Writer, Editor, Stand-Up Comedian

Fighting words

Posted: May 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | 2 Comments »

Image from the Invisible Girl Project http://www.invisiblegirlproject.org/the-problem.html


Women’s oppression, he said, was a myth created by the Judeo-Christian West as a tool of capitalism.

I nearly fall on the ground. Maybe I had misunderstood.

But no, there he was, asking if it was wrong for women to wear burqua, and whether or not it had been the oppressive Judeo-Christian Western capitalist complex that had convinced women, say, in Afghanistan, that they should wear anything else. These women had been locked in their traditional lifestyle, which included Sha’ria Law and mandatory burqua, for hundreds of years. Who were we to say they were wrong? What good is an education, anyway? Just to teach them they should buy more things?

Maybe I had read The Kite Runner one too many times. Maybe I had gone to a feminist school and so imbibed the feminist Kool Aid at a young age. Maybe all that university education had warped my mind. But I can’t imagine that anyone would voluntarily choose to be locked in her home, forbidden to leave without a man escorting her. Or that a person would choose to be stoned for talking to a man who wasn’t her husband. Call me crazy.

He argued the same thing I feel: that motherhood is one of the highest callings anyone can follow. We shape lives. What could be more important than that? But then he drifted off point, saying that feminism had poisoned that well for women and motherhood was now despised. I don’t agree that feminism has ruined motherhood as a career; if anything, feminism made women even more oppressed in one key way, in that instead of seeing full-time motherhood as a noble and legitimate career, women are now encouraged or in some ways obliged to seek work outside the home, often in addition to working in the home in all the same traditional ways their own mothers worked a generation ago. There was no corresponding global men’s movement when feminism dawned, and so men still expect women to be the same as they were before feminism, but women don’t want to—or don’t have to. Women still do most of the unpaid work in the home that permits men to be CEOs and artists and bulldozer drivers, but that unpaid work does not count toward the GDP and women’s housework goes unaccounted for. That’s not a construct of the Judeo-Christian Western perspective. It’s a fact.

He countered that men’s oppression is as real as women’s. Yes, it is, I agreed. But let’s not imagine that the two are at all comparable. Women’s oppression is much more pervasive and much more insidious. We were watching a street parade at the moment and he had just observed a young man walking around in only a towel and a lei. Women’s oppression means that if a woman had chosen the same costume, she would be targeted and very likely attacked. I pointed out the difference and he replied, “Yeah, but some women…” I interrupted. Don’t go there, man. Don’t go there. Because he was about to say that some women, by the way they dressed, by the way they carried themselves, were looking to be raped.

One in ten, or as many as one in three women (depends on your country and whose statistics you believe) is the victim of sexual violence. In our country, Trinidad and Tobago, as many as one in three women might be the victim of domestic violence. Yes, men get raped too. Yes, men are victims of domestic violence too. But even with the admitted underreporting of such crimes, men do not suffer sexual or domestic violence nearly as frequently as women. And when women are beaten or raped, they are often blamed for provoking it, as my friend was about to do. As my friend continued to do, saying women started fights with men and then called the police when the men retaliated. And, he went on, who’s to say that rape is the worst kind of pain a person could experience? What about the mental pain of men who—

Rape can be non-violent, it’s true. But it is still physical torture and can be extremely physically violent. A torn vagina, a ruptured anus, an unwanted pregnancy can all result from a rape. Don’t tell me it isn’t all that bad.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a dyed-in-the-wool feminist who cares about women’s oppression. Does he see me as an alarmist? A hysterical, overreacting woman? Does he really think that women don’t have it all that bad? That a man’s circumcision is as bad as female circumcision? That women ask to be beaten and raped? That women’s traditional place is inviolate and that women like me who work outside the home and have careers are just disrupting the natural order? That the number of men killed as soldiers in wars makes up for the number of girls killed in utero and early childhood in places like India and China?


Celebrating my father

Posted: May 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column | 6 Comments »

People ask me why I named The Allen Prize for Young Writers after my dad. Was he a writer? Did he give me special encouragement or support to write? The answer to those questions is complex. No, he wasn’t a writer; he was a welder and entrepreneur. In some ways, yes, he did give support–but not, I think, of my writing; rather, more of my being. My father and I were very, very close. I was his spoiled baby and he was my sun. When he died in 1995 I cried for a day, non-stop, from Edmonton, Canada, to Toronto, to Piarco, as I flew from the city where I was doing an exchange programme in women’s issues to the city where I was born and had lived all my life with him. He gave me a love of reading and gave me typewriters. That would have been enough. But he also left me the money with which I started the NGO that is named after him. For those things, I honour him.

Yesterday The Allen Prize had its first awards ceremony. It took place at the home of one of our board members. The venue was a gorgeous home with a sprawling patio facing a swimming pool, the kind of place my father used to go to to install his massive galvanize water tanks and tank stands, driving his jitney up through their gates in his ever-present Wembley tennis shorts and polo shirt (he had them in all possible colours and wore them daily, rain or shine, to work and at home). I sometimes went with him, sitting around or playing while he and his workers installed the tanks, finding trees to climb as they worked and drank water from the sweating bottles the homeowners would set out for them. Yesterday I looked around at the dozens of people, nicely dressed on padded chrome chairs watching their children getting prizes for writing stories, poems, scenes. I wondered if Daddy would have been proud of the celebration in his name.

I concluded that, yes, he would have been. He might not have understood it, but he would have liked that someone was doing it. He was a man of action and a generous man, but a man of no patience. He would not have been able to sit through an hour-long ceremony but he would have given money towards it if he could, in the same way that he gave money to his neighbourhood for christenings, bazaars, the church–but never went to the things he supported.

When I was little, my father acquired a portable typewriter and a secretary to try to whip his office into shape. The secretary didn’t last very long. (Was it the dust and grime of a muffler shop and water tank manufacturing plant that got to her, or Daddy’s inappropriate behaviour? He was a lech, that one, and even I knew it, even then.) But the typewriter stayed, and I claimed it for my own. A few years later, he took me to Ashe’s on Edward Street in Port-of-Spain to buy me a “new” one. It was a second-hand baby blue SmithCorona Coronet electric, something like this:



I must have been 11 or 12, because all through Form One I remember typing up stories, poems, plays on it. There was something wrong with the key pressure, so the keys hit the paper too hard and made tiny holes in it. You could hold the pages up to the light and see right through the holes. It was like watching little stars in the night sky.

I wrote all the time and I would run triumphantly through our houses (he lived with his wife in another house…long story, for another post) or his factory looking for someone to read my latest masterpiece to. He always listened. He never criticised them; I don’t know if he understood or even liked them, but he listened, which was enough to keep me writing. When I was old enough to think about going to university, I spent hours poring over material from colleges I’d written for information. I picked a programme and asked if I could go. It was in Santa Barbara. Creative writing. He took days to tell me no. After he died, I found the school’s brochure in his personal documents, with some maths scribbled at the back. I think he would have sent me if he could.

So, no, he wasn’t a writer. But this celebration of young people and their gifts is his legacy to them.

After he died I wrote this poem for him:


I still miss you Daddy

your strong, big hands

hard and rough from the iron you welded

holding my small, soft one

your laugh

dragged out deep and gasping

from your solid round belly

your soft curly hair

the stubble of your unshaven cheek

and the sweet musk of Old Spice

of your Sunday evening shave.

I miss your lap

where I used to sit so long ago

twenty years haven’t wiped it

from this mind now cluttered

with other memories

I miss your short pants and jersey

a uniform for you

and the broadsheet papers

you read and read

your big gold signet

RA in raised capitals

so sure of who you were

no other jewellery mattered but that.

When I buried you

I bawled like a baby

your baby

I still am



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.



Some poems

Posted: May 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’m posting here three poems. The first is a poem I wrote some years ago after my mom died, and which I read at the Bocas Lit Fest Poetry Lime Friday night; the other two are poems that came out of the Bocas poetry writing workshop I did. (Check the previous blog posting for details on that). I’m also putting up, for the workshop poems, the prompts that comprise the material that went into the poems.



(For Dolsie)


Frail as hope

her wasted body

smells of soap

and soured dreams.

Once she was

much more than this.

Once she kissed

our smooth young faces.

She held us hard

against the world

outside her yard,

kept us safe.

Once she loved.

Once she moved.


Merle Collins, who led the workshop on Saturday with Christian Campbell, had the participants write for a minute after being given a prompt, and then we had to take those writings and shape them into a poem. These were my responses to the prompts and the poem that came from them. (It’s not very good, I warn you!)

Stew–stew in your own juices watching that ass slip slide hiccup down the hall oh lord will I never stop stop stop stutter to a halt

Friday–payday just got paid money in my pocket hey hey* (*you recognise this song?) but that is not me hungry when is my friday coming

Mango–sweet and slippery flesh sliding on lips nature is a boss fragrant flesh a gift thank you Jesus his face in every mango

Soft–but soft what light through yonder window breaks the window break? no yuh ass is shakespeare yuh ent ha no culcha or wha

Islands–her eyes were islands drowned in milk open only to what was inside her drowned

Drunk–like his blood eaten like his body consumed by the world that scorned him

Sky–open Irish frizzy hair delight bright smile heart-shaped face shape of her heart

Empty–Fennec on my lap warming my empty womb the son I will never have he answers when I call with a polite mew to say yes? you called?

Sea–me here in you so big and I so small and never could swim too good splash but not hard softer, a lapping more a lapping

From which I constructed:


You sea

me there in you

so big

and I, so small

and learning to

swim through

the softly lapping

waves of your hipsway

watching that

ass slip slide

hiccup down

the hall

slippery like

a mango

flesh a fragrant gift

but you

open to only

the islands of

her eyes

what is inside her


and me stroking

the kitten on my lap who

warms my empty womb

the son I will

never have

when I call him

he answers

with a polite




I am become

the cat’s mother



Finally, Christian Campbell’s exercise was to use mimicry–like jazz singers scatting, like a soucouyant taking the shape of an old woman–to shape our poems.

I chose to mimic the form of a radio death announcement.


We have been asked

to announce the following death:

Respect, of women

and boundaries,

who dies on every street in town

every day.

The funeral of the late respect

will be held at noon


at the rape of your daughter.

No flowers, by request.

My Bocas Lit Fest

Posted: May 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Column, Poetry | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

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!