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!

Friday, 24 October 2008

"It started with a deep deep longing for home"

C.D. Valere of the Signifyn' Guyana blog

Many Antilles readers are also followers of Signifyin' Guyana, the literary blog written by C.D. Valere (Charmaine to her friends), covering books and writers from Guyana and the wider Caribbean. I recently interviewed Charmaine, and our conversation is posted over at Global Voices today.

Nicholas Laughlin: The obvious first question: why did you start blogging? What was your original goal?

Charmaine Valere: It started (no kidding) with a deep deep longing for home. As simple as that.... I got this wild idea to start a one-woman writing blitz on as many Guyanese writers and books I could get my hands on. And the idea for the blog was born....

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Links, links, links

- At Signifyin' Guyana, Charmaine Valere posts a short essay on Denise Harris's novel Web of Secrets.

- Geoffrey Philp describes his "quixotic" relationship with his alma mater, Jamaica College, and its influence on his world view and his fiction.

- Tobias Buckell makes it clear that he's not boycotting Borders.

- The St Petersburg Times reviews Wifredo Lam in North America, a retrospective of the Cuban artist's work currently on at the Salvador Dali Museum of Art in St Petersburg, Florida.

Wifredo Lam, Femme assise (1955)

- In the New York Review of Books, Jose Miguel Vivanco and Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch report on their recent expulsion from Venezuela.

- And, oops, just noticing this: Edwidge Danticat's recent short essay on Toni Morrison in The Progressive.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A judge's journal: part three

canada council for the arts

The Commonwealth of Nations (née British empire) is an association of more than fifty countries. One of the key things they have in common--a major legacy of onetime imperial rule--is the English language. Lord knows how many books of fiction are published in the entire Commonwealth each year (I'm sure Google knows too, but I'm too lazy to do a search just now). To make the job of judging the Commonwealth Writers' Prize a little more manageable, therefore, the prize administrators divide the Commonwealth nations into four big geographical groups for the first round of judging. As many Antilles readers will know, all the New World Commonwealth countries fall into the Caribbean and Canada region.

The population of the Commonwealth Caribbean is under six million (if my math is correct). The population of Canada is more than five times larger, about thirty-three million. The Caribbean publishing industry is dwarfed by its Canadian equivalent by an even greater order of magnitude. From a practical literary perspective, this obviously means that many more Canadian books are published each year than Caribbean ones. From a CWP judge's perspective, it means that more Canadian books are entered for the prize than Caribbean ones, more Canadian books get shortlisted, and more Canadian books win the regional awards for best book and best first book.

A statistical interlude (again, I hope my math is correct): ten Caribbean books have won regional awards since the CWP was established in 1987, and thirty-four Canadian ones--unless you count Austin Clarke as Barbadian, whatever his passport says, in which case it is eleven to thirty-three. It is actually not a bad ratio, considering the relative sizes of our populations--see paragraph above. So three cheers for the Caribbean.

This is all preamble to the fact that so far, of the books that have arrived in my judging pile, Canadian writers predominate. Now, it is still early days. The final deadline for late entries to the prize is 31 December. Perhaps--I hope--there will be a flood of Caribbean books between now and year-end. If you are a writer from the Caribbean with a book eligible for the 2009 CWP--check the details here--remind your publisher to submit your book. If you are the publisher of an eligible Caribbean book, consider yourself reminded.

Not that I mind the little pile-up of new Canadian books. As a reader based in the Caribbean, I know relatively little about the cutting edge of contemporary Canadian fiction. Judging the regional awards is like being given a snapshot of the current Canadian literary scene. I've already come across a couple of remarkable Canadian writers whose names I hadn't heard before, and a couple of smaller publishing houses doing brave, interesting work. And here's another thing that's really caught my attention. Every single book submitted so far by a Canadian publisher has a note on its copyright page acknowledging the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, and usually a provincial arts council too (you can read more about the Canada Council's support for publishers here).

To the best of my knowledge--and I'd be thrilled to be informed otherwise--no Commonwealth Caribbean country can boast an agency, whether state-funded or private, that gives regular, consistent, and substantial financial support to our small, struggling publishing industry. Occasionally a ministry of culture or a large corporation will give an ad hoc grant to a specific book project. The government of Guyana funds the admirable Guyana Prizes for Literature, but that benefits publishers only indirectly, if the sales of a prize-winning book increase. The government of Barbados has funded the revival of the journal Bim--I'll post more about that one of these days--and the Central Bank of Barbados funds the annual Frank Collymore Literary Awards. But there is simply no equivalent in this part of the world to the kind of basic support that the Canada Council for the Arts gives to Canadian publishers--or that the Arts Council of England gives to many small British publishers, or that various national and regional arts bodies give to small American publishers.

(And why do publishers need this kind of support? Because literary publishing involves very narrow profit margins, major up-front capital (printing and shipping books is expensive), and, barring the occasional best-seller, very slow returns on investment--but its social value is immense.)

You could argue that Caribbean governments and the Caribbean private sector can't afford these kinds of programmes. This was the substance of a very public argument between Derek Walcott and Guyanese president Bharrat Jagdeo at Carifesta X last August. Let me just say that for the most part I take the Walcott line, which you could summarise with an old political slogan: give us bread and roses. Every Caribbean government talks about the importance of arts and culture in shaping national identity etc etc etc, but publishing, writing, and the literary arts seem to be our lowest priority when it comes to tangible support--dollars and cents. And, frankly, regional publishers must take some of this blame as well. One of the chief disappointments of Capnet, the Caribbean Publishers Network--whose website was down, last time I checked--has been its failure to effectively lobby for practical public and private sector support for regional publishing houses.

These are issues I think about constantly. The CRB is incorporated as a not-for-profit. I spend much of my time trying to raise the funds to keep the magazine going. There is no Caribbean arts council I can approach for support, no Trinidad and Tobago arts council (in a country whose latest annual budget calls for TT$50 billion in expenditure). No regional equivalent of the Prince Claus Fund, the Dutch government agency whose help has allowed the CRB to survive over the last year. I think it's wonderful that the Dutch government feels the CRB does some good for the world. I wish the Trinidad and Tobago government felt the same.

I may seem to have strayed quite away from the subject of the CWP. I haven't, really. My final observations: of all the books entered for the 2009 prize that I've received so far, a single one is published within the Caribbean. And even the other "Caribbean" books in my judging pile are published elsewhere.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

El biblioburro

In many parts of the world, mobile libraries--vehicles like buses or trailers, converted to store and transport books--bring reading material to people who would otherwise have no access to it. In northern Colombia, the region near the country's Caribbean coast made famous in Gabriel García Márquez's novels, a teacher named Luis Soriano has found his own way to share books with readers in small library-less villages. From Simon Romero's story in the New York Times:

In a ritual repeated nearly every weekend for the past decade here in Colombia’s war-weary Caribbean hinterland, Luis Soriano gathered his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto, in front of his home on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Sweating already under the unforgiving sun, he strapped pouches with the word “Biblioburro” painted in blue letters to the donkeys’ backs and loaded them with an eclectic cargo of books destined for people living in the small villages beyond.

And the perils of this kind of roving librarianship?

Two years ago, Mr. Soriano said, bandits surprised him at a river crossing, found that he carried almost no money, and tied him to a tree. They stole one item from his book pouch: “Brida,” the story of an Irish girl and her search for knowledge, by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho.

“For some reason, Paulo Coelho is at the top of everyone’s list of favorites,” said Mr. Soriano, hiding a grin under the shade of his sombrero vueltiao....

Monday, 20 October 2008

Calabash tribute to Wayne Brown

The latest issue of the web journal Calabash is now online, dear readers (or at least I've just noticed it's online). It opens with a tribute to Wayne Brown, the Trinidadian writer who has run an influential writing workshop in Jamaica for much of the last decade. The Calabash editors have collected stories and poems by fourteen emerging Jamaican writers who have passed through Brown's workshop. Also in this issue: an essay on "Illness and the Writing Process" by Myriam J.A. Chancy, interviews with Opal Palmer Adisa and Kwame Dawes, and a selection of other new poetry and fiction from across the Caribbean. (Note: each piece is posted as a PDF, which you must download in order to read.)

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Book of the week: The Changing Society of Tobago, 1838-1938, by Susan E. Craig-James

The new Antilles book of the week, dear readers, is The Changing Society of Tobago, 1838-1938, by Susan Craig-James--a massive social, economic, political, and cultural history of Tobago, published in two oversize volumes, for a total of more than seven hundred pages. It draws on over two decades of research, and offers an astonishing richness of primary materials, historical documents, statistics, rare oral-history accounts from nearly a hundred elderly Tobagonians, and a profusion of images. Craig-James uses this mass of carefully sifted information not just "to describe the social structure of Tobago over time", in the words of the jacket copy, but also to analyse major changes in the island's agrarian economy after the end of slavery and explain the collapse of agriculture in Tobago in the early twentieth century. It is a monumental text.

The Changing Society of Tobago is available at bookshops in Trinidad and Tobago and at New Beacon Books in London, but at the moment does not appear to be available for sale online. You can contact the publisher, Cornerstone Press, at corpress AT tstt DOT net DOT tt for more information.

Sunday links

- The Signifyin' Guyana blog announces a new short story and poetry competition for "Guyanese writers living in Guyana as well as outside of Guyana"; details to come.

- In the Kaieteur News, Petamber Persaud reviews Short and Sweet, a new collection of short fiction by Robert Fernandes (better known to most Guyanese for his photographs).

- In his weekly column in the Stabroek News, Ian McDonald reflects on the meaning of home:

There are days on the Essequibo of brooding clouds, filled with thunder, and brewing squalls and lashing rain-storms marching up the immense reaches of the river, followed so often by a serene calmness in the air, when I have so deeply felt what soul-satisfaction it would give to be able to paint the wind. If ever there was wind that deserved to be painted it is Essequibo wind, how it moves the caravans of clouds, how it roughs up the shining coat of the evening-water, how it makes a green tumult in the crowns of the forest trees, how the birds ride the heavens on it. Please God, if I am born again with the powers of an artist, let me go again to the Essequibo and read the books I love and this time paint the wind.

- The Jamaica Gleaner reports that the Calabash Literary Festival is offering scholarships to the next Calabash Writers Workshop, which starts in Kingston in November.

- Also in the Gleaner, Michael Robinson reviews a new show of photorealist paintings by Jamaican artist Michael Elliott, currently on at the CAG[e] gallery at the Edna Manley School of Arts.

The Rail Alternative, by Michael Elliott

- And in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Joanna Richards interviews Junot Díaz, who will give a reading at the University of Louisville this coming week:

"The thing about being a writer is that you don't really know your work at all. You produce it, but then you step back and you're like, 'Oh my God, what the hell did I just do? This is a lot more confusing and mysterious than I'm giving it credit for!'

"Basically, the book is your answer. For me, the writing empties my head."