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, 1 September 2007

"He might not always be saying what he means"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 31 August 2007

Links, links, links

Junot Díaz; photo by Lily Oei from the Village Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 30 August 2007

"Sheer multiplicity"

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

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

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

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

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

At the Brooklyn Museum: Infinite Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 29 August 2007


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

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

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

“Exactly.” Chuckle.

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

Ways in the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, and thank you...

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

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

Monday, 27 August 2007

La vie en noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does she always wear black?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Links, links, links

- Kwame Dawes has been blogging up a storm at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, with posts on his English literature teachers at Jamaica College in the 1970s, promoting poetry and poets, the difference between being a poetry judge and a poetry editor, and the relationship between football and "the beginning of the development of [his] poetic heart".

- Nalo Hopkinson announces that she'll be downsizing her library via eBay--take a look at what she currently has on offer. (Nice chance for fans to acquire what collectors call association copies.)

- Andre Bagoo announces that he's saving the August CRB to read in bed on Sunday morning. He's also somewhere between the front and back covers of Zadie Smith's novel The Autograph Man.

- Marlon James asks 21 hard questions about blackness in America.

- Raymond Ramcharitar posts the title poem from his forthcoming book, American Fall.

- In the Jamaica Gleaner, Anthea McGibbon reviews the special Art Issue of the magazine The Jamaican.

- In the UK Guardian, MP Dave Lammy reviews Caryl Phillips's new book, Foreigners: Three English Lives.

"National pride is in order"

The achievement of Guyanese and West Indian writers in the last 50 years is remarkable by any standard. The work of our literary people has risen above the petty politics and the endemic economic problems which have plagued the region. Long after the contradictions and difficulties of our post-colonial societies have been forgotten, the books produced by our writers will have found a permanent place among the valuable, enduring works of man.

-- From Ian McDonald's short essay on "The Meaning of the Guyana Prize for Literature", in today's Stabroek News. (The 2006 Guyana Prize winners were announced last Thursday evening.) Also in today's Stabroek: an excerpt from the judges' report delivered by the chair of the Guyana Prize jury, Sandra Pouchet-Paquet.