June 29, 2006

Playing Politics

The task of hiring someone in a racially diverse city like Miami is fraught with the perils of being accused of “playing politics.” The sole criterion for filling a position is usually defined as “hiring the person best qualified for the job.” But a job has many facets.

Let’s say, for example that Acme Inc., a public company, has a clientele that is largely Nigerian. Wouldn’t it be prudent for the company to hire someone of Nigerian descent? But suppose the person’s base qualifications don’t match up to others? How many Nigerians should the company hire? What about the Asian Americans, North, Central, South Americans and others that are part of its clientele?

Filling a position cannot be seen in a vacuum. It has to be seen in a broader context that relates to the mission of the company. The problem is that a company, especially a big company, has competing interests. For the company to remain profitable, it must serve the needs of its base clientele, but in doing so it must not alienate its other customers.

So what’s a company going to do?

The prerequisite of all these transactions is trust. That is the one non-negotiable. Without trust everything else fails. If there isn’t any trust, that’s when the company or person is accused of “playing politics.”

What are some ways of “playing politics”?

“We” usually accuse others of “playing politics” when “they” have an agenda that is different from “ours” and “we” feel powerless to thwart “their” agenda. Or another scenario is that “we” assume that “they” are on “our” side, see things as “we” do, and have common interests and goals as “we” do, and then, BAM! “They” introduce something else.

This can happen despite all the safeguards a company institutes. A group of people screens hundreds of applicants and out of the pool, X is chosen. X looks like, walks like, sounds like the hiring manager in a company has committed itself diversity as a public policy.

The following questions arise:

Does hiring X serve the broadest interests of the community, the company or the clientele or merely the goals hiring manger, which may be related to the goals of the company, but s/h e has allowed these personal considerations to supersede all others? In other words, whose interests are largely served by the hiring of X?

Why is X being hired?

How many X’s have been hired? Are all the X’s that good that they clearly outmatch all the Y’s, J’s and K’s?

How long has the company been hiring only X’s? Is this institutional preference for hiring X’s? Does hiring only X’s result in loss of clients? Have unqualified Y’s been hired to prove the superiority of X’s? If qualified Y’s have been hired, do they have the full support of X’s, some of whom may not want to see Y’s succeed and will do anything (including mild acts of sabotage) to make sure that Y’s do not succeed?

How can this be stopped? Should it be stopped?

If a case of preferential treatment is discovered, how will the hiring manager reprimand a fellow X? Will hiring mangers reprimand Y’s and not X’s? And if some within the company are clearly committed to hiring only X’s, what can be done about them? Does this go to the top of the chain of command? If it does, what then? Or are the Y’s just paranoid and think all the X’s and M’s are out to get them?

These are just some of the questions that are exacerbated in a city like Miami that is divided primarily by race, ethnicity, and gender. Whenever I have been put in these situations, I always remember an important lesson that I learned from my friend, Gene Tinnie, who told me, “Whenever someone says, ‘We’re all in this together’ always ask, ‘Who is we?’”

Francis, are you out there?

Technorati Tags:

June 28, 2006

Iron Balloons redux

Since the Iron Balloons article in the New York Times yesterday, I’ve been picking up some interesting queries(thanks for the link, Maud!) about why North Americans may not be as open to Caribbean writing as the British. I think there are at least two reasons.

The first is historical. We’ve known the British for a long time, but our relationship with North Americans really began during World War II and intensified during the Cold War when Henry Kissinger thought we were going to become hotbeds for communism. Unlike the British who did not shy away from dominion, North Americans because of their deep democratic traditions, remain quixotic (despite the Neo-Cons) about empire. North Americans would like to be dominant in economics and politics and would like think of themselves as leaders rather than as rulers. This is why we are liberators rather than an occupying army in Iraq, and there are no insurgents only terrorists. The British, however, had no qualms about ruling and empire. But in order to rule effectively, they had to know their subjects. The British had to study and learn about the Caribbean. Their initial curiosity led to Shakespeare’s, Tempest, and Defoe’s, Robinson Crusoe. This interest created an audience, and when Caliban or Friday spoke, the British wanted to hear more. North Americans, on the other hand, whose values are rooted in Puritanism, heard Caliban and Friday and dismissed their words as noise. A fearsome noise that provokes their guilt/unease and also surfaces as xenophobia. This is part of the nasty undercurrent to the immigration debate that has emerged in the South: the fear of miscegenation. Contact with anything un-American borders on dabbling with the unknown, and we all know what happened in Salem.

The second reason has to do with our worldview, and its translation to the page reveals itself in modes of experience that do not follow the laws of logic and rationalism, but instead plunge headlong into sensation and style--sometimes called garish, we say full of life. On the whole, we’re a tactile bunch. You see it in how we walk, talk, make love, and sing. For example, to really play reggae, you need to have a feel for the music. The current watered down version of what passes for reggae is a result of North American influence on the music. The synthesized, mechanized beats are Americanized versions of the real thing. It has flourished because it sells on North American radio stations. What counts in North American pop culture is units, baby, units! Reggae musicians have gone along with the watering down because they have to eat and they want gold and platinum records and a Grammy. But they’ve moved away from the feel of the music—the suppleness of the bass line that has the stops and starts of systole and diastole. It’s like watching the North American team in the World Cup. They know (intellectually) where they should be and what each position calls for—as if they were playing American football which is based on brute force, advancing players occupying territory, and strategic advancement. Football, however, demands an instinctive feel for the ball and everything that is happening in the game, including the position of other players and the future positions of the players as the game changes. It also requires the kind of spontaneity and improvisation that is at the heart of good reggae jam session.

To really appreciate a jam session, you have to understand subtlety--a talent that is almost congenital in the Caribbean and to which we respond instinctively. As Professor Nettleford likes to remind us, “We are a textured people.” The pentameter rules American poetry and letters, and it’s the notion of Apollonian order instead of Ellegguan chaos that plays with tones and nuances, the rhythms of the hurricane and the broken axle. The reader has to be willing to shed notions of what is and what is not and enter the world of the Caribbean artist where all those crickets are chirping, frogs are croaking, the surf is tumbling, and my God, who knows what kind of Black people will pop out of the bush while you are here on the beach naked as they day you were born. That openness to experimentation that is seen in Derek Walcott, Dennis Scott, Tony McNeill, Kendel Hippolyte, and Kamau Brathwaite, the daring to play with color (in all senses) often leaves North Americans bewildered because they don’t have a context to understand the action or the bass line. So, the editor will say, “Great writing, but I just do get it!” They didn’t get Bob either when he said, “Feel it in the one drop.”

The grace and style of a line that is broken and remolded into something “torn and new” is measure of our capacity for greatness.

Technorati tags:

June 27, 2006

The New York Times review of Iron Balloons

The New York Times review of Iron Balloons has been largely favorable and the tide may be turning in terms of public reception of Caribbean fiction. Much of this change has been due to the tireless work of Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes, co-founders of the Calabash Literary Festival.

Of course, this project would not have gone anywhere without the visionary (and I don’t use that word lightly) support of Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. I forget where I read the quote because it was offered as a balm to quell the sting of rejection: “Publishing is a hobby that’s organized.” That may be true because I still don’t know why many of the independent publishers whom I’ve met continue to publish. Many of them, like Johnny Temple and Chase Twichell, love literature and books. We may never earn the big bucks nor the respect that seem to go with publishing with a giant conglomerate, but independent presses may be the route for Caribbean writers.

To read the article in its entirety, please follow this link: Iron Balloons in New York Times.

Technorati tags:

June 25, 2006

The End of the Beginning

The air was different. It was more humid. Yet everything seemed familiar—the sea, the palms, sea grapes, and the punishing sun. Nothing had prepared me for this. I had read most of the poems and novels of exile by West Indians in England and I’d loved The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, but the weather didn’t match. I felt more like Mersault in Miami.

I had arrived on one of the famous “five flights” with my requisite seventy dollars and convinced that I was an utter failure. I was sure that anything else that happened to me was going to be more of the same.

It was 1979 and South Florida was not the haven for West Indians as it is now with Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Guyanese and Barbadians capturing whole sections of Miramar, Pembroke Pines, and Lauderhill, and with Sean Paul on every American and Caribbean (AM &FM) radio station. I remember standing on Young Circle and straining to hear another West Indian accent. In that moment, the line “It is wanting to hear the lisp of the sea curled on the tongues of passersby,” came to me. I crushed it. What’s the use? I thought.

Yeah, I’d published a few poems in The Sunday Gleaner, and John Hearne, after giving me a few pointers about writing on a rainy afternoon at the Extramural Center, sent me on my way with the revisions he wanted to see, and published my short story, “Escape,” in The Creative Arts Review. But I was now in America. To the Americans, I was just another boy from “the islands.”

Seventy dollars doesn’t go far and I wanted to help my mother and our family. I tried getting a few jobs in Hollywood, Florida that I now realize, due to my naiveté, I was never going to get. But I couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing. I gave up my pride and landed a job as a bag boy in Publix. Could things get any worse?

They did. I could never understand the rain in Florida. Still don’t. In Jamaica I would look up at Long Mountain and depending on the shade of gray on the clouds, I could wash my football gear, hang them on the line, walk down to Liguanea to buy a patty, coco bread and cola champagne, walk back to my house in Mona, take my clothes off the line, and sit on my verandah while reading a book and watch the rain pour down Plumbago Path before I went to play football at the park on Arailia Avenue.

Not so in Miami. I learned the hard way. I was living on 44th and Johnson and I wanted to go to the Hollywood Fashion Center. It had figured it was an easy fifteen minute walk, and when I was in Jamaica, I walked or rode my bicycle everywhere. But this was America. They didn’t know how to drive and would probably run me over on my bicycle and claim it was “accident.” I didn’t want to take the bus because after the first few times that I had tried to sit up front, the stares guided me to the back of the bus where I belonged. No joke.

I decided to walk down to the Fashion Center. It was bright, sunny day without a cloud in the sky. I had barely walked four blocks when I was caught in the middle of a torrential downpour. I was drenched. I had to go home and change. But then I decided not to go anywhere because I didn’t want to take the bus and face those stares again.

And it only got worse. Working as a bag boy in Publix during the summer is written in some secret annals in the Vatican as a penance for all venial sins. Dressed in my white shirt, brown, striped tie, brown polyester pants, brown socks, brown, leather shoes, and green apron, I shuttled cartload of groceries for little old ladies from one end of the parking lot to the other. And I never took any tips. Rules were rules. I was a Christian boy (although I hadn’t gone to church in a while) and I had attended Jamaica College. You can’t get anymore righteous than that!

On some days dressed in my uniform, I would be caught in an afternoon thunderstorm in the middle of the parking lot, and I would be soaked down to my brown shoes. But still I persisted until I couldn’t take it any more.

So when I told my boss that I was quitting and that I was going to college, he wouldn’t hear it. The little old ladies had told him how polite I was and what a good boy I had been. He offered me a raise and a promotion. I told him I was moving to Dade and that I didn’t have a car. He offered to pay for my taxi fare (true-true) until the raise kicked in and that he could get me a good deal on a car. I kindly refused and left Publix.

Somewhere in a parallel universe there is a Geoffrey Philip (strange things happen in the realm of quantum physics) who is bitter and divorced, childless, but is a successful manager of a Publix in Daytona Beach who writes poetry late at night and weeps. I wish him well.

I signed up at Miami Dade Community College where they promptly rejected my GCE “O” and “A” Levels, and I had to start from scratch. No problem. I was beginning to get the hang of this starting over business. I was happy just to be back in school. Still, when I called my friends in Jamaica (living in Miami can be cruel that way—so near you can hear them breathe; so far, you feel the distance between each sigh), I would tell them that I was studying in Miami and by my tone insinuate that I was at the University of Miami. I never corrected them.

I began freshman composition with a teacher, Bruce Firestone, who after reading my first essay asked me what I was doing in his class. He sent me over to see a friend of his, Susan Lev-Koren, who introduced me to the director of the Writing Lab, Elaine Ludovici, who hired me as a peer tutor. I learned a lot about Miami in the lab and I saw firsthand the effects of the revolution, the children of exiles who were growing up in Miami and who knew even if Castro died the next day, they would never go back. They had become Americans.

When I was around the other peer tutors, I kept to myself because although they were fluent in English, they spoke Spanish when they were outside the classroom There are many times I have apologized in my mind to Helen Morris, the wife of Mervyn Morris, who taught Spanish at Jamaica College and who told me I had potential. I dismissed her. In my mind, I was born in Jamaica, I was going to live in Jamaica, and I was going to die in Jamaica. Teenagers can be so foolish.

Soon I met a fellow Jamaican, Barrington Salmon, and he introduced me to the other Jamaicans who hung at the “Jamaican Corner” at the college. This was our little area that we had captured.

From our corner, we watched the other displaced persons like the Iranians (when the Shah fell, the men began wearing disguises and covering their faces and the girls began practicing hijab), Pakistanis, and Cubans and stroll through the campus. We would play reggae, argue go off to class, come back in the afternoon or the next day for more of the same. Yet, there was one name we never mentioned in all our arguments: Michael Manley. The wound was still fresh.

We talked about Bob Marley and we found out that one of our company, Paul “Lurks” Fakhouri, had played with Bob on a couple of gigs and was looking forward to a couple more until he hooked up with Pluto and began playing at Sundays on the Bay.

I was beginning to feel a bit more relaxed and showed one of my poems to Barrington, who showed them to one of the teachers, Ron Silverstein, who said I should enter the poem in the Fred Shaw Poetry Contest. I told him no. I was scared. No one had heard of Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris, or Tony McNeill. Only a few of the liberal Anglos, who I knew were smoking weed, had heard about Bob Marley. I wasn’t going to set myself up for failure again. Not in America. I was a tutor in the Writing Lab and that was it. No more.

But then I met this Colombian girl, Nadezka—her father had been a communist and he had given all his children Spanish versions of Russian names: Katuska, Tatiana, and Jose Stalin. The Colombian girl had heard about my poems and wanted to see more. I had seen here from a distance (from the “Jamaican Corner’) and I wanted to show her some more.

Both of us were on financial aid and our work study was in the Writing Lab. We worked during the day and for extra hours, we worked the evening and night shifts. We took breaks during the afternoon to get ready for the classes at night by drinking Cuban coffee (cortaditos). We began long conversations about Start Trek, Camus, and she gave me a translation of a book her step-father loved, A Hundred Years of Solitude.

I showed her some of my poems and she tried to convince me that I should enter a poem in the competition. I balked. By now everyone in the lab knew that I was a writer and I was not going to fail in the eyes of these girls from Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Georgia and now Colombia? No way. Better to be a big fish who never dared to swim beyond the shallows than to be a failure and flop on the sand.

Yet, she convinced me. So, after a one long afternoon in the cafeteria at Miami Dade, I walked over to the English Department and submitted my poem at the last possible moment.

We waited for the results for at least three months. In between that time, I went on vacation in Jamaica. I met the few friends who were still there, played a little football and met Beatrice. Before I’d left she wasn’t talking to me or I wasn't talking with her. Either way, we were pissed off with each other. But Jamaica is so small, and especially when you move in certain circles, sooner or later you will bump into former friends, lovers, and enemies. Sometimes all three in one. So, you learn to behave yourself.

We talked briefly, but the Colombian girl was now on my mind. I told Beatrice I was studying in Miami. She told me she was happy for me. We left each other at the closed gate of her home and we never saw each other again.

Somewhere in a parallel universe, Beatrice…I wish her well.

I came back to Miami and classes were going great. I’d made it to the Dean’s List, and I was happy. But as one guy on the “Jamaican Corner” said, “It’s not like it’s Harvard! It’s only Miami Dade Community College.” I should have hit him. Instead, I got depressed until I heard the Colombian girl had broken up with her boyfriend.

A month into the semester, the English Department made the announcement that my poem, “The Lady Awaits the Sting,”—a combination of Tony McNeill and Dennis Scott--had won the Fred Shaw Poetry Prize at the North Campus. I was thrilled.

The Colombian girl congratulated me with a kiss. Things were looking up.

Technorati Tags:

June 22, 2006

The Beginning of the End

Sitting behind the battered Olivetti in the center of the principal’s office, he tapped away with two fingers, then flicked the carriage, and continued his seemingly furious flurry at the keys. Smoke from his cigarette laid casually on the rim of a brown, glass ashtray coiled around his arms up to his elbows where he had rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt. Tanned and shorn, he was ready for work, another year at Jamaica College, but I was too ashamed to face him. I waited under the shade of the trees that lined the driveway for the din of the typewriter to die down, so I could tell him what he already knew.

The clatter of the keys continued and I’d hoped no one, not even the ubiquitous Jacko, had seen me. The principal’s office was not my most favorite place. I’d been there so many times since I’d entered first form that the cracks in the wooden floor, polished by the cleaning women with hard brushes made from coconut husks, seemed more familiar than the lines in my palms where I had received so many beatings from my teachers.

I wasn’t a bad child. I was merely mischievous. I knew the boundaries of proper manners and decency and I always sidled up to the border, but never crossed. This infuriated many of my teachers. When detentions and other forms of useless punishment didn’t work, they sent me to the principal’s office in the hope that a master, like one we nicknamed, “El Figo Baca,” would spot me and beat the devil out of me.

But the beatings wouldn’t be in my palms as they did in primary school. The punishment would have been delivered to a more delicate part of my anatomy while I was bent over a wooden table.

I looked at the cracks again, and remembered the time when I got my first caning because my Bible knowledge teacher wrote a lie about me and sent me to the principal’s office. I had avoided a caning for four years, but when the principal, Mr. Taylor, opened the letter and asked me why I was fighting with another boy, Wayne Maragh, I was flabbergasted. Wayne and I entered Jamaica College in first form and at that time he was six feet tall. We were now in fourth form and he had grown. He was also one of my best friends with whom I played ping pong and he had rescued me from the fists of other boys who dared to get into verbal sparring with me. When they lost, they tried to resort to physical violence and all Wayne had to say was, “Is my friend that, you know.” There was no way I would have done anything to anger Wayne.

When I pointed out all these facts to the principal, he asked me, “Who am I to believe? Are you telling me, Mr. Philp, that the good reverend is lying?” I spoke the truth, but it didn’t set me free. I got a beating instead. Four strokes over the table. I was more hurt by the injustice than the physical beating. Canings you get over. Injustices you carry long after the physical stripes are gone.

Here I was again at the scene of the crime and not wanting to face my teacher, Dennis Scott. I had seen the look of deep disappointment on his face the last time, and here I was in the same place again. I had failed him. I had failed my family and friends. I had failed myself. For the second time in two years after graduating from fifth form with GCE “O” levels that included a distinction in history, I didn’t pass my GCE “A” levels in literature. I had only passed Economics and GP. And it was no one’s fault but my own.

As one of my classmates had said to my face, “How can you fail literature when Dennis Scott is your teacher? How many of you were in that class?” I couldn’t answer him. There had been three other students beside myself in the class: Paul Brown, Paul Green and Nadi Edwards. We studied James Joyce, Shakespeare, and DH Lawrence. In six months after we had we finished with those writers, Dennis invited some of his friends to talk to us about their work: Christopher Gonzalez, Rex Nettleford and Lorna Goodison.

I had even acted in one of the school plays directed by Dennis, Twelfth Night, where I played a bewildered Antonio. Perhaps that was the only time when Dennis’ praise was not equal to my talent. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t know the material. Nor was it that I didn’t have a passion for literature. I didn’t have an answer. I only had my shame.

I couldn’t face him.

I walked away from the door. He may have called my name but I was long gone before he could rise from his chair. I never went back to Jamaica College even though I lived less than half a mile away. I wondered around Jamaica for a couple months feeling sorry for myself and slipping into a deep depression. What were you thinking? I asked myself. I could feel the envy rising in my chest every time I drove past the UWI Campus at Mona where I knew several of my friends were studying hard, reading the great books, laughing and talking about “Poor Philp. The others were attending Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and the ones we used to make fun of ended up in Columbia. And here I was trolling around the campus at night with other neer-do-wells, drinking and smoking, and occasionally bumping into writers like John Hearne at the Extramural Center and meeting one of his gifted students, Fragano Ledgister.

Of course, there was no shortage of reasons supplied by friends and family about my failure. “Too much playing football,” my mother said. But I had been given a chance to play for our Manning Cup team and I couldn’t turn them down. After many years of leaving the training squad a week before the final cut because I feared I would never make the team, Foggy Burrows came to my house and asked me to play for the team. When the regular coach, Dennis Zadie, came back he told me that I’d had a great chance at least once during the previous years, but I’d disappeared. He gave the spot to someone who had stayed around and showed up on the last day.

When Foggy recruited me and the reporter from The Star showed up at practice and in his article compared me to my brother, Ansel, who had played for Jamaica in the early sixties, I was elated. I hadn’t played a game and I was already famous. (Maybe I’d get my picture beside the Star's “Poster Girl.”) I played left wing, center forward, and mid-field and scored six goals during the season—three in one match against St. Catherine High. The girls in the stands loved it.

One the girls in the neighborhood asked me for the t-shirt that had my name on the back and she wore it to the community center. Later, I was told it don’t sit well with another young lady, “My Beatrice, my Penelope,” as I called her—names which she appreciated and I was convinced she was the only person on the planet who understood what the names meant.

Luckily, Beatrice who was smart enough to listen to her parents’ advice and to pass all of her “A” levels with distinctions continued her studies at UWI whereas I went on to play football for the Collector General’s football team where I scored nine goals and tied Bumpy Edwards for the most goals in the Civil Service League. I also learned how to play dominoes and how to drink.

After a year of hiding, however, I finally had to face Dennis. He was opening a new play and I wanted to see it. Dog was brilliant. It dissected Jamaican life and showed the mean, narrow prejudices that fuel our class and race warfare.

As the audience filed toward the exit, I went against the flow. Dennis was talking to one of the actors. “Great show, Dennis.” I choked out the words. He turned, looked at me and said, “Where have you been, man? How have you been? Are you all right?”

All I could say was, “Yes.”
Next, The End of the Beginning

Technorati tags:

June 21, 2006

Meeting Bob: Dub Version

Dub poet, Malachi Smith, sent me this via email. It was too good to add on to the Comments section of the post, “Meeting Bob” and it might have ended up being ignored, so here goes:

The first time I saw Bob was when he and the original Wailers performed on a Michael Manley campaign stop at Prison Oval in Spanish Town, St. Catherine. He was "red." Bunny and Peter hugged every time he tried to skank away, and it appeared as if he would lose his balance and fall. It was a great concert with the likes Judy Mowatt, Heptones, Gay Lads, Meditations, Derrick Harriott, Clancy Eccles, Max Romero and others.

The first time I met him in person, I was starring in Stafford Harrison's "Unsung Heroes out West" with Bob Andy, John Jones, Winston McEnuff, Earl Sixteen, and Zap Pow. During a performance of the play at the Ward Theatre, we heard that Peter Tosh had been arrested at Half-Way-Tree. At that time, I was stationed at Half-Way-Tree Police Station, so two card loads of us drove swiftly to the station. And, just as we pulled in, Bob Marley pulled into the police station and Charmaine Hemmings, who was driving the Minny Minor I rode in, parked beside his car.

Bob calmly asked where his brother was. He was told in the guard room by the sergeant and we followed behind Bob as he made his way up the station's side steps and into the public's section of the guard room. Peter was sitting down in a corner mad as a lion. Bob tried to talk to Peter, but Peter didn't respond. Bob called us all aside, said Peter was his brother, “A so 'im stay so mi nuh waa no body lick him" Bob then signed Peter's bail bond and then he left.

The second time I met him, it was a bit more personal. I was a member of a special operations team that was conducting a weekend man hunt for a gunman by the name of Hammer who had gunned down a Jamaican soldier. Hammer lived in the Hermitage area of August Town and while we were on the operation, I was driving the vehicle, one of the officers, a Special Constable by the name of Kowell, who was stationed at Half-Way-Tree, asked me to drive down to Tuff Gong so he could see his brother who was in town. Of course, we asked him who was his brother was, and he said Bob. We all laughed at him. 

At which time, he told us how he grew up with Bob, Peter, Bunny, the others and told us that he was an original member of the group. We still didn't believe him, but, any way, I decided to drive down to Tuff Gong. As I turned the Toyota Land Cruiser into the drive way, I saw Bob sitting down on the lower steps of the complex's front door. I stopped right where he was. He looked up, saw Kowell, and left to his feet. Kowell jumped out the vehicle and they hugged and squeezed and sized up each other in a celebration of love. Bob was like "Wha a gwaan mi bredda." He and Kowell had a long talk and of course, we drove out of Tuff Gong knowing another side of the gong.


New Poem in The Picolata Review

The inaugural issue of The Picolata Review is now online.

Here are some of the highlights:

Lisa Coutant's interview with Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin

New poetry from Riki Garcia Rebel, Gol McAdams, Geoffrey Philp, and Santiago B. Villafania

Fiction from Jamie Ford, Hannah Pfeifel, and Jeff Neale

An excerpt from Janet Thorning's debut novel, The Resurrection of My Heart
Debra Hamel's review of Peter Pouncey's Rules for Old Men Waiting

An interview with Dan Wickett, founder of the Emerging Writers Network

A memoir of Rachmaninoff's favorite pianist, Princess Caterina by her grandson Prince Louis Richard de la pau.


June 18, 2006

Why I Read

Geoffrey PhilpThe red, scowling Devil sitting on a brown rock over a lake of condemned souls where angels from afar hovered while being mocked by a scourge of howling demons frightened me. On those days when I thought my ten year old world was falling apart around me with the noise of my cousins playing under the mango tree and the thought that my father was never coming home again, I would go into my mother’s room, put the stool near the rack in her closet where she hid all her carouchies and find the book, probably written by Ellen G. White or some other Seventh Day Adventist writer, that she had tucked away because she knew the effect that books like that had on my hyperactive imagination. But, I guess, my mother hiding things was part of the game that we played as mother and son. She would hide things and I would find them. It worked the same way with things like her sinfully delicious chocolate fudge that she locked away in the China cabinet. I figured out a way to get to the fudge by learning how to pick locks--thus beginning my criminal career.

But it was always books that held a special place for me because they seemed to hold secrets in plain view. All you had to do was open the covers. The secrets held knowledge and knowledge was power. For if you could remember certain passages, especially from the book of books, that were common enough to be remembered, but obscure enough to defy placement, like Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger,” and then repeat the passages at the appropriate time, chapter and verse, teachers and the most fearsome looking, dreadlocked Rastaman, would nod-- you would have earned their respect. Books could do that.

So when my mother left her Seventh Day Adventist books behind and began reading the Watchtower and Awake! of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I followed right behind her. Of course, by then I was living a parallel life (in more ways than one) that began with other books I’d been reading at the Tom Redcam library and at Jamaica College.

The library at Jamaica College changed me forever. It was an old fashioned library based on the Dewey Decimal System with the cards in the back flap. The names of all the people who had previously borrowed the books were written on the cards. So, by the time I was sixteen and the librarian at Jamaica College left due to health concerns, I volunteered to take over the running of the library. And they let me. I was a trustworthy young man who went to church every Sunday.

I was in heaven. I got to read all the books before they went on the shelf. I can still remember the smell of a box I opened and right on top was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. I took it home and read it over the weekend--eager for more. And there was more. For I could now borrow as many books as I wanted and didn’t have to spend my lunch money buying books down at Sangster’s in Liguanea and facing the old lady who always thought we wanted to read Playboy. Okay, yeah. I was sixteen and horny. All I wanted to do was peek. I couldn’t carry them home or else I know my father would have come back home. But this time with a belt.

I began in the 800 section of Jamaica College’s library and began reading Jane Austen through Eliot and got as far as Trollope (we didn’t have much American literature). I would have gotten further, but I was held up by James Joyce’s Ulysses. I’d been following the reading patterns of my teacher, Dennis Scott, a JC alumnus, and borrowing all the books he had read by reading the cards stuck in the back of the book. Years later he would confess that he’s barely read ten pages of Ulysses while I had trudged through the whole thing.

Over the summer between lower and upper sixth form, I can still remember sitting out on the verandah at my home in Mona Heights reading The Myth of Sisyphus while waiting for my friends to call me to come and play football. They thought I was strange, but I was a good midfielder, so what the hell, they always called me. In time, I overcame the feeling of being strange when I learned Camus was also a football player. The hardest prejudice that I had to overcome, however, came in the form of concerned sneers of my mother and her friends. They would say, “To the making of many books there is no end, and much devotion [to them] is wearisome to the flesh, Ecclesiastes 12:12.”

I had to get past the communal attitudes fostered by a culture that ostensibly valued books and knowledge, yet feared and despised them at the same time. But the more I read, the more I realized that I wasn’t alone and that there were millions of people like me. I was relieved when I read Section 2 in Chapter Seven of Another Life: “I was seized by a pity more profound/ than my young body could bear,” and realized that I wasn’t mad. The fear of insanity “madness,” plagues the Jamaican psyche and reading too many books, according to many of my mother’s friends, filling my head with “the wisdom of the world in books” would drive me mad. Then they would tell me horror stories of UWI students, especially in law and medicine, who went mad from “book learning.”

But I kept on reading. I learned how to be with myself and that being alone wasn’t a bad thing. Some of my friends like Sonia Jones, Danny Morrison, Michael Witter, and Dennis Scott would lend me books that they thought I would enjoy. They were right. I would read Mervyn Morris for faith, Martin Carter for hope, and Derek Walcott for love. I would read Naipaul for humor. I was up in the tree with Man-Man when the people were throwing rocks at him and I was throwing rocks at him too. I learned more about tolerance and diversity from Edgar Mittelholzer’s, A Morning in the Office, than I did from any of my teachers at JC, especially my Bible knowledge teachers--who I now realize probably hated my guts because I was a bit of a showoff and would often parry scriptures with them. What can I say? I was young and they should have known better. Boys as they grow older will challenge the men in their lives about everything--it’s only natural.

I also read for pleasure. I loved stories with plausible plots that didn’t lead me to ask, as I do when watching television, “Now, why would they do that?” to which my son usually says, “Because it’s in the script, Dad.” I read stories with interesting dialogue between characters to whom I feel some attraction or characters whom I find reprehensible, yet they are so interesting that I want to find out what’s going to happen next.

It was this curiosity about things that were happening all around me that kept drawing me back to the books. Growing up in Jamaica, bombarded by the media on all sides, I wanted to know what was really “out there.” Growing up, too, in cosmopolitan Mona Heights where the flimsy façade of race was apparent—all our fathers and their father’s fathers from India, China, Scotland, and Africa were equally foolish after a game of dominoes and drinking a few rounds of Appleton.

Books took me away from my neighborhood. They added to my experiences and gave me a broader perspective on the lives that surrounded me. This is why I sometimes feel an immense pity for my North American friends who because of race cannot enter the full partnership of author and characters because they are bound by notions of race. It may smack of Walcott’s “parochialism,” but my reading and writing begin with the Caribbean. As an aside, when it comes to the people for whom I write, I always assume a Jamaican/ Caribbean audience. Writing a book is like telling a joke, and if you have to explain a joke, it loses its meaning. It’s also pandering. If you have to explain it, you’re telling it to the wrong people. Stand firm. If you tell it right, they will come.

And I keep coming back for more. My love for reading began on a small island in the Caribbean and has grown to encompass the small universe that I have created. The red, scowling Devil doesn’t scare me any more. For I realize that the demons and the angels are also part of our imagination and our existence. I have been one of those demons. I have also been one of the angels weeping at the waste: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” In my small world, my library, the wolf and the lamb lie down together: Omeros sits beside The Arrivants; Love in a Time of Cholera nudges Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, July’s People leans on Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality, and all is well.


Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

June 13, 2006

Books I've Loved

Last week between annual reports, I visited the venerable Maud and found an interesting site, Field Tested Books, which was started on a simple premise: “The Field-Tested Books project is our version of the Heisenberg principle: reading a certain book in a certain place uniquely affects a person's experience with both. The writing you'll find here is grounded in that idea. You won't find any book reviews here. You'll find reviews of experience.”

And I thought, hmmm, maybe I should start some thing like that here. We’ll run it from June 1, 2006 to November 30, 2006 (Hurricane season).

My only stipulations are (1) the book you write about must be written by a Caribbean author, and (2) you must be honest. Please, don’t have your agent/relative/ student/ publicist/wife/mistress/boy toy write about your book, and say that you are the greatest poet since Aimé Césaire, or you used to give Jean Rhys pointers. And teachers, please don’t give this as an assignment to your students. If you really want to give them some work, have them research and submit entries (that meet their criteria) for Wikipedia about Caribbean writers. And to make this completely above board, none of my relatives/ students/ wives/ mistresses/ boy toys? (how the hell did that get in there?) can write about my novels or short stories. Not even for extra credit. No.

It’s not a book review. It’s a narrative about your encounter with a book by a Caribbean writer, “a review of experience.” Write one and I’ll put it up on the site. Send the submissions as an attachment to ephilp (at) mdc.edu and in the subject line, Books I’ve Loved.

Here are a few examples:

Whitney Pastorek
Ben Greenman
Jason Santa Maria
Maud Newton
Rosecrans Baldwin

PS. There is a great piece on cricket @ Field Tested Books: How to Explain the Rules of Cricket.

June 11, 2006

Imagine Miami

In the next few months, I will be participating in a series of lectures/panel discussions, Imagine Miami, which will be exploring the question of identity in South Florida. The lectures revolve around gender, ethnic, and cultural issues: “Being Gay and Bicultural,” “Arts as Activism in the Gay Community,” and “Art Bridging Ethnicities and Cultures.”

One of the ways that I intend to address the issue of identity in Miami is a reflection on Miami’s geographical location as a port/frontier city and as a Latin/Hispanic/Caribbean city in North America (Kingston 21, Havana North). Because of this fluidity, many people (myself included) have had the freedom to create identities and alliances that would normally have been frowned upon in our homelands.

In my case, it has been an expansion of my political views which were forged in Jamaica during the seventies. Specifically, this has meant a rejection of “brown” status—Edgar Mittelholzer called it “the spite of shade.”“Brown” does not refer to the color of skin per se, but a set of values/attitudes/ afforded to and adopted by a minority in the Caribbean as a means of excluding the majority of people in the Caribbean who are labeled “black.”

But even the term “brown” is amorphous enough for anyone to see through its absurdity, and realize like all other constructs around race that these exist in political and social contexts.If you are “brown” in Miami, it means that you are “black” in the United States. The definition of “black” in America is similar to Roy Cohn’s speech in Angels in America, and if you substitute “black” for homosexuals (his words not mine), it means the same thing: “Blacks are people, who in 15 years of trying cannot pass a pissant anti-discrimination bill through city council. Blacks know nobody. And who nobody knows. Who have zero clout!” According to Cohn’s definition, who would want to be “black” in America?

This is why I suspect many national groups from the Caribbean (although it takes on a slightly different meaning in the Caribbean having to do with Africa, “bad hair,” misery, AIDS, and dirt) prefer to identify themselves as Jamaican, Haitian, Trinidadian, and Barbadian. Many demagogues like to play this up that Caribbean/West Indians (read Jamaicans) think that they are better than everyone else. For the record, Jamaicans think that they are better than everyone else. But that’s another issue. For given the choice of being labeled powerless, this is the stereotype of African-Americans/blacks in America, many people from the Caribbean hang on to their national identities. What’s a brother or sister got to do?

But in the Caribbean, if you have “brown” skin color or ascribe to certain ideas that marginalize the majority of “blacks” (starting with sometimes with skin color, but can include class, color, and connections) in your own country, this means access to a series of entitlements and privileges normally reserved for European “whites.”

In Miami, if you are Cuban, you are “white,” but if you move to Georgia, you are Hispanic. If you’re Cuban and move to Texas, you’re Mexican.

"Brown," "white," "black," are all political constructs, and my choice from the time I was in Jamaica was Black. I was Black before I came to Miami. Some of my “brown” brothers and sisters learned some hard lessons when they moved here.

My definition of Black is not something that was imposed on me because I could easily move back to Jamaica and assume all the rights and privileges of a “brown” man in Jamaica (or the Caribbean for that matter), but I reject that too. Besides, I don’t think I look good in a Scottish kilt.

Black is a political statement that goes beyond melanin and assumes solidarity with the majority of brothers and sisters who have emerged from Plantation America. Black is the refusal to accept the status of property (or any attempt to return to that status) and the affirmation of the right to breathe, to live, and to speak. Black is an acceptance of other ways of being in the world that is not limited to a Manichean dialectic, but recognizes diversity in all its manifestations.

Black is not a curse, but a blessing. And from the vantage point of Miami, and seeing the fullness of expression from Barbados through Haiti up to Louisiana and the Carolinas, Black is a vibrant creativity to be embraced and enjoyed in the music, food, dance—all the cultural forms that make up Plantation America. If we fully embraced being Black, imagine the dignity that our brothers, sisters, and cousins would assume. Pull out any family album and think about the hell that our biological brothers, sisters, and cousins catch because they are a shade darker than a brown paper bag. And we do nothing.

But what if I’m from India or China, can I be Black? And why should I be Black when my father or my great grandfather came from China or India? All I can say is the realpolitik almost determines this response. America wants to be white. And as James Baldwin once said, “If you say you are white, then that forces me to be Black.” If these are the rules, then the rest of us—just as a matter of survival—better be Black.

Yeah, I know this is a big concern in Trinidad and especially Guyana, so I can only speak for myself and as a Jamaican. But I think that we, as Caribbean people, should wake up to how we are viewed in a global perspective, and realize that the infighting and civil war doesn’t help us. As Rex Nettleford explained in an essay published a million years ago, Caribbean Perspectives: The Creative Potential and the Quality of Life, “By the time the East Indians, Chinese and Syrians had arrived, the society had consolidated and formed it self. The dialectic of change and the underpinnings of the value system had been determined.” Not much has changed.

Remember when Tiger Woods tried to be called something else, Cablasian, and he was uniformly ridiculed? Most of our families in the Caribbean are Cablasian. Think about it. We could call it the Cablasian Sea? Yeah, that’s the ticket. The Cablasian Sea.

It would be nice to live in the Cablasian Sea if the kids didn’t come into my office battered and bruised, and part of the reason for the brutalization that they’ve suffered is because they’ve been called "black" for all their lives and nothing more is expected of them except to be “black.” And as the second generation comes along and they know they are not Jamaican and Haitian and…that they’re just plain “black,” then some of them because we’re working so hard at two and three jobs and our children turn into Malvos and Tates or become what America expects of “blacks”—nothing. This is not hateration, just plain talk.

I wish that the world wasn’t this way because as Nettleford argued in the essay, the Chinese, East Indian, Syrian cultures in the Caribbean enrich our lives. I will never forget the Trinidadian students who stayed with us in Mona, the Singhs, and their celebration of Divali in our backyard. What a beautiful sight! Or eating authentic Chinese food with the Chin Loys on Geranium Path in Mona. My life was made richer by these experiences, but they felt threatened when "Black Power" and socialism came to Jamaica. There weren't many heroes then. And if I had been older, I can only hope I would have been brave enough to speak up. But I doubt it. There was uneasiness on all sides. As Mervyn Morris illustrated in the poem, "To and Expatriate Friend,": "It hurt to see you go; but more, /it hurt to see you slowly going white." All of us were changing to either one side or the other because of the reality of American hegemony that split us into two camps: white and Black.

But if Black means all that I’ve just mentioned and it comes with reggae, Soca, reggaeton, and Carnival, then being Black is just irie.

June 9, 2006

Mambo Night @ The Luna Star Cafe

Cuban American poets Tucked away in a corner of North Miami is a cultural oasis, the Luna Star Café, that showcases poetry readings, live music, and an impressive beer list. Last night, five Cuban-American poets, Richard Blanco, Adrian Castro, Elisa Albo, Emma Trelles, and Sandra M. Castillo, read poems that bore the stamp of their contrasting perspectives. It was interesting to witness how they confronted their hyphenated identities through place, food, and music, and the theme of freedom in its manifestations of language and culture. It was also good to reconnect our lives that have been shaped by our choice to live and work in South Florida.

Cuban American poets

Elisa Albo, Sandra M. Castillo, Richard Blanco, and Adrian Castro

To view the rest of the night (that's available for public consumption), follow this link:


June 8, 2006

Happy Birthday, George Lamming

“Rain, rain…my mother put her head through the window to let the neighbour know that I was nine, and they flattered me with the consolation that my birthday had brought showers of blessings” (9). So begins George Lamming’s classic novel, In the Castle of my Skin, which on the surface appears to be the singular recollections of a child, G, but is also the story of a boy’s relationship with his mother, and by extension the island of Barbados. Through G’s eyes, we catch glimpses of the complexity of mother and son interactions within the context of colonialism and poverty in the Caribbean, and his negotiations with his friends and grownups that feed his imagination.

But we don’t read novels for treatises; we read them for complex characters, a plausible plot, and rich narrative. In the Castle of my Skin delivers all three. We watch G. as he examines his world with stunning accuracy while he paints loving portraits of his mother, his childhood friends, and his village. And Lamming’s prose while sweeping in its range and precise in its details, always pushes the boundary of the literal into the anagogical:

“They sat in the shade of the cherry tree that spread out over the fences in all directions. The roots were in one yard, but its body bulged forth into another, and the branches stuck out over three or four more” (24).

Many of Lamming’s critics often mention the historical and the political aspects of the novel, but many fail to mention the beauty of his prose:

“At the habitual hour the taps were turned on and life flowed as it had when the sun came out and movement from the crossroads to the shops had started.” (233).

For In the Castle of my Skin, and much much, more, give thanks, George Lamming.

June 6, 2006

Kamau Brathwaite Wins The Griffin Prize

Kamau BrathwaiteKamau Brathwaite, born in Barbados in 1930, is an internationally celebrated poet, performer, and cultural theorist. Co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement, he was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge and has a PhD from the University of Sussex in the UK. He has served on the board of directors of UNESCO’s History of Mankind project since 1979, and as cultural advisor to the government of Barbados from 1975-1979 and again since 1990. Brathwaite has received numerous awards, among them the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Bussa Award, the Casa de las Américas Prize, and the Charity Randall Prize for Performance and Written Poetry. He has received Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships, among many others. His book, The Zea Mexican Diary (1992) was The Village Voice Book of the Year. Brathwaite has authored many works, including Middle Passages (1994), Ancestors (2001) and The Development of Creole Society, 1770-1820 (2005).

Over the years, he has worked in the Ministry of Education in Ghana and taught at the University of the West Indies, Southern Illinois University, the University of Nairobi, Boston University, Holy Cross College, Yale University and was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Brathwaite is currently a professor of comparative literature at New York University. He divides his time between CowPastor, Barbados and New York City.

Judges’ Citation

“To read Kamau Brathwaite is to enter into an entire world of human histories and natural histories, beautiful landscapes and their destruction, children’s street songs, high lyricism, court documents, personal letters, literary criticism, sacred rites, eroticism and violence, the dead and the undead, confession and reportage. An epic of one man (containing multitudes) in the African diaspora, Brathwaite’s world even has its own orthography and typography, demanding total attention to the poem, forbidding casual glances. Born to Slow Horses is a major book from a major poet. Here political realities turn into musical complexities, voices overlap, history becomes mythology, spirits appear in photographs. And, in it what may well be the first enduring poem on the disaster of 9/11, Manhattan becomes another island in the poet’s personal archipelago, as the sounds of Coleman Hawkins transform into the words and witnesses and survivors. Throughout Born to Slow Horses, as in his earlier books, Brathwaite has invented a new linguistic music for subject matter that is all his own.”

the streets’ root is in the sea
in the deep

it is a long way from Guineé

but the gods still have their places
they can walk up out of the sea
into our houses

the street directs them upwards like blind incense
they find their way thru the rusty holes of our shacks’ innocence

From Born to Slow Horses
Copyright © 2005 by Kamau Brathwaite

More about Kamau Brathwaite

The following are links to other Web sites with information about poet Kamau Brathwaite. (Note: All links to external Web sites open in a new browser window.)


Kamau Brathwaite

June 1, 2006

Podcast of "Heirlooms"

Hurricane season began today and to celebrate the start, I’ve pulled a poem from the past.
What is it about us that loves to celebrate everything? Already I can smell the pot with curry goat cooking with the hot roti off the fire and rum flowing.And, of course, there is Bobby Antoni leading a crowd of revelers….

Here is the link to the podcast:


The poem, "Heirlooms," was first published in Florida Bound.