighting some of gossip’s roles in the literature of the Caribbean’s three dominant linguistic traditions, I show that the practice has a regional significance that seeps through, and frequently transcends, linguistic barriers. Gossip hops between islands, and even where language barriers prevent people from gossiping with one another, they often wind up gossiping in similar ways in response to their common historical, cultural, and political conditions.
This study, then, has two interrelated goals: first, to illustrate the degree to which the literature of the Caribbean has been marked by, and is often organized through, the use of gossip; and, second, to expand the existing scholarship of gossip by elaborating upon certain neglected aspects of the practice’s uses and functions in literary texts. My guiding supposition is that gossip is both more malleable and more morally ambiguous than has previously been presumed; it is neither inherently malign nor benign—neither good nor bad—but is, rather, a potent, often political, and above all plural narrative form that serves markedly different uses in different contexts. Gossip is a form of what Michel Foucault calls “subjugated knowledge”—widely seen as deficient, unauthorized, or naive, and as such often overlooked, but in fact ubiquitous and powerful when properly understood (Society 7–8). I am particularly interested in uncovering the various ways through which Caribbean literature, in engaging with the region’s postcolonial status, entrenched inequalities, and history of political oppression, can help us to more fully understand gossip’s role in the creation of public narratives. Gossip, in confronting the fraught, unstable realities of the Caribbean, emerges as not just a tool but a weapon: a system for self-assertion and resistance, but also at times for oppression and the suppression of dissent. The region’s gossip can sometimes be harmless, trivial, or idle, and does still help build communities and broker intimate relationships. But it can also destroy reputations, destabilize accepted facts, heighten fear and paranoia, and in the process reveal itself as urgent, consequential, and violent.
The Study of Gossip
That literary scholars of gossip have largely overlooked the Caribbean is somewhat surprising, for the modern study of gossip has its roots in the region. Spacks’s seminal 1985 work Gossip, the foundational text for literary scholarship on the practice, is informed by the anthropologist Max Gluckman’s 1963 article “Gossip and Scandal,” which in turn was written in honor of Melville Herskovits’s pioneering anthropological studies of gossip in Haitian and Trinidadian communities. From Herskovits’s work, Gluckman gleans the key insight that the gossip is both “a journalist, and [ . . . ] a Judas,” alternately transcribing and traducing the lives of his or her subjects, and goes on to elucidate gossip’s role as a means of mapping social boundaries and maintaining the cohesion, as well as the morals and values, of social groups (308). Spacks’s chief innovation, in fact, is to bring Gluckman’s insights into the realm of literary theory, and to push back against past conceptions of gossip as worthless or toxic by suggesting the possibility of “good gossip,” which she takes to be communitarian, truthful, and aimed at fostering kinship and other intimate relationships. In this, Spacks also builds upon Thomas Pavel’s 1978 essay “Literary Criticism and Methodology,” which suggests that “good” gossip is analogous to what he calls “optimistic” criticism (147), which assumes the possibility of saying something about a text: it is, at its core, an exercise in constructing and exploring hypotheses about a given situation. Following Pavel, Spacks views gossip as a form of emotional or moral investigation: a group of intimates seeking to understand and fully grasp the nature and behavior of others by speculating about their actions. Spacks is aware of the wide spectrum of phenomena encompassed by gossip and acknowledges that gossip “has good aspects and bad ones, that it attests to community but can violate trust, that it both helps and impedes social functioning” (258). Nonetheless, she circumscribes her study to a very specific kind of positive and salutary gossip, grounded in her belief that, on balance, “gossip is good for you” (258).
Spacks’s framing of gossip as a fruitful, community-building narrative practice left a mark in the literary study of gossip that cannot be underestimated: most subsequent studies of gossip (including this one) are indebted to Spacks’s work. Jan Gordon’s Gossip and Subversion in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction: Echo’s Economies (1996) examines the importance of gossip for the development of the novel, and literature more broadly, in nineteenth-century Britain; Ned Schantz’s Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Film and Literature (2008), with a similar focus on British works, considers gossip’s connections to other forms of communication that evaluate the behavior of others. More recently, scholars have looked beyond the strictly literary to explore gossip as a cultural phenomenon.8 Susan E. Phillips’s Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England (2007) posits that gossip, which she describes as “idle talk,” merits serious consideration given its centrality in the literature and culture of the period. For Phillips, “Idle talk is not simply women’s speech in late medieval England; it is both the obstacle and the tool of priests and pastoral writers” (6). Her work thus avoids an exclusive focus on gossip as marginalized speech in order to better examine gossip as a culturally relevant practice within medieval religious practices and literature. Also written through a cultural lens, Sean Latham’s The Art of Scandal: Modernism, Libel Law, and the Roman à Clef (2009) examines early twentieth-century British literary circles to present an intriguing view of the degree to which readers’ thirst for scandalous gossip informed literary sensibilities and drove the release of prurient revelations in the period’s many romans à clef.
As the foregoing suggests, much of the existing scholarship on gossip has followed Spacks in focusing on the practice’s role in British and American literature. There are, of course, exceptions: Nathalie Solomon and Anne Chamayou’s 2006 collection Potins, cancans et littérature offers useful readings of gossip in texts by Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, among other, mostly French works, while a 2014 special issue of Forum for Modern Language Studies entitled “Literature and Gossip” represents a rich and valuable effort to explore the topic through works of multiple, though still predominantly European, traditions. Such forays beyond the ground covered by Spacks raise important and sometime discomfiting questions: in the latter volume’s introduction, for instance, Nicholas Martin presents a pessimistic view of gossip and comes to wonder “whether gossip itself can be recovered or rehabilitated through literature” (140). Martin appears troubled by the very association of gossip with literature, which he argues could emerge tainted by the connection. “Gossip has its (literary) uses, but it is widely regarded as, above all, unproductive, idle, sterile waste,” he warns (139). Martin here falls back on a kind of pre-Spacksian reading of gossip, and in so doing helps to reveal the extent to which Spacks and her successors’ readings of gossip are influenced by their sources. In taking the study of gossip beyond the Anglo-American corpus, the essays Martin collects reveal not only the ample ground still left unexplored but also the limitations—not the invalidity, but rather the insufficiency—of “good gossip” as a framework for exploring the practice’s role in other cultural contexts.9
The pitfalls inherent in monocultural readings of gossip have long been acknowledged by scholars, especially in fields such as anthropology and sociology. As early as 1963, Gluckman was already arguing for a view of gossip “as a culturally controlled game with important social functions” and concluded that “in different kinds of groups the role and function of gossip will vary with their specific histories and their situations in the larger society” (312). Despite their tacit debt to Gluckman, Herskovits, and other ethnographic researchers, however, literary scholars have tended to shy away from comparative, or even non-Anglocentric, readings of gossip. This has led to missed opportunities, in terms of both the lessons that can be learned from the literary production of other regions, including the Caribbean, and the contributions being made by those regions’ scholars. One notable example is that of the Argentine essayist Edgardo Cozarinsky, whose 1973 study “El relato indefendible” anticipated but went unnoticed by the pioneers of Anglo-European gossip scholarship. The upshot of such oversights is that the literary scholarship on gossip has hitherto told an incomplete story, and has yet to systematically account for the practice’s strategic value in postcolonial contexts or, more precisely, its function in works concerned with questions of subalternity and power as they crisscross the questions of race, gender, class, and other issues with which gossip often deals.
This is not to say that the role of gossip in the postcolonial Caribbean and other subaltern regions has gone entirely unremarked. Researchers such as Carol Bailey, Juan Pablo Dabove, Bénédicte Boisseron, and Nalini Natarajan have explored gossip’s function in specific works from the Caribbean region; similarly, Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s work on gossip in the novels of Salman Rushdie offers an intriguing vision of gossip as everyday talk “creatively empowered to reclaim the metaphors of an elite history,” a tendency very much in keeping with gossip’s deployments in the Caribbean (995). Other scholars have examined gossip as part of broader literary, historical, or interdisciplinary studies; Raphael Dalleo’s Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial (2011) and Lauren Derby’s The Dictator’s Seduction: Politics and the Popular Imagination in the Era of Trujillo (2009) are notable examples. My contention, however, is that gossip is far more widely present, and more potent, in the literature of the region than these relatively few studies would suggest, and that a more systematic approach can provide important new insights regarding both the literature of the Caribbean and the nature of gossip itself.
The Meaning(s) of Gossip
To begin to address gossip’s role in the Caribbean, we must first try to agree on what “gossip” actually is. For such a ubiquitous practice, this is harder than might be expected: if “gossip” means many things to many people, it is in part because it is remarkably difficult to pin down. Appeals to the dictionary only take us so far: the Oxford English Dictionary understands gossip as “trifling or groundless rumour,” or, more favorably, as “unrestrained talk or writing, esp. about persons or social incidents.” A gossip, it is suggested, can also be a person, “mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler.” Merriam-Webster, meanwhile, speaks of gossip as a “rumor or report of an intimate nature” or “a person who habitually reveals personal or sensational facts about others.”
Turning to the Spanish language reveals other nuances: according to the Real academia’s Diccionario de la lengua española, the word chisme signifies “true or false news or commentary that generally seeks to turn one person against another, or which is whispered about someone.” The Spanish-speaking Caribbean also uses the word bochinche, a slang term that suggests particularly vicious or slanderous gossip or rumor but that can also mean an uproar or hubbub, or a wild and licentious party. Turning again to the Real academia, we find bochinche defined as “gossip, sometimes calumnious, against a person or family, that grows louder and more slanderous as it passes from one person to the next.” The Covarrubias dictionary of 1611, meanwhile, defines chismoso as “he who goes to another with news that he should keep quiet [ . . . ] and tells it with malice to stir up trouble and cause differences; and thus recounts things in the worst possible terms.” Chismosos are, in this definition, cizañeros, or malicious gossips, who “sow discord between brothers” and are “ministers of Satan” (s.v. “chisme”). Clearly, for the Spanish speaker—or at least the Spanish lexicographer—chisme connotes a more malicious, adversarial, and potentially abrasive practice than gossip does for their English counterpart.10
This is further revealed in the etymology of the words denoting the practice. The English word gossip derives from the Old English godsibb, or godparent, and thus the ties between intimates—initially of either gender, although over the centuries the word has increasingly been used to denote female relationships. In Spanish, however, the word has almost precisely the opposite connotation. The word chisme is thought to derive either from the Latin cimex, via chinche (“chisme,” Breve diccionario etimológico), meaning a bug, especially a bedbug, or from the Latin schisma, a rift or schism (“chisme,” Diccionario de la lengua española). Other etymologies suggested by Covarrubias include a Greek term suggestive of lockjaw or an Arabic diacritic used to indicate unvoiced letters; though etymologically implausible, the suggestions stress the hushed, furtive quality of the act. Gossip is barely blown into the ear, the dictionary notes, and hence “those who go with gossip to the judiciary” are known as soplones—snitches, or literally blowers of gossip. Other Spanish terms similarly emphasize the negative qualities of gossip: per the Real Academia, murmuración is “talk that causes harm to one who is absent,” while malediciencia derives from maldecir in the specific sense of caustic and denigratory speech against an absent other. Tellingly, the Spanish verb comadrear, which according to Diccionario de la lengua española signifies gossip between women and derives from comadre, is a seldom-used colloquialism; chisme, with all its pejorative and disruptive connotations, is far more widely used. Gossip, in the Spanish language, then, is etymologically rooted not in intimate and gendered solidarity but rather in the exposure of uncomfortable secrets and the social rifts engendered thereby.
The various French terms for gossip tend to stress the practice’s viciousness and uselessness rather than its intimacy. The word commérages, though of similar etymological roots to the English gossip and the Spanish comadrear through the word commère, is defined by the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française as “idle talk that is indiscreet and of a malicious or malevolent tone”; the Trésor de la langue française similarly defines commérage as “the act of comporting oneself as a gossip, and of talking idly and indiscreetly, often with maliciousness, about trivial subjects; futile commentary, lacking interest.” The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française takes a similarly negative view of cancan (“idle talk, malevolent or malicious gossip”) and potin (“idle talk aimed at another and often tainted by bad-mouthing, gossip”). Interestingly, potin is also defined by the Académie française as “great noise, din,” while faire du potin is defined by the Trésor as “to cause a scandal.” Cancan, similarly, is defined as “noise or racket, inappropriate scandal” in Émile Littré’s 1874 Dictionnaire de la langue française. As Brigitte Bercoff discusses, cancan is rooted in quanquam, a Latin word used to initiate long, scholarly discourses that explicitly correct and rebut the arguments of others. “It is, in reality, an instrument of power,” Bercoff argues (18). The more current term ragot is defined by the Trésor de la langue française as “gossip, idle talk, generally malicious or malevolent” and is derived from the archaic verb ragoter, defined in turn as “to tell (something generally malicious or malevolent)” and “to quarrel.” Etymologically, the Trésor posits that ragoter comes from the late Latin verbal form ragere, to scream in fury. The French terms for gossip thus bridge the connotations of the Spanish and English terms: rooted in the close relations between women but tainted with indiscretion and negativity and, like chisme and bochinche, closely connected to the fomentation of uproar, scandal, and social antagonism.
In the Caribbean, of course, we must also contend with a profusion of slang terms for gossip. Darío Espina Pérez’s Diccionario de cubanismos (1972) records that buquenque, lengua larga, and trapezondero all signify both a gossip and a troublemaker. Interestingly, in the postrevolutionary Cuban context, lengua larga can also suggest a snitch, while trapezondero can suggest a wheeler-dealer, or someone who “does business at the margins of the law.” María Vaquero and Amparo Morales’s Tesoro lexicográfico del español de Puerto Rico (2005) similarly stresses the disruptive aspects of gossip, with bochinche defined as gossip, scandal, and tumult, and a bochinchero defined as one who “foments scandal and disorder” by saying “things that they should not say.” Similarly lengüetero and lengüilargo both suggest a loose-tongued person who is at once a gossip, a troublemaker, and a chatterbox. Orlando Inoa’s Diccionario de dominicanismos, meanwhile, defines bajeado, deriving from a word meaning infected and used to denote opponents of the Trujillo regime, as one who was “gossiped about with the authorities,” while bártulo means both “propaganda” and “rumors,” and terms such as enreíto and fufu suggest both gossip and a confusing or tangled situation. In a 1971 essay about gossip, Dominican humorist Mario Emilio Pérez lists further terms such as dar tijeras (to “give scissors,” or colloquially, to “bitch”), cortar un traje (literally to cut someone’s suit or dress, but figuratively to speak behind someone’s back), and bandear (to pursue, but also to injure) as synonyms for chismear.
Creoles and African linguistic influences further enrich and complicate any attempt to understand the meanings and uses of gossip in the Caribbean. Lydia Cabrera’s Anagó: vocabulario lucumí, a study of Afro-Cuban Yoruba vocabulary, offers chóke chódo, soró pipo, ofofó, afofó eleyo, and nforo as terms for one who gossips, along with lépe lépe, meaning “bad-mouthing, gossip, or commentary,” charéreke meaning “an imbroglio, or to make trouble using gossip and falsehoods,” and the flexible word odi as a catch-all term for evil things such as “sickness, death, thirst, gossip, curiosity, vice, or infamy.” Haitian Creole, meanwhile, offers terms such as zin or zen, with the rough meaning of gossip that bears news; tripotay, which derives from the French tripotage, in the sense of intriguing or plotting against someone; télédiol (also spelled télédyol or télédjol), which combines télé- with the Creole word for “mouth” to signify the oral grapevine, or téléphone arabe; and chwichwi, which refers more specifically to rumors.
The Anglophone Caribbean, similarly, has countless words with subtly differing meanings and nuances. Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage lists terms such as bad-mouth and mové-lang, which focus on the malicious or injurious aspects of gossip; blag, lick-mouth, and ole-talk, which emphasize titillation and the idle enjoyment of gossip; susu, which suggests surreptitious or whispered speech; koté-si koté-la and bring-and-carry, which focus on the information-bearing quality of gossip; and mèlé, which derives from the French mêlée and is suggestive of scandal and conflict. Even the word talk, Allsopp notes, is understood as meaning gossip or rumor, rather than simply a speech act, in places such as Barbados, Grenada, and Guyana. Fascinatingly, the French word commérages also echoes through both the Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean: the phrase ma commère has, in various Francophone Creoles, given rise to the word makoumè, suggesting an effeminate man and by extension a queer, homosexual, or transgender person. In the Anglophone regions, this has been adopted—using spellings such as makomè, macmay, macoomeh, macme, and so on—both as a derogatory term akin to “auntie man” and as a term for a particularly inquisitive or meddlesome gossip. Derivatives such as mako and maco (which also resonate with the French word maquereau, meaning pimp) are also widely used to suggest gossips, busybodies, and people who pry into or spy on the affairs of others.
This linguistic richness is thrilling but presents an obvious challenge; after all, even scholars who confine themselves to the English word gossip have found it an elusive target. As Sarah Wert and Peter Salovey note, “Almost as many functions of gossip have been argued as writers who write about gossip” (77). Spacks claims that, much as Barbara Herrnstein Smith writes of poetry, gossip cannot be usefully defined since it “means many things to many people and even, at different times and in different contexts, to a single person” (4).11 In the three decades since Spacks’s assertion, relatively little progress has been made toward a comprehensive working definition of gossip: the books and articles that examine gossip for the most part proceed without clearly defining it. Indeed, as Martin argues, scholars are still debating apparently foundational issues such as “whether or not gossip has an author—or an implied audience or target” (137). Often, he further warns, one scholar’s definition will contradict another’s, for “while some theorists insist that gossip must name its target, others note that gossip is often couched obliquely and is careful to avoid naming names in order to avoid any possible recrimination” (137). Many scholars forgo the attempt to define gossip in absolute terms, seeking instead to delineate the qualities they take as being quintessential to it. For Martin, for instance, gossip is “characterized by rhetoric about exclusive knowledge, the need for secrecy as well as a series of actual or implied nods and winks” (137). Others focus on gossip as a transactional communicative process: it is, Andrew Counter writes, “a form of communication addressed by no one in particular to no one in particular, in which both sender and receiver participate for the intrinsic pleasure of the act, and are invested in the specific content of the message only to the extent that it appeals to their curiosity” (158).12 Cozarinsky’s more expansive definition runs along similar lines: “Gossip is, above all, a transmitted story,” he writes. “One tells something about somebody, and one transmits this story because the somebody or the something is exceptional” (21). Gossip, in this reading, is the sharing of privileged information: we gossip about things that are outside the norm, or not widely known, and that we anticipate will spark the curiosity of our interlocutors.
In this study, I understand gossip as a malleable form that at its most basic constitutes an act of revelation in which a person discloses or comments upon private, privileged, or unauthorized facts or stories about an absent third party, typically without regard for, or in active opposition to, the wishes of their subject. In this conception of gossip I include the information or knowledge conveyed in such an act, as well as its specific form and style; in other words, if gossip is private information made public—a formulation that recurs in gossip scholarship—then it encompasses not just the content it transmits but also the act itself and the manner of its transmission. Gossip, after all, is highly performative: it tends to revel in its own transgressive surreptitiousness and to take theatrical pleasure in the value and nature of the information communicated.13 Gossip has a compelling style and etiquette all of its own, and by adopting its grammar and vocabulary we agree to abide by its rules, at least for the duration of the exchange: we whisper not only to avoid being heard by others but also because of the pleasure we draw from performing their exclusion, from performing our own membership in the gossiping in-group, and from highlighting our mutual participation in a restricted and unsanctioned act. Indeed, it is through this performative aspect, in large part, that gossip achieves what has been taken by many scholars to be its most important aspect: its ability to presuppose, reinforce, and even create ideological alignment between speaker and listener.
Gossip, then, is a gossipy act, disclosing gossipy information, performed in a gossipy way; that is to say, it is an act of unsanctioned disclosure, relaying information that is private and often scandalous or salacious, and featuring the linguistic and performative markers we typically associate with gossip. These individual factors may be present in differing degrees in any specific instance of gossip; taken together, however, they are unmistakable. If we know gossip when we see it, it is chiefly because we recognize some or all of these structures and processes at work. Not all are necessarily required, and certainly not all three in equal degrees, in order for us to be in the presence of gossip. As the title of this volume suggests, gossip’s prototypical medium is the spoken word, and many scholars refer to gossip as “talk.” Still, as we have seen, gossip need not exclusively be a spoken medium. As Bruce Stovel writes, gossip’s style “is spoken; even when gossip occurs in letters and not in person, the letters reproduce the patterns of spontaneous speech, not those of formal prose. Furthermore, gossip employs a distinctive kind of spoken style: allusive, full of veiled reference and innuendo, of nuance and double entendre” (29). Spacks, Cozarinsky, and other scholars also note the degree to which the oral cadences of gossip can be harnessed in literary texts, a process I take as rendering the text gossip-like through its emulation of the performative aspect of spoken gossip. We can see gossip in the prototypically gossipy talk of two close friends—but we can also perceive it, in varying degrees, in a newspaper gossip column, in social-media messages, in marginalia, in political speeches, in literary fiction, or even in history books. In what follows, I will examine various avatars of gossip of these kinds: texts that stage acts of gossip and their effects, writers who disclose gossipy information through their texts, and narrators who adopt or emulate gossipy modes of communication.
This approach also allows us to begin to distinguish between gossip and related forms—including, most notably, rumor. As the dictionary definitions above suggest, gossip and rumor are closely akin to one another, and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably; they are not, however, identical, and while there may be overlap, not every rumor is a form of gossip, and not every act of gossip is an act of rumormongering.14 Ulises Carrión calls rumor a more general form than gossip: one that springs up in many places, from unidentified or unidentifiable sources, and that is ultimately differentiated from gossip by its status as “a collective creation, whereas gossip is always transmitted from one person to another” (41).15 Gossip, by contrast, suggests certainty, and depends upon information from a traceable and generally explicitly described source: if not based on firsthand knowledge, it at least has (or is implied to have) a specific provenance. By extension, gossip (rightly or wrongly) presupposes and asserts its own accuracy and truthfulness: where rumor raises the possibility of an alternative version of events, gossip—in its rhetorical structures, its contents, and the relationships it implies—more forcefully asserts and depends upon its own purported accuracy. There is no bright line here; the question is one of degree. Sudhir Kakar argues that rumor is “a more dignified term for gossip” but also a more dangerous variant, focused less on mapping social relations than on stoking anxiety and providing life-and-death information (58). I would take issue with Kakar’s claim that gossip is inherently less dangerous than rumor, but certainly rumor’s typical content diverges in important ways from that of gossip: we gossip about specific individuals, for instance, while rumors typically deal in more nebulous claims about events. In what follows I will occasionally discuss or draw upon rumors, and in so doing will attempt to illustrate the degree to which such rumors are, and are not, gossip-like.
The framework described above is not so very different from the conception of gossip used by Spacks and others. To the extent that I diverge with past scholarship, it is in my emphasis on gossip as a malleable and plural form, and in my attempt to understand “gossip” not only in the senses typically connoted by the English gossip and the French commérage, but also in the senses implied by the Spanish chisme and bochinche. Gossip can, per the French and English usages, be “idle talk” that reveals or discusses fairly trivial things—the chatter that binds intimate communities together—but it can also, as the Spanish terms suggest, be something more boisterous, divisive, and dangerous. At its core, gossip is a fundamentally adversarial act, concerned with questions of power: to gossip with someone is to gossip about (or against) someone else, and to assert complicity and a common position vis-à-vis the gossip’s subject. This is evident in the intrusiveness of gossip: insofar as it conveys illicit information or knowledge, gossip is founded upon the act of trespassing into private lives. Even when otherwise benign, the pleasure taken in gossip stems in large part from the enjoyment of power derived from such scrutiny and intrusion; at its most malicious, gossip not only relishes the private shame and misfortune of others but also seeks to take ownership of, expose, and thereby exacerbate that shame and misfortune. In either case, gossip concerns itself not just with information but with judgment. Gossip is necessarily biased and committed to its own ideological reading and presentation of the information it discloses. As such, it is a narrative not just of disclosure but also of revision: it explicitly seeks to offer new versions or readings of previously established narratives. This is a feature, not a bug: it is through its revisionism, its ideological charge, and its avowed lack of neutrality that gossip is able to make such a clear intervention in issues of honor and reputation, and thus exercise power over the lives of its subjects.
Gossip in the Caribbean
One of the lasting effects of Spacks’s work is that gossip, as a means for promoting solidarity among intimates, has been increasingly understood in gendered terms, especially with regard to acts of self-assertion by women and, by extension, other marginalized groups. Gossip’s position as an instrument of defiance, however, extends beyond simply its historical function as “women’s talk.” As Spacks notes, the urgency with which those in power seek to clamp down on gossip stands as testament to the form’s potency: “History testifies to the persistence and the power of gossip [ . . . ]. Moralizers have taken gossip seriously even when they declared its lack of seriousness. It supplies a weapon for outsiders—a weapon appropriately directed at the façade of reputation people construct around themselves. And the weapon can be converted to a bond: a means of alliance, a way of feeling united as insiders” (45). If Spacks perceives gossip as a weapon, however, it is one with bated edges. The struggle in which Spacks’s gossipers engage is typically a moral or societal jockeying for position, not the high-stakes, genuinely dangerous struggle found in other contexts. Gossip, Spacks writes, is fascinating because it is forbidden, or at least frowned upon. But it is naughty rather than deadly: “We know it’s wrong, but it doesn’t kill anyone,” she writes (11). Seen from this angle, gossip’s role in forging common narratives appears far less fraught.16 Naturally, scholars of Anglo-American and European literature, writing in the shadow of Jane Austen’s gossip and the old English godsibbs, frequently resort to similar readings. In this view, gossip is the act of individuals forging a common identity on their own terms, not of people vying for control of a narrative already claimed and enforced by others.17
In the Caribbean, gossip can and does serve as a means of building intimate communities, allowing women and other historically marginalized groups to assert their voices in and beyond the domestic sphere. Indeed, gossip’s traditional associations with female speech and domesticity are still vividly present in the region’s literature, as seen, for instance, in Olive Senior’s use of gossip to map women’s communities. But the nascent and brief mentions of gossip in scholarship about the Caribbean have tended to move away from readings of gossip as primarily a feminine practice.18 Writing in 1973, the anthropologist Peter J. Wilson saw gossip—which he defined as “talk about reputation and respectability”—as fundamental to the establishment of male reputation and a crucial part of both male and female discourse on the Colombian island of Providencia (161). More recently, scholars of Caribbean literature have taken similar approaches: Jason Cortés’s Macho Ethics: Masculinity and Self-Representation in Latino-Caribbean Narrative (2015), for instance, touches upon gossip’s role in masculine, even macho, mythmaking in Luis Rafael Sánchez’s La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos (80–81).
As I demonstrate in the chapters that follow, Caribbean literature is full of both men and women who gossip, perhaps because, in the Caribbean, the practice often functions as a pervasive and politicized narrative form intensely bound up in struggles for narrative control. Conventionally gendered gossip is still present, but it is only one facet of a practice that can also present a violent and even destructive aspect more typically associated with hypermasculine identities—though not, in the Caribbean, by any means restricted to men, any more than intimate gossip is solely the province of women. Gossip thus acquires a kind of gender neutrality, albeit one more present in gossip’s deployments and practical uses than in its depictions and perceptions. Many (though by no means all) Caribbean cultures still chiefly perceive gossip as being women’s talk or as a feminine or effeminate practice that reflects poorly on male participants. It is tempting to read this in linguistic terms: as we have seen, words that imbue gossip with a feminine quality—godsibb, commère—are prevalent in the Caribbean, but so too are gender-neutral terms such as télédiol, bochinche, or bad-talk that frame gossip through its uses and consequences rather than its participants. Gossip is certainly read in the region as something that women do and thus in certain deployments as a feminine practice, but it is also read as something done by men—or, perhaps more accurately, simply by people. Though still, at times, the language of the subordinated, gossip is also deployed by more powerful figures, frequently but not exclusively male, as they participate in public life: dictators and dissidents, conservatives and radicals, journalists and Judases. In 1926, the Puerto Rican novelist Rafael Martínez Alvarez wrote: “Here, we have gossip between politicians, gossip between women, merchants, men of letters, journalists; between the brothers and sisters of the same society; between the ministers of the Lord: Catholics, protestants, and rabbis; and, in the social field, calumnies shipped in bulk . . .” (Alva 220).19 Certainly, this remains true of the more recent Caribbean, where the idea of gossip as a politicized and politically relevant form goes beyond the apparatus of the state and those close to it. Gossip, evidently, is also tied to the functioning of the polis more generally—to the public sphere, to the wider body of citizens constituting a community or society, and to the nation.
What unites the various forms of gossip described in the chapters that follow, then, is neither gendered speech nor the creation, through such speech, of intimacy; rather, it is an adversarialism that, while subtly present in a great deal of gossip, is especially potent and prominent in the Caribbean. Just as the communities described by Spacks often derive their intimacy from their policing of group boundaries, so the gossip of the Caribbean frequently defines itself in opposition to its subject, the maligned other. Intimacy and inclusiveness, in gossip of this type, are zero-sum: possible only insofar as they are based upon the exclusion and denigration of a common foe. In the Caribbean, gossip is frequently governed by such adversarial relationships. From the calypso singer’s barbed rhymes and the songs of the Haitian combites to the vicious slanders published in Trujillo-era gossip columns, words serve as weapons, elevating and strengthening one person or group—or their preferred narrative—at the expense of another.
It is gossip’s pliability and accessibility, its ability to be co-opted by both the powerful and the disenfranchised, that make it so ubiquitous in the region. Gossip, as we shall see, is often deployed in Caribbean literature as a symbol or manifestation of narrative, historiographic, and epistemological discomfort. Stuart Hall argues that the historically polarized nature of Caribbean societies makes it “impossible to approach Caribbean culture without understanding the way it was continually inscribed by questions of power” (28). Dalleo similarly connects gossip with questions of power when he asserts that gossip often serves as “a sort of counterpublic,” where those without other means of access to the public sphere can share knowledge (102). But while gossip does function as a counterpublic in Caribbean writing, its uses go well beyond that role, with its narrative embattlements serving to map fractured identities and entrenched antagonisms. In this way, gossip also plays a crucial part in the negotiations through which Caribbean nations forge their societies and their public and political lives. What follows will demonstrate the degree to which Caribbean societies—both geographical and discursive—have used gossip to stage their narrative struggles, and will explore gossip’s place in the region’s structures and dynamics of power and domination.
The oppositional and revisionary nature of gossip is not unique to the Caribbean but may be more easily visible there. The Caribbean, after all, still bears the marks of dictatorship and state terror, and of conquest and colony; it is still grappling with what Antonio Benítez-Rojo calls the single constant problem of “violence, continuous violence, historic violence” (357). As Martin Munro aptly notes, the Caribbean’s cataclysmic history endures in “political systems based on apocalyptic systems of for or against, honor or blood, death or glory” (Tropical Apocalypse 11). In such deeply polarized contexts, gossip acquires a palpable urgency. Gossip, in the Caribbean, is not merely the stuff of idle chatter but rather a practical and often deeply political practice: a means of navigating and staging narrative tensions and of waging the narrative battles through which the region’s identity, politics, and culture come to be forged.
Idle Talk, Deadly Talk
The four chapters that follow account for some of the chief uses of gossip in the Caribbean and propose that recent Caribbean literature has availed itself of gossip to engage with some of the region’s key questions. In what follows I read novels and short stories but also poems, popular music, political essays, pamphlets, personal letters, and memoirs; still, my aim is not to be exhaustive, and in a region so rich in gossip, much ground remains to be covered, not least in terms of the area’s pre-1960s literary production.20 This volume is neither a survey nor a panorama; I do not seek to sort and classify all the instances, or even all the uses, of gossip in recent Caribbean literature, and there are many other Caribbean texts that could fruitfully have been explored here. Neither do I offer a systematic examination of the differing deployments of gossip across the diverging (yet connected) linguistic, cultural, and historical contexts of the region: my goal is not to show how Puerto Rican gossip, for instance, differs from Jamaican or Haitian gossip. Rather, I seek to use the multilingual, multicultural Caribbean as a proving ground: a space, very different from those in which gossip has traditionally been studied, that allows us to more readily apprehend certain aspects of the practice. In so doing, I demonstrate gossip’s role in staging the breakdown of communities and of neighborly bonds; its fraught status as a form of knowledge and means of negotiating identities; its utility to political dissidents, especially in shaping international public opinion; and, finally, its role in retroactively representing and challenging the narrative dynamics of authoritarian regimes. It is my hope that in so doing, I go some distance toward helping scholars of the Caribbean to better understand the ways in which gossip exists in and informs the region’s literature and, by extension, illuminates the Caribbean’s cultural dynamics and public discourses. I seek, too, to expand the horizons of current gossip scholarship and to show that other kinds of gossip, and other ways of gossiping, merit serious examination as we explore this strange, shifting, and endlessly fascinating form of discourse.
The first chapter explores the degree to which gossip in Caribbean literature diverges from the largely benign, prosocial practice described in recent Anglo-American scholarship. The pasquinades that tear apart a town in Gabriel García Márquez’s La mala hora (1962) show the potentially damaging and corrosive role that gossip can play in communities marked by the legacy of violence and insurgency; rather than using gossip to foster intimacy, García Márquez uses the practice to stage the failure of community. Other texts from the region, including García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (1981) and works by Roger Mais, Luis Rafael Sánchez, and Jean Rhys, serve to illustrate the degree to which gossip, seen as a conservative force that polices societal norms, can come into conflict with more intimate, neighborly visions of community. In such texts gossip frequently emerges as a totalitarian force, binding communities together by punishing divergence from group norms, but in so doing also revealing itself as alienating, disempowering, and paranoia inducing. In situations such as these, gossip, or the fear of gossip, often forces individuals to sublimate themselves into fearful passivity. In Antonio José Ponte’s essayistic novel La fiesta vigilada (2007), for instance, gossip is vividly rendered as part of a suffocating system of constant surveillance, transmuting neighborly proximity into an unspoken threat rather than a source of comfort and community.
The second chapter examines gossip as both an epistemological resource and a battleground. Gossip often serves to highlight the discrepancies between accounts circulating in a given community; this is the case, for instance, in Rosario Ferré’s Maldito amor (1986), a novella in which gossip mediates the textual reality, the events of which are recounted post facto by characters with agendas of their own. Ferré’s work has been read primarily as a feminist text, but I suggest that Maldito amor’s layers of contradictory gossip serve not to decisively undermine the patriarchal master narrative, but rather to suggest the epistemological indeterminacy of all narratives and the impossibility of arriving at a definitive version of events. A similar process can be found at work in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which uses gossip to trace social divisions, and the epistemic rifts between groups and individuals engendered thereby. Maryse Condé’s Célanire cou-coupé (2000), meanwhile, uses gossip to introduce fantastical elements and undermine the authority of the narrator, calling into question the truthfulness of the unfolding tale. Still, while gossip can stage the epistemological challenges of the Caribbean, it can also be a valid and powerful tool for interpreting and making sense of reality. In Ana Teresa Torres’s La fascinación de la víctima (2008), for instance, a psychotherapist turned detective uses gossip to solve a murder. Gossip may not be altogether reliable, but in Torres’s text it remains capable of unlocking hidden truths and providing real insights into “the darkness of the soul” (363).
The third chapter discusses gossip’s role in the public sphere, especially in literary acts of political dissent. The Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, in his autobiography, Antes que anochezca (1992), uses gossip about his own sexual adventures to push back against the repressive sexual politics of postrevolutionary Cuba and to reveal the regime’s actions to a global audience. Arenas’s braggadocio is a calculated stance against what Emilio Bejel terms an “institutionalized machismo” (141–42): in gossiping about seducing soldiers and police officers, Arenas punctures the heteronormative rhetoric of the hombre nuevo and asserts his right to define a queer identity on his own terms. A similar drive for self-definition marks the gossip of Arenas’s countrymate, the exile writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who uses gossip to map the political and artistic structures of the island and to counter official efforts to erase him from the Cuban canon. Cabrera Infante’s essays mobilize gossip’s adversarial power and seductive narrative energy to bolster his own credibility as an informant, turning a proliferation of gossipy anecdotes into both a defensive and an offensive weapon. Finally, I address the scarcity of dictatorship novels in Haitian literature of the Duvalier period, and explore Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians and François Duvalier’s subsequent reputational attacks on Greene. In such cases, writers exploit the public’s hunger for gossip to facilitate their own entry into the public sphere, using the promise of inside information to assert their individual voices and undermine the public image of those in power.
The final chapter offers an examination of the legacy of the Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, whose administration incorporated gossip into its own self-sustaining mechanism of power—a practice remarkably common in authoritarian regimes. The Dominican “gossip state” recognized gossip as a threat to its own narrative monopoly, and sought to control it and turn it to its own ends. This left enduring marks in the country’s literature, both in explicitly gossipy memoirs by politicians such as Joaquín Balaguer and in fictional works by writers such as Viriato Sención, Marcio Veloz Maggiolo, and Junot Díaz, who seek both to engage with the regime’s use of gossip and to reappropriate the personal accounts and plausible versions of gossip in order to grapple with the country’s whitewashed history. In this way, these writers sidestep sanitized, monolithic historical accounts and weave unauthorized versions of their nations’ histories from alternate materials: rumor, gossip, and hearsay. The chapter closes with a reading of Kettly Mars’s Saisons sauvages (2010), a novel that uses gossip to craft, retroactively, the kind of dictatorship novel that Haiti has until recently lacked, and to engage with the compromises and complicity of the survivors of the Duvaliers’ dynasty. Finally, the conclusion argues that gossip’s place in the contemporary Caribbean stems not from any special trait or inherent peculiarity of the Caribbean peoples, but rather from the fraught historical circumstances that have shaped the region and to which its writers must necessarily respond.
Throughout this book, I conceive of the Caribbean not as a collection of islands defined by water-bounded insularity but rather as a crossroads in a much-traversed ocean, marked by exchange and the interplay of language, ideas, and people. The Caribbean is, to borrow Benítez-Rojo’s phrase, a “meta-archipelago” comprising the islands and circum-Caribbean coastline but also diasporic outposts in cities such as New York, Miami, and London. These nodes do not exist in isolation: through them, the Caribbean—already hybrid and heteroglot, as James Clifford notes—is in constant communication with global cultural currents. Despite regional insecurities regarding the Caribbean’s relationship with distant cultural centers, this is very much an exchange, powered by active and outward-looking (and rebounding) diasporic currents as much as by insular or passive receptivity. As Robert Fatton Jr. correctly asserts, Haiti’s oral grapevine, or télédiol, is not merely the legacy of the national government’s efforts to control and censor more formal discourse: “It is also the fabrication of information to influence reality itself. Such teledyol is practiced in the homeland and exported to the Haitian diaspora in the United States, Canada, and Europe, where it takes new forms through the technologies of the internet. In a boomerang effect, the diaspora is now becoming the digital hub disseminating back home an electronic teledyol reflecting its ever-increasing powers” (168). Now more than ever, gossip is a global phenomenon with decidedly local roots. In his poem “juana bochisme,” itself a piece of transcribed gossip, the Afro-Nuyorican writer Tato Laviera insists that “what goes on in new york is known instantly in manatí”—and it is gossip, Laviera makes clear, that links the two, running like a root system between the scattered communities of the global diaspora and the towns and villages of the islands (95). The multilateral exchanges between the various nodes that together form the Caribbean—migration and colonization, departure and return, nostalgia and rejection—foster a Caribbean identity that is unusually and perhaps uncomfortably self-reflective. To be Caribbean is to move fluidly from “inside” to “outside” and back again, seeing one’s nation and one’s people both from within and from without. This is a destabilizing phenomenon: the voices of exiles, emigrants, and outsiders echo through the region, an antagonistic counterweight to the insular nationalism and univocal narratives frequently preferred and promoted by the region’s elites.
Antagonism, the mapping of self and other, the disruption of established narratives—all these are precisely the realms in which gossip operates. Scholars in other fields, perhaps indebted to Herskovits and Gluckman, have portrayed gossip as a critical resource for navigating the instability and inequity of Caribbean societies; the anthropologist Glen Perice writes, for instance, that during political strife in Haiti, gossip and rumor became “interpretive stances” that gave rise to an alternative public sphere (“Rumors” 3). Such readings rest not only on the power of gossip but also on the insufficiency of other discourses; in a region forged through slavery, colonialism, revolution, and authoritarianism, the credibility of official and institutional ways of knowing, from history books to the news media, have been eroded by the abuses of those who have controlled them. Ricardo Piglia notes that in Latin America “reality is not the truth” (qtd. in Caistor 7), and I trace a similar anxiety in the Caribbean, where facts are frequently subsidiary to narrative control and official accounts are often, and rightly, viewed as biased and arbitrary. This deficit of credibility creates a kind of narrative disorientation to which gossip, despite and even because of its own unruliness and unreliability, offers a possible solution: a way of scribbling on and defacing official accounts, and of reinscribing plausible hunches and suspicions onto sanitized official versions of events.
It is for these reasons that the writers studied in Idle Talk, Deadly Talk so often turn to gossip to thematize discrepancy, unreliability, and doubt. Gossip reminds us that every narrative is necessarily incomplete: that all stories can be told in other ways or can be revised, undermined, or elaborated upon. The gossip of the Caribbean frequently flaunts its power to challenge and revise existing narratives. In a region marked by conflicting viewpoints and incomplete histories, gossip’s utility lies in its ability to plumb narrative gaps and to expose papered-over cracks in established narratives, to account for suppressed voices, and to splinter monolithic official accounts into a more representative proliferation of viewpoints.
Gossip is a valuable resource in such circumstances, but it is far from being a panacea: it can help to build counternarratives but can also corrode social ties, disempower individuals, and silence dissenting voices. Gossip serves as a battleground: a contested space where narratives of power and dissent vie for dominance and where no single narrative is ever safe from challenge and disruption. Gossip thrives in the Caribbean, then, because it thematizes both the region’s plurality and its essential instability—societal and political, yes, but also narrative, historical, and epistemological. James Scott writes that gossip “is a discourse about social rules that have been violated” (Domination 142), and in the Caribbean, where inequality, tyranny, and long histories of domination bring with them the constant violation of social rules, gossip abounds as a resource both to resist and to reinforce power. Gossip’s irreverence, its unauthorized and adversarial nature, confer upon it a narrative energy that other forms of storytelling lack—and make it a critical resource for exploring the contested narratives and fraught, insufficient histories that mark the Caribbean region.