005: Liloutie (she/her)
*CONTENT NOTE*: This interview discusses underage rape (Child Sexual Abuse - CSA).
Liloutie reflects on building relationships with other Indo-Caribbean women, the struggle of gender expectations for women, and trying to break the cycle of perpetuating gender norms within her own family. She also talks about her experience attending a predominantly white college. She ends with exploring ways to bring together different generations of immigrants.
Participants: Liloutie [L], Interviewer 1 [I1] & Interviewer 2 [I2]
Location: Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, Queens, NY
Date: February 10th, 2019
(00:00) I1: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your gender pronouns, how do you identify in terms of racial/ethnic background, your age and where did you grow up?
(00:12) L: Okay my name is [Liloutie]. My gender pronouns are she and her. And my racial-ethnic background...I used to think of myself as Indian, but now that I know more, it's now Indo-Caribbean. And then depending on who's around, I will just say I'm American because I am an American. I am 42 years old. I grew up in Guyana up until the age of 9 and then I moved here to the United States and I've lived all over New York City—Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx mostly, but I know New York City. It's where I'm from, it's the place I love, although I do identify very much with my Guyanese heritage. I do practice Hinduism. Yeah, I consider myself a Hindu.
(01:18) I2: To begin, what do you think stands in the way of women across generations building relationships with one another, and what has helped you build relationships across generations?
(01:34) L: I think what stands in the way of women building relationships across generations is that we don't understand the idea of sisterhood. I still think that there is a competitiveness and there are a lot of stereotypes out there that exist across generations, especially whereas—even that reinforces the stereotypes that girls should behave a certain way, women should behave a certain way, and it's held across generations. So there are things like you can't be a sexual person, you can't be this sexual being, and you can't have those kinds of urges because that means something, right? It means that you're a slut, in essence, and you're not allowed to do that. I mean, I think, that's something that really bothers me, that being of a certain—you must be a lady, you must be a good girl, and you must maintain the culture and for some reason, everything, ever way that you behave must keep in the norms. Especially, I believe, in Indo-Caribbean women and across is that, there is this expectation that you must uphold a certain level of sanctity of the culture. You must dress a certain way, appear a certain way, carry yourself a certain way, but never be effusive about your sexuality or even be not heterosexual! I mean, that's completed frowned upon, even as you stretch the gender norms. And definitely, there is a "boys will boys" culture, and there is a "be a good girl and don't shame our family." I think the idea of shame and family is so pervasive and it's the thing that I think stands in the way most for relationships across generations. There are things that I can't say to my mom because I know immediately what her reaction will be. I'm trying to clear a pathway that hasn't been cleared before, even for myself, that growing up in a household where I wasn't told, "I love you" and "You're this amazing person" at an early age. I was never told that! It was like, I came home with a 98, and I thought that I did such a good job. I was the only kid in the class that got a 98 on the test. I showed it to my dad or my mom, and it was like, "What is this? You didn't get 100, what are you proud of?" And I was over the moon about it but it was like, "Big deal. Try again. Get 100 next time." So there are these intergeneration things and the expectations that we have for our daughters that, until we start to attack them and question why this has happened. Why is this in the way? For anyone who listens to this, they must know that they are not alone, and if they don't feel loved, know that you haven't found your people yet. Keep looking, right? We're out here, we're waiting for you. You'll find it. It's just keep looking, you haven't found it yet.
(05:14) I1: Being a parent, and along the lines of what you said, what are changes do you think you've made to ensure your daughter, your child isn't having that same experience that you did? Or what advice can you give future parents or parents that may not understand that they're doing the same things that yours may have done before?
(05:41) L: So, I'm married. I've been married for almost 19 years now. I have three children. I have an older boy—my boy is my first child—I have a girl who is my middle child, and I have a younger boy. I still mess up. I still make huge mistakes. I focus on one kid whose doing bad in school, much to the detriment to my other two kids who are great, who are doing fine and are coasting basically. And I have to share this story because it happened recently: my older son has just been having a tough time in school, so of course he gets the bulk of the attention. So I started to talk with my daughter recently and I said, "You know, I could really use your advice. I feel I'm messing up. What is something I can do or change?" and she's like, "First of all! I don't even want to talk about this!" and she really laid into me! I mean, not in a "I hate your guts kind of way" but in a total, like "I'm sorry, but if you want to talk about him, I don't want to talk about him because all week you have not asked me one day how my day was. You don't ask me how I'm doing, you haven't asked me anything!" And as she was talking, I remembered, I had had the same exact conversation with my mom! And my mom, in response to my bringing it up, said something like, "Well no one asks me about my day!" And it was like I was reliving that moment in my head, and I'm like, "Oh, what have I done?" I've turned into my mom in this subconscious way. I'm perpetuating the same behavior. I thought that I was this evolved person! The advice I would tell parents: forgive yourself, let it go and try to change. Acknowledge that you have to change, you have to set the example, and just work hard at it. And know that you're not going to perfect at it, but don't give up. Tell your children every day how amazing they are, that they are amazing people. I tell my kids every day how amazing they are. I text my daughter how amazing she is, and she's like, "Sometimes I think that you're giving me sarcastic feedback, mom!" And I love that because she's so blunt and honest, and if your kids are blunt and honest with you, you're doing something right, right? 'Cause they're standing up to authority, and you want them to stand up to authority. You don't want them to coast along and do what's expected of them. You want them to challenge everything. So I think that if my kids are challenging me and questioning me, everything, every day, I'm doing something right, because I can't even get my kids to fold the laundry without asking, "By what time do you need this laundry folded? And what are you going to give me after I'm done? And..." You know, it's that kinda vibe in my household. You're doing something right if—I feel like I'm doing something right, at least, because I have these kids who are constantly challenging me. But maybe, it might be self-inflicted torture at the same time but I'm totally loving them and loving being parent.
(09:20) I2: Can you actually comment more on the lack of affection between the older generations compared to the relationship you have between your kids and you now?
(09:35) L: Yeah, I think, without breaking confidence, my parents we're in huge—they had huge families! My dad is one of eight. My mom is one of 11. 11 must be the magical number, I don't know, because I know so many families who have 11 kids. But the affection that they got was very limited, right? My dad was the oldest boy, so of course he was completely doted on. My mom was the fifth girl, so she was totally like, "Alright, you can walk now, so you can feed the chickens," kind of deal, right? I mean, you do what you learn and you kind of go from there. So they brought me up. I feel like my parents got married really young, probably before they even realized what marriage really was or how to be married. And you know, you do the cultural construct of, "You do ah match wedding and yuh mek couple pickney and yuh wuk and mind dem," kinda thing, so they were following the construct and nobody ever pulled them aside and said, "Hey, you know, you can change that. You can do it different." No, you gotta move to 'Merica and mek money, you know? But you can change, right? They change is possible. I wanted to get married, I wanted to have children. I had always dreamed of having kids. I knew that even if I didn't get married, that I wanted to have at least two children. I dreamed of being a mom from a very early age and I wanted to be an amazing parent to them and I wanted to be affectionate and tell them everyday that I loved them, and to tell how important they are. And I still tell them they're going to change the world, and they're going to do amazing things and I honestly believe that. And I think that as parents, you have that ability to do that. You have the ability to change the narrative and to change the cultural dynamics of how you raise your kids.
(11:59) I1: Are there any there any misrepresentations of women in your community that you think are important to speak back to given your own experiences or the experience of other women in your life?
(12:13) L :Absolutely. So I started to talk a little bit about women being sexual beings, and the misrepresentation of women, or the misperception of women, that we are not allowed to be sexual beings or even talk about sex. I don't remember being sat down and talked to about what is sex, what is sexuality, what is even having, being, starting menstruation or going through puberty. Like that's just not a cultural norm, and it's just accepted, honestly, and it's something that I've worked hard to change within my own family. I can only work within the confines of my own personal, but I am actually trying to work deliberately with other women that I know who are within my more intimate relationships like sisters, sister-in-laws and even my own mom. Even knowing that it's gonna be a slow paced change. But something happened at the salon yesterday where I went. I went to go pamper myself, because you know self-care is another thing, that you're just taught to tough it out, but I wanted to pamper myself, I went for a facial and the woman doing my facial started to talk me about, "Oh yes, it's important to maintain your appearance," and she started in about that. You know, I do what I need to do to pass, right? I wear make-up, I wear clean clothes often, I comb my hair, you know, I do things like that. But this woman started to talk about another client she had and how her marriage basically broke up because her husband started to sleep with his non-biological, daughter. So it's not his daughter. Apparently the woman had been in a relationship with this man for about 14 years—well the numbers don't seem to add up from her story but regardless, it was still a story that left me traumatized, that left me kind of disgusted. I mean, it's just an appalling behavior of this 50-something year old man and essentially he seduced and was consistently raping a young girl between the age of 11 and 13, and at 13, the mom discovered it and decided that her young daughter had somehow managed to seduce her husband and decided that she stood, the mom, stood in the way of their relationship and their love—much to her daughter's claim and defiance—that her daughter was fighting her for him and was madly in love with him. And now the two of them are having this wonderful relationship and she just wants to be out of their way but she still comes to the salon and gets her hair done from time to time, but she doesn't come as frequently, and she started to talk about—and I said, "The story...that does not compute with my brain, that a young, budding, teen, adolescent girl is now in a full on relationship with a 50-something year old man." That does not sound—that sounds predatory. It sounds rape-y, creepy and all the words that can describe disgusting to me because at that young, innocent age, how can you even know what that is, what it is like to love somebody and spend your life with them? And as the adult man, shame on you, right? And the mom! I can't begin to—the amount of trauma that family must have had to go through. Even the mom, I can't understand how—and I'm trying not to judge or be judgmental but I can't help it at this point. That obviously, she was chasing the money and left her daughter home with this man, came home unexpectedly—based on all the details that was shared with me—came home unexpectedly to find them together. But to not know that you need to protect your child, to not know that this is unacceptable. If you think of the opposite, it would be completely disgusting to you, of a 13-year old boy seducing a 50-something year old man—a woman—that would you be like, "Wait, I would never let a young boy..." I posed questions like that, and that's something that even within me, I have to work on, because the first thing after my facial is done and I'm walking home, I'm thinking, "I'm never going back to that salon. That woman is crazy. How could hear a story like that and not call the cops?" But now, I'm going back, and every time I go back, I'm going to have a conversation with her and I am going to piece by piece dismantle that behavior, dismantle that story to say, "You have two young sons. Can you imagine one of them seducing you?" That's just...you wouldn't let that happen! That's your opposite gender child. Would you imagine them seducing an aunt or another older woman without them conditioning them and performing some predatory? I urge you, if you are a listener and you are hearing anything, anyone below the age of 17, it is illegal for you to engage in any sex with them or any sexual behavior. It is illegal. Go to the cops. Don't even finish listening to the recording, just go straight to the police. That's just unacceptable. Get counseling for your family and you need to have that behavior addressed. Period. I'm probably not answering the question, but I think just cultivating this culture of "oh well, it didn't happen to me so it's okay"—you're being complicit in a crime and even now, I'm still, I'm not okay with it and I want to figure out who this person is so I can intervene somehow.
(18:58) I1: Do you think that it is very common in our community for people to view young women in this way where they think that no matter what age they are, they're making decisions, that no matter what age they are, they can sexualize them? Do you think that's often what happens? And why?
(19:18) L: Oh absolutely, absolutely. You know, it happens so often. I think it's because of the pervasive secret keeping that's happening in our communities. There are blended families and we don't even know about it. My grandparents, for example, they had kids before their marriage to one another, and then they had my dad, who was the eldest. I never could understand why four of his siblings were much much older than him. And then, the kids that he was among were younger, but they never talked about, "Oh there was a marriage before," or here existed a relationship before. It's this thing that, it's okay and everything is just swept under the carpet and is never talked about and you kind of have to do a CSI type of investigation in order to get to the bottom of what's happening. But, I absolutely think from the time a young girl starts to mature and starts to reach adolescence, go through puberty, it's like "Oh, you're ready to get married now!" But you would never say that to a boy! You don't say that. They see my son, but they're like, "Oh you're getting around to the girls, you must have a lot of girlfriends." The conversation is just so different from my daughter to my son. And even for me and my brother when I was growing up, it was very different. I was in college, the first thing family members would ask me is "When are you going to get married? Are you dating anybody? Make sure that you wait until you get married and preserve your virtue." I mean, that is definitely something like a system that's in place, that's put in place. It's a learned behavior that can be unlearned and it's our duty to take that up on ourselves.
(21:43) I2: If you think of your life as a movie, if I was making a movie of your life, what are some of the major scenes that would be in that movie. Who are the important characters?
(21:57) L: Well, I would say that, you know...okay, so the major scenes were definitely my life in Guyana before I came here, when I was 9. And then, moving here. I think I would sort of go really deep, it would probably be a four-part mini-series, I have to say because the time before I came before this country was very idyllic. We lived in a fishing village, it was amazing. Even though my parents were very busy professional individuals, I lived my aunt who was just this amazing person and basically told me I could be or do anything I wanted to do. And I think that's where I draw a lot of my strength from. Moving here, the first five years of living in this country, we lived here illegally, and that is the part that was sort of the worst parts of my life. Then, I went away to college which just took me and exposed me to a whole series of privilege that I never even could imagine existed. It was just, the privilege and the entitlement—it's everything that you see and more that you see on prime time news. You know, total frat boy parties and things like that where it's just understood and accepted also. And then, you know, I got married really young because I wanted to be married and I wanted to experience that. I've had a pretty good life in marriage with my husband. We've been together for about 19 years, have 3 kids. So, I'm able to navigate some pretty tricky times of being really young, people challenging us of why we even want to get married. I think people, my friends from college who knew me during the time where I thought I was a total feminist and I'm a total rebel and I'm going to change the world, and then, they see me and they were like, "You're getting married?! Are you insane? I thought you'd never...and you have kids?! And who are you now?" But I'm still in here, You know. Raising three kids took a lot out of me but I'm still in here. I want to be a trailblazer, I want people to feel the challenge to change the world. So I definitely thing it's an interesting story but definitely a multi-part mini series. Major characters for sure would be my aunt, and now, I think, my husband and definitely my parents throughout.
(25:03) I1: Are there any happy moments or funny stories of your childhood or just growing up and your life? What are the things that make you go to your happy place?
(25:19) L: I think my aunt for sure. It's so funny you ask me this because anytime I face a really really hard moment in my life or that moment where I feel like a total failure, I can still hear her voice in my head telling me not to worry and that everything will work out and everything will be okay. I know it's supposed to be a happy memory, but still, to have somebody on the other side looking out for me is what keeps me going and gets me through the tough times. Yeah.
(26:11) I2: In college, can you elaborate on the different between high school and just growing up in a really Guyanese family to transitioning into college?
(26:23) L: Oh wow. I thought my family was comfortable. I thought that we were...you know. I mean, I knew that there were uber rich people out there. I knew that people existed who lived on Park Avenue and vacationed or lived also on West Palm Beach. Those people existed and I knew that they existed. It never like dawned on me that, oh wait, they have kids and their kids have that mentality and their kids are sort of set in their life. My mom was a teacher back in Guyana, but when she came here, became a babysitter. My dad was an accountant, and he came here and he became a taxi driver, right? And he's a security guard and he took the odd job. These are young professionals back home but they came and had to kinda start over and just take whatever job. I mean, these are the kind of job you would take in high school to get pocket change and this is what my mom did as a profession or my dad did as a profession that stayed. That's what you do as a new immigrant coming to this country. The transition from high school to college was brutal because I went from this very diverse, mostly black, hispanic, very few Indo-Caribbean young people in high school to going to this pervasively white. There were 15 black and brown kids in my class of 400, and the total population was about 1,600. It was small, it was probably too small for me. I had total culture shock. I had such a hard time for the first two years of college, of undergrad, but I stuck it through and I stuck it out. You know, I still have mixed feelings about the entire experience but it totally shaped me into the person I am today. Absolutely, it's a part of me and I draw from those lessons everyday. It's a story of learning to survive and also thrive and get through something that was really difficult. I have to say, that was probably one of the hardest times of my life was to manage that transition.
(29:15) I1: Do you think that we need to speak a lot more about Indo-Caribbeans having to live in this American society and the toll that it takes on us? Do you think that we need to have that discussion more and find ways of being healthy and coping with that privileged life that we see others have that we may not be able to have ourself? And advice for others going through that same thing of seeing privileged kids have something that they may not have or be a part of an environment that they may never be a part of?
(29:51) L: I think that there is still pervasively this thing of "them" and "us". The people who are the fresh off the boat kind of people who are seeing people who have been here for a number years and who have houses now and are more settled—there's definitely that experience as if we've forgotten what it's like to be just newly coming to the United States. I have to say, I have to give props to my Dad 'cause he has completely refused to assimilate. And that's something that I absolutely had to embrace. I had to figure out a way to survive and to say that I have to change my accent. I have to learn how to speak American. My dad completely refused to and he is so down to earth and he's deliberately remained down to earth. I think that we need to push through the discomfort when it's time to have the hard conversation and we can't remain invisible or silent about our experiences. We have to be part of the national narrative of immigrants that's happening and we can't remain silent. I think we have to stand up with other cultures who are making their voices known and to make our presence known. I think it's absolutely imperative on us to take ownership of it and to lead the way, and there should be multiple people at the table representing our culture.
(31:27) I2: Thank you for sharing.
Pickney: a term commonly used to mean “child” in West Indian English; [pronunciation: pick-knee]