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Beyond the SEA

Posted: March 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

My younger daughter just sat the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). The exam, which used to be called the Common Entrance, is the be all and end all of every Trinidadian and Tobagonian child’s primary school career. All seven years of primary school lead up to SEA; it determines what secondary school you’ll attend, and by default, if you succeed in school or not.

That’s a pretty harsh and extreme position, you might say. Well, it’s not. While anybody can succeed in life given the right tools and encouragement, the average secondary school child in this country isn’t given either. Most go through the system like a dose of salts, as one aspiring education minister unfortunately said on the hustings during the last election. This year about 17,000 students sat the exam, which starts at 9 am and ends at 12.30 pm and covers English grammar, creative writing and mathematics. Of those thousands, about two or three thousand will end up in schools their parents consider “good”–either the denominational schools that by and large top the secondary school scholarship lists every year, or a well regarded government school, of which there are a handful. Each of these schools takes in about 120-150 students, tops. What happens to the rest of students?

The government some years ago instituted a rule that no child would fail the SEA outright. Instead, the lowest scoring pupils who sat the exam would either return to primary school for another–and another, and another, if necessary–chance to sit it. Those who aged out would go on to government secondary schools with remedial curricula. Those who sat and passed with better scores would go to mainstream or tech/voc government schools. The government also paid for places for students in private secondary schools. All children now go to secondary school. But it remains an unfortunate truth that the majority of those innocents who sat SEA Tuesday will not have the secondary schooling they deserve.

Overcrowded classes, understaffed schools, a curriculum that does not seem to meet their needs, and lack of parental input conspire to leave many of our youths still at sea when they go to secondary school.

As for my child, The Lady, I hope she passes for my alma mater, Bishop Anstey High School. If she doesn’t, I will send her to whatever school she passes for, support, guide and love her and hope for the best. Your schooling is not the sum of your education.

But maybe I get ahead of myself. The results don’t come out for another three months, so she has a nice break from academia–she had lessons before and after school, Saturdays and all through the holidays. She gets a break from hours of homework every single night and the horrible pressure of knowing this was the biggest exam she has ever had to do in her nearly 11 years. And I get to sleep late again. Until she starts Form One, anyway.


Enter the Bocas

Posted: March 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

(My apologies for the somewhat lame pun on the movie title Enter the Dragon, as the Bocas Lit Fest, which is the subject of this post, is named after the Dragon’s Mouth, a narrow channel through which ships pass to sail to Port-of-Spain.)

I rather like book fairs and literary festivals. The first one I ever went to was Calabash, the now-defunct Caribbean literary festival held in Treasure Beach, Jamaica. I went in 2006 and there talked my way into the good graces of my first publisher, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. He was innocently walking the idyllic grounds of Jake’s, the hotel which hosted Calabash for its ten years of existence, when I pounced on him and thrust upon him copies of the manuscripts I was flogging at the time. He took it in stride but I never thought I’d hear from him again, as all my other interactions with publishers and agents had gone poorly before. To my complete surprise he actually read them and emailed me… we met up eventually and Trinidad Noir was born.

So you can see why I would have a soft spot for literary festivals. What about book fairs, though?

My first major book fair was the Miami Book Fair International, an annual emporium of literary delights sprawling across the campus of Miami Dade College in Florida. It’s staged annually by a board led by that Florida literary powerhouse Mitch Kaplan, who owns the delicious Books & Books chain of bookstores in Coral Gables and the Cayman Islands, among other locations. “Book fair” is a kind of misnomer because the eight-day event includes not just book sales in a street fair but workshops, seminars, readings and parties.

 

Trinidad Noir contributor Elizabeth Nunez reading her story at the Miami Book Fair International, 2009

 

 

 

Trinidad Noir was featured in one session in 2009 and, apart from getting to read at that event and sell and sign books, I went to a couple of great parties tagging on the coattails of Johnny and his co-publisher Johanna Ingalls. From what I remember of the parties, they were great. (Don’t tell my kids I said that.)

 

Lisa Allen-Agostini with Mitchell Kaplan at the Miami Book Fair International wrap party, South Beach, 2009

All of that was a very long aside to say that Trinidad and Tobago’s first literary festival had its press launch on Tuesday at the National Library. The Library will host most of the events in the festival, and I can’t wait to prowl through what I imagine will be stalls and stalls of tasty books with even tastier discounts, listen to readings and generally schmooze with authors and other bibliophiles. The schedule looks pretty great, so much so that it’s impossible for me to pick out what I’m most looking forward to. Is it the Lovelace reading? Or perhaps it’s the prose fiction session with Marlon James and Mark McWatt? Maybe it’s the poetry vibesing with Christian Campbell and Merle Collins? Or is it the children’s sessions scattered generously throughout the four days of the festival? So many yummy treats. One thing is sure: don’t call me between April 28-May 1… I’ll be very busy at Bocas.


Blast from the (video) past

Posted: March 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Was talking to a researcher today and recalled this video. Thought I’d post it again for those who missed it the first time. It’s a pretty wide-ranging interview–books, poetry, parenting and Facebook…

indigroove interview with Lisa Allen-Agostini


Workshops… or Killing the Babies

Posted: March 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

http://www.flickr.com/photos/wikidave/

Yesterday I was privileged to be in a writing workshop led by Monique Roffey, the UK-Trini writer author of Sun Dog and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. There were six writers in attendance, almost all published and some of them award winners. We each had submitted stories for the workshop. A writing workshop involves reading and constructive criticism, so one has to walk with metaphorical tissues and/or very thick skin–many of us writers get attached to every single word we have written and hearing those words described in anything but glowing terms is like having a burning stick shoved into our guts.

My story was first at bat. Ignoring the suspicion that it was chosen to go first because it was the worst of the six stories to be workshopped, I read it and sat back biting my tongue waiting for the critique. My story was called “The Magical Negro Speaks”. It came out of my reading this essay by Nnedi Okrafor examining the trope of the magical negro, a black character who comes into a story just to enable some magical change in a white character. I wanted to write a story from the magical negro’s perspective, because the trope usually comes from the white character’s perspective.

My opening paragraph was one of my favourite parts of the story:

“He used to say I came into his life like a force of nature: I was the tsunami to his Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina to his levees. Of course, by the time the earthquake was over and Port Royal was under the Caribbean Sea a legend was born. But you can’t live in a legend. You might look back on it with awe at the destruction and maybe regret for what once had been; you might moralise about why so much had to be lost. But you can’t hold it and marry it and make babies with it. That’s not what happens after a force of nature hits you. Basically, you sweep up the water when the floods subside, bury your dead and move the hell on.”

But the verdict of the workshop was that my beloved paragraph was unsuccessful. It set up an expectation that wasn’t fulfilled and basically seemed like a part of another story. Hearing this sorta broke my heart. I knew the story had problems, and I knew it was unfinished, but I loved that first paragraph and the way it set up the story’s resolution. To realise that, of six sophisticated readers, not one of them got that… it was painful. But such exercises—which a journalist I met a long time ago, Jonathan Friendly, called “killing the babies”—are like a purifying fire. You burn off the trash and what is left is pure, unalloyed. Even if the trash is your favourite paragraph.

I still have to finish the story. By “finish”, I mean rewrite. The workshop was really helpful and I’ll take on board the tips I got and questions the critics posed in reworking it. And who knows? Maybe I can use my baby, that paragraph I love so, in some other story… reincarnation?


Because I want to, because I can

Posted: March 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

I had a tempestuous relationship with my mother for most of my life, possibly because I didn’t understand anything but my own needs and desires and had no patience with anyone else’s, but when that was over we were great friends up until she got senile dementia. I lost her in 2004. I remember her as a flirt, a practical woman who knew how to cook and how to beat children, a voracious reader, a loving mother who did the best she could. She always said she preferred boys to books and that is how she came out with three A’s and six O’s (one son named Abraham, a son and daughter named Allen, and six children named Ollivierre); she had no passes and no qualifications of any kind but managed to find ways to feed and clothe us all, even if it meant leaving some of us for her own mother to mind.

Barbara Jenkins has written a wonderful story about her own mother’s struggles to make ends meet and what she learned from her mother; I don’t mean to repeat that in this post. The reason I’m writing this is because Miss Thing, my eldest, said to me today that she is slightly afraid that once she turns 18 in two months I will stop doing all the things I do for her. Miss Thing is spoiled, to some extent. I drive her around, buy her the things she needs and some of the things she wants, listen to her, talk to her, do her hair, give her tips on makeup and clothes, and generally make myself available to her as much as she needs (even if it’s not necessarily as much as she wants all the time). Parenting like I do it can be exhausting, physically and emotionally, and I think she now recognises that. Turning 18 might mean, she thought, that I wouldn’t have to do any of those things for her anymore.

Well, the truth is that I’m not legally obliged to do most of those things for her even now. I do them because I want to, and because I can. My own mother stopped taking me shopping when I was barely a teen; I was given money and sent on my way to do what I wanted or had to with it. Our contentious relationship meant we were not confidants–far from it. My mother was the last person I would talk to about anything, small or large. All my big decisions–what to study, whether to marry, what to do with my life–I made on my own or with the input of my siblings, boyfriend or friends. In fact, my mother actively resisted being drawn into my life: when I was a teen and downed a bottle of Tylenol in a melodramatic attempt to end it all, it was my boyfriend who held my hand while I was wracked with stomach pains and despair. My mother refused to take me to the hospital and we never discussed it again.

While I’m not blind to her faults, neither am I consumed with bitterness over my childhood with her. She did the best she could with the resources she had and so do I; but what I do for Miss Thing and her sister The Lady is a direct consequence of the childhood I had. For every taxi I had to take alone at any hour of the day or night, I drive the girls to their destinations and pick them back up or arrange for them to be picked up. For every pair of shoes or panties I had to pick out myself, I go with them to buy theirs. For each decision I had to puzzle through on my own, I give them the tools and advice to make the best choices they can. For each dodgy character I befriended and *shudder* dated, I vet their choices of friends in subtle and sometimes obvious ways. I want them to be independent and powerful women, but I don’t think they need to learn those skills the hard way, as I did.

I loved my mother and cherish her memory, but I am not my mother. I hope my daughters one day look back at their childhood and say, “She did the best she could with the resources she had and she did a damn good job.”


Carnival Monday

Posted: March 7th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | No Comments »

The story really starts 17 years ago. I was just 20 with my first child still breastfeeding but it was Carnival… I wanted to go to UWI Splash, the biggest party that year for young adults. Since I couldn’t get a babysitter, I had to stay home. I cried. And cried. And… yes, cried some more. You see, Carnival is the best part of the year for me. Give me a mud mas and a truck to follow and I am so there. I love to be in a fete for Carnival, sneakers on my feet and my waist loose like melting butter, more wotless than Kees could ever imagine. So to miss that fete was agony. But I got over it.

Still, I’m a Carnival person. So why am I home on Carnival Monday blogging when I should be out wining on the streets of Port-of-Spain? I didn’t feel the desperate need to lose my mind in the dark in jouvert this year. Is that another sign I’m getting old? Or was it the lingering tiredness from going out to fete twice last week? More signs of aging? My body and my mind telling me to conserve my resources, perhaps? Saving myself for Tuesday mas and the longest trek from Woodbrook to Town to the Savannah stage? Picking my battles?

Hopefully, by next jouvert I’ll figure it out, or at least go on Centrum Silver and have the energy and the inclination to take a wine.


Stealing the show

Posted: March 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , | 17 Comments »

Machel Montano did not deserve to win Soca Monarch. There, I’ve said it. Go ahead and hate me.

Or love me. Because to the majority of the untold thousands in the Hasley Crawford National Stadium in Port-of-Spain last night, Iwer George was the clear winner. He had them under his spell with his jumbie song Come To Meh, and they loved it, from general to VVIP (more on that fiasco later), moving as one at his command. There was nothing really to fault in his performance; it’s not a great song but in Iwer’s hands it becomes one, and he sang it cleanly, throwing in a new verse (I refuse to say “freestyled” because he’s had ages to practice), with a relevant stage production. But it was the crowd reaction that should have cinched it.

Machel’s song is my favourite for Road March, it being timely and rather catchy, and it having a sweet, haunting melody, as I discovered when a jazz musician I know, Michael Low Chew Tung, slowed down the melody and played it in piano tones. But let’s be clear, folks. Machel’s performance, while technically correct and dramatically on, with his own new verses that drove some members of the audience wild, did not move the whole stadium the way Iwer’s did. (I would also like to state here that Machel should be ashamed for his anti-woman and insulting verse on Fay Ann and Bunji; it have picong and it have picong, hoss… that was LOW. But then again, we have the tradition of Madam Dracula. But then again, that was in another time, wasn’t it.) In fact, as my friend Tillah Willah pointed out on her Facebook page, a good part of the crowd was actually chanting “IWER” during Machel’s performance.

The crowd said with one hoarse, out-of-breath voice, “Iwer!” And the judges should have listened. People are talking about a conspiracy and I’m not surprised. There’s only one way Machel Montano would give up a long and presumably once-permanent ban on entering Soca Monarch: he was sure he would win.

Now to VIP and VVIP. I’ve gone to Soca Monarch lots of times, always in general admission. For a low price I could see all the big acts, hear all the big songs and have a great time among people who are there to sing, dance and dingolay. There are adequate portapotties, the food court is well supplied and the bars in the past few years have been plentiful and well-stocked, with great service. The year general admission was also all-inclusive, the food was fine and I didn’t have to line up at all.

This year a friend of mine payed for us to go to VIP. VIP tickets were $450 and promised free food. The drinks you had to buy. Well, we tried but got neither. There was no food by midnight, as I discovered after lining up behind about 40 other people when I arrived. Since the show started 9.30pm and ended somewhere around 6am, that is not acceptable. Worse than that, the bar ran out of vodka, red rum, Malta, water and even ICE! We stood by the bar for nearly an hour waiting to be served, shouting ourselves hoarse (actually, that was just me after the first 45 minutes of waiting patiently). As I sipped my consolatory lukewarm beer, a man I know came up, muttering, “William Munro know how to make money, boy.” He added, “He shoulda just put a gun to people head and say, ‘Gimme yuh money.'”

The stadium was so crowded the show had to be stopped several times to ask patrons to move into the stands as the field was dangerously overcrowded. Up in VIP we had our own overcrowding issues, worst of all at the ladies’ washrooms where there were six filthy, flooded, paperless, soapless stalls for what was surely a couple thousand people. I later overheard a lady talking about the VVIP washrooms and shot there like a bullet. There were only three stalls, but beautifully appointed with soap, toilet paper, papertowels and even hand sanitiser.

This VIP bathroon fiasco is in comparison to the VIP portapotties I saw at another fete (Customs Boys, thanks to a bligh from Sterling!) on Wednesday. Those were luxurious and well-maintained. There were no portapotties I could see in VIP at Soca Monarch, but there were ranks and ranks of them (no pun intended though they were, indeed, stinky smellying as portapotties are as a rule) outside in the common area.

Speaking of the common area, which was on the road ringing the stadium, here the lines were short and brisk, the food was plentiful, and they even had water. I feel sorry that my friend spent $450 for what he could have got for less in general admission: the chance to see the show and buy your own food.

Judging from the loud complaints that sang in my ears from my fellow patrons as we streamed out of VIP after Machel’s performance, it was actually William Munro who stole the show.


Eyes on the Prize

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Bocas Lit Fest has announced its longlist for its inaugural prize. Walcott’s White Egrets and Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa are both in the running, alongside works by Kei Miller and Tiphanie Yanique, two up-and-coming writers from the region.

I’m glad that Kei and Tiphanie are on that list alongside such as Walcott and Naipaul. It shows that those writers, both of whom are members of my generation, are capable of taking on giants with their work. Neither is a “new” writer, each having been published before (although this is Yanique’s first novel she has published her short stories and won prizes and acclaim for them); but neither has yet achieved the renown of Walcott and Naipaul.

I’ve heard commentators say the Bocas Prize should have been more open to unknown writers; I’ve also heard them say Walcott and Naipaul don’t need the money, so why should they be given the chance to compete for the prize? I beg to differ on both points.

There are developmental prizes for unknown writers but from the way Bocas has set up its prize I don’t think this is one of them. The criteria for judging a prize is necessarily an internal matter–it is up to those who give it to decide what criteria they are going to use to judge, and who is eligible. I see nothing wrong in seeking work by all regional writers, regardless of their status, and judging them by the standard of excellence. It is the right of the Bocas organisers to open their prize to previously published writers, even if such works submitted might be perceived to have an “unfair” advantage because their writers have more experience. As to the need of the writers, anybody who has had to live by his pen would tell you it’s a hard row to hoe at any stage in one’s career, the JK Rowlings and Arundhati Roys being in the minority and small, irregular paychecks being by far the norm for professional writers. I would not begrudge anyone that prize money. They have worked hard at their craft and I am glad for them. May the best writer win.


An experiment in -isms

Posted: February 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A young woman I know did an interesting experiment using her Facebook page. She posted the following status:

“I dislike black people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me w/e, i real doh care.. I see being black as horribly wrong. :)”

(Translation for those over 35 or those who don’t speak Young Adult Trini English: “I dislike black people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me whatever, I really don’t care. I see being black as horribly wrong.”)

There was a firestorm of comments following the post, most of them expressing shock and disbelief at the statement by the teen, who is herself half black and living in Trinidad, a country where almost 40 percent of the population is black. The comments ranged from: “How can u dislike someone based solely on their skin colour? I think u need to check urself” to “Being black is a silly thing to hate someone for; if you hate lazy people (or ignorant ppl) for example, there’s some feasibility there cuz it’s their fault their lazy…contrarily, complexion is just a characteristic like gender or what kind of food you like..hardly an excuse for prejudice..”

Fifty-eight comments later, she wrote in another status:

“Dear people freaking out about my status. Thanks for helping with my experiment. I would have loved to have kept this up but (name of her friend) said to stop. I was simply curious after a friend put up a similar status: ‘I dislike homosexual people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me w/e, i real doh care.. I see being gay as horribly wrong.’.Tons of LIKES. zero comments.”

And they say young people have no direction? Bravo to this young woman for standing up for what she believes in; hopefully those who (unwittingly) participated in the experiment learned something about prejudice and oppression.


About those gay rights

Posted: February 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | 3 Comments »

I’ve been trying to explain to some people what the big fuss is over gay rights in Trinidad and Tobago. They don’t understand how or why people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) have been singled out by the law and why that matters. LGBT rights are human rights, folks, and here’s a little bit of how the T&T government has denied LGBT people those rights.

The Equal Opportunity Act of 2000 enshrines the right of our citizens to be afforded protection and redress in cases of discrimination on the basis of “status”. As the act explicitly states:

“‘status’ in relation to a person, means—
(a) the sex;
(b) the race;
(c) the ethnicity;
(d) the origin, including geographical
origin;
(e) the religion;
(f) the marital status; or
(g) any disability of that person.”

The Act explicitly rules out “sex” meaning sexual orientation; ie, someone went out of his way to exclude LGBT people from the protections of the act.

The Act defines victimisation and discrimination:

“A person (“the discriminator”) discriminates by
victimisation against another person (“the person
victimised”) in any circumstances relevant for the
purposes of any provision of this Act if he treats the
person victimised less favourably than in those
circumstances he treats or would treat other persons
(my italics)
and does so by reason that the person victimised has—
(a) brought proceedings against the discriminator
or any other person under this
Act, or any relevant law;
(b) given evidence or information in connection
with proceedings brought by any person
against the discriminator or any other
person under this Act, or any relevant law;
(c) otherwise done anything under or by
reference to this Act, or any relevant law, in
relation to the discriminator or any other
person; or
(d) alleged that the discriminator or any other
person has committed an act, which
(whether or not the allegation so states)
would amount to a contravention of this
Act, or any relevant law,
or by reason that the discriminator knows the person
victimised intends to do any of those things referred to
in paragraphs (a) to (d), or suspects the person
victimised has done, or intends to do, any of them.”

The Act continues:

“A person shall not otherwise than in private, do
any act which—
(a) is reasonably likely, in all the
circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate
or intimidate another person or a group of
persons
(my italics);
(b) is done because of the gender, race,
ethnicity, origin or religion of the other
person or of some or all of the persons
in the group; and
(c) which is done with the intention of inciting
gender, racial or religious hatred.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), an act is
taken not to be done in private if it—
(a) cause words, sounds, images or writing to
be communicated to the public;
(b) is done is public place;
(c) is done in the sight and hearing of persons
who are in a public place.

(3) This section does not apply to acts committed in a place of public worship.
(4) In this section—
“public place” includes any place to which the
public have access as of right or by
invitation, whether express or implied and
whether or not a charge is made for
admission to the place.”

It outlines the kinds of discrimination to which LGBT people are routinely exposed, every single day, at every level of society. The cases that make the papers–like that of the boys who were caught on video last year having oral sex at a prestige school and were threatened with beatings and death by their peers–are the tip of the iceberg. There is nothing in the law that stops the harassment, firing, denial of access to children etc of LGBT people in T&T. There are, in fact, laws that make it illegal for men to have sex with men and women to have sex with women; gay people are legally prohibited from entering the country; there is nothing in the law that recognises a same-sex cohabitational relationship (common law marriage) or grants people in such relationships the benefits and rights normal couples expect to enjoy.

How is that your (straight) problem? Well, think about it this way: substitute “black” or “Indian” or “female” or “handicapped” in this sentence and see if you find it offensive:

“I will beat they (insert term here) mudda-ass if they come round me.” What do LGBT people hear in maxis, from pulpits, on the radio, even in Parliament, all the time? Yes, the term is often “bulling” or “lesbian” or whatever homophobic slur is in vogue.

It is always open season on LGBT people in Trinidad and Tobago. In spite of this, there are LGBT teachers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, parliamentarians, lawyers, judges, clerks, clergy, students… you name it, LGBT people do it, because they are living their lives. All they ask is that they be allowed to live those lives with the full protection of the law, and the same rights that anybody else in Trinidad and Tobago has.