“This question of place”: a conversation with Kelly Baker Josephs

by Nicholas Laughlin on March 3, 2011

sx salon home page

Founded in 1997 in Jamaica, currently based in New York, Small Axe is one of the Caribbean’s leading intellectual journals, devoted to “fashioning a criticism that works through our intellectual tradition.” Or, as editor-in-chief David Scott put it in a November 2008 CRB interview:

concerned with intervening in debates about the Caribbean in such a way as to be critical of the conventional paradigms in relation to which, or through which, the Caribbean was conceived, argued about, engaged —
to try to open up conceptual intellectual space for revisioning the Caribbean . . .

The Small Axe Project — driven by a collective of scholars and thinkers — now includes several web-based initiatives that complement the work of the print journal. The most recent of these is sx salon, a bimonthly online platform “for the convergence of expressions and discussions of the literary,” edited by Small Axe managing editor Kelly Baker Josephs (a literary scholar with roots in Jamaica, and regular CRB contributor) and writer-scholar Andrea Shaw. Launched in October 2010, sx salon publishes book reviews, interviews, discussions of literary and cultural topics, and new fiction and poems.

I recently asked Kelly a few questions about sx salon via email; even before she sent her replies, she returned the favour by interviewing me for a special discussion section on “Caribbean arts and culture online,” published in the February 2011 sx salon . You can read my answers to her questions here, and Kelly’s answers to my questions below.

Nicholas Laughlin: Where and how does sx salon fit into the larger Small Axe Project — the Small Axe ecosystem, as it were?

Kelly Baker Josephs: sx salon is part of our decision to focus some of our energies on literary production. In the overall Small Axe Project, it’s one of two online platforms — the other being sx space, which focuses on visual art — and it houses another recent literary venture, the Small Axe Literary Competition. So, to sort of chart out the ecosystem a bit: there’s the journal Small Axe, which, with fourteen years of publishing, is the oldest and most visible component of the Small Axe Project; sx space, which has been up for close to four years, and is managed by Christopher Cozier; the literary competition, now in its third year; and the seedling, sx salon: a small axe literary platform.

NL: Between sx salon and the annual literary competition, it seems that Small Axe is paying new and closer attention to Caribbean literature. Why this shift, and what other fresh directions might the collective be moving in?

KBJ: Well, I’m not sure I’d say “new,” since the Small Axe Project has a long-standing reputation for supporting creative and critical work in Caribbean literature. But “closer,” yes, we are paying more particular attention to literary arts with these two projects.

The Small Axe Literary Competition was David Scott’s brainchild. He noted that there weren’t any similar literary prize competitions, and wanted to establish some form of institutional support for emerging Caribbean writers. The existing competitions were (and to some extent still are) either too international, eclipsing the Caribbean; or nationally based, like the Guyana Prize; or closed to new and as-yet-unpublished writers. Although it’s still in its early years, the competition has received so much positive support from writers and the Caribbean community at large that it seems it does fill a long-neglected need. (By the way, the deadline for this year has been extended to May 31. Interested writers can find information here.)

sx salon sprang in part out of that positive response to the literary competition, in part out of our concern when CRB paused publishing [between May 2009 and May 2010] and, more generally, out of our desire to provide a vital resource and virtual gateway for students and scholars of Caribbean literature. We’re in the embryonic stages of this yet, but growing towards it. I’m particularly excited about the newly expanded discussion section, which moves the project closer to its given designation as a salon.

Two other new projects concern the visual arts. We recently received a three-year grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation to commission original artwork and scholarly essays for a project called “The Visual Life of Catastrophic History”. The project statement will be in the March 2011 issue of Small Axe. Also in that issue is the first folio of photographic work in a yearlong collaboration between the Small Axe Project and the London-based Autograph ABP.

Along with the ongoing work of the print journal, the Small Axe Project has quite a few new irons in the fire, but those above are the ones that are top of mind for me right now.

NL: Where and how do you think sx salon will fit into the broad and growing network of online resources (journals, blogs, archives) for Caribbean literature? And which of these other resources do you pay closest attention to?

KBJ: I’ll answer the easier question first: The Caribbean Review of Books, of course! I like to check out a few blogs that I think of as literary, even though they often cover culture more generally — Geoffrey Philp, Signifyin’ Woman, PLEASURE, Caribbean Book Blog — but I am not as regular with those as I would like to be. I have gotten into the (perhaps bad) habit of relying on my Twitter stream to remind me to check. I also regularly “go by” Repeating Islands, Latineos, and Active Voice because, at this point, how else would I know anything? Lately I have been following Tobias Buckell’s blog, because I am working up to an interview with him, and it’s been interesting to approach the Caribbean science fiction/fantasy world from this angle.

Now, as to how sx salon will fit into this particular ecosystem . . . I think one of the best responses I got when I was announcing the launch of the salon was at an event in New York last spring. Geoffrey Philp happened to be in the audience, and he got up and made a short speech about the importance of the new venture as institutional support for Caribbean literary arts. I hadn’t formed the idea in my head quite that way, but now I always think of it when I try to situate sx salon in the online network you reference. It is, like the print journal, based in academia, and bound to be heavily influenced by that. Our content is not exclusive, or even “gated,” but it will have an academic “flavour” because both myself and Andrea Shaw (who primarily manages the creative end of sx salon) are based in academia and approach the project from this background.

NL: A question I got asked just the other day, and found hard to answer: from your particular vantage point, how would you describe the current state of Caribbean literature?

KBJ: By the time this is published I am sure I will regret my answer, and wish I had been more informed and clairvoyant, but let me give it a shot. Like many people interested in Caribbean Literature, I am excited about the introduction of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and I have been paying close attention to the developments during their first year. I think the introduction of this prize, and the more regional Guyana Prize and the Small Axe Literary Competition, evidences a desire to own the means of valuing and rewarding Caribbean cultural production.

Of course, these prizes raise the inevitable question of how to define “Caribbean” when discussing cultural production. For example, the OCM Bocas Prize requires that the writer be born in the Caribbean or hold Caribbean citizenship. While I think I can guess at the impetus for such a rule, I don’t think the question is that easily answered. That excludes a large portion of writers that I think make significant contributions to the shape of our literature.

I’m not sure I’m answering your question, but I would say that this tension, this question of place, of citizenship, of (yes, the word is necessary) diaspora, is growing increasingly urgent. I don’t have any answers to this question, I’m still working on the right words to even phrase it, but I do know that it is a new question (different, say, to that of “exiled” writers), and I would venture to say that it most defines the current state of Caribbean literature.

Read Kelly Baker Josephs’s most recent contribution to the CRB: a review of You Don’t Play with Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, ed. David Austin, from our July 2010 issue.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carlos Eduardo Morreo May 10, 2011 at 8:16 am

Dear Nicholas,
Thanks. How very interesting, I will be paying attention to the sx salon. Great to be able to surf through the Literary/Cultural sites referenced in KBJ’s reply. Cheers from Caracas.

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