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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“What does ‘black’ look like?”

by Nicholas Laughlin on November 2, 2013

Writer Hannah Lowe

Hannah Lowe. Photograph courtesy Tim Ridley

Despite the swell of her belly, Hannah Lowe is perched, apparently comfortably, on a wide bench at the British Library in London. The child who is coming will bear her father’s name, she says. “It’s important for me not to lose the name, because the child won’t feel the connection to the Caribbean that I do.”

In the November/December Caribbean Beat, Melissa Richards profiles British writer Hannah Lowe, whose debut book Chick is both named for and inspired by her Jamaican father, a professional gambler. Lowe talks about her “childhood full of contradictions,” growing up “within the façade of white middle-class family life” with a mixed-race immigrant father.

“I was always having to explain him to other people,” she says, “but it wasn’t just the fact that he was black and I was white. It was the fact that he was so old. He looked like a grandfather, and often he’d just got out of bed because he’d been playing cards all night, so he was this old dishevelled man with his hair stood on end.”

The resulting questions about personal history and ethnic identity — “what is race, what does ‘black’ look like?” — are the meat of both Chick and Lowe’s forthcoming memoir (due in 2014). And Lowe herself raises fascinating questions about how we can or should define what it means to be a Caribbean writer.

Hannah Lowe reading from Chick at the 2012 Norwich Showcase (your Antilles blogger was in the audience!):


Time passes

November 1, 2013

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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 [...]

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2011 OCM Bocas Prize longlist

February 28, 2011

The OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature — which will be awarded for the first time this year — has announced its 2011 longlist of ten books, in three genre categories: Poetry = Elegguas, by Kamau Brathwaite (Barbados) — Wesleyan = A Light Song of Light, by Kei Miller (Jamaica) — Carcanet = White Egrets, [...]

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Making the list

February 11, 2011

Photograph by Horia Varlan, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license It’s shortlist time — for at least a couple of literary awards. Yesterday the Warwick Prize for Writing announced its 2011 shortlist; Derek Walcott’s White Egrets has advanced to the final six (after winning the T.S. Eliot Prize a couple weeks back). The [...]

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R.I.P. Keith Smith, 1945–2011

February 10, 2011

The photograph of Keith Smith that long accompanied his Express column Keith Smith, Trinidadian journalist, died early in the morning of Tuesday 8 February, at the age of 65. Over his forty-five-year career, which started at the now-defunct Daily Mirror and ended at the Trinidad Express, the newspaper he helped found in 1967, Smith was [...]

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R.I.P. Édouard Glissant, 1928–2011

February 3, 2011

Édouard Glissant, Martiniquan poet, novelist, essayist, and thinker, one of the Caribbean’s towering literary figures, died this morning in Paris, at the age of 82. Described by Le Monde as “the champion of métissage and exchange” — “le chantre du métissage et de l’échange” — Glissant was a major proponent of the Antillanité movement, articulating [...]

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