Monday, January 30, 2006

Yesterday morning. As sometimes happens on a Sunday, I'm at the office, slowly reading page proofs--the magazine goes to bed in three days. The phone rings. It's Georgia.

"You're volunteering to build costumes for Minshall."

Front-page headline that morning: "Minshall coming with 'The Sacred Heart' for Carnival".

She wasn't asking a question, but I give an answer. "Yes." Then: "Where are you?"

"Down at Callaloo Company."

Dammit, why am I at the office & not in Chaguaramas?

Everyone had been hearing rumours for weeks. He's bringing a band, no, he's not bringing a band. We heard the rumours last year too. But this year, surely, with his big retrospective opening in Rotterdam in June, he'd be too distracted to think about Carnival? The question kept coming up. Someone must know for sure. Then the Saturday Guardian: a reporter finally asks him point-blank. "As far as I know, that information is true."

Minshall in 2006.

Two years ago, I made a promise to myself. 2004 was the first time in, what, thirty years, that there was no Minshall. I suddenly realised I didn't want to go to my grave having lived in the Age of Minshall & never having played with his band. I've never--this is an awful thing for a 30-year-old Trinidadian to confess--I've never played mas. I've never put on a costume & joined a band. I've always thought of myself as a watcher, a looker-on, an observer. I could have played in Song of the Earth or Tapestry, & I didn't. I looked on, & that's important too, someone has to be looking. But I made this promise to myself: if Minshall ever brings out another band, I have to be in it.

Last year--o God--last year I played J'Ouvert for the first time. Last year, I thought, was the year that everything changed.

Maybe every year is the year that everything changes.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Saturday, January 14, 2006

My longtime readers--the one or two of you who've been following this blog's three-quarter-hearted progress since October 2002--may recall that at the turn of the last three new years I've announced the part serious, part joking 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 the previous twelve months. I managed to be fairly comprehensive in my 2002 and 2003 versions, but 2004 was patchy--I was forced to admit that I seemed to have read less than usual that year, & I reduced the categories to two, fiction & poetry.

I almost didn't bother with the whole exercise this year. As more & more books arrive in the post & pile up on the floor of my office--the capacity of the bookshelves has long been exceeded--I seem to have less & less time for the fundamental activity of reading, & I worry that this trend is simply a by-process of growing older & so will not be reversed anytime soon.

[Pause for lengthy quotation: "... it would not be hard to prove by an assembly of facts that the great season for reading is the season between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. The bare list of what is read then fills the heart of older people with despair. It is not only that we read so many books, but that we had such books to read.... For the first time, perhaps, all restrictions have been removed, we can read what we like; libraries are at our command.... For days upon end we do nothing but read. It is a time of extraordinary excitement and exaltation. We seem to rush about recognising heroes." --Virginia Woolf, "Hours in a Library", in vol. 2 of the McNeillie edition of The Essays]

Further: perhaps I blinked a few times too many as I trudged the year's shore, but the Sargasso Sea of Caribbean literature didn't seem to throw up many remarkable treasures in 2005. (See my colleague Jeremy Taylor's similar lament in this mini-essay in the Caribbean Beat blog.) The biggest disappointment, perhaps, was the new Robert Antoni novel, Carnival--I spent weeks trying to convince myself I'd just missed the point, not spotted the key. Some new novels by writers I won't name here proved literally unreadable--I couldn't get more than a few pages in. It may be that as I get older--& subconsciously do the daily arithmetic of How Much Time Is Left--my tolerance for less-than-life-changing books dwindles. Also I seem to have slipped past some boundary into the Age of Rereading--I'd rather settle down with a Forster I've read six times already than tackle a new novel, almost any day.

Further yet: as my one or two regular readers know, 2005 was for me the Year of Guyana, and much of my reading time was occupied with the study of the classic Guyana texts. I reread Naipaul's Middle Passage and Salkey's Georgetown Journal in preparation for my first trip to Guyana last February, & soon after my return home plunged into Evelyn Waugh's Ninety-two Days, Waterton's Wanderings, & Pauline Melville's wonderful novel The Ventriloquist's Tale, which I somehow had managed never to read before. I re-read Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock twice--the first time I was no better for it, the second time I found the lovely line "the map of the savannahs was a dream", which for a while I adopted as the working title of my own Guyana Project. On a second-hand book stall on the south bank of the Thames I stumbled providentially on an old orange Penguin edition of Nicholas Guppy's Wai-Wai. I reread Charlotte Williams's Sugar and Slate, persevered through her father Denis Williams's abstruse Prehistoric Guiana, was defeated by the leaden prose of Vincent Roth's journals, read Cheddi Jagan's West on Trial at high speed, kept going back to Naipaul (V.S.), checked out Naipaul (S.)'s Jonestown, reread my Carter & Seymour, read any amount of reference material, realising, the more I read, how little I knew. It's a wonder, thinking over it now, that I had time to read anything else at all.

All this digression in order to explain the thinness of my 2005 awards list.

As always: the sole justification for these awards is self-indulgence. My sole qualification as chief judge: for professional reasons I try my best to keep up-to-date with new Caribbean books; I read--or at least flip through--most of the review titles that cross my desk. My personal opinion is the only criterion for the awards, which are restricted to books published in English. Omissions due to poor memory are inevitable. In previous years I named winners in certain categories, but my reading this last year hasn't been methodical enough for that.

The 2005 Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards go to:

Thank God It's Friday, by B.C. Pires, a collection of B.C.'s newspaper columns spanning fifteen years: inconsistent & sometimes annoying (which is always part of the fun with B.C., though), but at its finer moments a funny, wise, moving book that says more about life in Trinidad in the last decade & a half than pretty much any novel I've read. (Read my review here.)

"One Scattered Skeleton", by Vahni Capildeo, a forthcoming memoir by a thrilling young Trinidadian writer, which I'm lucky enough to have read two versions of in manuscript (the rules, strictly speaking, don't say only published books qualify!), & of which I published an excerpt in the November 2005 issue of The Caribbean Review of Books, under the title "Say If You Have Some Place in Mind". This is the first book I've come across that truly captures the Trinidad I grew up in, the Trinidad of the late 1970s and 1980s, of middle-class childhood in & around Port of Spain--& with wit & steely honesty & verbal acrobatics.

Sweetening "Bitter Sugar": Jock Campbell, the Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934-1966, by Clem Seecharan, a major study both of Campbell & of Guyanese politics in the three decades before independence. Not without its biases, but massively researched, appropriately thought-provking, & cleanly written--no small virtue in this age of unreadable scholarship.

I've never included art books before--i.e. those with predominantly pictorial content--but one of the most striking books I came across last year was Moko Jumbie: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad, a resplendent volume of images by NY-based German photographer Stefan Falke, who's been visiting Trinidad & shooting Carnival for close to twenty years. Two hundred photos of young moko jumbies (costumed stilt-walkers, for non-Trini readers who don't know the term) from the Kilimanjaro School of Arts and Culture--learning, practising, mastering the art of the stilts, and finally lording it over the streets during Carnival--"making to become gods", Keith Smith put it, in his review in the February 2005 CRB.

And now for the hon. mentions--all books that I particularly enjoyed or found very useful & which have a permanent place on my bookshelves: Olive Senior's Over the Roofs of the World; The Angel Horn: Collected Poems, by Shake Keane; The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse, ed. Stewart Brown & Mark McWatt; My Jamaica: The Paintings of Judy Ann MacMillan; and Making West Indian Literature, by Mervyn Morris.

Fiction is completely missing from the above lists, but I should say that there are two promising-looking books I haven't yet got around to reading that may find themselves awarded or hon.-mentioned at some point in the future: The Godmother and Other Stories, by Jan Lowe Shinebourne, and John Crow's Devil, by Marlon James.

Addendum: I haven't updated it since October, but for an extended list of my 2005 reading with some brief annotations, you can always glance at my life list. I was disappointed by the two books I'd most looked forward to last year, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I waited far too long--or exactly long enough?--to read Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. As usual, the poets who saw me though the year were Yeats, Hughes, Walcott, Heaney. Funniest book I read last year was Malcolm Bradbury's Unsent Letters. In 2006 I must try to read more funny books.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Lordy, another iron to keep in the fire: I'm now a Global Voices author, thanks to Caribbean editor Georgia, & my first post just went up: ambitiously titled 11 key moments in [Anglo-]Caribbean blog history.
I reason with myself about my own confusion on the subject and come to a conclusion that the reason we find this Caribbeing question so unanswerable is that most Caribbean people are fighting a three way battle. We are Trini to the bone. We are Chinese, Indian, African. On every island we have begun carving ourselves into ever smaller denominations that no-one has the energy to consider how we feel about the Caribbean.

It's now self we have to ask ourselves this question and try to
puzzle through a solution.

--Attillah Springer on "what 'Caribbean' means".

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I should have quoted this in my "what 'Caribbean' means" post night before last--the opening paragraph of Lloyd Best's landmark essay "Independent Thought and Caribbean Freedom", published in 1971, four years before I drew breath, and still astonishingly relevant to the region:

When we think of the Caribbean we have in mind a canvas larger than that usually found in the gallery of the colonial mind. Certainly it includes the Antilles--Greater and Lesser--and the Guyanas. These together form the heartland of the system which it is our expressed purpose to change. But many times the Caribbean also includes the littoral that surrounds our sea. Admittedly, it is an extensive shore. And the contours which may be taken to mark it off are still--to an uncomfortable degree--a matter of personal taste. Yet our choice of boundaries is not, for that fact, baseless. For what we are trying to encompass within our scheme is the cultural, social, political and economic foundations of the "sugar plantation" variant of the colonial mind. Hence we sometimes include Carolina and Caracas with Kingston and Chacachacare, Corentyne and Camaguey; Recife with Paramaribo, Port of Spain and Pointe-a-Pitre; and British Honduras [now Belize] with Blanchisseuse and Barranquitas.
Astonishing report in today's Stabroek News about a human cloning experiment conducted in Guyana in the early 1970s, which finally explains "the largest mystery of the Jagdeo presidency".

Luncheon ... started work at a small laboratory at Unity, Mahaica in the early 1970s, collecting the embryos from several healthy mothers. His cloning process was admittedly crude and involved using a pair of tweezers and a coconut pointer. For several months he had no success. But then one night he accidentally braced a live wire while working on a particular petri-dish and a surge of electricity resulted in "a successful duplicatory process" to the point of creating 12 separate but exactly similar embryos.

They were quickly inserted into the wombs of twelve cows at a special division of the National Agricultural Research Institute under the supervision of a young Dr Odo Homezero. Nine months later the babies were successfully birthed with Professor Dr Luncheon in attendance.

He kept the project top secret not even informing the PPP central committee, and for the next 18 years he personally wet nursed the 12 infants with the milk of Marxist concepts.

At that point the genius of what until then had been a purely scientific experiment became apparent. Not only was this a project to clone the first human, Professor Dr Luncheon wanted to clone the first politician.

Meanwhile, on the heels of this devastating revelation, a report has surfaced that a similar experiment was attempted even earlier in Trinidad, approved by Dr. Williams himself, under the code name Project for the Advancement of Trinidadian Operational Sycophancy. However, it was a near-complete failure, as the twelve P.A.T.O.S clones, though born in possession of the most endearing dimples, were every one of them missing crucial components of the brain required for rational thought. Dr. Williams ordered their destruction in the interests of national security, but unknown to him one P.A.T.O.S. clone survived, and was reared by a shadowy PNM cabal in a cave in Cumuto. It is not known if this clone survived to adulthood, & if so whether he has managed to achieve any sort of public role. Questioned about the P.A.T.O.S. allegations by reporters at a press conference this morning, Prime Minister Patrick Manning appeared to be struck dumb & turned a peculiar shade of purple. He was hurried away from the microphone by his wife Hazel & energy minister-to-be Lenny Saith, who was heard to whisper into the PM's ear, "It's all right, we'll get you safely back to the pod."

Monday, January 09, 2006

What does "Caribbean" mean? What a vast weight of confusion & possibility & debate those four little syllables have to bear. Is "Caribbean" a geographical region defined by proximity to a body of water, by insularity (in the literal sense), by lines of latitude? Is it a group of nations or proto-nations defined by a common history or culture, or by political links? Is it an aspiration, an attitude, an illusion? Is it a definition--&, if so, is it defined by presence or absence, positive or negative?

My brain has been picking away at this knot of questions lately as I try to complete an essay for the Guyana Arts Journal tentatively titled "What 'Caribbean' Can Mean"--an essay, actually, about Caribbean Beat (one of the magazines I edit) & how it shapes & is shaped by evolving notions of Caribbean identity (i.e. another grand ratch). And, as it happens, two ostensibly unrelated blog posts I've read today seem pertinent.

First, Oso, a.k.a. Global Voices Americas editor David Sasaki, announced that Georgia has been added to the roster of Global Voices editors, with responsibility for the Caribbean--the only trouble being that they can't quite agree on which countries, for GV purposes, are Caribbean & which aren't:

You'd think it'd be easy enough. It's not. For example, with great diplomacy we arrived at the agreement that she would cover Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.... She had also convinced me to hand over Belize and Guyana ... but then I started to question ... am I getting taken advantage of here?

Sure, Belize, Guyana, they speak English. They're part of CARICOM. They have "Caribbean culture," whatever that means. But if those are our criteria, then shouldn't Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic be part of Latin America?

Oso then asked his readers for input, & the comments began flooding in (well, there were a dozen last time I checked). Many actually focused on the question of whether Mexico ought to be considered North American or Central American--a debate in which I remain studiously neutral. But I put in a claim for what I consider a broad but not unduly broad definition of "Caribbean"--incidentally, the same rule-of-thumb definition I use in my professional life--including the Spanish-speaking islands as well as Belize, Guyana--& Suriname & French Guiana. (A definition I suspect most people in the Anglophone Caribbean would agree with, but how about the other language groups?) Of course, for immediate purposes, Oso & Georgia & the GV administrators will come to some kind of compromise, & the wider question is in no danger of being answered any time soon.

Then this: in the course of a rambling post about quality of life, sustainable development, & other concerns, Taran mentioned the phenomenon that some call brain drain & others call the diaspora:

Sir Isaac Newton once said that if he saw further, he could because he stood on the shoulders of giants. But to stand on those shoulders, one must have giants. While I could focus on the lack of a public domain to lend shoulders to the Caribbean, or other Global Challenges of the Caribbean, the real issue is that the Caribbean doesn't grow giants - it exports them.

Forcefully put, & undeniably the emigration of many of our best & brightest continues to be a major problem for the region--a problem I'm super-aware of, as a citizen who has made a conscious decision to stay, while I watch friends, colleagues, & old schoolmates head off for colder, richer, more developed places. (Just last Friday night I was at a farewell party for a friend who's migrating to New Zealand.) But--with all the above convolutions in mind, with the concept of "Caribbeanness" appearing more fluid the closer I scrutinise it--I wonder if a shift in perspective might not be helpful.

What if we managed to look at this outward movement not entirely as a loss, but also as a gain? Remember Louise Bennett's phrase for the migration of the Windrush generation: "colonisation in reverse". What if we managed to convince ourselves that were aren't losing our bright young people--we're sending them off to centres of power to represent us, to spread the messages of our culture & in turn transmit to us certain tangible & intangible commodities (ideas, remittances)? What if, further, we noticed that it's not just colonisation in reverse that's going on, but also a new form of creolisation, as elements of an already hybrid Caribbean culture go forth to negotiate with other (already hybrid) cultures to create new & unpredictable hybrids? But of course these aren't abstract notions, but descriptions of what's already happening.

Even further: what if we stretch our definition of "Caribbean" just a little more, & decide that those northern cities with major concentrations of Caribbean immigrants, like New York, London, Toronto, Miami, are thus distinctly Caribbean places, some neighbourhoods more than others--& since the geographical Caribbean is already so vague that the status of whole countries is in doubt, why not circle those aforenamed cities on the map too? (Half of London is built on West Indian sugar capital anyway, & New York started out as a trading port valuable for its sea links to Bridgetown and Port Royal.)

So, in summary, & before I get carried away into even dizzier convolutions of cultural idealism or syntax, I propose we consider that: 1. a Caribbean person is any person who thinks he or she is Caribbean, & 2. a Caribbean place is a place where a Caribbean person lives, & the more Caribbean people that live in a place, the more Caribbean it is. Which would make Flatbush more Caribbean than most islands of the Lesser Antilles, but we'll leave that quibble for another night.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

From today's J'ca Observer:

MATTERS relating to Cricket World Cup (CWC) 2007 yesterday received priority attention at the three-day Cabinet retreat currently underway at Couples Sans Souci Resort and Spa in White River, St Mary....

The Cabinet looked at security matters relating to CWC on Thursday and followed up yesterday with discussions on other matters relating to the event.

Good to know the key members of the J'can government are spending quality time together--at a "luxury all-inclusive, boutique-style, couples-only resort".

Rediscover the passion and connection that first brought you together. Rediscover one another at Couples Resorts.

Surely I'm not the only one wondering how they paired off?

One love indeed.

Friday, January 06, 2006

2005 at a glance

Or, a squib for posterity

Key adjectives: restless, anxious, hopeful, grateful, tired
Published words (print): approx. 34,000
Published words (online): approx. 32,000 (but this includes vast chunks of quoted text in blog posts)
Months in which I did not blog: May, August
Months in which I blogged most: October, November
Emails written: approx. 5,000
Emails received (excl. junk): approx. 6,500
Photos taken: 955
Major authors: V.S. Naipaul, W.G. Sebald, Bruce Chatwin, Ted Hughes, John Berryman
Major texts: Naipaul, The Middle Passage; N. Guppy, Wai-Wai; E. Waugh, Ninety-two Days; Chatwin, Songlines & In Patagonia; P. Melville, The Ventriloquist's Tale; A. Salkey, Georgetown Journal; D. Williams, Prehistoric Guiana; N. Baker, U & I
Major literary pilgrimage: visit to Yeats's grave, Drumcliff, Co. Sligo, 26 April
Books read (at least two thirds of): approx. 60
Soundtrack: Elvis Costello (My Aim Is True, This Year's Model), the Pixies (Doolittle, Surfer Rosa), the Beatles ("You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"), jointpop ("King Radio", "After Half Past Nine", "The Water Supreme" etc.)
Best movie: Rules of the Game (J. Renoir), StudioFilmClub, 2 February
Best live musical performances: 3Canal, 17 June; jointpop, 5 November; 12 the Band, 30 December
Months abroad: 3
Countries visited: 7
Modes of transport: airplane, car, Land Rover, speedboat, horse, train, bus, canoe, motorbike, feet
Airplane flights: 17
Furthest point south: Boa Vista, Brazil
Furthest point west: Minneapolis, USA
Furthest point north: Cambridge, UK
Furthest point east: Florence, Italy
Most useful foreign language phrase learned: "Posso avere un gelato di pesca, per favore?"
Best meal: Cafe Paradiso, Cork, Ireland, 28 April
Most visited restaurant: Giuliano's, Abercromby Street, Port of Spain
Strange beds slept in: 24
Mountains ascended: 2
Major rivers crossed: 9
Most visited beach: Macqueripe
Key purchases: Wai-Wai seed necklace (Amerindian Craft Centre, Princess Street, Georgetown); maps of Guyana (Stanfords, Longacre, London; Lands & Surveys Commission, Durban Backlands, Georgetown); camera (Amazon); 12-inch PowerBook (Amazon); stylish but practical moleskine notebooks (Foyle's, Charing Cross Road, London); Diego Martin t-shirt (3Canal, Ariapita Avenue, Port of Spain)
I still do not own: a car, real estate, a mobile phone
Dark nights of the soul: 24 May, 16 July, 5 August, 27 August
Moments of grace: 7 February, 18 May, 25 May, 3 September, 5 November, 16 November
Most unexpected good thing: J'Ouvert
Encounters with important people from my past who I hadn't seen in over seven years: 2
Major encounter with sacred monster: tea with V.S. Naipaul, 25 May
New pets: 0
Cups of coffee: approx. 400
Cups of tea: approx. 1,000
Gin gimlets: 1
Nights I didn't get to bed till 4 a.m.: 3
Average bedtime: midnight
Average wake-up time: 8 a.m.
Nights I felt I didn't get enough sleep: approx. 350
Unofficial motto: No time to waste