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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.


Caribbean Beat interview with Caryl Phillips

Posted: May 9th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

When I first started buying my own books, one of the first I picked up was a screenplay of Caryl Phillips’ Playing Away. The Kittitian-British writer has always had a special place in my heart because of that early memory and it was a pleasure and a privilege to interview him for Caribbean Beat Magazine last year when he was here during the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival.

Many months later, here’s the story in Caribbean Beat. Hope you enjoy it.

 

 


Term II Seminar for The Allen Prize

Posted: April 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: The Allen Prize | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

I’m tired but happy today because The Allen Prize for Young Writers’ Term II Seminar was held yesterday and it was a success. Tired=lots of planning work and running around, then hosting and stage managing yesterday with the help of lots of people–my brother Dennis, my daughters, Rhoda, Brian. Happy because (although our preregistration drive netted us more than 50 students the actual turnout was, once again, lower than expected) we had a small but keen audience.

Part of the audience.

The speakers were marvelous. Nicholas Laughlin talked about the possibilities of creative non-fiction.

Nicholas Laughlin at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011

Monique Roffey spoke about her life as a writer, starting as a wall-scrawling toddler, up to her short listing for the Orange Prize in 2011.

Monique Roffey at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011

And Muhammad Muwakil performed his spoken word magic before giving a talk on writing.

Muhammad Muwakil at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011

Gillian Moor was our guest performer.

Gillian Moor at The Allen Prize Term II Seminar 2011

It was an exciting morning. Now on to the Awards Ceremony in May, and the next seminar–in Tobago!–in June.


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?


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.


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.