Pat Bishop. Photo from: The Trinidad and Tobago Web directory
Pat Bishop’s passing leaves a hole in us. Not just the Trinidad and Tobago visual arts community, of which she was a significant part as a painter, or Despers, the venerable steelband with which she worked, or the Lydians, the magnificent choir which she directed from 1987 until her death on August 20, 2011. The work she did and the direction she articulated for our national and cultural identity is irreplaceable. It sounds trite but the lady was really a national treasure and we are the poorer for her passing.
At the memorial for her on August 28 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, I cried and cried. Not just in sympathy for my friends who are members of the Lydians but for myself that I didn’t have the courage while she lived to spend more time with her instead of holding up that silly veil of some kind of separation between journalist and subject—after all, I had in the past been called upon and could conceivably be called upon again to cover her work or canvass her views on something, anything. What contact I had had with her was professional, not personal, and I always left our interviews with a feeling that I had only glimpsed her creative genius and her understanding of us as Trinidadians.
Consider this unpublished statement she made in a 2007 interview I did with her for Caribbean Beat on her work as director of the Carnival Institute: “If we are not to get to Darfur it is important that we collect and show the various public art processes and what they say about ourselves.” As we enter the third week of the State of Emergency in Trinidad and Tobago don’t those words seem prophetic?
And this, from the same interview: “I have all sorts of fantasies. I have in my head a flock of robot corbeaux—they will have beak caps and radar—and an encounter between the King Douen and Spongebob.
“The only way our children are going to find their place in the sun is to know who they are and to get on to the information superhighway. If I did my cartoons of Mama D’glo combing her hair, Yugioh would fall in love with her. They would know they are part of the world and not just someone that must say ‘Yes, master’ to Miami and survive on barrels from that part of the world.”
I was disappointed, to say the least, at the remarks made by Bhoe Tewarie at the memorial. Dr Tewarie, in his capacity as Minister of Planning, Economic and Social Restructuring and Gender Affairs, was one of the last people to see her alive, as he had hosted the meeting at which she collapsed, never to recover, on August 20. He talked at the memorial about the young Pat Bishop’s desire to be seen yet he failed to mention that the better part of her career as historian, musicologist and cultural researcher was far more devoted to looking than being seen. Not “look me,” but “look we” was what she in her latter work was all about. More than anywhere else, you could hear it in the magical way she fused tassa, African drums and steelpan with European Baroque tradition in her epic signature piece the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah as performed by Despers and the Lydians and Malick Tassa Drummers at the very memorial service.
It was this that stuck in my throat: rage. The government would make sure that Pat’s work was remembered, he said; but I somehow got the impression that it was the works themselves and not her intention that the government would celebrate. Pat Bishop was an artist’s artist, and even greater than her desire for making her own work visible was her passion for protecting our arts and fostering their growth, probing them for an understanding of our national possibility and potential. Dr Tewarie, in addition to your tributes and a retrospective exhibition or whatever is planned to memorialize Pat Bishop, why not found a National Arts Council that would give significant and transparent grants to the arts in this country? Would that not be the better way to celebrate her legacy? Wouldn’t she be glad to know that some artist here, digging in the rich soil that is our cultural heritage, would have it that much easier? That our arts could be as respectable and comparatively well funded as any? That the hardscrabble life lived by some artist could be a little easier for it?
My friend writer Barbara Jenkins, who writes for the Lydians, eulogized Pat Bishop in a note published in the programme for Winterreise, the show Pat was directing at her death. With Barbara’s permission I’ve republished her words here. I wonder if Dr Tewarie will read them and I wonder if he will then understand.
A Winter Journey of the Soul
Do not go gentle into that good night…
…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Pat Bishop died on Saturday 20th August 2011. She had been working on this Winterreise concert when she died. As was her way, she was also working on a collection of paintings, She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore. For Pat, one creative activity inspired another, even segued into another. She could never do just one thing at a time when she was on fire; she had to find outlets everywhere or be consumed by her own energy, go into meltdown. This time, as she completed both – preparing for the concert and putting the last brushstroke on the last painting – she did self-combust.
I would venture that it was not the strain of the work she did do, that killed Pat Bishop – she was tireless with the choir, the steel, the painting, the teaching, the guiding, the writing, the thinking. These gave challenge, gave hope, gave reward in lifting the spirit, her own and those she worked with. It was the stress of what she did not do, could not do, that broke her.
More than anyone, I think, Pat recognised how lucky we are to have found ourselves here, in this miraculous space that is Trinidad and Tobago. How lucky we are to have arrived here with the gifts of intelligence, creativity and endurance and the blessed serendipity of being thrown together to share and fuse and mix and blend and make newer, better, more original creations, of people, of things. A people who, musical illiterates in the conventional sense, could take industrial waste, an empty oil drum, use heat and hammer, and create a musical instrument. A people who, colonised and coloniser, enslaved and slave-owner, plantation overseen and overseer, heated together in this crucible, could emerge as us! Look at we! Just look at we! Yes, WE the subject, not the object.
How many times must you say to a national community; how many times must you say to the corporate world; how many times must you say to ministers and governments of how many regimes, that the wealth of a nation is the people, their creativity, their natural born gifts, their talents? Not just say, not just talk, speechify, posture, but show by example, demonstrate by unceasing labour, by walking the walk, barefoot over beds of nails, through coals of fire, decade after decade after decade?
Say over and over and over, that our wealth, the treasure of our human capital, is inexhaustible, renewable, sustainable – the only long-term capital that this country possesses, the only investment worth while, the only thing that could, would, last beyond all other wealth. That this wealth must be recognised, nurtured, developed, cherished, rewarded?
That all else is ephemeral, all else, dross?
It was while she was called upon to say it one more time that the fragile clay vessel that housed her soul broke beyond repair and Pat Bishop died.
Pat had been going through A Winter Journey of the Soul for a long, long time. She had been soldiering on, putting the last of her energies into what she could do, while still hoping to persuade others, the powers-that-be, that the key to this country’s salvation lies, not in physical structures, but in empowering institutions; not in consumerism, but in conservation; not in $GDP, but in human GDP – Greatest Development of all People, ALL people – through their myriad talents, their boundless creativity. And she died, while saying so, one last time.
The latest issue of Caribbean Beat magazine features an interview I did with USVI writer Tiphanie Yanique. You can read it here. I’ve already written a bit about Tiphanie on this blog here, but it’s worth repeating that she’s a gifted writer and I’ve been privileged to do a little book tour with her in NY a few years ago. I know she’s going to be an even bigger name in Caribbean literature as the years roll on and I’m pleased to have my name next to hers in Trinidad Noir, to which she contributed a story that appears in another version in her prize-winning book How to Escape from a Leper Colony. Write on, Tiphanie!
It’s exciting to see that a group of artistes has been drawn together to do a tribute concert to the late, great Andre Tanker. Andre Tanker, if you don’t know, was a Trinidadian musician, singer, songwriter and bandleader who pioneered a world-music sound here. His career spanned decades and he kept re-inventing himself, from his beginnings as a musician learning to play pan under Invaders’ Ellie Mannette, to being a bandleader in the ballroom dancing scene of the 50s, to creating reggae-jazz-Afrobeat influenced black power anthems in the 70s, to collaborations with rapso and rock bands in the 90s and Naughties. He passed away in 2003.
In a lot of ways, Andre Tanker played the soundtrack to my life. I grew up hearing the feral beat of his drum-driven track (from the the movie Bim, which he scored) as the theme music to the Best Village arts and culture shows on TTT. I didn’t even know he’d written it, and it was only, decades later, after he had died, that I discovered that distinctive “dou-dou-dou-doum, dou-dou-dou-doum” was the soundtrack to a young Ralph Maharaj’s Bim thrashing through the forest in flight in that seminal movie made in Trinidad and Tobago. After that beat, there was always, and will always be, “Sayamanda”, a song about home and community that makes me cry every time. And “Hosannah”, a joyful prayer song that was sung at Andre’s funeral. And “Basement Party”, the most soulful groove any Trini ever ruefully shook his head to in a New York lime. It was his lyrical mastery that got me most–he could paint a whole world in a few deft words. But it was also, certainly, his music, that crafty, grounded, world-embracing way he had of shaping a groove. The downbeat drag of “Basement Party”, daring you not to wine; the pure sweetness of heartbreak of “Morena Osha”. I don’t know what Andre Tanker couldn’t do. He made music that still makes me shiver.
He was also a sweet, sweet guy. A perfectionist, I thought, but also perceptive and human. One of my regrets in life is that the last occasion on which I spent any significant time with him I promised I would pursue my songwriting, and I haven’t. I guess I still have a chance to rectify that and eliminate the regrets. Who knows. But if I ever have a songwriting career you can thank (or blame) Andre Tanker.
I don’t know if anybody can get Andre Tanker’s music as exactly right as he could. But I’m willing to bet that with the cast of this show, they’ll have a mighty good shot.
SAYAMANDA … with Andre in Mind, takes place at 8.30 pm, September 24, 2011, at Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s. Produced by Golden Chord Management and Foreday Mornin’ Entertainment.
Featuring: Ruth Osman, Vaughnette Bigford, Michele Henderson, Nigel Rojas and others, accompanied by musicians Ron Reid, Theron Shaw, Harvey Wirht and others. Tickets are $250 and part proceeds go to The Andre Tanker Heritage Fund.
Got this press release from the show’s organisers; it seems the show has been indefinitely postponed. Bummer. I was really looking forward to it. Hopefully it will be staged soon.
It is with much regret that Golden Chord Management and Foreday Mornin’ Entertainment announce the postponement of Sayamanda … with André in mind, a concert conceptualized to celebrate the music and legacy ofAndré Tanker, one of our country’s finest musicians.Sayamanda was originally carded for Republic Day September 24, 2011 at Queen’s Hall.
After considered thought, we decided to re-schedule the concert to a date to be determined due to the current state of emergency and curfew restrictions initiated by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.
We, the principals of Golden Chord Management and Foreday Mornin’ Entertainment remain undaunted by the unfortunate turn of events and will continue to seek innovative ways to pay respect to our outstanding musical and cultural icons.
We assure our supporters and well-wishers that we will continue to provide fitting forums for the exploration of local arts and entertainment, despite the obstacles that arise from time to time.
Thank you for your support and we encourage you to keep supporting the arts.
My younger daughter, The Lady, announced some time ago that she wants to be an inventor. I am not sure where she got the idea but she has been consistently coming up with inventions since then, some zany and some really practical. (If I told you what they were it would be copyright infringement. Sorry.) I’ve always encouraged both my girls to love science as well as the arts and humanities. We have books on biology, physics and general science all through the house and there’s a couple of science kits floating around the house, so it’s not completely out of the blue, but there aren’t really a lot of role models for her, especially in the Caribbean, and most of my friends are artists and writers, with the exception of her godmother, who is a petroleum engineer. That’s why I was so excited this week to hear from a friend of mine that a Trinidad-and-Tobago-born scientist was coming here for a visit.
The scientist is Camille Waldrop Alleyne, and she went to Mucurapo Girls’ RC, The Lady’s alma mater, and St Francois Girls’ College, the school for which The Lady passed in this year’s SEA. The bio sent to me by NIHERST, the organisation hosting her visit, is tremendously exciting:
“For the past 15 years, Camille Wardrop Alleyne has been dedicated to the advancement of aerospace and space technology. She is currently Assistant Program Scientist for the International Space Station (ISS), based at the NASA–Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, with responsibility for communicating the ISS’ scientific research and education programmes to stakeholders and the public.”
Wow! I couldn’t ask for a more tailor-made role model for The Lady.
A little background: because her elder sister Miss Thing and I both went to Bishop Anstey High School, The Lady was disappointed to have passed for St Francois. I didn’t share her feeling; I was over the moon. St Francois, a government secondary school, is a very sound educational institution with a brilliant track record and I’ve heard nothing but good things about them for the past few years. I hope that, as a business magnet school, they will understand The Lady’s forceful temperament and know how best to shape that bold spirit so that she is a leader and unafraid of her power while still compassionate and human. I think this is where she is meant to be and I intend to do everything I can to support her and her school as long as she needs me to. And that includes bigging up a St Francois alum!
While The Lady won’t be at the lecture because she’s visiting family abroad on a well-deserved holiday, I hope to go and make copious notes. If she wants to be a scientist, I have her back.
Here’s the flyer for Camille Waldrop Alleyne’s lecture. Here’s hoping other little girls and boys from T&T can get inspiration and guidance from her too.
Got this press release on Joanne Kilgour-Dowdy’s new book, which she’s launching next week in POS. She’s a heroic artist and teacher and always fascinating.
Joanne Kilgour Dowdy launches new book at NALIS
Celebrated Trinidad born arts practitioner and educator Joanne Kilgour-Dowdy will launch her latest book Artful Stories: The Teacher, the Student and the Muse on Friday August 5, at NALIS in Port of Spain.
The book is an exploration of the role of the artist as teacher and relationship that evolves between the teacher and the student in the creation of new work, whether it is lighting design, drama, dance, or music.
Kilgour-Dowdy left Trinidad in the eighties to study drama at the Boston Conservatory of Music, Dance, and Drama with the support of Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott and then moved on to the Julliard School in New York. She continued her formal performance career which is carefully and poignantly documented in her photo autobiography ‘In the Public Eye’, which she also launched in Trinidad in 2010.
Professor Dowdy believes that she “must come to Trinidad to share every new book. Just like we introduce our new children to their family at home, I must bring my labours of love to my home island so people can meet their new relatives.”
In addition to a love for the stage, Kilgour Dowdy also has research interests in women and literacy, drama in education and video technology and qualitative research instruction. She has published her findings of the experiences of Black women involved in education from adult basic literacy to higher education.
Artful Stories, as described in the Foreword by Kent State University Professor William Kist, debunks the myth of art being a special skill, and artists being “special” people outside of our formal learning systems.
“Blood sweat and tears of the teachers and students are evident in this book – this is not playtime. When one practices for five hours a day to master an intricate piece of choreography, or sweats through a couple of shirts laboring over the composing of just the right 500 words, one has a right to say what ‘work’ is.”
Next Friday’s launch takes place at 6.30 p.m. in the Audio Visual Room of the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago.
For more information on Dr. Kilgour-Dowdy’s work go to her website
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.