Writer, Editor, Stand-Up Comedian

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.

An experiment in -isms

Posted: February 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A young woman I know did an interesting experiment using her Facebook page. She posted the following status:

“I dislike black people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me w/e, i real doh care.. I see being black as horribly wrong. :)”

(Translation for those over 35 or those who don’t speak Young Adult Trini English: “I dislike black people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me whatever, I really don’t care. I see being black as horribly wrong.”)

There was a firestorm of comments following the post, most of them expressing shock and disbelief at the statement by the teen, who is herself half black and living in Trinidad, a country where almost 40 percent of the population is black. The comments ranged from: “How can u dislike someone based solely on their skin colour? I think u need to check urself” to “Being black is a silly thing to hate someone for; if you hate lazy people (or ignorant ppl) for example, there’s some feasibility there cuz it’s their fault their lazy…contrarily, complexion is just a characteristic like gender or what kind of food you like..hardly an excuse for prejudice..”

Fifty-eight comments later, she wrote in another status:

“Dear people freaking out about my status. Thanks for helping with my experiment. I would have loved to have kept this up but (name of her friend) said to stop. I was simply curious after a friend put up a similar status: ‘I dislike homosexual people with a passion. Call me ignorant, call me w/e, i real doh care.. I see being gay as horribly wrong.’.Tons of LIKES. zero comments.”

And they say young people have no direction? Bravo to this young woman for standing up for what she believes in; hopefully those who (unwittingly) participated in the experiment learned something about prejudice and oppression.

About those gay rights

Posted: February 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | 3 Comments »

I’ve been trying to explain to some people what the big fuss is over gay rights in Trinidad and Tobago. They don’t understand how or why people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) have been singled out by the law and why that matters. LGBT rights are human rights, folks, and here’s a little bit of how the T&T government has denied LGBT people those rights.

The Equal Opportunity Act of 2000 enshrines the right of our citizens to be afforded protection and redress in cases of discrimination on the basis of “status”. As the act explicitly states:

“‘status’ in relation to a person, means—
(a) the sex;
(b) the race;
(c) the ethnicity;
(d) the origin, including geographical
(e) the religion;
(f) the marital status; or
(g) any disability of that person.”

The Act explicitly rules out “sex” meaning sexual orientation; ie, someone went out of his way to exclude LGBT people from the protections of the act.

The Act defines victimisation and discrimination:

“A person (“the discriminator”) discriminates by
victimisation against another person (“the person
victimised”) in any circumstances relevant for the
purposes of any provision of this Act if he treats the
person victimised less favourably than in those
circumstances he treats or would treat other persons
(my italics)
and does so by reason that the person victimised has—
(a) brought proceedings against the discriminator
or any other person under this
Act, or any relevant law;
(b) given evidence or information in connection
with proceedings brought by any person
against the discriminator or any other
person under this Act, or any relevant law;
(c) otherwise done anything under or by
reference to this Act, or any relevant law, in
relation to the discriminator or any other
person; or
(d) alleged that the discriminator or any other
person has committed an act, which
(whether or not the allegation so states)
would amount to a contravention of this
Act, or any relevant law,
or by reason that the discriminator knows the person
victimised intends to do any of those things referred to
in paragraphs (a) to (d), or suspects the person
victimised has done, or intends to do, any of them.”

The Act continues:

“A person shall not otherwise than in private, do
any act which—
(a) is reasonably likely, in all the
circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate
or intimidate another person or a group of
(my italics);
(b) is done because of the gender, race,
ethnicity, origin or religion of the other
person or of some or all of the persons
in the group; and
(c) which is done with the intention of inciting
gender, racial or religious hatred.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), an act is
taken not to be done in private if it—
(a) cause words, sounds, images or writing to
be communicated to the public;
(b) is done is public place;
(c) is done in the sight and hearing of persons
who are in a public place.

(3) This section does not apply to acts committed in a place of public worship.
(4) In this section—
“public place” includes any place to which the
public have access as of right or by
invitation, whether express or implied and
whether or not a charge is made for
admission to the place.”

It outlines the kinds of discrimination to which LGBT people are routinely exposed, every single day, at every level of society. The cases that make the papers–like that of the boys who were caught on video last year having oral sex at a prestige school and were threatened with beatings and death by their peers–are the tip of the iceberg. There is nothing in the law that stops the harassment, firing, denial of access to children etc of LGBT people in T&T. There are, in fact, laws that make it illegal for men to have sex with men and women to have sex with women; gay people are legally prohibited from entering the country; there is nothing in the law that recognises a same-sex cohabitational relationship (common law marriage) or grants people in such relationships the benefits and rights normal couples expect to enjoy.

How is that your (straight) problem? Well, think about it this way: substitute “black” or “Indian” or “female” or “handicapped” in this sentence and see if you find it offensive:

“I will beat they (insert term here) mudda-ass if they come round me.” What do LGBT people hear in maxis, from pulpits, on the radio, even in Parliament, all the time? Yes, the term is often “bulling” or “lesbian” or whatever homophobic slur is in vogue.

It is always open season on LGBT people in Trinidad and Tobago. In spite of this, there are LGBT teachers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, parliamentarians, lawyers, judges, clerks, clergy, students… you name it, LGBT people do it, because they are living their lives. All they ask is that they be allowed to live those lives with the full protection of the law, and the same rights that anybody else in Trinidad and Tobago has.


Posted: February 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | No Comments »

No, this is not a fashion post. It’s a brief thought about women’s right to wear whatever the hell they want without fear of being victimised because of it.

My teenage daughter often complains about the inappropriate attention she gets from men, and I jokingly advised her to get a shalwar kameez and a burka to forestall the gazes of men. She sternly corrected me: “No, Mother, we need to build a society in which a woman can wear whatever she wants without being harassed by men.”

She’s completely right, of course.

Chris Rock has this bit about the clothing women wear, something to the effect of, if I see a policeman I can identify him by his uniform; a woman dressed in skimpy clothes should know that she’s wearing a slut’s uniform, so she shouldn’t be surprised when people mistake her for a slut. I understand his point: we take visual cues from the way people carry themselves and the clothes they wear, and, whether we want to admit it or not, our clothing is a kind of badge and a part of our nonverbal communication. And, yes, I think there’s such a thing as inappropriate clothing. Given what we know about the way society has been constructed and the way women’s oppression works, sometimes wearing revealing clothing is like painting a bull’s eye on our vaginas.

But I still agree with my daughter. Women should have the right to wear whatever they want, regardless of how ill-advised the outfit is.

Gay marriage and the law in Trinidad and Tobago

Posted: February 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 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.)

Song for a lonely soul

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | No Comments »

It was 1989? 1990? and I was a wild teenager in acid washed jeans that were strategically ripped across my right buttock cheek, just where my ass could hang out a little bit. My father hated those jeans, threatened to beat me if I wore them another time… but I ignored him and Carnival Tuesday found me in town with that right asscheek hanging out as I chipped behind Minshall following Rudder like a pied piper.

Soca music

Take me, won’t you take me

Take me back to my island

Trinity mountain

Calling me home

Taking me high

Soca was never better for me than it was that day, my legs intertwined with the posts of a steel pedestrian barrier as I stood a head and a half higher than the crowd, higher in every sense even though I wasn’t drinking, exhilarated by that song, the mas, the crowd’s euphoria and my own sense of danger and sexiness in those jeans. That song raises my pores up to today.

There’s no soca like the soca of your youth. And that is the reason soca gets “worse” every year. It’s not the music, darling. It’s you.

Beauty and the bamsee

Posted: February 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | 3 Comments »

I read this story after my friend Tillah Willah posted it on Facebook. The upshot of it is that a black British girl died after getting some bogus silicone injection to make her bottom bigger. She was a dancer and had lost out on a job after going to an audition wearing padded pants.

While I think most elective cosmetic surgery is ridiculous and unnecessary, including buttock augmentation, I can feel why someone would be driven to such an extreme measure. Having grown up gloriously flat bottomed in Trinidad & Tobago, I can testify that it is not easy for a black woman to be without a big bottom. We (at least most of us in the Caribbean, the US and the UK) have a culture that deifies a woman’s bottom. We sing songs about it. We create dances just so the glute-gifted can shine. We dress to highlight it. We fetishise it in porn and popular culture. And, yes, when we walk down the street we are told, in no uncertain terms, whether our bottoms are good enough.

I’m not saying we ought to agree with any of this; I’m just pointing out what exists in our culture. When a flat bottomed girl is growing up in a black cultural context, she will more likely than not suffer shame at some level that she is inadequate and unattractive because of her bottom. It took me a long time to appreciate my bottom for what it is: the proud legacy of my Ameridian/Indian/Syrian/European heritage. And even so I’m still a little wistful sometimes when I look at myself in a pair of jeans. Would I wear padded pants or get surgical intervention to “correct” it? Hell, no. But I could see where the misguided sister was coming from. The cult of the bamsee is strong.

Thank you, kind sir

Posted: February 9th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | No Comments »

Sent this letter to the editor today. Sort of self-explanatory.

The Editor:

On February 8, 2011, my wallet fell unnoticed from my friend’s lap as she alighted from my car on the Diego Martin Main Road. Although searches were made, the wallet was not afterwards found on the road where it had fallen. Later that evening, after having reported the loss to the police, I received a telephone call from a kind stranger who had found the wallet in the nearby Starlite Shopping Centre car park. He had got my number from a document in the wallet while waiting at the address given on my driver’s permit.
The gentleman went out of his way to return the wallet and its remaining contents, knowing how valuable they would be to me.
I wish to express my deepest gratitude to him for his kindness and compassion. Anyone who has lost his or her wallet would agree that the cost and hassle of replacing lost bank cards, national ID cards and driver’s permits are taxing. He has saved me a lot of expense and worry and I salute him for his generosity and civic mindedness.

Lisa Allen-Agostini

NB: The cash in the wallet was missing, but that’s no surprise, especially given that the spot where the wallet fell was opposite a crack house. I’m also now missing one debit card. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m thrilled to have it back, even sans cash. Lining up for a day at Licensing, going for new debit cards and a new ID card–not to mention the customer loyalty cards and so on I also had in the wallet–was not looking too appetising.

The gentleman was a real lifesaver.