May 31, 2006

How will our Stories be Told?

Since posting, “Chicken Soup and my Family,” I’ve received a few emails urging me to submit the story to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. ( I’ve always been curious about the people who send me emails rather than leaving a comment--which could be the subject of another post about comments and how they spur further creation—but either way keep ‘em comin'!) However, I know very little about the series. And I must follow the advice that I’ve always given my students that before they submit their work to a publisher, they should always study the catalogue. And to be honest, I’ve never read through any of the books.

This is not due to any snobbery on my part. Many of the books that fall into the category of popular fiction or popular non-fiction have a simple aim: to elicit an emotion. But as a fiction writer/poet/ blogger, I spend so much time learning how to elicit an emotion that I rarely have any time for stories/poems that exist only purely on an emotional level. Between work, work, and family, I have to choose my pleasures wisely. And most of the times, I’m interested in how the story is told, not what the story is about.

For example, I could write a story about a man named John Barnes, from Barbados who has been taking sleeping pills so that he can get a good night’s rest. John wakes up one morning to find a note on the pillow beside him. The note says, “Darling, you are the love of my life, but I have to leave you.” The note is from John’s wife. John searches the house for her, but cannot find her. He finally dresses himself and goes to work without eating breakfast.

While is driving to work, fighting back the tears and indigestion, John meets in a car accident and his car is totaled. It’s his fault. The police issue him a citation to appear in court.

John finally gets to work, and his boss, Tony, meets him at the door. Tony shakes his fist in John’s face and says, “Barnes, didn’t I tell you that if you were late one more time, I would fire you! You’re fired!” John begs his boss, but his boss calls security to escort John out of the building. John doesn’t have a car or health insurance and his molars are beginning to ache because he’s been grinding his teeth at night.

He finally makes it home after taking six buses, and finds his wife in bed with his best friend. He chases after his friend and by the time he gets back to the house, he gets a call that his best friend has shot himself because of the betrayal. John goes to the kitchen and drinks himself into a stupor. He awakens to find that his wife, overcome by all this, has overdosed on sleeping pills that he bought so that he could sleep at night. We leave John with a rope in his hand thinking whether he should kill himself or not.

Now, that is a sad story. But any con man can tell you a sad story. Have you received the email from the Nigerian businessman?

But what interests me is how the diction, rhythm and metaphors are used (poetry does this best) to make reading about the event/story/subject pleasurable.

Anyone who has every lived has a story to tell because all lives contain the essential elements of a story: a beginning, middle, and end. But it’s how the story is told—when it becomes that other thing that is bound by its own internal consonance (or twentieth century experiments in dissonance) that transforms the experience into a work of art. Many writers think that merely registering an emotion makes writing a work of art. But I could tell you about your mother’s ****, and you’d be very angry—registering an emotion—but it wouldn’t be poetry. Good writing, writing that becomes a pleasurable experience itself, is what I search for everyday and what I try to create. But it is always with a commitment to the islands about which Brathwaite, Walcott, Scott, and McNeill wrote, and the “missing generation” (of which I am a part) that Francis Wade speaks about in a recent post.

One of my guides in this process has been Derek Walcott. In his poem, “Love After Love,” Walcott uses the ritual of the Mass (or if you prefer, eating bread and drinking wine) to describe the process of growing through fragmentation to becoming whole again. Self-help books talk about recognition, unification, realization, thanksgiving, and peace. Walcott was years ahead of them. He gives an experience of meaning to a simple act that if consciously attended brings a kind of grace.

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Yet, there is something cold and calculating in this ability to dissect life as Walcott in Another Life describes himself at the peak of his adolescent love for Anna, “The hand she held already had betrayed/ them by its longing for describing her.” However, the work must be done, as Walcott also says in “Mass Man”:

Upon your penitential morning,
some skull must rub its memories with ashes,
some mind must squat down howling in your dust,
some hand must crawl and recollect your rubbish,
someone must write your poems.

Links: "Love After Love"

May 29, 2006

Liming in Cyberspace

I am relatively new to blogging. In fact, I only began in December 2005 when my daughter, who has been blogging for at least five years now, suggested that I begin. Since then, I have written about 100 posts. On April 6, 2005, I began using Site Meter and I’ve recorded 1,100 visitors or 25 visitors per day from at least twenty countries (see Fig 1). Of course, when a blogger such as Maud Newton barely mentions my site (192 hits in one day), web traffic increases exponentially. On Saturday, since I began preparing this post, the site now has an average of 29 visitors--this does not take into account the Memorial Day weekend (readerships usually falls on the weekend) and 60% of my visitors originate in the US (Fig.1) From the statistics alone, it is clear that blogging provides exposure, but it also gives me access to ideas, and a sense of community.

Without exposure a writer might as well give up. My publisher, Peepal Tree Press, has a limited (more like zero) PR budget, so when one of my books, Benjamin, my son, is reviewed by The Daily Gleaner, Caribbean Beat, or The Caribbean Writer, I am always grateful because my book is in competition with other books from the publishing conglomerates in London and New York. In a way, blogging provides the kind of exposure that Caribbean Voices, produced by Henry Swanzy, gave writers such as Sam Selvon, George Lamming, VS Naipaul, Kamau Brathwaite, and Sam Selvon. According to George Lamming, “Swanzy was a struggling writer’s dream.” And although an individual blogger does not have the authority of Caribbean Voices, when a site such as Global Voices links to one of my posts (87 hits in one day), then my site gains an aura of respectability--something which is vitally important to peoples of the Caribbean who still look to “official” sources for information.

But blogging bypasses the gatekeepers of Caribbean culture who control the importation of books and publicity*. If the gatekeepers don’t import the books (for whatever their reasons) or a writer cannot even garner copy beside the Star’s Hottie for the Week, then many people, who have scant regard for anything “local,” conclude that your work “cyaan good,” and then “dawg eat yu supper.” This is the Goliath that each writer/blogger faces because we are always being asked, “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Blogging alaso challenges the elitism that pervades the Caribbean and is a great experiment in the democratization of data. To be sure, a digital divide exists, but anyone with access to a computer and an email address can set up an account at Blogger and become a blogger. It’s that easy. This is very disturbing to some people, who as Bob Marley once said, “Still want to divide the people. But how can they divide the people when them don’t have four foot?” It should be noted that early in his career, Bob faced similar problems with exposure from the gatekeepers of the record industry. He couldn’t get any airplay on the radio stations and a highly respected Caribbean bandleader once said that he would never play reggae because it was ghetto music. Of course, when Chris Blackwell began producing Bob Marley and the Wailers, then everybody was convinced that it had to be great because the music was being produced in England. Similarly, the careers of Lamming, Brathwaite, Walcott, and Naipaul (who are great writers by any standard), would have taken different paths had it not been for Caribbean Voices which gave them the exposure with the authority of the BBC behind them. To be honest, Caribbean Voices was produced by the BBC because of their commitment to Commonwealth culture that continues to this day, but the level of attention during the fifties was also due to colonial guilt. That guilt has now disappeared and many of us now have to depend upon the “kindness of strangers” because our own governments/ countries cannot (will not?) support activities in the arts. This is not only because of limited budgets, but limited minds. Blogging provides the kind of freedom that is anathema to many gatekeepers who want to control the flow of information throughout the Caribbean.

To get the official news about the Caribbean, I read the Miami Herald, Daily Gleaner, Jamaica Observer and sometimes the Trinidad Guardian, but I read even more assiduously the blogs written by Mad Bull, Guyana Gyal, Jono’s Blog, Francis Wade, Nalo Hopkinson, Tobias Buckell, and Caribbean Beat. I get viewpoints that I normally would not have thought about while living in Miami, Florida or from reading the Miami Herald. The gatekeeper syndrome is also present here. If I want to know what’s really happening in Guyana, then I won’t read the Gleaner, Guardian or Observer, I will read Guyana Resource Center or Guyana Gyal. For there is a certain purity in blogging (at least with my blogging) that is very liberating,

No one could pay me (what am I saying?) to do this. Let me explain. If I sit down to write a poem, short story or novel, once I reach the revision stage, I have Walcott, Brathwaite, Scott, and Naipaul, breathing on my neck and saying, “No, boy, don’t do that! No wonder nobody wants to read your work!” But blogging is a candid, public transmission of private thoughts--which also raises a host of legal, moral and ethical issues that are too broad for the scope of this post. But if I want real information about a writer’s life, I can go to Nalo’s site or if I want to know about the practical aspects of a writer’s life, I click on Tobias Buckell’s site. Or if I want to join a public conversation about the West Indian canon or Caribbean genius, I visit Caribbean Beat. For just as our list of Favorites on browsers gives us a picture of our preoccupations and the shape of our minds, so do our links. A cursory glance at the links that I provide on my site should tell you about my interests: Caribbean, literature, music, and politics which sometimes takes me out of the Caribbean to sites such as John Dufresne, Moorish Girl, Valve, Bookslut, Literary Saloon, and many others that I provide on my web page and blog space. For I am also a teacher and I take that role very seriously. In the Caribbean, we don’t have any way to share what we’ve learned and we’ve reinvented the wheel too many times in
the Caribbean. By now in terms, the wisdom that luminaries such as CLR James, Leonard "Tim" Hector, and Rex Nettleford, have given us, we should be driving a Caribbean “Rolls Royce.” Instead we are driving Cowrollas. Blogging provides instant access to ideas that can be expanded upon, discussed, cussed, and reviewed. In many ways, blogs could be called a digital place for “liming.”

And we love “liming” in the Caribbean. Governments have fallen because of “liming” sessions. Poems, short stories, and novels have been born during “liming” sessions, for it is not a space not only for su-su, but a meeting place to "suss" out ideas. “Liming” creates or is supported by a community. For example, in Struie, Jamaica, if you wanted to hear about herbs and medicines, you would go to an old lady named, Miss Pin Pin who regularly held court on her verandah. Similarly if I want to read a down-to-earth conversation about The Da Vinci Code without any literary doublespeak, I go to Mad Bull’s Blog. Or if I want a fresh perspective on business in the Caribbean, I go to Francis Wade’s, Chronicle from a Caribbean Cubicle. The comments sections on these blogs also allow visitors to speak their mind on taboo subjects such as homosexuality. Global Voices and Caribbean Beat provide necessary conversation about literature, arts, and culture in the Caribbean. For while we are known for our music, sprinters, and drug dealers, very little is known about our literature and culture. And artists, like the griots in West Africa whose work is shaped by call and response, need feedback in the form of book reviews. A reviewer should be someone who has read widely and reads closely. And although the criticism is still subjective, it is a means for evaluating one’s work. For example, after Bob Marley released Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration and the death threats came because he was being “too revolutionary,” he produced Kaya (which had songs such as “Running Away” and “She’s Gone”) and when he heard that he had gone “too soft” with Kaya, he came back with Survival. Here was an interaction between an artist and his audience that altered his work and had beneficial results. His work was appreciated within an audience of listeners—a community, if you will.

Blogging may just be the solution to the lack of connectedness, exposure, access, and community that has arisen out of the African and Caribbean diaspora. As Chris Blackwell said in an interview, “The key is to find yourself a place that has got some soul. If you find yourself a place like that, then you get yourself totally plugged in. It's never been possible before but now it is possible. You can work from a place that is meaningful to you. Technology makes a joke of geography." We may settle in places that will support us emotionally and financially, but with blogging we may be able to turn around Swanzy’s famous opening lines to Caribbean Voices and say, “World, this is the Caribbean calling.”


I don’t know if it’s been bad luck or karmic retribution, but somehow my name (I can understand the misspelling) usually get’s chopped from copy. As a friend of mine remarked, “Is who fa white fowl you kill?” I don’t know, but if it takes a sea bath at Falmouth to shake this off, then I’m ready for it.

Jamaican cowrolla

The Toyota Cowrolla picture was sent to me by my sister. The source is unknown.
The pre-liming picture is from Caribbean Tales

May 27, 2006

Caribbean Voices and the Internet

I have been invited to be a part of a discussion (Q&A) of the Caribbean Studies Association conference which will be held next week in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Three panelists, Nicholas Laughlin, Georgia Popplewell, and Attillah Springer, will be discussing the topic: “Global Voices, Caribbean Accents.” The theme of this year’s conference is “The Caribbean in the Age of Modernity.”

One of the ways that intend to approach the topic is to gather as much information on Caribbean Voices which was produced by Henry Swanzy. (I know you were wondering why I had his picture up there.) My proposition is that although blogging by a writer does not have the authority of Caribbean Voices, it does provide exposure (it bypasses the so-called gatekeepers of Caribbean culture), unlimited worldwide access to ideas (they don’t depend on shelf space or a publisher’s PR budget), and community (they are searchable, linkable, contain metadata, and allow for conversation --visit this site for more). Of course, the last claim will now depend on your contribution to the comments—which is part of the power of blogging: it allows the possibility for the conversation to continue ad infinitum. For example, Leonard “Tim” Hector still speaks from beyond his headstone.

May 25, 2006

Chicken Soup and my Family

A week ago, everyone in my family had come down with a nasty cold/flu that has been going through Miami like those wildfires in the Everglades. We were walking around like sniffling, bleary-eyed zombies addicted to Kleenex and Theraflu. Pitiful. On Saturday after struggling all week with the over-the-counter medications, my wife turned to me and said, “You know what you have to do, don’t you?” I knew.

It wasn’t that I was dreading making the chicken soup, but my new responsibilities at the college were taking their toll, and I thought about the mountain of work that I had brought home. I was determined that not even a cold was going to stop me from finishing the job. I reluctantly told my wife yes with the secret hope that everyone would have forgotten by the next day. 

But by the next morning, my son, Andrew, was downstairs with a list for the supermarket and his stern admonition, “Don’t forget to make the dumplings.” Sometimes I have to remind Andrew and his sister that it’s called “chicken soup,” not “dumpling soup.” So, on Sunday evening after going to the supermarket, I pulled out my stock pot and made my famous chicken soup that my mother taught me how to make.

My mother, Merty Synidia Philp, nee Lumley, was a country girl from a small town named Struie in Westmoreland, Jamaica. According to my aunt, Norma Lumley, my great-grandfather, Andrew Lumley, came over from Scotland to build churches in Bethel Town which is two miles from Struie. My grandfather, Frederick Andrew Lumley, was a baker/shopkeeper/bartender/ farmer/ village reader of letters in Struie. He also worked as a cook on a ship that traveled between Jamaica and Cuba, and he taught my mother how to cook chicken soup the way my great-grandfather taught him. 

My great-grandfather and my grandfather are a part of a Scottish lineage in Jamaica. As youngsters at Jamaica College, we used to joke that when the teachers were taking roll, you could go outside, smoke a cigarette in the bathroom, come back, and they would only be getting to the McKenzies after going through the Mac Adams, McDaniels, McDonalds, and MacDougalls. The meeting of Scotland and West Africa (I will only vouch for those two--who knows what else happened in my grandfather’s bar on a Friday night?) down in Westmoreland tempered by the rigors of farm life and the daily chores of feeding the chickens, tying out the goats, and feeding the hogs produced a set of habits such as dependability, tenacity, and a certain fearlessness toward work and sacrifice that kept my mother’s family together.

For my mother’s family to survive in Struie, they had to be ready for any opportunity that presented itself. My aunts and uncles had careers in fields where opportunities were open: nursing, law enforcement, and teaching. They did well in these professions because they had learned firsthand about dependability and sacrifice in Struie. Everyone on the farm was expected to contribute something. There weren’t any exclusive boys’ jobs (except with the bulls and hogs) or girls’ jobs. You had to help in any way that you could. This tenacity and attitude towards work helped my mother throughout her life. She began as a teacher, and then she became a legal secretary to one of the top lawyers in Jamaica. When she left Jamaica, she started all over again and eventually became a nurse—the career she had always wanted. But she always stressed, if a job had to be done, someone had to step up to the job. If you couldn’t do the job, you could help. This is why she taught me how to cook and to iron my clothes because the last thing she wanted was a wutless man in her house. Everyone had to do something.

So, on Sunday evening it was my turn to do something that no one else could do as well. Whatever I brought home from the college had to be put aside for my family’s sake. I made the chicken soup from Jamaican-Miami recipe with a whole chicken (skinned and quartered by yours truly), thyme (of course), onions, butternut squash (they only had some fenke-fenke pumpkins and the kids prefer squash), dumplings (the kids used to help me make them when they were younger, but they’re teenagers now and way too cool for that. But they did help to carry the bags in from the supermarket), carrots, celery, parsnips (added since we’ve come to Florida—for a little sweetness), chayote (don’t make the mistake of going into the Latin supermarkets and asking for cho-cho, you will get hurt), turnips (I now have immense respect for the turnip since I saw the movie Last Holiday: “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish”), and scallions added just before serving.

The soup may not have cured our colds, but it gave us a chance to sit down together and have a hearty meal with equally wholesome company. Well, not so wholesome. There was a revival of “The Dumpling War,” a family habit, which I hope our children will never share with their children.


May 23, 2006

In Praise of Mangoes

Francis Wade’s Tis the Season brought back a harvest of memories, especially with the picture from his web site with so many varieties of mangoes (Bombay, East Indian, Number 11, and Julie). My summers were spent down in Struie, Westmoreland on my grandfather’s farm, or combing behind Jamaica College and what is now known as the Mona Great House for mangoes, guineps, naseberries, and star-apples. But if I had to make a choice between all of them, I would choose mangoes.

Mangoes are the only things about which I allow myself to get nostalgic, but it’s an emotion I fear. Nostalgia allows you to live in a past that never existed. I don’t wish to become like those Miami-Cubans about whom my friend, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, likes to tell his jokes: How many Cubans does it take to change a light bulb? Ten. One to change the light bulb, and nine to say how much better the light bulbs were in Cuba before Castro and the revolution. Mangoes should not be debased with cheap emotions like nostalgia. Their color, texture, and taste are so tangible, they force you to be in the present.

And I love to eat mangoes --I mean, real mangoes, not some force-ripe sinting that they sell in Publix or Winn-Dixie (and forget about variety) that only because of yearning for the real thing, I used to nibble a few pieces, but without pleasure. I mean the mangoes you will now find West Indian stores in Miami that have been picked at the height of the season and been allowed to stew in their own juices for a few days and are now ready for public consumption. But every mango is different and comes with its own taste and way of enjoying its pleasures.

Bombay mangoes are robust and fleshy. When they are ripe, they only have a blush of color around their plump middles that signals they are ready to be eaten. I usually put them on ice, and after a few hours, remove the pit, and scoop out the luscious, yet firm flesh into my mouth, allowing my tongue to linger over the tangy dollops before I gorge myself on their abundance.

Number 11s are the complete opposite. They are small and fit easily in the palm of your hand. Number 11s display wild, garish, orange-red colors and can be devoured without any regard for decency or propriety. They have a strong (some say pungent) aroma that can be detected from a few feet away as you stroll through the store. But once you have taken them home to a cool, shaded place, you can gnaw into them with wild abandon, and they will greet you with a moist sweetness that will only increase your appetite. But beware, they are also stringy and the hairs often get caught in your teeth, but their pits can be enjoyed for hours.

With East Indian mangoes, you have the best of both worlds: Number 11s and Bombays.

 You can enjoy the meat and the pit. And one good-sized East Indian will fill you up. You wouldn’t go out of your way for an East Indian, for they attract annoying pests. But if an East Indian comes your way, take a bite or eat the whole thing if you have the time and the effort to expend—they will reward in their own special way. East Indian mangoes can withstand different temperatures, and they travel well. If you prefer your fruit to be a little tart, then you may be tempted to use East Indians as a good standby or replacement. Don’t. East Indian mangoes are for those who like things to be sure, steady, and dependable.

But the queen of all mangoes is the Julie mango. It is hard to describe Julie. Sweet, but with hint of turpentine that changes as it ripens. And at their peak, unlike the others, Julies must be savored—you must enjoy all the textures and flavors of their flesh. And even past their prime, when the season is almost over and the skin wrinkles, you can do what my cousins down in Struie did, eat Julies in the dark.


Hidden behind a cloister of leaves,
guarded by wasps, the flesh yields
the secret of pollen; peel the skin

with your lips, the sap trickles over
your fingers--the juice smells strange
on your beard; suck through the meat,

take the stone into your mouth,
and feel the hairs tickle your tongue;
call the goats, for the season is over.

May 22, 2006

Behold, the lilies of the field

Father's DayYesterday as I walked down my driveway to pick up the Sunday Herald, I noticed that rain lilies had once again bloomed after the long, dry season that we’ve had in Miami. I’ve always regarded their appearance as almost miraculous for it seems as if they do not flower merely because they are watered (I do my fair share of lawn work), but only after rainfall. I am surmising that it takes the right sequence of events that include rainfall, humidity and other factors, and behold, Zephyranthes atamasco.

The appearance of the rain lily also has a special significance for me because it is associated with my father. I did not know my father, Sydney Philp, very well. I was his tenth child from four marriages, so the time that I spent with him was always important to me. In the brief times that I spent with him (when I was conscious enough to understand), I realized that he was a charming, brilliant man and that combination with his “high brown” status in Jamaica must have made him irresistible to the ladies. He also had a great sense of humor. I found this out when I asked him about the name Philp (which no one can spell correctly—if I ever catch those guys, Geoffrey Philip, Geoffrey Philps, or Geoffrey Phillips, I am going to kick their collective asses for stealing my copy) and he told me about a trip to England where he met a certain young lady who told him..

Anyway, although our teenage years were difficult, our family started Philp get-togethers which were prompted (sadly) when we found out that our father was ill. We flocked to Jamaica to see the old man and to get to know each other as grown-ups. Some of my older brothers and sisters still think I haven’t grown up because I’m a writer, but that’s another story.

My favorite memory of that time was sitting on the verandah with my father and eating roasted corn, smelling the mixture of rain and earth before the showers came tumbling down Long Mountain, watching him fall asleep as the rain fell, and realizing in that moment that even though he might soon not be with us, that everything was irie.

All was not forgotten, but forgiven. For in a strange way, it had to be that way. The more I talked with my brothers and sisters, especially the ones whom I envied because they had spent so much time with him, I realized that I would not have become the man I am today if the events had not played out in that particular sequence.

My recollection of the rain lily, however, goes back to the time when I was leaving to the home of his fourth wife to go back to Mona Heights (the house that he and my mother bought), and as I was walking with him in the lane at the back of the house, he pulled up a rain lily, handed it to me, and said, “There, you can’t say I never gave you anything.” And he laughed. The old devil laughed. And all I could do was laugh and tell him that I loved him. He said, “I know.”

So, whenever the rain lilies bloom at my front door, I remember my father and those brief moments we had together—which were as brief and miraculous as the appearance of rain lilies—and I give thanks.

So, to Sydney Philp, grand progenitor, I return the simple gesture of a rain lily.Father's Day

One Heart
May 22, 2006

"Behold, the Lilies of the Field" is now a part of Journey into my Brother's Soul.

May 20, 2006

Happy Birthday, Sam Selvon

When in the course of human events, the oppressed find it necessary to dissolve the political and psychological bonds which have joined them to the oppressor, revolutionaries have a choice to pick up either a pen or a gun. The true revolutionaries pick up a pen because they realize that violence truly begets violence and that any solution that is brought about by bloodshed will only be temporary—the powerful will change positions and the gorillas are in charge again.

Among the revolutionaries who choose to pick up a pen, there is another choice: to write comedies or tragedies. Those who write tragedies make the oppressed appear weak, and the main character must experience a “fall” that results from a flaw in her/his character. For tragedy to be successful, the writer must maintain within his/her work the divisions of class, race, and creed that s/he is trying to overthrow. And no matter how much we empathize with the protagonist in a tragedy, his or her “greatness” separates him/her from the realm of us mere mortals. In other words, none of us will ever be as noble or brave as Macbeth, so at the end of the play we are moved to pity because of the “height” from which Macbeth “falls” because of his pride. But try an imagine the Scottish play where every time Lady Macbeth comes on stage to say something like, “Out , out damned spot,” the audience erupts in laughter. Instead, we pity her because she is one of the nobility and we accept the inequality of the class system and the “divine right of kings.”

However, serious writers like Sam Selvon, will write comic novels and short stories to overthrow such arrant nonsense that insults our common humanity. Comedy is a subversive art form. And comedy in the hands of Selvon obliterates class, color, and creed. We are all equally foolish.

Throughout his career, Sam Selvon used his comic talents to expose the foolishness of the oppressed who thought they would actually be accepted into the life and culture of the oppressors. In The Lonely Londoners, he shows the hardships of a group of West Indians as they try to cope with the British weather, customs, and people. These 'citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies' as they try to gain acceptance are viewed with prejudicial disdain by the British. Neither side comes of looking good.

But Selvon is never bitter even in the moments of his most biting social satire. He seems genuinely amused at our silliness. For example, in one of my favorite stories, “Waiting for Aunty to Cough,” he describes the plight of Brackley and the cramped situation that he finds himself as an immigrant who must make a living and find a time and place to love. By focusing on Brackley’s plight, we can empathize with him. Brackley is an arm’s length away from the object of his desire, but cannot consummate his wishes. After reading Selvon’s work, the reader cannot retreat into ignorance because s/he has shared those moments with Brackley “waiting for Aunty to cough.” The act of empathy unites the reader and character in a secret cause. “Waiting for Aunty to Cough” also illuminates the constant state of anxiety among immigrants: in the midst of “Paradise,” but unable to partake of its joys.

Sam Selvon was one of the most underappreciated writers of his generation, and his particular strength was that “unlike Naipaul, who portrays his fellow islanders as disadvantaged victims who are rootless, unimportant, and uncreative, Selvon writes with a genuine pride in his people and in their country, despite the social disadvantages and faded dreams that define their world.” (World Literature in English). And his use of comedy emerges from his engagement with the people of the Caribbean. As Selvon explains, "The comedy element has always been there among black people from the Caribbean. It is their means of defence against the sufferings and tribulations that they have to undergo. It seems to me that . . . this gift for laughter, of being able to laugh at everything and to laugh at themselves, is so much a characteristic of the Caribbean people." (Nazareth 80-81).

Give thanks, Sam Selvon.


Photo of Sam Selvon: Bruce Paddington, 120 x 139 pixels - 6k - jpg,

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May 18, 2006

"A Kind of Surrender." by Geoffrey Philp

“A Kind of Surrender” is a follow-up to “All Suicides.”

A Kind of Surrender

(For Heather)

Over bright faces
in a photograph taken just days
after her fifteenth birthday
with Anna, my daughter, Lindsey, Jeffrey, and Christine
holding her aloft like some Greek heroine,
she would accept the dare
born from the fissure
between those whom she had loved
so much—the fault lines that unearthed fists
of pine that ringed wetlands, forests
of hardwood hammocks, and sinkholes
further north—and she would swallow
those hard white tablets, one
by one, while the pouis blared
their yellow trumpets against the lenten
sky parched by a pale promise ,
Azrael’s hands, spread between his luminous
wings, as he gently squeezed her heart--
a bitter pill for every year


There are evenings like this
when I understand why she slipped
from this life, desiring neither hell
nor heaven, no longer wanting to carry
the burden of becoming someone else’s lover,
wife, mistress, to just fall asleep
and let the dreams smother away
a lifetime of choices: the bad ones
that in time would look like wisdom;
the good ones that led to the bedroom
pillow, the stifled screams.

Yet downstairs, I hear the gurgle
of my neighbor’s newborn, the thump
of my son playing basketball with some kid
from down the street, my daughter dancing
to Middle-Eastern cries of habibi, habibi,
and I turn away from the bathroom cabinet
the chalky pills and the tub of water,
the tap left running, and welcome back
my loves arguing in the hallway, mumbling
in the living room, asleep on the verandah,
to whom I had become a stranger.

May 17, 2006


Awards ceremony Sunday, May 28, 8:45 p.m. at WisCon 30, Madison, WI, USA

Madison, WI – Walter Mosley and Susan Vaught are winners of the debut awards from the Carl Brandon Society recognizing excellence and diversity in speculative fiction. Each winner will receive $1,000 and a trophy at a ceremony held at WisCon 30 in Madison, WI.

Mosley is awarded the Carl Brandon Parallax Award for his young adult novel, 47. The jury deemed this work "a powerful, moving work appropriate for young adult readers and yet a good read for adults" with writing that "shows beauty in the depiction of people of great courage, character and creativity in the midst of impossible circumstances."

Vaught is awarded the Carl Brandon Kindred Award for her young adult novel, Stormwitch , praised by a juror as "a fine work … written as a young adult novel, it works for adults as well."

The CBS Parallax Award recognizes works of speculative fiction created by people of color. The CBS Kindred Award recognizes works of speculative fiction dealing with issues of race and ethnicity; CBS Kindred award writers may be of any ethnic group.

CBS Parallax award jurors were Celu Amberstone, Steven Barnes, Karin Lowachee, MJ Hardman and Jennifer Stevenson. CBS Kindred award jurors were Jewelle Gomez, Ian K. Hagemann, Ursula K. Le Guin, Debbie Notkin and Cecilia Tan.

Each jury also released a shortlist of recommended works; juror commentary for each has been provided in a separate attachment (complete short and long lists will be available at

Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award Shortlist
Ø Banker, Ashok, Prince of Ayodhya (Penguin India)
Ø Buckell, Tobias , Toy Planes (Nature, Oct. 13, 2005)
Ø Butler, Octavia E. , Fledgling (Seven Stories Press)
Ø Chaponda, Daliso , Trees of Bone (Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, #3)
Ø Douglas, Marcia , Marie-Ma (Femspec, Vol. 6, #1)
Ø Goto, Hiromi, Nostalgia. (Nature, Sept. 1, 2005)
Ø Jemisin, N.K., Cloud Dragon Skies (Strange Horizons, Aug. 1, 2005)
Ø Jennings, A.H., Owasa (Farthing, July, 2005)
Ø Johnson, Alaya Dawn . Shard of Glass (Strange Horizons, Feb. 14, 2005)
Ø Khan, Ahmed, The Meaning of Life and Other Clichés (Another Realm, March, 2005)
Ø Nyoka, Gail, Mella and the N'anga: An African Tale (Sumach Press)
Ø Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedimma , Zahrah the Windseeker. (Houghton Mifflin)
Ø Shawl, Nisi, Wallamelon (Aeon Magazine, #3)
Ø Singh, Vandana, The Tetrahedron. (Intranova, March 15, 2005)

Carl Brandon Society Kindred Award Shortlist
Ø Buckell, Tobias, Toy Planes (Nature, Oct. 13, 2005)
Ø Butler, Octavia E. , Fledgling ((Seven Stories Press)
Ø Chaponda, Daliso , Trees of Bone (Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest, #3)
Ø Gilks, Marg, Before the Altar on The Feast of All Souls (Tesseracts 9)
Ø Mosley, Walter, 47 (Little, Brown)
Ø Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedimma, Zahrah the Windseeker (Houghton Mifflin )
Ø Williams, Liz, La Gran Muerte (Asimov's Science Fiction, April 2005)

The Carl Brandon Society began in 1997 at WisCon 23 as an informal gathering of people dedicated to addressing the representation of people of color in speculative fiction. It is named after the fictional black fan "Carl Brandon, Jr.," who was created in the mid-1950s by Terry Carr and Peter Graham, just as the Tiptree Award is named after writer Alice Sheldon's pseudonym "James Tiptree, Jr." Much as Alice Sheldon played with concepts of gender in her writing as Tiptree, so did Carr and Graham challenge concepts of race when writing as Brandon.

Among its activities, the society administers the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund, which enables writers of color to attend one of the Clarion writing workshops where the acclaimed writer got her start.

As speculative fiction increases in diversity, the Carl Brandon Society will work to raise awareness of issues of race, ethnicity and culture within this genre we all love, fostering a needed dialog.

We have many ways for you to become directly involved, and our membership is open to all ethnicities. Visit our website, for more information.

May 16, 2006

"All suicides" by Geoffrey Philp

All suicidesare cowards, little sister, for they've lost faithin this rhythm that sustains us through drought and storms, in the surety of the sun trailing off sofas, prickling hairs of the Spanish needle clinging to the umbrella tree's bark, over knives of bromeliad, becoming night—that reminds us, this earth, in time, will right herself.Pull back, little sister,let the bougainvillea's thorns ripenbefore you rake your wrists across its stem. Pull back, little sister, leave the imageof the girl in the shattered mirror, and follow the woman by the door beckoning you to go deeperinto the wilderness where you are, and where we are made whole again.Pull back, little sister, call my namethrough the darkness and say, “I am,”for you have suffered too long and alone; walk through these doors,touch my forehead and I will awaken before the light leaves your face, before you kill yourself.

May 15, 2006

Love's Gonna Get Cha

Last week as I was revising the final edits on the post for Malachi’s dub-u-mentary, I was struck my Oku’s remarks, “Dub poetry is the voice of the people. The world look to Jamaica for positive uplifting music. We have been a voice for oppressed people all over the world."

These are not idle words. Throughout the Americas where the grand ideas of justice and freedom have been visited upon us, Jamaica has always played a central role in defining these concepts. The founding of the Haiti began with collaboration of Haitian leaders and a Jamaican Maroon, Boukman. The writer, John Maxwell, has surmised that the name, “Boukman” may be descriptive, “Bookman,” rather than being his actual name.

And why not? Jamaicans are a People of the Book and just like their counterparts in Judaism and Islam, they are just as contentious. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Put two Jamaican in a room and you will have three (tree?) different opinion and they will fight you to defend all three.” Fun and joke aside, as we used to say in primary school, the statement is very revealing. 

For beyond the obvious commentary on the warrior spirit in Jamaicans which in the Yoruba tradition would be called Shango (Xango in Brazil), there is a recognition of the value placed on thinking and the idea of freedom. Sometimes, however, these ideals when narrowly pursued (and especially when a text is involved) can lead to dogmatism, bigotry, and intolerance that masquerade as justice. These readings usually stress the “original intent” of a text and a literal interpretation of the document.

But everything don’ always go so. For even in Islam and Judaism, there are alternative ways of reading the sacred texts that stress connotation rather than denotation: Sufism in Islam and Kabbalah in Judaism.

Kabbalah, in particular, advocates that the idea of justice is but one of the Sephiroth, on the Tree of Life, a conceptual framework for understanding “the ten attributes that God (who is referred to as the Ain Soph Aur, "limitless light") created through which he can project himself to the universe and man.” Justice, one of the attributes, must be tempered with mercy as should all the other principles if harmony and balance are to be achieved.

Judaism and Islam created methods of thinking about principles that inform human life, and the degree of similarity to which these ideas appeared across cultures led the psychologist Carl Jung to call these basic impulses, “archetypes of the unconscious.” In literate cultures, as in the case of Judaism and Islam, the literature that grew out of these societies wrestled with the meaning of freedom and justice in the differing situations to which these ideas were to be applied. In Judaism, alongside the strictly denotative readings of the Tanakh, appeared the more connotative readings such as the Midrash

For when a culture has had a long time to think about the definitions of the principles that guide their actions, the result is found in philosophy, religion and literature. For example, the Book of Job confronts the ideas of evil, divine justice, and freedom with Job caught in the middle. The Song of Songs tries to reconcile divinity and humanity within the concept of love, and is still a source of controversy within all the traditions. Sooner or later, love’s gonna get cha.

Love is the big idea in our lives, and it seems that once a culture acquires a certain amount of leisure, it considers the idea of love on a personal level. For example, Toni Morrison has been wrestling with freedom and justice, but more importantly she has been writing about love for most of her career. In Beloved, she asks the question, what happens when love has to choose between two untenable options? Or in Paradise, what happens when love is threatened and feels the need to defend itself? Morrison has used her novels as a means of analyzing an idea, in this case love, through the artifices of character and plot to arrive at a response that is satisfying both emotionally and intellectually. 

Novels clothe ideas in human terms (“Word become flesh”?) and give new definitions to debates that would have arrived at the same conclusions if rationalistic syllogisms were employed. Novels change the tenor of debates by changing the definitions. For any idea pursued to an abstraction becomes a god, and any god that is divorced from human life becomes the Other. Then again, human life that is not guided by principles, devolves into existence, a form of life which according to Thomas Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Novels are the interface between ideas and emotions. Our definitions of love, freedom and justice are always changing because life and consciousness are always evolving. In the Yoruba tradition this is the realm of Eshu/Anancy. Eshu, similar to Hermes in the Greek tradition (as Joseph Campbell reminds us), disrupts human affairs. Some have interpreted Echu/Anancy’s actions as the maliciousness of the universe. But Eshu/Anancy’s actions have at their base a comic impulse and merely asks those who have become settled on a certain belief to reconsider. Eshu/Anancy is the embodiment of the idea that life will always be changing and every time we think equilibrium has been achieved, change is right around the corner.

In the Caribbean where it seems Eshu/Anancy (Papa Legba in Haiti) has taken up permanent residency, we have been thinking about justice, and freedom and evil for a very long time. In fact, most of our plays, poems, and novels are meditations on these ideas within the experience of slavery and colonialism. But what happens when you’re suddenly free of societal constraints and you’ve got money to burn? You get a novel like Colin Channer’s Waiting in Vain. The characters are young upwardly mobile black men and women who are so free that they don’t know what to do with themselves and sabotage their relationships with commitments to their careers. Channer's novel may be cautionary tale, and in this respect it was also groundbreaking. Waiting in Vain didn’t rely on the old clichés of colonialism or slavery to frame the action. 

Channer confronted the big idea of love, plopped his characters in the major metropolises, and watched them flounder with their ideas about love, choice and freedom. Edwidge Danticat in The Dew Breaker tackles the idea of love and justice in a familial setting. Justice is a lofty idea, but what happens when the killer is your father? Junot Diaz in Drown examines the ideas of love and loyalty in a family through the eyes of a precocious youngster. But what’s the meaning of love when you come from a dysfunctional family?

These are some interesting ideas that are bouncing around the Caribbean archipelago. And this doesn’t even take into account the work of Nalo Hopkinson or Tobias Buckell who are preoccupied with the ideas of progress and the future—both revolutionary in their own right. Because let’s face it, the application of the ideas of Progress and the Future (globalization is an outgrowth of these concepts) has never been kind to us. These writers are changing the definitions of love, justice, and freedom. In doing so, they are changing everything that we’ve known and said about literature. The next few years are going to be very interesting.

Papa Legba/Eshu/Anancy would be proud.


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May 12, 2006

Dub Poetry: The Life and Work of Malachi Smith

“Dub poetry is the voice of the people. The world look to Jamaica for positive uplifting music. We have been a voice for oppressed people all over the world."~ oku onoura, 2005

He was the boy who moved from place to place to find love. His skin was too dark. His nose too flat. He was called a “jacket.” The bastard son of a light skinned preacher, he became a policeman and poet. Dub poetry was his salvation.

Based on the life and poetry of Malachi - an exponent of the poetic genre emerging out of Kingston, Jamaica in the 70’s, this dub-u-mentary examines a voice of protest and revolution, addresses issues of crime and violence, love and women and the journey that shaped the life of this award winning poet with a lifelong career in law enforcement.

This complex film explores the contradictions of an artist whose career in law enforcement forms the basis for his most poignant poems.

Click here for an excerpt from the dub-u-mentary:

May 11, 2006

Happy Birthday, Kamau Brathwaite

Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry freed Caribbean literature from the stodginess and conservatism that sometimes dooms our lives and letters. Mark you, I am not against conservatism. There are many things worth preserving within our culture. But because we have not yet developed the collective self-esteem to say within our fields of literature, “This is good and here are the reasons why we think that way,” we rely on moribund codes of aesthetics which have nothing to do with the actualities that surround us.

Kamau offered us a different way, and Gordon Rohlehr was right in dubbing him a “pathfinder.” Brathwaite reminded us that Africa existed (sometimes in our backyards) and that African life and myths belonged in our poetry. This is still a very dangerous thing to say because many of us do not want to allow Africa into our consciousness because Africa still represents degradation, unemployment, and misery. Brathwaite’s poetry helped us to love and preserve those ever living and vital parts of African culture within ourselves and the culture—parts that we neglect often to the detriment of our psychic wholeness. And he began with the word.

In many ways, Brathwaite’s oeuvre may be defined as aural symphony. It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating that Kamau is like a jazz composer who sees each syllable as a sound register and he will twist, contract and extend the sound across several volumes of poetry. To truly read Brathwaite, you need to have an aural memory that begins with his earliest work such as Other Exiles and extend it to his latest collection, Born to Slow Horses. Brathwaite sometimes picks up a neglected sound in The Arrivants and brings the sound to fruition in Shar.

But this assessment is only half of the story. The incredible scholarship that goes along with his sound archive is impressive. For buried in each sound is a memory that encompasses the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Sometimes all at once. Brathwaite with his brilliant mind could have retreated to the stodginess that we see in the worst of TS Eliot (whom he names as an influence), but chose the liberating path of innovation. There are writers who seize upon an influence or a certain code of aesthetics and they write the same poem or the same novel that their “teacher” wrote and they continue to write dead words, encourage their students to read and write dead words, write great tomes of criticism in praise of dead words, and kill the careers of anyone who does not aspire to write dead words. We have many writers, editors, and critics like this in the Caribbean. And they kill in the name of Europe.

Luckily, I found Kamau’s poetry and it showed me that there was another way and that I didn’t have to write like TS Eliot to be a poet. It was also personally rewarding to have been one of his students at the University of Miami’s CWSI with Marion Bethel, Sasenarine Persaud, and Jean Goulbourne. He lived up to his poetry as a teacher by praising our creativity and encouraging us to listen to our own voices. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t force us into poetic straight-jackets or hair shirts. He delighted in the many ways that our creativity (that was sometimes diametrically opposed in tone and technique to his) expressed itself because he had also considered those approaches, but chose his own mode which has now transformed itself into the Sycorax style. His daring and inventiveness is even more revolutionary when one thinks of the two places that he has chosen to take his stands, Jamaica and Barbados, perhaps two on the most conservative islands in the English-speaking Caribbean.

So I guess, we should add courage. Give thanks, Kamau.

May 10, 2006

Bob Marley :Twenty-five Years Later

A few days ago while in the checkout line at Publix, I saw this interesting headline on one of the magazines: “Bob Marley: Twenty-five years later. What would he be doing?” I didn’t have time read the article, but I started to think about the kinds of songs Bob would be singing today.

Here’s a playful homage—the kind of song that I imagine Bob would be singing in this time.

They say its one world, but I can’t see it
They say it’s one village, but I still can’t believe it
Men building nets to capture one another
But tell me, children, why can’t they see?
His Majesty says one day we’ll be free

In dis ya time, I and I have to unite
In dis ya time, we’ve got to live right
Never, never know when the angel
Will blow his horn, the trumpet, yeah!
When Jah says the word, we all will return

Men killing my brothers down in Darfur
Men killing my sisters down in Darfur
Why do the heathen rage
And imagine vain things?
If a tree is not worthy of its seed,
Then, why, why should I sing?

In dis ya time, I and I have to unite
In dis ya time, we’ve got to live right
Never, never know when Gabriel
Will blow his loud horn, the last trumpet, yeah
When His Majesty says the word, we all will return

They say its one world, but I can’t see it
They say it’s one village, but I still can’t believe it
Men building nets to conquer one another
But tell me, brothers, why can’t they see?
His Majesty says, one day we’ll be free

In dis ya time, I and I have to unite
In dis ya time, we’ve got to live right
Never, never know when Gabriel
Will blow his loud horn, the trumpet, yeah!
When Jah says the word, we all will return

Rasta, my sisters, is the only way
Rasta, my brothers, will never lead I astray
Can’t you see it, children, the times are getting worse
Jah said the word, the last shall be first

In dis ya time, I and I have to unite
In dis ya time, we’ve got to live right
Never, never know when the Gabriel
Will blow his loud horn, the trumpet, yeah!
When Jah says the word, we all will return

One Love

May 8, 2006

The Rasta Method for VITAL Livity©

The Rasta Method for VITAL Livity© is much simpler and more humane than the Tony Soprano Method for WORLD Domination© and should increase longevity although my lawyers at Screechy and Van Doolu, PA. tell me that I cannot make such claims.

(See Legal Disclaimer below).

Vision all Life and Love as One
Inite oneself and Love I-manity (Rispect to Bob)
Tolerate baldheads
Always sing and give thanks and praise to the Most High
Love I

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 All visitors to agree to read and abide by the complete terms of this agreement. Void where prohibited. From the law firm of Screechy and Van Doolu, attorneys-at-law: “We take the worry out of R**s!” (