If the Bocas Lit Fest (Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival) had been held in another country, right now I would be packing, looking for my earrings on the floor behind the sideboard in my hotel room, clearing my non-existent room service charges and being driven to the airport in a shuttle or by a member of the organising committee. As it was, Bocas took place in my country and I just had to get into my car and drive home last night. The feeling at the ending of a great event is the same, though. Bocas left me replete, yet hungry for more.
It ran from Thursday April 28-Sunday May 1. Thursday’s highlight for me was my leading a creative writing workshop for 9-11-year-olds at the National Library in Port-of-Spain, where all the Bocas main events took place. There were 20 boys present, all from Richmond Street Boys’ Standard Three, and their teacher Mr Hercules. I did a quick talk about the basics–every story has a beginning, middle and end, and what is conflict and how it’s used–and then set them on a free writing exercise. I was honoured to be the scribe for a visually impaired boy, Kishon, as he told a wonderfully creative story about a boy reading a book about a wilderness explorer who gets savaged by a wild lion.
Another Thursday highlight was moderating a reading by two talented authors, Prof Barbara Lalla, and Prof David Chariandy. Prof Lalla is the author of two novels, and she read from her most recent, Cascade. I’ve read it, and it was as puzzling and beautiful as an impressionist painting. Up close it was hard to see the pattern in places, but once I was done and stepped back a bit it was gorgeous, a detailed, breathtaking vision of aging and friendship. Prof Chariandy’s debut book Soucouyant is a shortish novel that has won many plaudits in Canada, where he’s from, and I found it spare and gut wrenching. Having watched my own mother fall to dementia, the main theme of the book, I saw many things in the story that were painfully familiar.
Friday night I read in the Poetry Lime. It was originally supposed to be a poetry crawl, going from bar to bar in Woodbrook, a wonderful entertainment zone in Port-of-Spain, but was changed at the last minute to a lime at the Reader’s Bookshop in St James. While I would have been happy to tramp up Ariapita Ave drinking and reading increasingly slurred poetry, perhaps this worked out better–especially as I had to drive home! I read four poems, three tiny ones on love, and one short one on my mother’s experience with dementia. (I’ll post that poem separately.) It was an excellent, if packed reading. Some of the poets taking part were Phillip Nanton, Lorna Goodison, Tanya Shirley, Mark McWatt, Jane Bryce, Christian Campbell and Merle Collins. I was extremely flattered to have been invited to read in such distinguished company!
Jamaican author Marlon James takes in the poetry at the Bocas Lit Fest Poetry LIme
Saturday I took part in a poetry workshop with Christian Campbell and Merle Collins. The theme was mimicry and improvisation; participants had to use random prompt words given by Merle to write as much as they could, and then combine those slivers into a whole that, hopefully, would make sense. Christian made us think up a pattern to mimic and write a piece using that structure. It could have been anything. I chose the form of a radio death announcement. (I’ll post those poems separately, too.)
Sunday I was exhausted and so overstimulated I felt I had bees under my skin. I was constantly on the verge of tears and I couldn’t sit still. Thankfully, I had only a couple things planned and I could–and did–spend the day drifting around getting in people’s way after I finished taking part in a workshop on getting published. Now, since I’ve already been published one might say I shouldn’t have gone. But I nevertheless enjoyed the workshop and I thought the facilitators, Margaret Busby (founder of Allison and Busby), Jeremy Poynting (of Peepal Tree Press) and Ken Jaikaransingh (of Lexicon Books), did a terrific job of explaining the process. They gave tips to writers–including on finding an agent, looking for the right publisher, and formatting work for submission.
Oh! and Sunday too was readings from the winning OCM Bocas Prize books, Edwidge Danticat’s Creating Dangerously, Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony, and Derek Walcott’s White Egrets. Tiphanie, who was a contributor to Trinidad Noir and with whom I did a short book tour in NY in 2009, reads beautifully. Her story was about a convict who had been wrongly convicted of a crime he did commit. You’ll have to read the story to see what I mean! Prof Eddie Baugh, a Jamaican scholar and poet who I absolutely adore, read from Walcott’s poetry. His reading of a piece dedicated to Lorna Goodison made me shiver.
With Prof Eddie Baugh at a reception hosted by the French Embassy at the close of the Bocas Lit Fest
As always at the end of a really exciting and connected literary event I’m exhausted and sad but also invigorated and hopeful because of all the interesting people I’ve met, all I’ve learned and heard, all the books I’ve bought. I got poet Tanya Shirley’s collection She Who Sleeps with Bones, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, ARC Magazine’s second edition, and Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie. Gobbled up Tanya’s book already and want to start on Tiphanie’s any moment now, once I’ve done some of the work I’ve neglected for the past few days!
I’ve put up a zillion photos from the weekend on my FB author page. Check them out and see if you can pick out the world famous Caribbean writers who were there!
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.
The past couple of weeks have seen the pillorying of Nizam Mohammed, erstwhile chair of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service Commission, culminating in the revocation of his appointment by our nation’s President George Maxwell Richards. Mr Mohammed was effectively fired for saying there were too many black people in the high echelons of the Police Service; he made the statement before a parliamentary Joint Select Committee on March 25, 2011 (this Trinidad Express editorial nicely sums up the whole case and its upshot).
The outcry following Mohammed’s statement about the imbalance was loud and ugly. He was called a racist, even though as he himself reminded the public he had been on the side of Black Power insurgents and long supported racial equality. Now the hue and cry has drowned out his protestations of unbiasedness. There are many factors at play–Mohammed made an ill-advised move earlier in his appointment in a confrontation with two police officers and lost a lot of credibility thereafter, and there was subsequently a national petition to have him removed from office–but surely the bigger picture is that he is right about the imbalance in the Police Service and that it ought to be addressed.
“The relationship between group composition and performance in general is clearly complicated, but from a strictly decision-making perspective, both sides of the debate regarding diversity effects are compatible with the hypothesis that groups often benefit from racial heterogeneity. The extent to which racial diversity facilitates information exchange and problem solving certainly indicates advantages for heterogeneous groups, especially for complex decisions. But even interpersonal conflict— often mentioned as the principal negative result of diversity—may be useful when a group’s primary goal is not boosting morale but rather good and thorough decision making.
Although equal access and the attempt to remedy historical injustices are important, and many would say noble considerations, the present findings provide evidence for another, often overlooked justification for promoting diversity: In many circumstances, racially diverse groups may be more thorough and competent than homogeneous ones.”
—”On Racial Diversity and Group Decision Making: Identifying Multiple Effects of Racial Composition on Jury Deliberations”
Anybody who has ever had to manage a group of any size would tell you a diverse group brings different things to the table than a homogenous group.
Members of a homogenous group, such as the upper ranks of the Police Service largely is, think similarly on problems in many cases. Shared ethnicity in Trinidad and Tobago means that, class notwithstanding, the roots and leaves will be similar among the officers. One cannot effectively police a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious society with only black police when more than half the society is not black. (Although, as one Facebook denizen recently implied, voicing an opinion shared by many, if you got rid of all the black people in Trinidad and Tobago crime would vanish, so, by that logic, if all the criminals are black then maybe all the police should be black, too.)
Whether or not we would admit it, racialism is strong and vibrant in our country. Pretending that “all ah we is one famalayyyy”, in the immortal words of Lord Nelson, will not make the problem go away. We all know the stereotypes:- White people are rich and snobbish; Syrian and Lebanese people are corrupt and incestuous; Indians are stingy and racist; black people are lazy and criminals; Chinese are cheap and have small penises/sideways vaginas. All ah we might be one famalayyyy but I wouldn’t want to be there when the gloves come off after that reunion dinner.
Policing is not merely solving crime. It is preventing criminal activity and relating to a community. How can the police do that when they, at the very least, can’t well understand more than half the society? When they fear, despise or resent the “other”?
Making the Police Service more racially balanced, at all levels, is not the job of the Parliament, it is true. But whoever has responsibility for it now is not doing his job. Perhaps we ought to mandate quotas to ensure more equitable representation of all races in the public service–and put measures in place to protect civil servants from the racial purging that takes place every time a different government comes into power.
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.
(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.
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?
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.”
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.
Friday last week saw me on the edge of my seat at The Lady’s school Spelling Bee finals. The school has just started this school-wide competition and they hope to make it an annual event. The inaugural event was short and decisive; The Lady took the Std 5 championship after stumbling over “magnanimous” in her second round (but all the competitors also missed their words so the round was discounted).
I was overwhelmingly proud of her, not just for winning, but for actually learning over 300 spelling words in preparation for the tournament. (The last round in the finals, however, included words not on the list.) She stuck to it and was rewarded with the win.
Most of the girls who took part in the finals did so under the gaze of at least one parent or guardian, except for one girl who had no parent there to cheer her on. I wonder if that made a difference to her?
In my childhood my parents rarely, if ever, attended my school events. I might come home and announce I had won something, or taken part in something else, and they would be happy in an abstracted kind of way. Coming to those things was not a priority for them.
I wonder if it made a difference to me? I can’t remember. But I know The Lady wanted me there at her Spelling Bee and I made sure to be there on time as she requested. I sat up in front and beamed loving attention to her all through the contest. I think it made a difference, my being there.