Ethan Knowles

Aruba was a series of mirrors slowly coming into view. In some, I saw the reflection of a thing I knew, clear and crisp, and in others I struggled to make meaning with the pane. There were things I recognised on the island, like the Royal Bank of Canada, the Oranjestad cruise port (which bore a striking resemblance to that of Nassau) and the white sands of Eagle Beach. And then there were things I did not recognise – visions of the landscape, both social and physical, that felt entirely foreign to me. The Dutch colonial architecture, the staggering diversity of gates and fences, the remarkably convenient presence of both a Zara and Mango storefront in the city centre – just to name a few. The mirrors played tricks, made me forget exactly where I was, made me wonder what was true, or what could be true, in this place my eye had landed on for the very first time.

The mirrors went on to find me in conversations at Arikok National Park, amid the frigid confines of the ‘black box’ at Ateliers ‘89, and in the Museum of Industry on the outskirts of San Nicolaas. It was in this succession of things I could and could not recognise that I began a residency-long negotiation of my own ideas, and my own place, in this space we call the Caribbean region.

At Arikok, a protected area that covers 20% of Aruba’s land mass, Vesuhely and I spoke about the tensions that emerge in gathering islands into archipelagos, citing the variations that exist across islands of the Dutch-speaking Caribbean and islands in The Bahamas. As we fed on cactus fruit, gathered in the shade of divi divi trees, and enjoyed private cave art viewings courtesy of our guide Rambo, I began to think about the broader forces at work in the coming together of our group.

Caribbean Linked is certainly working against an inherent tension, a tension that could very well be called history, or more precisely the history of seeing and being from an island. As a residency programme which dares to establish lasting bonds between islands ordinarily standing alone, some with vastly different social, historical and economic trajectories, Caribbean Linked is faced with a challenge much like that of the word Caribbean itself. It goes without saying that our region is broad and complex, and this is a reality which leaves Caribbean – one word etymologically linked to the indigenous inhabitants of the Lesser Antilles – quite the semantic burden to carry. But with all that being said, I do believe we defied physics in Aruba. We took tension and built bridges. We freed the image from the mirror.

The day after Arikok, pressure was applied as we enjoyed our first two black box presentations by the likes of Elvis and Katherine – a session which touched on artistic explorations of the artificial and the scientific, mixing subtle transgressions with more overt interventions. By the end of the evening, it became clear that the black box would not only be a space where we would learn how our fellow practitioners made work, but to what end, against what odds, amid which reservations, and with what precedents in mind. It was a space where we encountered new sides of increasingly familiar companions, a space where our community of islands could engage with the arts community of Aruba.

Amid the busy first week of community building and island-wide excursions, one stop which stood out in particular was the visit to the Museum of Industry, during which I found out that Aruba had enjoyed a series of fairly, if not extraordinarily, successful industries, from aloe and oil to the current beast of tourism. I was struck by this visit because it was, to a degree, the complete opposite of industries in The Bahamas. Throughout the Lucayan archipelago, the industries which emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – whether sisal, wrecking, or sponging – flourished for brief periods at best, only to suffer sudden and irreversible collapse due to forces largely beyond our control. Though this was not the case for all industries in our history, it was certainly a trend and it was this very trend that I intended to explore in a short story about the 1939 collapse of the Bahamian sponging industry.

Up until the late 1930’s, The Bahamas boasted the most productive sponging beds in the world, with harvesting taking place primarily on the Great Bahama Bank, or ‘The Mud’, just west of Andros. Though the popular phrase “sponger money never done” emerged during these productive years, I learnt during my research that many flocked to the Mud simply because it was the only profession available to them, whether due to depleted soils or limited educational opportunities – the latter issue being especially pronounced in the more remote all-black settlements. Sponging, however, like many of its predecessors, soon suffered a definitive blow following the outbreak of a fungus which compromised over 95% of the archipelago’s sponge beds and prevented any form of resurgence for at least two decades.

I chose the collapse of sponging as a creative point of departure for several reasons. The first is somewhat self-evident: I wanted to experiment with historical fiction. Prior to the residency, I had never written a story which was set during a real historical period and so I wanted to use this opportunity to refine a new skillset, one which involves not only an awareness of what topics to research but also to what depth and for what duration. I also chose the collapse of sponging because it was both a considerable turning point in my national history and a significant part of my personal history, as many of my family members have taken part in sponging at a subsistence level. Finally, I was looking to explore possible, though perhaps not likely, connections between different persons from across The Bahamas and broader Caribbean. I wanted the schooner Mercy, a cornerstone of commercial and interpersonal exchange, to be the site of regional intimacies that have otherwise been overlooked, underexplored or elided by the historical record.

As days went by, and my story began to take shape, I took to swimming in the mornings to clear my mind. My accommodation, conveniently located less than ten minutes away from both Atelier’s 89 and the city centre, was also remarkably close to the sea, so that I was able to reach Surfside Beach on the south coast in less than fifteen minutes on foot. These swims were a meditative practice which allowed me to process the activities the day before while preparing for the events of the day ahead. They were made all the more refreshing by the company of Sofia and Claudio, not least because one morning we ended up eating breakfast on the beach!

I find that physical activity always improves my ability to think and work creatively and so I deeply enjoyed the wide range of exercises I took part in over the course of my time in Aruba: whether volleyball with Beliza or nighttime hula hoop acrobatics and ensuing sports day antics; whether downtown pub crawls or dominoes brawls; whether late night wines or bachatas by twilight, or even 2-mile swims to remote cays.

At the end of the day – or perhaps it would be better to say at the end of the residency – I feel grateful for having had the opportunity to break a sweat in brand new ways.

I am also deeply grateful for having engaged with a dynamic spectrum of artists whose practices engage with, amongst other thematics, regional myths, family histories, indigenous knowledge, coloniality and the insecurity of islands. Demonstrating a particular commitment to Aruba, a space in which we were all living and learning, was the work of Romelinda and the work of Justin, both of whom employ the principle of Sankofa in their practice. They reminded all of us in the cohort that it is not taboo to go back and fetch what is at risk of being lost.

In addition to expanding my awareness of styles and methods in Caribbean artmaking, the intimacy and dynamism of the residency programme also gave me ample opportunity to learn personal lessons from my fellow participants.

From Sarabel, I learnt the importance of accepting care and support from those around me. From Chrislene and the entire administrative team, I learnt that anything is possible, even if it might not seem legal at first glance. From John, I learnt that greeting new people with a smile (and a Balashi) can go a long way, while Taisha taught me to use the entire length of my arms in any performance. Claudio reminded me of the benefits of solitude and breathing, while Sofia taught me that it really is worth it to go the extra mile to make the farewell brunch happen. Lastly, Beliza made me realise you can always be elegant, even when referring to shrimp as little monsters.

Despite all I have learnt over the course of Caribbean Linked, there is, however, still something I am still trying to figure out for myself. The other day, I was watching a video of the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott in which he was describing how he was determined to have his poetic voice (both the writing and the reading of his poetry, as I understood it) cohere seamlessly with his normal speaking voice. I had never heard any writer speak about this intention, perhaps for the simple fact that not all writers are balancing different codes or dialects or creoles of the (standard) language in which they write. This is a dilemma (maybe it might also be an opportunity) I have been navigating for some time. I am still searching for a stable voice to write and speak in. I am certainly not averse to shifts or instabilities in language, especially given that four years in Italy have certainly influenced my own speech, and yet I feel the time has come to find, or even make, this writer’s voice. A voice that is true to me and the place I come from, but also a voice that can carry words across regions.

Though finding voice may be a goal I am still working toward, there were several objectives I set and was able to achieve over the course of my time in Aruba. These goals were three-fold: to finish a short story, to read Islanders in The Stream Vol. II by Michael Craton & Gail Saunders, and to build community. As I walked the length of Surfside Beach one last time, leaving behind a farewell brunch with faces I will never forget, it dawned on me that Caribbean Linked will likely influence the life ahead of me in ways far beyond the professional. Even as I returned to the hotel to get my bags, rode to the airport with Romelinda and Justin, and waited for my flight out of Queen Beatrix International, I could not shake the thought that I had just taken part in, and made the most of, an experience that is sure to change the course of my life.