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!

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....