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....
Wayne Brown is following the US Democratic primaries with great excitement. A week ago he proclaimed that "even if Dean loses in Iowa, he seems set to take New Hampshire (despite Clark reportedly making inroads there) and then go on to convincing wins on Super Tuesday. And that may well be of critical importance for the world." In today's column, he reviews the post-Iowa competition, & seems to have switched his allegiance to John Edwards. (I'm disappointed, though, that Brown dismisses Joe Lieberman with a cheap little slur--"you can be sure he will never run out of money".)

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Happy birthday!
Today's UK Guardian runs an admiring & admirable profile of Robert Silvers, co-founder & co-editor of the New York Review of Books, full of superb anecdotes, including this one:

V.S. Naipaul was an early contributor as well as a subject of reviews. He was to become one of the most noted foreign correspondents, and the way he was nourished and encouraged is typical of Silvers' style.

In 1972, when Naipaul was on the island of Trinidad, he determined to go to Argentina, a country then deeply forgotten and unfashionable. He asked Silvers for help, and Silvers, without hesitation, borrowed Naipaul's air-fare from his friend Dudley, and sent him off. Naipaul left a wonderful description of Silvers' style in his account of a trip to Dallas, Texas. "He asked me in 1984 to go and write about the Republican convention. He thought it might be interesting for me to study the language politicians use. I was uncertain about the project; so I paid my own expenses. I thought at the end of the week that I couldn't do anything with what I had found. He was disappointed--he was almost wounded. He said: 'You've left a hole in the paper'; from his tone the hole might have been in his heart. There was no word of rebuke, though. He continued during the next week or so, after I had gone back to England, to send me books and articles and cuttings about the convention; we talked on the telephone. And I began to see that an article was possible if I wrote, not about the convention but about what had happened around it, the sideshows. Eventually, the article appeared. It really wouldn't have been possible without him."

This degree of tireless, sympathetic badgering is hardly normal in journalism. Yet Silvers, still proud of the piece, remembers the headline they gave it: "Among the Republicans", as it might be "Among the Nuer", or, in the title of Naipaul's travel book on Muslim fundamentalists, Among the Believers.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Of interest to Errol Hill admirers: Man Better Man is currently running in Montego Bay; Mervyn Morris reviews the production in today's Observer.
My friend Damien Smith seems to have temporarily abandoned indiawest, but lately has been blogging over at the revamped BonoboLand--most recently, about what he thinks will be the boringness of the future....

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Nor is Kincaid in any hurry to define herself as a post-colonial writer, and finds no connection with literary works of authors with Caribbean roots, such as V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys. "I had no idea that I was in this category. I remember a long time ago, in the early 80's after I published my first book, picking up a magazine in a bookstore that had something in it about colonial studies. It was an article by Edward Said, and there was my name among the post-colonial writers! I was very surprised. It seems to me that I only happen to be writing in this period of post-colonialism."

-- From an interview with Jamaica Kincaid in, of all places, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz--she's currently writer in residence at Tel Aviv University. (Naipaul would probably not be pleased to hear himself characterised as a "post-colonial writer ... with Caribbean roots", & Jean Rhys would have had no idea what "post-colonial" means.)

Meanwhile, Caryl Phillips is in Ghana, & Derek Walcott is heading to Scotland....

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The National Book Critics Circle has announced the nominees for its 2003 awards. Of interest to Caribbean readers: Caryl Phillips's novel A Distant Shore is nominated in the fiction category (just a couple weeks after winning the 2003 Nicholas Laughlin Book Award for fiction!).

(Of more personal interest: Scott McLemee of the Chronicle of Higher Education, who gave Letters from London such a pleasing review in BOOKFORUM a few months ago, is to receive the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.)

(Of entirely personal interest: apart from A Distant Shore, the only 2004 NBCC award nominee I've read, in any category, is Nick Hornby's Songbook (criticism).)

Monday, January 19, 2004

Yesterday the Sunday Times ran what looks like a longish feature on V.S. Naipaul, accompanied by a rare, early, unpublished short story ("Potatoes"). Sadly, you must pay for a subscription in order to read Times material online (bad). Happily, it seems Amit Roy has reworked the Times feature in today's Calcutta Telegraph--read Roy's intensely interesting article here. It describes the material Naipaul's biographer, Patrick French, has managed to uncover in the BBC's archives, dating back to the 1950s.

Some tidbits:

French discloses that Naipaul lodged his papers in a London warehouse in the 1970s when he first began to be talked about as a possible Nobel Prize winner.

"When he came to retrieve them a few years later they were gone, incinerated accidentally because of an administrative error," says French. "Anything not already in print had disappeared forever. Although this destruction may not match the burning of the library at Alexandria in its importance, it was a substantial literary loss"....

Realising that after leaving Oxford Naipaul had worked for Caribbean Voices, a BBC Colonial Service programme for aspiring writers from the West Indies, French delved into the corporation's archives, and struck it lucky. He jokes that the BBC, "like the Stasi (the Rumanian secret police), was good at record-keeping"....

Naipaul joined the BBC's Caribbean Voices, which offered a home to gifted West Indian writers. The disadvantage was that this also locked them into a racial ghetto, which frustrated Naipaul who had ambitions of becoming a writer of world renown.

"When Naipaul tried to get a traineeship in another part of the BBC, he was told that he would be unsuitable," it is revealed. "Up before an interview panel, he remembers, 'they were sniggering as I entered. I said I wanted to do some features, and they roared with laughter as though I had said I wanted to write the Bible'"....

By the early 1960s, his reputation had built up to such an extent that when the BBC offered him 80 guineas (a guinea was one pound and one shilling) for a script on India, his agent responded that "Mr Naipaul considers this offer an insult". The revised offer of 120 guineas was accepted. French adds that Naipaul had established he was "a tricky customer".

The Telegraph also publishes Naipaul's one & only poem, "Two Thirty A.M.", written when he was 18. (It isn't very good.)

French showed the lost poem to Naipaul a couple of months ago. "It was as if he had seen a ghost," says French. "Visibly moved, he said to me that 'Two Thirty A.M.' had been written at a time of childhood despair".

Sunday, January 18, 2004

During a distinguished lifetime of an almost priest-like devotion to English prose, he has been celebrated for three things: first, his extraordinary way with the English sentence; second, his inheritance of, and complex dialogue with, Joseph Conrad's vision; and third, an intense, admirable hoarding of himself, the rocket-fuel of his fiction....

He has also magically translated his singular personal history into a series of mesmerising novels while, like the greatest writers, contriving to float free from an over-identification with his material.

To those for whom these three aspects of Naipaul's life and work are as mysterious as they are enthralling, his latest volume of essays, from four decades of literary endeavour, splendidly edited and introduced by Pankaj Mishra, comes as a timely Enigma machine in the decoding of Naipaul's complex reports from the front line of his battles with existence.

-- From Robert McCrum's review of Naipaul's Literary Occasions in today's UK Observer.

Also in the Observer book pages: Stephanie Merritt's review of Loving Che, a novel by Ana Menéndez (reviewed last week by Timothy Peters in the San Francisco Chronicle).
Wayne Brown is a Deaniac!
Although a very important Guyanese poet, he is not among the major writers of the Caribbean. He is not rated as a great poet and is not a brilliant craftsman; neither is his prose found among the major statements in West Indian literary criticism. But the time and climate in which he did most of his work and the overall context in which it is to be placed most definitely elevate it.

The weight and importance of this volume then, is to be measured not only by the quality of the poems alone, but by what they reveal about the mind of a poet whose value extends far beyond poetry. It is the only substantial collection of the work of an extremely prolific writer, whose work has made a great contribution to West Indian literature.

-- Al Creighton reviews A.J. Seymour's Collected Poems 1937-1989 in his column in today's Stabroek News (never mind the book was published almost four years ago & is already out of print). I agree that Seymour "is not among the major writers of the Caribbean", if by this one means that he is not among the region's twenty or so most important writers, but I think rather more highly of Seymour's craft than Creighton does, & have argued that "Over Guiana, Clouds" is a landmark in the literature of the English-speaking Caribbean. This book is an essential text for anyone meaningfully interested in West Indian writing, & at the very least a definitive selected edition of Seymour's poetry ought to be kept in print permanently. (If some wise benefactor were ever to establish a Caribbean version of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade or the Library of America, Seymour ought to be one of the first authors included.)

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Missing Minshall

Well, Mr Minshall hasn't said that he is out of mas forever so I can't say it is the end of an era but I am going to miss him for more reasons than one. In fact I am going to miss him for a whole band of reasons, my band the Laventille Rhythm Section at wit's end over what we are going to do on Carnival Tuesday now that man for whom we have played since inception has put down, if only temporarily, his baton.

If, indeed, the move is permanent I don't see a single man or band on the Carnival horizon willing or able to take up that baton, all the bandleaders on the stage happy with the returns they get for celebrating the "body beautiful" whatever the skimpiness of costume used to afford the necessary exposure.

By the look of things we are in the minority here but there remains, well, a band of us wedded to the tradition that mas is, well, mas, that you entered the character whose costume you wore, that you were not in fact playing you but a sailor or an Indian or a helicopter pilot (complete with parachute) or a rat or a picoplat, all of which and more I have played.

As it is now, and has been often lamented, one mas, plus or minus a standard or two, is as superficial as the other, the question raised being which of these masses (masses? Nah, must be "mas" singular and plural too) will be remembered say, ten, twenty, thirty years from now, Sally's "Imperial Rome", "Holy War", Bailey's "Back to Africa," "Relics of Egypt", Lee Heung's "China, the Forbidden City," "Paradise Lost", "McWilliams' "The Wonders of Buccoo Reef", Berkeley's "Secrets of the Sky," "Genesis" to say nothing , of course, of Minshall's "Carnival of the Sea", "Jungle Fever" still dancing in mine and the public mind.

-- From Keith Smith's column in yesterday's Express.

Whether you like him or not, mas without Minshall is like callaloo without coconut milk--you can still make it but it just doesn't taste the same.

Forget the temperamental nature of the man, the last-minute costumes, the incomplete kings--remember instead the wings, the constructions that lived and breathed and moved, the reinvention of moko jumbies, the yards of fabric that transformed into pulsing, vibrant water. This is invention, innovation, masquerade--the individual becoming, for those two days, another entity, a vital part of something bigger than oneself.

As a child I watched mas on TV with my mother and whether Minshall came on at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m., we waited to see him. Now mas on TV constitutes little more than the red section, the blue section and the gold section.

-- From a letter written by "A Reader", published in today's Express.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

My stats counter tells me that for the last few days the most popular search term directing visitors to this blog has been "Peter Minshall 2004" (we're not talking about any great traffic here, of course--two dozen hits is for me an Olympian height). This is the post they've been heading to. The reason for the interest, I imagine, is that the news is spreading: Minshall announced last week that he won't be producing a band for this year's Carnival.

For maybe a decade now, those of us who prefer to experience Carnival as spectators have had only one big thing to look forward to: the latest Minshall presentation. The rest is a jumble of tired repetition--the same bikini-&-beads ensembles in a variety of colour schemes, almost every band indistinguishable from almost every other. This year we may as well all go to Tobago, or head for the North Coast. It would be a depressing situation, had one not already absorbed so much depression in recent years at what Carnival has become.

Here's the thing, though: I think Minshall has something up his sleeve. His love of dramatic statements is legendary. Could he even now be hunched over his drawing-board, envisioning some monumental surprise for his oblivious countrymen, a kind of guerilla mas, preparing to summon the Callaloo Company inner circle to a secret meeting? On Carnival Tuesday, after Legends & Poison & Harts have disappeared off the stage, as the sun goes down over the Savannah & the crowds realise they've seen nothing that day worth remembering--will Minshall then tear apart the veil, unleash something grander & happier & sadder & more alive than we can imagine, & once again, if only for a moment, save Carnival?

It seems to me he could do it with a gesture as simple as this: recreate From the Land of the Hummingbird, the landmark costume he designed for Sherry-Ann Guy in 1974. Prove without saying a word that a 30-year-old costume is more revolutionary than anything the Carnival capitalists can come up with in 2004. The Hummingbird was joy & beauty & motion--not a costume, but "the means for the human body to express its energy", as Minshall insists. Once, in an interview, he remembered the night 13-year-old Sherry-Ann played the Hummingbird on the Savannah stage before the packed stands. She started to dance. "Ten thousand people exploded with her." We need another explosion like that.
... celebrity delegates who did not turn up were listed anyway, press briefings were cancelled 20 minutes after they were scheduled to begin. And if there was information that you were seeking, you did well not to bother asking. Facts and figures rolled out slow, but there were any number of people offering sanctimonious advice instead on how to do your job.

Sample: To an innocuous query on why V.S. Naipaul, listed as a confirmed delegate, didn't turn up, a shocked official said: "This is about other pravasis . Why should it matter if a few VIPs don't turn up?" Sound logic to that actually, save one couldn't understand the pique.

-- From a political diary piece in today's Times of India.

There was a noticeable drop in the number of delegates for this year's PBD. What was more revealing was the fact that several big names from the Indian Diaspora skipped the meet though some of them were in India itself. Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor and Amartya Sen were in India but they all stayed away. V.S. Naipaul, whose participation was being touted as a coup by the organisers, also stayed away.

-- From an article on

All over the subcontinent, journalists & leader writers are making a big deal of the fact that a number of high-profile invitees have stayed away from the 2004 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, & for some reason Naipaul is the one they get most worked up about.

Monday, January 12, 2004

I've just discovered (via Jessa Crispin) that Nat Hentoff has been writing a series of op-ed pieces (one, two, three, four) in the Village Voice about the ten independent librarians imprisoned in Cuba last year as part of Castro's crackdown on his political opponents. Hentoff promises to continue his scrutiny in coming weeks.

Also: it's two years now since the US government began using its naval base at Guantanamo Bay as a detention camp for what it calls "unlawful enemy combatants". Human Rights Watch has issued a report called Guantanamo Two Years On:

Since January 11, 2002, the U.S. government has sent over seven hundred people picked up from around the world to Guantanamo. Currently some 660 are in detention, including an undisclosed number of children. As the detention camp begins its third year, the public still does not know who the detainees are, what they have allegedly done, and whether and when they will be charged with crimes or released. There have been no hearings to determine the legal status of detainees and no judicial review—in short, no legal process at all.
What Delighteth Me

A carnival of senses counted most:
it was drinking with the boys,
the marking down of women for pursuit,
games of skill fought out on sunny courts,
the blaze of action in limbs or groin.
Tethered down at rest was like life lost,
passing time was ill spent with no company,
the itch of other people I had to scratch.
Candles guttering, dead flies in our wine-cups.

What a pleasure it is now
opening a new book I have wanted,
alone in a chair that fits my back,
anticipating delight, fingers cracking the pages,
the first sentences making the mind water,
no debts or business till tomorrow comes.
This is better than I ever thought:
pleasures quiet down, they simplify.

-- From "Middle Age", a four-part poem in Between Silence and Silence, Ian McDonald's sad, wise, illuminating new book.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

I wonder what provoked Wayne Brown's odd column in today's J'ca Observer--in which he interweaves personal anecdotes and a few cheap shots at a certain section of the Trinidadian lower-middle class, leading up to this question:

How come not a single member of the Trinidadian diplomatic service, not one, has ever been expelled from anywhere "for spying"?

Saturday, January 10, 2004

In many ways it is as if Naipaul cannot get over having left Trinidad in the first place, or having managed to stay afloat through all the years of struggle in London while he was establishing himself as a writer. The hard-won success that followed is not nearly as mysterious to him: it was worked for; it was earned. And this is clearly a matter of fierce pride. In book after book, Naipaul is described as having "followed no other profession" than that of writer (at least one unhappy stint in the academy notwithstanding). The essays in this volume go a long way toward explaining this pride and this refusal.

-- From Lynn Freed's review of V.S. Naipaul's Literary Occasions (winner of the 2003 Nicholas Laughlin Book Award for general non-fiction!) in tomorrow's NY Times Book Review (like most NY Times online content, you'll have to pay to read this after about a week).

Meanwhile, the Indian press is wondering why Sir Vidia hasn't shown up for the 2004 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, currently underway in New Delhi:

The acerbic Nobel laureate, who with his wife, had quite stolen the thunder at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2003, was listed as a confirmed delegate at PBD 2004, and in fact, was to have been a panelist at the very first plenary. His name figured prominently in the programme circulated on Friday morning. But Naipaul just wasn’t there.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Connect the dots: today the T'dad Guardian reports that Peter Minshall has decided not to design a band for Carnival 2004 (no link to the story, because the Guardian online archives are but a fairy tale):

Yesterday, Minshall's good friend, MacDonald "Mac" Ward, said he was disappointed with Minshall's decision, but added that a combination of issues led the veteran masman to take such a position.

He said one of Minshall's biggest grouses, and which probably weighed heavily in his making the decision, was the judging system.

Ward said Minshall found it difficult to understand how penalties are weighed against art....

He said Minshall was not happy about the quality of costume design in recent years.

Ward said all these issues led to Minshall deciding he should take a rest from Carnival this year.

Then, on the front page of the Guardian features section, Peter Ray Blood writes about Poison's 2004 band Retromania--specifically, about an "all-inclusive" section produced by Island Events & designed by Peter Elias, called "Jungle Fever":

Comprising renowned designer Peter Elias, Michael Khan, Jason Alcantara and Douglas Gordon, has turned to the genius of celebrated mas man Peter Minshall for inspiration.

Elias explains: "Because Posion's theme is Retromania, as required, I went back to the past. One of my most memorable images since my youth was Peter Minshall's presentation of 'Jungle Fever,' which I remember telling my mom then how much I loved it. It was not difficult to select this as our theme as it was the first thing that came to mind."

Elias said because the section is a tribute to Minshall, "a staunch critic of modern-day mas, especially the two-piece bikinis with sequins and beads," he and his colleagues tried to come up with a costume that would compliment Minshall’s mas aesthetic.

Please note what Elias says: his "Jungle Fever" is meant as a tribute to Minshall, who is "a staunch critic of modern-day mas ... the two-piece bikinis with sequins and beads"; Elias has "tried to come up with a costume that would compliment Minshall’s mas aesthetic". Then glance at the photographs accompanying the article, which depict a series of healthy young people modelling Elias's "Jungle Fever" designs. The costumes consist of bikinis (with optional shorts for the men), sequins, beads, & a token feather or two.

Just in case the point is not entirely clear: as a tribute to Minshall, the man who is arguably the greatest artist in the history of Trinidad Carnival, Elias & his associates have created a series of costumes that embody to the last square inch of spandex exactly what Minshall has spent his career battling against.

Since they're clearly too obtuse to realise it on their own, could someone please tell Messrs. Elias, Khan, Alcantara, & Gordon that they owe Peter Minshall an apology? They'll make a tidy profit from their handiwork, which on Ash Wednesday is all that will matter. Keep Minshall's name out of it. He deserves far more respect.

Monday, January 05, 2004

I walked around near the lovely old Hotel Santa Isabel, where we were staying, and a few blocks away sat down on a park bench facing the pleasantly meager traffic on the Malecón, the broad road around the harbor. Presently, two guys showed up and sat beside me, deep in discussion. They were exceedingly thin, neither had socks, one wore cracked shoes and the other disintegrating sandals, their shirts were washed and unironed with shredded collars, they were both in need of a shave. They had a way of sitting crouched over crossed knees while sucking on cigarettes and staring at the flowing away of time as they talked, reminding me of street people in New York, Paris, London. A taxi pulled up to the curb in front of us and a lovely young woman stepped out.

She was carrying two brown paper bags full of groceries. Both men stopped talking to gape at her. I saw now that she was beautiful and tastefully dressed and, more noticeable in this proletarian place, was wearing high heels. One white tulip arched up from one of the bags and drooped down from its long slender stem. The woman was juggling the bags to get her money purse open, and the tulip was waving dangerously close to snapping its stem. One of the men got up and took hold of one of the bags to steady it, while the other joined him to steady the other bag, and I wondered if they were about to grab the bags and run.

Instead, as the woman paid the driver, one of them gently, with the most tender care, held the tulip stem between forefinger and thumb until she could get the bags secured in her arms. She thanked them--not effusively but with a certain formal dignity, and walked off. Both men returned to the bench and their avid discussion. I'm not quite sure why, but I thought this transaction remarkable. It was not only the gallantry of these impoverished men that was impressive, but that the woman seemed to regard it as her due and not at all extraordinary. Needless to say, she offered no tip, nor did they seem to expect any, her comparative wealth notwithstanding.

-- From Arthur Miller's essay "A Visit with Castro", describing a trip to Cuba in March 2000, published in the January 12 Nation (via the Literary Saloon).

And while on the subject: Foreign Affairs has published an early review of Alma Guillermoprieto's memoir Dancing with Cuba.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

I'm pleased this afternoon to announce the second annual Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards, for Caribbean books (i.e. books written by Caribbean authors, set in the Caribbean, or otherwise of particular Caribbean interest) published in 2003. (Read about last year's awards here.)

Once again: my sole qualification as chief judge is the fact that, for professional reasons, I try my best to keep up-to-date with Caribbean literary affairs; I receive on average three or four new Caribbean books each week, & read (or at least flip through) everything that seems even mildly interesting. (I seem to have read rather less than usual over the last twelve months, but perhaps it's merely that what I've been reading has been largely unmemorable.) My personal opinion is the only criterion for the awards, which are restricted to books published in English, since I don't read Spanish, French, Dutch, or anything else. Omissions due to poor memory are entirely possible. Here are the winners, arranged by category:

Fiction: Caryl Phillips was born in St. Kitts, hence his novel A Distant Shore qualifies for this award (the story has nothing to do with the Caribbean), & wins.

Poetry: M.G. Smith's In the Kingdom of Light: Collected Poems, ed. Wayne Brown, is an important book, an opportunity to assess the work of an influential post-war poet, but it is largely a collection of juvenilia (Smith abandoned the writing of poetry when he was 24, & he was no Keats). It is runner-up to Vahni Capildeo's No Traveller Returns, a difficult but rewarding first collection by a young writer & scholar of whom, I suggest, you take note.

Drama: After Mrs. Rochester (a dramatisation of the life of Jean Rhys), by Polly Teale.

Biography or autobiography: Waiting for Snow in Havana, by Carlos Eire (the National Book Award judges agreed with me on this one. Read my review here).

Other non-fiction: Literary Occasions, by V.S. Naipaul, ed. Pankaj Mishra. Yes, this volume merely collects previously published essays. Yes, it tells the same story over & over again: the long-familiar tale of Naipaul's early life, the awakening of his literary ambitions, his search for subject matter, the trials of young writerhood, etc. etc. Some reviewers have found this book tired, if not tiresome. ("A piece of elegant repackaging," wrote my colleague Jeremy Taylor.) And, yes, I myself was irritated by its predecessor volume, The Writer and the World. But Literary Occasions surprised me. Juxtaposed like this, its half-dozen autobiographical essays seem more, not less, intriguing. The entire sequence seems not the symptom of deluded self-obsession, but a genuine & scrupulous attempt at self-understanding, the focus changing in subtle and unsubtle ways with each version.

And a new category:

Anthology: At Home the Green Remains: Caribbean Writing in Honour of John Figueroa, ed. Esther Figueroa.

Addendum: On the whole, I got more pleasure in 2003 from old books than from new. Of the new (non-Caribbean) books I did read, the best were Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches (his best novel since Room Temperature--I didn't much like Vox, The Fermata, or Nory, & I'm still waiting for him to come up with something else as insanely wonderful as U and I); & Denis Donoghue's highly stimulating Speaking of Beauty. I liked Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved, Adam Thirlwell's Politics, & Geoff Dyer's Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It well enough. I seem to have read no new poetry. I read none of the year's must-read titles (Brick Lane, Vernon God Little, etc.). I read Ian McEwan's beautiful Atonement about a year after everyone else, & wondered why I'd waited. But I came across nothing as life-changingly brilliant as, say, 2002's Everything Is Illuminated. Let's hope 2004 is a better reading year, if nothing else. And do email & let me know if there's anything worthwhile I missed in 2003. I'd never have read Atonement had it not been literally thrust upon me by an enthusiast.

Thursday, January 01, 2004

From our reading:

"Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken.... Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe."

— From chapter XII of Howards End, my favourite Forster novel, which once again is helping me make the imaginary transition from old year to new.