Dear readers:
For our sixth anniversary in May 2010, The Caribbean Review of Books has launched a new website at www.caribbeanreviewofbooks.com. Antilles has now moved to www.caribbeanreviewofbooks.com/antilles — please update your bookmarks and RSS feed. If you link to Antilles from your own blog or website, please update that too!

Monday, 31 December 2007

2007 CRB books of the year

At the end of any calendar year, it's natural to find yourself thinking back over the high and low points of the preceding twelve months. Here at the CRB, we've found ourselves thinking, specifically, about the books we've been reading.

In 2007, the CRB reviewed a full sixty books, and "noticed" another thirty-odd in our "Also noted" column. That may represent just a half of all the Caribbean books published during the year. Because the CRB is a quarterly with a rather long lead-time, we'll be reviewing 2007 books well into 2008.

And of the dozens of books that have passed through our hands and our pages this year, which have we enjoyed best, or been most edified by? What were the stand-out Caribbean books of 2007, the ones we believe deserve a permanent place on our readers' bookshelves? Over the last week, we've done a rough poll of the magazine's editors and contributing editors, and come up with a collective list of our "books of the year". In what we hope will become an annual year-end tradition, we offer their names here, for the sake of those readers who may have overlooked them in the hurry and press of everyday.

The 2007 CRB books of the year, in alphabetical order:

Art and Emancipation in Jamaica: Isaac Mendes Belisario and His Worlds, by Tim Barringer, Gillian Forrester, Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, et al (Yale Centre for British Art/Yale University Press)
This lavish catalogue of an exhibition that opened in October at the Yale Centre for British Art looks at the work of Belisario in the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century topographical drawing and painting, and the iconography of slavery and emancipation. (Look out for a review in the February 2008 CRB.)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (Riverhead)
The long-awaited first novel by the author of the short story collection Drown tackles the horrors of the Dominican Republic's modern history, the trials of immigration and diaspora, and the mysteries of fuku americanus, the Curse of the New World, with a linguistic verve that is Caribbean and American and also something in between. (Look out for a review in the February 2008 CRB.)

Brother, I'm Dying, by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf)
Catalysed by the death of Danticat's uncle Joseph while in the custody of US Immigration in Miami, this heartbreaking memoir describes a family caught in a cultural, historical, and political crossfire. (Look out for a review in the February 2008 CRB.)

An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque, by Krista A. Thompson (Duke University Press)
A wryly intelligent examination of the ways that postcard and poster depictions of the Caribbean have influenced and been influenced by the island's tourist economies, by a young Bahamian art historian. (Reviewed by Melanie Archer in the August 2007 CRB.)

Four Taxis Facing North, by Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw (Flambard Press)
Walcott-Hackshaw's first book of short stories takes an unsparing, un-nostalgic look at the here-and-now of contemporary Trinidad, from an urban middle-class female perspective still rare in Anglophone Caribbean writing. (Look out for a review in the February 2008 CRB.)

From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People, by Lorna Goodison (McClelland and Stewart)
A family memoir by Jamaica's most important living poet, sharing with her poems their gentle wisdom, their understated lyricism, and their sense of how marvellous the real can be, and how real the marvellous. (Look out for a review in the May 2008 CRB.)

Ragamuffin, by Tobias S. Buckell (Tor)
This speculative fiction novel combines a perfectly paced plot and compelling characters with a powerful and very Caribbean allegory about personal independence and intellectual autonomy. (Reviewed by Lisa Allen-Agostini in the November 2007 CRB.)

Selected Poems, by Derek Walcott, ed. Edward Baugh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A distillation of the work of the Caribbean's great--greatest?--poet by one of his foremost readers and interpreters. (Reviewed by Brendan de Caires in the May 2007 CRB.)

There Is an Anger that Moves, by Kei Miller (Carcanet)
This second collection of poems by the promising and prolific Jamaican writer demonstrates an already distinctive voice and a rapidly maturing talent. Miller's first novel will be published in 2008. (Look out for a review in the May 2008 CRB.)


And what were your favourite books of 2007, dear readers? Tell us in the comments below.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Call for applications: Bridget Jones Travel Award

Writers, artists, musicians, and arts researchers from across the Caribbean: take a look at the call for applications for the 2008 Bridget Jones Travel Award.

Arts researchers or practitioners living and working in the Caribbean are eligible to apply for the Bridget Jones Travel Award, the deadline for which is the 11th January 2008. The winner of the award will present their work at the Society for Caribbean Studies Annual Conference, 2nd-4th July 2008 at Edinburgh University.


If you are an arts practitioner or researcher (postgraduate, postdoctoral or professional) working in any region of the Anglophone, Hispanic, Francophone or Dutch-speaking Caribbean, you may apply for the Award. The successful recipient will receive £650 towards travel expenses and, in addition, a full bursary to cover conference fees and accommodation. Applications are especially welcome from individuals with no institutional affiliations. We encourage visual artists, performers and creative writers to submit proposals in addition to the more usual scholarly research papers.

How to apply

To apply for the Award you must submit either:
(a) A proposal for a presentation of your work, in the areas of film, literature, visual or performing arts.
(b) A proposal for a reading of original creative work.
Applications should be in writing, including a covering letter, full curriculum vitae and statements from two referees who are able to comment on your work. Completed applications must be received by 11th January 2008. A decision will be made by the committee in late January.

Applications and enquiries should be sent by e-mail or by post to Kate Quinn, Chair of the Bridget Jones Award Sub-Committee:

Kate Quinn
Institute for the Study of the Americas
31 Tavistock Square
London WC1H 9HA

For more information on the Bridget Jones Travel Award and the Society for Caribbean Studies, visit the Society website on www.caribbeanstudies.org.uk.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Remembering Martin Carter

13 December was the tenth anniversary of the death of Martin Carter, a great Caribbean man of letters and a poet who stands--alongside Walcott, Brathwaite, and Bennett--at the head of the West Indian poetic tradition.

In yesterday's Stabroek News, Al Creighton took a brief look back at Carter's posthumous career and offered close readings of two of his poems, "The Poems Man" and "The Conjunction". The CRB has run two substantial pieces on Carter in the last couple of years. In our November 2006 issue, Vahni Capildeo reviewed University of Hunger, the edition of Carter's poems edited by Gemma Robinson. And in February 2006, we published an essay on Carter, "The truth of craft", by Stewart Brown (who co-edited another edition of the great man's poems last year, with Ian McDonald).

(I wrote a review of University of Hunger too--in the July/August 2006 Caribbean Beat.)

Other Carter resources online:
- his very brief Wikipedia entry (in need of some expert attention)
- his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for those with subscriptions
- a short tribute by Geoffrey Philp, published on Carter's birthday in 2006
- a review of Carter's 1977 Poems of Succession, by Wyck Williams
- an interview with Carter done in 1995 by Gemma Robinson

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Times notables

The New York Times has released its annual list of "100 Notable Books of the Year", chosen by the book review editors (in a few days they'll name their ten best books of the year). They include four titles of particular Caribbean interest: Derek Walcott's Selected Poems, ed. Edward Baugh; Junot Díaz's novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying; and Ralph Ellison: A Biography, by the Trinidadian writer Arnold Rampersad. As 2007 draws to a close, we'll be seeing lots more lists like this--maybe, dear readers, we'll even do one here at Antilles.... Any suggestions? What are the most interesting, most revelatory, most enjoyable Caribbean books of the past year? Tell us in the comments below.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Coming home

On Saturday 17 November, at the annual graduation exercises of the University of Trinidad and Tobago, an honorary doctorate was conferred on the writer Ralph de Boissière (an excerpt from whose autobiography, Life on the Edge, appears in the November CRB). Below is the citation read by Kenneth Ramchand, associate provost of UTT's Academy of the Arts, Letters, Culture, and Public Affairs.


Yes, the eyes open in childhood. But they open afresh in youth, in maturity, in old age, perceiving each time with a different understanding the bonds we call home. Trees, speech, bird calls, meandering clouds and wind and rain--all become an extension of yourself in childhood, a larger you that is both outside of you and a part of you, as you are only tantalisingly and dimly aware. You have no name for this condition which is both frightening and dear to you. The word "home" comes later like a surprise. With time it begins to seem that you are a creation of home, this patch of earth and all that exists upon it, even as home is at the same time your own creation, which you once fashioned with love and wonderment, and fear of the unknown.

--From Life on the Edge


I couldn’t decide whether my theme should be spiritual (the return of a native) or literary (the re-discovery of another jewel in the lost literature of the West Indies). So let us have it both ways.

Ralph Anthony Charles de Boissière was born on October 6, 1907. His first novel was published in 1952; his most recent came out in 2007. His first marriage took place in Trinidad in 1935; his second was solemnised in Australia on November 3, 2007.

You could say, Chancellor, he was always serious about his craft.

In his hundredth year he completed Life on the Edge: The Autobiography of Ralph de Boissière. It is a compellingly honest, heartfelt, poetic, and above all courageous book. It is an epic account of the never-ending and exhilarating struggle to find out, to hold on, to make and re-make a life in a fragmented and widening world.

This autobiography is also of huge social, political and cultural significance: it makes us see and imagine ourselves in our landscape and history for a full one hundred years, in the ennobling way that only one who loves and claims a people and a place no matter what, can make us see and imagine.

Before this, he wrote five novels, over eighteen short stories, and a number of plays, including a West Indian musical drama, Calypso Isle, which played to full houses at The New Theatre in Melbourne in 1955. Mr de Boissière has lived in Australia for nearly sixty years, but the content, theme, and tone of his work from Crown Jewel to Rum and Coca-Cola to Homeless in Paradise and The Call of the Rainbow (the last two covering the period 1956 to 1970) have always been West Indian. This Trinidad Quartet establishes de Boissière as the most important writer for understanding and feeling the making of modern Trinidad.

Chancellor, our honorary graduands are presented on the day when academic degrees are conferred upon undergraduates, not because we want to test their patience but because we want our young people to find inspiration in the lives of those with academic training who have shared their expertise with their society and the world; and because we also want them to see that those who have not formally passed through the university also have gifts, skills, discipline, and commitment that have enriched our society and the world.

Chancellor, Ralph de Boissière did not go to university. He came from one of the best-known French Creole families, but this "white" boy was an enemy of colonialism and privilege. As a simmering youth he grew his hair long long long for months in inarticulate protest. He caused real dismay and alarm in his family and among his class by associating with working people and ordinary citizens in their natural habitats.

And then, in the late 1920s and 1930s, he joined up with a group of rip-roaring artists and intellectuals who had political and educational intent (C.L.R. James, Alfred Mendes, Albert Gomes, the violinist Sonny Carpenter). They produced the magazine called Trinidad and the famous journal The Beacon. They were fired up by the Russian Revolution, Garveyism, Negritude, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Harlem Renaissance, and were part of a shaking of colonial Trinidad that increased in intensity with the Butler riots, leading to one-person-one-vote in the 1940s, and the possibility of a democratic revolution.

Chancellor, James and Mendes received honorary doctorates for their Beacon activities; and the titles of their novels (Minty Alley, Pitch Lake, and Black Fauns) are familiar to many. But the name of de Boissière is kept alive in this island only by a handful of scholars.

Take notice, Chancellor. His first novel, Crown Jewel, was published in 1952, and his second, Rum and Coca-Cola, in 1956. This was the Golden Age when artists, painters, dancers, sculptors, musicians dreamed of Federation and because of Federation; a time when Sam Selvon, George Lamming, Roger Mais and Edgar Mittelholzer were beginning their careers and raising the West Indian novel high high high.

So why doesn’t de Boissière figure in the conversation about the West Indian novel? In the 1950s and 1960s London was the West Indian literary capital. With a young family and with the closing of the privileged ranks against him, de Boissière went to Chicago to train as a motor mechanic. He ended up working on the assembly line of General Motors in Australia in 1948. Who knows, Mr Chancellor, you might have driven in a Holden with the de Boissière touch.

De Boissière’s first two novels capture two watershed moments in our history. Crown Jewel depicts Trinidadian society in the years between 1935 and 1937 when men and women of the working class and of every ethnic origin began the process which led to universal suffrage, and political independence.

In de Boissière’s own words, “Rum and Coca-Cola deals with the war years when tens of thousands of American soldiers and civilians were building military bases on the island. The American military had in effect become our rulers. There is not the same tension as in Crown Jewel because everyone had a job and many had two. The conflicts were of a more subtle sort-—the breaking down of British prestige, the mockery of former British might, under American occupation.”

We are still innocent of the meaning of these two moments.

The two novels remained virtually unknown till the 1980s, when they were reprinted in London by the firm of Allison and Busby. In 1973, the late, lone Clifford Sealy called Crown Jewel Trinidad’s “most important political novel ... the fundamental work of fiction in our society”. When the book reappeared in 1981, Salman Rushdie called it “a salutary corrective to the feckless irresponsible image that Trinidadians have been given by V.S. Naipaul”. The UK Observer said: “Once in a blue moon, a lost gem is unearthed from the general rubble of period fiction. Crown Jewel is one such find.” One West Indian critic had already pronounced that Crown Jewel “combines social realism and political commitment with a concern for the culture of the feelings” and that this novel is “essential reading for an understanding of the rich possibilities of young Trinidad in the 1930s and 1940s, and for discerning the outlines of that unique emerging creature that Sam Selvon called ‘the Trinidadian person’.”

Chancellor, I commend Ralph de Boissière as one of the founders of our literary tradition, a man who overcame the biases of race and colour, a gifted writer who projected the power of the powerless, a visionary whose insight into the compassion and creativity of our men and women and of their potential to create a humane and just society has been unwavering throughout his hundred years.

Chancellor, I urge you by the authority invested in you by the Board of Governors of the University of Trinidad and Tobago to confer upon Ralph Anthony Charles de Boissière the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

--Kenneth Ramchand

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Por favor and s'il vous plaît

One of the CRB's long-term objectives, dear readers, is to offer every issue of the magazine online fully translated into Spanish, French, and Dutch, and so increase our readership throughout the non-Anglophone Caribbean. Perhaps the time will come when we can afford to hire language editors to oversee this. But in the nearer future, we're trying to get a modest translation pilot project off the ground.

We're looking for volunteers fluent in Spanish and French--preferably but not necessarily with some professional translating experience--willing to tackle, say, one review or essay per month (or one every other month), to help us start building a multilingual online archive. Sadly, at the moment we can't afford to pay for this, but every translation will be published with a full credit to the volunteer translator, and we'll list their names in the print magazine too.

This is a great opportunity, for instance, for university students majoring in Spanish or French--they get nice, juicy pieces of text to practise on, and they can list "CRB translator" in their CVs. We'd be very grateful for the help of any of our readers with the language skills and time to participate in this project.

If you'd like to volunteer, you can email me directly at nicholas[NOSPAM]laughlin[AT]gmail[dot]com. (You're going to delete [NOSPAM] and put in the "at" sign and dot, of course.) And please pass this on to anyone you think may be able to help. With any luck, the CRB's Spanish and French archives will make their first appearances in time to greet the new year.

"We learn to read collectively"

Via if:book, the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, a link to an audio interview with Junot Díaz in which he talks about "reading as a collective enterprise":

Nobody learns to read outside of a collective. We forget--because we read and we read alone--we forget that we learn to read collectively. We learn with our peers, and a teacher teaches us.... When you read a book--and especially like this book, where there's gonna be Spanish, there's gonna be historical references, there's gonna be nerdish, as they say, forget the elvish, the nerdish, there's gonna be fanboy stuff, there's gonna be talk about Morgoth, about dark side, about John Brunner's science fiction books, about Asimov, about Bova, about Andre Norton, about E. E. Doc Smith's Lensman, you know all this weird esoteric stuff, amongst all these Dominican references, Caribbean references, urban black American references, all this nerd talk, all this kind of hip "we went to college" speak--the reason that's all there in one place is the same reason that reading is a collective enterprise. When we did not know a word when we were young and learning, we would ask someone. We forgot--I think many of us forget--that praxis, that fundamental praxis. What I want is for people to read and remember that reading, while we may practice it alone, in solitude, it arose out of a collective learning and out of a collective exchange....

(My copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao arrived two days ago; I've been reading it hungrily--though solitarily--in the evenings.)

(Three Díaz posts in a row!)

Monday, 12 November 2007

"You can go home again"

The immigrant experience, it's been noted, is no longer what it once was. When immigrants who came to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries left their homelands, they left them forever....

Things are different in the jet age. Now you can go home again, and the trail of immigration has become a two-way street. Assimilation is less certain, involvement with the homeland more intimate and more fraught. Even after a generation or more, families can remain suspended between two places, two languages and the claims of two discordant histories. All this is especially true of immigrants from the Caribbean basin, whose lands are so close, and whose status and plans are so often unclear.

-- From a review of Junot Díaz's novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by William Deresiewicz, in The Nation. (Thanks to Antilles reader Matthew Hunte for the link.)

Thursday, 8 November 2007

"Shattered and yet somehow holding together"

I'm a product of a fragmented world. Take a brief look at Dominican or Caribbean history and you'll see that the structure of the book is more in keeping with the reality of this history than with its most popular myth: that of unity and continuity. In my mind the book was supposed to take the shape of an archipelago; it was supposed to be a textual Caribbean. Shattered and yet somehow holding together, somehow incredibly vibrant and compelling.

Junot Díaz, interviewed in Slate by Meghan O'Rourke.

The Naipaul debates

That Stabroek News editorial on V.S. Naipaul has set off something of a debate in the paper's famously energetic letters pages. I linked a few days ago to a response from a writer named Abu Bakr. Since then, Stabroek has published pro- and anti-Naipaul letters from Nigel Westmaas, Thomas Singh, and Terence Roberts. No doubt these in turn will provoke further correspondence....

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

On the cover of the CRB: Noche Insular

The cover of the November 2007 issue of the CRB features a detail of Noche Insular: Metamorfosis (2004-6, vermilion, xylograph, serigraph, varnish, mercury chromium on maps, dimensions variable), by the Cuban artist Ibrahim Miranda.

Noche Insular is one of the works included in the exhibition Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art at the Brooklyn Museum--reviewed in this issue of the CRB.

On the IMPAC Dublin longlist

The 2008 longlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has been announced. The 137 books from forty-five countries include two by Caribbean writers: Unburnable, by Marie-Elena John, and Jouvert, by Joy Mahabir. The judges need a few months to read through the list, understandably--the shortlist will be released in April, and the winner announced in June next year.

(Antilles posted a short interview with Marie-Elena John last May--read it here.)

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Links, links, links

- The editorial on V.S. Naipaul that the Stabroek News ran last Tuesday has provoked a long response in the paper's letters columns from a writer named Abu Bakr (not, I hasten to add, the Trinidadian leader of the Jamaat Al-Muslimeen):

The fact is we no longer approach V S Naipaul in attendance of great insight into the ways of the world. We read him now only to observe the interplay of the persona he has crafted for himself with the characters that he moves around the chess board of his books. The tics, the sneer, the snide comments, the often very funny insults, the inexplicable bitterness....

- Meanwhile, reviews of Naipaul's latest book, A Writer's People, are still trickling in from around the world. Here's Nicholas Shakespeare in the Sydney Morning Herald:

Finishing this book, which ends on a critical note about India, I was reminded of an unpublished letter Bruce Chatwin wrote in 1986 to an Indian friend.

"It's about time people realised just how wonderful India is--not in the exotic sense--but day to day realities. Watching Manvendra here coping with the drought is the kind of thing that Mr Naipaul would never 'see'."

- Caryl Phillips's new book, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be getting much attention--this review of Foreigners by Jerome Weeks in the New York Sun is only the second one I've seen.

- Geoffrey Philp draws our attention to the many Caribbean writers participating in the Miami Book Fair International, which opens tomorrow (4 November): Opal Palmer Adisa, Marina Salandy-Brown, Jane Bryce, Margaret Cezair-Thompson, Edwidge Danticat, Oonya Kempadoo, Rabindranath Maharaj, Philip Nanton, Robert Edison Sandiford, Kim Robinson-Walcott, Anthony C. Winkler, and Geoffrey himself. Check the book fair website for more information about schedules and programmes.

- And Tobias Buckell has some very nice things to say about Lisa Allen-Agostini's review of his new novel Ragamuffin in the November CRB.

Friday, 2 November 2007

In the November/December Caribbean Beat

The November/December issue of Caribbean Beat--that's Trinidadian golfer Stephen Ames on the cover--is now online. Antilles readers may be particularly interested in the book reviews and James Ferguson's article on René Maran, the Martiniquan writer whose novel Batouala won the Prix Goncourt in 1921. Your humble Antilles blogger has a piece in this issue too: a short account of my expedition to Mt Roraima earlier this year.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

In the November 2007 CRB...

The November 2007 issue of the CRB, no. 14, is now on its way to subscribers. You can see the contents page of this issue at the CRB website, and as usual selected pieces are posted online.

In this issue: reviews of new biographies of Eric Williams and Toussaint L'Ouverture, of the audio recording of Kamau Brathwaite's lecture MiddlePassages, of books of poems by Mervyn Morris and James Berry, of Tobias S. Buckell's novel Ragamuffin, of a book of essays about the Garifuna, and of the Infinite Island show at the Brooklyn Museum--plus poems by Ian McDonald and Shara McCallum, an excerpt from Ralph de Boissière's autobiography, an interview with Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, and more. If you're not subscribing to the CRB yet--what are you waiting for?

Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, interviewed by Nazma Muller in the November 2007 CRB

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

"Suriname is hard to get to"

Audrey just nods. The flight is four hours late. She knows she’s already missed her connection in Port of Spain and must spend two days in Trinidad waiting for the next flight home. Suriname is hard to get to. Worse yet, it’s hard to get back to.

The Fall 2007 Virginia Quarterly Review, a special issue on "South America in the Twenty-First Century", includes a travel essay by Daniel Titinger, "Kicking the Ball to Holland", on Suriname's unlikely role in the world of football.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Stabroek on Naipaul

Long live the Stabroek News, the only newspaper in the Caribbean that runs editorials in the form of book reviews. From today's edition, on the new Naipaul:

Naipaul ... rescued himself from the clutches of 'island "culture"' by writing his way into the tradition of the English novel--with enviable grace and humour, it must be said. He presented the pathetic lives of these small people with simple destinies so powerfully that it has often become difficult to tell where his malevolence ends and our insecurities begin. Walcott chose a different, arguably more difficult way of seeing. He teased a past out of these provincial characters, housed them in something more than ruins of a colonial past. He considered them, and the cultures that had left them behind, synoptically, illuminating one literary tradition through his mastery of another. He created a past that all of us can enter and consider, one that allows us to reinterpret ourselves, and to come to terms with our legacies rather than simply escape them. For many West Indians that is an achievement that deserves more than a snide misreading from our other Nobel laureate.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The Caribbean Writer and the Antigua and Barbuda Lit Fest

Issue number 22 of The Caribbean Writer, the annual literary journal published by the University of the Virgin Islands, has just been published. Their website hasn't been updated yet with the new issue, but an article in the St Thomas Source offers a tiny peek at the contents.

Meanwhile, up in Antigua, they're getting ready for the 2007 Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival, which opens on Friday. (Last year it was called the Caribbean International Literary Festival.) The three-day programme is headlined by Jamaican Anthony Winkler and Trinidadian Elizabeth Nunez. Sadly, your Antilles blogger won't be there to report on the festivities--any readers in Antigua want to give it a go?

Sunday, 28 October 2007

"I like the life"

In today's Sunday Express, B.C. Pires interviews Gordon Rohlehr, one of the indisputably major figures in Caribbean literary scholarship, who has just retired from UWI, St Augustine, after forty years.

... Purely by chance, I had begun working in the calypso before I got here. One highpoint would have been when I did the lecture "Sparrow and the Language of Calypso" for the Caribbean Artists Movement in 1967.

It forced one to engage with a people's music and all implied with that: the relationship between singer and group, between the music and social and political affairs. There could have been no better introduction into Trinidadian society than an interest in the calypso, what it was doing, its themes, why people reacted to certain things and not others, what made it popular [etc]. That made me amenable to Trinidad.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Some links....

A work by Cuban artist Quisqueya Henríquez, included in The World Outside: A Survey Exhibition 1991-2007

- In the New York Times: Kaiama L. Glover reviews The Pirate's Daughter, a new novel by Margaret Cezair-Thompson set on Jamaica's Navy Island, once owned by Errol Flynn; and Ken Johnson reviews DR-based Cuban artist Quisqueya Henríquez's solo show currently at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

- In Time, Neel Chowdhury reviews V.S. Naipaul's A Writer's People, describing the book as "miserly" and "pretentious" (what a change from the book's flattering earliest reviews...). And it was published nearly a month ago, but I'll still link here to a Naipaul review I missed: Nilanjana S. Roy's in the India Business Standard.

- Here's an interview with Edwidge Danticat from the Foreign Policy in Focus think tank.

- And in the litblogs, Geoffrey Philp writes about his "Jamaican touch" and Marlon James attacks "slave mentality".

[Oops, missed another interesting Naipaul review: Sanjay Subrahmanyam's in the LRB.]

Thursday, 18 October 2007


What's been going on while Antilles was temporarily off the grid? A review by former LRB editor Karl Miller of the new Naipaul, in the TLS. A conversation with Isaac Julien in the Fall issue of BOMB, in which he talks about his new film, Small Boats. (This issue of BOMB also includes a conversation between Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz and a short story by CRB regular Anu Lakhan--neither available online.) A review of books about Che Guevara in The Latin American Review of Books, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the death of the iconic hero of the Cuban Revolution. And Marlon James's blog has had a makeover!

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

And here we are....

Rather, here I am, dear readers: back at my desk after nearly a month of travel, hard at work on the November CRB, which goes to press in a few days. As I sift through proofs and pin down contributors' bio notes, posting may continue to be slow, at least till the magazine is safely out of my hands. But I can at least drop a few hints about what CRB readers can expect to find in our next issue. Substantial reviews, first of all, of two new biographies: Madison Smartt Bell's of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Colin Palmer's of Eric Williams. Reviews also of the latest collections of poems by Mervyn Morris (this one well overdue) and James Berry, and Tobias Buckell's new novel--also of an anthology of Bajan cricket writing and a collection of essays on the Garifuna of Belize. Plus a review of Infinite Island, the big Caribbean art show currently running at the Brooklyn Museum; an interview with the Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, author of the steamy Dirty Havana Trilogy; and new poems by Ian McDonald and Shara McCallum.

And I'm especially excited to be running an excerpt from the forthcoming autobiography of Ralph de Boissière, which Lexicon will publish later this year. About a month ago, as I was sitting in Ken Ramchand's office, he casually mentioned he had the typescript. I had to admit to him I didn't realise de Boissière was still alive--he turned 100 on 6 October--and I jumped at the chance to run a chapter of the book in the CRB. The one I chose is called "I join the subversives", and it describes de Boissière's first meetings with Alfred Mendes, C.L.R. James, and Albert Gomes in Port of Spain back in the 30s, and the founding of the pioneering literary magazines Trinidad and The Beacon.

So if there are any Antilles readers who are not yet CRB subscribers--better get to it, quick sharp.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

On the road

Dear readers,

Your humble Antilles blogger has been travelling for the last week and a half, and will not be back in Trinidad until 13 October. Posting here will be unfortunately but necessarily sporadic until then. (Of course, if you want to keep up with Caribbean literary news, you can always check out Geoffrey Philip's blog.) Please pardon the temporary silence.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Opening tomorrow: the Alice Yard Space

sean leonard alice yard sketch

Perhaps the image above doesn't look like much--a quadrilateral scribbled on a scrap of paper--but it represents an exciting new development in the Trinidad contemporary art scene. This is one of architect Sean Leonard's conceptual sketches for the small gallery space that opens tomorrow, 14 September, in Alice Yard, the backyard of the old house at 80 Roberts Street in Woodbrook, Port of Spain.

Leonard's great-grandmother used to live in this house, and its backyard is a place where generations of children talked, played, imagined. In September 2006, it became a public space: Alice Yard. The band 12, fronted by Sheldon Holder, set up their headquarters in a small outbuilding. The arts programme Galvanize held two events there. And over the last year Holder has hosted a series of Friday-night "Conversations in the Yard", where musicians come to perform, writers read, artists discuss their work, and audiences engage in conversation with creative practitioners.

Tomorrow night the dynamic will change a little, with the opening of Alice Yard Space. The sketch above will take three-dimensional form as a simple glass-and-concrete box at the eastern end of the yard, next to the 12 bandroom. The space is nine by seven by ten feet: just big enough to fit an artist's installation or video work, or a few drawings or paintings. But modest enough that an artist can feel comfortable showing a fragment of something bigger, or a piece of work in progress. Not a space for grand declarations, necessarily, but to show something that will trigger a reaction, a conversation.

From tomorrow night until the end of the year, five artists' projects will appear in the Alice Yard Space, each for a few weeks at a time. The first is Rack, an installation by Adam Williams. Tomorrow night, entirely by coincidence, also happens to be the anniversary of the opening of Galvanize, the six-week "happening" that made waves in the Trinidad art scene and roused strong feelings both positive and negative. There's no immediate link between Galvanize and the Alice Yard Space (though some of the artists involved in the former will inevitably show their work in the latter), but there's a continuity of intent: to ask questions, to use modest available spaces and resources, to generate a real conversation about the role and relevance of contemporary art in the Caribbean. I'm pleased to say I helped make Galvanize happen and am now involved in the Alice Yard Space also.

Tomorrow night's event is open to all. Alice Yard Space officially opens at 7 pm, and the regular Friday-night "Conversation" starts at 9 pm. More information at the website.

Links, links, links

- Two more reviews of Infinite Island: by Daniel Kunitz in the Village Voice and Ariella Budick in the NY Newsday.

- And two more of Edwidge Danticat's new book, Brother, I'm Dying: by Donna Rifkind in the Los Angeles Times and Yvonne Zipp in the Christian Science Monitor (the latter includes a three-minute audio file of Danticat reading an excerpt).

- The Junot Díaz craze continues. Here's a feature about the writer and his new novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in the Boston Globe; a review by Carolina González in the NY Daily News; another by Leah Ryan in the NY Post. Oh, and the New Yorker wants you to remember that it published an excerpt from Oscar Wao all the way back in 2000.

- There's even another Naipaul review: Christopher Tayler on A Writer's People in the Telegraph.

- Nalo Hopkinson posts a poem of sorts at her blog.

- And at the StudioFilmClub blog, Jonathan Ali announces the schedule for the 2007 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, which opens next week.

Blincoe on Naipaul

Naipaul is far from being a man of the left. Half the pleasure of his writing, for Naipaul if not his readers, is the verve with which he delivers his predictions of catastrophe, sped by fashionable politics. In A Writer's People he is disparaging of the attempts by the various ethnic and mixed-race middle classes of Trinidad to pursue a "melting-pot" politics based on their shared culture. Naipaul finds nothing in his birthplace that "could be called a civilisation", citing the "brutalities of the popular language, and the prejudices of race: nothing a man would wish to call his own". Naipaul is unlikely to be a lover of soca, not even the chutney-soca of his erstwhile community. But he goes too far when he argues that Derek Walcott is symptomatic of this dread emptiness. After admitting that he has a tin ear for poetry, Naipaul confirms this mea culpa with a reading of Walcott's poetry so dim and shallow that he sabotages his own contention that Trinidad is a cultural wasteland.

-- Nicholas Blincoe, reviewing A Writer's People in the New Statesman--the most substantial review so far of Naipaul's latest.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Belatedly: Avocado

I've been meaning for weeks now to mention the July issue of Avocado, an "Abolition special issue", with fiction by David Dabydeen, Geoffrey Philp, and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw, and poems by James Berry and Ian McDonald. Avocado is a thrice-yearly literary magazine published by Heaventree Press, the Coventry-based non-profit publishing outfit that brought us Kei Miller's Kingdom of Empty Bellies last year and Egbert Martin's Selected Poems more recently. Let's hope they do another Caribbean-themed issue before too long.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

At the BRIC Rotunda Gallery: Mas: From Process to Procession

Infinite Island isn't the only Caribbean art event happening in Brooklyn this month. Tomorrow a show called Mas: From Process to Procession: Caribbean Carnival as Art Practice, curated by Claire Tancons, opens at the BRIC Rotunda Gallery in downtown Brooklyn.

Moko jumbies in Port of Spain; photo by Stefan Falke

Mas "captures the creation process of the contemporary Caribbean Carnival from initial drawings to final street processions" and "seeks to challenge traditional modes of artistic representation and curatorial presentation, and in doing so, unveil Carnival, with its formal innovations, satirical political appraisals, and inherently public nature, as one of the most complete yet under recognised contemporary art forms". The participating artists include Trinidadians Marlon Griffith and Karyn Olivier, German photographer Stefan Falke (who has been photographing Trinidad Carnival for over a decade), Mexican Laura Anderson Barbata (who has also worked in Trinidad Carnival), and mega-puppeteers Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles (who spent the 2006 Carnival season in Trinidad and produced an event reinterpreting traditional dragon mas).

To accompany the exhibition, there will be a panel discussion on Thursday 20 September in the gallery.

"I love my country but I've never missed it"

I finally left in August, even though just about everybody would tell you that I left from 2005. Just because some place is your home doesn’t mean you can live there. Jamaica became a base, a place to fly out from. I was in New York so much that customs started to suspect me of living there illegally. There was nothing more depressing than coming back to Jamaica and to be immediately thrust back into a life of trying to make money doing something I had no wish to. I did not start writing to find a new way to make money (boy would that have been a mistake-—even though I’m not doing bad, thanks for asking) but I did get a degree in creative writing so that I could teach. And earn some money. I love my country but I’ve never missed it, perhaps because I have never forgotten the reasons I left.

-- Marlon James--who is now teaching literature and creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota--writing at his blog about his own experience of "colonisation in reverse", and explaining why many Caribbean writers and artists are still driven to seek creative fulfilment "elsewhere".

Monday, 10 September 2007

More from Infinite Island: Pinas, Allora, Calzadilla, Awai

Some more images of works from Infinite Island, the major show of contemporary Caribbean art that opened at the Brooklyn Museum on 31 August.

Kuku (Kitchen), 2005. Marcel Pinas (b. Suriname 1971). Plastic plates, aluminum spoons, cups, wood shelves; 59 x 59 x 8 5/8 in. (150 x 150 x 22 cm). Courtesy of the artist

Under Discussion, 2005. Jennifer Allora (b. United States 1974; works in Puerto Rico) and Guillermo Calzadilla (Cuban, b. 1971; works in Puerto Rico). Single-channel DVD, color, sound, 6 min. 14 sec. Courtesy of the artists and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Specimen from L.E. (Local Ephemera): Resistance with Black Ooze, 2005. Nicole Awai (b. Trinidad 1966; works in United States). Graphite, acrylic paint, nail polish, and glitter on paper, 52 x 58 in. (132.1 x 147.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist (Photo: Jason Mandella)

Philp on Naipaul on Walcott

Last week Kwame Dawes wrote a response to V.S. Naipaul's recent essay on Derek Walcott. Now Geoffrey Philp has stepped into the fray, with an essay titled "Moral vs. Ethical Writing":

"Caribbean Odyssey" contains rare signs of empathy that Naipaul has never revealed before. In Naipaul's revelation of his idiosyncrasies, especially towards poetry and book buying, he reveals cultural habits that need to be explored further, and they show a grasp of Caribbean life that many other writers have yet to comprehend. In this respect, Naipaul's foibles in denying the wealth and abundance of "local" beauty, a trait that is endemic throughout the Caribbean, shows that he is indeed one of us....

Sunday, 9 September 2007

More Danticat and Díaz reviews

- Jess Row on Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying, in the NY Times Book Review.

- Lev Grossman on Junot Díaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in Time.

- And Jennifer Reese on same in Entertainment Weekly.

(I'm afraid, dear readers, that because of the CRB's long lead time, you'll have to wait till our February 2008 issue to read our reviews of these hot new titles--but they say good things come to those who etc.)

Friday, 7 September 2007

Links, links, links

-- Geoffrey Philp reminds us that today is the birthday of the late Miss Lou.

-- In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Richard Thompson reviews Edwidge Danticat's Brother, I'm Dying.

-- In Open Letters, Sam Sacks reviews Junot Díaz's Oscar Wao (thanks to CRB contibutor Garnette Cadogan for pointing this out).

-- And in the New York Times, Holland Cotter writes about the Mexican artist Laura Anderson Barbata's Jumbie Camp, a project based on her work with the Keylemanjahro moko jumbies in Trinidad. Photographer Stefan Falke gives some more information at his blog.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

"A carnivalesque mix of fantasy and gallows humor"

(Which Caribbean writer has got the most mentions here in the last fortnight? As of this post, it's Naipaul 6, Díaz 4.)

Thanks to CRB contributor Garnette Cadogan for pointing out that the new issue of Bookforum includes a review by Marcela Valdes of Junot Díaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Love is a word that appears in a lot of Díaz’s interviews, but his affection can be scorchingly unsentimental. Drown’s ten stories spotlight issues that the Latino community mostly likes to avoid: namely, its deep veins of homophobia, in fidelity, racism, sexism, and casual verbal abuse. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao adopts a similarly critical stance, but where Drown delivers its assessments with laconic restraint, Wao bellows them out with a carnivalesque mix of fantasy and gallows humor.

Also in this Bookforum: Andy Battaglia on Michael E. Veal's Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae.

"A grave suspicion of poetry"

Naipaul seems to understand something of the value of Walcott’s early poetry, but he reads poetry in the most intriguing way. And it is this approach to reading poetry that I find most intriguing in the work.

Naipaul admits a grave suspicion of poetry. That is generous. He, at one point, admits that there was a time when poetry was a pleasure for him. Then he was reading rhymes by Palgrave-—memorable, witty pieces written, one assumes, for children. Then he was forced to contend with poetry that did not offer the kind of accessibility that he felt was useful. He did not enjoy studying literature and says he was grateful for not having done literature in is sixth form exams because he would have had to read poetry and that would just have been a disaster. He does concede that while at university in England (he read at Oxford, but with splendid Oxford modesty, does not mention this fact in the piece) he was forced to read Shakespeare and Marlowe and he found power in quite simple lines. This he found remarkable. But he does not appear to have developed much of a taste for poetry, and if there is a taste, he does not trust it terribly.

-- Kwame Dawes, responding at the Poetry Foundation blog to Naipaul's essay on Walcott published recently in the UK Guardian.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

In the new issue of Caribbean Beat

The September/October issue of Caribbean Beat is now online--with Rihanna on the cover and the usual mix of features on culture, style, sport, etc. As well as: an article by Caroline Neisha Taylor on the second Caribbean Literary Festival, scheduled for early November in Antigua; a piece by Marissa De Four on A Different Booklist, the Toronto bookshop where Caribbean writers take pride of place; a review by Jeremy Taylor of James Mitchell's memoirs; and a piece by Vaneisa Baksh on C.L.R. James's relationship with Frank Worrell. Oh, and a review of the new jointpop album by CRB contributor Jonathan Ali: "The January Transfer Window is an unqualified triumph."

"They all seem impossible to me"

How has writing this novel differed from writing the short stories in Drown?

I'm probably the worst person to ask that. I don't have any sense other than that writing is extremely difficult for me. People are always asking, "Did it take you so long because writing a novel is really hard?" I'm like, dude, it took me seven years to write one story, one twenty page story. Really? I didn't realize that one was harder than the other, they all seem impossible to me. They both have me through the intestines on their horns, so it's that kind of weird thing like getting gut-shot by a pistol or a rifle. And the process, someone's like "Tell me, which one is worse?" And I'm like [screams]! That's the only way to answer it, I'm usually so busy screaming the fine nuances of loss.

-- Junot Díaz, interviewed by John Zuarino at Bookslut.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

"As if hooked by unseen fishermen"

How can we let a day go by here at Antilles without posting a Naipaul link? Here's another review of A Writer's People, this time by Nicholas Shakespeare in the Telegraph:

In 1970, the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon wrote to a friend: "I have the awful problem now of being a better person before I can paint better."

When one wonders at his achievement (to borrow his phrase), it is tempting to ask this question of V.S. Naipaul.

Would he be a better writer if he were, so to speak, an even better person?

This book’s cover photograph shows a mouth downturned at the corners, as if hooked by unseen fishermen.

Kakutani times two

The fearless and energetic Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times manages to review not one but two new Caribbean books in today's edition. First, Junot Díaz's novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:

... a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets Star Trek meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. It is funny, street-smart and keenly observed, and it unfolds from a comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek into a harrowing meditation on public and private history and the burdens of familial history.

Next, Edwidge Danticat's memoir of her father and uncle, Brother, I'm Dying:

Danticat not only creates an indelible portrait of her two fathers, her dad and her uncle, but in telling their stories, she gives the reader an intimate sense of the personal consequences of the Haitian diaspora: its impact on parents and children, brothers and sisters, those who stay and those who leave to begin a new life abroad. She has written a fierce, haunting book about exile and loss and family love, and how that love can survive distance and separation, loss and abandonment and somehow endure, undented and robust.

Monday, 3 September 2007

"We have had no Morgan or Port Royal"

CRB contributor Jonathan Ali (whose review of the new Kwame Dawes novel appears in the August issue), poking around in some online archive, has made an entertaining discovery:

"Oh dear, this really is the year of Naipaul," remarked the CRB's editor, after yet another link to an article on Sir Vidia, whose new book, A Writer's People, is published this week.

Well, I thought we'd go one step further and make it the year of the Naipauls, plural. While doing a bit of online research I stumbled across this--a prize-winning essay by VSN's younger, now-deceased brother Shiva, author of, among other books, the fine novels Fireflies and The Chip-Chip Gatherers.

Entitled "My Trinidad", the essay was written for a contest organised by the Trinidad Guardian--for which Vidia and Shiva's father, Seepersad, had been a reporter--on the occasion of the nation's independence, when Shiva would have been around 18 years old, and about to head to Oxford University (to read Chinese, I believe).

Lest the reader infer that the Naipaul family connection to the Guardian played a part in Shiva copping first prize, the lead-in to the essay assures us that the judging was done by the Ministry of Education.

-- JA

[Ed.'s note: isn't it slightly delicious to think that Naipaul minor's Trinidad essay appeared around the same time as Naipaul major's controversial book The Middle Passage? And can you see some glimmers of similarity? "Our history has been a comparatively minor affair."]

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Links, links, links

- Another review of the new Naipaul--this time, by Chandrahas Choudhury in the UK Observer:

Naipaul's operative idea through the book is not so much prose style as what he calls 'vision'. For him, how well a writer 'sees' is what makes his work forceful, ageless, truthful. Those who see clearly bring to their work some original perception of the world, do not merely imitate established forms, treasure precision, avoid rhetoric. Bad writers are verbose and tend to over-explain; even worse, they are often intellectually dishonest.

- Also in the Observer, fifty "celebrated" writers each name a much-loved and underrated book that deserves to be better known (part one, part two). Ali Smith's choice? No Pain Like This Body, by the Trinidadian writer Harold Sonny Ladoo:

Ladoo writes with the power of Faulkner, but stripped of all dandification. A fable about the death of innocence and the workings of poverty, it's as rich as fiction can be.

- In the Jamaica Gleaner arts section, poet Ishion Hutchinson remembers his sixth form English literature teacher, Maxwell Coore. "We bonded over Shakespeare...."

- Also in the Gleaner, Anthea McGibbon reports on the work of the four artists in the Super Plus Under-40 Artist of the Year competition: Paula Daley, Cleve Bowen, Oya Tyehimba Kujichaguila, and Kereine Chang-Fatt.

- The Stabroek News carries a second instalment of the Guyana Prize for Literature judges' report. (Part one appeared in last Sunday's Stabroek.)

- And in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Carlin Romano reviews Junot Díaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and finds that "despite too many badly written passages and a hodgepodge of repetitive riffs on teenage sexuality, Caribbean exoticism, and 'character is fate' ... if you stick with it to the end, it touches you."

Saturday, 1 September 2007

"He might not always be saying what he means"

V.S. Naipaul's new book, A Writer's People, isn't officially published until this coming Friday, but the first review is already in: Amit Chaudhuri's, in the UK Guardian. An odd sort of review, as much about D.H. Lawrence as about Naipaul:

No writer since Lawrence has been so openly governed by what seems like powerful personal likes and dislikes, grievances, and by what appear to many as untenable prejudices....

One thing is certain, though: while we can never ignore what these writers are saying, given, especially, the essentially instructive nature of their work, we can't engage wholly with them by taking their statements at face value either. Lawrence, of course, warned the reader about this disjunction between the writer and his message. Naipaul, on the other hand, wants to hold the writer to his or her word. His own message, in A Writer's People, concerns, principally, the idea of "looking"; something that's been at the core of his work from the start. Only an occasional, disorienting air of mischief in some of his pronouncements suggests that he might not always be saying what he means.

And in The Scotsman--oh dear, this really is the year of Naipaul--Tom Adair describes a visit to the Great Man's cottage in Wiltshire: lunch, the cat Augustus, animal rights, and talk of the eventual disposal of VSN's mortal remains. Oh, and cricket:

Lunch is delicious. We sit in our jackets like public schoolboys, eating politely while from the kitchen drifts the commotion of treats to come. We talk about cricket. Today, England are battling to hold off India. In the loyalties test, the Tebbit test, how would Sir Vidia Naipaul fare? "I favour India," he says. "I know the players." No hesitation. What, I ask, of the West Indies?

"The West Indies includes so very many small islands now," he says. "The team is quite different from that of my youth."

Friday, 31 August 2007

Links, links, links

Junot Díaz; photo by Lily Oei from the Village Voice

- In the Village Voice, James Hannaham reviews the new Junot Díaz novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao--his first book since Drown, ten years ago:

...as Zadie Smith called her White Teeth, Oscar Wao is a bit of a "hyperactive ginger-haired 10-year-old"—though Díaz's book is definitely a moreno. Its rapid-fire, profane, and hilarious voice recalls one of John Leguizamo's monologues, Mambo Mouth or Spic-O-Rama, underscored with footnotes lampooning the political and social history of the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, the DR's Latin-style Kim Jong Il.

(Small point of correction: in his opening paragraph, Hannaham describes Derek Walcott as Trinidadian. I'm sure his St. Lucian readers won't be amused.)

- At Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, the energetic Kwame Dawes writes about his dislike of obscurity for its own sake in poetry; the links between truth and fiction in literature; and his memories of eating porridge in his grandfather's house in Lome.

- Reading a book about the American Civil War leads Pamela Mordecai to contemplate the immense responsibilities of teachers.

- Tumelo Mosaka of the Brooklyn Museum talks about Infinite Island on the Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio.

- And the 2007 Antigua and Barbuda Independence Homecoming Literary Arts Competition is now open, "to all published and non-published writers", according to an article in the Antigua Sun.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

"Sheer multiplicity"

In its apparent continuing effort to be as un-Manhattan as possible, the Brooklyn Museum has been cooking up shows that the fashion-obsessed art establishment is guaranteed to find uncool. Hip-hop, “Star Wars,” feminism. What could be next? “Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art” is next.

Multiculturalist terms like identity, hybridity and diversity may sound like words from a dead language in Chelsea, but they are the lingua franca of the Brooklyn show. Once-hyped forms like installation art and the neo-conceptual object may be disdained by Manhattan tastemakers, but they are embraced here....

One of the show’s stated purposes is to ask whether there is, in fact, a cultural entity — or a type of contemporary art — that can be securely identified as Caribbean. And it arrives at its answer — no — through a display of sheer multiplicity. There may be fundamental links between the diaristic drawings of the Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier; the platinum-plated plantains of the Puerto Rican Miguel Luciano; the self-portrait in lederhosen of the Haitian artist Jean-Ulrick Désert; the participatory installation by the conceptual artist Satch Hoyt; and a sad, suspenseful video piece by the young Cuban artist Alex Hernández Dueñas. But if so, they are not mapped here.

-- From Holland Cotter's review of Infinite Island in the New York Times. In the New York Sun, Lance Esplund says:

The show, comprising videos, installations, paintings, sculptures, photography, and interactive works, emphasizes the West Indies' cross-cultural nature, and is colorful, musical, and multifarious, but it is also serious-minded and politically charged. The exhibit acts primarily as a provocative platform for social causes, which ultimately may tell us more about the contemporary issues embraced by the art world than about the rich diversity of the Caribbean.

At the Brooklyn Museum: Infinite Island

Hew Locke (British, b. 1959). El Dorado, 2005. Mixed media. West Collection, Oaks, Pennsylvania (Photo: FXP Photography)

Infinite Island, a major show of contemporary Caribbean art, opens tomorrow at the Brooklyn Museum. It presents eighty works by forty-five artists, who "represent multiple perspectives as they explore the complexities of Caribbean history and identity". The exhibition website offers examples of the work of twenty of the participating artists, such as Tirzo Martha of Curaçao, Storm Saulter of Jamaica, Ewan Atkinson of Barbados, Trinidadian Nicole Awai, and CRB contributor Christopher Cozier. The show also includes Hew Locke, Steve Ouditt, Joscelyn Gardner, Annalee Davis, Charles Campbell, Maxence Denis, Deborah Jack, Marcel Pinas.... A stellar line-up. And in the hefty catalogue you'll find an essay by another CRB contributor, Annie Paul.

Ewan Atkinson (b. Barbados 1975). You Will Have to Use Soap, 2005. Digital print and mixed media, 24 1/2 x 16 in. (62.2 x 40.6 cm). Collection of Judilee Reed, Brooklyn, New York (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

The museum staff even offer a behind-the-scenes look at preparations for the show via their blog--there you can read about the intricacies of installing Cozier's Tropical Night, or buying materials for Denis's Kawtchou and Martha's Spirit of the Caribe, and watch Campbell painting part of his work Aperture--Middle Passage directly onto the gallery wall.

And look out for coverage of Infinite Island in the upcoming November issue of the CRB.

Storm Saulter (b. Jamaica 1983). Waterboot, 2003. Single-channel DVD, color, sound, 2 min. 25 sec. Courtesy of Palm Pictures

Wednesday, 29 August 2007


Naipaul chuckles at the gulf that divides all delusions, pretensions, expectations and vanities from reality. Naipaul is one of the great masters of black comedy. In fiction, he says that, in creating characters, he likes simply to walk around, not judge, them. But in doing so, he manages to expose all their flaws and the dark comedy of their lives. Like Conrad, his true predecessor (though he would never agree to that), he sees humanity as irre-deemably flawed, though worth close observation.

Naipaul is hypersensitive to these human flaws. He once said: “I was gifted at an early age – the minute I saw a person, I could see the flaw in that person. It was like a curse.” So, naturally, I ask him what flaw he saw in me. After trying to avoid the question, he says he no longer has the gift.

“You lost it, coincidentally, just before you met me?”

“Exactly.” Chuckle.

-- From "V.S. Naipaul: the great offender", an admiring profile by Bryan Appleyard in last Sunday's Times. (I didn't notice it until Shelf Space posted a link.) VSN in the Times and the Guardian in one weekend! The publicity machine for his new book is hitting high gear.

Ways in the world

Ah, the old best-books parlour game.... Concierge.com, the website associated with Conde Nast Traveller, announces "The 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time, chosen by "a literary all-star jury". Among undisputed classics like Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands, George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana, there are, unsurprisingly, two books by our own V.S. Naipaul: his first and third India books, An Area of Darkness and India: A Million Mutinies Now.

But! no travel books set in the Caribbean. Well, dear readers, shall we come up with our own list? I'll start, if you add further suggestions in the comments below. First, travel books by Caribbean writers (we'll use the nice definition suggested by Pico Iyer in a note accompanying the Concierge.com list: "A travel book can be defined as one that its author would never think of as a travel book; to him, it is history or anthropology, memoir or even camouflage fiction"):

- There are of course Naipaul's other travel books--most infamously, perhaps, The Middle Passage, a book many Caribbean readers are yet to digest; his less-well-known Congo Diary; his American sojourn, A Turn in the South; in some ways, even The Enigma of Arrival is a "travel" book--just look at the title.

- It's generally agreed that Vidia's brother Shiva is Naipaul minor in both senses, but we mustn't forget his North of South or his troubling Jonestown book, Black and White.

- Does anyone still remember Edgar Mittelholzer's With a Carib Eye (1958), his account of travelling from New Amsterdam on Guyana's Berbice coast up the chain of islands?

- Andrew Salkey's Georgetown Journal, his account of the Caribbean Writers' and Artists' Conference in Guyana in 1970, is one of the most unfairly underappreciated books by any Caribbean writer. The original New Beacon edition is still in print after thirty-five years. I'm ashamed to say I haven't read its companion volume, Havana Journal.

- Mentioning Havana reminds me, of course, of the "North American Scenes" José Martí wrote during the time he lived in New York. The Penguin Selected Writings edited and translated by Esther Allen a few years ago includes a selection.

- Jamaica Kincaid's polemic A Small Place may be the single harshest book ever written about the Caribbean--even counting Naipaul. It ought to be required reading. More recently, Among Flowers describes a botanical expedition in the Himalayas--after My Garden Book, all Kincaid's readers must know what a keen horticulturalist she is.

Then there's Lamming's Pleasures of Exile, E.A. Markham's Papua New Guinea Sojourn, even Charlotte Williams's Sugar and Slate.... These are just to get the discussion started, dear readers--what else should we add to the list?

In a forthcoming post: travel books about the Caribbean by writers from elsewhere.

Thank you, and thank you...

... to Geoffrey Philp, for linking to the August CRB at his blog (this issue includes an interview with Geoffrey about literary blogging); and to Pamela Mordecai for a kind mention over at her blog. Pam's post, however, also contains some sad news: that Caribbean Writing Today, the online magazine edited by Wayne Brown in Jamaica, will soon be shutting down. There are few enough literary magazines in the Anglophone Caribbean as it is.

Finally, thanks as well to all the CRB readers who responded to our recent subscriptions drive. Every single subscription makes a big difference to a small magazine like the CRB. Our list has grown encouragingly over the last two months, but it needs to grow a lot more. So if you haven't pulled out your credit card or cheque book yet--take this for a not-so-gentle reminder. And if you'd prefer to buy your CRB from a local bookshop every three months, encourage your bookseller to contact us.

Monday, 27 August 2007

La vie en noir

Regular readers of the CRB will have noticed that, though the magazine's pages are still mostly filled with book reviews and essays about writers and writing, in recent issues we've also been publishing (intelligent, insightful) pieces on Caribbean art, music, and theatre. Literature doesn't exist in vaccuum-sealed isolation from other art forms, and we believe most of our readers are keen to know what's going on in these other fields.

Our August 2007 issue includes an elegant journal-style "notebook" essay by Judy Raymond, giving a behind-the-scenes look at the working life of Trinidadian fashion designer Meiling. Judy's piece is excerpted from her upcoming illustrated biography of Meiling (which follows a volume on jeweller Barbara Jardine published last year). Here's another excerpt from that work in progress, in which Judy investigates Meiling's trademark all-black look.

Meiling strides down the runway at the end of a show, to the applause of her models. Photo by Jeffrey Chock, from Caribbean Beat

Every day of the year, Meiling dresses in black: casual black pants, a black T-shirt and flat shoes. She may allow herself wooden bangles and pointy shoes with red piping. Her black top may have white stripes, or long sleeves.

But whatever the variations, the basic theme is always plain black, always with the same diamond stud earrings.

She describes it as her uniform. “It doesn’t change much when I’m going out,” she admits, adding with no visible concern, “I’ve heard people say I’m boring.”

Why does she always wear black?

Obviously it’s not that she’s not interested in clothes, or that she wouldn’t look good in her own designs. She’s as slim as a woman decades younger: she exercises, eats sparingly, and describes herself as vain. She indulges in accessories for her basic black. “I like beautiful bracelets, cuffs, red shoes....”

She’s careful with her time, and over the years has eliminated from her life many things she doesn’t consider essential. But she cares about how things look. She keeps some of the clothes she’s made, and buys vintage garments when she goes away. But not to wear: she only takes them out sometimes to admire their beauty, or the skill with which they were sewn.

That’s a little perverse: a beautiful garment is wearable art, best appreciated when it’s worn—as a designer knows better than anyone.

She’s cagey about why she dresses as she does. Dressing all in black is easy, she says. “It makes life much simpler.” True, it avoids what she called in a newspaper article she wrote in 1969 “that lifelong, most horrid and nagging question, ‘What shall I wear?’”

She hasn’t always worn black. But she feels safer in it. She remembers walking to work in a red suit one morning many years ago, when she lived on Abercromby Street and her shop was nearby, on upper Frederick Street.

“I never wore it again, because I felt everybody was looking at me. It’s about being inconspicuous.”

She says her fitting room is small, and she doesn’t want to compete with her clients when they come to try on clothes. They don’t need to worry about what she’ll think of what they’re wearing—look what she has on.

Being a woman designer must put a lot of pressure on you to look stylish at all times. Meiling has dealt with that problem by sidestepping it altogether. The sameness of her clothes is the opposite of fashion, which is driven by change and renewal.

But there’s more to her wardrobe than meets the eye. As Alison Lurie writes in The Language of Clothes, an outfit, like a sentence, can have more than one meaning. Meiling’s “uniform” isn’t a uniform in the sense of being a costume worn by a group of people. Hers makes her different from everyone else. In this tropical climate, many people adopt the bright colours of the landscapes that surround them, and against this background, stark black—the wilful negation of colour—stands out more than any peacock hue. Dressing in it from head to foot, day in, day out, is an extreme measure. If Meiling really wanted to be inconspicuous, she could have adopted the uniform of all ages and genders, a T-shirt and jeans.

Fellow designer Robert Young sums up her approach to dressing in modern terms when he says, “She’s a brand—that hair, those clothes.”

Ah yes, the hair. Over the years, it’s become both shorter and wilder. It suits her, but Meiling doesn’t wear it that way because it’s suitable. Her hair is not the hair of a middle-class grandmother—which is one of the things she is. At 50 she wore a sleek bob, elegant but unremarkable. A decade later, her hair is hacked into an inky, spiky crop that stands up straight like the crest of some exotic bird, in an Edward Scissorhands shock.

As Young’s comment suggests, the choice of what you wear is not just about looking good. Other people are books that we are constantly judging by their covers. What you wear tells the world who you are, who you would like to be, or who you would like people to think you are. That’s why fashion matters in such an intensely personal way.

But what can you tell about Meiling from the way she dresses? Little or nothing about her age, her class, her sexuality; perhaps a hint that she’s an artist, because no other profession would embrace such a bohemian approach to dressing.

A uniform is a way of hiding yourself; it conceals many of the clues about the wearer that are given away, often unwittingly, by more conventional, varied clothing. A designer doesn’t do that by accident. Meiling has made a careful choice about the signals she sends out—and the ones she suppresses. But her choice of black does let slip certain important things about her. Her guardedness is in itself revealing.

Meiling doesn’t need to dress eye-catchingly to get attention; she’s at the centre of her world. She hated, she has said, the “power dressing” of the 1980s. “The power in a woman isn’t in what she wears,” she believes. She’s evidence of that.

She doesn’t describe herself as a feminist, but she behaves like one. A woman’s appearance doesn’t mean the same as a man’s; it’s considered more important, a view Meiling has chosen to ignore. It’s not that she doesn’t care about her looks, but that she refuses to be judged on them. Her way of dressing tells you that her talent matters more, and she takes her work seriously. It’s art. It’s business. It’s not mere self-adornment. Her look says she’s disciplined and ascetic.