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 6 December 2008

More Naipauliana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 5 December 2008

"These days, authentic art is international"

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

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

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

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

"Horse-trading and gamesmanship"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 3 December 2008

A few links

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

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

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

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

Monday 1 December 2008

Support the Signifyin' Guyana short story competition

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

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

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

On Valmiki's Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Anne Chudobiak, in the Montreal Gazette.

Tongues of the Ocean: call for submissions

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 30 November 2008

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

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

From the publisher's website:

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

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

"Beyond juju of any kind"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signifyin' Guyana announces short story competition

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