Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Re: trinidad and tobago abstention in UN human rights vote

Sent: Wednesday 22 December, 2010, 1.08 pm

Hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs
Dr. Surujrattan Rambachan

Dear Minister Rambachan,

I am writing to register my profound disappointment and indeed anger at Trinidad and Tobago's abstention in an important human rights vote in the United Nations General Assembly yesterday.

As you must be aware, on 21 December, 2010, the UN General Assembly voted on an important amendment to a resolution condemning extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. This amendment, as described in UN document A/65/L.53, restores a reference to sexual orientation in the list of groups of people particularly targeted in extrajudicial killings. It recognises that in many parts of the world people are under extraordinary threat of violence because of their sexual orientation, and urges UN members to take necessary legal and judicial measures to protect all citizens.

The amendment was passed by the General Assembly by a vote of 93 to 55, with 27 abstentions. Trinidad and Tobago was one of the abstaining nations.

As a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, I am deeply disturbed that my country failed in its responsibility to take a stand on this very basic question of human rights.

I would like to believe that the government of Trinidad and Tobago is committed to creating a safer and more just and tolerant society for all citizens. Yesterday's abstention forces me to question that commitment. I hope you will take the time to respond to this email and explain this very disappointing decision.

Yours faithfully,

Nicholas Laughlin
Diego Martin

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The perils of foreign travel

He goes to a Russian tragedy in five acts by mistake....

— Lydia Davis, “Lord Royston’s Tour”.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

It took me so long to realise

There are too many poems in the world, and not enough poetry.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

“It was going to be extraordinary”

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green colour-blind. “Blue is the richest colour for me — I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?

— Zadie Smith, reviewing The Social Network, dir. David Fincher, and You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier, in the New York Review of Books.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Plot and character


There is an important parodic strain that runs through most of my favorite English writers: Swift, Sterne, even Lewis Carroll. In fact, the three could be said to have written a single book, with chapters called A Tale of a Tub, Sentimental Journey, and Sylvie and Bruno. Their remote ancestor is the Satyricon, with which they share a will to fragmentation and black humour.


None seems terribly concerned with plot, or, for that matter, character.


I don’t know what plot and character are. Dickens created all possible (and impossible) characters, so that takes care of character. And plot, for me, belongs in mystery stories and movies. I am concerned with literary space, which is language, and not literary time. When we talk about character, we inevitably drift toward psychology: Choderlos Laclos was the first and the last to use it properly.

Guillermo Cabrera Infante, interviewed by Alfred MacAdam in Paris Review, Spring 1983.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Repent it, acrobat.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I do not know why yet I live to say, “This thing’s to do”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Next best thing

“The next best thing to having your stuff burned, if you’re ambivalent, is giving it to some guy who gives it to some lady who gives it to her daughters who keep it in an apartment full of cats, right?”

— From Elif Batuman’s article “Kafka’s Last Trial”, in the New York Times Magazine.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Meaning yes, message no


When you say that sometimes you think your poetry is weird, what do you mean exactly?


Every once in a while I will pick up a page and it has something, but what is it? It seems so unlike what poetry “as we know it” is. But at other moments I feel very much at home with it. It’s a question of a sudden feeling of unsureness at what I am doing, wondering why I am writing the way I am, and also not feeling the urge to write in another way.


Is the issue of meaning or message something that is uppermost in your mind when you write?


Meaning yes, but message no. I think my poems mean what they say, and whatever might be implicit within a particular passage, but there is no message, nothing I want to tell the world particularly except what I am thinking when I am writing.

John Ashbery, interviewed by Peter A. Stitt in Paris Review, Winter 1983.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Flag Project, Ebony G. Patterson

patterson flag project

Flag Project (work in progress), by Ebony G. Patterson. From Shot in Kingston: The Digital Scene, an exhibition of digital photo- and video-based work by younger Jamaican artists, part of Alice Yard’s 4x4 anniversary programme. Photograph by Rodell Warner.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On “systemic indelibility”

Imagine that you are struck with a curious and rather outlandish thought that you don’t necessarily want to defend for the rest of your life but nonetheless feel compelled to share — if only to see how others react. You write an impassioned paragraph detailing your idea but pause before posting the entry online. Without an editor, you are the sole judge of the quality of your work, and you are aware that by hitting the “publish” button, you would be subjecting yourself to possibly harsh, often anonymous criticism. You must take into account the Internet’s systemic indelibility: that henceforth your entire intellectual stance could be defined by a single, possibly ill-conceived argument.

So you vacillate between killing the conversation before it begins or risking becoming “misrepresented and burned”.... Inevitably, this ends in some form of self-censorship. Not every form of online self-censorship is necessarily harmful — if people stopped documenting such things as the intimate details of their breakfast, society would hardly be worse off — but aside from oversharing, what will happen to plain sharing? Withholding inane tweets or provocative photos is one thing, but what will become of intelligent exchange and thoughtful conversation?

Atossa Abrahamian on the epistemic consequences of a medium that “never forgives, and never forgets.”

Monday, September 06, 2010

“What’s valid?

Boscoe Holder — artist, musician, dancer, raconteur, and a man who squeezed more pleasure out of life than most — died in 2007. He left behind several outrageous novels’ worth of stories and memories, and — more important — a large and crucial body of work, including hundreds of paintings and drawings in his studio.

Earlier this year, several of Holder’s portraits were included in an exhibition in Berlin co-curated by Peter Doig, the British artist who now lives in Trinidad, and the American writer Hilton Als. A few days ago, the New York Review of Books blog posted a conversation with Doig, Als, and the artist Angus Cook on “Discovering the Art of Boscoe Holder, Trinidadian Master”, accompanied by images of fourteen paintings.

I’m glad to think that Holder’s work may be reaching new and wider audiences, but reading this conversation left me bemused and bothered at statements such as:

Peter Doig: ...The drawback of Boscoe having lived and worked in Trinidad is that there is so little kept history — there’s almost no public archiving. It’s hard to know where all the Boscoe paintings are. The Caribbean being what it is, sadly, there’s not much interest in history. I mean, sometimes for good reason — people like to forget history. People like to knock down old colonial buildings.

Get rid of them, you know, who cares? Nothing is under preservation order. The weather destroys things. Photos disappear into the sunlight, books get eaten by all sorts of insects and stuff. I mean, everything there is kind of temporal, really. The forests and the jungle take over....

Hilton Als: I’ve been dreaming, literally, since last night, of the next show that I want to do with you. And we have to do it, and it’ll be called “After Rousseau.” And it’ll be Caribbean art, which no one ever shows, because they always think it’s, like, parasols and beach scenes. But it will be not just a show of paintings, but all sorts of things, like newspapers, all the shit that gets disappeared....

That’s what’s interesting to me, that it would be not just painting, but about the whole idea of reclaiming the past from the Caribbean, which is apt to destroy it.

I responded at the NYRB blog with this comment:

It’s pleasing to see a significant Trinidadian artist receiving critical attention and appreciation. (And I suppose the four small, unsigned Boscoe drawings I own are now worth a bit more than they were a few days ago.) But aspects of this conversation perturb me.

Words are slippery. They can mean different and unexpected things in different contexts. “Discovering”, in the Caribbean, is a heavily freighted word. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, we used to have a public holiday called Discovery Day, commemorating the occasion in 1498 when Columbus turned up off the south coast of Trinidad. We took Discovery Day off our calendar twenty-five years ago, but the notion of the Caribbean as a landscape ripe for discovery endures.

And I’m disturbed by statements like “there’s not much interest in history” and “everything there is kind of temporal, really”; and “the whole idea of reclaiming the past from the Caribbean, which is apt to destroy it.” Perhaps one ought not take casual conversational remarks too seriously, but these raise crucial and troubling questions about autonomy; about who has the right (or the resources) to claim or “reclaim” the past; and about what the late Trinidadian philosopher Lloyd Best called epistemic sovereignty.

This conversation also raises questions about what “history” means, and to whom, and who gets to write the definition. Someone who was born and has always lived in the Caribbean, like me, might think we are frequently over-burdened by a history that includes five centuries of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. (I refer readers who don’t understand what I’m talking about to Derek Walcott’s poem “The Sea Is History”, as good a primer as any.)

I too worry about historic preservation in my country, the status of our archives, museums, and libraries, and the under-funding and -staffing of most public institutions charged with stewardship of our heritage. But I also worry that this state of affairs leaves the Caribbean vulnerable to external agents with their own concerns and priorities. I don’t espouse a crude cultural nationalism, or discount the often valuable work of foreign researchers, archivists, and collectors. And “outside” perspectives have their own validity. But there is a very long history of the Caribbean’s social and cultural complexities being represented by foreign voices. Caribbean artists, writers, thinkers, and citizens grapple with the challenge and the imperative to describe and define our own reality in and on our own terms.

Finally, I’m entirely puzzled by Hilton Als’s statement that “no one ever shows” Caribbean art “because they always think it’s, like, parasols and beach scenes.” Caribbean artists working in every conceivable medium — hardly just topographical painting — show in galleries and museums all over the world, even if they don’t always achieve the publicity or financial success of some of their North American and European contemporaries. In close proximity to Als in New York, and just in recent years, important shows of contemporary Caribbean artists have run at the Brooklyn Museum (Infinite Island, 2007-2008) and Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut (Rockstone and Bootheel, 2009-2010). A retrospective on the Puerto Rican artist Rafael Ferrer just closed at El Museo del Barrio. El Museo is collaborating with the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Bronx Museum to organise a major tripartite Caribbean show to open in late 2011. These are only the first examples that come to mind.

As Peter Doig aptly says: “it makes you think, well, actually, what’s valid?”

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The world’s strange bounty, no. 4

Apollo 11 Launch Spectators

Spectators of the Apollo 11 launch on a beach near the NASA Kennedy Space Centre, 16 July, 1969. Copyright-free image posted at Flickr by NASA.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

“Play it, here I am!”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When the devil calls

Be ever engaged, so that whenever the devil calls he may find you occupied.

— St. Jerome, Letter 125

Sunday, August 22, 2010

People who write novels

... people who write novels only write them when they have very little else to write.

Any number of people who write novels no doubt taking their work quite seriously, in fact.

— David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, p. 229 (Dalkey Archive edition).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

“Tarde, uma nuvem rósea lenta e transparente”

Villa-Lobos: Bachiana Brasileira No. 5 for soprano and orchestra of violoncelli.

Friday, August 20, 2010

“How fortunate the specialist!”

A traveller who has just arrived in a country where everything is new to him is held up by the difficulty of making up his mind. How fortunate the sociologist who is interested only in manners and customs; the painter who cares only for the country’s aspect; the naturalist who occupies himself with insects or plants! How fortunate the specialist!... If I had a second life, I could be happy spending it merely in the study of white ants.

— André Gide, Travels in the Congo, trans. Dorothy Bussy, p. 12 (Modern Age edition, 1937).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The world’s strange bounty, no. 3

tatouages 1

From the September-October 1934 issue of Albums du Crocodile, on “Tatouages du ‘Milieu’”, assembled by Jean Lacassagne.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Poetry and innocence

Innocent fun. I’d like to stress the innocence. Hours go by and nobody’s been harmed. The neighbours don’t even know you’re at home.

— James Merrill on the fun of poetry (from a 1991 interview with Thomas Bolt, published in BOMB.)
“More demanding than most of what passes for scholarship”

The year after the publication of Romantic Image, Kermode became professor of English at Manchester University, where he worked until 1965. From then on, he gave much of his energy to the writing of reviews and essays. Some of those from the late 1950s and the 60s were collected and published in Puzzles and Epiphanies (1962) and Continuities (1968). It is strange to think that the New Statesman and the Spectator once published pieces as freighted with reading as these. Kermode himself wrote in the introduction to the latter volume that any literary journalism that was able to satisfy non-specialist interests “without loss of intellectual integrity” was “more demanding than most of what passes for scholarship”.

R.I.P. Frank Kermode (1919–2010), one of the few contemporary literary scholars with a genuine sense of the duties of a public intellectual, and one of the very few I actually enjoyed reading.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On being a free man

I’ve not been humiliated by employment, in my own eyes.

V.S. Naipaul, interviewed on BBC TV in 1994.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

On asceticism

I have never understood asceticism. I have always thought it proceeded from lack of sensuousness, lack of vitality. I’ve never realised that there is a form of asceticism — consisting in simplifying one’s needs and seeking to take a more active role in satisfying them — which is precisely a more developed kind of sensuousness.

— Susan Sontag, Journals, vol. 1, p. 280.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The world’s strange bounty, no. 2

merian cassava

Cassava plant with sphinx moth and tree boa, engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian, from Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705). Courtesy the Göttinger Digitalisierungszentrum.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

’Ous kai dire ça vrai

Si mwen di ’ous ça fait mwen la peine
’Ous kai dire ça vrai.
Si mwen di ’ous ça penetrait mwen
’Ous peut dire ça vrai.
Ces mamailles actuellement
Pas ka faire l’amour z’autres pour un rien.
Mental events

Sort of as a result of the interdependence of life and intellectual work, ideas (understood simply as creativity in one’s discipline) rarely occur from pure concentration on the abstracted problems of intellectual work. A sort of decollage, if you will, a thinking by analogy and intuition, the cross-classification of life and work, produces the best ideas. I find this concept easier to grasp in terms of a conjuncture. At any given moment the combination of the books you are reading, the environment you are in, the emotional sensations you are experiencing, the intentions that impel you to think, are utterly unique. And ideas are the mental events that result from such conjunctures.

— From Robert Minto’s reflections on C. Wright Mills’s essay “On Intellectual Craftmanship”.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

“With you giving them the real stuff”

ken laughlin fan letter lyons

“I must let you know how much I have been enjoying your broadcast.... I was awfully surprised when you said that it was the first time you stood before a mike. And would you believe me that there are still many fellowes [sic] around who in spite of going to the talkies so often do not understand some of the Americans and English people when they speak, but with you giving them the real stuff you can imagine how they enjoy it all.”

This is a fan letter written to my grandfather Ken Laughlin (the letter misspells his name) by E.C. Lyons of Woodford Lodge, Chaguanas, Trinidad, on 26 January, 1937.

My grandfather was a sports journalist for over sixty years. When his weekly programme Ken Laughlin on Sport went off the air in the mid 1990s, it was the longest running radio programme in Trinidad and Tobago, and possibly in the southern Caribbean. In January 1937, he gave the first live radio commentary on a cricket match in the West Indies. It was an intercolonial game, Trinidad vs. Barbados, at the Queen’s Park Oval. He was twenty-three. E.C. Lyons’s letter is one of several congratulating my grandfather on this pioneering broadcast.

(Note that the letter is dated 1936, but this is clearly an error. All the other correspondence relating to this broadcast is dated January or February 1937.)

I’d guess that over the decades he must have got many more letters from listeners in different parts of the Caribbean, but it was this batch, from the very start of his career, that my grandfather decided to save. After he died in 2001, I found them in a box of documents and memorabilia that came into my hands. I’d lost track of them a while back, but found the letters again yesterday (while searching for something else, naturally), and decided to scan a few of them and post them online in my little Flickr family archive. Some of the other fan letters came from San Fernando, Moruga, and Georgetown, British Guiana.

I posted links to the letters on my Facebook page, and got a few comments, including one asking whether the letters were important enough to be archived, and how I planned to preserve them. Well, they’re already in an archive: mine, and scanning and uploading them is one form of preservation. I’m pretty much a pack-rat, and a good couple dozen shelf-feet of documents of all kinds are filed away across several rooms of my house, in different degrees of sortedness — everything from family papers like these letters (or like my other grandfather’s certificates of discharge from the Royal Canadian Steamship Company) to correspondence with friends and colleagues to newspaper clippings on subjects that interest me; also exhibition catalogues, theatre programmes, set lists from jointpop concerts, handwritten notes from Alice Yard meetings, maps of just about every country and city I’ve visited, and masses of material related to the various magazines and other publishing projects I’ve worked on over the years.

This isn’t terribly unusual. I imagine most people working in publishing or in vaguely literary pursuits have similar personal archives. These dozens of feet of boxes and files are obviously important to me, and I hope some of the material I’m so carefully holding on to will turn out to be important to other people in the future. But I also know that my most important archive is one that can’t fit in boxes and manila folders — it’s the online archive anyone can access by typing my name into a search engine.

I can control only some aspects of this. And that’s exactly why I’ve kept this blog going for nearly eight years (and counting), why I have my own website, why I post images to Flickr and share thoughts and links at Twitter. “If it’s not on the web, it doesn’t exist.” Does anyone still remember who specifically first had this insight? Probably not, because it’s so irrefutably apt a summary of how we understand knowledge and our access to it in the Internet age that it might as well be a collective expression of faith. So why wouldn’t I want to use these various media to profess my version of myself, my thoughts, my hopes, anxieties, and dreams?

(A kind of digression: an archive is a record. It is also an assertion — of existence, of significance. It is evidence. It is a model for categorising and understanding the world. It can even be a creative undertaking, a work of art. And while historically the fact of being archived has often been a form of validation — this is important because it is in the archive, that is not and may be discarded and forgotten — cheap online storage available to (theoretically, almost) everybody forces us now to reconsider what an archive is, and again makes it possible for “anyone” to be an archivist, so that personal archives are easy to both assemble and make publicly accessible. The ability to make a public archive has radically expanded.)

In my mind, this is also tied up with bigger ideas of self-determination. Naturally, this is because I’m from a part of the world that historically has been described, portrayed, and defined overwhelmingly through stories told by people from elsewhere: stories about what the Caribbean, the tropics, and small island societies are and should be. I’ve never seen a pirate ship and never worn a grass skirt and, thanks, I do speak fairly good English, even if my accent amuses you. I live in a middle-class suburb of a medium-size city in a largely industrialised country that happens to be a small tropical Caribbean island. Many of my friends are writers, artists, and thinkers working hard to understand themselves as individuals, ourselves as a society, trying to understand what concepts like nation, culture, and history really mean, trying to imagine and build individual and collective futures. Whether or not we acknowledge the lines of succession, many of us are engaged in what the late Lloyd Best repeatedly described as the imperative to comprehend ourselves on and in our own terms. An essential aspect of this process is making sure my — our — ideas, stories, images, and languages are also represented in the global conversation and the global archive of the web. Because if we’re not there, we don’t exist.

It may seem that I’ve strayed a long way from my grandfather’s fan letters. There’s a specific reason I chose E.C. Lyons’s letter to open this post. This is the bit of that letter that I specially like:

... would you believe me that there are still many fellowes around who in spite of going to the talkies so often do not understand some of the Americans and English people when they speak, but with you giving them the real stuff you can imagine how they enjoy it all.

I’m moved by the suggestion that my grandfather’s voice — a Trinidadian voice, speaking Trinidadian English, and expressing a Trinidadian reality — was more meaningful to those listeners in Woodford Lodge seventy-three years ago than the voices of “the Americans and English people” who otherwise occupied the airwaves. It helps me understand the part he played in the still-incomplete epistemological enterprise Best described, and maybe it helps me understand the part I’m playing, or trying to play.

So, yes: these letters are important enough to be archived. They exist physically in my personal archive, and now they exist digitally — epistemologically — if necessary, defiantly — in the archive of the world.

Monday, August 09, 2010

“Each traveller hopes”

And each traveller hopes: “Let me be far from any

— W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Raspberry Bourrée

<a href="">Raspberry Bourrée by Good Evening</a>

Helping to keep my chin up this overcast Sunday.
The world’s strange bounty, no. 1

Glass Models of Microscopic Organisms ll

Glass models of microscopic organisms in the Natural History Museum, Vienna. Photographed in 2007 by Curious Expeditions and posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

“The task of a lifetime”

I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.

— Anne Carson, introduction to “Short Talks”.

Friday, August 06, 2010

“But not for me”

The previous post has put me in mind of this:

“But not for us”

— From Marmaduke, by Franz Kafka, at We Who Are About to Die.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

“A patriot of your apartment”

When you are a writer, you are a patriot of your apartment. Sometimes your study is more important than the country you are living in.

— Adam Zagajewski, profiled by Arthur Lubow in the Spring 2010 Threepenny Review.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Letters to Cicero

Yesterday or maybe the day before, I was reading through my notes from the interview that never was, when I came across a passage, one of Markson’s captured anecdotes. It was in Reader’s Block, and I had marked it with three asterisks — my highest rating, given to those parts I absolutely needed to ask Markson about. “Petrarch sometimes wrote letters to long-dead authors,” Markson writes. “He was also a dedicated hunter of classic manuscripts. Once, after discovering some previously unknown works of Cicero, he wrote Cicero the news.” Reading that again, I thought that maybe art is, in the end, like so many letters to Cicero, notes addressed to the dead, to one’s ancestors and betters, or simply to those one had in mind while working.

— From Paul Maliszewski’s tribute to David Markson in n+1.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Love and fear

Jonathan Santlofer: Did you have any training, any art education?

Peter Schjeldahl: No, none.

Jonathan Santlofer: So all of the art history that you bring into the writing you’ve learned or read on your own — things that you bring to it, interpret for a particular piece.

Peter Schjeldahl: Yeah, and this is true, by the way, of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, too. The idea of going to school to be an art critic is a very crazy idea. I educated myself in public, which is a very painful way to learn — by writing and then discovering that I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. But you remember the lessons vividly. Also, everything I’ve learned about art was (a) because I was actually interested, or (b) I was actually interested in covering my ass because of what I was writing about. Love and fear, the two strongest emotions we have. It all starts with emotion.

— From “Mask of the critic”, an interview published in Guernica in January 2006.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Town on Keate Street

town 3 keate street

Broadsides from the third issue of Town, posted on Keate Street, opposite Memorial Park, Port of Spain; 27 March, 2010

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The flight of the cobo

My Carnival Monday placard from the band Cobo Town, proudly carried through the streets of Port of Spain nearly three weeks ago. The face of Calder “Cobo” Hart — head of the powerful state construction agency Udecott, widely suspected of massive financial improprieties and thought by some to be Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s bagman, subject of investigation by the Uff commission of enquiry — replaced the national coat of arms in the middle of a giant $100 bill.

Last night the news broke that Hart, formerly protected by Manning, was forced to resign from Udecott and his positions at other state agencies, and has fled the country with his family. This morning everybody asking how many blue notes this cobo managed to pack in his luggage.

Photo by Georgia Popplewell.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


On the pool terrace of the Torarica Hotel, Paramaribo, Suriname; 24 February, 2010:

“Dutch people don’t get a hangover from Parbo. So we can drink as much as we want. It’s because it’s made from rice.”

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Town in Paramaribo

town 3 span kleine waterstraat

Broadsides from the third issue of Town on Kleine Waterstraat in Paramaribo; 26 February, 2010. This issue of Town engages with the Paramaribo SPAN project

Saturday, February 06, 2010

“The rabbit of the Andes and the rabbit of Sar-e-Sang...”

Four poems, published in the February issue of Blackbox Manifold.

Monday, February 01, 2010

On not being elsewhere

I came of age in the 1980s, which with adult hindsight I can see was a very pessimistic time for Caribbean people of my parents' generation, but I remember as a schoolchild thinking that people who "went away to live" were specially lucky, even if it was an eventuality I couldn't imagine for myself. Had I gone to university abroad, it's likely I wouldn't have come back to Trinidad, not to live. I still can't decide whether that would have been a better thing.

Having reached my mid-30s, having never lived anywhere else, I'm now fairly certain I'll stay here. But that's something I still think about often — almost every time I travel to the U.S. or Britain, I spend a good chunk of my time trying to imagine an alternative life there. I think that for many Caribbean people of my generation and approximate background — middle class, relatively well-educated — the question of going or staying remains acute.

Sitting here in Diego Martin, west of Port of Spain, it seems to me that in 2010 the literary and intellectual traffic within the Caribbean — and between the region and North America and Europe — is still directed mainly by agents physically located outside the Caribbean itself. Most of our intellectuals and writers are elsewhere. Almost all our books are published elsewhere....

I don't mean to set up a binary opposition between here and there, local and diaspora, us and them, because of course the reality is far more complex. There is conversation and exchange and movement between all these nodes, and they are often fruitful. But aspects of the situation are depressing. For the better part of five centuries the Caribbean was devoted to producing raw materials to enrich already wealthy countries further north. Now sometimes it feels like we're producing cultural raw materials to be turned into books, films, lectures, etc. by intellectual agents in New York or London or Toronto.

I've long admired Scott McLemee's elegant, erudite, and incisive critical writing. We've corresponded, very occasionally and briefly, in the seven-odd years since he reviewed Letters from London, the book of C.L.R. James's early essays I edited. (Among other things, Scott is one of the nicer and more sensible Jamesians around.) I was surprised when he emailed nearly a fortnight ago asking if I'd do an interview for "Intellectual Affairs", his weekly column in Inside Higher Ed. The provocation for the piece was Haiti — specifically, the way the 12 January earthquake was being discussed in the Caribbean, and what this might suggest about cultural and historical attitudes, as well as the current state of Caribbean intellectual life. Hardly narrow matters, and inevitably messy.

Over the course of a few days, Scott emailed me two or three difficult questions, which I answered with deliberate speed. I typed quickly, didn't revise or polish, didn't specially try for nuance. The result — gently tidied up by Scott, and published last Wednesday — is here.

Our conversation begins and ends with Haiti, but digresses down some of the anxious paths my thoughts seem to trace these days. Re-reading it afterwards, I wondered if I should have tried to be less pessimistic, more tactful. But I think it accurately captures something of my state of mind this last year or two. Something of my mental grappling with — for? — context and relevance.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A brief personal note

Even now, almost eighteen years later, I can’t say exactly why: but it was “Seymour: An Introduction”, read when I was sixteen years old, that first made me want to write.

I think the appropriate word is “goddam”.