Friday, December 17, 2004

I voted for Bombproof Your Horse, but The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox is currently ahead. Vote here for the 2004 Diagram Oddest Title of the Year.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Is it art? Is it "art"? I don't know, but Jeremy Deller is fascinating....

Monday, November 29, 2004

If the whole world is a poem, then the poet doesn't need subjects in the usual sense; he becomes like a sponge, soaking up poetry as he lives, sees, and travels. Increasingly in his recent work, Walcott has had less and less use for subjects and occasions; all of his poems have come to seem like parts of one long poem, which is his life itself. This tendency is brought to perfection in The Prodigal, where there is not so much a plot as a continuous provocation to verse: a conversation on a train, a hotel lobby, a Swiss Alp, a Caribbean beach, are all woven together in a single tapestry.... for readers who know and love the work of the man who deserves to be called the greatest living poet writing in English, The Prodigal will seem like a fitting culmination to a life's work.

-- Adam Kirsch, reviewing The Prodigal in Slate today.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Another sort of novelist would be prone to giving Willie some moment of insight into the shapelessness of his own personality--or perhaps a realization about the course taken by the world over the six decades of his life. Naipaul, however, is never tempted to let his central character do anything but drift. (Even Willie's little moment of waxing philosophical at the close sounds like an evasion of real insight.)

In interviews, Naipaul has indicated that Magic Seeds may be his last book. Finishing it, one has the sense that--in returning to the novel, as if to say a farewell--the author created a kind of scapegoat figure. It is as if Willie were an embodiment of all the anomie that Naipaul had to purge from his system in order to create.

There is a terrible purity to the prose. It is clean and dry, tough but never brittle. Naipaul is pitiless in depicting lies, shame and bad faith. He makes real life look like play-acting--a fiction that nobody really believes. This sounds like misanthropy, and I suppose it is. But when you read Naipaul, it feels like cowardice ever to think otherwise.

-- From Scott McLemee's review of Magic Seeds in today's New York Newsday.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The award-winning US writer Edwidge Danticat is leading calls for an inquiry into the death in custody of her uncle, an 81-year-old Baptist minister who fled Haiti to seek asylum in the US. Human rights groups say his death highlights a discriminatory asylum policy against Haitian refugees.

Joseph Dantica, whose funeral takes place in New York today, was detained at Miami airport on October 29 after requesting asylum, though he had a valid US visa. He died in custody five days later.

From Maya Jaggi's report in the UK Guardian. The wire services have picked up the story and many newspapers in the US & elsewhere have run it already; I hope they'll continue to ask hard questions of the Homeland Security officials involved. I myself can't help wondering if there's any connection between Edwidge Danticat's public opposition to the Bush administration & her uncle's detention.

Friday, November 12, 2004

August 1, 1835, Concord

After thirty a man wakes up sad every morning excepting perhaps five or six until the day of his death.

-- Emerson, from his journal

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The art museums, once haunted by a few experts, students, and idlers, have become the temples of the Ideal, of the Other, of the something else that, if only for a peaceful moment, redeems our daily getting and spending. Here resides something beyond our frantic animal existence. Leonardo spoke scornfully of those men who do nothing in their time on earth but produce excrement. Art, in its traditional forms of painting, drawing, and sculpture, is a human by-product whose collection, in homes, galleries, and museums, lightens the load, as it were, of life. By its glow we bask in the promise of a brighter, more lasting realm reached by a favored few--St. Vermeer, St. Pollock, St. Leonardo.

-- John Updike, in this week's New Yorker, on visiting the new MoMA.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Red, blue, & purple maps....

Saturday, November 06, 2004

From The Future Dictionary of America:

yestoday [yes'-toh-day] vt. to find something every day that makes you say yes. Not an egotistical, fist pumping yes (i.e. jumping up and yelling "Yes!" when your team scores a touchdown, or when you win a round of rummy or billiards, or when your country bombs another country). A quiet yes. A yes of wonder. A yes that affirms the basic goodness of the world. Going outside and looking at a plant is recommended. Even a weed. Maybe a bird. Did you yestoday yet? COMPARE yestomorrow n. putting off saying yes today. Be advised that yestomorrow rarely comes. It's best to yestoday today. --Gayle Brandeis

Friday, November 05, 2004

Simon Schama on the two Americas, in today's UK Guardian:

"We are one nation," the newborn star of Democrats, Senator-elect Barack Obama, exclaimed, even as every salient fact of political life belied him. Well might he invoke Lincoln, for not since the Civil War has the fault line between its two halves been so glaringly clear, nor the chasm between its two cultures so starkly unbridgeable. Even territorially (with the exception of Florida, its peninsular finger pointing expectantly at tottering Cuba), the two Americas are topographically coherent and almost contiguous. One of those Americas is a perimeter, lying on the oceans or athwart the fuzzy boundary with the Canadian lakes, and is necessarily porous and outward-looking. The other America, whether montagnard or prairie, is solidly continental and landlocked, its tap roots of obstinate self-belief buried deep beneath the bluegrass and the high corn. It is time we called those two Americas something other than Republican and Democrat, for their mutual alienation and unforgiving contempt is closer to Sunni and Shia, or (in Indian terms) Muslim and Hindu. How about, then, Godly America and Worldly America?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The last lights off the black west went, but Harper's is trying to have a sense of (black) humour about it:

A reader’s guide to expatriating on November 3

So the wrong candidate has won, and you want to leave the country. Let us consider your options.
Theo Tait reviews Magic Seeds in the LRB:

Magic Seeds, even more than its predecessor, is a horrible novel--icy, misanthropic, pitiless, purposefully pinched in both its style and its sympathies. If The Enigma of Arrival (1987), a sad and wonderful book, belongs to Naipaul's "autumnal stage", this is bleak midwinter: the cold fury before the end.

And Uday Benegal in the Village Voice:

That Naipaul has been, for most of his career, a remarkably astute--if not always accurate--witness to the world with an extraordinary contribution to literature is irrefutable. But Magic Seeds is a life away from his real worth as a writer. The book is mostly prosaic, needlessly repetitive; if nothing else, perfectly symbiotic with Willie Chandran's own flaccid character. Like Willie it stutters and drifts, lacking cogency and depth of spirit. Naipaul himself seems drained of all desire to engage the reader, or too jaded to try.

And I am too jaded today to try to understand the world.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Finally, a review of Derek Walcott's new book, The Prodigal--by Mary Jo Salter in the NY Times.

The Prodigal seems an almost inevitable title for the verse memoir that Derek Walcott, addressing himself within it, calls "your last book." One hopes that this prediction of finality, by the Caribbean poet who so clearly deserved his Nobel Prize in 1992, is wrong. And yet the biblical theme of the prodigal son has been waiting as steadily as home--the end of the story--for this world-wanderer, born in 1930, who now openly feels his age....

It's easy to name themes in The Prodigal: the familiar struggle, for this Caribbean- and North American-based poet of African, English and Dutch ancestry, of synthesizing his fractured identity; the deracinating effects of world fame; the regrets and bodily changes of old age; the war of importance between History (often capitalized) and natural history; the loss of vividly remembered loved ones; the more unsettling loss of memory.

Yet to summarize the poem's action is almost impossible. In abrupt scene changes from Boston to Zermatt to Milan to Genoa to Guadalajara (the list goes on); in fleeting references by first name to people most readers won't recognize; in numbered sections that could have been divided otherwise without much consequence; in odd shifts of verb tense--The Prodigal disappoints by not finding a home in a few controlling poetic techniques, apart from a wobbly blank verse. The story's structural and syntactic lapses loom larger where the music is lacking.

Walcott seems to know that his poem is something of a hash, and approaches this suspicion with a mixture of defiance ("I could give facts and dates, but to what use?") and apology....

But longtime followers of Walcott will also recognize here, in seaweed he likens to sentences, and crows to commas, his distinctive world as one that is represented metaphorically as text. Although Walcott himself sometimes wearies of his tendency to think "pebbles are parables," The Prodigal is also shot through with images that grasp the world with a wonderful directness: "And the twig-brown lizard scuttles up its branch / like fingers on the struts of a guitar."

(His "last book"? Naipaul has been saying the same thing about Magic Seeds. Are we ready for the possibility of no more Walcott & no more Naipaul?)

Friday, October 29, 2004

Ron Silliman today:

From my perspective, the most important moment in a prose poem is that which occurs between the period of one sentence & the capital letter that initiates the next. No two blank spaces are alike & there are moments when I think of the sentences primarily as a way of setting those spaces up & as if it were the spaces that were the true strokes of the painting. I can, when I am really in the zone, when I’m writing & sometimes when I’m in a reading as well, literally hear those spaces just as I do the softer ones between words, let alone the half-hidden ones you can find within words if you just listen closely. Silence is so much a part of noise yet we so seldom give it heed....

Sound is very much a liquid. We’re immersed in it, bathed in its waves. Even if you’re in an anechoic chamber--and I’ve been in a few of them lately--it’s never silent. One’s body hums right along, synapses chime, the clatter of bloodflow is as loud as the subway. Yet that is the closest I will ever get to “pure” silence. I’ve approached it only once in the real world, so-called, on a cold February morning in 1978 near Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. It’s like trying to see the night sky without the light pollution of cities--you have to go a long way to do it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Weight of Things

Fire removes the weight of things. A church
snatched by flame climbs into cloud
as proud as the house where women fuck.
I have seen half a city removed by fire
and walked afterwards among the men.
Some looked only at their feet,

but others bounced with cheerful strides.
The weight of the city removed by fire
also made them weightless.
I am trying to understand fire
and all its uses,

and why some men
regard their feet so carefully
and some revel in clouds.

-- James Christopher Aboud

From his new book Lagahoo Poems, just published by Peepal Tree, eighteen years after The Stone Rose.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The early socialist writers and thinkers, great men, William Morris, Shaw, all these people at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, they had an idea that socialism would, as it were, give a great impetus to civilisation, high civilisation and spread it out among the general population. It has worked the other way. You don't have to go to England to know that the level of English entertainment, the current of thought, public thought is at an extremely low level. And people want it like that. They want it to be for the people. They want it to be plebian. They want it very low. That's terrible. And that weighs on me. Because without a high civilisation, I think, countries eventually rot away.

V.S. Naipaul, interviewed a short while ago on India's NDTV.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

My copy of Walcott's Collected Poems:

The spine has cracked at page 346,
the second page of "The Schooner Flight".
"Christ have mercy on all sleeping things!"

Beg pardon.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

I really am quite old now. Books require an immense amount of energy. It is just not pages. It is ideas, observations, many narrative lines.... I don't think there are many people who write books after 72.

Naipaul is in India again, claiming his writing career is over.
Mark Rothko: For art is always the final generalization.... It must provide the implications of infinity to any situation. And if our own environment is too diverse to allow a philosophical unity, it must find some symbol to express at least the desire for one.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

I can Google him for you if you are having difficulties.

Various British luminaries attempt to explain "Jackie" Derrida, the "snowy-haired philosopher".

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Saturday, October 09, 2004

I would rather be Falstaff or Sancho than a version of Hamlet or Don Quixote, because growing old and ill teaches me that being matters more than knowing.

Uncle Harold!

Friday, October 01, 2004

The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.

R.I.P. Richard Avedon
Granta is 25 years old in its current incarnation, & its editor, Ian Jack, has been musing over the magazine's history. My favourite bit:

To help me get a few facts into these anniversary notes, I have been going through the files of Granta correspondence. Since 1998 or so, email has eaten into the richness of these. Letters now are a rarity. This may be bad news for the biographer, but at least it saves editors the pain of revisiting their laxity. Out of Granta has come a torrent of editorial sorrow and hand-wringing, letters to contributors, would-be and actual, that begin: "A thousand million apologies" or "I am so sorry for this late reply" or "I am sorry to be so slow/so late/so careless". One letter, to Martha Gellhorn, consists of the single word "sorry" typed a hundred times. Another of my favourites goes:

"My treatment of you has been shabby and terrible and certainly not human ... your piece got inadvertently paper-clipped to another manuscript and was therefore misfiled: I found it after several regular, frantic searches over the course of the last few months, hoping each time to try and elevate myself from the horrible, humiliating predicament I found myself in - of not getting back to you properly. I am sorry. This is the second time this has happened and both times because of a mishap. But this is still not to excuse me: it wouldn't have taken but a phone call to let you know that I didn't think that 'Tall Trees' would work in our biography issue."

Perhaps I'm not the worst editor in the world after all, at least not when it comes to answering correspondence.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Wayne Brown on Patrick Manning's post-Ivan visit to Jamaica:

As for his peculiar gambit--flying for four hours from Trinidad, to spend exactly another four hours here--and be photographed standing, in long-sleeved white shirt and tie, frowning worriedly at a pile of debris a stone's throw from the harbour where, as an undergraduate at Mona, young Manning often used to cotch a sail with me on my very first sailing boat, Chiquita, 36 years ago--before getting back on the plane and flying for another four hours, back to Trinidad--well! You probably have to know both Mr Manning and Trinidadians' endemic bereavement at never having experienced a hurricane to understand that.

An aside in his J'ca Observer column on the desperate situation in Haiti.

Friday, September 24, 2004

I've been reading lots of reviews of Magic Seeds the last few days, but have been too lazy or too distracted to link to them. Jonathan apparently suffers from no such disabilities, & provides a neat roundup.

I've just got a copy of the book, though, & if laziness & distraction can be overcome I may read it this weekend, & may even post a few comments.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The physical and spiritual nullity Chandran encounters in his travels is captured in the sparseness of Naipaul’s language, which, in Magic Seeds is wiped clean to its bone. The restlessness and rage of his earlier work, so reminiscent of Joseph Conrad, has quietened into world-weariness, which is also sadly missing Naipaul’s early humour.

--From what is surely the first published review of V.S. Naipaul's new novel--by Anita Sethi in the Glasgow Sunday Herald.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Friday, July 09, 2004

Derek Walcott's play Pantomime is currently playing in Sydney, & the Morning Herald has a review by Stephen Dunne.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Three quarks for Muster Mark!

Happy Bloomsday!

Saturday, May 08, 2004

It's a rich brew which turns out to be a great deal less than the sum of its parts. The Theo story is creepily persuasive, but the rest of the novel's elements don't hang together, partly because the various parallels, unconvincing to begin with, are simply stated rather than argued out through the narrative.

-- From Mike Phillips's review of Lawrence Scott's new novel Night Calypso, in today's UK Guardian.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

I knocked on the door. Nothing. I peered through a small window: the place had a deserted, shut-down look. I was about to give up when the door opened. A sleek cat slithered out and started rubbing against my leg. Then a face appeared: a woman with a small diamond in her nose.

"He likes you," she said with some surprise, but with a smile. "He doesn't usually like visitors." The cat's approval seemed a good omen.

Nadira Naipaul, the writer's second wife, ushered me into a small, cosily furnished sitting room, telling me that "he" would be down in a few minutes. I noticed a pile of books on a table, with a well-thumbed paperback about deciphering alphabets and codes on top. There was a portrait of a young, or at least youngish, V.S. Naipaul. And a shotgun propped against the wall next to the fireplace.

-- From Andrew Riemer's profile of Sir Vidia in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

"A poem," he said, in answer to a question about knowing when a poem is completed, "is really an attempt to write a poem."

-- Teasing words from Derek Walcott, at his reading in Kingston on Sunday--see stories in the Observer and the Gleaner.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The unvarnished truth is that there's no space on the right for John Kerry. Hard-line exiles--for whom Cuba is the only issue--are dedicated Republicans. However, there is an opening on the left. A viable position for Kerry would be to declare himself fiercely anti-Castro and then point out that Bush has no Cuba policy other than the embargo--a 45-year failure that has yet to make any progress toward its stated goals: free elections in Cuba and an end to Castro's reign. Kerry should then champion what the majority of exiles want--unlimited remittances and unrestricted travel--and argue that increased contact with Cuba will lay the groundwork for civil society in the post-Castro years.

-- Ann Louise Bardach suggests how John Kerry could win the Cuban vote & hence Florida, in Slate.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

In The General in His Labyrinth, Castro's close friend and drinking buddy, Gabriel García Márquez, writes in the voice of Simon Bolívar, saying: "The man who serves a revolution ploughs the seas." But the great Liberator's last words in the novel are these: "This nation will fall inevitably into the hands of the unruly mob and then will pass into the hands of almost indistinguishable petty tyrants of every colour and race." One suspects that, reading his friend's novel, Fidel must have shivered slightly--even in a very hot climate.

-- From Jay Parini's review of Volker Skierka's new biography of Fidel Castro, in today's UK Guardian.
Does writing poetry pose a health threat? Is there any such thing as the Sylvia Plath effect?

And is the phrase "live fast, die young" more applicable to sensitive young souls describing their torment in verse than to James Dean-style tearaways?

According to James Kaufman, whose research has just been published in an obscure publication called Journal of Death Studies, the answer could be yes to all three questions.

So the scientists have confirmed it....

Friday, April 23, 2004

I do see the resemblance. Brian Lara the frog has turned up in Portsmouth, no doubt sent ahead of the WI cricket team to spy on preparations for their tour of England this summer....
Trying to harness a conversation with Lakshmi Persaud is like trying to catch a butterfly.

The author of Raise the Lanterns High ... flits between talking about her new book, her life and her children, and back again. But what drives her is not arrogance but an infectious enthusiasm.

"If the book is praised, it doesn't go to my head and, if anyone says to me they don't like the book, it does not disturb me. When someone reads the book, their interpretation of it depends on a whole host of things," Lakshmi said.

-- From a short profile of Trinidad-born Persaud in yesterday's Hendon & Finchley Times.
The Will of all Wills was a Warwickshire Will....

And a handsome, cheerful fellow too, they say. Today is his birthday, his 440th by most accounts. Here's a sort of present--a silly little poem:

Present from Stratford

She took a train through the autumn smoke,
a scarf to her lips. She trod in the crowds
& the shrubbery-beds, drank tea, was cold.
She plucked up something from under a tree.

Clacked in a blue box tricked with stars:
a seed, a cone, its broken needles
dry like thorns, unlovely wooden
bud, a brittle rosemary burr.

Not whole as a stone, I thought, not old
as a stone, not perfect under my thumb.
Then, not dead as a stone, I thought.
Something ought to be sleeping inside--

this metaphor's too plain. It nests
on the shelf, a pine-bark egg on its bed
of pins. Sometimes I fetch it to smell.
Sometimes I'd like it inside my mouth.

-- Philip Sander

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Lara dislikes the ball and means to drive it away from him. Sobers used to co-opt it. Lara in full cry will bloody a bowler and leave him wishing he were dead. Sobers used to make bowlers fall in love with him.

Every ball bowled to Lara is to him an adventure, a brand new problem or window of delight; and the question you see him asking in that split-second pause is: "By what inventive chord-of-a-stroke shall this one be put away?" When he winds up dead-batting, Lara feels it as a constriction, an interruption of what he's there for. For all his elan, he is at heart a marauder, a taker-apart of a fielding side.

By contrast, every ball to Sobers was part of a preordained scheme of things. He didn't ask, "With what chord shall I destroy this one?" He asked, "Where in the melodic line does this ball fit?" Most times, he found the response which harmony dictated....

Brian Lara lives in and through cricket. But where Sobers was of Barbados and the colonial 50s, Lara is from Trinidad and a product of the '80s. He grew up amid the Me Generation, not the British public school and its traditions. He has no empire either to administer or to resist; he comes from a country with nine synonyms for heckling; and his immediate cricket ancestors are Pace-like-Fire and Licks-like-Peas. Moreover, he is generationally a man of the Americas, an American. And what all these mean is that, unlike Sobers, Lara is a man alone.

Among West Indians, Trinidadians are the existentialists.... Perhaps it has to do with the relative young-ness of the society. Or with its urban demographics, or its bi-ethnic composition.

But you see it in Lara, in the little lunge-and-rock-back, the early sighting but the playing late, the sense that, to him, each ball represents a discontinuous new promise and peril.

-- Wayne Brown, writing in today's J'ca Observer.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Like tens of thousands of other West Indians, I spent yesterday morning in front of the TV, anxiously counting down the runs to the quadruple century. And I'm not even much of a cricket fan. But I'm thrilled Lara's recaptured the record, & hoping that this time it means the beginning of a turnaround for the whole team--& not yet another lost opportunity.

Then I pick up the Express this morning & read this infuriating article:

A world cricketing legend.

That's how Prime Minister Patrick Manning described West Indies captain Brian Lara after he scored 400 runs--the highest Test score in the 127-year history of the game.

Manning issued the statement yesterday saying initially it is difficult to find superlatives to describe a man who has broken two world records in ten years.

Manning later telephoned Lara in Antigua at around 6.40 p.m. extending his personal congratulations. Manning asked Lara what he would like the country to do for him now and assured that the Government was making appropriate preparations for him on his return to the country.

The headline? "Manning to Lara: What do you want?"

I couldn't help thinking that no prime minister has ever asked, say, the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, "What do you want?" I couldn't help thinking how many calypsonians & musicians have died in poverty, & of Carlisle Chang's great mural The Inherent Nobility of Man, demolished in an airport renovation. Which isn't to deny the magnificence of Lara's achievement yesterday. By all means let's throw him a parade, give him another medal, name something else after him. But you can't build a civilisation on just sports heroes & beauty queens, however much we may adore them here in the Caribbean.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia is erasing the past and cultures of the peoples of the region, with Christianity and Islamic fundamentalism "at war with each other", the 2001 Nobel Laureate for Literature Sir Vidia S Naipaul said in Bangkok yesterday.

Naipaul, who was speaking after reading from a work on Malaysia at Chulalongkorn University, said some people wanted to stamp out their own past and culture. This destruction of people's pasts is "very brutal", he said.

The outspoken Trinidad-born, Oxford-educated writer is often accused of giving Islamic societies a less-than-glowing appraisal, and he did nothing to change that yesterday, saying countries that converted to Islam--such as Malaysia and Indonesia--had suppressed their pre-Islamic pasts, resulting in their people developing "troubled personalities".

-- Pravit Rojanaphruk reports on Naipaul's visit to Bangkok in today's Thailand Nation.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

West Indies collapse because they do not work as hard as any other international team and because they are weak mentally. From the manual labour perspective, anyone could whip them into shape. It's been done before. There is a fair amount of batting talent and the return of Jermaine Lawson and Fidel Edwards should strengthen the bowling.

But how will a PlayStation-generation team be taught to forget everything but the next ball? Isn't there a great party going on in the Red Stripe Mound? Man, we should be there. This team cannot bat through 90 overs because they can barely sit through a feature film. They should be playing chess, not Grand Theft Auto. They should be reading novels, not flicking through magazines.

Certainly they should be taught their own history. If you had a quarter for every member of the team who read CLR James's Beyond a Boundary, you'd find yourself borrowing a coin from the umpire at the toss. A contemporary West Indian batsman actually failed to recognise Sir Everton Weekes's name when Sir Everton attempted to give him a batting tip; the young players probably think the Three Ws was a restaurant.

-- From a scathing commentary by B.C. Pires in yesterday's UK Guardian.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

Henry Swanzy, the BBC producer who from 1946 to 1954 edited the landmark Caribbean Voices programme, has died at the age of 88. The Guardian has published an obituary by Philip Nanton & Anne Walmsley.
But cricket's footprint, as the great Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James acknowledged in his seminal work, Beyond a Boundary, has always been larger than the grounds on which it is played. "In the inevitable integration into a national community," he wrote, "one of the most urgent needs, sport, and particularly cricket, has played and will play a great role."

James was referring to the project of Caribbean unity.... The idea Mr. James introduced in his timeless 1963 book was the notion of sport as an instrument of social justice and national identity. In his estimation, the motive force of West Indian cricket was to subvert the colonial project, restaging cricket in its parochial aesthetics as a discourse in anti-colonialism....

Fuelled by the sentiments that Mr. James had identified, West Indian cricket teams became the best in the world at a game that Lord Harris, a governor of Bombay, once argued required the "doggedness of the English temperament" for success. West Indian cricketers rewrote that script--eventually bludgeoning the English into a series of hapless surrenders in the 1980s, battering them with a muscular, exuberant and physically intimidating brand of cricket.

After a brief period of West Indian supremacy, cricket mastery passed to Australia, India, Pakistan and South Africa. These former colonies are producing the best cricket teams not so much because they are fired by an anti-colonialist aesthetic but because they are bolstered by familiar economic forces. Because Rupert Murdoch saw the potential for cricket in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, he trained the cameras of his media empire on the subcontinent. Among the many reasons why an India v. Pakistan cricket match is probably drawing more attention than the siege of an al-Qaeda deputy is that Murdoch's Star TV has turned Asia's cricket players into demigod millionaires.

Duke University academic Kenneth Surin argues that cricket is no longer "a means of national expression" and he points out that West Indian professional cricketers now earn a living touring the world in pursuit of ever-increasing financial rewards. Such globetrotting has levelled the playing field, Prof. Surin says: "Cricketing styles have become homogenized in consequence of this 'internationalization' of the game."

So last week, while India and Pakistan were meeting, the English team was steamrollering the West Indies in Jamaica with a British version of muscular, physical cricket, reversing the recent narrative between the two countries.

If the result in Kingston was parochial, it also contained a universal morality tale of the times.

-- From an op-ed piece on "the geopolitics of cricket" by Ken Wiwa in today's Globe & Mail.
Archimedes held that he could lift the earth if he had a lever long enough, and an extraplanetary fulcrum to rest it on. There are horrors so heavy that they seem untellable. To bear to tell them so that we can bear to read them, a writer must find somewhere outside--peaceful, unmarked--to project them from. Atrocity enters the imagination not as the violating point of the knife but as the fair flesh violated.

That is how the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat has managed over the past 10 years to portray with such terrifying wit and flowered pungency the torment of the Haitian people....

In her other stories and in this collection Danticat often uses the Haitian community in the United States as the horror-spared site for her fulcrum. Despite difficulties, strangeness and uncertainties, these characters are swimmers pulled from the depths. Nitrogen bubbles course agonizingly in their bloodstream, memories rack them; yet there is an uncertain daylight, and it is by this that darkness is called up and told.

-- From Richard Eder's review of The Dew Breaker in this weekend's NY Times Book Review (like most Times online content, after about a week you'll have to pay to read it).

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Scotsman reports today that Derek Walcott has been robbed in Paris:

Mr Walcott, 73, spoke of being left in a Kafka-esque limbo after his partner, Sigrid, had her bag snatched in Paris.

The thief got away with the couple's passports, travel documents, money, and, critically, Mr Walcott's green card, allowing him to travel and work in the United States.

Mr Walcott has returned from Europe to his home in St Lucia in the Caribbean, but was due to travel to Scotland via the US, where he has an apartment in New York and a teaching job in Boston.

He and Sigrid had to show newspaper cuttings about his work to airline officials at the airport before they were allowed to board their plane and leave France.

"Day by day it gets more devastating," he said. "One of the worst things is [the loss of] my green card. My second application took almost a year to come through, and now I have to do it again.

"The most frightening thing is this contemporary thing of identity--unless you have papers, you don't exist. Very Kafkaesque."

Monday, March 15, 2004

Danticat, surely one of contemporary fiction's most sensitive conveyors of hope's bittersweet persistence in the midst of poverty and violence, is nursing an espresso in the cramped back patio of a cafe not far from the edge of Little Haiti. Half a block away is the pink corner house she shares with her husband, Faidherbe "Fedo" Boyer, and, for the moment, a small bustle of visitors: Boyer's mother, up from her small town in Haiti; Danticat's brother, down from New York, and his almost terrifyingly precocious 4-year-old daughter, for whose benefit the TV is tuned to a chirpy kiddie show and not to the latest news from the homeland, which in any case is sure to be bad. Mobs, ragtag looters and oozing corpses, each image, each streaming bulletin "almost like a deeply personal pain" for Danticat, who spent her childhood in the Bel Air section of Port-au-Prince and returns often to see friends and family. But now, "it seems like I'm watching another place. The things I'm seeing I don't even recognize."

-- From a profile of Edwidge Danticat by Margaria Fichtner, in yesterday's Miami Herald.

See also: Dylan Foley's review/profile in yesterday's NY Post, & Richard McCann's review in yesterday's Decateur Daily.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

In the early days at Camp X-ray, the conditions of detention were extreme.

The detainees were forbidden from talking to the person in the next cell and, Rasul recalls, fed tiny portions of food: "They'd give you this big plate with a tiny pile of rice and a few beans. It was nouvelle cuisine, American-style. You were given less than 10 minutes to eat and if you hadn't finished the Marines would just take your plate away." After a few more days Rasul was questioned again by MI5. The officer asked how he was. "I started crying, saying I can't believe I'm here. He says: 'I don't want to know how you are emotionally, I'm only interested in your physical state.'"

After about a week the prisoners were allowed to speak to detainees in adjacent cells, and a few weeks later still were given copies of the Koran, a prayer mat, blankets and towels. Yet all witnessed or experienced brutality, especially from Guantanamo's own riot squad, the Extreme Reaction Force. Its acronym has led to a new verb peculiar to Guantanamo detainees: "ERF-ing." To be ERFed, says Rasul, means to be slammed on the floor by a soldier wielding a riot shield, pinned to the ground and assaulted.

Iqbal and Rasul were at opposite ends of the same block and were forbidden from talking to each other. There was almost nothing to do. "Time speeds up," Rasul says. "You just stare and the hours go clicking by. You'd look at people and see they'd lost it. There was nothing in their eyes any more. They didn't talk."

As the weeks of detention became months they would sometimes see psychiatrists. The response to any complaint was always the same: an offer to administer Prozac. (On my visit to Guantanamo, the camp medical staff told me that at least a fifth of the detainees were taking anti-depressants.)

It was almost impossible to master the rules and know how to avoid punishment. There was only one rule that mattered, Rasul says: "You have to obey whatever US government personnel tell you to do."

In mid-2002 the prisoners were moved from the open cages with mesh walls at Camp X-ray to the pre-fabri cated metal cellblocks of Camp Delta. There, the standard punishment was transfer to solitary confinement in the sensory deprivation isolation wing. Once, Ahmed says, he was given isolation for writing "Have a nice day" on a polystyrene cup. This was deemed "malicious damage to US government property". On another occasion, he was punished for singing.

-- From David Rose's interview with the "Tipton Three", published in today's Observer.

In his speech on 25 February 2004 to launch the US State Department's latest report on human rights practices in other countries, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that "throughout the globe in 2003, the United States helped to build democratic institutions, promote good governance and strengthen civil societies by supporting the rule of law". His words echo President George W. Bush's repeated assertion that the USA will stand firm for the "non-negotiable demands of human dignity", including "the rule of law"....

It is something of an irony that the State Department report criticizes Cuba for invoking sweeping powers of arrest and detention "to deny due process to those detained on purported state security grounds". For the US administration spent 2003 attempting to keep its own courts and any lawyers away from the hundreds of foreign nationals it was holding in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. What was the administration's justification for this? It argued that this was a national security matter, and that Guantánamo Bay is the sovereign territory of Cuba and therefore out of the reach of the US courts. As Lord Steyn, one of the United Kingdom's most senior judges, has noted: "The purpose of holding the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay was and is to put them beyond the rule of law". He suggested that the UK government, for one, should "make plain and unambiguously our condemnation of the utter lawlessness at Guantánamo Bay".

Secretary Powell said on 11 February that "we are operating fully in accordance with international law" in relation to the Guantánamo detainees. Yet, for example, Article 9 (4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states: "Anyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court, in order that that court may decide without delay on the lawfulness of his detention and order his release if the detention is not lawful". The Human Rights Committee, the expert body set up by the ICCPR to oversee implementation of the treaty, has stated that this right is non-derogable, even in states of emergency. The provisions of the ICCPR apply to all persons within the jurisdiction of the state party. The Committee has stated that even if so-called preventive detention is used for reasons of public security, it must be controlled by the provisions of Article 9 of the ICCPR....

-- From an Amnesty International report dated 27 February 2004.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

It's a foggy day in Coventry, and Derek Walcott is huddled against the cold in an overcoat, talking about his home in St Lucia and the view from his window where the blue sky meets the blue sea. I wonder if he might open up in the sun, like a hibiscus, but today his face is closed.

The previous evening, a dinner was held in his honour at Warwick University. Some of those present were studying for PhDs on his work. Everyone had a question, a comment. The Nobel prizewinner and founding father of Caribbean literature fended them off with monosyllables and deep imponderable silences. In the game of academia, he was playing by his own rules.

But there is another side to Walcott. Earlier that evening, arriving at the university for a reading, he was met by two girls from St Lucia, enthusiastically clutching their tickets. He broke his schedule to talk to them, let them take photographs, then changed the poems he had planned to read to include one with a section in the island patois. They hooted with delight.

You can take the man out of his island, but you can't take the island out of the man. The little isle in the Lesser Antilles, 14 miles by 27, is the backdrop and very often the subject of his writing. In what many would regard as his masterpiece, his epic Omeros, he reimagined Homer's Odyssey among the fishermen and waitresses of the island. The villages are "my villages". When he uses the word "here" in our conversation, he means not a hotel in Coventry but his island home.

-- From a profile of Walcott by Susan Mansfield in today's Scotsman.
I discovered Naipaul in the bookshops in Kathmandu's tourist quarter in the mid-1980s, where I bought An Area of Darkness in an early Penguin edition with a soft-focus cover drawing of a shikara on the Dal Lake. Soon I was devouring his many other books no longer for the subject matter but for the author--sensing that, whatever he wrote about, this Naipaul guy wrote close to the bone.

It was my Naipaul obsession that led me eventually to Pakistan, via Kashmir. Bored with being deskbound subediting wire stories in an air-conditioned building, I quit the Bangkok Post early in 1994 and went to India for four months. And I went to Kashmir, because Naipaul had written about it.

"It was my eye that had changed," he writes near the end of An Area of Darkness, and this happened eventually to me too. Through the alchemy of writing Naipaul had, at once as it were, exorcised his own illusions and conjured new ones for me to dispel in my turn. The Dal Lake and Gulmarg and Amarnath were in my mind Naipaul's turf. His great gift to me as a reader was to have stimulated my curiosity about the world enough that I wanted to see it for myself, and did so. If ultimately I've achieved a perspective on the world that differs from his, it doesn't diminish my gratitude for the gift. The irony is that, having come to read Naipaul's work for the author, I finally decided that the subject matter is more important and more interesting, and that I have as much claim to it as he does.

-- From a brief essay on Kashmir & An Area of Darkness by Ethan Casey, in today's Pakistan Daily Times.
More praise for The Dew Breaker--this time, a review by Donna Bailey Nurse in the Montreal Gazette:

One of the magical gifts Danticat possesses is the talent to become invisible. Her stories appear to tell themselves, to unfurl, nonchalantly, of their own accord. This is why, mere pages into the book, even after I had read the dust jacket, and stumbled over obvious clues; and even after I had met Ka's father with the scar sliced into his cheek, I was stunned to learn that he was the dew breaker of the title. Danticat's power of understatement and casual calm repeatedly undermines our readiness for evil. She reminds us, constantly, of the banality of brutality.

Friday, March 12, 2004

More reviews of Edwidge Danticat's new book, The Dew Breaker:

Danticat's The Dew Breaker should only add further luster to her sterling reputation for simple, yet poetic prose and affecting portraits of immigrant life in the difficult gray zone between old country and new country. Her fourth novel is a serious-minded work of a mature talent, a searching examination of murderous terror and its lingering aftershocks on generations....

Danticat unveils their stories in an intricate dance between different characters in past and present time that starts slowly but builds steadily toward the novel's gripping climax. It alternates as well between thematic threads--love and hate, faith and fanaticism, forgiveness and vengeance.

This is a great deal of weight to heft, especially in a short novel, but the 34-year-old writer manages this difficult feat with impressive aplomb. Individual stories may remain sketchy, in a cinematic fashion, but Danticat demonstrates a resonant ability to create character and scene with the telling little detail or the emblematic incident.

Haiti emerges as a country with repeat hemorrhages that never quite heal, a primitive place held together by dictatorial threats that "the land would burn from north to south, east to west. There would be no sunrise and no sunset, just one big flame licking the sky."

-- John Marshall, writing in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Danticat, for all the trickless clarity of her prose, has a nice way of keeping you off-balance as she writes. The way a scene unfolds, the way a story fits by the slightest of threads into the overall scheme of the book--these offer formal pleasures that lend a lift to her sober subject matter. Cool, taut, yet rife with hidden currents and flashes of warmth that bring it to life, The Dew Breaker may be Danticat's finest achievement yet.

-- Michael Upchurch, writing in the Seattle Times.

...Its setting makes The Dew Breaker sound as though it is a political polemic veiled as fiction, but this is not the case. Danticat's rare gift is her ability to set her novels and stories amid fraught times in which the actions of the government cause upheaval in the lives of regular people, without ever once losing focus on her characters. She leaves the preaching to the preachers, such as the dynamic minister who figures in the denouement of The Dew Breaker.

This book, like her others, never wavers in placing its attention on individual lives, and as she moves from one character to another you feel she is holding their faces up to you, each of them locking the reader with a gaze too intense to shirk.

-- Jenny Shank, writing in the Rocky Mountain News.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

In her earlier books Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak! and The Farming of Bones, Ms. Danticat, who was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she was 12, demonstrated an ability to use her lyric gift of language and her emotional clarity to show how the public and the private, the personal and the political are intertwined in the lives of Haitians and Haitian-Americans, and to show how the past anchors and hobbles the present.

The Dew Breaker not only showcases these same qualities, but it is also Ms. Danticat's most persuasive, organic performance yet. As seamless as it is compelling, the novel recounts its harrowing tale in limpid, understated prose, using a looping structure of overlapping stories to tell the Dew Breaker's story by indirection.

It is a tale that uses its characters' experiences as a prism to examine Haiti's own difficulties in breaking free from a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance that continues through today, a tale that simultaneously unfolds to become a philosophical meditation on the possibility of redemption and the longing of victims and victimizers alike to believe in the promise of new beginnings held forth by the American Dream.

-- From Michiko Kakutani's glowing review of The Dew Breaker in today's NY Times (like most Times online content, after about a week you'll have to pay to read it).

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Caryl Phillips has racked up yet another literary award nomination for A Distant Shore--the PEN/Faulkner this time. Not yet announced at the official website, but see this AP story in the NY Newsday.

Monday, March 08, 2004

In today's T'dad Guardian Judy Raymond has a good profile of Patrick French, V.S. Naipaul's "authorised, though independent" biographer, who's been in T'dad for about a week & a half researching Naipaul's early life, interviewing his relatives, friends, & associates, & generally trying to understand the mad little island Sir Vidia was born on. Until midnight T'dad time, you'll find the profile here. (Tomorrow, if I can figure out the Guardian's extremely inconvenient archiving system, I'll attempt to replace this with a permalink.)

Update, Tuesday morning: yesterday's edition of the Guardian does not seem to have been archived--this is why I stopped linking to their stories ages ago....
Over at BonoboLand--where he's been blogging recently--my friend Damien Smith has an interesting post on the Trinidad & Tobago-Barbados-Venezuela-Guyana-Suriname maritime boundary dispute, in which he wonders whether Caribbean microstates like Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent--the "small islands"--are truly viable as independent entities.
Ultimately, Danticat's book is about memory. The street kid in one of Port-au-Prince's rust-colored slums whom the dew breaker sends to buy a pack of cigarettes is studying history. Thirty years later, in the comparative safety of the United States, children of Haitian exiles study art, or French literature, become nurses, editors, TV stars. Like their contemporaries from other backgrounds, their focus is turned toward the future.

"Ripped from today's headlines" is a loathsome phrase that should be retired even from blurb-speak. Chaos and brutality are ever present in Haiti, as they are now. In less dramatic times, Haiti is easy to dismiss. When Washington invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, who recalled that the U.S. Marines had occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934? Who pondered what the fruits of that occupation were? Difficult to read Danticat's understated and remarkably unsentimental novel without thinking of Auden's poem which begins "About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters--how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."

-- From Betsy Willeford's review of Edwidge Danticat's new book, The Dew Breaker, published in yesterday's Miami Herald.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

From a photograph we saw in Time magazine, in which he wore a plaid woolen shirt, Arthur Miller was for my twin brother and me a heroic independent figure, and pretty soon we both acquired plaid shirts, even though we were too young for pipes....

The face was lantern-jawed and Lincolnesque. Its seams were clamped round a pipe that for a long time was as iconic as General MacArthur's, and as the years wore on, the features became more grooved, and as inflexible as granite. This was Arthur Miller, and in the moral conflict to come with the persecutions of Senator MacCarthy, the face became an emblem for the American conscience. It said both "Non Serviam", "I will not serve", and, even though it was Jewish, the famous New England warning, "Don’t tread on me."

-- From Derek Walcott's tribute to Arthur Miller, delivered in January to accompany the staging of excerpts from Death of a Salesman in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, & published in this weekend's St. Lucia Star (see this story by Petulah Olibert for details of the event).
There is a celebrated opening sequence to Sir Vidia's masterpiece, India: A Wounded Civilisation. It is 1975--a full quarter century before he won the Nobel--and Naipaul is surveying the shattered ruins of Vijayanagara....

For Naipaul, the Fall of Vijayanagara is a paradigmatic wound on the psyche of India, part of a long series of failures that he believes still bruises the country's self-confidence (or from which, according to some
of his more recent statements, the country is only just now beginning to recover). The wound was created by a fatal combination of Islamic aggression and Hindu weakness--the tendency to "retreat", to withdraw in the face of defeat....

The problem is that such ideas rest on a set of ignorant and Islamophobic assumptions which recent scholarship has done much to undermine....

Sir Vidia's non-fiction about India is arguably the most profound body of writing about the region in modern times, and it is precisely because of this that it is important to challenge his errors. In the current climate, after the pogroms of Gujarat and the continued malevolent and inaccurate rewriting of textbooks, Sir Vidia's absurdly one-sided and misleading take on medieval Indian history simply must not be allowed to go uncorrected.

-- From a fascinating & substantial essay by William Dalrymple in Outlook India, arguing that Naipaul's views on Indian history are thoroughly misinformed. (There are also very useful links to six or seven years of Naipaul coverage in Outlook India--essays, reviews, interviews etc.)

I myself know next to nothing about Indian history, so the less opinion I offer the better, but I am struck by Dalrymple's argument that Naipaul has chosen to avoid acknowledging the fruitful interaction between the Hindu & Islamic cultures of the subcontinent--a creative hybridity which he says Salman Rushdie calls "chutnification". This fascinates me, of course, because cultural hybridity--creolisation, we call it--has also been a major creative force in the Caribbean, & particularly here in Trinidad, where it has been passionately contested & misunderstood by some, but embraced by many as an invigorating & even redeeming force. I recall that Naipaul in an interview once said that the word "creolised" has no meaning. And I wonder now--I'm sure this has already occurred to some scholar or journalist somewhere--to what degree Naipaul's vision of Indian history, of a pure, organic Hindu culture ravaged by the Muslim invasions, has been influenced by his early experience of the mixed-up, muddled-up, creolised, chutnified, callaloo culture of his native island.
In his interesting column in today's Jamaica Observer, Wayne Brown muses over Shakespeare, Haiti, & a petulant little op-ed piece written for the Washington Times by David Paulin, an American journalist briefly on the staff of the Observer.

And do read the thoughtful & even-handed editorial on the situation in Haiti published in today's Stabroek News.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

But where does redemption fit into this story? How can a man like the dew breaker be redeemed? The barber's wife, a devout Christian well aware of her husband's atrocities, regards her life as "a pendulum between forgiveness and regret, but when the anger dissipated she considered it a small miracle, the same way she thought of her emergence from her occasional epileptic seizures as a kind of resurrection." Resurrection, yes, but again, is there redemption for a torturer?

-- From Daphne Uviller's review of Edwidge Danticat's new book of stories, The Dew Breaker, in the NY Newsday.
Not many writers get to write their own epitaph, but it is hard not to feel that this is precisely what Naipaul is about in Literary Occasions. However far he journeys, the dark continent of his travels has always been himself, that displaced, self-created (and to his mind) self-creating creature.

In Literary Occasions, he returns again to his origins, to the place and the experiences that made him what he is, as if by tracing out the many ways he has tried to make sense of his own past. Naipaul makes explicit the process of invention and reinvention of the self that he wants to be seen as central to his work.

The result is a book that seems to reveal as much through its method as through its contents. All of Naipaul is here--the majesty of the voice, the penetration of the gaze, the coruscating intelligence, but there is also the sense of a writer engaged in a dialogue with his own legacy, as if by returning to the beginning at the end he might invent himself for us and for him one last time.

-- From James Bradley's double review of Literary Occasions & an anthology called Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate
(ed. Amitava Kumar), in today's edition of The Age.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Sorry, I can't help myself--from today's NY Times:

Correction: March 4, 2004, Thursday

An article on the Fashion page on Tuesday about the British designer Alexander McQueen misstated a phrase from his remarks on the common professional desire to create a signature product. He said, "And you've just got to keep on striving until one day you're waking up, having your marmalade on toast, doodling on a cigarette package--and bingo, Bob's your uncle"--not "you bought an uncle." (The slang expression means, roughly, "You've got it made.")
Supporters of Naipaul insist that Sir Vidia is simply too lofty a figure to be constrained by smutty Indian party politics, that his visit to Ashok Road was only a courtesy call and he would have stopped off to meet the Congress too if only he had been invited. Perhaps. Perhaps the Naipaulean vision cannot and should not be harnessed to the Sangh parivar. Yet for the BJP, if not for Sir Vidia, Naipaul's visit is an important landmark. For a potentially violent anti-intellectual political movement associated with tearing up film posters, destroying libraries and defacing paintings, even a courtesy call from an international literary figure provides the one attribute that Hindutva still does not possess: intellectual respectability.

-- From a column on "the BJP's search for respectability" by Sagarika Ghose in today's Indian Express.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prizes for the Caribbean & Canada were announced on Monday evening here in Port of Spain, but the local newspapers are yet to pick up the story, as far as I can make out. Maybe they're uninterested because the best book & best first book awards were both taken by Canadian novels.... No Caribbean novels were even shortlisted for best novel, though there were two on the best first novel shortlist: The Swinging Bridge, by Trinidadian-Canadian Ramabai Espinet, & Spirit of Haiti, by Haitian-American Myriam J.A. Chancy.

Anyway, the Globe & Mail has a story today: here.
It's true that V.S. Naipaul writes with a mean pen, that his sense of repartee is unique like the man himself but it is obvious that if it weren't for the presence of Nadira Naipaul, "Vidya" would have been "lost".

A few observations at the Tehelka inaugural lecture: The minute Naipaul handed over his fine hat to the lady, it was a signal for her to take charge. And like a field Marshall Lady Naipaul "expertly" handled the horde of photographers with a stern, "He won't talk until you leave the scene". They left of course amidst a shattering applause.

Then there was this regrettable instance when an enthusiastic fan opted to sit in front when Naipaul had just about started reading excerpts from India: A Wounded Civilization. To everybody's embarrassment he wailed dramatically saying, "Why do you do this to me? I am not a record. I can't go on. You have to listen to me".

For a minute there was an uncomfortable silence. Then Lady Naipaul gently patted "Vidya's" hand and the rest of the evening went smoothly.

-- From a delightfully gossipy account of the inaugural Tehelka lecture, delivered by V.S. Naipaul the other day in Bangalore, posted on

Sunday, February 29, 2004

There's an interesting article in today's J'ca Observer, written by Norman Rae, about the collection of books & paintings recently donated to the Edna Manley College of Visual & Performing Arts by the estate of the late Vivian Virtue, little-remembered Jamaican poet.

Also worth reading: Ian McDonald's lyrical short essay in today's Stabroek News, an ode to laziness & the landscape of the Essequibo.
Though it's not yet posted on the official website, it's been announced that Caryl Phillips's novel A Distant Shore is the winner of the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize 2004, Eurasia region.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

"Do you think he would be co-authoring the party's manifesto? Or perhaps offer a catch-line for the ad-campaign? Would he campaign? Would he accompany the big honchos on their election campaign perhaps, in search of another travelogue? After all, he was among the believers and, surely it was not beyond belief, my interlocutor insisted (yes, I could hear the italics in the emphasis). Would he, you think, like, join the party?"

-- Aman Khanna gives a detailed account of "The Visit" in yesterday's Times of India.
Like Guillermoprieto's reportage ... Dancing With Cuba is a pleasure to read, full of humanity, sly humor, curiosity and knowledge.... She uses dance as a lens through which to explore the aspirations and injustices and contradictions of a whole society. It's a fresh and lively perspective....

As a memoirist she manages some difficult terrain. Somehow, she conveys the intense and immediate feelings of youth while at the same time objectifying her 20-year-old self as a character in a story she is telling. Mostly, she stays in the moment she is narrating, avoiding the unspoken, apologetic "had I but known" that can make a memoir feel sketchy and drained of life. Thus the Castro she describes is a despot, but also an engaging, enthusiastic personality whose secretive love life is the source of fascination to Alma and her friends and whose famously long speeches strike them--and hundreds of thousands of Cubans--as actually pretty interesting.

-- From Katha Pollitt's review of Alma Guillermoprieto's memoir Dancing with Cuba in tomorrow's NY Times Book Review (link good for only a week or so).

Friday, February 27, 2004

Caryl Phillips's novel A Distant Shore (winner of the 2003 Nicholas Laughlin Book Award for fiction!) has been shortlisted for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Eurasia Region. The winner will be announced in Calcutta tonight. The shortlist for the Caribbean & Canada region was meant to have been announced yesterday, but I haven't come across any reports yet; the Caribbean & Canada regional winner will be announced next Monday here in Port of Spain.
The Indian newspapers are full of reports on V.S. Naipaul's visit to BJP headquarters yesterday--see stories in the Business Standard, the Hindustan Times, the Statesman, the Calcutta Telegraph, the Economic Times....

Thursday, February 26, 2004

... for the most part, those at the meeting said, Naipaul chose to listen rather than speak, making periodic remarks. The level of discussion, they said, was low.

Perhaps that is why Naipaul was taciturn after the meeting. Perhaps, to avoid uncomfortable questions on why he was meeting the BJP. He needn't have bothered. When he attempted to answer questions from a clamouring posse of mediamen, his wife, Lady Nadira, asked him to "keep quiet, let me answer."

And then hell hath no fury like Lady Nadira: "What is wrong if we wish to come to the BJP cultural cell? What is so spectacular that you should gather this way? My husband writes about India, the BJP is in power and we are observers."

Attempts to assuage fell on deaf ears. Instead, she said: "He is an independent observer, he has been invited here. He is not a politician."

So what was he doing at the office of a political party? "He's in the public domain, he can be appropriated by anyone," Nadira said. "Who stopped the liberals from doing so?"

Priceless! Read the whole Times of India report here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

He said his books were not intended to hurt people and those who infer this have "not really read them. They have just heard about them".

On the Nobel he said: "The award came rather late."

-- A couple of Naipaulian tidbits from a brief report in today's Express India--Sir Vidia has been in New Delhi inaugurating some sort of literary festival.

(Personal note: I've been in St. Lucia recently, & not giving much thought to blogging.)

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Also in today's Guardian: another review, by Mike Phillips, of Andrea Levy's novel Small Island:

Levy's immersion in the period seems an illustration of the fact that in recent years, 1948, marking the arrival at Tilbury of the Windrush, has taken on a new significance in the lexicon of Britain's social history. A few years ago, the commemoration of this event sparked off a small explosion of interest in the consequences of mid-20th century migration. Artists and writers of migrant origin, especially Afro-Caribbeans, have responded to this historical platform with a new confidence and interest in exploring both their own roots and the circumstances of the time. The result is a growing conversation about the effects of Caribbean migration on British identity.

Levy's authorial platform is balanced squarely in the middle of this conversation. The novel records some of the most un-pleasant racist aspects of the period, without displaying any sense of polemical intent, partly because her reliance on historical fact gives Levy a distance which allows her to be both dispassionate and compassionate. The history also offers an opportunity to construct the characters in patient and illuminating detail.

And: a short essay by Mark Bostridge on The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, the autobiography of the Jamaican-born Mary Seacole, heroine of the Crimean War:

In the summer of 1857, while Florence Nightingale languished in London's Burlington Hotel, seriously ill but still working on the Royal Commission on the Health of the Army, another Crimean heroine was publishing an account of her experiences in the recent war. Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born Creole, had become celebrated for her British Hotel at Spring Hill, "an iron storehouse with wooden stores and outlying tributaries", two miles along the road from Balaclava. Here she had provided warm hospitality to passing soldiers, earning praise from the famous French chef Alexis Soyer, in the Crimea to revolutionise army catering, for her "soups and dainties".

"Mother Seacole" had also won a place in the hearts of many officers and men for her care of the sick and wounded. Applying herbal remedies derived from traditional Caribbean medicine, she successfully treated diarrhoea, dysentery, even cholera. With a bag of lint, bandages, needles, thread and medicines she courageously navigated the battlefields. On September 8 1855, "a ruddy lurid day with the glare of the blazing town", Seacole became the first woman to enter Sebastopol after the siege.
"In the lobby of the National Gallery in London yesterday, staff were clambering up ladders and slapping 'Saved' stickers on the appeal posters for Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks," reports Maev Kennedy in the UK Guardian. I myself donated five pounds....

Friday, February 13, 2004

Nalo Hopkinson's new novel The Salt Roads has been nominated for a Nebula Award by the SFWA; see a list of all 2004 Nebula nominees here. (Winners will be announced on 17 April.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

I want to be your cheap hotel/I want to be your lipstick by Chanel
Today's Hindustan Times reports that V.S. Naipaul will be the chief guest at the biennial World Book Fair, scheduled to open in Delhi on 14 February. This year's theme is "India's Contribution to Science and Technology". Sir Vidia, of course, is well-known for his scientific & technological writings....

Friday, February 06, 2004

Uprisings of the oppressed have erupted throughout history, but the anti-slavery movement in England was the first sustained mass campaign anywhere on behalf of someone else's rights. Sometimes Britons even seemed to be organizing against their own self-interest. From Sheffield, famous for making scissors, scythes, knives, razors, and the like, 769 metalworkers petitioned Parliament in 1789. Because their wares were sold to ship captains for use as currency to buy slaves, the Sheffield cutlers wrote, they might be expected to favor the slave trade. But they vigorously opposed it: "Your petitioners...consider the case of the nations of Africa as their own."

Consider the Africans' case as their own? Stephen Fuller, London agent for the Jamaican planters and a key figure in the pro-slavery lobby, wrote in bewilderment that the petitions flooding into Parliament were "stating no grievance or injury of any land or sort, affecting the Petitioners themselves." He was right to be startled. This was something new in human history.

In the January/February issue of Mother Jones, Adam Hochschild writes a concise, gripping history of the British anti-slavery movement in the 18th & 19th centuries, & tells us we should be inspired by its success to tackle the problems of the 21st-century world.
Ms. Guillermoprieto has written a memoir that is highly skeptical of the act of remembering. Some of what she tells is no doubt "completely invented by the stubborn narrator we all have within us who wants things to be the way they sound best to us now."

They do not sound best; they present painfully "the inept young woman I was." This may win a share of our trust. More is won by the writer's trained skepticism even toward an effort so much her own that, despite her perfect published English, she has written it in Spanish. As a journalist she has disentangled too many botched and elided memories not to know that "this was" must always be less truthful than "this may have been."

-- From Richard Eder's review of Alma Guillermoprieto's memoir Dancing with Cuba, published in today's NY Times.
"None of my books is just about race," she stresses. "They're about people and history. Basically, I love people. The greatest thing I could ever do would be to walk into a room with all my characters in it and mingle with them."

-- From Christie Hickman's short profile of Andrea Levy, in today's Independent.
The essays in Literary Occasions show that Naipaul has spent 50 years questioning his vocation. Why did he stick with it? What is he doing with it? On the face of it, the answer is simple. Naipaul became a writer because his father, Seepersad Naipaul, was also a writer. Yet each time Naipaul approaches the relation between his father's writing and his own, he keeps producing a new piece of information that makes one doubt the simple cause and effect.

-- From Nicholas Blincoe's review of Literary Occasions, published last Sunday in the Telegraph.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Literary Saloon points out today that the BBC's online audio archives contain a nice selection of interviews with writers, musicians, artists etc. in RealPlayer format. These include Derek Walcott, Marcus Garvey, & Bob Marley--not to mention my favourite prose writer, Virginia Woolf, & my favourite poet, Yeats.

Monday, February 02, 2004

This morning's Intersections programme on NPR featured Jamaica Kincaid, talking with Lynn Neary about her childhood literary influences (Jane Eyre & Paradise Lost). Listen to the audio file here.
Working in an English verse tradition and writing about everyday life in the Caribbean, Walcott knows himself to be an anomaly. "I have to live, socially, in an almost unfinished society," he told me once. "Among the almost great, among the almost true, among the almost honest. That allows me to describe the anguish." His goal, he said, is to "finish" his incomplete culture....

The epic is natural to Walcott. "I come from a place that likes grandeur," he has said. "It likes large gesture; it is not inhibited by flourish; it is a society of physical performance; it is a society of style." St. Lucia is also a place that, having had relatively little written about it, lives, still, in a vague sphere where time does not seem to exist, and where dates have little resonance. What resonates are individual stories, the image of the island's various straight-backed Helens walking to market, seemingly impervious to the ever-changing weather, or to history.

-- From Hilton Als's profile of Derek Walcott in the current New Yorker. (The legendary New Yorker fact-checkers have got at least one tiny detail wrong: the BBC radio programme to which Walcott--& just about every other West Indian writer of his generation--contributed back in the 1950s was Caribbean Voices, not Caribbean Voice.)

Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Society of Jesus is known for throwing its members--who are supposed to be willing--either to the lions or in at the deep end; Fr Morrison's case was no exception. Without ado or training at all in the field, he was told he had to be Editor of the Standard as of July 1, 1976. He recounted riding along on his bicycle, having had his first struggle with the beast called "The Editorial," and thinking in despair, "Lord--have I got to do this every week?" He did--and for eighteen years.

Quite simply put, not by training or by talent, but by spirit and by just who he was, he was the right man for wrong times.

They were times when the Catholic Standard was the only non-government, non-political party-owned form of media in a tightly-controlled country then without access to international or local television, and his role is well summed up in the comments of one lady who called to commiserate: "He was a man of integrity--which is very hard to find these days. He always rose above race, ideology--and sometimes even religion--and took a moral position." He himself would have said that it was his belief in God that made him what he was.

His guiding principle in writing was that the man in the marketplace had to understand it, and indeed he loved what he termed "doing my rounds," walking around selling the paper in the market himself, and talking to the people there. He was a man who loved Guyana and Guyanese, and loved to boast vicariously about those Guyanese who had done well. In return, all Guyanese, not just the Catholic community, felt they "owned" him.

-- From Roxana Kawall's tribute to the late Fr. Andrew Morrison, S.J.--former editor of the Catholic Standard & courageous advocate of press freedom in Guyana, who died last Monday--published in today's Stabroek News.

Saturday, January 31, 2004

Two centuries after independence, Haiti is the battered pauper of the Americas, unimaginably destitute and corrupt. Yet L'Ouverture's spirit hovers over this bicentenaire, and he remains a potent symbol. Haiti's was perhaps the most radical of 18th-century revolutions, yet Britain has shown scarce interest in its anniversary. Elsewhere, though, he has been commemorated. In Little Haiti, Miami, children revere him as the "First of the Blacks", and voodoo shops display effigies of the Black Napoleon with his cavalry sabre and tricorn hat. At Miami's Toussaint L'Ouverture Elementary School, meanwhile, the Haitian red and blue bicolour hangs above a plaque engraved with the liberator's defiant words to Napoleon: "In overthrowing me, you have cut down only the trunk of the Tree of Liberty. It will spring up again by the roots for they are numerous and deep."

-- From Ian Thomson's profile of Toussaint L'Ouverture, published in today's UK Guardian.

Also in the Guardian: a profile by Bonnie Greer of the writer Andrea Levy, daughter of Jamaican immigrants to Britain (her father was on the Empire Windrush), in which she talks about her new novel, Small Island, partly based on her parents' experiences in the 1940s:

"My parents came from a class in Jamaica called 'the coloured class'. There are white Jamaicans, black Jamaicans and coloured Jamaicans. My parents' skin was light. They were mixed race, effectively. They came to Britain with a kind of notion that pigmentation represented class. They didn't necessarily have more money or education, but because they were somehow closer to being white, this was seen as a badge of pride." Levy laughs gently at this: "My parents arrived here and were surprised to discover that they were considered black. They thought that people would look at them as white. That sounds very funny now, but it can set up quite a conflict in a family. I was growing up knowing that things were so completely different. I didn't have any subtleties of shade. If someone didn't want to be my friend because I was black, that was it."
In today's Mid-Day Mumbai Farrukh Dhondy writes a rather bloodless piece about interviewing V.S. Naipaul for the new Tehelka newspaper, due to be launched in India this week (Dhondy writes about all the things Naipaul could have but didn't say in the interview). (See this Financial Times story from last August for background on Tehelka & Naipaul's connection with its founder, Tarun Tejpal.)

Friday, January 30, 2004

The 2004 Casa de las Americas prizes have been announced in Havana (the Radio Rebelde website has an announcement in English):

Poetry: Luis Lorente, Esta tarde llegando la noche (Cuba)

Short fiction: Pablo Hernán Petitto (pen name Pablo Ramos), Todo puede suceder (Argentina)

Brazilian literature: José Murilo de Carvalho, Cidadania no Brasil: o longo caminho

Caribbean literature in French or Creole: Georges Mauvois, Ovando (a collection of three theatrical works) (Martinique)

Essay on women's studies: Carmiña Navia Velasco, Guerras y paz en Colombia: las mujeres escriben (Colombia)

José Lezama Lima Poetry Prize: Juan Bañeulos, A paso de hierba: poemas sobre Chiapas (Mexico)

José María Arguedas Narrative Prize: Anacristina Rossi, Limón Blues (Costa Rica)

Ezequiel Martínez Estrada Essay Prize: Atilio A. Borón, Imperio e imperialismo (Argentina)

I can access these prize results freely on the Internet, as can most of my readers. Ordinary Cuban people, however, don't enjoy that same freedom.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

She sprinkles her novels with aspects of her life as a Jamaican immigrant: a gay friend abandoned by his family after he contracted AIDS, being raised by her great-aunt from the tender age of 3 months, the discovery in her teenage years that she was a lesbian.

Then she distances herself by turning female characters into male ones, young protagonists into old ones, and lesbian heroes into gay men. The intimate yet distant results can be seen in her first two Jamaica-based novels reissued last month: Me Dying Trial, about a family whose mother abandons it, and A Small Gathering of Bones, which explores how AIDS affects a community of gay men. Her last work of fiction, 1998's The Pagoda, tells the story of Mr. Lowe, a female Chinese immigrant to Jamaica who spends most of the novel pretending to be a man.

"Even though all of those characters have a part of me," says Powell ... as she protectively wraps her arms around herself, "I still haven't been able to write a female character. Not an adult one. It's too close. It also feels so exposing. Maybe I'm fooling myself by thinking when I'm writing these characters that I'm safely hiding out."

Today's Boston Globe runs a profile of Patricia Powell, the Jamaica-born writer whose novels tackle the subject of homosexual life in the Caribbean, in which she briefly discusses her current work in progress, "A Good Life".
In a bare, brightly lit lecture hall, Kincaid starts off her reading by telling us that she's happy she trusted her instincts to come to Israel. But before she says how much she's enjoyed a trip to Haifa and the Negev, she comes out with a startlingly gratuitous and incongruous comment. "I never have anything good to say about my government," she declares as the audience titters sympathetically. (One has the impression that many in the audience might have nothing good to say about their country either).

She goes on to thank U.S. Ambassador Dan Kurtzer and his wife for their kindness, but then adds, "It's the only nice thing I can say about my country." ...After that, it's a little hard to focus on the mellifluous slightly singsong voice reading parts of her book about the death of her brother from AIDS.

Still, the women in the row behind me whisper, "Oh, isn't she just darling," as Kincaid makes a few self-deprecating comments between pages.

-- On Tuesday night, Jamaica Kincaid read from her work at Tel Aviv University; Judy Lash Balint covered the event for Jewsweek.
Naipaul is an English prose stylist of the old school. While his books are sometimes structurally very complicated, his sentences are inevitably models of clarity, directness and unobtrusive power. "More and more today," though, as Naipaul has put it, "writers' myths are about the writers themselves"; and much of his authority as an interpreter of the post-colonial world derives from the vexed relationship to the colonial past inherent in his background and family history.

-- From Christopher Taylor's review of Literary Occasions, published last week in the Telegraph.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Before the Mac revolution, if you wanted to read a particular data file, you normally couldn't scroll your way through a list of candidates until you spotted it. You had to remember its name and type it in. Similarly, instead of scooting your mouse along the menu bar seeking a likely command, you'd most probably have to look the command up in the manual and literally type it in. Or, at best, you had to burrow your way deep into a complicated system of nested menus within menus within menus, getting hopelessly lost when you tried to back out again.

Nesting of this kind was one of the cardinal sins discouraged by Apple's guidelines for programmers. Above all, the Mac allowed its human users to do that most intuitively human of actions: point with the hand at a target, and physically move it where you want it....

Finally, and more elusively, there is the matter of style. Hard to define but, as Louis Armstrong said: "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know."

-- Richard Dawkins remembers his first Mac, in today's UK Guardian.
Like everyone else, I'm keeping an eye on the Democratic primaries, hoping that one of those fellas will turn out to be a superhero & save the world. Via Seldo, I've discovered this nifty little online test, the Presidential Match, which supposedly compares my views on a range of issues to the views of the main candidates, then gives me compatibility scores. Wouldn't you know, I'm 100% compatible with Dennis Kucinich--yes, the odd but somehow endearing little man who doesn't eat meat & wants to establish a Department of Peace--& 12% compatible with George W. Bush.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

You can't get away from Cro Cro in today's newspapers. He's the chief topic of discussion among the Sunday columnists in the Express & the Guardian, & in the correspondence columns. Raoul Pantin is the most sensible of the bunch, recalling an old Eric Williams anecdote to put Cro Cro properly in his place.

For the sake of those readers blessedly unaware of Trinidad & Tobago's latest cultural controversy: the calypsonian Weston Rawlins, a.k.a. Cro Cro, has lately been performing a new song called "Facing Reality" (Keith Smith reproduces the lyrics in this column), which argues that corrupt politicians & shady businessmen ought to be punished by kidnapping, especially if they happen to be Indian, Syrian, white, homosexual, or members of the UNC. What makes this song so incendiary is the fact that for about a year now T&T has been assailed by a wave of kidnappings-for-ransom--at its height some months ago people were being snatched at the rate of almost one per day--which has boosted a sense of public insecurity & provoked much wailing about the Manning government's inability to deal with crime. It's been impossible not to notice that a majority of the kidnap victims have been Indian. Cro Cro seems to think that is as it should be.

He & his calypso have been condemned by a range of commentators; the general line is that his calypso encourages criminal activity. I hear that "Facing Reality" is well-received in the tent, but few people have publicly defended him. Selwyn Cudjoe is one of those few--in a letter to the editor published in last Friday's Express, he calls himself "one of Cro Cro's applauding constituents", & suggests that "Facing Reality" "deserves a thoughtful response". He goes on to argue that "Cro Cro's call is centred on the imperative demands for metanoia or conversion to God", & quotes the theologist Edward Schillebeeckx (what a name to drop!). I'd suspect Cudjoe of sarcasm if I weren't convinced he doesn't actually have a sense of humour.

"Facing Reality" is a despicable piece of work--probably racist, certainly homophobic, & otherwise in very poor taste (tastelessness is practically Cro Cro's trademark). But is it an "incitement to commit felony"? You can't be serious.

What's troubling about this song is not so much its possible consequences--no one will plan a kidnapping expressly because Cro Cro says so--but what it reveals about the state of mind of a not insignificant portion of the population. "Cro Cro's applauding constituents", whoever & however many they are, seem actually to believe that Trinidad & Tobago's problems are mostly the fault of a "Them" composed of Indians, Syrians, the relatively wealthy, & anyone who chooses not to vote PNM.

And it's not reassuring to read Clevon Raphael's interview with Michael Leggerton--the Mighty Protector, president of the Trinidad Unified Calypsonians Organisation & media relations officer at the Ministry of Culture--in today's Guardian. I won't link to it, because the Guardian's online archives are once again a disgraceful mess, but here's the gist of it: Leggerton refuses to make any kind of official statement on the Cro Cro controversy; suggests that the former UNC government intended to censor calypsonians ("We have no evidence but that was their intention. So who knows if they get back into government they may come back again after us"); & goes off on a semi-coherent rant about the evil "Them", personified by Basdeo Panday ("Have you been listening to some of the songs that they are singing on the predominantly East Indians [sic] radio stations? ... Because some of these songs we don’t understand what is being said.... I am not taking that from [Panday]. I am not taking that from him because they denigrate us in language that we don’t understand. So he coming and talking that crap").

Meanwhile, preaching at the PNM's 48th anniversary celebrations yesterday, Patrick Manning claimed that the press has a vendetta against him, that members of the party have a responsibility to defend the government, & that "it is the government's intention to ensure that you have the ammunition that you require to defend government policy". Substitute Panday for Manning, Rienzi Complex for Wrightson Road, & we might be back in 1998.

Manning also produced this little gem of political philosophy: "One of the reasons why a political party exists is to give support to the government that the party has put in office." It's rubbish like this--not the conspiracies of a mythical "Them"--that's responsible for the state we're in today.

Let the jackasses bray....