‘These New Plantations By the Sea’

Labadee, Haiti.

A Royal Caribbean cruise ship docked in Labadee, Haiti. Photo: Rob Inh00d (flickr)

In Derek Walcott’s latest collection White Egrets (2010), we find an elegy to a beach he fears will soon be ruined by a new phase of hotel development which he compares to earlier, more brutal, forms of expropriation.

… these new plantations
by the sea; a slavery without chains, with no blood spilt –
just chain-link fences and signs, the new degradations.

Walcott is not the first to make this analogy. In Paradise and Plantation (2002), Ian Strachan argued that Caribbean hotels are modern plantations – locally-run but foreign-owned businesses that create a product for customers who live overseas, but instead of sugar or tobacco what they offer is a holiday experience in ‘paradise.’

Walcott’s poetry is sprinkled with negative images of Caribbean tourism and he has himself campaigned against hotel development in St Lucia. But the hotel also features in his work in a very different way.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in hotels – in Europe, North America and the Caribbean – Walcott, not surprisingly, also experiences them as a place of work. And writes about them as such in his poems.

In other words, Walcott often represents himself occupying hotels – a poem’s observations or argument emerging from an opening scene in which the poet stares into the mirror in his room, or gazes out across a city from a private balcony or enjoys chance encounters beside the pool or in the dining room or lobby.

These two aspects of the hotel in Walcott (the site of exploitation and the scene of writing) exist almost in complete ignorance of each other. The hotel as a site of exploitation is viewed from a distance as if by someone who would never set foot in them; the hotel as a scene of writing is described from within, by a guest, who has no sense of the exploitative relationships around him, barely acknowledging the presence of the staff or the effect of the hotel on the local economy and natural environment.

In this paper I make some tentative remarks on this, dare I say, ‘double-consciousness’, through a reading of some representations of the hotel and tourism in writings about Haiti.

The depiction of sex tourism in the stories of Dany Laferrière (subsequently adapted for the cinema) offers different perspectives on the hotel as a site of exploitation. By contrast, the travel narratives of those visitors who find comfort on the veranda after their intrepid adventures in the city beyond, tend to figure the hotel as a scene of writing. Seeing with one eye and then the other, the observer never quite imagines they might be the same hotel.

The ‘ethics of tourism’ so often revolves around questions of the environmental and economic impact of those who actually go there; but perhaps there is also an ethics that imposes demands on those who write and read about it from a distance?

To read more of this paper click here.

(View photo on Flickr: Rob Inh00d)

One response to “‘These New Plantations By the Sea’

  1. Pingback: Derek Walcott: The Acacia Trees « ∫bulldozia

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