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Saturday, 26 May 2007

Saturday afternoon at Calabash

Calabash Literary Festival 2007

Marlon James, novelist and MC

The first Calabash open mike session started a little late, but the audience (now almost filling the big tent) were probably glad for a breather. Marlon James was a genial MC, cracking jokes at his own expense, and deftly enforcing the three-minute time limit--if one of the readers went over and ignored his stageside winks, he'd bound up behind them and exaggeratedly peer over their shoulder. One energetic fella almost had to be dragged off the stage.

In rapid succession we had an anti-war dub, a tribute to a stepmother, a poem (read by a girl who couldn't have been older than ten) about a cat, various poems about freedom and racism and identity, and an odd little story about two boys butterfly-hunting. I was particularly struck by the gentleman from St. Mary who managed, in a poem on an environmentalist theme, to rhyme "untreated faeces" with "diseases", and then "crop rotation" with "feed the nation". Another poet incorporated what sounded to my ear like a few lines from Tennyson: "an infant crying in the night, / an infant crying for the light, / and with no language but a cry."

Immediately after, a trio of American poets came on. I enjoyed listening to Elizabeth Alexander, then a strong desire for a cup of tea drove me back to the house. I'll be back at Jake's at 5.30 to hear Maryse Condé, Michael Ondaatje, and Caryl Phillips....

Saturday morning at Calabash

Calabash Literary Festival 2007

Colin Channer, D.Y. Bechard, Maxine Case, and Andrew O'Connor after this morning's Q&A session

The trouble with a programme as packed as Calabash's is that, unless you give up on eating or sleeping, you just can't take everything in. I was late for the first set of readings this morning, because I was devouring a huge breakfast at Lyric, the house near Jake's where we're staying. So I missed the first half of D.Y. Bechard's reading and never managed to pick up the plot--but I caught all of Maxine Case and Andrew O'Connor. (These are three of the four finalists for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book.)

After the readings, all three writers returned to the stage with Calabash co-founder Colin Channer for a Q&A session. "What surprised you most about Jamaica?" Colin asked. "How bright everything is!" (Case). "The pace of life here!" (O'Connor). "How friendly everyone is!" (Bechard). Well, I suppose that's the thing about clichés--there's always a grain of truth to them....

I'm now back at Lyric, sitting out the midday Calabash session, which features the American actor Mike Farrell. I'm about to take a swim, then I'll head over for the first open mike session, always a Calabash highlight, I'm told. I'll take my PowerBook with me and try out the wi-fi network at Jack Sprat. Check back later for more. And for Calabash photos, mostly by Georgia Popplewell but including a few of my own, check this Flickr tag page.

Friday night at Calabash

joe meno reading at calabash

Joe Meno reading in the main tent at Calabash tonight

Calabash 2007 began with a sort of "meet and eat"--a pre-performance crowd eating seafood, drinking Red Stripe, and schmoozing on the lawn near Jack Sprat, the official Calabash restaurant. I stumbled upon Marlon James chatting up a Canadian film crew--tomorrow Marlon will be running the two open mike sessions. A white-haired Michael Ondaatje was sitting at a table nearby, apparently enjoying his rice-and-peas.

The evening's first performance was by the American actor Roger Guenveur Smith. His Who Killed Bob Marley? was a multimedia autobiographical exploration of his relationship with his father and with Jamaica--and a fascinating example of a black American's attempt to negotiate with the often different ideas and realities of blackness in the Caribbean. It could have done with some judicious cuts, but it was a fairly gripping performance, despite the best efforts of the Treasure Beach mongrels to interrupt.

Next up were three writers from the Akashic Books stable. I missed Felicia Luna Lemus's reading, but I caught most of Joe Meno and all of Aaron Petrovitch. I thought the last two were a little too clever and McSweeneyesque for their own good, but the audience enjoyed their spirited performances. Petrovitch had his entire piece by heart--a dialogue between two men who, he explained, confusingly have the same name. An impressive feat of memorisation.

And then everyone was meant to drift towards the beach, where a bonfire was in preparation and the party was supposed to go on till three. I decided to drift towards bed instead. But not before I post this update, dear readers.... Check in tomorrow for more Calabash reports.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Jamaica journal, part 2

The week in Kingston has flown--lunches, meetings, visits to the National Gallery and to bookshops, another dinner party with the Commonwealth Writers' Prizes people, a stroll around Mona campus to see the University Chapel and Ronald Moody's Savacou sculpture--and now I'm down in Treasure Beach, four hours drive from Kingston on Jamaica's south-west coast, where the Calabash International Literary Festival opens this evening (full schedule here).

The last time I came to Calabash--three years ago--I fell ill just before I left Kingston, and arrived in Treasure Beach with a fever and a runny nose, dizzy with decongestants, and suffering an allergic reaction to the antibiotics I insisted on being prescribed. I was also staying many miles out of the way in Black River, at an unspeakably bad hotel (one word: cockroaches). I didn't have much fun, couldn't take in very much of the Calabash programme, and in the end I returned to Kingston early, defeated.

I'm determined to have a better time this year, and things are off to a good start so far. I'm staying with my friends Annie and Georgia plus a few of Annie's friends in a lovely little villa called Lyric, looking over Calabash Bay, a couple minutes' walk from Jake's, the Calabash Festival venue.

But I'm not here for a beach weekend, tempting though the thought may be. The Calabash programme this year includes appearances by Michael Ondaatje, Caryl Phillips, Maryse Condé, Kendel Hippolyte, and another dozen or so writers, including most of the regional winners of the Commonwealth Writers' Prizes. The CRB will be available at the official Calabash bookshop, and I'll be seeking out CRB contributors, present and possible future. I'll also be reporting fairly regularly on the various events in the programme--not quite live-blogging, but close enough. So keep an eye on Antilles, dear readers, for Calabash updates, starting tonight.

calabash podium

The podium and stage at Jake's in Treasure Beach, with the Caribbean Sea for a backdrop; awaiting three days' worth of fiction, poetry, drama, and music, plus the announcement of the Commonwealth Writers' Prizes

Garnette Cadogan's bedside books

Friday again, dear readers--"bedside books" day. Here's a list compiled by Garnette Cadogan, who last reviewed a slew of recent Bob Marley books in the February 2007 CRB. From the size of his bedside book stacks, it's clear Garnette must get very little sleep.

Some throat-clearing before I submit my list of “bedside books.” The piles--very rarely straightened into stacks--of books I’m reading are everywhere but by my bedside. Strangely enough, I even share bed space with a pile or two, since my eyelids usually close before some page in the wee hours.

I read thematically, forming piles around current and enduring interests. A mix of books, magazines, newspapers, and, less so, blogs gather around the themes I explore. But as reading material congregate, serendipity derails me and delays the piles’ thinning. An interesting article here, a must-read book there, and, before I notice it, new piles pop up everywhere.

My piles are a mix of gifts, books sent by publishers to be reviewed, books lent by friends and acquaintances who assure me “you will love this,” and books bought everywhere from bookstores to sidewalk vendors. These are the small piles, usually five to ten subjects deep. The magazine piles, however, are hazardous, assaulting every free space as they transform airy rooms into labyrinths. What’s worse, many of these piles travel with me, since I can think of few better ways to enjoy subway rides, airplane holdups, doctors’ visits, and casual walks down the street than with my face buried in the written word.

And I haven’t even mentioned the books in my library, properly organised and in constant competition with the burgeoning piles.

Half the joy of reading is the possibility of re-reading, and a considerable amount of my current reads are renewals of nuptials rather than first dates. First meeting or ongoing familiarisation, I read because of the promise of discovery. Here, then, are some companions that satisfy my curiosity and deepen my empathy.

After a botched surgery last year (no thanks Bellevue Hospital, NYC) that finally was repaired a few weeks ago (all hail the marvelous Hospital for Special Surgery, NYC), I decided to delve into the world of medical writing, exploring the uncertainties, complexities, challenges, and triumphs of modern medicine. The plunge has been great, not least because of the graceful writing found in the following:

- How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman. A practical, humane, and eloquent treatise from a physician at Harvard Medical School who writes for the New Yorker. I may just buy it in bulk and deliver it to the orthopedic department of Bellevue Hospital.
- Better, by Atul Gawande. Like Groopman, Gawande does the rounds at Harvard Medical School and the New Yorker. His collection of essays is no less eloquent than, though not as organic as, Groopman’s thoughtful discussion of medical decision-making. No matter: a stimulating collection, nonetheless, that highlights how simple and ingenious practices improves medical care. You’ll never think of hand-washing the same way again.
- Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflection on Mortality, by Pauline Chen. I first came across this surgeon in the splendid Virginia Quarterly Review, and her thoughtful, moving writing guaranteed that I’d pick up this book. Her tender reflections on end-of-life care, not to mention her honest discussion of dealing with people who have no choice but to view life from the vantage point of the end, is an illuminating meditation on the relationship between medicine and mortality. Chen’s book is a vivid reminder of the necessity of compassion in our technology-driven age.
- I’m also reading Gawande’s recent New Yorker article, “The Way We Age Now” (April 30), and Chen’s “The Gross-Out Factor” in the Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring). Someone should convince Chen to eventually compile her articles between two covers (there’s not enough yet, but not for long, I hope).

I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read on writing. Just as well: most of them are a waste of time. A recent crop of books, though, have made me pause, even smile. Who would have guessed? A series of excellent books on writing published within months of each other.

- Telling True Stories, by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. By far the best of the lot, this is about writing and so much more: thinking, organising, reporting, and, above all else, the joy of a good story. A collection of ninety-one brief yet potent essays by well-known authors (Gay Talese, Susan Orlean, David Halberstam, Tom Wolfe, Adam Hochschild, Malcolm Gladwell) and lesser-known writers who certainly should be household names, this book is indispensable to anyone who loves nonfiction. This gem discusses everything from how to reasonably deepen research methods, develop writing style, and sharpen editorial skills to why one should anchor reporting and writing practices in ethics, build a career in magazines and books, and strengthen reportorial skills. This book will certainly improve the quality of the writing life like no other. Whether you want to find an agent, polish your prose, or give up your day job to become a writer (or keep your day job while freelancing) then you can do no better than this book. Did I remember to say the bibliography alone is worth the price of admission?
- Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark; A Writer’s Coach, by Jack Hart. Clark and Hart’s books should be squeezed into your bookshelf alongside Strunk and White’s pithy volume. Both journalists, they offer sensible, clear advice on writing well, with a compendium of examples from fine writers. And to boot, they do it with wit (especially Clark, who is sometimes a hoot). These books can be--should be--used by beginners, but they definitely are written for people hungry for instruction from a writer’s writer. Think of Hart’s book as a commentary, which nurtures the writer from idea to final draft, and Clark’s, with its fifty incisive, practical tools, as a devotional. You need both, but you approach them differently. The result will be the same, though: sharper thinking and more sparkling prose.
- The Paris Review Interviews, vol. 1, by Philip Gourevitch. Not really a book on writing, but why argue with the writer’s superstition that one can improve one’s prose through osmosis. Ahh, the delight of hearing masters talk about their work. A wonderful collection of interviews that can be read to learn about the craft (of writing, editing, filmmaking), I like this book even more for the pleasure of eavesdropping on thought-provoking, good-humored conversations. No wonder I was spurred to reach again for The New New Journalism, by Robert S. Boynton, the best collection of interviews of reporters and writers you’ll ever read. I’m willing to bet on it.

Alas, only two piles and already the reading seems endless. Here are some other piles:

On 9/11:
- American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, by William Langewiesche
- The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright
- The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud
+ assorted magazine articles

On Iraq:
- The Assassin’s Gate, by George Packer
- Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks
+ skyscraper-high magazine articles

On journalism:
- The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
- Reporting: Writings From the New Yorker, by David Remnick
- A Writer’s Life, Gay Talese
- Public Editor #1: The Collected Columns (with Reflections, Reconsiderations, and Even a Few Retractions) of the First Ombudsman of The New York Times, by Daniel Okrent
- Letters to a Young Journalist, by Samuel Freedman
+ Michael Shapiro’s (2002) Columbia Journalism Review article, “The Curse of Tom Wolfe” + Ken Auletta’s recent New Yorker article on WSJ technology journalist Walter Mossberg

On Bob Marley:
Just about everything written on him. More like a pair of towers than two piles.

On Naipaul:
His nonfiction books, for a forthcoming piece in The Caribbean Review of Books. Naipaul’s radiant prose and precise, lucid observations suggest we ought to be making more of a fuss over his nonfiction. I’ve found his nonfiction more lyrical than his later fiction for some time now, and can’t help but wonder why it does not enjoy more popularity in the Caribbean. Too much of his fiction, for me, seems like more of the same (less of the same, really). Surely it’s time for us to turn more frequently to his “literature of fact,” even if he’s the Caribbean’s curmudgeon par excellence.

On Peanuts:
- The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952, 1953-1954, 1955-1956, 1957-1958, 1959-1960, 1961-1962. This collection should be in every child and adult’s library. The comical, poignant world of Charlie Brown and pals--sans adults--is one of the marvelous gifts of the twentieth century. Charles Schulz offered us this world for a half-century (1950-2000) and Fantagraphics Books’ ongoing high-quality reproduction has, so far, given us Schulz’s first dozen years. This complete reprinting will be done in 2016 and I plan to own every volume (if I’m still around). Peanuts’ hilarity, wisdom, and visual expressiveness made Charlie Brown’s world our universe. “The world of Peanuts is a microcosm,” said Umberto Eco, “a little human comedy for the innocent reader and for the sophisticated.”

- Halflife: Poems, by Meghan O’Rourke
- Selected Poems, by Derek Walcott
- District and Circle: Poems, by Seamus Heaney

Favorite authors:
- The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor, by William Langewiesche. A pile of one. Yes, he’s that good. Graceful. Economical. Measured. Peerless.

- Ned Sublette’s The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (forthcoming from Lawrence Hill Books, 2008)
- Shirley Thompson’s as-yet-untitled book on Creole New Orleans in the American Imagination (forthcoming from Harvard University Press, 2008)
- Jason Toynbee’s Bob Marley: Herald of a Postcolonial World (forthcoming this October from Polity, Cambridge, UK)
+ reams of friends’ soon-to-be-published articles and books

Too much overflowing, and too much half-read. This pile induces guilt. (On top is Rebecca Scott’s Ghostwalk, which is off to a very good start. Right below is Saul Bellow’s Collected Stories, a constant subway complement.)

New Orleans:
Everlasting high-rises.

And then there are the magazines and literary journals....

"Life's distracting noises"

“I have no time fer mock sentiment,” Mavis says, and that’s true of Mr. John’s play too. The director, Shirley Parkinson Wright, obviously loves and understands this material, its humor and hardheadedness, and she makes the most of limited resources. The single set (by Ademola Olugebefola) of ramshackle houses arrayed across the narrow stage is colorful and claustrophobic, and Ms. Wright fills it with life’s distracting noise: songs, children’s rhymes (“One, two, three, Mother catch a flea”), whistling, the calls of ice and fish vendors and angry shouting.

-- From Rachel Saltz's review, in yesterday's New York Times, of the Caribbean American Repertory Theatre's production of Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, currently playing in New York.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

In support of the Stabroek News

Today several newspapers across the Anglophone Caribbean have published a statement condemning the Guyanese government's advertising boycott of the Stabroek News, which began last November (see this Reporters Sans Frontières report for background). Here is the text of the statement, taken from the Barbados Nation. (Separate editorials on the matter have also been published today by the Jamaica Observer and the Jamaica Gleaner.)


SINCE NOVEMBER 1, 2006, the government of Guyana has withdrawn advertisements for some 29 government ministries, agencies and state-owned corporations from the Stabroek News.

The distribution of these ads is handled by the Government Information Agency (GINA). The head of GINA refused for two months to give any explanation for this abrupt and absolute withdrawal.

Eventually, when the Stabroek News went public with the matter early this year, the Guyana government stated that this was a business decision based on circulation.

The Stabroek News then proposed that the paid circulations of the three daily newspapers be audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation and that a professional advertising agency be consulted to determine which of the newspapers had the target audience for the types of advertisements placed by the government.

Neither suggestion was entertained by the Guyana government.

A regional media team agreed to attempt to seek a solution of the matter and met President Bharrat Jagdeo at the CARICOM Heads of Government meeting in St Vincent in February. That team comprised Harold Hoyte (Barbados), representing One Caribbean Media Limited; Dale Enoch (Trinidad and Tobago), president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers; Newton James (Jamaica), representing the Jamaica Gleaner, and Rickey Singh, the noted Guyana-born Caribbean journalist based in Barbados.

The team offered to advise on and assist with the setting up of a fair system for the distribution of government advertisements.

By May, however, the team concluded that the government was not willing to settle the matter and issued a Press release to that effect.

It stated that the "current unfair and undesirable situation of a total withdrawal of advertisements from the Stabroek News could objectively be viewed by independent observers as having the effect of subverting the commercial viability of the newspaper, and by extension resulting in a Press freedom problem".

The free Press frowns upon a government which takes taxpayers' money and uses it in a manner that appears to be discriminatory and intended to punish its critics and reward its friends.

As custodian of the state's resources, a government must distribute these in a manner that is fair and in keeping with the interests of the entire population. Article 7 of the Declaration of Chapultepec, to which the Guyana government has subscribed, provides as follows: "The granting or withdrawal of government advertising may not be used to reward or punish the media or individual journalists."

Thus it ill becomes the Guyana government, which itself suffered severely from a restriction of Press freedom when its party was in opposition under Burnham government, to behave in this manner.

Furthermore, we are aware that the Stabroek News from its inception in 1986 fought for the restoration of free and fair elections which brought the present government to power in 1992 and for an open society under the rule of law.

We, the regional Press, call upon the government of Guyana to reconsider its position in this matter. Failing this, we will bring this matter to the attention of the governments in our respective territories and will also raise this attack on Press freedom in our region with the various international media organisations to which we belong.

Freedom is indivisible, and a threat to any newspaper in the region is a threat to us all.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Talking to Marie-Elena John

Reviewing Marie-Elena John's debut novel in the August 2006 CRB, Jane Bryce wrote: "Although Unburnable is, by turns, a love story, a romantic thriller, and a historical romance, there is a certain point in the novel when the reader forsakes all expectations of a generic 'happy ending', surrendering willingly to the seductions of a well-written, suspenseful narrative with its unexpected twists and unforeseeable outcome." Unburnable won its author much acclaim in the Caribbean and in North America, and was named the best work of debut fiction for 2006 by Black Issues Book Review. Ahead of her visit to Jamaica for the Calabash International Literary Festival, John answered a few questions about her current work in progress, her writing process and the way it has changed, and the ways she balances family life with literary endeavours.

NL: You must be hard at work right now on your second novel. Can you tell Antilles readers something about it? You've mentioned in previous interviews that you hope to integrate more from your work in African women's rights into the second book.

M-EJ: Hard at work yes, but I wish more of it could be on the second book. To be honest, I’m still more tied up than I’d like in the marketing/promotion efforts of the first one. I gave myself till last November to be seriously writing again--but first I had to put up the website. That took me into January. Then I discovered that there were some other angles to the promotion that hadn’t been explored. That took care of February and March. Then I started getting a few requests to write smaller bits for magazines, tourism publications and such. Well, one must eat. So there went April and May. Now the paperback is out, and HarperCollins has a bit of a new promotion happening, with a book club focus. I’ll be in New York and DC for some publicity. June gone. And so it does go.

What I’ve done extensively on the second book is a form of elaborate sketching--not outlining, which I can’t do, but just kicking sundry ideas around with myself on paper, sometimes having to do with possible plot or a thought on a character, but generally not, usually just something that popped into my head, a memory that I’ll elaborate, or a voice that came out of nowhere making a statement. Interestingly, those notes tend to find their way into the story. The old unconscious mind.

But in between the sketching, I do get some real writing done (sort of in bursts, though what I need is to write every single day for things to really roll). It’ll be absolutely impossible for the African women’s rights work to get cut this time round, because the central character lives in Lagos. So far, she’s an Antiguan woman who ended up in West Africa rather circuitously (hmm, sounds familiar...). She’s into all kinda ting. She has a daughter who got dragged around with her in Africa as a young child, now lives in the US and absolutely hates Africa, but who’s reluctantly going to visit her mother in Lagos. While the daughter is there... well, who knows what’ll really happen. Their relationship looks to me like it’s a metaphor for my own internal struggle between wanting to make some kind of mark on The World vs making a mark on my kids....

NL: How is the experience of working on the second book different to the first? Is it easier, because Unburnable cleared a path for you? Harder, because you now have major expectations to live up to? Or--?

M-EJ: It’s easier in that now people actually believe that I’m writing and I get a certain amount of respect when I say I’m writing. Before, they would nod seriously, but once, a neighbour’s gardener said what they were really thinking: “Ah wha you a really do lock up in dey all day--ah sleep you ah sleep?”

But there’s a ton of pressure, definitely, now. Before, I was so innocent/ignorant about what I was doing. I started off writing some very awful, simply bad stuff. But I had no idea it was bad. I was very proud of it. I wrote sentences like, "'Oh,' she said, smiling demurely.'Whyever would you say that?'" (Not exactly, but you get the picture). I just didn’t know any better. I accidentally stumbled upon my “voice” and I understand that some people consider it to be decent. So I’ve lost the freedom that came with being clueless; I have to make sure that I’m now writing “good” writing, which then leads to the worry that I’ll end up sounding self-conscious or forced.

NL: Do you find your style changing or evolving in the second book?

M-EJ: Recently Nalo Hopkinson mentioned that I wrote a lot of Unburnable in “limited omniscient veering into distant third person” which she said can be “wobbly” if not done well (but that I’d pulled it off --thank you Nalo!)--and although I’ve only just discovered the term "omniscient", I do know that I write in a kind of old-fashioned storytelling style, so at some point I would like to consciously break away from that to see what happens, maybe try a first person narrative that’s a bit closer, more intimate. I did start this second book in first person, but felt very hemmed in, so I guess it’s back to limited omniscient veering into distant third person.

And I don’t know if style and voice are the same thing, but the main response my agent got from editors for Unburnable was: “strong voice.” It took me a long time to figure out what was this “voice” business, but now I get it. I used to write letters to researchers in Africa about their proposals--“Here are the questions the panel has about your proposal, and they’d like you to address this, that, the other”--and then after months of faxes and DHLs back and forth--that was before email to sub-Saharan Africa was common--I would finally meet them. They almost always said that they were expecting a physically large woman based on the letters I’d write (some would make brackets of their arms to show what size they expected, and they were clearly looking for a very big person). I think the researchers and the editors were responding to the same thing. And when I read what I’ve done on the second book, I’m getting the same vibe, the same general sense--I now recognize what I sound like on paper. So I think that overall, I’m solidifying my style with this book--I don’t think it’s evolved, not yet anyway.

NL: The "room of one's own" question: how do you balance a writing career, and a certain need for privacy, space, and time, with family life? How do you negotiate this?

M-EJ: Ah, the question of questions. I do fantasize about going away for months at a time to somewhere like a small cottage in the mountains of Dominica to write all day with nothing but the sound of a nearby river for company--but reality bites.

Before Unburnable was published, I only wrote for the part of the day when the house was empty, and once I picked the kids up from school, that was it for the writing. I didn’t write on weekends, and took vacation when they did. Now that I have more going on and need a longer day, it’s much more difficult to balance things. I was writing yesterday afternoon, when the kids started acting up. So I opened the bedroom door (I write in a small corner of a small bedroom) and used my very, very quiet voice, which scares them no end (as opposed to when I shout, which they ignore). I throw in the word “deadline” and that works sometimes too. With adults, I always say I’m on deadline, even though what I mean is: I’m in a very creative and productive period and although this book won’t be done for another year or more, I do need to stay “lock up in dey all day” staring at the screen and walking around in circles every now and then. But somehow nobody would understand that, so I don’t say it.

When I’m really deep into writing or thinking about a particular scene, I know I’m very detached and day-dreamy--this gets very hard on my husband--and I don’t exactly do well socially, so I try to take small breaks of a few days off between the scenes (for me, it’s less about writing a chapter than it’s about visualizing and then describing a series of consecutive scenes).

I’ve also done some creative things like going to Guadeloupe, Martinique and Puerto Rico with the kids during summer vacations for two week stretches and putting them in language day camps while I stayed in the hotel room all day alone writing, with my husband joining us for the weekends--a hybrid of family vacation and a writers’ colony-type experience.

I’m also about to build a tiny one-room wooden cottage to put in the backyard, which will be my office. I can then leave the house and GO TO WORK. I’m hoping it’ll cut down on the number of times a day I’ll have to do my grade-B horror movie soft voice act with the kids.

Caribbean lit links

- In the Jamaica Gleaner, an anonymous interviewer talks to Kwame Dawes, co-founder of the Calabash International Literary Festival, about the event that has come to dominate Jamaica's literary calendar:

Calabash is a brand. Colin Channer's gift is in developing a brand and then making it one that can shape and direct other related projects. We believe in sharing some of what we have learned with others, and so we encourage other festivals to sprout up and to do some of the things that we just can't do.

- Dawes also writes about the genesis of Calabash over at the Poetry Foundation blog, Harriet:

We realized that it was now our generation that were responsible for working to advance the future of writing from the Caribbean in general and from Jamaica, in particular. We were the ones who would have to make it happen and we new we could do this because, quite simply, we already knew what to do.

- Last Sunday's edition of the Stabroek News went online a few days late--it includes a feature by Al Creighton on various Arrival Month celebrations--involving music, theatre, etc.--in Guyana. (Entirely by coincidence, Guyana's Indian, African, and Portuguese Arrival Days all fall in the month of May.)

- At the Caribbean Beat blog, my colleague Dominique Monteil announces a new short story competition aimed at discovering talented new romance writers in the Caribbean.

- And a conversation with some Haitian visitors prompts Jonathan Ali to think dark thoughts about the problem of "positive stereotyping" in Trinidad:

With our relative wealth, our annual carnival, and the physical positives that come with being a tropical island, among other things, the view of Trinidad from the outside is, by and large, that all is well here.

The truth, of course is sorely different.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Jamaica journal, part 1

Lazy weekend at Annie's house in peaceful College Common, spent catching up on Jamaican art world gossip and browsing through Annie's excellent, eclectic library--incl. a shelf of obscure old travellers' accounts of South America, which she inherited from an eminent anthropologist. A journalist friend of hers dropped by on Sunday evening and filled me in on the latest political developments here, ahead of the much-anticipated (and -dreaded) general election.

Yesterday morning, strolled over to Mona campus to visit the UWI Bookshop. They don't currently stock the CRB. We'll have to see about that. Bought an armload of books, incl. Douglas Hall's biography of M.G. Smith, which I've long wanted. Then dropped in on Annie at her office, where I met an agitated young postgrad complaining about the university's internal politics.

Lunch with Sharon Leach, whose book of short stories What You Can't Tell Him was recently published by Star Apple Books. Sharon is also the editor of the "Bookends" section in the Sunday edition of the Jamaica Observer. She'll be running a story on the CRB this weekend. We had a long, frank, entertaining talk about the state of the Jamaican literary scene. I told her that from the perspective of Trinidad, things seem to be vital and energetic here--lots of young writers emerging and getting their books published; fiction and poems appearing in the Sunday papers every week; Calabash attracting lots of international attention. She told me that from the perspective of Jamaica, it seems that Trinidad's where it's really all happening. A case of grass-is-always-greener?

Back to Annie's for tea with Melinda Brown, an Australian artist who moved to Kingston a couple of years ago--and set up her studio in downtown Kingston, where good middle-class Jamaicans rarely venture--and is now working on an exciting, madly ambitious project to transform a derelict building into an international arts centre, or "museum of sculptural botany", as she calls it--a main feature of which will be an indoor rainforest.

Then off to a welcome dinner for the Commonwealth Writers' Prizes people, who have been arriving in Jamaica over the last couple of days (the prizes will be announced at Calabash this weekend). Writers, judges, and people from the Commonwealth Foundation, all looking a little dazed after their respective long journeys and wranglings with jetlag. Long talk with Angela Smith, one of the judges, formerly of the University of Stirling, where she was a colleague of my good friend Gemma Robinson. Angela--and the other judges on her panel--had to read something like 150 novels to come up with their shortlist. My mind boggles. Also found out that the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference will happen in Port of Spain, with a mass of cultural programmes accompanying it. Better organised than the last Carifesta, I hope. Bear-hugged on my way out by the affable Colin Channer. I'd better not ever get in a fist-fight with that man. He's twice my size.

mona window

Annie's back garden glimpsed through her study window

Monday, 21 May 2007

Authorial stamp

Talk about Pottermania. Royal Mail plans to issue a set of Harry Potter stamps--one for each book in the series--to coincide with the publication of the final Potter book on 17 July. I used to collect stamps when I was younger--I used to collect lots of things. I'm trying to recall which Caribbean writers have appeared on postage stamps. José Martí on Cuban stamps for sure. Has St Lucia issued Walcott stamps? Wouldn't it be great fun if all the postal agencies in the Caribbean co-ordinated efforts and issued simultaneously a Caribbean writers postage stamp series with a uniform design--each country choosing one or two or three writers to commemorate?

A set of Cuban postage stamps issued to commemorate the centennial of the birth of José Martí

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Sunday roundup

- In the Guyana Chronicle, Ruel Johnson reviews The People's Progressive Party of Guyana, 1950-1992: An Oral History. [N.B.: the Chronicle does not have a permanent online archive--this link is good for one week only.]

- This week the Jamaica Gleaner's Arts & Leisure section includes three short stories: "Pretty Death", by Krys-Darcelle Dumas; "The Dress", by Natalee Grant; and "No Crown For Me", by Rhonda Kareem.

- Elsewhere in the Gleaner, Mel Cooke gives some background to one of the main events at the 2007 Calabash International Literary Festival--the announcement of the Commonwealth Writers' Prizes.

- Georgia Popplewell has posted a Flickr set called "Haiti Now meets Alice Yard", documenting a visit by a group of delegates from UWI's recent Haiti Now! conference to the weekly Conversations in the Yard event in Port of Spain.

A housekeeping note

I am in Jamaica for a few days, dear readers--currently in Kingston, but heading down later in the week to Treasure Beach for the Calabash International Literary Festival (more about that later). As I dash around, trying to see as many CRB contributors and visit as many bookshops as possible, posting here may be erratic--but I can promise almost-live coverage of Calabash next weekend, including photos.