Writer, Editor, Parent...

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.


The babies and the (electronic) bathwater

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Image from the Commonwealth Secretariat web site

 

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.

*Image from: http://www.thecommonwealth.org/news/190663/163077/235429/280311colcsmicro.htm


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.


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.


Gay marriage and the law in Trinidad and Tobago

Posted: February 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

This morning I read a story in the T&T Guardian about a discussion in the Senate regarding same-sex marriage. The story says, in part, “Finance Minister Winston Dookeran said the issue of  same-sex marriages was something Parliament would have to adjudicate upon at some time. He said there were laws on the books concerning co-habitation and ‘we don’t want to contradict one piece of legislation with another.'”

Discussion on Facebook this morning after I posted the link naturally turned to the archaic laws regarding buggery: how could we think about same-sex marriage when it is still illegal for men to have sex with men? What is a marriage for?

As the Finance Minister alluded, one must wonder whether existing laws on marriage or common law relationships–including the disposal of property and estates in inheritance law–would need to be amended before same-sex marriage could be legally countenanced in Trinidad and Tobago.

I looked it up. While the Marriage Act 1996, which you can find here on a list of our laws, does not seem to explicitly define the genders of the “parties” it mentions, the Cohabitational Relationships Act of 1998 does. That Act defines “cohabitant” as:

(a) in relation to a man, a woman who is living or has lived with a man as his wife in a cohabitational relationship; and

(b) in relation to a woman, a man who is living with or has lived with a woman as her husband in a cohabitational relationship;

‘cohabitational relationship’ means the relationship between cohabitants, who not being married to each other are living or
have lived together as husband and wife on a bona fide domestic basis”.

It also occurred to me that the Domestic Violence Act of 1999 also would need to be changed because it, too, defines a cohabitant as ” a person who has lived with or is living with a person of the opposite sex as a husband or wife although not legally married to that person”.

So it’s great that we have begun to think about the question of same-sex marriage in Trinidad and Tobago. However, we have a long way to go–legally as well as socially–before we can make it an option for our people.

(After this first was posted I got a couple of questions asking me which side I was on. This column I wrote in the T&T Guardian two years ago is pretty clear on that issue.)


Being there

Posted: November 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

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.


A sexist headline, an incomplete story

Posted: October 20th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Editorial | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Monday's headline emphasised the make of the vehicle.

This week a car ran over two police officers in Freeport, Trinidad, killing one on the spot and putting one in hospital where she remains in critical condition. The reports indicate that a woman was driving in traffic at a road construction site and ran over the officers while they were conducting traffic around the construction.

It’s a tragic story however you read it. But two things made me very annoyed with its coverage. The first thing was the fact that it took a letter from a reader to point out that there is inadequate signage at that site, making it difficult for anyone to negotiate the detour. Yesterday’s Newsday ran the letter by one S Mohan, which reads, in part,

“I passed there on Sunday evening, there were no basic safety measures put in place, no indications that there were roadworks taking place, no signs, no lights, arrows, no police directing traffic, nothing, just some traffic cones placed directly in front of and around the area and police inside it, all of a sudden you have to merge from the right to the left lane, cars on the right don’t know and on the left is no different until you are almost at the work site.

“I myself almost got hit, and right after almost hit another vehicle while I was attempting to merge to the left lane….”

None of this was reported in the main story a few pages before. Instead the story focussed on how overworked police officers are and how ill-trained. Surely the lack of signage is relevant?

The second thing was the fact that of the three papers initially reporting the story on Monday, October 18, 2010, only one paper put the sex of the driver in the headline. By the next day, all the papers were using the word “woman” or “female”; the Newsday front page picture even used it in the caption of the dead officer’s sobbing girlfriend.

By Tuesday it wasn't the Lexus that was important anymore.

How is it relevant that the driver was a woman? Would we have put in the headline, “Male driver runs over police officers”? This plays into the stereotype that women are bad drivers. We should do better.


fff#28–The strange tale of the pants cat

Posted: October 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: FFF | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

I too-rarely participate in my friend elisha’s flash fiction fridays, a kind of writing exercise where you have to write a short piece of fiction using a trigger that she provides. The trigger can be an opening sentence, a closing sentence or a list of words you have to include in the piece. This week she posted an inclusion trigger. Here’s my attempt. It’s not actually fiction, but fmf (flash memoir fridays) doesn’t have the same ring, somehow.

fff#28 (inclusion) trigger:rebellion, fox, strange, mirror, pleasure.

True story: Fennec came to us in pants.

He wasn’t wearing pants. He was in the pants. Brian walked up to me while I was sitting on a wooden bench in the waiting room of the free dental clinic with Najja sitting next to me waiting to take out a baby tooth that was making a rider. Brian had a strange look on his face. “Look at this,” he said, holding open the pocket of his baggy jeans. Two sleepy kitten eyes stared out from the pocket and the barely furry face opened its mouth in a noiseless mew. I jumped off the bench, yelling, “What the hell?!?” A good moment for an interrobang right there.

We called him Fennec after the fox with the huge ears. His ears were ginormous, bigger than his head, nearly bigger than his body, truth be told. He was frail and dirty with scant hair covering his pink skin. His mother had had a litter of 16 kittens but most cats have between six and eight nipples. Not very strange that he was in bad shape.

Brian took the pants off and went home in his boxers with the sleepy kitten still in the pocket of his jeans. Regular feedings of milk-soaked bread gave him fortitude and within a couple of days the creature was toddling around like an actual kitten, peering into the mirror at himself with puzzlement and interest, batting at his reflection and running away with an awkward, teetering gait. Soon he didn’t want bread and milk anymore and was screaming in hunger at the merest whiff of meat.

Countless fleas lurked under Fennec’s dingy white fur, especially in its archipelago of brownish-gray spots running up his back to his tail. After Googling kittens and fleas we learned that although he was probably a little too young for a proper flea treatment we could wage a war of attrition against them with twice-weekly baths in mild soap followed by blow-drying him on low heat. It’s strange to suggest bathing a cat–it never sounded like a good idea–and Fennec, unsurprisingly, wasn’t a fan. A warm bath and chocolate-scented body wash, which was the mildest thing we had around the house, was punishment to him. His rebellion against this inhumane treatment took the form of vicious slashes with his razor-sharp claws and the occasional bite. He really didn’t want to be bathed. Ever. Again. But we did it religiously twice a week for about a month. He still has fleas but far fewer; a side effect of the regular baths was that his fur grew in properly and he was no longer hairless, even if his mammoth ears are still too big for his increasingly rotund body.

The nicest part about bathing Fennec was that afterwards someone would have to put him under their shirt to get him warm because he was shivering so much. He’d curl up around your tummy and subside into sleep, purring in pleasure. Maybe he was remembering how he came to us, snug in the pocket of a pair of pants.