Perhaps if I had to find one word to describe these weeks and days leading up to the 2017 Bocas Lit Fest, I would probably chose “unreal”. Everything, even the very real and necessary planning took on a dreamlike quality.
I think it was back in 2012 when I first heard of Bocas. When I left the country, there was no such thing and I was no author. My first formally published work started in 2001 with a weekly column in a Toronto newspaper called SHARE. I was writing social commentary á la picong with all the Trinidad Nation Language you could shake a stick at. A book was a vague something-something in the back room of my mind. Even after I self-published a collection of those columns, the book idea was only slightly less nebulous.
My first novel started taking shape in my head before I was aware of it. This might sound crazy but I never protest not to be. I wrote the novel, printed a few hundred copies and figured most of them would end up in my basement as a condo for mice. So imagine my surprise when the book that had eschewed the formal writing style, opting for a storytelling style, sold out and demand made it imperative to reprint. The story was good and folks wanted more.
It was after the book was out that I heard about Bocas. I nervously sent in my poorly edited book to the New York judge on the same day that the US east coast was flooded by a storm. He emailed to say the book was destroyed. It took that Act of God for me to become determined. I sent another book to him but never made it to the long list. The story was poorly presented, I knew that, but rather than give up, I dug in my heels and wrote the sequel. A far, far better work.
But a self-publishing stint is expensive and with the second novel, part two in my unexpected series, I simply could not afford to enter the Bocas Lit Fest. I spent the next few years saving and writing until July 2016 when the third and final installment was published. I submitted the book and sat on pins and needles awaiting the list announcement.
During my wait something else was happening, slowly, surely. All along, folks were reading, supporting, encouraging me and my style of storytelling. I received an invitation to speak on a panel at Bocas.
Yet, this ex-pat, writing all alone in arguably the most culturally bereft state of the Disunited States of Twitler, is coming home with her humble offering to talk with and listen to other Caribbean authors. I am looking forward to the opportunity and honour.
Last June I was stranded in the Suriname Airport. That was an adventure in itself. But sweet are the uses of adversity, as Willy S used to say. One of the things I did while I was stuck there for two days was update an old manuscript I’d written nearly a decade ago called Waiting for the Bus.
The manuscript is pretty interesting, I think. I haven’t seen anything like it out of the Caribbean before, but I may be wrong. There actually might be another YA novel about a depressed teen girl whose attempted suicide is instrumental in her moving to Canada with her LGBTQ aunt… but I’m pretty doubtful there’s any Caribbean YA novel treating with these themes right now.
Anyway, I’ve been shortlisted for the award along with my fellow Trinidadian writer Kevin Jared Hosein. (He’s on a winning streak, that one. Book published by Peepal Tree Press, longlisted for the Bocas Prize in Fiction, and now this… he’s on fire! We also both have short fiction in the Lightspeed Special Issue People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, co-edited by Nalo Hopkinson.)
“In the majority of rapes on college campuses, both parties involved had been drinking—often to excess. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and can often heighten the desire for sexual activity. Those who expect sex after they have been drinking may use force if they encounter resistance.” —University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Web site counselling page.
When the rum rebranding happened last year I was kind of horrified. The new tagline for the rum’s advertisements was “When it pours, you reign.” My brain exploded. Really? Show images of soaking wet, drunk-looking women, in a campaign that explicitly gives complete domination to the “you” to whom the ads appeal? What on earth were you thinking? Who thought it was a good idea to create a campaign that basically advertises date rape?
“Fifty-five per cent of the college men who acknowledged committing sexual assault on a date reported being under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault,” says the above-quoted Web site. “In the same study, 53 per cent of the college women who experienced sexual aggression on a date reported that they were under the influence at the time of the assault.” Clearly, there is a link between alcohol abuse and date rape; but does the campaign exploit that link or is it just an unhappy molehill that I, as a rabid feminist, am making a mountain of?
There’s no doubt that my feminist ideology colours my interpretation of the campaign. However, anyone with a basic understanding of advertising psychology can see I have a point. It is a fact that rum (like most spirituous liquor) is pitched mostly to male consumers. This rebranding is meant to widen the consumer base for this brand (as I have read on the behance.net Web page of Sophie Charles, who seems to be one of the people involved in creating the campaign)[UPDATE: THAT PAGE HAS SINCE BEEN MADE PRIVATE]. However, the ads seem still mostly pitched at males. I can tell this because the majority of the shots in the TV commercials, and the majority of the images in the print and billboard campaigns feature scantily-clad women in various poses of ecstatic rapture—in other words, they look like they’ve been drinking and have lost their inhibitions. There are few men in the billboard and print ads; whereas the TV commercial shows a party scene, the billboards in particular tend to isolate the females and show them wet from head to toe, reminiscent of a wet T-shirt contest in which the female participants are put on show for the sexual titillation of the audience—who are mostly men.
The word “reign” has a specific connotation of dominance, ruling over, being in charge of. A monarch reigns over subjects, and although it can be a beneficent relationship, one always knows who holds the power. “Reign” is not a word that invites negotiation. Juxtapose this word with the sexually objectified, drunk-looking girls, and what do you get? In my opinion, an ad for date rape. More than half the rapes reported in T&T are date or acquaintance rapes, according to the Rape Crisis Society in a 2005 newspaper story by Suzanne Sheppard. This is hardly unusual, as most rapes reported anywhere are committed by people known to the victim. Though you might hear of “date rape drugs” that a rapist slips into the victim’s drink to knock the victim out, it is in fact far more common for the danger to lie in the drink itself, rather than any exotic chemical added to it.
When drunk people get into sexual situations, it’s not unusual for them to have sex. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment, the perfect cocktail for poor choices. To quote the same University of Wisconsin Web site, “It is hard enough to communicate about sex when sober. Trying to communicate and make good decisions when drinking is impossible for most people.” I’m not a habitual rum drinker, though I’ll drink the occasional mojito faster than you can say “Cuba libre.” I have nothing against the brand, or its parent company. What I do have a problem with is irresponsible, thoughtless advertising. You may say, “Well, that’s life. Everybody knows people feel sexy when they drink. You can’t blame the liquor for date rape.” My response: Remember “Rum is smasho”? We didn’t blame rum for car crashes before that, either.
[This column appeared in the Trinidad Guardian on July 17, 2012]
Free education is not free. Though in principle all children in Trinidad and Tobago have access to free schooling, not all of them can afford to take up the offer. Government already provides free textbooks, breakfast, lunch, and tuition, you might note, and it is up to parents to provide the other necessities for attending school. Yet, it’s not always easy for parents to do so. As a parent myself I can tell you the cost of outfitting a child for school is high, even with all the above provided free. Each child has to have a book bag, for one. Textbooks might be free but stationery isn’t, and you might cast your own mind back to your days in uniform to remember what it was like to forget a copybook at home, or to not have a copybook at all. Even apart from other things like uniforms and shoes, there are also personal hygiene requirements like deodorant, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, without which a child would be embarrassed to sit in class or might even be put out of class in some situations.
Recognising this, a group of young people has sought to help some Caribbean children seize free education. Melissa Enmore and Michelle Kandasammy have come up with The Backpack Project, a non-profit that aims to provide assistance to needy children by giving them a backpack full of stationery and personal care supplies once a year.
“The Backpack Project believes that education is a basic human right, not a privilege, and that health is a key factor determining the success of a child’s development,” the Project says in its Mission Statement. “The organisation will encourage the pursuit of formal education amongst underprivileged children in the Caribbean by providing basic school supplies and foster a healthy learning environment by providing personal supplies to backpack recipients. The Backpack Project hopes to leverage the resources of its sponsors, donors, volunteers and other stakeholders in a collaborative manner to further its objective of universal childhood education in the Caribbean.”
I find it personally heartening that the Project has not only been able to do its work in Guyana (where Enmore and Kandasammy are from) and Trinidad (where Kandasammy lives), but also extend it to Haiti and the Philippines in two special programmes. The Project sends filled backpacks to students, shipping them in a barrel where necessary. The students, aged five to 18, are identified by educators and through individual requests, and must agree to have their school careers tracked as long as they participate in the Project. So far the Project has given over 100 backpacks to Trinidadian and Guyanese students since it was formed. With the help of the public, they can give more.
The Backpack Project is in the middle of a collection drive, which ends August 18. Members of the public can give either cash or kind: sponsor a filled backpack, which costs about $515, or donate the items needed to fill one. (Cash donors can also give part of the cost of a filled backpack.) The Project still needs for this year: 60 pens, 40 pencil cases, 24 drawing books, 25 bottles of shampoo, 25 bottles of conditioner, 60 notebooks, brown paper, 50 tubes of toothpaste, and 50 toothbrushes.
Kandasammy said in the organisation’s December 2011 newsletter, “Nothing quite prepares you for the joy on the children’s faces when they see the bags with their names on [them]. The warm unexpected hugs received from the students of Rose Hill RC took me by surprise. After briefly talking to the students about their classes and their goals for the year… I walked out of Rose Hill RC more determined than ever that we must fulfil our promise to continue to sponsor all of our kids and to expand our programme.”
In this region so fraught with inequity, poverty and poor governance, it is easy to throw one’s hands up and surrender to the apathy of selfishness, doing for oneself and ignoring others’ problems. It is much harder to engage with those problems, to sit and consider how one can actually make a difference in the world in which we live, and particularly the country we inhabit. It is refreshing to encounter people who try to change things for the better. The Backpack Project is one ogranisation of a group of young people who are doing just that. Join them.
There’s a debate raging on the Internet about the conflict between work and mothering. The debate itself certainly isn’t a new one, but in the last month it has coalesced around a long article published in July in the US magazine The Atlantic. In the article, headlined “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” its author Anne-Marie Slaughter examines the dilemma of powerful, educated women who struggle to balance their careers with the demands of parenting. Slaughter is a Princeton professor and former director of policy planning for the US State Department. She is also the mother of two adolescent boys. She writes about working long hours and keeping up a demanding travel schedule while trying to be a good parent:
“[T]he minute I found myself in a job that is typical for the vast majority of working women (and men), working long hours on someone else’s schedule, I could no longer be both the parent and the professional I wanted to be […]. I realized what should have perhaps been obvious: having it all, at least for me, depended almost entirely on what type of job I had. The flip side is the harder truth: having it all was not possible in many types of jobs, including high government office—at least not for very long.”
She concedes that many other women who have less education, less powerful jobs, or less supportive partners (indeed, sometimes no partners) also have it hard, and questioned the feminist myth that women can “have it all”—ie, career and family at the same time. She adds that if this is to change there must be shifts in women’s access to positions of power, changes in the way we think about careers (do we really have to go to an office every day to advance in a career?), and changes to the structure of families so that more men play an active role in parenting.
It is the last part of the equation that I want to engage with here. When I worked as a newspaper reporter, covering night assignments, working weekends, I was generally too busy with work to spend time with my first daughter. Thank God I had the support of friends and relatives, but there were still too many evenings when my daughter was left in school until sunset because that was when I finished work. She suffered while my career thrived.
Women today take it for granted that they can be educated and have high-level jobs outside the home. These gains have been hard-won. (And there is still much to fight for: pay gaps between men and women persist and, as our recent Cabinet reshuffle has proven, just because there are educated, competent women available doesn’t mean that they will get put into those positions of power that exist.) However, I maintain that instead of giving women a choice between being working at home as wife and mother and being in the paid workforce, feminism has made it seem that women have an obligation to do both. As Slaughter points out, women who choose to do the former despite being equipped to do the latter are often looked at with scorn and condescension, as if they were inadequate or betraying the women’s movement. This has to change. Until there is a mass of men willing to wash dishes and wipe away tears, shuttle children to and from school and football practice, supervise homework and comb hair, working women will continue to do this double duty and they and their families will suffer for it. Of course women should be encouraged to work outside the home if they want to; but there must be a corresponding push for men to work within the home or we risk leaving our children without nurturing and support. Children must have parents. They need people who will see to their physical and emotional wellbeing, not from afar but right there in the home with them. Parenting by telephone cannot be a satisfactory alternative. Until there are enough men willing to do this “women’s work” of parenting, women will always have to choose.
Women must be involved in making and implementing policy at all levels, or we squander half our human resource and ignore the different solutions women might bring. But men have found out the hard way the cost of working 12-hour days: poor health, early death, and lack of engagement with their families. Asking women to blindly step into men’s shoes without changing these patterns is foolish and will ultimately benefit no one.
[This article was first published in the Trinidad Guardian on July 3, 2012. You can find it here.]
One of my heroes is the architect Colin Laird. If you are a Trini and don’t know who that is, 1) be ashamed, be very ashamed, and 2) look him up.
Colin Laird is an architect who designed some of the great public spaces in our country, including the Brian Lara Promenade, the National Library, and the old Queen’s Hall. People under 30 might not know what that means but think about the great big elegant National Library. Think about how gorgeous it is, and how easy it is to lime on the galleries around it. Think about the Promenade, a stretch of paved and landscaped coolness right in the middle of the city. It’s urbane and fancy but it’s also completely Trini–and you can tell because the minute it opened people colonised it and made it a liming spot right away.
Anyway, all this is to say there’s an exhibition of his work and designs opening at the National Museum on Thursday June 28 2012. It runs till July 16. You should go.
I say without apology that this makes Verna a political martyr to the cowardice of the PP government and its failure to stand for what it seemed to believe in before it formed the government. There are those who feel Verna was fired because of the Cheryl Miller episode. In March Millar was taken from her desk in Verna’s ministry and committed to the mental hospital against Miller’s will. It’s possible this is what led to Verna’s firing. However, it’s more likely that the government saw too many protests against the Gender Policy, and the imaginary LGBT marriage lobby. (Surely it’s imaginary, since most LGBT organisations in the country haven’t said a peep about gay marriage, and have only asked for equal human rights for LGBT folk.) Verna, being Verna, stood up for what she believed in and presented a Gender Policy that wouldn’t embarrass her as a longstanding women’s activist. Would that the PP government had the same courage.
I am not Verna St Rose-Greaves’ friend, but I have interviewed her many times in my capacity as a reporter. She was always a straightforward, blunt advocate for the people she served as a social worker; and she was passionate and well informed about women’s and children’s rights and the wrongs done to them. In fact, Verna was the go-to interview on any such topic, because she was one of a very few public servants who would risk defying the public servant ban on talking to the media. She might have looked mad to play “warner woman”, complete with bell, during the Summit of the Americas in 2009 in Port-of-Spain, but I agreed with her choice to protest the then-government’s holding of an expensive international summit and spending millions of dollars to spruce up the parts of the country the delegates would see while our women and children were being murdered and suffering egregious poverty. Jada Loutoo reported in the Newsday at the time, “After leaving her post on Wrightson Road, St Rose-Greaves […] walked down to the fountain at the Summit Village on the Port-of-Spain Waterfront promenade, where she was accosted by security officers who took away her bell […] and called for backup.”
Now it’s 2012 and once again Verna’s bell has been taken away. She has been whisked out of government back into the shadows where her cries for justice and equality will be easier to ignore. She told the Guardian in an interview published Sunday, “I was offered an ambassadorial position in Costa Rica, which I chose not to take because I didn’t come into government to go to Costa Rica… The one thing that I am sure of, my voice will not be silenced. Death will have to silence me.”
As Ataklan sang, “I’d rather be a shadow in the dark than a big fool in spotlight.”
Years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who was once a politician. I told him I felt politicians were the lowest of the low, opportunists who had only entered the field for what power and wealth they could gain. I cited the infamous declaration by Desmond Cartey—“All ah we thief”—as proof that in this country people enter politics to line their pockets and the pockets of their friends and families. My friend corrected me: far from being the slimiest occupation, politics was among the highest callings an individual could follow. Being a politician was an opportunity for service to one’s country and one’s fellow man, he said. What could be nobler than that?
But the take-away lesson of Verna’s firing is that conscience and integrity have no place in T&T politics. When you enter the government, leave your conscience at home. Verna’s firing is a loss for the country because it spells out in bold, clear letters to service-minded individuals, “Don’t go into politics.”
Anyway, the reason I’m here posting this today is that my column in today’s Trinidad Guardian was supposed to be formatted in a certain way and it isn’t. The lack of formatting makes it incredibly difficult to read and I am sure it will make no sense whatsoever to whoever reads it there. That’s why I’m here, to repost the column with the correct formatting. I also want to share it far and wide because it’s about child sexual abuse and we can never say too much on that topic.
Break the silence
[Trigger warning: This column contains descriptions of child sexual abuse.]
Most of the alleged sexual abuse victims of US football coach and father figure Jerry Sandusky remained silent during and after the abuse. Most victims of child sexual abuse do.
Jerry Sandusky (creative commons)
Unlike Alleged Victim Nine in the Sandusky trial, many of the victims of child sexual abuse never scream for help. Instead, you might hear:
Go away. Nothing’s wrong. Leave me alone. I hate you. I want to kiss you there. I want to sit in your lap and play with your body. I want to show you something. I want to see yours. I hate everything. My belly hurts. My head hurts. I can’t sleep. I have a rash that I scratch till it bleeds. Nothing’s wrong. Go away.
This case, now being tried in the Philadelphia courts, is sickening. Eight men have testified that Sandusky, while a top coach at the powerful Pennsylvania State University football team, handpicked boys as young as eight to be his special friends. They claim he identified troubled boys from a youth charity he founded, the Second Mile, and seduced them with affection and attention, showered them with gifts and took them on extraordinary outings. Some of them testified to a Grand Jury in December last year that he made them feel like part of his family, and that he told them he loved them. To any child, these are powerful inducements. Would every child take this poisoned candy? No. But some would.
We in Trinidad and Tobago might imagine the Sandusky story is some alien thing, and that this could never happen here. We would be very wrong. There is child sexual abuse happening in this country at this very moment. Somewhere not far from you there is a boy or girl being seduced by someone he or she trusts, seduced with cake and money and weed and PS3’s, and love, or the facsimile of it. This seeming love is the thing that draws child victims in and shuts them up. Because the one who is seducing them seems to care, sometimes more than their own parents and siblings. These monsters will give hugs and back rubs and listening ears. They will know just what a child wants and give it unstintingly. And then they will take what they want.
It’s only fair. I gave you this. You give me that.
Why do children stay silent about sexual abuse? Why don’t more of them scream and run away to report it to the police or a parent, a teacher or a pastor? Apart from the fact that in many cases it is these very authority figures who are themselves the abusers, victims often feel an overwhelming sense of love for the abuser, and feel complicit in the abuse.
You knew it was wrong, but you did it anyway. You let it happen. If you tell, everyone will think it’s your fault. And what would happen to your special friend, the one person who treats you like you’re precious? He or she would get in trouble. Do you want to be the one who tears apart the family? Do you want him or her to lose his or her job over you? Shame on you.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Sandusky trial is not the men’s stories of being sexually fondled and raped as ten- and twelve-year-old boys, but that so many adults actually saw it with their own eyes, yet did nothing. It is not the victims’ silence that is the most horrifying part, but the silence of their community. The Grand Jury testimony gives stories of people who walked in on Sandusky lying on top of boys, showering with them, having oral sex with them, raping them. Some reported what they had seen to a superior, and those superiors did not do what the law mandated: report it to the police, investigate and take measures to protect the boys who may have been molested. (In one case, a mother did report it to the police, who subsequently dropped the investigation.)
If a child you know says a respected adult is making him or her uncomfortable, what is your first impulse? Is it to ask questions, or to brush the child aside? Do you listen to the silence, or compound it with your own? Whatever the outcome of the Sandusky trial let us take one thing away from the horrendous story: Break the Silence.
For more information about the UWI St Augustine IGDS campaign Break the Silence, go to: http://sta.uwi.edu/igds/breakthesilence/index.asp
Last week I picked up the Alice Walker collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and reread the very first essay, “Saving the life that is your own: The importance of models in the artist’s life”. I’ve read this essay before, many times, in fact, over the years since I first got the book back when my teenager was a little baby. The essay’s theme, that artists need to have templates to follow in order to live their lives, is one that I have always believed in. The templates are knowledge of the very existence of other artists like them. The timing of my rereading of the essay proved prescient, as this weekend I was fortunate to meet a woman writer whom I have admired for years, Nalo Hopkinson.
Nalo Hopkinson. Photo from http://nalohopkinson.com/
A brilliant writer, Nalo is one of the few Caribbean sci-fi/fantasy writers who have been internationally published. Her first books Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber are bonafide sci-fi classics. She writes brave feminist fiction; it is outstanding not simply because of its themes and Caribbean characters of colour (and the fact that in speculative fiction black writers are few and far between) but also because she’s a fine writer with a gift for lush, descriptive writing.
I treasured the time I spent listening to her and in the writing workshop she gave at the 30th WI Literature Conference, which took place at UWI, St Augustine, this weekend. Here is a writer who more or less forged her way in the publishing world without compromising her vision or her voice. This is a model I would be happy to emulate.