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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.”


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.


Looking at 40

Posted: November 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

I”ll be 37 in a few days. Because I still feel as though I’m somewhere in my mid-twenties it always comes as a surprise when I realise that, yes, it’s 2010 and that means I’m definitely not in my twenties anymore. I mean, wasn’t it just yesterday I was ringing in my 26th birthday in the Queen’s Park Savannah with the Vox Crew, led by my brother Taye and Remy “Rembunction” Yearwood, as they sang happy birthday, drowning out Wyclef’s performance?

But it’s a decade later. No concerts in the Savannah this year, I think. No throngs of well-wishers. Instead, wrinkles on my neck, two or three unfinished projects (a couple more unstarted, even), a pitiful bank balance, a beat-up car, long-dead parents, a semi-abandoned career as a journalist, and worse hearing with every day (possibly from too many concerts, in the Savannah and elsewhere, when I was young). Counting my blessings: great friends I don’t see enough, great friends who have seen me through decades of years and gallons of tears; two daughters who delight and amaze me daily; a kitten who pees all over the house but whom I love like I’ve never loved an animal before; an NGO and a great team to help build it; one short novel and a book I’ve edited.

My wrinkly neck. By age 40 I'll look like I'm ready for a Thanksgiving pardon.

Peering down the road at 40, I can see more wrinkles, perhaps less cat pee, if I’m lucky and Fennec gets some behaviour. Maybe I’ll go back into journalism, and that would help the bank balance, even, possibly, the beat-up car. Maybe not; I’m too accustomed now to doing what I like, mostly when I like it, to go back to the rigor and inconvenience of being on someone else’s time clock. When the NGO grows up, as it must, maybe I will earn an actual salary and be able to support myself from it. Or maybe I’ll just hold out until the children are grown and they can support me for a change. (Ha. Miss Thing just announced she wants to be an anthropologist. Damn, must she get the “earn no money” gene from her father and me? On the upside, The Lady says she wants to be rich and famous. There is hope yet.)

At least reaching this age I can dismiss or refine some aspirations. I definitely won’t have the BMW I wished I’d had by age 30. I might have to push the Nobel Prize back to age 70. Bummer. My Great West Indian Novel is yet to be finished; maybe it will be “published to unanimous acclaim in over 22 countries” (to steal Miss Thing’s pet phrase) by the time I’m 45? That’s only eight years away. One thing about growing older: you definitely learn that time flies–the Concorde.


Fazeer, MATT and the government’s rights

Posted: November 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments »

I worked with Fazeer Mohammed and his wife at the Guardian when they both were there in the early to mid-nineties. I can’t say we were great friends but we had the casual, friendly interaction that characterises many office relationships; I knew they were orthodox Muslim but it never impaired their functioning, she in payroll and he in journalism. I’ve since been interviewed by him twice on CNMG’s talk show First Up, the most recent time being just a few weeks ago, with Roslyn Carrington, to publicise the Allen Prize and its inaugural seminar. He is a bright, on-point journalist with an aggressive but respectful interview style and to me it was a pleasure to be the subject of his questioning. But then again, I’m not a government minister.

Fazeer’s “downsizing” from that job at CNMG, described, he said, as a “cost cutting” measure, has left many media workers and observers keenly uncomfortable. MATT issued a press release in protest of the decision not only to fire Fazeer after a controversial interview with a government minister, but to replace him with Andy Johnson, erstwhile journalist and now the head of the Government Information Service.

GIS employees routinely go back and forth between privately owned media and the GIS, but I don’t know a single one who confuses the two. GIS is the GOVERNMENT INFORMATION SERVICE. The people who work there may be reporters, editors and cameramen, but their responsibilities are very different from those of other media workers; they are there to report the business of the government, from the angle the government dictates. (Does it need to be said that privately owned media don’t have the same goal?) Andy Johnson is an excellent talk show host, and was a brilliant journo when he wrote for the Guardian and the Express–but he’s now the head of the GIS and there’s no way he belongs on air in anything other than GIS programming. CNMG is state-owned but it has from time to time asserted its editorial independence; you can tell that Fazeer, at least, believed that spiel. In the transcript of the excerpt of the interview I read in the paper, he asks a hard question about Kamla’s unfortunate statement on disaster aid but never gets an answer; instead, he was accused in the interview of being anti-Kamla and (as an orthodox Muslim) opposed to women’s leadership.

If it is government policy to usurp the editorial autonomy of CNMG stations, and to make CNMG employees government mouthpieces like employees of the GIS, then there should be a clear statement iterating that. If not, CNMG staff should be left to do their jobs without fearing they will be downsized if they step on the wrong toes or imply anything but complete support for the government of the day.


A thought on book reviewing

Posted: November 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

I finally finished writing a book review that I had started cogitating on back in August. Sad, but true.

The main problem I had was how to write about the story without writing a spoiler. That’s usually one of the main concerns with writing reviews of any kind: how do you say what a great/awful story it was if you can’t actually say what the story was?

It took me this long to figure out how to write this one, possibly because the story affected me so much. The book is really moving and relevant to the Caribbean, but the conclusion is so harsh that you can’t help but give a *gulp* of terror when you read it. In sitting to write the review this morning, I decided to take a look at some statistics related to the plot and see if I couldn’t use them as a way into the analysis. Anyway, a few hours later… I finished. Three months to write 800 words. Sad, but true.