(by Andrew Kendall)
Last Sunday night Guyanese social media was abuzz with the news that Lisa Punch, emigrant Guyanese now living in New York, was performing on the premiere of a new ABC show Rising Star.
From the week before Guyanese were furiously downloading the app, ensuring that they knew how to operate it. At quick glance it seemed as if every Guyanese with a television was paying rapt attention to the screen to watch Lisa perform. It was a moment that seemed almost historic as the country came together to watch their girl perform. And perform she did, a rendition of Whitney Houston’s 1980’s megahit “How Will I Know”. With the 3 judges, all award winning artistes, praising her and audience numbers corresponding Lisa made it through to the next round and it seemed all was well.
Except, rather than a focus on Lisa’s seemingly excellent performance, social media – that always working beast – began turn to something else. Not Lisa’s pop rendition but her introductory video where she spoke of where she came from.
“Guyana is a very beautiful country, and it’s also a poor country. The reason we moved to America is because our grandmother wanted a better life for us.”
That use of “poor” quickly turned into an issue to make or break the legitimacy of Lisa’s effort. The issue gestated from whether Lisa’s judgement of the country as a poor one was accurate to whether, as someone with the spotlight being shone on her, Lisa had a national responsibility to reflect the best view of Guyana for others to see.It is an argument that has persisted whenever one or a few artists from marginalised groups/country found mainstream success – the oftentimes wearisome burden of representation. The idea stems from a situation where that person, as possibly the first figure that a mainstream audience would see from the marginalised group, is thought to have an unequivocal responsibility to carry the representative baton of every other person from that group on their shoulders.
The shortcomings of the concept are obvious – the ad hoc representative is ultimately forced to sacrifice their individual aspects in order to best represent the community they emerged from. Was Hattie McDaniel, one of the early African American actors to achieve Hollywood success, hurting the civil rights movement by playing so many high profile roles as maids in films? Closer to home for Guyanese, the issue was famously exorcised when V.S. Naipaul’s satirical A House for Mr Biswas was published where a humorous oftentimes cynical and not always completely pleasing view of Trinidadian/Caribbean society was presented.
The question was, as one of a few Trinidadians finding mainstream success, didn’t Naipaul owe it to his country to represent it in the best light possible to foreigners who may have their first contact with the country through the work? It was something of a debilitating burden where as the accidental representative of a migrant group Naipaul was likened to an ambassador existing to represent his country abroad. Each word he wrote or spoke was measured as a stand-in for every citizen, and held up for scrutiny on whether or not it was best representative of the country and of the Caribbean people.
And it was the same tedious burden that seemed to rear its head with Lisa last evening. Not even acknowledging that a single adjective like “poor” hardly seemed to be a misrepresentation of Guyana’s economy which is only developing and not quite stable, the question going forward was what does Lisa Punch owe Guyana as far as representing it on an international scale? Social media functions at such a wildfire pace, opinions often spread with rampant force before they are even completely assessed and depending on which wide of the conversation you saw, in some corners it seemed as if Lisa Punch had performed some slanderous act.
As Guyana loses its talented youths to greener pastures because of less than ideal planting ground for some aspects of the arts, are those artists bound to take Guyana’s hopes of being a tourist destination into mind and represent it in a way – sometimes with prevarication – that makes it seem an idyllic paradise? Or as artists do we allow them to share their truth despite how far from the ideal it may be?
Lisa Punch has always been praised for her sincerity and authenticity and one wonders how sincere it would have been for her to pretend her journey to Rising Star had been one without incident. Would we have even liked her more then? As an artist, she can do little else but carve a space for herself in the world by telling her own, personal story.
The burden of representation borne out of a way to ensure that the colonial and marginalised factions are represented as credible and impressive to the centre (the West) existed at a specific time in the fight for equality. But, incidences like the subtle backlash against Lisa force us to consider if the burden of representation forced upon those who “make it big” in the mainstream ultimately becomes a burden which hurts our artists more than it helps them.