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Back to black

Posted: July 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Amy Winehouse. Photo by nuflicks/Flickr Creative Commons License

 

On Saturday I was in a sailing boat in St George’s, Grenada, getting ready to cast off when the skipper announced that Amy Winehouse had been found dead.

I’ve never met Amy Winehouse. I’m not a musician. I’m not British or anything even remotely connected to her. I only discovered her music about three years ago and, honestly, there were people who were more ardent fans. I do know, however, that hearing the news of her death made me deeply sad. She was an epic talent, writing songs that cut sharply into the pain of love and loving and singing them in a voice that wrung each drop of that pain from the poignant lyrics, the voice that her friend Russell Brand described as having “rolling, wondrous resonance”. I often put what I consider to be her best song, “Back to Black”, on repeat, feeling the music just probing my own pain the way a tongue will probe an aching tooth, flinching from the agony but going back for more and more of it.

I was in Grenada on assignment –I might not be able to make rent every month, so to speak, but I do have a fantastic career that lets me do things like that sometimes. My assignment called for me to experience Grenada’s beauty, and I had my morning tea on a balcony overlooking the two-mile stretch of white sand that is Grand Anse Beach. I had woken up Sunday morning with Amy on my mind and I wrote this poem in her memory.

 

Back to black

 

Sunspills on Grand Anse

White sand, white surf

Sad for her

Drunken life and death

Foreseen in black songs

Drowning in sorrows

 

Sunspills on Grand Anse

The surf washes over me

My heart beats

In tune to white

Black songs unsung

I go snorkeling

 

But there are nights, o Amy

 

I am you

 

Scarred and scared

Learning from Mr Hathaway

 


Yay! My new story is published in sx salon

Posted: July 12th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

The internet publication sx salon (produced by the Small Axe people) features a new story from me this month. The story is a noir-ish short called The Gun.

I have to say thanks to my writing workshop group–Sharon, Barbara, Alake, Rhoda and Monique–for their support in the editing and publication of the story. Could not have done it without them. A real tribute to the power of community. 🙂

The story is up here, but do also check out the rest of the magazine. Other pieces include reviews of books by Christian Campbell, Anton Nimblette and Geoffrey Philp, and the issue is a tribute to Peepal Tree Press, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.


Trinidad Tourism?

Posted: June 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

My daughter’s brother the Boychick is visiting us from Tennessee and we are doing the tourist thing. Over the past week we’ve been to Maracas Bay, the Military Museum, the National Museum, the Pitch Lake and the Temple in the Sea–all great outings, in theory. But in Trinidad, tourism is so poorly developed it’s a shame. I was horrified and embarrassed half the time at the paltry quality of our tourism product.

Maracas Bay was great. The bathrooms are clean, the beach has lifeguards from morning to evening, and there was room in the parking lot.

Maracas Bay picture I found on Wikipedia

Things went downhill from there.

The Military Museum (officially the Chaguaramas Military History and Aviation Museum… you can see photos here) is a bit of a wreck. It is supposed to show our military history from pre-Columbian times to the present, and the exhibits actually are clearly thought out. We found parts of it engaging: the WWI trenches (a walk-through exhibit), the sack of a Trinidad village by pirates in the 17th century (another walk-through) and the amphibious transport vessel (which we got to board) were some of the highlights in our visit. However, the majority of the exhibits are so poorly kept that they are literally crumbling. Photos are fading and peeling, uniforms are dusty and tarnished (even the newer ones) and swords are rusting. There was a dead bird in the grounded BWIA jumbo jet on display–and the jet was gutted, which puzzled us greatly. The whole place needs to be overhauled and some sort of climate controlled environment be built to preserve these unique pieces of our history. The single attendant couldn’t leave the door to guide us through the museum, and there are no guidebooks or narration to help; one entered, walked through, left. That was all. It’s sad, because the idea of it is so cool, and there are things in there that were really intriguing. *sigh*

The National Museum and Art Gallery was also disappointing. The building is under renovation, but instead of closing the museum for a while, the museum’s administrators have left it open so visitors can go in and see part of the display of natural and cultural artifacts, but not the art gallery, which is closed. Only the Cazabon gallery is open. We loved what we saw but it was very annoying to set aside an afternoon to tour a museum only to find that it would take no more than half an hour, at best. The dioramas of early 20th century Trinidad culture are excellent (even if I’ve seen them a million times); and the Cazabon gallery, as previously noted, truly rocks. However, the natural history section features decaying taxidermy and faded specimens. Surely, if we can build a half-billion-dollar performing arts academy we can invest some money in the preservation of our history? And why not just close the museum while it is being renovated?

The Pitch Lake, one of our natural wonders, is pretty awesome. I’ve never been there before and was quite interested in the tour. BUT. BUT. BUT. I couldn’t find an official website for the tour and we went down there with the impression it is TT$30/person for a tour led by an official guide, info given on a tourism review website. Not so. Not only was the visitor’s centre CLOSED, the official guides were nowhere in sight. We ended up paying a guide US $30 per person. It was a decent tour but I hadn’t expected that hugely inflated price. We should have been told (on the invisible official web site) to wear flip flops and shorts. DO NOT TOUR THE PITCH LAKE IN SNEAKERS AND JEANS. You’ll have to take off your shoes and roll up your jeans and you’ll STILL get wet.

Finally, the Temple in the Sea. It was open.

 

The Temple in the Sea

 

But guess what? There were prayers going on and we couldn’t go inside. We settled for a quick walk around it (still pretty impressive, by the way). And the bathrooms, in the adjoining cremation site, are frightening. To the Trinidadian or Tobagonian reader who went to government school: remember the worst toilet in your primary school? Yeah. Like that. Only worse. There were also about a dozen stray dogs wandering the site (I shudder to think what they eat, since there is no meat allowed on the compound).

We wanted to go to the Point-a-Pierre Wildfowl Trust, a gorgeous nature reserve on the Petrotrin compound, but it was open only by appointment. I wrote on the wall of the Asa Wright Nature Centre’s Facebook page on June 21, asking about a tour. I haven’t yet got a response.

We’re off to Tobago for a day on Friday. Let’s see what they have to offer.


The babies and the (electronic) bathwater

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Image from the Commonwealth Secretariat web site

 

Of all the annoying things I read in today’s Trinidad Express (and there were several stories and ads that caused me ire, can I just say?), the most irritating was a call for the dismantling of the Government initiative to give laptop computers to all incoming secondary school students. Today’s story followed up on one written earlier this month detailing problems faced in implementing the initiative. In the first story, students said the computers were not being used in classrooms and were, in fact, being used to play games and record fights–and surf Facebook, a site that had supposedly been blocked on all the Government-issued laptops. Teachers said they hadn’t been properly trained and there was a big gap between the plan and its implementation.

The follow-up in today’s Express, the story that got me so mad, extensively quoted a parent identified as “Mrs Leacock”, whose views, presumably, represented the voice of parents. “The reality is that 12- and 13-year-olds are not responsible, nor prudent enough in their thinking to take care of, far less, use the laptop and harness its power to influence and access both good and bad at this tender age. We are being unfair in our expectations, and at the same time curtailing their opportunity to learn, by giving them another technological toy to entertain themselves with, and expecting better results in the long run,” she’s quoted as saying.

“A peep into any household whose child has their laptop at home would reveal the parent’s mantra of ‘turn that thing off’ with increased frequency, because now, in addition the Xbox, iPod, cellphone and TV to compete for our time and attention, our Form One children can now be mobile and walk into his bedroom/ bathroom and spend hours on the Internet or playing games, simply because they can, as it is their laptop.

“So in addition to more unsupervised use of this communication technology, we are fostering an increase in obesity. If before we had a hard time getting our children outside to play, this makes it all the more difficult, and the reality is that they have these laptops for a few years, so these bad habits are not going to change anytime soon.”

Well, Mrs Leacock, I beg to differ.

There might be great reasons to take those laptops away from the kids, but there are even better reasons to let them keep them. Here are some:

• Children don’t learn responsibility unless they’re given it. In other words, if they have nothing of value, how do they learn that they must take care of the things they have? I struggle with this on a daily basis with my 11-year-old (soon to be getting a laptop herself, once she passes her SEA. We’ll know by next week, God willing). Do I worry that she’ll mash up the laptop she gets, or lose it? Sorta. But I also recognise that the only way for her to learn to take care of things that are important is for her to TAKE CARE OF THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT. Parents ought to be teaching their children responsibility from small–doing chores, taking care of pets, taking responsibility for their books and toys and so on. Getting a $5,000 piece of fragile technology shouldn’t be the first time they have responsibility. But it is an excellent opportunity to teach them consequences. Hold them personally responsible for the condition of the laptops and enforce consequences for damage or misuse. Let’s see how many keys go missing then.

• Internet access isn’t a privilege anymore. It’s a necessity. I lived in the library when I was a student. Now, as a writer, I live online. Every time I write one of these useless blog posts, I spend time researching what I write, or finding pictures to illustrate the posts or videos to emphasise my points. Young people in schools have to do much the same thing. Education is increasingly project-centred, an approach that puts the onus on the child to find and present information. They could do this in libraries like I did thirty years ago, but why should they? Any teacher would tell you that they expect projects to be typed and neatly laid out–usually on a computer. (Can I get an “amen” from all the parents who ordinarily have to go to their offices to type and print projects for their kids?) To force children to depend on Internet access at schools or public libraries would be putting them at a disadvantage. Who would suffer most? The kids whose families already have computers and Internet access at home? Doubt it.

• Technology is part and parcel of the modern world. Giving students computers at an early stage in their development makes them more comfortable and familiar with the tools they will have to use anyway. It’s true not everybody’s going to be a writer or a scientist. But have you been to a mechanic lately? Even they use computers for their office management and diagnostics. Face it: computers are not going away and we need them more each day. Give a head start to children who otherwise would not be able to afford them.

• Computer-assisted learning can help certain kinds of learners. Chalk and talk doesn’t reach everybody. By nature computers are multi-media and therefore could be a great tool in teaching those who are more kinetic or visual learners. For more on the benefits of computers in classrooms, read this.

• Social networking is not the devil. Well, maybe this is a shaky point. I know they can be addictive, but sites such as Tumblr and Facebook are one of the ways the adult world now communicates. I once read a comment from someone who said that Facebook is today what a cell phone was ten years ago. Hands up if you have a cell phone now. I’m sure even Mrs Leacock has one. The idea is that they are a weapon in our communications arsenal and they can be useful. Teachers can and do use Facebook to post assignments and communicate with students. It doesn’t have to be a terrible thing.

• Who’s in charge of our children’s habits and lifestyle? Parents, or the computers? Mrs Leacock’s argument is a cop out. Until that child turns 18 he or she is your responsibility. Go back to my very first point. What did we say about taking care of the things that are important to you? Get the child off the computer. It’s your right and your job.

• As for the finding in the first story that teachers hadn’t been properly trained, this is eminently fixable. Train the teachers. When I teach I use my computers to teach (sometimes I use PowerPoint presentations, I find resources online for students, I show videos, I give quizzes, I make them do blogs). I also use my computer to communicate with students and do things like lesson plans. You don’t need a computer to teach. But it is a very useful tool. Show the teachers that and they might find it less onerous to be trained in using computers.

 

I’m not trying to oversimplify the problems inherent in giving students computers for use in schools. They are many and large. But we can and should solve them. Our children, no less than any others, deserve to reap the benefits of progress.

*Image from: http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/190663/163077/235429/280311colcsmicro.htm


Revisioning romance

Posted: June 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books, Column, The Allen Prize | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The cover of Intimate Exposure by Simona Taylor

 

Possibly because my mom was an avid Mills and Boon reader, I was weaned on romance novels. I loved these books for their ability to translate dreams and fantasies about love and happiness into 200-page packages in which the girl always got her man AND the amazing career she wanted, a perfect house and babies, to boot. A bonus was the settings–I learned about Australia, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Kenya, Fiji, the Seychelles, all through the writings of such romance stars as Barbara Cartland, Penny Jordan and Margaret Way. Later, I learned about the US through the Desire brand and Harlequin Romances. All the characters were white and the men were rich and the women mostly middle class. Somewhere along the line I discovered that the characters didn’t have to be white; there were black–even Caribbean–romances, too. Trinidadian author Valerie Belgrave has written some, including one called Tigress, which I planned, once, to write a thesis on.

Another Trinidadian author, Roslyn Carrington, has made a career writing black romances under the pen name Simona Taylor. (Full disclosure: Roslyn has been a speaker and a judge for various aspects of my NGO, The Allen Prize for Young Writers.) She gave me a copy of her latest, Intimate Exposure (Kimani Press, 2011), a couple of weeks ago and I read it hungrily. I found to my delighted surprise that not only was her story intriguing and captivating like a good romance novel ought to be, I liked her characters as well.

Romance novels rely on a formula that is seldom, if ever, deviated from: the male lead is very rich, charming and a chick magnet, while the female lead is unspeakably beautiful but for some reason in an awkward spot. They meet and he immediately falls in love with her but tries to deny it (and she does the same for him). After triumphing over some betrayal, they live happily ever after. (Think Pretty Woman, except that Julia Roberts’ character is a secretary, not a whore.) That holds true for Intimate Exposure, but with some surprising twists–which I won’t give away because I don’t want to spoil them for you.

What most impressed me was the writing of the characters as feminist. The woman enjoys sex thoroughly (all the time, not just with this magical man in the book) and has an actual career in which her intelligence and education–not her great fashion sense–are paramount. She rescues herself from the betrayal, albeit with a push from the male lead–hey, it’s still a romance novel, and some things are inviolate here, including the man’s role as leader. She is, in short, a three-dimensional, smart, self-motivated woman. The male lead is allowed to cry and show weakness, and while he abets her in her struggle, he’s not the one who “saves” her. She saves herself.

The writing is tight and carries the reader along nicely, and there is the requisite stop in an exotic, pastoral destination–in this case the Caribbean island of Martinique; and the sex scenes are spicy and credibly written. In short, it provides all that a romance novel needs to be an entertaining escapist read, and more.


Fighting words

Posted: May 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | 2 Comments »

Image from the Invisible Girl Project http://www.invisiblegirlproject.org/the-problem.html

 

Women’s oppression, he said, was a myth created by the Judeo-Christian West as a tool of capitalism.

I nearly fall on the ground. Maybe I had misunderstood.

But no, there he was, asking if it was wrong for women to wear burqua, and whether or not it had been the oppressive Judeo-Christian Western capitalist complex that had convinced women, say, in Afghanistan, that they should wear anything else. These women had been locked in their traditional lifestyle, which included Sha’ria Law and mandatory burqua, for hundreds of years. Who were we to say they were wrong? What good is an education, anyway? Just to teach them they should buy more things?

Maybe I had read The Kite Runner one too many times. Maybe I had gone to a feminist school and so imbibed the feminist Kool Aid at a young age. Maybe all that university education had warped my mind. But I can’t imagine that anyone would voluntarily choose to be locked in her home, forbidden to leave without a man escorting her. Or that a person would choose to be stoned for talking to a man who wasn’t her husband. Call me crazy.

He argued the same thing I feel: that motherhood is one of the highest callings anyone can follow. We shape lives. What could be more important than that? But then he drifted off point, saying that feminism had poisoned that well for women and motherhood was now despised. I don’t agree that feminism has ruined motherhood as a career; if anything, feminism made women even more oppressed in one key way, in that instead of seeing full-time motherhood as a noble and legitimate career, women are now encouraged or in some ways obliged to seek work outside the home, often in addition to working in the home in all the same traditional ways their own mothers worked a generation ago. There was no corresponding global men’s movement when feminism dawned, and so men still expect women to be the same as they were before feminism, but women don’t want to—or don’t have to. Women still do most of the unpaid work in the home that permits men to be CEOs and artists and bulldozer drivers, but that unpaid work does not count toward the GDP and women’s housework goes unaccounted for. That’s not a construct of the Judeo-Christian Western perspective. It’s a fact.

He countered that men’s oppression is as real as women’s. Yes, it is, I agreed. But let’s not imagine that the two are at all comparable. Women’s oppression is much more pervasive and much more insidious. We were watching a street parade at the moment and he had just observed a young man walking around in only a towel and a lei. Women’s oppression means that if a woman had chosen the same costume, she would be targeted and very likely attacked. I pointed out the difference and he replied, “Yeah, but some women…” I interrupted. Don’t go there, man. Don’t go there. Because he was about to say that some women, by the way they dressed, by the way they carried themselves, were looking to be raped.

One in ten, or as many as one in three women (depends on your country and whose statistics you believe) is the victim of sexual violence. In our country, Trinidad and Tobago, as many as one in three women might be the victim of domestic violence. Yes, men get raped too. Yes, men are victims of domestic violence too. But even with the admitted underreporting of such crimes, men do not suffer sexual or domestic violence nearly as frequently as women. And when women are beaten or raped, they are often blamed for provoking it, as my friend was about to do. As my friend continued to do, saying women started fights with men and then called the police when the men retaliated. And, he went on, who’s to say that rape is the worst kind of pain a person could experience? What about the mental pain of men who—

Rape can be non-violent, it’s true. But it is still physical torture and can be extremely physically violent. A torn vagina, a ruptured anus, an unwanted pregnancy can all result from a rape. Don’t tell me it isn’t all that bad.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a dyed-in-the-wool feminist who cares about women’s oppression. Does he see me as an alarmist? A hysterical, overreacting woman? Does he really think that women don’t have it all that bad? That a man’s circumcision is as bad as female circumcision? That women ask to be beaten and raped? That women’s traditional place is inviolate and that women like me who work outside the home and have careers are just disrupting the natural order? That the number of men killed as soldiers in wars makes up for the number of girls killed in utero and early childhood in places like India and China?

Really?


Celebrating my father

Posted: May 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | 6 Comments »

People ask me why I named The Allen Prize for Young Writers after my dad. Was he a writer? Did he give me special encouragement or support to write? The answer to those questions is complex. No, he wasn’t a writer; he was a welder and entrepreneur. In some ways, yes, he did give support–but not, I think, of my writing; rather, more of my being. My father and I were very, very close. I was his spoiled baby and he was my sun. When he died in 1995 I cried for a day, non-stop, from Edmonton, Canada, to Toronto, to Piarco, as I flew from the city where I was doing an exchange programme in women’s issues to the city where I was born and had lived all my life with him. He gave me a love of reading and gave me typewriters. That would have been enough. But he also left me the money with which I started the NGO that is named after him. For those things, I honour him.

Yesterday The Allen Prize had its first awards ceremony. It took place at the home of one of our board members. The venue was a gorgeous home with a sprawling patio facing a swimming pool, the kind of place my father used to go to to install his massive galvanize water tanks and tank stands, driving his jitney up through their gates in his ever-present Wembley tennis shorts and polo shirt (he had them in all possible colours and wore them daily, rain or shine, to work and at home). I sometimes went with him, sitting around or playing while he and his workers installed the tanks, finding trees to climb as they worked and drank water from the sweating bottles the homeowners would set out for them. Yesterday I looked around at the dozens of people, nicely dressed on padded chrome chairs watching their children getting prizes for writing stories, poems, scenes. I wondered if Daddy would have been proud of the celebration in his name.

I concluded that, yes, he would have been. He might not have understood it, but he would have liked that someone was doing it. He was a man of action and a generous man, but a man of no patience. He would not have been able to sit through an hour-long ceremony but he would have given money towards it if he could, in the same way that he gave money to his neighbourhood for christenings, bazaars, the church–but never went to the things he supported.

When I was little, my father acquired a portable typewriter and a secretary to try to whip his office into shape. The secretary didn’t last very long. (Was it the dust and grime of a muffler shop and water tank manufacturing plant that got to her, or Daddy’s inappropriate behaviour? He was a lech, that one, and even I knew it, even then.) But the typewriter stayed, and I claimed it for my own. A few years later, he took me to Ashe’s on Edward Street in Port-of-Spain to buy me a “new” one. It was a second-hand baby blue SmithCorona Coronet electric, something like this:

http://etsy-vintage.blogspot.com/2011/03/vintage-smith-corona-coronet-electric.html

 

I must have been 11 or 12, because all through Form One I remember typing up stories, poems, plays on it. There was something wrong with the key pressure, so the keys hit the paper too hard and made tiny holes in it. You could hold the pages up to the light and see right through the holes. It was like watching little stars in the night sky.

I wrote all the time and I would run triumphantly through our houses (he lived with his wife in another house…long story, for another post) or his factory looking for someone to read my latest masterpiece to. He always listened. He never criticised them; I don’t know if he understood or even liked them, but he listened, which was enough to keep me writing. When I was old enough to think about going to university, I spent hours poring over material from colleges I’d written for information. I picked a programme and asked if I could go. It was in Santa Barbara. Creative writing. He took days to tell me no. After he died, I found the school’s brochure in his personal documents, with some maths scribbled at the back. I think he would have sent me if he could.

So, no, he wasn’t a writer. But this celebration of young people and their gifts is his legacy to them.

After he died I wrote this poem for him:

 

I still miss you Daddy

your strong, big hands

hard and rough from the iron you welded

holding my small, soft one

your laugh

dragged out deep and gasping

from your solid round belly

your soft curly hair

the stubble of your unshaven cheek

and the sweet musk of Old Spice

of your Sunday evening shave.

I miss your lap

where I used to sit so long ago

twenty years haven’t wiped it

from this mind now cluttered

with other memories

I miss your short pants and jersey

a uniform for you

and the broadsheet papers

you read and read

your big gold signet

RA in raised capitals

so sure of who you were

no other jewellery mattered but that.

When I buried you

I bawled like a baby

your baby

I still am

Daddy

 


Some poems

Posted: May 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’m posting here three poems. The first is a poem I wrote some years ago after my mom died, and which I read at the Bocas Lit Fest Poetry Lime Friday night; the other two are poems that came out of the Bocas poetry writing workshop I did. (Check the previous blog posting for details on that). I’m also putting up, for the workshop poems, the prompts that comprise the material that went into the poems.

 

Once

(For Dolsie)

 

Frail as hope

her wasted body

smells of soap

and soured dreams.

Once she was

much more than this.

Once she kissed

our smooth young faces.

She held us hard

against the world

outside her yard,

kept us safe.

Once she loved.

Once she moved.

 

Merle Collins, who led the workshop on Saturday with Christian Campbell, had the participants write for a minute after being given a prompt, and then we had to take those writings and shape them into a poem. These were my responses to the prompts and the poem that came from them. (It’s not very good, I warn you!)

Stew–stew in your own juices watching that ass slip slide hiccup down the hall oh lord will I never stop stop stop stutter to a halt

Friday–payday just got paid money in my pocket hey hey* (*you recognise this song?) but that is not me hungry when is my friday coming

Mango–sweet and slippery flesh sliding on lips nature is a boss fragrant flesh a gift thank you Jesus his face in every mango

Soft–but soft what light through yonder window breaks the window break? no yuh ass is shakespeare yuh ent ha no culcha or wha

Islands–her eyes were islands drowned in milk open only to what was inside her drowned

Drunk–like his blood eaten like his body consumed by the world that scorned him

Sky–open Irish frizzy hair delight bright smile heart-shaped face shape of her heart

Empty–Fennec on my lap warming my empty womb the son I will never have he answers when I call with a polite mew to say yes? you called?

Sea–me here in you so big and I so small and never could swim too good splash but not hard softer, a lapping more a lapping

From which I constructed:

 

You sea

me there in you

so big

and I, so small

and learning to

swim through

the softly lapping

waves of your hipsway

watching that

ass slip slide

hiccup down

the hall

slippery like

a mango

flesh a fragrant gift

but you

open to only

the islands of

her eyes

what is inside her

 

and me stroking

the kitten on my lap who

warms my empty womb

the son I will

never have

when I call him

he answers

with a polite

questioning

mew

 

I am become

the cat’s mother

she

 

Finally, Christian Campbell’s exercise was to use mimicry–like jazz singers scatting, like a soucouyant taking the shape of an old woman–to shape our poems.

I chose to mimic the form of a radio death announcement.

 

We have been asked

to announce the following death:

Respect, of women

and boundaries,

who dies on every street in town

every day.

The funeral of the late respect

will be held at noon

today

at the rape of your daughter.

No flowers, by request.


My Bocas Lit Fest

Posted: May 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

If the Bocas Lit Fest (Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival) had been held in another country, right now I would be packing, looking for my earrings on the floor behind the sideboard in my hotel room, clearing my non-existent room service charges and being driven to the airport in a shuttle or by a member of the organising committee. As it was, Bocas took place in my country and I just had to get into my car and drive home last night. The feeling at the ending of a great event is the same, though. Bocas left me replete, yet hungry for more.
It ran from Thursday April 28-Sunday May 1. Thursday’s highlight for me was my leading a creative writing workshop for 9-11-year-olds at the National Library in Port-of-Spain, where all the Bocas main events took place. There were 20 boys present, all from Richmond Street Boys’ Standard Three, and their teacher Mr Hercules. I did a quick talk about the basics–every story has a beginning, middle and end, and what is conflict and how it’s used–and then set them on a free writing exercise. I was honoured to be the scribe for a visually impaired boy, Kishon, as he told a wonderfully creative story about a boy reading a book about a wilderness explorer who gets savaged by a wild lion.

 

 

Another Thursday highlight was moderating a reading by two talented authors, Prof Barbara Lalla, and Prof David Chariandy. Prof Lalla is the author of two novels, and she read from her most recent, Cascade. I’ve read it, and it was as puzzling and beautiful as an impressionist painting. Up close it was hard to see the pattern in places, but once I was done and stepped back a bit it was gorgeous, a detailed, breathtaking vision of aging and friendship. Prof Chariandy’s debut book Soucouyant is a shortish novel that has won many plaudits in Canada, where he’s from, and I found it spare and gut wrenching. Having watched my own mother fall to dementia, the main theme of the book, I saw many things in the story that were painfully familiar.
Friday night I read in the Poetry Lime. It was originally supposed to be a poetry crawl, going from bar to bar in Woodbrook, a wonderful entertainment zone in Port-of-Spain, but was changed at the last minute to a lime at the Reader’s Bookshop in St James. While I would have been happy to tramp up Ariapita Ave drinking and reading increasingly slurred poetry, perhaps this worked out better–especially as I had to drive home! I read four poems, three tiny ones on love, and one short one on my mother’s experience with dementia. (I’ll post that poem separately.) It was an excellent, if packed reading. Some of the poets taking part were Phillip Nanton, Lorna Goodison, Tanya Shirley, Mark McWatt, Jane Bryce, Christian Campbell and Merle Collins. I was extremely flattered to have been invited to read in such distinguished company!

 

Jamaican author Marlon James takes in the poetry at the Bocas Lit Fest Poetry LIme

 

Saturday I took part in a poetry workshop with Christian Campbell and Merle Collins. The theme was mimicry and improvisation; participants had to use random prompt words given by Merle to write as much as they could, and then combine those slivers into a whole that, hopefully, would make sense. Christian made us think up a pattern to mimic and write a piece using that structure. It could have been anything. I chose the form of a radio death announcement. (I’ll post those poems separately, too.)
Sunday I was exhausted and so overstimulated I felt I had bees under my skin. I was constantly on the verge of tears and I couldn’t sit still. Thankfully, I had only a couple things planned and I could–and did–spend the day drifting around getting in people’s way after I finished taking part in a workshop on getting published. Now, since I’ve already been published one might say I shouldn’t have gone. But I nevertheless enjoyed the workshop and I thought the facilitators, Margaret Busby (founder of Allison and Busby), Jeremy Poynting (of Peepal Tree Press) and Ken Jaikaransingh (of Lexicon Books), did a terrific job of explaining the process. They gave tips to writers–including on finding an agent, looking for the right publisher, and formatting work for submission.
Oh! and Sunday too was readings from the winning OCM Bocas Prize books, Edwidge Danticat’s Creating Dangerously, Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony, and Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. Tiphanie, who was a contributor to Trinidad Noir and with whom I did a short book tour in NY in 2009, reads beautifully. Her story was about a convict who had been wrongly convicted of a crime he did commit. You’ll have to read the story to see what I mean! Prof Eddie Baugh, a Jamaican scholar and poet who I absolutely adore, read from Walcott’s poetry. His reading of a piece dedicated to Lorna Goodison made me shiver.

 

With Prof Eddie Baugh at a reception hosted by the French Embassy at the close of the Bocas Lit Fest

 

As always at the end of a really exciting and connected literary event I’m exhausted and sad but also invigorated and hopeful because of all the interesting people I’ve met, all I’ve learned and heard, all the books I’ve bought. I got poet Tanya Shirley’s collection She Who Sleeps with Bones, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, ARC Magazine’s second edition, and Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie. Gobbled up Tanya’s book already and want to start on Tiphanie’s any moment now, once I’ve done some of the work I’ve neglected for the past few days!
I’ve put up a zillion photos from the weekend on my FB author page. Check them out and see if you can pick out the world famous Caribbean writers who were there!


Nizam had a point

Posted: April 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

The past couple of weeks have seen the pillorying of Nizam Mohammed, erstwhile chair of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service Commission, culminating in the revocation of his appointment by our nation’s President George Maxwell Richards. Mr Mohammed was effectively fired for saying there were too many black people in the high echelons of the Police Service; he made the statement before a parliamentary Joint Select Committee on March 25, 2011 (this Trinidad Express editorial nicely sums up the whole case and its upshot).

The outcry following Mohammed’s statement about the imbalance was loud and ugly. He was called a racist, even though as he himself reminded the public he had been on the side of Black Power insurgents and long supported racial equality. Now the hue and cry has drowned out his protestations of unbiasedness. There are many factors at play–Mohammed made an ill-advised move earlier in his appointment in a confrontation with two police officers and lost a lot of credibility thereafter, and there was subsequently a national petition to have him removed from office–but surely the bigger picture is that he is right about the imbalance in the Police Service and that it ought to be addressed.

“The relationship between group composition and performance in general is clearly complicated, but from a strictly decision-making perspective, both sides of the debate regarding diversity effects are compatible with the hypothesis that groups often benefit from racial heterogeneity. The extent to which racial diversity facilitates information exchange and problem solving certainly indicates advantages for heterogeneous groups, especially for complex decisions. But even interpersonal conflict— often mentioned as the principal negative result of diversity—may be useful when a group’s primary goal is not boosting morale but rather good and thorough decision making.

[…]

Although equal access and the attempt to remedy historical injustices are important, and many would say noble considerations, the present findings provide evidence for another, often overlooked justification for promoting diversity: In many circumstances, racially diverse groups may be more thorough and competent than homogeneous ones.”

—”On Racial Diversity and Group Decision Making: Identifying Multiple Effects of Racial Composition on Jury Deliberations”

Samuel R Sommers, Tufts University, 2005, Journal of Sociology and Psychology. Source: http://ase.tufts.edu/psychology/documents/pubssommersonracialdiversity.pdf

Anybody who has ever had to manage a group of any size would tell you a diverse group brings different things to the table than a homogenous group.

Members of a homogenous group, such as the upper ranks of the Police Service largely is, think similarly on problems in many cases. Shared ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago means that, class notwithstanding, the roots and leaves will be similar among the officers. One cannot effectively police a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious society with only black police when more than half the society is not black. (Although, as one Facebook denizen recently implied, voicing an opinion shared by many, if you got rid of all the black people in Trinidad and Tobago crime would vanish, so, by that logic, if all the criminals are black then maybe all the police should be black, too.)

Whether or not we would admit it, racialism is strong and vibrant in our country. Pretending that “all ah we is one famalayyyy”, in the immortal words of Lord Nelson, will not make the problem go away. We all know the stereotypes:- White people are rich and snobbish; Syrian and Lebanese people are corrupt and incestuous; Indians are stingy and racist; black people are lazy and criminals; Chinese are cheap and have small penises/sideways vaginas. All ah we might be one famalayyyy but I wouldn’t want to be there when the gloves come off after that reunion dinner.

Policing is not merely solving crime. It is preventing criminal activity and relating to a community. How can the police do that when they, at the very least, can’t well understand more than half the society? When they fear, despise or resent the “other”?

Making the Police Service more racially balanced, at all levels, is not the job of the Parliament, it is true. But whoever has responsibility for it now is not doing his job. Perhaps we ought to mandate quotas to ensure more equitable representation of all races in the public service–and put measures in place to protect civil servants from the racial purging that takes place every time a different government comes into power.