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!

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

2008 CRB books of the year

Where, dear readers, did this whole gallumphing year go? Does our perception of time change as we get older, so that the days and weeks and months speed faster and faster downslope--or is that apparent acceleration unique to your humble Antilles blogger?

It doesn't seem so very long since I posted the CRB's list of 2007's most noteworthy books, but indeed it was exactly one year ago. Now it's time again to rack the collective editorial brain, and decide which of 2008's new books we wish to commend to our readers.

This past year, in our four quarterly issues, the CRB reviewed exactly fifty books, and "noticed" thirty-five in our "Also noted" column. (That's a few less than in 2007. We actually published more pages in 2008, but we also devoted a greater proportion of them to visual arts and film, and to new poems, stories, and essays. Maybe the reviews have also been getting a bit longer.) Our longish lead-time means that many books from the latter part of 2008 won't actually be reviewed in our pages till next year.

And of all these books that have passed over our desks and through our hands, which do the CRB's editors believe should find, as we put it a year ago, a permanent place in our readers' bookshelves? Once again, we have chosen only books that ought to interest general readers across the Caribbean, excluding specialist scholarly titles. There are ten books on our list: two novels, two books of poems, two anthologies, a biography, a memoir, an illustrated volume of art history, and one book that is hard to categorise. In alphabetical order, the 2008 CRB books of the year:

After-Image, by Dennis Scott, ed. Mervyn Morris (Peepal Tree Press)
A posthumous selection of poems by the much-missed Jamaican writer, published seventeen years after his death. Dating mostly from the last years of his life, these poems seem to foreshadow Scott's untimely departure; they also reintroduce an important forbear to today's emerging writers. (Reviewed by F.S.J. Ledgister in the November 2008 CRB.)

Cuba: Art and History from 1868 to Today, ed. Nathalie Bondil (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)
This massive catalogue of an exhibition that ran at the MMFA looks at the development of art in modern Cuba against the background of the country's tempestuous history over the last century and a half--reproducing works from the national collections alongside documentary photographs, commercial art, and political propaganda. (Reviewed by Nicholas Laughlin in the August 2008 CRB.)

Horses in Her Hair: A Granddaughter's Story, by Rachel Manley (Key Porter Books)
Manley's third family memoir tells the story of her grandmother Edna Manley--wife of Jamaica's first premier and mother of the country's fifth prime minister, but also a cultural icon in her own right. Gently, honestly, eloquently, Manley offers a lingering assessment of a woman who was a legend in her own time. (Look out for a review in the February 2009 CRB.)

Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture, by B.W. Higman (University of the West Indies Press)
At once a cultural history, an anthropological study, and an encyclopedia of flora and fauna--fish, flesh, and fowl--Higman's comprehensive survey of "food practices" in Jamaica, from the time of the pre-Columbian Taino to the present, is a surprisingly entertaining miscellany of historical references, statistics, recipes, and anecdotes. (Reviewed by Anu Lakhan in the November 2008 CRB.)

Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles, ed. Thomas Glave (Duke University Press)
A landmark anthology of fiction, poems, essays, and memoirs by thirty-seven writers, confronting head-on one of the contemporary Caribbean's areas of darkness. Whether telling tender love stories or declaiming fierce polemics, these voices insist that gay and lesbian writers (and readers) have a central place in the Caribbean literary tradition. (Reviewed by Kelly Baker Josephs in the November 2008 CRB.)

Pynter Bender, by Jacob Ross (Fourth Estate)
This epic first novel by Grenadian Jacob Ross--also author of two short story collections--tells the strange and densely lyrical story of the title character's childhood and adolescence in an unnamed island shadowed by a sinister dictator. Pynter's growth into troubled consciousness and his movement from his rural home village to the confusions of urban life mirror his island's social evolution. (Look out for a review in the February 2009 CRB.)

The Same Earth, by Kei Miller (Weidenfeld and Nicholson)
The first novel by one of the most accomplished Caribbean writers of his generation shows the development of the gifts Miller displayed in his previous books of poems and short fiction: narrative energy, wry humour, and a knowingness about the world as tender as it is unsparing. (Reviewed by Lisa Allen-Agostini in the November 2008 CRB.)

Selected Poems, by Ian McDonald, ed. Edward Baugh (Macmillan Caribbean)
This career-summing volume by an eminent Caribbean man of letters assembles poems written in six decades. McDonald's poems are scrupulously attentive to the world and its joys and pains; only rarely does lyrical talent so closely coincide with generosity of spirit. (Look out for a review in the February 2009 CRB.)

Trinidad Noir, ed. Lisa Allen-Agostini and Jeanne Mason (Akashic)
This bold anthology of short fiction by both celebrated writers and new unknowns stares unblinking into the dark corners and alleyways of the contemporary Caribbean, and reminds us that--despite the brightly coloured stereotypes--these islands have always been home to violence and brutality and things we'd rather forget. (Look out for a review in the May 2009 CRB.)

The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of V.S. Naipaul, by Patrick French (Picador/Knopf)
The literary sensation of the year, French's biography of the Caribbean's most polarising writer--the man we love to hate and hate to love--is a gripping and ultimately moving study of a literary intelligence prepared to destroy everything in its path in its quest to understand the world. (Reviewed by Jeremy Taylor in the November 2008 CRB.)

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Not a blogger was stirring

Your Antilles blogger is not on vacation, dear readers. The opposite, rather: this last week I've been haunted by the ghosts of deadlines missed, and other year-end monsters. And much pre-occupied with CRB fundraising, to see the magazine through the next year, and also with Commonwealth Writers' Prize reading--there are dozens of books in my yet-to-read pile, and more to come. So now is perhaps the time to say, apologetically, that posting here at Antilles is likely to be sparse until we are over the brink and into 2009.

Naturally, if there is Truly Big News relating to Caribbean literature, I will rouse myself to report it; also before the year is out you can expect at least one more CRB subscription appeal. And on 31 December I will post the titles of the 2008 CRB books of the year. Meanwhile, I'd love to hear what Antilles readers think are the reading highlights of the past twelvemonth. Tell us in the comments below!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Links, links, links

- Another end-of-year best-books list, this time in the Washington Post, including Lorna Goodison's memoir From Harvey River and (inevitably!) Patrick French's The World Is What It Is.

- At the Harper's Sentences blog, Wyatt Mason reads V.S. Naipaul's introduction to A House for Mr. Biswas and reflects on virtuosity.

- Geoffrey Philp points us to a poem by Fred D'Aguiar in Poetry:

The shoemaker’s wife ran preschool
With a fist made not so much of iron
But wire bristles on a wooden brush.

She made us recite and learn by rote.
Our trick was to mouth words, sound
As if we knew what we would one day

Come to know, what would dawn
On us as sure as a centipede knows
What to do with its myriad legs....

- And Charmaine Valere is slowly making her way through David Dabydeen's Molly and the Muslim Stick, which provokes memories of "inappropriate sexual encounters"....

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

"Like Kamau Brathwaite, or Martin Carter...."

Two minutes and forty-one seconds well spent: the UK Guardian posts a video of Linton Kwesi Johnson reading "If I Woz a Tap Natch Poet".

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Reminder: support the Signifyin' Guyana short story competition

Many thanks to those Antilles readers who responded to my appeal last week to support the Signifyn' Guyana short story competition for Guyanese writers. To recap: Charmaine Valere of Signifyin' Guyana, the competition organiser, is trying to raise part of the prize money via ChipIn, which makes it easy to donate online. If you haven't taken a look at the competition announcement yet, please do--and please consider supporting emerging Guyanese writers by making a small donation to the prize fund. (And great thanks to Geoffrey Philp for posting a similar appeal.)

Monday, 8 December 2008

Walcott on Omeros

The BBC World Service is currently running a lengthy question-and-answer session with Derek Walcott in its World Book Club series.

Fielding questions from a studio audience and listeners around the world, Walcott insists that Omeros is not a reworking or transformation of Homer in a Caribbean setting, as so many commentators have assumed. He has some interesting technical points about the metrical and rhyming structure of the poem and the "ancestors" to whom these elements pay tribute. He talks about the problems of using Caribbean creole in poetry, and about his avoidance of metaphor ("metaphor is an accident, an evocation": the aim is to have a noun create the physicality of an object, not simply evoke it).

At the end of the session, Walcott remarks that, out of the whole history of poetic endeavour, only about 300-400 pages can be called real poetry. "Including some of yours?" enquires the presenter. To which Walcott replies, "Let me speak to my lawyer."

You can listen to the programme on demand for a week after its first broadcast, or download it as a podcast. Go to www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice and follow the links.

"The book is the ideal tool"

Culture on a global scale concerns us all. But it is above all the responsibility of readers--of publishers, in other words. True, it is unjust that an Indian from the far north of Canada, if he wishes to be heard, must write in the language of the conquerors--in French, or in English. True, it is an illusion to expect that the Creole language of Mauritius or the West Indies might be heard as easily around the world as the five or six languages that reign today as absolute monarchs over the media. But if, through translation, their voices can be heard, then something new is happening, a cause for optimism. Culture, as I have said, belongs to us all, to all humankind. But in order for this to be true, everyone must be given equal access to culture. The book, however old-fashioned it may be, is the ideal tool. It is practical, easy to handle, economical. It does not require any particular technological prowess, and keeps well in any climate. Its only flaw--and this is where I would like to address publishers in particular--is that in a great number of countries it is still very difficult to gain access to books. In Mauritius the price of a novel or a collection of poetry is equivalent to a sizeable portion of the family budget. In Africa, Southeast Asia, Mexico, or the South Sea Islands, books remain an inaccessible luxury. And yet remedies to this situation do exist. Joint publication with the developing countries, the establishment of funds for lending libraries and bookmobiles, and, overall, greater attention to requests from and works in so-called minority languages--which are often clearly in the majority--would enable literature to continue to be this wonderful tool for self-knowledge, for the discovery of others, and for listening to the concert of humankind, in all the rich variety of its themes and modulations.

-- J.M.G. Le Clézio's Nobel lecture--delivered yesterday in Stockholm--is now online.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

More Naipauliana

V.S. Naipaul's Room, from the Writers' Rooms series, by Eamonn McCabe

I've been posting so much Naipauliana here of late, dear readers, I may as well continue. First, Pico Ayer reviews The World Is What It Is in Time:

The central question the book raises is how much inhumanity is justified in the cultivation of a talent--especially in an age when (as Naipaul is shrewd enough to realize) writers are judged on the basis of their personality more than their art. Even as he turned himself into a bespoke English gentleman, after all, while Pat became the obedient and self-denying Indian wife of legend, Naipaul's strength lay not just in the clarity of his observations but in the passion--the grief and terror and rage--that trembled just beneath them.

Next, an essay by Vivian Gornick comparing Naipaul and James Baldwin, in the latest Boston Review (thanks to Antilles reader Andre Bagoo for sending me the link):

Two men of color: one black, one brown; one American, one Trinidad-Indian; both in a bottomless rage over having been born outsiders into a world dominated by whites; both released into a genius for writing by the force and influence of that very rage. If ever there were a pair of writers who, with roughly equivalent results, made the same virtue out of the same enduring necessity, surely it was V.S. Naipaul and James Baldwin. But it is the difference, not the sameness, between them that is compelling.

Finally, a long book review-cum-essay (PDF link) by William H. Pritchard in the Autumn 2008 Hudson Review (thanks to Matthew Hunte for the link):

About a particularly stressful year in Naipaul’s life, his biographer remarks that throughout it he had “remained focussed on two things: himself and his writing.” Looking at his career in its entirety, it must be said that remaining focussed on self and writing was not at all a condition of one particular year, rather a lifetime habit.

(The photo above, of Naipaul's desk in his house in Salisbury, is from a series of images by Eamonn McCabe of "Writers' Rooms". The BBC posts a nice slideshow summarising the series, with audio commentary by the photographer.)

Friday, 5 December 2008

"These days, authentic art is international"

Wilfredo Prieto didn’t travel outside his native Cuba until 2000, when he was a 22-year-old art student in Havana. During an international artists’ workshop on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, he put an ornamental plant in a wheelbarrow and took it on a walking tour of the island, in a performance piece that he called Walk. “That trip was my first experience with the capitalist world, and it allowed me to see the situation in Cuba with different eyes,” he says. At the moment the affable, self-assured Prieto is sitting in the restaurant of a trendy hotel in London, having spent much of the intervening eight years experiencing more of the capitalist world than most Americans see in a lifetime.

-- From a profile of Prieto by Susan Welsh, in W magazine's November 2008 art issue, which features a selection of up-and-coming young artists. The piece concludes:

Ironically, the Cuban government’s restrictions on free speech and the press can be liberating for an artist. “In Cuba people have to be informed through what we call radio bemba--which is like word of mouth,” he says. “And it’s interesting that this way the information is really processed and played with.” He recalls a conversation with a Museum of Modern Art curator who was visiting Cuba. “He said he wanted to find ‘authentic’ Cuban art—he was looking for more vegetation or something,” Prieto says, laughing. “But these days, authentic art is international.”

S/T (crane) (2006), by Wilfredo Prieto

"Horse-trading and gamesmanship"

In his column in today's Newsday, Kevin Baldeosingh responds to the discussion about literary awards hosted by the CRB and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize last month. He draws on published comments by various Booker Prize judges to make the point that "there are no rigorous standards in literary judgements":

Last September, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize, the London Guardian asked a judge from each year to give the inside story of how the winning book was chosen.... “The Booker has certainly mirrored fashion -- the collapse of the empire; post-modernist Victorian pastiche; New Age sentimentality,” one judge said. Another recalled: “The absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism).” And a third: “It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value. Even the most correct jury goes in for horse-trading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.”

Which brings me to Ken Arrow, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1972. Although he got the prize for his “pioneering contributions to general economic equilibrium theory and welfare theory”, Arrow is best known for his 1948 impossibility theorem, which is a cornerstone of, not economics, but politics. Put simply, the theorem proves mathematically that any election based on “one person, one vote” is fair only when there are two candidates. Add a third or more, and it is likely that a candidate who is no one’s favourite will win. The theorem applies to many areas besides electoral voting, including literary prizes.

Baldeosingh is the author of three novels and a former CWP judge himself, so he writes on the subject of literary awards from an insider's perspective. He is also annoyed, it seems, that he was not a member of the discussion panel for the CRB/CWP event, though he was in the the audience:

The Commonwealth Foundation had commissioned a local publisher to arrange this forum. As the only Trinidadian who had served for three years as a judge on the Commonwealth Book Prize, including 1999 when Salman Rushdie was a finalist and made his first public appearance in India after the fatwa, you might think I’d be a logical choice for such a panel. But you’d be wrong. You see, these discussions require fluency in literary discourse, and I don’t speak twaddle....

Now it may be that the Trini literati don’t consider me a good writer; and it may be that they’re even right. But I have found most literary professionals (not readers) in this place to be persons of small mind and spiteful spirit. And if unprofessionalism so infects individuals on matters of art, where neither much money and even less power is at stake, imagine how much more pervasive the pettiness is in other arenas, such as politics or business. Far more than imperialism or colonialism or poverty, this is what keeps us Third World.

Your humble Antilles blogger, who after all helped organise the event, appears to be somehow implicated in this; so I will now end my twaddling and engage in contemplation of my alleged smallness of mind and spitefulness of spirit.

PS: If anyone knows where the Trini literati are to be found, do drop me a line--perhaps they will help fund the CRB.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

A few links

- The December issue of The Latin American Review of Books is online.

- Arlene M. Roberts reviews the Trinidad Noir anthology at the Huffington Post.

- The books editors of the New York Times have refined their list of the hundred most "notable" books of 2008 down to their ten books of the year. One is The World Is What It Is, Patrick French's biography of V.S. Naipaul; another is Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland, which features a major Trinidadian character.

(Look out, in a few weeks' time, for the CRB's picks for Caribbean books of the year....)

Monday, 1 December 2008

Support the Signifyin' Guyana short story competition

Yesterday I posted a link to Charmaine Valere's announcement of the Signifyin' Guyana short story competition for Guyanese writers. This is a bold attempt on her part to give tangible support to writers living in Guyana, where opportunities to earn money from creative writing are very few. (And writers need to eat and pay rent just like the rest of us.) The winners of the competition will receive not insubstantial prizes--US$500 for the first place winner, $300 for second place, $100 for third--and the winning stories will also be published.

How will this all be funded? That's where you come in, dear readers. Signifyin' Guyana hopes to raise part of the necessary funds--US$500--with the help of readers in the Caribbean and further afield who want to support emerging Guyanese writers. So Charmaine has set up an account with ChipIn:

Please consider making a donation, even a small one. I just did, to get things started. Why? Because of Guyana's immense contribution to Caribbean letters. Think of the names: Edgar Mittelholzer, Martin Carter, Wilson Harris, A.J. Seymour, Jan Carew, Beryl Gilroy, Denis Williams, Roy Heath, David Dabydeen, Mahadai Das, Pauline Melville, Grace Nichols, Jan Shinebourne, Fred D'Aguiar, Oonya Kempadoo, Mark McWatt, Ruel Johnson.... And those are just the first that come to mind. If there are equally talented young writers working in Guyana today, I want to encourage them and help them bring their work to the world's attention. Do you?

On Valmiki's Daughter

Trinidadian-Canadian Shani Mootoo's new novel, Valmiki's Daughter, was recently published in Canada; reviews have begun to appear in various newspapers and other media. A sampling:

If the premise of Shani Mootoo's latest novel wasn't so sad it might easily read as farce: A handful of gay spouses in a conservative community pretend to be straight, while their partners pretend not to know.

The action of Valmiki's Daughter unfolds in Trinidad among members of the urban, affluent Indian class whose ancestors climbed out of indentured service in the cane and cacao fields. With such dark memories coursing through their veins, it's no wonder they are prepared to sacrifice personal contentment to maintain their elite status.

-- Donna Bailey Nurse, writing in the Toronto Star.

The Valmiki of the title is Dr Valmiki Krishnu who lives with his wife Devika and their two daughters Viveka and Vashti in a very comfortable upper-middle-class neighbourhood. Valmiki appears to be a compulsive womanizer, with a well-established reputation. He is driven to such displays of infidelity because he needs to conceal the fact that he is really a closeted homosexual.

There is a deep sadness in the character; Mootoo presents his story with a very sympathetic tone. He knows that his wife knows about the women and the man who is his lover, although it is never discussed. And he knows that his daughter Viveka doesn't perform heterosexuality very well but his own guilt and shame prevent him stepping up and defending her difference. One of the central tensions in the story is that in the Krishnu's world, there is absolutely no way to even begin a discussion about queerness.

-- Maureen Phillips, writing on the website xtra.ca.

Valmiki is a terrible husband and father, but a great character, because as selfish and misguided as he is, it's impossible to condemn him. He's too well fleshed out. We know too much about his miserable situation. He'd rather die ("In the forest. Alone. Like a man.") than be caught out as a gay man in an unaccepting culture. It's clear that he makes mistakes, but it is also clear why he makes them. In that sense, this is very realistic fiction.

-- Anne Chudobiak, in the Montreal Gazette.

Tongues of the Ocean: call for submissions

This morning I got an intriguing email from Nicolette Bethel--writer, anthropologist, and blogger--announcing the launch of a new online poetry journal based in the Bahamas: Tongues of the Ocean (if I'm not mistaken, the title refers to the super-deep undersea trench off the coast of Andros). The journal is associated with the still-evolving Bahamas International Literary Festival, and is edited by Nicolette herself, along with Nadine Thomas-Brown. One of its exciting elements will be the incorporation of spoken-word poetry--three cheers for multi-media--alongside old-fashioned written text.

Here's what Tongues of the Ocean is looking for:

Poems that excite. Poems that move us, that make us laugh, or cry, or stop and say wow. Poems that present familiar things in a fresh way, that make old packages new. Poems that suggest you have some passing acquaintance with the greats of our region, or with the greats of the world. Poems that dance. Poems that sing. Poems that test the boundaries of our language, and poems that show its beauty. Poems that make us think; poems that make us go ooh.

To find out how to submit your work to be considered for the inaugural issue, see here. The deadline is 15 January, 2009.

It's exciting to hear about an ambitious new project like this. I hope it's a great success, and I'm certainly looking forward to the journal's first issue--hoping to come across some familiar voices, but also some new and unexpected ones.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Book of the week: Horses in Her Hair, by Rachel Manley

Rachel Manley's trilogy of memoirs of her extraordinary family--which began with Drumblair and continued with Slipstream--is now completed by Horses in Her Hair: A Granddaughter's Story, the Antilles book of the week. It tells the story, from an intimate perspective, of Edna Manley, one of Jamaica's major cultural icons--artist, art patron, wife of a premier and mother of a prime minister.

From the publisher's website:

Born on England’s cold and rocky Cornish coast, Edna Manley came to Jamaica in 1922. She travelled with her husband, Norman, her newborn son, a set of sculpting tools and an insatiable curiosity about the island of her mother’s birth.... Edna’s life was inextricably linked with Jamaican politics. But she was destined to leave her own mark on her adopted country. Her legacy—-much less easily defined, perhaps than either her husband’s or her son’s—-can be seen and heard and read. It is firmly entrenched in the island’s art, in its sculpture and painting and poetry and prose. She was, some say, nothing less than the mother of Jamaica’s artistic soul.

Rachel Manley, who has also edited an edition of her grandmother's journals and published three volumes of poems, writes with scrupulous lyrical verve. Her book--like its predecessor volumes--is an important part of Jamaica's (and the Caribbean's) historical record, but it is also a moving document of three generations of a remarkable family.

"Beyond juju of any kind"

The January 2009 issue of Tatler, the British society magazine, is not yet online, but the London Times has had a preview, and one particular article caught the eye of the paper's arts editor: a report on a visit by V.S. Naipaul to a Ugandan "witch doctor" some months ago, written by--none other than--Lady Naipaul.

Born in Kenya, where she was a child during the Mau Mau troubles of the 1950s, she was familiar with witch doctors. She says her husband insisted she accompany him. “I need you to put the witch doctor at ease. Don’t scowl. It’s unpleasant, ugly,” he said.

They drove to his shrine, a compound in a semi-forest clearing on the outskirts of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and entered a hut decorated with a leopard skin. A spear leant against an outside wall.

The witch doctor looked like “a dark version of Alistair Darling”, she writes. “The resemblance is uncanny.”

The couple sat before him, Naipaul on his shooting stick, his wife crosslegged on the floor. She writes: “[The witch doctor] looks at VSN [her husband]. Does he want to be rejuvenated? Or is someone in the way? Is there someone we wish to get rid of? I can think of many who are in the way, starting with the wretched two-timing biographers.”

It concludes with the Darlingesque witch doctor calling Lady Naipaul "a wicked woman and beyond juju of any kind."

Signifyin' Guyana announces short story competition

Over the years I've heard a lot of talk in the Caribbean about the importance of giving tangible support to writers, especially young, emerging ones. The intention usually doesn't go much further than talk. So I say Bravo! to Charmaine Valere at the Signifyn' Guyana blog, who has decided to host a short story competition for "Guyanese writers living in Guyana"--details announced yesterday. The deadline is 1 April, 2009 (no, that doesn't mean the whole thing is an elaborate April Fool's prank), and the prizes are not to be sniffed at--US$500 for the first-place winner, for example, plus publication in a location still to be announced. (I have just a small qualm about the whole thing--which is the six-hundred-word limit for entries. That will certainly make life easier for the judge or judges, but I wish writers had the freedom to submit works of greater scope.) I hope Signifyn' Guyana is flooded with entries, and I'm looking forward to reading the winning stories. Guyanese writers: get writing!

Friday, 28 November 2008

A judge's journal: part four

I've come to recognise the special engine-hum of the DHL delivery van, and the driver must wonder why so many heavy boxes--for books are heavy--are suddenly being shipped to my house. It's been more than a month since I last updated my Commonwealth Writers' Prize "judge's journal", but it's not because I've stopped reading. The opposite: I'm reading frantically, fuelled by tea, late into the night, and failing to keep up with the flood of books entered for next year's prize.

I've just unpacked the last batch, and added them to my log. Now the books join the perilously tall piles on my bedroom floor--I do most of my reading in bed, and I like to have them close to hand. Terrifyingly, there is over a month remaining till the final entry deadline, and I've come to dread the appearance of the DHL van. So far--if my ever-shaky arithmetic can be relied upon--eighty-two books have arrived. Some are polite, slim short story collections, and these can be knocked off in a day. Others--so many!--are vast tomes, wrist-strainers, epic sagas, the kind that take a month to read under normal circumstances.

Is there some cosmic court I can lobby to have an extra three months inserted between now and year-end?

More seriously: I'm enjoying much of what I'm reading, and so far I'm impressed by what the Canadian publishing industry in particular has produced over the last year. But there's been one big disappointment for me in this whole prize-reading exercise, and it's something I've discussed before. Surprisingly and alarmingly few of the books I've received so far are by Caribbean or Caribbean-born writers. Merely a tenth of them, in fact.

Now, books are entered for the CWP by their publishers, and there is a limit to the number each house can enter. So you might blame the shortage of Caribbean books in my bedside stack on publishers who don't bother to enter the Caribbean titles on their lists. But: parallel to the CWP entries, there's another steady stream of books that flows into my office, of review copies sent to the CRB. As it happens, many of the CWP-entered titles are ones that previously arrived for the magazine, and then were sent out for review. I keep a log of those as well. And I must say I haven't noticed any important works of Caribbean fiction sent to the CRB that weren't also entered for the CWP.

What's my conclusion here? I'm not sure. Maybe just a general anxiety about the state of Caribbean fiction. Are there good writers out there who aren't being published? Is it just a low-output year? Are good writers from the Caribbean working in other forms and genres than the novel or the short story?

A statistical tidbit to close. I've been struck by the number of books by Canadian authors of south Asian ancestry that have arrived among the CWP entries. Many more, in fact, than by Caribbean-born writers. And many of them are really good. Keep an eye on the literary south Asian diaspora in Canada. I think they're on their way to redefining the "Indian" novel.

Dancehall nostalgia

Gregory Isaacs in front of his African Museum store on Chancery Lane, Kingston; photo by Beth Lesser, from her book Dancehall

American Beth Lesser of Reggae Quarterly visited Jamaica several times in the 1980s, interviewing and photographing some of the leading musicians of the day. Soul Jazz Records has just published a compilation of her photos and text documenting the evolving sound of the period: Dancehall: The Rise of Jamaican Dancehall Culture. The UK Observer has posted an online gallery of Lesser's images, including remarkable portraits of musicians from Gregory Isaacs (above) to Wayne Smith to Bobby Melody. And Steve Yates reviewed Lesser's book in the Observer a few months ago, and so did Ian Burrell, more recently, in the Independent.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

"A Dead Journals Society"

As a writer, I write in the presence of all the languages of the world, even if I only know one. Humanities today are developing a practical, divining sense of languages, and are using a far higher proportion of the capacities of the human brain. Multilingualism should not be boiled down to the development of the quantities of languages; it refers not only to a situation, but also to a new awareness, related to the way I frequent the poetry of the world. In this context, translation is indispensable, is increasingly a new genre among literary and artistic genres....

-- From "Cultural journals and Europe", a short essay by Édouard Glissant, published in Eurozine. I found this portion of his text particularly poignant:

... the memory of a body of journals is important so as to consider the way these instruments of more or less topical focus may develop. Particularly, I am thinking of the innumerable journals that have only produced one or two editions and disappeared for various reasons that can be enumerated.... a number of these journals with only one or two editions have occupied a very important position in the sensitivity and knowledge of their field of activity, however ephemeral it is, and I could provide a number of examples. The life expectancy of a journal does not always accord with their appearance. A Dead Journals Society would help understand the continuity of those journals that have survived.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Times notables

The New York Times has released its annual list of the year's "notable" books. Three Caribbean-related titles have made their cut: John Edgar Wideman's novel Fanon; Tom Gjelten's Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba; and Patrick French's Naipaul biography The World Is What It Is. No books actually written by Caribbean authors, however.

Saxophone and oboe

The Indian social theorist Ashis Nandy writes of the two voices in Kipling, which have been called the saxophone and the oboe. The first is the hard, militaristic, imperialist writer, and the second is the Kipling infused with Indianness, with admiration for the subcontinent’s cultures. Naipaul has a saxophone and an oboe, too, a hard sound and a softer one. These two sides could be called the Wounder and the Wounded.

-- From James Wood's review--one of the most intelligent and substantial so far--of The World Is What It Is, in this week's New Yorker. Wood includes an insightful and unexpected comparison of Naipaul to Frantz Fanon:

Fanon believed in violent revolution, but Naipaul’s radical pessimism meets Fanon’s radical optimism at that point where the cut of colonial guilt, angrily resisted by both men, is converted into the wound of colonial shame--“a kind of curse.” Fanon had argued, “The colonist is an exhibitionist. His safety concerns lead him to remind the colonized out loud: ‘Here I am the master.’ The colonist keeps the colonized in a state of rage, which he prevents from boiling over.” And the title novella of “In a Free State” is practically a working demonstration--spare, bleak, and burning--of that argument.

Meanwhile, Judy Bachrach of Vanity Fair writes an angry dissent to all the glowing reviews of Patrick French's book.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Book of the week: Jamaican Food, by B.W. Higman

Part cultural history, part anthropological study, part encyclopedia of flora and fauna, B.W. Higman's Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture is a comprehensive survey of "food practices" in Jamaica, from the time of the pre-Columbian Taino to the present. It's also the Antilles book of the week.

From the publisher's website:

The author examines the shift in Jamaican food practices over time, from the Tainos’ use of bitter cassava to the Maroons’ introduction of jerk pork, and the population’s love affair with the fruits of the island such as paw paw, guava, star apple, and avocado pear. In this well-written and accessible study, the author traces how endemic animals, delicacies such as the turtle, ringtail pigeon, black land crab and mountain mullet, barely retained their popular status into the early twentieth century and are now almost completely forgotten, their populations dramatically depleted, often endangered.

Among this volume's most pleasing features are the full-colour reproductions, in sections of plates, of a series of late eighteenth-century watercolours by the Rev. John Lindsay, depicting various edible plants and animals of Jamaica.

Higman categorises possible food sources into three sections: plants, animals, and inorganic matter. Some are obvious: cassava, breadfruit, rice, cow. Some less so: cactus? pelican? For each item he offers biological notes, historical references, bits of folklore, nutritional data, occasionally even summaries of recipes. Jamaican Food is a scholarly text, but one full enough of interesting and surprising information to make entertaining reading for gourmands and trivia-lovers also.

Still more Naipaul

And still they come, the reviews of The World Is What It Is, Patrick French's Naipaul biography. Three interesting ones this weekend:

- Scott Sherman, in The Nation:

Patrick French conveys a better sense of the man than the work. Focused on the life, he for the most part neglects the books. French devotes just several hundred words of tepid analysis to a description of A House for Mr. Biswas, and his assessment of Naipaul's best-known work is wan: "The novel...is universal in the way that the work of Dickens or Tolstoy is universal." French seems to assume that his readers have digested Naipaul's oeuvre, and so, with certain exceptions, like A Way in the World, he does not describe or analyze the books in any serious detail.

(He also thinks there's too much sex.)

- Alexander (brother of Paul) Theroux in the Boston Globe:

I met him once at Wheeler's over dinner, which I shared with him and my brother Paul, in London in 1969. Naipaul questioned me on why in the light of Vietnam I would accept from the US government a Fulbright grant, like some sort of craven, low-brow mendicant. At that time, I had no money at all. He, on the other hand, had just received £3,500 from the British Arts Council bursary, taken a grant from the Farfield Foundation to teach at Makerere University, in Uganda, and basically taken every bit of free money he could get. And did I mention that at that dinner, Paul (who later had a public falling-out with Naipaul) paid the bill?

- And George Packer in the New York Times Book Review:

Naipaul’s code of accountability lies in facing the truth, but it’s a limited truth, with no sense of agency. He cannot begin to see himself as his biographer or reader sees him, for the pain of others always reverts back to his own. And yet this bottomless narcissism, together with the uncompromising intensity of his vision, holds the key to Naipaul’s literary power. He had the capacity in his writing to pro­ject himself into a great variety of people and situations, allowing him to imbue his work with the sympathy and humanity that he failed to extend to those closest to him in life.

Lagniappe: Packer also writes about Naipaul in a short personal essay, "The Artist as Monster", posted at his New Yorker blog:

I started reading V. S. Naipaul when I was a Peace Corps volunteer, in a little village in Togo, West Africa, in the early eighties. Those were not happy years. The human-rights experts are correct: solitary confinement is a form of torture. I became all-too-acquainted with the labyrinths of my own thinking, which are recorded somewhere in notebooks that I haven’t dared to open for the past quarter century.

Somehow, Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River” fell into my hands....

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Literary LIFE

John Hearne teaching English history at a private school in Jamaica, March 1958; photo by Grey Villet, from the LIFE archive

Some Antilles readers may have heard the news that Google recently posted the image archive of LIFE magazine online--millions of photos, they say, most never actually published, and now fully searchable here.

Your Antilles blogger decided to poke around a bit and see what kinds of images of the Caribbean might be found in the archive. Lots of tropical landscapes and photos of smiling tourists, inevitably, but some nice surprises also. Such as the photo above, of the Jamaican writer John Hearne (here's another.) A 1994 portrait of V.S. Naipaul. A rotund Albert Gomes politicking in the 1950s. A calypso tent in Trinidad in 1941. Wifredo Lam sitting at his easel in 1946....

If you spot any other good ones, dear readers, tell us in the comments below.

"A literature of place"

The debate over Guyanese (and by extension Caribbean) literary authenticity continues: Ruel Johnson responds to Michael Gilkes via the Living Guyana blog.

A literature of place, even within an increasingly globalised world has to necessarily be anchored, rooted, in that particular place, not elsewhere -- a concrete place of genesis is necessary for memory, nostalgia, reminiscence and most importantly, reengagement....

Thus, for example, eighteen years of social conditioning in Guyana versus a subsequent thirty years of social conditioning in England, much of the latter coinciding with a literary career, would tend to create a writer (of British citizenship) producing a literature that has primarily British concerns, British sensibilities, and a British idiom, with Guyana barely at the periphery. How can we proclaim then that either the writer or his work is Guyanese by any definition, simply because the writer was born here?

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Take a drink!

A Naipaul drinking game? Doug Childers, writing in the Richmond Times/Dispatch, has a suggestion for readers of The World Is What It Is:

Enjoy a shot every time somebody in its pages takes a shot at V.S.

First up, the sister-in-law: "When he was young, he was snobbish but he was always joking; later he was just snobbish."

Take a drink!

And what's that the composer Vanraj Bhatia said about him? "He was snobbish, nothing nice to say -- a thoroughly nasty human being."

Knock back another!

And while we're piling on, how about this zinger from a student who suffered through a class Naipaul taught at Wesleyan University: "He was, simply, the worst, most close-minded, inconsiderate, uninteresting and incompetent professor I have ever met."


Meanwhile, in the New York Times, Dwight Garner offers a more, ahm, sober review of Patrick French's biography.


I spent the first 19 years of my life in Guyana. I was born there, went to school there, earned a pay check there, fell in love there, and then ups an left for the United States. I have now lived away from Guyana for a longer time than I lived there. Does that make me an inauthentic Guyanese? And if so, when did I become that?

-- Charmaine Valere at Signifyin' Guyana responds to Michael Gilkes's recent letter to the Stabroek News and Ruel Johnson's Antilles interview, taking on the subject of cultural authenticity.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Walcott/Obama--part three?

The New York Times ran a nifty little story yesterday by Motoko Rich, about the wave of excitement triggered in publishing circles by Barack Obama's mention of a book he's been reading recently--a study of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first hundred days in office. It turns out there are at least three recent books about FDR's first hundred days, and the publishers of all three titles are hoping the Obama "endorsement" will lead to a bump in sales. A spokesman for Farrar, Straus & Giroux even suggests that Obama might be the book world's "new Oprah." Which leads me to wonder whether FSG has also noticed a surge in orders of another of their titles recently spotted tucked under Mr. Obama's arm....

"A mid-level slum..."

Pascal Dorien was living in Bel Air--the Baghdad of Haiti, some people called it, but that would be Cité Pendue, an even more destitute and brutal neighborhood, where hundreds of middle-school children entering a national art contest drew M-16s and beheaded corpses, and wrote such things as “It’s not polite to shoot at funeral processions” and “I’m happy to have turned in my weapons. What about you?” Bel Air was actually a mid-level slum....

-- From "Ghosts", new fiction by Edwidge Danticat in this week's New Yorker.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Meanwhile, in Miami...

Those of us not lucky enough to be at the twenty-fifth anniversary Miami Book Fair International--which ended yesterday--can at least experience a bit of the literary action vicariously, via Geoffrey Philp. From the diary he posts on his blog, it sounds like he had a very busy weekend.... And you can see his photos here, at Flickr. Any other reports from the Miami Book Fair, dear readers?

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Book of the week: If I Could Write This in Fire, by Michelle Cliff

We are a fragmented people. My experience as a writer coming from a culture of colonialism, a culture of Black people riven from one another, my struggle to achieve wholeness from fragmentation, while working within fragmentation, producing work which may find its strength in its depiction of fragmentation, through form as well as content, is similar to other writers whose origins are in countries defined by colonialism.

-- From "Journey into Speech", Michelle Cliff's introduction to If I Could Write This in Fire

Michelle Cliff is best known for her fiction--her novels Abeng, No Telephone to Heaven, and Free Enterprise, and her short story collection Bodies of Water. If I Could Write This in Fire is her first collection of non-fiction--and the Antilles book of the week.

From her publisher's website:

In her first book-length collection of nonfiction, Cliff displays the same poetic intensity, interweaving reflections on her life in Jamaica, England, and the United States with a powerful and sustained critique of racism, homophobia, and social injustice. If I Could Write This in Fire begins by tracing her transatlantic journey from Jamaica to England, coalescing around a graceful, elliptical account of her childhood friendship with Zoe, who is dark-skinned and from an impoverished, rural background; the divergent life courses that each is forced to take; and the class and color tensions that shape their lives as adults. The personal is interspersed with fragments of Jamaica’s history and the plight of people of color living both under imperial rule and in contemporary Britain.

You can read an excerpt from If I Could Write This in Fire and a short review here, at the NPR website.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Day of the Imprisoned Writer

In the past year, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN has monitored over 1,000 attacks on writers and journalists in 90 countries, 200 of whom are serving long prison, others have been threatened, harassed and attacked. Tragically, since 15 November 2007, 39 have been killed, many clearly in the pursuit of their professions, others in unclear circumstances.

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer, 15 November, is commemorated every year by PEN, the international writers association. PEN encourages writers and readers everywhere to think today about the importance of freedom of expression, and to be vigilant against attempts to take away that freedom. Each year PEN chooses five writers facing repression, harassment, or imprisonment in different regions of the world as "priority cases". This year's five are in Azerbaijan, China, Iran, Peru, and Zimbabwe.

Find out more here, at the International PEN website, and here, at the PEN American Centre website.

"The whole concept of sensibility"

Yesterday I posted an interview with the young Guyanese writer Ruel Johnson here at Antilles, in which he spoke about the importance of Caribbean writers' "engagement with the particular geo-social space," and criticised Caribbean-born (and in particular Guyana-born) writers who make their careers in the metropolitan elsewhere, and write "stories ... set in New York or Toronto or London" which "largely concern experiences there with a bit of nostalgia thrown in for exotic flavour."

By intriguing coincidence, the Stabroek News published a letter by Michael Gilkes--writer and scholar, himself born in Guyana but resident abroad for some years--which could almost be an oblique response to Johnson:

What are the qualities that determine ‘Guyanese-ness’? These clearly have something to do with Guyanese living, on at least an extended basis (for how long?), in Guyana. But where in Guyana, and under what conditions? As swineherder or castle owner? As Amerindian rainforest dweller or urban coastlander? As poor or privileged? Those Guyanese who live only a few childhood years in the country (how many years does the formation of a Guyanese sensibility take?) before being whisked off to live elsewhere, or those who eventually opt to live and work abroad, cannot, the argument insists, lay claim to a truly Guyanese sensibility.

This is where the whole concept of sensibility loses its sense and begins to unravel....

We are not born with an ‘authentic’ Guyanese (or any other) sensibility; that can only emerge after a long time spent discovering who we are. A Guyanese sensibility (like a Caribbean sensibility) is yet to emerge, and it will come out of all the strands that make up the complex womb of Caribbean life: social, ethnic, political, religious and artistic, both ‘at home’ and abroad. It is an act of exploration and self-discovery. The sensibility that finally emerges to lay claim to the word ‘home’ will come, after arduous exploration and self-searching, from both loss and re-discovery. The writer’s act of claiming this ground as his or hers will be either an act of repossession or of remembering.

But it is an act that must finally be grounded in generosity of spirit. For us there is no place on this earth free from the wounds of history. For the growth and development of the Guyanese sensibility within the deeper, encompassing Caribbean sensibility, there is only a long and often lonely road ahead. Our writers and artists, wherever they find themselves, are in the forefront of that difficult and rewarding journey: the search for an authentic selfhood.

Well worth reading alongside Johnson's interview (also well worth marvelling that the Stabroek News, unlike any other newspaper in the Anglophone Caribbean, actually publishes serious literary criticism in its pages). And I suspect Gilkes's letter will not go unanswered.

From twerp to sourpuss

Oh my, is Antilles becoming too Naipaul-heavy again? A couple more reviews of Patrick French's biography The World Is What It Is, as it sweeps its way across North America. Allen Barra in Bookforum (he neatly describes the book as "authorized but not compromised"); Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

...there's not much to like or praise about V.S. Naipaul as a human being. He starts life as a twerp, then fairly quickly becomes a jerk and ends up an old sourpuss. The best overall epithet for him is infantile -- though one shouldn't neglect the claims of such adjectives as whiney, narcissistic, insulting, needy, callous, impolite, cruel, vengeful, indecisive, miserly, exploitative, snobbish, sadistic, self-pitying and ungrateful.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Talking to Ruel Johnson

Ruel Johnson appeared on the Caribbean's literary radar almost out of nowhere in 2002, when the manuscript of Ariadne and Other Stories won the Guyana Prize for Literature for best first book of fiction, and his unpublished poetry collection "The Enormous Night" was shortlisted for the best first book of poems award. He was only twenty-two years old. Ian McDonald described him as "the best young writer to emerge in Guyana in at least a generation." Not content to bask in praise, Johnson proceeded to take on Guyana's literary establishment, suggesting in a series of essays and letters to the press that much contemporary Guyanese writing was "increasingly unrelated to Guyanese reality," since the country's celebrated authors reside for the most part abroad. He argued instead for "a renewed and conscious provincialism, an engagement with our landscape and society and people that is not ashamed of itself."

In August this year, during the Carifesta X celebrations in Guyana, Johnson launched his long-awaited second book of stories, Fictions, Volume 1, with a volume two scheduled to appear shortly. Via email, Johnson answered some questions about his recent work and his current attitude towards Guyanese literature.

NL: Fictions, Volume 1 was published five years after your first book, Ariadne. Why the long gap?

RJ: Winning the Guyana Prize for Ariadne actually coincided with the conception of my son, Aidan. I was suddenly faced with the responsibility of fatherhood. Additionally, my girlfriend, later my wife, and now my ex-wife, was at the University of Guyana. I made the decision to put my writing on hold in order to take care of my son, and his mother, until she finished at university and found a good job. I had Fictions in development for a long time, with some of the stories actually predating the publication of Ariadne. Ironically enough, it was fast-tracked after my separation from my wife a year ago.

NL: Why did you decide to split this new book into two volumes? Was it a purely practical or commercial decision?

RJ: I was timing the publication of Fictions for the usual Guyana Prize for Literature deadline in August, as well as for Carifesta X. Due the personal hell that was my life for the first eight months of this year, I couldn't finish the book in time. I am a great procrastinator when it comes to writing, in that I let something ferment, or foment, in my head for a long while before I let it out in a few frenzied weeks or days of actual writing. Practically managing my personal problems and harnessing this creative energy proved a difficult balancing act.

About two weeks before the deadline for submission to the printers, I decided that it was best to split the collection in half. I then had to come up with several benefits to this approach, just to console myself. One benefit was that once the funding was there, I could sell Fictions, Volume 1, Fictions, Volume 2, as well the originally conceived Fictions. Another was that it allowed me to enhance this loosely conceived metafictional experiment that I wanted Fictions to be by giving me another variable to work with.

NL: When you won the Guyana Prize all those years back, you had the reputation for being a literary enfant terrible. Did all the fuss about how young you were help or hinder?

RJ: I think whatever came out at that time had less to do with the enfant part than it did with the terrible part. And I think it did a bit of both. It helped in that it gave me the visibility that a young person claiming to be interested in becoming a writer would not normally have. I occasionally revisit some of the stuff that I said then, and it was harsh and arrogant in its criticism of Guyana's literary elite, but if I would change anything about what I did then it would be to broaden my criticisms as well as refine them.

What I mainly spoke about then was local academia's obeisance to and reverence for Guyanese writers residing overseas and writing mostly for and about their adopted countries, while the academics neglected the development of young local writers. I know because of that, and because of less public criticisms I have made, I have been sidelined and denied opportunities given to people with far less proven ability to write. For example, the official delegation to Carifesta VIII in Suriname included a literary delegation that I was excluded from--this was the same year I won the Guyana Prize. I was also excluded from the Carifesta IX literary delegation to Trinidad, with no official explanation given. I was on the Carifesta X official programme to launch Fictions, but that was after I hinted to a few officials that I would raise hell if their petty and infantile exclusion of me continued.

I have progressed as a writer in spite of roadblocks like this. The sad thing about all this is that nothing has essentially changed from that time to now, outside my personal relative success. The environment of malign neglect is still very much the same. The Guyana Prize for Literature Committee is currently engaged in the ridiculous fantasy of expanding the prize to a regional one, and they have yet to achieve one crucial element of the intent of the prize--the development of creative writing in Guyana.

NL: You've often written and spoken about the "new provincialism" that you believe Caribbean literature should turn towards. Has your thinking about this evolved? And what does "new provincialism" mean?

RJ: I am by no means a scholar of Caribbean literature. I am a University of Guyana dropout, and from the international relations programme at that. What I do have is an idea of how Caribbean literature has moved in terms of a Walcottian ("Hic Jacet") engagement with the particular geo-social space, to the sort of literature in excusable exile of writers migrating and having lived a couple of years in the UK and America and Canada, to this thing which exists now, which says that although my stories are set in New York or Toronto or London, and largely concern experiences there with a bit of nostalgia thrown in for exotic flavour, what is being produced is somehow identifiable as Caribbean literature. I've seen it in Guyanese-born writers like Wilson Harris and David Dabydeen--whose latest novel Molly and the Muslim Stick is a textbook example of this.

My idea of a new provincialism in Caribbean literature is a movement in Caribbean writing which is notable for the fact of the geo-social Caribbean returning to the centre of what is supposed to be "Caribbean literature." We in the Caribbean have this tendency to over-associate with things of Caribbean origin succeeding in other places. Some pop star has partial Guyanese parentage, and we dedicate entire newspaper columns to an inheritance that this person barely acknowledges, much less celebrates, either in music or in life. Colin Powell becomes secretary of state in a unilateralist US administration and CARICOM suddenly pins all its foreign policy hopes on his Jamaican parentage.

We essentially do the same for literature, and consequently become complacent about telling our own stories. If my conception of this provincialism has evolved in any way, it is that I used to think that it had to be a conscious effort--not anymore.

I believe that, given some of the benefits that immigrant writers overseas are privy to, what will emerge is going to be necessarily self-reflective and concerned with the place of the Caribbean in the centre of the maelstrom that is global affairs today, writing that is provincial but only incidentally or subconsciously so. You replicate and expand the Cropper Foundation Writers workshop, the Guyana Prize for Literature, and the Caribbean Review of Books across the region, and set up the regional publishing house promised at Carifesta X, and I believe that something vibrant and powerful will emerge, and with its major focus here.

NL: You seem to be concentrating on writing fiction at the moment, but you also write and have published poems. Are you still quietly writing poems but not talking about them, or have you shifted your focus?

RJ: I started writing poetry around the time I discovered Derek Walcott and Pablo Neruda, but by then, at eighteen, I was already a couple of years into my affinity for fiction. As I was developing the stories in Ariadne, I was going through my first major heartbreak, which found its best expression in the poetry.

Today, I think that whatever imaginative infrastructure I have for pure poetry is either dormant or completely gone. At the same time, I believe that my fiction has overall become far less strictly prosaic than it was in Ariadne. I have a theory of the short story that places it as close to poetry as possible, when it suits the uses of the writer, and that is what I work by. Additionally, I think that because I've spent the last five years in the journalistic mode of writing, it's going to be hard to return to poetry, which I see as existing at a different end of the spectrum of writing from journalism.

NL: Why did you decide to start your blog? Where does blogging fit into the spectrum of your writing?

RJ: I started the blog partially as an impetus to keep me engaged in the act of creative writing. As the total idea for the artistic endeavour evolved (and I am conscious of how phony that sounds), of which a published Fictions is the central part, I decided to involve the blog. Part of what I would refer to as the "thesis" of Fictions is the metafictional concern of what is true/biographical, as opposed to fiction/imaginative. The blog serves as "Cliff Notes on crack" for the book, and while the book can be read independently of the blog, for me it enriches the experience of the book somewhat if the blog is read.

I don't think I am going to ever enter what I consider the gimmicky realm of hyper-fiction, but I believe the Internet, blogging in particular, does have a place in the ongoing evolution of fiction. We've seen the use of this basic thesis already in, for example, the way Brett Easton Ellis created a website for his fictional actress wife Jayne Dennis as an adjunct to or an enrichment of her character in Lunar Park, which is touted as a semi-autobiographical novel.

The blog ties in with the overall function, whatever the ultimate outcome, of pushing the boundaries of the usual question of how much of a writer's art is reflective of his life, how much is fictional within fiction, perhaps to the point where we say it doesn't matter, or perhaps it does matter, and he uses x amount of truth plus y amount of imagination in his work, now let's move on.

I developed this concern independent of anything other than people asking me how I was taking the death of my son, after my first short story "The Blacka" won first prize in a local competition. I did not have a son at the time, as the character in the story did, although the story was highly autobiographical in many other aspects. In Fictions, I decided to make this relationship between the reality of a writer's life and his fictions one of the central literary concerns of the work.

NL: Which other younger Guyanese writers should readers in the wider Caribbean be keeping an eye out for?

RJ: I honestly can't say offhand. Kojo McPherson is someone who has shown great promise, although he has been moving more towards performance poetry, something I believe doesn't have the rigours of writing that is meant to be read. I've seen some initial work from a young woman called Mosa Telford who has some potential in short fiction. There's also James Bond, who was shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for best first book of poetry, and Edison Jefford, who made honourable mention.

The "looking out for" part is problematic, in the sense that there are no developmental avenues at present, so while the talent exists, the chance that it will be getting out into the Caribbean any time soon is poor. Charmaine Valere of Signifyin' Guyana and I are currently planning a writers' retreat, as a sort of precursor to an annual writers' workshop, which will hopefully be launched next year.

I believe genuine talent exists out there, and all that is needed is a mechanism to bring it out into the public light.

NL: What are you reading right now?

RJ: I am perpetually re-reading Borges, but as for the important new things I am reading at present, those would be Zadie Smith's On Beauty and all the stories I can collect online written by David Foster Wallace.

Ruel Johnson's Fictions, Volume 1 will be reviewed in the November 2008 issue of the CRB.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

NE4: Blades

Detail of Self-Image (2008), by Lillian Blades; mixed media assemblage

NE4--the Fourth National Biennial Exhibition--opened at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas in July 2008, and runs until the end of January 2009. Curated by Erica M. James, it includes the work of thirty-one Bahamian and Bahamas-based artists, including John Beadle, Lillian Blades, John Cox, Blue Curry, Kendal Hanna, Holly Parotti, Lynn Parotti, and Heino Schmid.

In her catalogue essay, James writes:

The art is strong, thought-provoking, technically sound, aesthetically beautiful, sometimes excruciatingly spare in formal terms, but ripe.... Collectively, the participating artists manage a degree of self-possession and fearlessness not seen prior to this moment in Bahamian art....

Through these works of art, the exhibiting artists express a belief in the power of a national artistic practice that is rooted, complex, global, and unbound.

In the coming weeks Antilles will feature a selection of works from NE4.

"Space for the quiet epiphanies"

The current issue of the International Journal of Scottish Literature takes for its theme the topic of "Caribbean-Scottish passages". The scholarly papers and other essays collected by editors Gemma Robinson (best known as a Martin Carter scholar) and Carla Sassi are drawn from a conference hosted a few months ago by the University of Stirling.

In their editorial note, Robinson and Sassi ask:

Who is involved in making the passage between the Caribbean and Scotland, historically, culturally and politically? How can we understand the significance of these passages between nations, histories, art-forms, languages and literatures?... To think about the Caribbean and Scotland in the same horizon of vision is to recognise it as part of a shared world. At times this shared world and horizon of vision might have been described in terms of plantation and Empire. Perhaps now we think in terms of the postcolonial, the transatlantic, circumatlantic, the Black Atlantic, the Commonwealth, the transnational, the post-national. To turn our attention to the networks of people and places that link the Caribbean to Scotland is to confront our conceptual mappings of nation, ‘race’ and identity. It is also to make space for the quiet epiphanies about culture that are no less significant.

The content you can read online (or download in PDF format) includes a paper that connects modern Scottish fiction with the work of Wilson Harris, another on "Scottish poetic responses to slavery in the West Indies", an essay by Glasgow-based Jamaican writer Kei Miller, and another by Andrew O. Lindsay, author of the novel Illustrious Exile (which imagines what might have become of Robert Burns had he followed through with his plan to emigrate to the West Indies).

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Links, links, links

- Geoffrey Philp was named "Outstanding Writer" in Jamaica's 2008 National Creative Writing Competition. He also picked up gold and silver medals for a poem and a short story, respectively. Congratulations, Geoffrey!

- The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has announced its terribly long 2009 longlist. Four Caribbean-related books made the list: The Pirate's Daughter, by Jamaican Margaret Cezair-Thompson; Soucouyant, by Trinidad-born Canadian David Chariandy; The Hangman's Game (already a Commonwealth Writers' Prize winner), by Guyana-born Nigerian Karen King-Aribsala; and--surprise, surprise!--The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Dominican-American Junot Díaz.

- Tobias Buckell posts a round-up of recent reviews of his books, plus a photo of a daredevil fan reading Sly Mongoose in what you might call a rather precarious position.

- Another review of Patrick French's The World Is What It Is, by Thomas Meaney in the L.A. Times. "Part tragedy, part comedy, part murder confession...."

- And in a letter to today's Stabroek News, Shaun Michael Samaroo suggests that "literature should be the bedrock of a society," and makes this hopeful suggestion:

No society should allow anyone who did not receive a sound education in literature to qualify as a politician, a scientist, a teacher, a businessperson, an administrator, or to hold any position of responsibility. Because how else can such a person create an original solution without the literary foundation of our civilization?

(I'm sure Samaroo would approve of Barack Obama's current reading.)

- Finally, because press freedom is very important to the CRB (we don't want anyone telling us which books we can or cannot review!), a link to Janine Mendes-Franco's excellent Global Voices summary of Trinidad and Tobago's current media imbroglio--Prime Minister Patrick Manning's personal "raid" on a radio station to complain about on-air criticism.

Monday, 10 November 2008

"The starting point for our national conversation"

The New York Review of Books--which has inspired dozens of other book-reviewing periodicals around the world, including, yes, the CRB--is forty-five years old. (See the anniversary issue online here; the entire first issue of the NYRB, dated 1 February, 1963, here.) Yesterday the San Francisco Chronicle ran a profile by Heidi Benson of the NYRB's editor and co-founder, Robert Silvers. (The UK Guardian also published an excellent profile of Silvers in January 2004. I recall reading it three or four times at least in the months before we launched the CRB in May that year.) One paragraph in the middle of Benson's piece caught my attention:

Today, the idea at the heart of the New York Review of Books - that a thoughtful, vigorous survey of the books of the day is more than the sum of its parts - couldn't be more bracing or more relevant. At a time when newspapers and publishers are confronting transformational changes, it is good to remember that books are still the starting point for our national conversation.

What a wonderfully optimistic and civilised idea. It recalls Arthur Miller's notion of "a good newspaper" as "a nation talking to itself." The CRB is not a newspaper, of course, but a literary journal (though remember Ezra Pound's pronouncement: "Literature is news that stays news"). But I've always thought of the reviews, essays, poems, stories, and interviews published in the CRB's pages as a kind of conversation (see the introductory note in our first issue)--an energetic debate not just about Caribbean literature and art, but also about our history, culture, politics, and philosophy, a conversation full of questions about who and what and why we are, about how to define the Caribbean, how to define our present reality, about all our possible futures. A conversation grounded in the belief--the hope--that the Caribbean, however you draw its boundaries, is a nation.

Books are, as Benson writes, the starting point. They are still, in the digital age, the most durable and dependable repositories of knowledge, the most trusted medium for recording our intellectual evolution. That's why "a thoughtful, vigorous survey of the books of the day is more than the sum of its parts." A book review serves the very practical purpose of helping the reader decide whether a new title is worth his or her money and time. But of course it does much more. I wish I could remember who it was that suggested book reviews are the primary mechanism for translating new ideas from the academy into the wider world. Intelligent, honest, informed book reviews help sift fresh ideas from stale, introduce new language to fill epistemic gaps, provoke us to rethink our certainties. That's what I've always hoped the CRB could do.

Nearly five decades after independence, a decade into the twenty-first century, this role, this function, this conversation seems more urgent and necessary than ever for the nation of the Caribbean. At least it seems so to me. But more and more of late I worry that I'm deluded or irrelevant or simply wrong. This worry grows more acute as the year draws to a close and I consider the CRB's finances. For publishing is a business in which hopes and ideas and ideals all too easily founder on the shoals of dollars and debts. We run a modest operation here at the CRB, but some costs are unavoidable. We have to pay our printers. We stubbornly insist on paying our writers. We pay to send the magazine to readers all over the Caribbean and further afield--postage is absurdly expensive. We pay to run the CRB website, which contains our entire archive.

The CRB has never in more than four years turned a profit, never in all that time managed to pay proper salaries to its editorial staff. It has always depended on the energy of volunteers and the financial generosity of donors (Media and Editorial Projects from the beginning, the Prince Claus Fund over the last year)--and of course on those of our readers who support the magazine by subscribing.

It's tiresome to talk about money matters, and probably more tiresome to hear it. But this too is part of that "national conversation." Literature and art and ideas need certain kinds of engines in order to thrive. Books and journals are expensive to produce. How do we fund them? Who pays the bills? At the moment, I don't quite know how we'll pay the CRB's bills in the coming year. And I wonder who it will matter to, if the magazine simply ceases publication.

This is not a plea for sympathy, dear readers. Rather, I'd like to hear your thoughts on all the above. I'd like to discuss whether a magazine like the CRB is important enough to Caribbean intellectual life for us to make the effort to keep publishing it. There are three ways you can join that discussion. Leave a comment below, of course. Email me directly, if there is something you'd like to say in private. Or speak with your wallet. Subscribe here. Give a gift subscription. Encourage a friend or colleague to subscribe, or your library, or your academic department.

I believe the work the CRB is doing is valuable and necessary, especially in a time when the whole Caribbean as we know it is "confronting transformational changes." Do you?

Perfection of the life or of the work?

More reviews in the North American press of The World Is What It Is, Patrick French's Naipaul biography. In the Austin American-Statesman, Michael Barnes suggests that

...the odd effect of [French's] biography is that the reader's estimation of Naipaul's literary achievement rises, even as one's opinion of his personal behavior declines.

But, as he explains in the Weekly Standard, Joseph Bottum has almost the opposite reaction:

Both his anxious egotism and his hunger for future reputation may have led Naipaul to create, from the raw material of his life, one last literary construction. He's making a character out of it, and he's telling a final story.

Here's the arrogance: It's a grand literary joke on all his readers, for we gave Naipaul our admiration, and he turns out to have been someone we wouldn't have touched with a barge pole. And here's the insecurity: He authorized Patrick French's biography in a desperate concluding bid to make himself memorable by turning his life into something with the shape of a novel.

Unfortunately, this novelistic life injures the actual novels from which we get any desire to remember the man. Surely he sees that, after having all this forced down our throats, we can no longer read A Bend in the River or A House for Mr. Biswas in the way we used to? Surely he understands that his semi-autobiographical stories--The Enigma of Arrival, for instance, and Miguel Street--are now ruined for us? Surely he knows that it has become much harder to laugh at the jokes in such comic works as The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira?

It is an odd reaction, I think. Surely Naipaul's more devoted readers have known about the less savoury aspects of his history and character for some time now. French describes and analyses them with a superb and stylish subtlety, and divulges some fresh details of emotional depravity, but no one can have been under the illusion that Naipaul is an angel of sweetness and light. His books "ruined for us"? Not for me. What do you think, readers?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Book of the week: Against the Grain, by E.A. Markham

I missed choosing an Antilles book of the week last week, dear readers--I was distracted by the news of David de Caires's death. And this week's choice reminds me of another recent sad loss. E.A. Markham--Archie to his friends--died in March this year, just as his latest book was going to press. Against the Grain is his memoir of childhood in Montserrat and his early years in Britain, where he moved with his family in 1956.

An excerpt appeared in the May 2008 issue of the CRB, under the title "Remembering London". It begins:

There were times when you felt it to be the right age: sixteen, in London, in 1956. Behind you were the terrors of growing up (God and church and family respectability); before you, something unknown but not unappealing. You liked living in a flat in a house joined to other houses; it was the opposite of the isolation of inhabiting that big old house in Harris’, in Montserrat, with your grandmother. You liked it that there seemed a sense of order in the street; streets regularly swept (the pavement, even, swept by some of the tenants or owners), the milkman leaving pints of milk on the doorstep, and no one stealing them. Riding the huge trolley-buses that hurtled down the Harrow Road towards Royal Oak seemed wonderfully risky and daring as they sent out blue sparks overhead, where their attachments slid along the electric cables high above the street....

Friday, 7 November 2008

Walcott/Obama part two

Perhaps Barack Obama came across the poem Derek Walcott wrote for him, published two days ago in the London Times, and wanted to read more of Walcott's work; or perhaps Obama's a longtime fan. Who knows. What's certain is that this morning, on his way to the big meeting with his financial advisors, the president-elect was spotted carrying a newish looking paperback copy of Walcott's Collected Poems, the Farrar Straus Giroux edition....

Quick, Antilles readers, what other Caribbean books would you recommend to Obama, and why? I myself hope he has time to read Naipaul's Suffrage of Elvira before the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain next April, so that he'll know what he's getting himself into, meeting with Trinidadian politicians....

On Pynter Bender

Pynter Bender, the new novel by Grenadian writer Jacob Ross, is turning some heads in the UK, where it was recently published. Reviewing it in the Independent, Kevin Le Gendre says Pynter Bender has "an epic grandeur that recalls Patrick Chamoiseau's landmark 1992 novel Texaco." Catherine Taylor, on the other hand, in her brief review in the UK Guardian, wishes the novel were "a third shorter".

And Philip Hensher considers the novel's possible impact on Grenada in a "Week in Culture" column in today's Independent:

From here, if we have an interest, Caribbean fiction as a whole looks immensely rich and rewarding. There's a substantial amount of interesting and original writing in English, French and Spanish from the region, which we happily acknowledge as a whole. What tends to be forgotten from this distance is the fact that readers in the region think of themselves much less as "Caribbean", and much more as citizens of a particular country. For a Grenadian, it is much more worth celebrating that a novelist such as Ross has emerged from his particular history than that a St Lucian like Derek Walcott or a Trinidadian like VS Naipaul has won the Nobel Prize. Ross makes it clear that his island has had a tragic history of its own, which we hardly knew about or had forgotten; the novel that sets out those national tragedies has now been written.

So is Pynter Bender the great Grenadian novel? Perhaps this excerpt (PDF format) published in the Fall-Winter 2005 edition of the online journal Calabash gives a hint.

ABILF opens

Your Antilles blogger wishes he were in Antigua this weekend. The third Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival--no, no one really calls it ABILF--opens this evening, and runs through Sunday. This year the festival writers include Lorna Goodison, Zee Edgell, Ramabai Espinet, Marie-Elena John, and Elizabeth Nunez. Check the programme here, and if you happen to be in Antigua and take in some of the events, why not give us a report in the comments below?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Walcott on Obama

From yesterday's London Times, a poem by Derek Walcott for Barack Obama:

Forty Acres

Out of the turmoil emerges one emblem, an engraving--
a young Negro at dawn in straw hat and overalls,
an emblem of impossible prophecy, a crowd
dividing like the furrow which a mule has ploughed,
parting for their president: a field of snow-flecked cotton
forty acres wide, of crows with predictable omens
that the young ploughman ignores for his unforgotten
cotton-haired ancestors, while lined on one branch, is a tense
court of bespectacled owls and, on the field's receding rim--
a gesticulating scarecrow stamping with rage at him.
The small plough continues on this lined page
beyond the moaning ground, the lynching tree, the tornado's
black vengeance,
and the young ploughman feels the change in his veins,
heart, muscles, tendons,
till the land lies open like a flag as dawn's sure
light streaks the field and furrows wait for the sower.

Monday, 3 November 2008

"I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed"

US election special: Maud Newton posts an interview with Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, in which she talks about voting early--for Obama--in Miami:

As a naturalized citizen, born in Haiti, where elections are often monitored and contested and their results sometimes outright overturned by the United States government, via regime change, I am still puzzled that we don’t have smoother and more transparent elections here in the United States.

For people around the world, who are always told by the U.S. how to prepare for and hold their elections, the fact that the Bush/Gore election of 2000 (and to a certain extent the Kerry/Gore election of 2004) was such a mess was really troubling. I hope this year we have a transparent and clear election with uncontestable results, because how can we tell the Iraqis and others how to democratically choose their leaders when we still seem to have so much trouble with it ourselves?

Meanwhile, also in Miami, the election reminds Geoffrey Philp of an important civil rights leader. And up in Toronto, pro-Obama Pamela Mordecai posts an exchange of emails with a friend in the US who has doubts about voting for the senator from Illinois.

Finally: it seems every newspaper and magazine in the world has endorsed one candidate or another in tomorrow's presidential election, with Obama the overwhelmingly popular choice. Your Antilles blogger, like most of the world's population, can't vote, but feels he has a lot at stake in tomorrow's events. If the CRB were to endorse a candidate, who would it be? The smart, eloquent, cool, confident one who looks like he could be from the Caribbean, of course--that one.

In the November/December Caribbean Beat

While you are waiting, dear readers, for the next issue of the CRB--almost on its way to subscribers' mailboxes--you might like to spend some time with the November/December issue of Caribbean Beat, now online. Among other delights you'll find a story about the Trinidadian dancer Beryl McBurnie's career in 1940s New York, an interview with Jamaican writer Kei Miller, and reviews of a new Marcus Garvey biography, a history of West Indians who served in the British imperial military, and the story of a Trinidadian bank--plus a feature on a tiny historical library in St Kitts and a short travel article on the little-known Caribbean island of San Andres, written by your own Antilles blogger.