Finding buried truths

by Nicholas Laughlin on October 24, 2015

barbara jenkins

Barbara Jenkins. Photograph by Arnaldo James, courtesy Caribbean Beat

Two days ago, the CRB published “Flood”, a new piece of fiction by Trinidadian writer Barbara Jenkins, excerpted from her novel-in-progress De Rightest Place. Jenkins, past winner of the Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize (among other awards), published her debut short story collection Sic Transit Wagon in 2013. CRB deputy editor Shivanee Ramlochan engaged her in a short email interview about her current writing, the impact of the Hollick Arvon Prize, and how everyday concerns filter into her fiction.

Shivanee Ramlochan: This excerpt from De Rightest Place whets the appetite, much as the characters it highlights find themselves drawn towards certain kinds of hunger. How far towards the novel’s completion are you, and are you enjoying the process of building this world?

Barbara Jenkins: The first part of your question is difficult. It’s a novel experience for me to be growing a novel, and I’m doing so guided by raw instinct. I feel I ought to be drawing it to a close soon: things have come to a head, and while not falling apart are certainly showing signs of fracture and reorientation — some things have become dominant in unexpected ways, others seem a little underdeveloped. So, to return to your question, how far am I? Well, maybe near to finding a resolution of sorts, but then I need to go back to what’s already there and do some massive reworking — pruning and thinning and chopping down and weeding and maybe even sowing some new select seeds in strategic locations. And am I enjoying building this world? You bet I am. I get lost in the place, the people, their motives, their sayings and doings. It’s a parallel world to escape to.

SR: The Hollick Arvon Caribbean Writers Prize, which you won in 2013, offered significant boons towards the completion of a novel, including a literary mentor and a spot on a prestigious Arvon writing course. How would you say the prize has helped De Rightest Place come into its own space?

BJ: Without a doubt, I owe where I am with this novel to the Bocas Lit Fest and the Hollick Arvon Prize. I left it to Arvon to find me a mentor, and they got me Bernardine Evaristo. What a mentor! What a writer! Our book club was reading her Mr Loverman at the time, and I thought that her style, her touch were just so much what I felt about what I was writing and what I would like to see in my novel.

It was a “marriage made in Arvon” and consummated over a period of a year through email. I’d send Bernardine work by a deadline of her choosing; she’d reply with reflections, questions, suggestions; and I’d answer — a real conversation that helped me refine what I was doing. Really basic stuff like plot outline, character map, stuff I hadn’t thought about, that made my focus sharper, my thinking clearer. It was brilliant. Totally new to me. And so necessary. That mentorship, which ended in June 2014, got me to where I am now, and I’ve hardly moved on — eyesight issues now resolved and other “life matters” always ongoing, but she left me in a place where I know where I’m going and I’ve just got to do the one-foot-in-front-the-other thing to get there.

SR: It’s no secret that, as far as Trinidadian letters are concerned, you’re the veritable doyenne of the short story form. What has the transition been like, from crafting short stories to working on a full-length novel?

BJ: It won’t be false modesty to deny the label “doyenne” — I’m learning and learning still. I’ve learned a lot lately from reading other Trinidadian short story collections — notably Rhoda Bharath’s The Ten Days Executive and Sharon Millar’s The Whale House. I was recently the inaugural British Council International Writer in Residence at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival at Charleston House in Sussex, and there I was exposed to dozens of short story writers and hundreds of short stories — and what all of that showed is how new, how raw, how unformed my craft still is. I would love to write lots more short stories and better ones.

A novel is entirely different. It’s not just size and scale. With a short story, you take one thread and examine it minutely and deal with the essence of it. With a novel, it’s holding dozens of threads of different colours and weights and textures to weave a tapestry whose design must change and morph and unfold over a period of time, while having some sort of cohesive weft and warp to hold it together.

SR: Is De Rightest Place being primarily written in Trinidad? If so, what are the benefits or effects of working on a creative fiction manuscript, while being ensconced in local space?

BJ: Oh yes. De Rightest Place is set right here. There are a couple of flashbacks to other locations, but here IS De Rightest Place. I like being embedded here — the immediacy of sensation — heat, light, rain, mosquitoes, noise, police sirens, birdsong, plants, wind, bamboo creaking, human voices influence how you feel, are feeling, noticing, as you’re writing. I don’t use air-conditioning in my writing space. I want to be in touch through all my senses with here, with now. It could be that I lack imagination and must feel to know, but that’s OK with me. I’m a grounded, practical sort of person, I think.

SR: Political furor, environmental scandal, human rights violations: so much goes awry with the world, on both a regional and international scale, while a writer works on shaping her very specific acreage in print. To what extent do you think external events filter into the day-to-day, page-by-page production of the novel? Is there a chance that, on some miniature level, almost everything gets written in?

BJ: For sure. The stuff of life, of human relations, of people’s priorities, of their desires — what else is there to tap into? How people behave in specific circumstances of ease or challenge, what people value, these vary from country to country. While they are not fixed, the priorities, the values, I mean, they do say something about a place at a moment in time. And capturing that in one’s characters and situations gives authenticity to the story that you’re telling. To write about the 1990s in T&T, for example, and not have the long shadow of the attempted coup and its aftermath cast over a character’s approach to life, is to write fantasy — which is OK if your character lives in a bubble or a cocoon, but even then the character would meet people whose values and philosophy have been affected.

We have a national amnesia about that traumatic event that I didn’t understand until I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant, where in a mythical post-Arthurian Britain a spell was cast that brought a mist of forgetfulness over the people, so that they could live in a false peace, forgetting wrongs lest the attempts at righting them brought discord. I think we have a collective amnesia about the hundreds of years of enslavement of African people, and about lots of other things. It may bring peace, but the aftereffects are there, shaping who we are and how we relate to one another. Guilt, shame, there as undercurrents in our relations. Claiming what’s around us, examining them, understanding them, seeking truth, not “moving on,” that’s how to avoid repeating mistakes, human errors, of the past. I feel that any writer here, now, cannot help but hold a mirror to us as we are, and seek through storytelling to find buried truths about how we came to be as we are — and perhaps tell or hint of a way to make us better.


From Césaire’s Notebook to the Net

by Nicholas Laughlin on December 13, 2013

Kelly Baker Josephs reports on Legacies of Aimé Césaire, an event co-hosted by Columbia University and Barnard College in New York City to mark the centenary of the Martiniquan poet

Aimé Césaire researchathon in progress

The Aimé Césaire researchathon in progress. Image by Alex Gill (@elotroalex), posted on Twitter

While new media are understood in terms of the older media that precede them, they are nonetheless freed, at least to some extent, from traditional constraints. Having to figure out how new tools work necessitates innovation and encourages a kind of beginner’s mind. New media attract innovators, iconoclasts, and risk-takers.

— Mark Tribe, foreword to The Language of New Media (2001),
by Lev Manovich

November 2013 was a busy — one might say explosive — month in Caribbean and Caribbean-related new media. There were several publications of online periodicals connected to the Caribbean — indeed, the CRB itself published its much-awaited first issue after a year-plus hiatus — as well as various live-streams of conferences and events relevant to the African diaspora. It was a bit overwhelming to see this embrace of technology, especially in the academy, but much of it was quite close to older familiar forms, albeit with key differences in delivery and access.

In addition, there have also been several events this year celebrating the centenary of Aimé Césaire’s birth. These events have taken place mostly in academic and cultural spaces, with much digital announcement, but dependent largely on face-to-face interaction limited to the time and place of the event.

The Legacies of Aimé Césaire event managed to combine both the digital activity taking place in November and the yearlong celebration of Césaire. The event was designed collaboratively by Columbia University and Barnard College faculty: Kaiama L. Glover, Alex Gil, Brent Hayes Edwards, and David Scott. Along with a website launched in mid-November, the physical portion of the event spanned two days, with a “researchathon” on 5 December and a live forum the following day. The site itself went live in mid-November with pieces from the invited scholars, paired along four routes of conversation: “The revolutionary Afro-Americas”, with Millery Polyné and Anne Eller; “Trans-Atlantic networks and contexts”, with Christopher Winks and Carrie Noland; “Whither or whether postcolonial sovereignty?”, with Gary Wilder and Yarimar Bonilla; and “The present-day poetic imagination”, with Erica Hunt and Brent Hayes Edwards. Both the site and the two-day event were in their own way innovative academically and digitally, and presented ways in which the Internet could facilitate collaborative scholarship.

I confess I know little, if any, more than the next person about Césaire or his legacies. But I followed this event closely because of the “new tools” to be applied to Caribbean scholarship. First, the researchathon — a word that seems self-explanatory, but on second glance requires some clarification. The Studio @ Butler space at Columbia University defines it thus: “A researchathon, or research sprint, is akin to a hackathon but focused on research results rather than software or code.” It involves “a research question that a group of ten or more students, librarians, faculty, and technologists could answer working together” over a short period of time, and generally results in a useful online resource for research on the topic.

The primary objective of the Césaire researchathon was to “compile the largest online bibliography of primary and secondary sources related to Césaire.” I was not able to attend the researchathon in person, but like others I could participate online via the research tool Zotero. It was exciting to watch the bibliography grow over the course of the day as dedicated scholars the world over contributed citations. In the end, the researchathon met its objective, compiling a bibliography of over two thousand sources, and growing.

The organisers indicated that the “Césaire researchathon is the first major attempt to bring the researchathon model to research in the humanities at Columbia — or elsewhere, for that matter.” While I find this model inspirational, I remain confused as to how to use the produced bibliography. In its current form, it’s overwhelming. The tagging is inconsistent at best, and so the most viable view is alphabetically by title. Having no experience with this model, I don’t know if this is a useful method of organisation for other disciplines, but it remains less so for the humanities. It’s possible that this is more a fault of less-digitally facile Césaireans than of the method itself. But either way, some revisions are necessary to make this bibliography useful for research on various aspects of Césaire’s work. This certainly does not render this model less exciting as a tool. Instead, it merely indicates that this is the first stage in the development of both the tool and its users for future similar collaborations. (I am already working to convince Alex Gil, the mastermind behind the Césaire researchathon, to help me organise one for Kamau Brathwaite.)

The second day of the event featured panels with the pairs of scholars who had written pieces for the website. (The schedule of panels can be found here.) This was the more familiar part of the event; the “old media” so to speak. At least, that is what I expected it to be. I expected something similar to a seminar style conference with pre-circulated papers. The difference, I came to understand, was in the conversation that had already occurred online prior to the live forum. Because these early written thoughts were public, and because they were open to comments, more attendees were ready to discuss the concepts than is generally the case for a traditional seminar, even one with pre-circulated material. More importantly, the writers themselves came with some idea of how their work was already being received and questioned by their readers, far and near. In the room itself, this led to the type of engaged participatory experience that, at best, only happens on the fringes of traditional conferences: for five minutes during Q&A, or in a small group afterward, as attendees clear out of the room; or perhaps in a post-event social gathering. In this way, I would say, the event was an unqualified success. What Gil calls the “hybrid model” of scholarly presentation allowed for a more useful form of discussion about Césaire’s work.

All the online participants took a risk with this hybrid model. The organisers’ vision depended upon both the bloggers and the commenters making their ideas — ideas essentially still at the draft stage — publically vulnerable to criticism and, worse, indifference. In Kaiama Glover’s post-event summation, one hears echoes of the risk as well as the rewards of such a model:

“The event was quite amazing. It did what I’d dreamed it would from the beginning — put people into real conversation and generate new ways of thinking across disciplines. I was quite astounded at the level of engagement, both online and live, and impressed by people’s willingness to work within a format that was — for so many — out of their comfort zone. It seemed that the participants, myself included, came away from the experience somehow re-charged. Open to possibility …”

In most respects, the gamble paid off, and we now have two new Césaire research resources online. Both continue to grow, as the posts remain open to comments (indeed, the conversation continued online beyond the live forum), and the bibliography remains open to additions. While the results may still look familiar, the process has been, as Tribe notes in the epigraph above, “freed, at least to some extent, from traditional constraints.” In closing the two-day event, Gil requested that we “reflect on the material realities of our new memory machines” and ask: “What does it mean to build scholarly discourses online as opposed to paper? How does the nature of the digital change how we engage with that knowledge?”

Appropriate questions for a celebration of the innovator, iconoclast, and risk-taker who gave us his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. Césaire’s legacies indeed.


Kelly Baker Josephs is an associate professor of English at York College, City University of New York, editor of sx salon, and author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature (2013).


Footnotes: Black Sand, by Edward Baugh

by Nicholas Laughlin on November 20, 2013

“Footnotes” is a series of occasional blog posts giving further information about books reviewed in the CRB

Black Sand, by Edward BaughThe November 2013 CRB includes a review by Ishion Hutchinson of Edward Baugh’s Black Sand: New and Selected Poems. “Baugh’s brand of poetry,” writes Hutchinson, “has given the quotidian Caribbean experience, and often the unexamined Caribbean life, an exhilarating poetic presence.”

Emeritus professor of the University of the West Indies, Baugh is a leading authority on the work of Derek Walcott — and one of the best readers of Walcott’s poems your Antilles blogger has ever heard. He published the first book-length study of Walcott (Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision, 1978), edited the St Lucian Nobel laureate’s 2007 Selected Poems, and has written copiously on Walcott’s poetry and his influence on Caribbean literature.

Baugh spent much of his career at UWI’s Mona campus, where — with colleagues like Kenneth Ramchand and Mervyn Morris — he helped lay the foundations for serious scholarly consideration of West Indian literature. In particular, Baugh’s 1977 essay “The West Indian Writer and His Quarrel with History” has been recognised by a subsequent generation of scholars as a seminal contribution to Caribbean literary criticism.

At UWI-Mona, Baugh also served as the campus’s public orator. His addresses delivered in this role, detailing the achievements of the university’s honorary graduands, are collected in Chancellor, I Present … (1998), which you can read in part at Google Books.

As Hutchinson notes in his review, though Baugh has been writing poems for five decades, he has not been the most prolific of poets. Nonetheless, “Baugh has patiently created an important oeuvre that is indelible.” His previous books of poems, A Tale from the Rainforest (1988) and It Was the Singing (2000), share with Black Sand the quality Hutchinson describes as “the fluid way in which he moves beyond expression into comprehension, articulating with superb intimacy those echolocations outside of the verbal framework.”

Baugh is also a longtime CRB contributor — for example, reviewing Walcott’s book The Prodigal, Lorna Goodison’s Controlling the Silver, and more recently Vahni Capildeo’s Undraining Sea. The CRB archive also includes an essay by Baugh on Frank Collymore, excerpted from his biography of the late Barbadian writer and editor (which was in turn reviewed in the CRB by John Gilmore).

“For most of my life,” Baugh said in a 2006 Caribbean Beat interview, “people knew me simply as a critic. I was writing poems, getting the odd poem published here and there, but here and abroad, except for a few people who were into poetry, people knew me as a critic.

“I always used to say, half in jest, but only half, that the thing I would most have liked to be in the world is a poet. So the fact that sometimes now people refer to me as poet first is a kind of great thrill to me.”

Listen to Edward Baugh reading several of his poems at The Poetry Archive.


In the November 2013 CRB

by Nicholas Laughlin on November 18, 2013

Still from Touch, by Janine Antoni

Still from Touch (video, 2002), by Janine Antoni, included in the exhibition Into the Mix

Twenty-two months later, the CRB is back. Our November 2013 issue, published today, includes reviews of recent books of poems by Edward Baugh, Loretta Collins Klobah, and Sasenarine Persaud; recent fiction by Merle Collins and Keith Jardim; as well as a critical study of the late John Hearne by his daughter Shivaun; a collection of the little-known later writings of Eric Walrond; and a study of “Caribbean–US crosscurrents in literature and culture.” You’ll also find two new poems by Trinidadian writer Shivanee Ramlochan; a review of the recent film The Stuart Hall Project (directed by John Akomfrah); and your Antilles blogger’s own notes on a 2012 exhibition that raised questions about the geographical balancing acts required of artists from certain parts of the world.

There’s a lagniappe to look forward to: later this month we’ll publish a long interview with writer Oonya Kempadoo, talking about her new book, All Decent Animals; and an “Also noted” column rounding up the most significant books we missed during the CRB’s 2012–2013 hiatus.

And keep an eye on Antilles in the coming weeks, where we plan to run a new series of blog posts called “Footnotes”, giving further information on books reviewed in the current issue of the CRB.

Happy reading!


Douen Islands and the art of collaboration

by Nicholas Laughlin on November 4, 2013

douen, duende, douaine, done, dwen, duegne n A folklore character, the spirit of a child who died before baptism. Douens wear large hats, have backward-pointing feet, utter a soft hooting cry, and often lead children to wander off.

Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago, ed. Lise Winer

Cover of Douen Islands e-bookAnnounced (by no coincidence) on 31 October, All Hallows’ Eve, Douen Islands is a collaborative project by writer Andre Bagoo (author of the poetry collection Trick Vessels), graphic designer Kriston Chen, artists Rodell Warner and Brianna McCarthy, and musician Sharda Patasar. Its first manifestation is an e-book (downloadable here) of eleven poems by Bagoo, designed by Chen, and incorporating a series of brief texts by Warner (drawn from his Twitter account). Accompanying the e-book is Chen’s video adaptation of Bagoo’s poem “In Forest and Wild Skies”. Further online publications, videos, and live performances involving all five collaborators are in the works.

For many Trinidadians, douens — like other folklore characters — belong to another era. More amusing than sinister, they suggest a pre-electric time, rural life, tales to frighten children. But traditional folklore has also proved a rich resource for contemporary artists and writers. In the 1970s, artist Leroy Clarke produced a massive cycle of paintings, drawings, and poems called Douens, portraying a post-Independence society of “giddy and lost people.” A decade later, Peter Minshall’s 1988 mas band Jumbie released hordes of blank-faced spirits in the streets of Port of Spain, their empty, staring eyes suggesting a marauding hollowness all too apt in a time of political cynicism. More recently, poets James Christopher Aboud (Lagahoo Poems) and Fawzia Kane (Tantie Diablesse) and Trinidadian-Canadian novelist David Chariandy (Soucouyant) have re-imagined other supernatural folklore characters as metaphors for personal and cultural loss, the displacements of history, and the uneasiness of self-definition.

Douen Islands, whose creators describe the project as “a devious remixing of traditional Douen culture,” suggests that the old folklore stories and images remain relevant in the wired age — still offering insights into personal and collective fears. Though the poems’ voice is introspective and many of the references idiosyncratic, numerous co-options of nationalist rhetoric — such as Trinidad and Tobago’s national motto and “watchwords” — and the e-book’s (blood-)red-white-black colour scheme unsubtly indicate an allegorical intent. A prefatory note reads:

(a) Remove the straw hats. (b) Invite them inside. (c) Straighten their feet.

Invited in from the wilderness and dark, with supernatural deformities erased, the douen looks more and more like any Trinidadian of the post-Independence generation: mischievous but bewildered, uncertain of his social birthright, possibly hapless, possibly not helpless.

Soon after Douen Islands made its online debut, I asked its lead collaborators, Andre Bagoo and Kriston Chen, some questions about the project via email.

Nicholas Laughlin: Andre, which came first, the poems or the collaborative? Had you written the pieces before you started working with your colleagues, or did they emerge from the collaboration itself?

Andre Bagoo: I entered the collaboration with a loose idea of something I wanted to express. But it was during the collaboration that the ideas crystallised and words and forms came. I had been drawn to myths surrounding the undead, such as the zombie, which has clear roots in the Caribbean. I entered the collaboration wanting to write a curse poem in the manner of Ovid’s Ibis, aimed at Trinidad and Tobago and modelled after the 1968 film The Night of the Living Dead. Then Kriston specifically raised the figure of the douen one day over coffee. From that moment came Douen Islands. The poems flowed and flowed.

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