Sunday, April 27, 2003

Dennis's poems had a dancer's suppleness and grace; and that grace was the more impressive for being driven by a formidable intelligence and ballasted by an unblinking awareness of the horror that subsisted just below the surface of things. Like Frost, Scott was one "acquainted with the night". His poems were full of spiders, cats, knives. And yet the mortal man in company was quite the opposite: perennially gentle, laid back, amused, kind. I don't think he ever wished harm to anyone in his life.

--Wayne Brown, remembering the late poet & playwright Dennis Scott (who died just over twelve years ago), in today's Observer.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Carlos Fuentes called Cuba a "suffocating dictatorship." Jose Saramago said Fidel Castro "cheated his dreams."

Shocked at Cuba's recent crackdown on dissent, many leftist intellectuals and authors find themselves criticizing a government they spent years applauding.

The backlash appears to have caught Cuba off guard and forced officials to defend themselves against not only their foes--but also their longtime friends....

"Must they learn the bad habits of the enemy they are fighting?" wrote Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, who once praised Castro as a "symbol of national dignity."...

Fuentes, a Mexican novelist and longtime Cuba supporter, was even more disillusioned. He lumped Bush and Castro together and declared himself against both. Castro, he said, needs "his American enemy to justify his own failings."

"As a Mexican, I wish for my country neither the dictates of Washington on foreign policy, nor the Cuban example of a suffocating dictatorship," he wrote in a letter published in Mexico City's Reforma newspaper.

He wasn't alone. Saramago, a Portuguese writer who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for literature and considered himself a close friend of Castro, said Cuba "has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams."

Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who lives part-time in Cuba, has been silent on the issue. But his magazine, Cambio, published an article saying "few other repressive waves have left a government so isolated and rejected."...

Fuentes warned it will be hard for Castro to bounce back.

The Cuban president, he said, is preparing "the way for his own exit from the world stage in a hail of flames."

--From an Associated Press report issued yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Bahamas has just established a permanent embassy in Havana, which was the subject of an op-ed piece by Dr. Kevin Alcena in yesterday's Nassau Guardian. Dr. Alcena goes on at great length about the ill-effects of the embargo, & denounces what he calls the "imperialistic agenda against Cuba", but does not think it necessary to even mention Castro's recent crackdown on journalists, librarians, & other dissidents.

But what was it Carlos Fuentes said? "He lumped Bush and Castro together and declared himself against both." Unreasonable? Read Amnesty International's report on what's been going on at Guantanamo:

Reports indicate that a "handful" of children, described as being between the ages of 13 and 15 years old, have been "discovered" by the authorities in Guantanamo. It is reported that the children were transferred, possibly from Afghanistan, earlier this year. It had already been reported that a 16-year-old Canadian national was transferred in late 2002 from Afghanistan to the Guantanamo Naval Base. Reports indicate that it took six months for even the Canadian government to be granted access to him. Along with all the other detainees, he remains without access to legal counsel or his family.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Even her unparalleled cultural contributions pale in comparison to the unique esteem in which she is held by her countrymen. For Louise Bennett is undisputedly the most universally beloved figure this island has ever produced. Alexander Bustamante, Michael Manley and Bob Marley all have their detractors. But no Jamaican responds to Miss Lou's name with anything but unconditional admiration and love.

Now, because of ill-health, Miss Lou has, for the past decade or so, lived in Canada, far away from the land she still loves so passionately. She is almost 90 now, and with her husband of over 50 years having passed away last year, only the Lord knows how much longer she will be with us. And you can bet that on that sad day when death comes to her, as it must come to us all, there will be an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy and praise in the country. But surely we should lavish all the tributes on her while she can still appreciate them. Why wait till she is gone to let her know how much we all love and cherish her?

--Kevin O'Brien Chang, arguing (rather hyperbolically) in yesterday's Observer that the Jamaican government should lavish some meaningful attention on beloved dialect poet Louise Bennett while she's still around to appreciate it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

"We went down to the Callaloo camp one day shortly after Carnival and found a little note, a small piece of paper pinned to the gate, which said: 'Peter Minshall, I have seen your costumes in The Lost Tribe, I love them and I want you to design two gowns for me.'"


"You have no idea how beautiful it is to come awake in the morning and hear that voice singing from the shower: 'I Loves You, Porgy.'"

Peter Minshall & Carol La Chapelle remember Nina Simone in today's Express (look out for the photo of the diva in bikini & glitter, Carnival c. 1980).
"His father was a Butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father's Trade, but when he kill'd a Calfe, he would doe it in a high style, and make a Speech....

This William being naturally inclined to Poetry and acting, came to London, I guesse, about eighteen. And was an Actor at one of the Play-houses, and did act exceedingly well.... He began early to make essayes at Dramatique Poetry, which at that time was very lowe; and his Plays took well. He was a handsome well shap't man: very good company, and of a very readie and pleasant smooth Witt."

--So recorded the indispensable John Aubrey. And today is this handsome William's birthday, his 439th by most accounts; somewhere, someone must be drinking a toast, someone else singing a song; the best present I can offer (help me, Will!) is one of his own poems, my current favourite sonnet, no. 29:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising,
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

And in one of literary history's most delightful coincidences, today is also the 104th anniversary of a somewhat celebrated, prodigiously talented Russian emigre writer (with a prose style as fancy as a murderer's), for whom I have long maintained a robust fondness; to commemorate which, I reproduce these lines from the great John Shade:

What moment in the gradual decay
Does resurrection choose? What year? What day?
Who has the stopwatch? Who rewinds the tape?
Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism: other men die; but I
Am not another; therefore I'll not die.

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears. In this hive I'm
Locked up. Yet, if prior to life we had
Been able to imagine life, what mad,
Impossible, unutterably weird,
Wonderful nonsense it might have appeared!
("Pale Fire", ll. 209-220)

I feel obliged to append Charles Kinbote's note:

Lines 213-214: A syllogism
This may please a boy. Later in life we learn that we are those "others."

Meanwhile, prompted by Akiko Nakata of the Japanese Nabokov Society, a group of scholars & admirers (including Juan Martinez & Dmitri Nabokov himself) have created their own birthday gifts (jeux d'esprit, chess problems) & presented them here. Following their lead, I nervously offer this fragment, appropriate lepidopterously if in no other way:

The Dangers of the Parcel Post

On the morning of what was to be that fateful afternoon, the post arrived earlier than usual. He noticed a warm, kind scent in the daybreak air as he strode barefoot down the path to the letterbox at the gate. Two letters from friends and a postcard from an aunt, but what was this large bulging blue envelope? No return address; he ripped it open; and out poured a great cloud of butterflies, golden and green, which made a tipsy spiral round his head. He was delighted; he laughed out loud; who had sent them? No way to tell. The butterflies followed him up to the house; the sense of thrill lingered for hours. How could he know they were venomous; that they soon would grow bored?

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

More on Nina Simone:

In conversation, she was brooding, restless, oscillating between dignified deflections of personal questions and arias of indignation about the prejudices, aesthetic deafness and philistinism of the music business. She was an act to be handled like hot coals or priceless china.

To her audiences, particularly in the later years, she emitted an aura of fearful expectation that made one uncertain that, as part of the audience, one simply might not be good enough for her.

--from John Fordham's moving obituary in today's UK Guardian. Fordham also mentions Simone's most notorious Caribbean connection: her affair with Barbadian prime minister Errol Barrow back in the 70s. She continued to be a regular visitor to the region, & was here in Trinidad for Carnival up to three or four years ago (when, as it happens, a friend of mine found herself dining with the diva at the Cascadia Hotel--but perhaps I'll tell that story another time). Bina Shah, on the other hand, confesses that before today she'd never heard of Simone... (permalink unavailable--I think this must be a widespread blogspot problem at the moment).
A perfect story for Earth Day: Richard Flanagan, author of the grand novel Gould's Book of Fish (one of the half-dozen best books I read last year), withdrew himself from consideration for the Tasmania Pacific Region Prize, which he had been instrumental in establishing, in order to protest the cutting of old-growth hardwood forests in his home island, after Tasmania's Forestry Commission turned out to be one of the prize's co-sponsors.

Mr. Flanagan, a descendant of Irish convicts, said he intended to withdraw quietly. But when his friend Tim Winton heard, Mr. Winton, also an acclaimed novelist, followed suit. He withdrew his novel "Dirt Music," which evokes the vastness of space and describes the life of the edge-of-society characters in Western Australia.

That seemed to be the end of it, but then, after the short list was announced, Peter Carey, who was odds-on favorite for "True History of the Kelly Gang," announced that he, too, was withdrawing. Mr. Carey, who lives in New York, is one of Australia's best-known writers. His books include "Oscar and Lucinda" and "Jack Maggs."

Finally Joan London withdrew after she was short-listed for "Gilgamesh," a moving account of a woman who was born on a tiny farm in remote Western Australia and who meets the modern world through a cousin who had worked on an archaeological dig in Iraq.

Mr. Flanagan said that Ms. London, the least known, had made the biggest sacrifice because the prize would have meant recognition for her. But he would not criticize authors who did not withdraw.
The dullest blog in the world (via This, That & Whatever, a Bajan blog).
Today is Earth Day. Pay Matt Prescott's Earth-Info.Net a visit--there is no better guide to environmental resources online. Then read this article from yesterday's Gleaner about the first Caribbean Endemic Bird Festival, a month-long event organised by the Society for the Study and Conservation of Caribbean Birds; & Julian Kenny's column in today's Express, in which he wonders why T&T's new Community-based Environmental Protection & Enhancement Programme (CEPEP) has adopted a literal scorched-earth policy (I've seen, but found it hard to believe, what they've done to lower Flagstaff Hill, round the corner from my office). But first read Derek Walcott's magnificent poem, the best offering I can make for this Earth Day:

The Season of Phantasmal Peace

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill--
the net rising soundless at night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in the silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer’s screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

Monday, April 21, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) -- Nina Simone, whose deep, raspy, forceful voice made her a unique figure in jazz and later helped define the civil rights movement, died Monday at her home in France, according to her personal manager. She was 70.

Read the rest of the AP report here.


It could be argued that her gifts were always going to be too diverse and too overpowering to make her at ease with the demands of the music business. Embracing jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, show tunes, chansons and gospel, Simone mastered them all. Life, as ever, was a little harder.

--Clive Davis, the jazz critic of the London Times, writing in Tuesday's edition.

Also: read the NY Times obituary (surprisingly short) here.
At last. From today's Express editorial:

It is ironic that as more and more of the world embraces freedom and democracy, the authorities in Cuba, one of the world's last remaining communist dictatorships, have thought it necessary to resume the type of repression associated with the long rejected early days of Stalinist philosophy....

There is speculation that the new approach of the Cuban government is driven by fear of invasion from what is widely seen as a right-wing US administration bent on imposing its will on the rest of the world and anxious to please the Cuban dissidents resident in the state of Florida. But it is far more likely that Mr Castro and his comrades are simply reverting to form as they run out of answers to the country's economic problems....

The new wave of repression has already drawn the condemnation of the European Union, which has long been working to ease Cuba's isolation by the US. It will also put pressure on Cuba's regional allies, including Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of Caricom, who have been seeking to bring the communist country out from the international cold....

As one of its main allies in the region, including a close relationship between Prime Minister Patrick Manning and the Cuban leader, the Trinidad and Tobago government needs to use whatever diplomatic clout it wields to convince Mr Castro that this is not the way to go.

It is also important that the local and regional organisations which have for years supported Cuba, and rightly protested the American embargo that has brought so much hardship on its population, send a message to Mr Castro that the behaviour of his government is not only unacceptable, but counter-productive.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Easter and the Time of Rice-Planting

Let me speak with the hurrying tongues of the river
Trapping the crystal light
To challenge the ocean with their coffee wound.

From sunken land speechless kokers stare
Hollow with the teeth of the guillotine
Awaiting the influct tides to stain her womb.

But there are angels in the sky
In the great void of holiness
Blessing the green rice sanctuaries
Ringing inaudible caves of blue and golden bells
Above the hurrying waters.

--A.J. Seymour, p. 125 in the Collected Poems.

Saturday, April 19, 2003

She dwells with Beauty--Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to Poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I have no heart for anything today but Keats, & the splendid mysteries of Beethoven's late quartets, the op. 132 & the op. 135 in particular. Muss es sein? And the reply comes not as an imprecation, not as a threat, not as a lamentation, but as a benediction: Es muss sein!

Friday, April 18, 2003

A poem for this Good Friday:

I hammer on that common door,
Too frantic in my superstition,
Transfix with nails that I have broken,
The angry notice of the mind.
Close as the thought that suffers him,
The habit every man in time
Must wear beneath his ironed shirt.

An open mind disturbs my soul,
And in disdain I turn my back
Upon the sun that makes a show
Of half the world, yet still deny
The pain that lives within the past,
The flames sinking upon the spike,
Darkness that man must dread at last.

--from "Tenebrae", by Austin Clarke (the Irish one), p. 17 in the Dolmen Selected Poems, ed. Thomas Kinsella.
I ought to have spotted & posted this three days ago, but despite sincere effort I don't always manage to read all the major English-language Caribbean newspapers every day: on Tuesday the Stabroek News ran the following editorial on recent events in Cuba, which I reproduce in full because Stabroek has no permanent online archive.

Crackdown in Cuba

Since March 18, 2003, seventy-eight persons in Cuba have been arrested by the authorities, charged and tried. They include independent journalists, organisers of the Varela Project (a petition for a referendum on legal reform which seeks greater personal, political and economic freedoms) and pro-democracy members of illegal opposition parties. The trials were held in improvised courts and lasted one day. A Reuters report indicates that undercover agents who had infiltrated the dissident groups gave evidence.

Human rights groups described the trials as a throwback to Stalinism. Severe sentences were handed down, one as long as 28 years. A statement from the Ministry of Justice said the dissidents were jailed for mercenary activity and other acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state. In 1999 a law had been passed providing severe sentences for passing information to the United States that could be used to bolster anti-Cuban measures such as the US embargo. The law also bans the ownership, distribution or reproduction of what it describes as subversive materials from the US government. The authorities said dissidents had been plotting with US diplomats to subvert the state.

Many in the Caribbean who do not share President Castro's ideology and who believe in an open society have nevertheless had enormous sympathy for the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro has been admired for the achievements of his government in the field of education and health. But more than that, he was seen to have tried to chart an independent course after he took power in 1959 and though this had in fact pushed him into a dependant relationship with the Soviet Union this was understood as a predicament that at that time faced all the countries in the region, the dilemma of trying to steer an independent course between the Scylla of the American eagle and the Charybdis of the Russian bear.

So democrats in the region swallowed their qualms about the failure of the government to liberalise the social and political situation, to hold elections and to respect human rights.

But the maintaining of a one party state after 43 years in power and the resulting restrictions on basic human freedoms have been very hard to bear and these latest acts of repression are intolerable. The Varela Project, led by Oswald Paya Sardinas of the Christian Liberation Movement collected the 10,000 signatures constitutionally required to hold a referendum in Cuba. The legal reforms sought by the group are to introduce freedoms taken for granted in all democratic countries in the Caribbean, and elsewhere.

Paya has received widespread recognition for his work in the international community and also received the prestigious human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, from the European Union. He has not been arrested but members of his organisation have been. The immediate cause of the roundup seems to have been that James Cason, the head of the US Interests Section in Havana based at the Swiss Embassy allowed a group of journalists to use his official residence for a meeting. He had also visited opposition members around the island. That may be seen as somewhat provocative in the Cuban context though it has been quite normal for human rights groups in the Caribbean to seek overseas assistance of one kind or another in the past. But sensitive or not it cannot possibly justify the arrests, charges and imprisonment that have taken place recently.

We condemn this attack on independent journalists and others seeking rights of speech and assembly and other human rights freedoms. Moreover, we do not believe Caricom governments should turn a blind eye to human rights abuses of this kind by a regional colleague. Regrettably, they have done so before, as all Guyanese well remember. The dissidents had only three days to appeal. Caricom should add its voice to criticisms from governments and human rights groups of this authoritarian behaviour.

Today's edition of Stabroek publishes a reply to Tuesday's editorial (& to Wednesday's, which mentioned Cuba in passing) on the letters page:

Dear Editor,

Your references to Cuba in the editorials of April 15 and April 16, call my attention powerfully. I am wondering who is really behind these editorials? Why do you repeat the campaigns of the government of USA against Cuba? It is curious also that a newspaper of Guyana makes reference in these days to the violation of the human rights in Cuba, just when the USA government and government lackeys from Latin America try to condemn Cuba in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Maybe the Stabroek News is part of the libelous papers to the service of the world superpower USA?

This kind of lie that you say in your editorial really is helping that Cuba must be invaded in a near future. Who pays you for this reason?

Your appeal to the governments of Caricom to condemn Cuba is a call to smash the solidarity that exists among our peoples, an objective that the government of US has always pursued.

I call to all Guyanese to reject your unjust considerations and to support the homeland of Marti and Fidel in order that it is not allowed that Cuba must be the target of the U.S. bombs.

Please, Mr. Editor, I request your sincerity.

Yours faithfully,
Armando Proenza, Latin Resident

Stabroek's editor replies as follows:

Editor's note:

We have usually supported Cuba editorially despite our obvious reservations about it being a one party state which does not permit freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other freedoms which are accepted as basic constitutional rights in the English speaking Caribbean.

We recognise it as an independent Caribbean country which has provided a great deal of help to Guyana and other Caribbean countries particularly in the field of medicine. We also oppose the American embargo....

Where we part company with the Cuban government is in its wish to retain the one party state and the concomitant restrictions on freedom. This cannot be justified. "Dissidents" in Eastern Europe like Vaclav Havel were in their time routinely attacked as enemies of the state. How can legitimate opposition ever emerge in Cuba with the current mindset where all critics are labelled as counter-revolutionary? The fundamental premise is wrong, Fidel does not have a divine right to rule. Even if those pushing the Varela project and others are receiving American help that does not put them out of court, so to speak. They have a right to be heard and to put forward their views.

It is difficult for Caribbean people who fight for democratic rights in their own country to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Cuba forever.

I disagree with the editor's last point. It clearly is not "difficult for Caribbean people who fight for democratic rights in their own country to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in Cuba forever": our politicians, journalists, columnists, academics, activists, & "liberal" opinion-makers of every variety seem perpetually eager not merely to believe that Castro's government can do no wrong, but to apotheosise the aging "revolutionary" dictator himself. And I wish I could ask Mr. Proenza if he's actually read Jose Marti, whom I doubt would recognise Castro's Cuba as the patria for which he fought & died.
The NY Times runs a story today on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, the rap-verse extravaganza that since November last year has put slam poetry centrestage in the mainstream NY theatre scene. One of the nine poets in the production is Jamaica-born Staceyann Chin, who moved to the US nearly six years ago & has rapidly become a leading figure in the slam poetry circuit; the Times piece includes a brief profile ("Ms. Chin would not go so far as to call herself happy. 'I think happiness is more a journey than a place,' she said. 'I'm on my way there.'").

And it turns out she also has a blog, where she writes about her old life in Jamaica, her new life in NY, the unexpectedness of fame:

Learning to read my poems to small crowds again. Small groups of friends who care about the words more than they do the laughter.

I have enjoyed Broadway. Still believe it is important. Half the people who come to see those shows would never see a person like me in the mainstream. The show is still very important for so many reasons....

So I am reading my poems in small rooms. Like the one I sleep in. To people who care about them. Even if they are not loud or angry or fierce. I am reading to old lovers and hands that hold me now, and friends and sometimes, I read to myself. To remind me. That I am trying to be a writer. Not a rockstar. Not a celebrity. Not a person who people reconize and say hi to on the A train. I am one of millions of people who are just trying to save the world.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

There's no hint of it yet at the magazine's website, but the Partisan Review has announced this week that its current issue will be the last--see stories in the NY Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, & Slate ("it is either a supreme irony or a hilarious coincidence that the greatest of all Trotskyist publications should have announced its demise at the very moment that a belated species of Trotskyism has at last established itself in the White House"!).

(Partisan's heyday is long past, but the U.W.I. library still subscribed to it while I was an undergraduate at St. Augustine some years ago, & there were bound volumes of back issues sitting in the stacks. My university education consisted primarily of reading a great many books not on my course reading-lists, to which end I spent the better part of my campus career holed up on the third floor of the main library. I read every new issue of the Partisan Review almost cover to cover in those days, which perhaps gave me a skewed idea of its continuing cultural relevance. Of course, by then it was already a relic of what seemed a more vital, more serious, more bracing time. Its private significance to me was that it seemed to provide a tangible connection to that time.)


By coincidence, I have just this evening been reading Heidi Julavits's essay on book-reviewing in the first issue of the new Believer (the latest product of the Eggers publishing empire), which in this passage nicely summarises one aspect of the significance of the Partisan Review back in the 1940s & 50s:

Yes, we've had our Vendlers, our Sontags, our Updikes, and our Ozicks, but no one critical group is as mythically representative of a golden age as the "New York Intellectuals", among whom the most famous was probably Lionel Trilling and the most infamous Norman Podhoretz. During the WWII era in which most of these writers emerged, literary criticism was inextricable from cultural criticism, and thus reviews functioned as moral, philosophical and political explorations for society at large, inspired by this or that book. Trilling, by far the most mannerly member of the NYI, was the first to coin the term "cultural criticism", and he believed--it sounds adorably giddy nowadays, or reprehensibly bourgeois ... that "intelligence was connected with literature, and that it was advanced by literature."

(The Partisan Review of course was the chief house-organ of the so-called New York Intellectuals.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Human Rights Watch has monitored human rights conditions in Cuba for more than fifteen years. Although severe restrictions on basic civil and political rights have been a constant in Cuba during this period, the current crackdown, both in its scale and in its intensity, far surpasses the violations we have documented in the past.

Over the past month, the Cuban government has carried out a full-scale offensive against nonviolent dissidents, independent journalists, human rights advocates, independent librarians and others brave enough to challenge the government's monopoly on truth. By its sweeping nature, the crackdown seems intended not only to repress dissident voices, but to deny the very possibility of an independent civil society.

But while the current wave of repression is extraordinary for its scope and intensity, there is nothing unusual, by Cuban standards, about the means by which it has been imposed. The denial of basic civil and political rights is inscribed in Cuban law. The country's domestic legislation tightly restricts the rights to free speech, association, assembly and the press; its courts lack independence and impartiality; and its criminal procedures violate defendants' rights to due process of law.

--From a statement made earlier today by Jose Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch, to the US House Committee on International Relations. Vivanco goes on to argue that the forty-year old US embargo cannot succeed in improving the human rights situation in Cuba. (It should be entirely obvious by now that maintaining the embargo is one of Castro's major objectives.)
From our reading:

"Whatever anyone says, and however many hairs are split in the definition of public interest, our attitude to a free press depends on whether we feel more threatened or more protected by it."

-- Auberon Waugh, "The Real Censors", in Another Voice, p. 146 in the Fontana edition.
i am writing a dissertation for a phd in ethnomusicology ... on the interplay between hip-hop, or rap, and dancehall.... i am proposing a critical history and contemporary aesthetics of hip-hop as a transnational music. specifically, i am focusing on jamaica's relationship to the music, from its origins in the founding figure of dj kool herc (i.e., clive campbell, a jamaican immigrant to the Bronx in the late 60s), through decades of constant interplay, to today's current moment of greater fluidity than ever.... i am seeking to decenter the concept of a "hip-hop culture" that is too often represented as a stable, and usually exclusive, whole. by exposing a bit of the messiness of cultural and musical workings, i hope to shed light on the constructed and contingent way that we make meaning, and to show the power of music not only to express but to inform who we are, our epistemology and ontology, which is to say, the way we come to know the world and our sense of being in it. as you can see, i tend to slip into fairly academic language when i get into this subject.

--So explains Wayne Marshall, a Harvard grad student living temporarily in Jamaica with his partner Rebecca Nesson, doing research & running a volunteer project in Kingston schools. Wayne & Rebecca are keeping a joint blog, recording their six-month sojourn--a frequently fascinating view of Jamaica from the perspective of outsiders trying to fit in ("better believe soon as i can say, 'me nah tourist,' convincingly enough, i will"), with the occasional attempt to comprehend local politics.
Over at Free Trinidad, Seldo posts a retrospective analysis of the (apparently now concluded) Iraq war. It's too long to reproduce in full, & too concise for partial quotation, but far more fluent & sensible & cogent than anything I've read on the subject in the Caribbean press.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Many of the independent journalists recently imprisoned in Cuba were connected with the magazine De Cuba, including its editor, Ricardo Gonzalez, & the well-known journalist & poet Raul Rivero (both given twenty-year sentences). Gonzalez's home, one report says, was searched for eleven hours by ten policemen, who confiscated his computer & other equipment.

According to Reporters sans frontieres:

The appearance of De Cuba on 19 December last year was the first new challenge for several years to the government's information monopoly. A second issue came out on 27 February this year. Some 300 copies were printed and distributed secretly in the country's 14 provinces. The magazine, entirely staffed by independent journalists living in Cuba itself, aims to present fresh viewpoints to Cubans, whose only source of news is the official media.

De Cuba was produced on a PC, "printed" with a photocopier, & bound with staples & brown tape, according to this recent Associated Press story--authentic samizdat. But the tools of the information age give the magazine far wider reach: both issues can be downloaded in PDF format from this page at the RSF website (scroll down). Of course, the text is entirely in Spanish, so monoglots like me may need some assistance. Online Spanish-English dictionaries are available here.
Intriguing Google facts, from a story that ran in the NY Times on Sunday:

Google ... handles 200 million searches of the Web each day, a staggering one-third of the estimated daily total. To keep up with that torrent, Google has essentially built a home-brew supercomputer that is distributed across eight data centers....

The company stopped giving updates on the size of its computing resources in 2001. But several people with knowledge of the system said it consists of more than 54,000 servers designed by Google engineers from basic components. It contains about 100,000 processors and 261,000 disks, these people said, making it what many consider the largest computing system in the world.

But this is the part I like best:

Not long after arriving at the company in 2001, [Eric E.] Schmidt [Google's chief executive] found that he was contending with a squatter in his office.

One of Google's top engineers, Amit J. Patel, who was sharing space with five others in Google's chronically crowded quarters, decided that he could find relative solitude in Mr. Schmidt's tiny, 8-by-12-foot office. The chief executive would travel and attend meetings often, Mr. Patel reasoned, offering privacy during the intervals.

When Mr. Patel sought permission, Mr. Schmidt turned the decision over to his vice president for engineering, hoping that the request would be denied.

It wasn't.

"We were trying to drive home the point that we needed more office space," said Wayne Rosing, the vice president, a veteran of Apple and Sun.

Mr. Schmidt got the point. In an example of Google's eccentric culture, he let Mr. Patel share his office for several months. He now says that there was an upside to the odd arrangement: Mr. Patel is a master data miner, and Mr. Schmidt soon had instant access to better revenue figures than did his financial planners. (Ultimately, the company expanded to a fourth building.)

There's another reason for this post. Months ago I linked to another Google story in the Times, also mentioning Amit Patel, who some time after added a direct link from his home page to my blog. Over the last few days this link has directed something like sixty visitors here, according to my referral stats, so Patel is at least partly responsible for the sudden spike in my hits (yes, despite, what I said yesterday morning, there has been a spike, as anyone who's bothered to scroll down & hit the Nedstat button can see)--& the new Times story must be generating major activity at his site.

I had 72 hits yesterday (mock on, mock on, Glen Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan--72 hits is a dizzying height for me); my previous all-time record was 27, back in January, before this blog went into semi-hibernation. Most of yesterday's traffic I can attribute to that Guardian article. (Interestingly, there was no significant increase in visitors from T&T--the surge was made up of readers from Europe & North America. Which suggests, of course, that most of yesterday's readers were expatriate Trinis reading the Guardian at the end of the working day in their respective time zones--Europe-based readers predominated during the early afternoon, T&T time, & US-based readers later in the evening.) But most of today's activity has obviously been the belated result of that link from Amit Patel's home page.

Clearly, I continue to be obsessed with my stats....

And, yes, the possibility of an actual audience is a great incentive to diligence on my part....
In a bitter criticism of the executions carried out last week in Cuba, Jose Saramago, the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer considered Fidel Castro's best friend among European intellectuals, broke with the regime Monday.

"This is as far as I go," Saramago wrote in a short but powerful essay printed in Spain's leading newspaper, El Pais, as the European Union, various countries and organizations around the world continued to offer public repudiations.

Killing three men by firing squad at dawn Friday for trying to spirit a ferry boat is unacceptable--especially since the would-be hijackers didn't hurt anybody, wrote Saramago, a communist.

"Cuba has won no heroic victory by executing these three men, but it has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, robbed me of illusions."

--From a story in today's Miami Herald.
I loaded up today's Guardian expecting the worst, frankly, but it seems my repeated expressions of reluctance have paid off, for Mark Lyndersay's column on blogging (warning: not a permalink) contains not a mention of me, or any other character named NL (or, for that matter, any other T&T blogger). But I must admit I'm slightly peeved now that I spent something like two hours last Thursday night writing 1,000 almost-coherent words in response to Mark's email questionnaire, when instead I could have been curled up in bed coddling myself with a novel....

Monday, April 14, 2003

With Cuba on my mind, I've been googling around rather more than usual today, & offer the following, in more or less random order:

A statement on recent events in Cuba by the Committee to Protect Journalists; a letter to Fidel Castro from the International Press Institute; a statement by the International Federation of Journalists.


A report from the organisation Friends of Cuban Libraries on the arrest of fourteen independent librarians & the confiscation of thousands of books during the recent crackdown on dissidents. (Another report on this site says that Animal Farm & Nineteen Eighty-four are, appropriately, among the most popular books distributed by Cuba's independent library movement.)


A report from Reporters sans frontieres on the protest action undertaken in Paris on 4 April by activists from that organisation. (Read RSF's 2002 annual report on Cuba here.)


From Oswaldo Paya's speech to the European Parliament last December, on the occasion of his receiving the Sakharov Prize:

I have not come here to ask you to support those who oppose the Cuban Government or to condemn those who persecute us. It is of no help to Cuba that some people in the world side with the country's government or with the latter's opponents on the basis of an ideological standpoint. We want others to side with the Cuban people--with all Cubans--and this means upholding all their rights, supporting openness, supporting our demand that our people should be consulted via the ballot box regarding the changes we are calling for....

There are still those who perpetuate the myth that the exercising of political and civil rights is an alternative to a society's ability to achieve social justice and development. They are not mutually exclusive. The absence of any civil and political rights in Cuba has had serious consequences such as inequality, the poverty of the majority and privileges of a minority and the deterioration of certain services, even though these were conceived as a positive system to benefit to the people....

This state of affairs cannot be justified by saying that the Cuban people have adopted this system out of choice. You will all know that none of the peoples represented in this Parliament, and no people in the world, would ever give up the right to exercise their fundamental freedoms.

A democracy is not genuine and complete if it cannot initiate and sustain a process that raises the quality of live of all its citizens, because no people would freely vote for the kind of poverty and inequality that results in the masses becoming disadvantaged and marginalised.... any method or model which purportedly aims to achieve justice, development and efficiency but takes precedence over the individual or cancels out any of the fundamental right leads to a form of oppression and to exclusion and is calamitous for the people.

(Reproduced in the English-language section of the magazine Carta de Cuba, published out of Puerto Rico.)
There is ample proof that one need not be a native speaker of English to excel in it.... In recent years, of course, there's the English-language prose stylist V.S. Naipaul (A House for Mr. Biswas, Half a Life), a writer of Hindu ancestry from the Creole-speaking country of Trinidad who was to win the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. Their key to success was mastering English, assiduously applying it to the writing craft despite the limitations of not having been born to it.

--Jose A. Carillo, writing, of all places, in the Manila Times (how did we ever do without Google News?).

"Not having been born to it"?
Well, the T&T press--or, at least, two journalists at the Guardian, Laura Dowrich & Mark Lyndersay--have finally caught on to the blogging phenomenon. They separately contacted me within the last fortnight or so, & after initially attempting to stonewall them both, I agreed to be "interviewed" (that sounds almost glam, but I did no more than talk to Dowrich a few times on the phone & answer an email questionnare sent me by Lyndersay). I haven't bothered to figure out why I was the blogger they chose to contact (oh, maybe that's it), & I did attempt to deflect their attention by referring them to Damien & Jonathan, but nonetheless there I am in the Guardian's lead feature today--or at any rate there is someone claiming to be NL, nattering on in an unfamiliar idiolect:

Keeping a blog can be a time-consuming process, as some local bloggers discovered. Nicholas Laughlin, 27, started blogging last October, but gave it up because the demands on his time was too much.

"I realised I spent much too much time online. My Internet usage was high. I said I am too busy for this, it wasn't worth the investment," he said.

His site ( was Caribbean in perspective and centred on Laughlin's interests in literature and art....

Laughlin began blogging after reading an article on blogging software which promised that he, too, could be a blogger in three minutes.

(At least this supposed NL accurately remembers his age, something I don't always manage.)

I've decided to take the whole thing as a kind of practical lesson in the dangers of publicity, & the alarming reductiveness of the soundbite. I've been interviewed by a newspaper just once before, I think (no link--this was in the pre-WWW era); & then as now I was astonished that what had seemed a fluent, amusing, enlightening conversation could be converted by the process of transcription & a sub-editor's attentions into a handful of dud phrases lying lifeless on the page, like stones for the stubbing of readers' toes.

And I still have Mark Lyndersay's Bit Depth column to look forward to tomorrow....

The real issue, of course, is whether mentions in two Guardian articles will mean a spike in my visitor stats.

Not yet.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

Two observations:

First: columnists & op-ed writers in the Caribbean newspapers have had a lot to say about Iraq these last weeks, unsurprisingly; & now that the war seems all but won they've started to write about the possible consequences. I don't read the papers as closely as I once did, so no doubt I've overlooked some relevant material, but I find it remarkable that of all the columnists I've read not one has managed to say unambiguously that Saddam's removal is a cause for relief. Whatever else this war has been or has done, is it not clear to any decent person that Saddam Hussein's long, despotic reign was a history of horrors, & that it is a good thing he is finally, belatedly, gone? (Not clear? Read this or this.)

Second: I find it even more remarkable that in the last fortnight I haven't read a single protest in the regional press against the recent arrest & imprisonment of non-violent dissidents in Cuba, including human rights activists, journalists, & owners of private libraries, men & women who have done nothing but exercise their right to freedom of expression. Instead, Atillah Springer writes in today's Guardian (no permalink) that meeting Fidel Castro is one of the "top ten things" she'd like to do. (I don't imagine she'd take the opportunity to ask him why he's locking up independent journalists for doing nothing more than expressing their opinions publicly--something Springer herself is paid to do every week.) Worse, John Maxwell, writing in today's Observer (his column, by the way, is called "Common Sense"), actually attempts to justify Castro's crackdown on the dissidents, claiming that "the Cubans have been through four decades of subversion, sabotage, sanctions and terrorism designed to change their regime. They know the tricks of the trade better than anyone else." This is sheer moral depravity.
Despite all of Guyana's problems, it continues to boast the most beautiful capital city in the English-speaking Caribbean, without a doubt.

So claims Jonathan in a post which otherwise deals with (incomprehensible) cricket. (His permalinks seem to be on vacation.) Yet I doubt, I disagree: I say St. George's.
If one keeps a journal and looks back on it the days are packed enough with incidents and people and events, joys and fears and a hundred small triumphs and tribulations--as the days have always been. But it is the living through it all that gets quicker and quicker. Someone has pushed the fast-forward button....

The quiet pleasures, the private delights, the sitting in the garden ... or reading as evening falls, matter much more now. Going out in society, to parties and receptions, to any gathering except a meeting between close friends, becomes increasingly a burdensome chore to be avoided at all costs....

I have noticed a surprising development. As the years go by the beauty of ordinary things again becomes more sharply focused. When I was very young every day revealed fresh miracles of a shining world. Then there was a long period in the press of strenuous ambition and coping with the clutter of life when one lived without revelations. But now they begin to come again.

--Ian McDonald, writing in today's Stabroek News about the approach of another birthday (no link, because Stabroek has no permanent archive).

My feeling of early-onset middle-agedness is gently reaffirmed.

Saturday, April 12, 2003

"Dear child," Mr. Bloom said in a telephone interview, using the appellation he applies to friend, stranger, male and female, alike, "with rare exceptions the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world that have sustained some sense of literature as a matter of powerful cognition and extraordinary aesthetic beauty tend to be the Roman Catholic institutions."

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

I must have blinked a few times too many on Monday & hence missed the announcement of the 2003 Pulitzer Prizes; perhaps my Caribbean readers have already noticed that the drama prize was won by Cuban-born Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics. (Read about the play's premiere at Miami's New Theatre here.)

Monday, April 07, 2003

... now there is a monstrous map that is called Nowhere
and that is where we're all headed, behind it
there is a view called the Province of Mercy,
where the only government is that of the apples
and the only army the wide banners of barley
and its farms are simple, and that is the vision
that narrows in the irises and the dying
and the tired whom we leave in ditches
before they stiffen and their brows go cold
as the stones that have broken our shoes,
as the clouds that grow ashen so quickly after dawn
over palm and poplar, in the deceitful sunrise
of this, your new century.

-- Derek Walcott, from "Into Italy", an excerpt from a work in progress, published in the April T&T Review.
A little touch of Lyra, to brighten a world wearisomely short of good news.
Everything in terms of helping West Indian art is phenomenally easy. Scholarships is the answer to helping young artists, or even older artists.... Let us say you had a million dollars. One million dollars in one country. You take three or four artists, young ones, let them go away and learn the same thing and come back. You can even leave them, abandon them and let them make their own way....

-- Derek Walcott, interviewed by Raymond Ramcharitar in the April Trinidad & Tobago Review.