March 30, 2007

Color, Identity, and Candomblé in Brazil

Joel Gondim"Brazil is not just Pele, coffee, and Samba," said Joel Gondim as he began his presentation, "Color, Identity, and Candomblé in Brazil," in which he explored the African connection in Brazil, specifically Bahia where he lives, and the manifestations in food, music, and religion. "And the true wealth of Brazil," he continued, "comes from the fusion of the Africans, indigenous peoples, and the Portuguese."

It was this fusion, especially in the religious arena that led to the creation of syncretized religions such Candomblé and one of the more interesting aspects of Joel's lecture was his description of his preparation, the psychic cleansing by a babalorixá that he underwent before he came to America. He also explained the relationship between the orisha pantheon ( Shango, Olokun, Ifá, Yemoja, Osun, Obatala, Oshun, Ogun, Ochosi, Oko, Soponna, Oya and Esu|Legba), nature, and everyday life. In fact, today is Oxalá's day.



For more photos of "Color, Identity, and Candomblé in Brazil" which is part of the Conference on African Spirituality in the Americas (February/March 2008), click here: Candomblé.


March 28, 2007

Howzat! Books, creative writing workshops, and a Caribbean Canon.

Caribbean novelsI don’t know if it’s a form of linkbaiting, but book lists are popping up all over the Internet. One of the more interesting ones (via John Dufresne’s blog) from Newsweek features the following A-list critics and writers who discuss their Five Most Important Books:

In a roundabout way, voting for the Top Ten Caribbean Novels is trying to achieve a similar goal. However, as the Comments on my post and at Nicolette’s demonstrate, choosing the "best" books from the Caribbean is difficult because the books are as varied as writers. But as Nicolette said, we have to start somewhere, and a lack of consensus shouldn’t deter the effort. There isn’t much agreement among the Newsweek bunch either. And if we choose to avoid the issue because of difficulty or lack of agreement, then that may only lead to more problems.

For one, creative writing workshops are also now as ubiquitous as these surveys. And if we follow what my history teacher, Jimmy Carnegie, used to call “enlightened self-interest,” a discussion about the books that best represent the essence of Caribbean literature and life seems only logical. Now this shouldn’t be interpreted as narrow regionalism. Chaucer's pride in his "nation language" led to the creation of the Canterbury Tales, and had it not been for the rise of the British Empire, that bumpkin from Stratford-upon-Avon, would have probably remained a “local writer.” We have great writers from the Caribbean. And how could I call myself a Jamaican/Caribbean literary blogger if I ignored the talents of Naipaul, Lovelace, Rhys, and Lamming?

And then there’s the issue of time. Much as we would love to, we can’t read all the books that are being published, so we need a standard for aesthetic judgment. That’s why I began the list with fiction writers. From my experience of teaching creative writing workshops, fiction is not only easier to teach than poetry, it is also easier to evaluate. (Or are my standards are higher for poetry?)

For example, here’s a typical workshop question:

Write a poem or short story about playing cricket.

When I read a poem, I am expecting a cerebral/sensory/ emotional experience. Poetry asks complex questions within the details: the bok! when the ball meets my bat, the sweet stench of naseberries floating across the oval from a nearby field, dried saliva on my lips, blinking at the punishing sun, the wind billowing through my shirt, and lifting kites above my head.

The poem encapsulates that moment of infinity, the game, and the universe. It’s everything that led up to the moment, the moment itself, and what may happen after the moment has passed. And in the midst of everything, there is word choice for rhythm, connotation, denotation, wordplay, simile, and metaphor.

The poem delivers infinity. And then some.

A short story, on the other hand, asks very simple questions: What is the name of the bowler? The batsman? Where are they playing? What time is it? What’s happening? The writer supplies the information. The bowler’s name is George and the batsman’s name is Will. Protagonist or antagonist, take your pick. If George is the protagonist, I should care if he will be bowled out, so supply some background information about George and Will. They’ve hated each other since childhood or they’ve always been friends, but they must now be opponents because of the game. You decide.

They’re playing in Kingston, Jamaica and it’s late in the evening. You could also mention the sky, but that’s not really important. What’s really important is that it’s the last ball of the last over of the fifty over match and both teams are tied at 115 for five. The bowler cleans the ball on his thigh and prepares to make his run…

The main thing that a short story must deliver is what happens next: “He’s out!” or “Four!” Short stories are the autistic savants of fiction.

Of course, Naipaul, Lovelace, Rhys, and Lamming are asking more complex questions in their fictions, and few, if any, outside the region know about their work. Other Caribbean authors such as Olive Senior and Tony Winkler, who have been publishing outstanding literary fiction for years, have also gone unnoticed. It will be interesting to see the final count, and to see which books finally emerge from this very limited survey of books by Caribbean writers.

Voting ends this Friday: Vote for Your Top Ten Caribbean Novels


Give thanks to the readers who decided to Subscribe via E-mail or to Subscribe via Browser (Google, etc.). Got a spike in Feedburner yesterday.


March 26, 2007

Review of Kingdom of Empty Bellies

Jamaican writer Kei MillerFrom the moment I opened Kei Miller’s, Kingdom of Empty Bellies, I knew I was going to like it because of the juxtaposition of John 7:38, “For out of your bellies shall flow rivers of living water,” and Bob Marley's, “Them belly full, but we hungry.” For if anyone wants to understand Jamaica, they need to read the King James Version and listen to Bob Marley. Preferably both at the same time.

Still, I was a bit wary. Reading a book of poems is like entering a relationship. Some people can talk a great talk, but can they walk the talk? By this I mean, after reading the book will I have a deeper understanding of the subjects about which the poet has chosen to write? Has the poet crafted the poem (sound and sense), so that I can dive headlong into the poem and perhaps encounter beauty?

“Mother” and “Hats” from the first section of the book, “Church Women,” allayed those fears. The poem describes a Jamaican matriarch whose sole mission is to save “sinners, whom she crushes/ to her chest shouting, Jesus! / Jesus! until the evil breaks.” In “Hats,” which is told from the perspective of a child, the speaker confesses:

The boy will not see the majesty

In these women;

He will not understand their purple claim:

We are not God’s children!

We are his wives.

The rest of the poems in the section introduce us to the world of these women whom I have often glanced on a Sunday morning through my car window as they urge a gaggle of children up a hill to a small chapel where they “will strip Britain/ off their tongues, allowing them to dance free.” And in a country as hard as Jamaica, I've often asked myself, what makes them continue?

“In Dream Country” the second section of the book, “Granna’s Eyes” answers that question with the haunting refrain:

Is de ocean

de blue blue ocean

in mi eye, in mi eye

Is de ocean

de endless ocean

in mi eye, in mi eye

It is beauty and terror. Terror and beauty. In this section, Miller exposes the dreams/fears of his immediate family and the color red assumes a different meaning from the associations in the first section: the "red flowers laid at the altar" ("Communion") and the "red banner" of Sister Sybil ("War Dance"). In the poem, “On Arson and Parachutes," red is not only the color of unrequited love, but also of Aunt Valda's murderous passion.

At family dinners, she was the one who danced

always in a new red dress

and hugging her, the sharp smell

of kerosene would rise as a ghost

from behind her ears.

When passion is turned inward it becomes destructive, and the men in the third section, “Rum Bar Stories,” are as intent on damnation as the women are insistent on salvation. The poems “Sunset Glow,” “Liza’s Love” and “Jamaica Dream” are the names of popular cocktails, which as Edward Baugh points out in the Caribbean Review of Books, “Kingdom Come,” "represent the contrast between the upscale life they [the drinks] represent and the unglamorous reality of the lives of the men in the poems.” And the aptly titled “Drink and Die," reveals not only the incongruity of the speaker's life and his surroundings, but also his realization of impending mortality:

And Paul, these days I feel

my bones being pulled

into the earth

and my skin lifting

to show the duppy-self

underneath. So I know

I coming, Paul, real soon.

The poems in Kingdom of Hungry Bellies do not have the usual props and tricks that much of contemporary poetry uses to dazzle and befuddle the uninitiated. Miller doesn't need to. Instead the assured tone of the poems convinces the reader that Miller not only understands the joy and terror of intimate relationships, but more importantly, beauty made real by poetry.


Voting ends this week for the Top Ten Caribbean Novels;


March 23, 2007

Birthday Meme

I’m passing along this Birthday meme from Rethabile.

Go to Wikipedia and type in your birthday, month and day only

List 3 events that occurred on that day

List 2 important birthdays

List one notable transition

List a holiday or observance (if any)

Tag five of your friends.

1. March 14

2. Three events

3. Two Birthdays

4. One notable transition

5. Holiday(s)

6. Tag Five Friends


PS. While you’re at it, Vote for Your Top Ten Caribbean Novels.

Ha! Thought you were going to get away for the weekend? Have a great one!


March 22, 2007

A Poem for the Innocents

A Poem for the Innocents

A killing moon peeks through leaves

of the trumpet trees in full bloom

for Lent, their barks still scarred

by the wild strokes of a machete

when my son tried to help me weed

our garden, overrun with dandelions,

carpeted with petals, a bounty of seed

and thorns, side by side, under clusters

of suns bursting through the branches.

Shadows flicker across the wall

over Buzz Lightyear’s grin, Mr. Potato

Head’s sigh, a collection of cards

and Harry Potter books under a map

dotted with the cities that fill his dreams.

What promises will I make

when I climb the stairs before

he falls asleep to the noise

of the television with cluster

bombs blooming in the sky

over Baghdad? What comfort

can I give him as I draw the sheets

over his shoulders, kiss his forehead,

when he worries that if he closes his eyes,

his aunt, Batsheva, half a world away,

will not rise from her bed in Gan Yavne,

thirty-seven miles west of Ramah

where Rachel wept for her children

because they were dead

and refused to be comforted--

who could stop her tears?

The map over his bed frightens him,

and I cannot convince my son

despite the miles and miles of oceans

and deserts that the machete he has hidden

under his bed will not make him safer,

any more than the sacrifice of innocents

will save us, for he knows,

he knows, somewhere

between the Tigris and Euphrates,

a wave of steel races toward Babylon.

March 22, 2003


A Mother's Legacy: The Gift of Laughter

African-American writer Preston AllenIt had always been there, but I never saw it. Or perhaps I was too close. Although I can’t see why. No, a better answer is that I was focused so much on Preston’s talents as a writer and teacher, and it took a funeral for me to notice.

On Sunday, March 18, 2007, the funeral for Iris Eleanor Gale Allen, Preston’s mother (or Aunty Iris as her family called her) was held at Mount Pisgah Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Although she had been ailing for some time, her death came as a shock, for no one’s ever prepared for a parent’s death. It was especially hard on Preston’s son, Quinn, who had grown into a fine young man from the Yugio trading boy who had attended my twentieth wedding anniversary four years ago. Yet here he was, standing beside his father and three uncles, and when the time came for his reflection, a poem Preston had written, Quinn read with poise and eloquence beyond his twelve years. Although I never met her, I can say Aunty Iris (I am claiming this intimacy) would have been proud. For in a way, I did know her. She reminded me in many ways of my mother.

One of the main reasons for my friendship with Preston has been the remarkable similarities in our lives. Besides growing up in the Caribbean and trying to figure out our place in the diaspora, Preston and I were brought up by matriarchs who were grounded in fundamentalist religions. We both went to colleges in Florida, met our wives at Miami-Dade College, and we’ve both lived and worked as writers/teachers in Miami for the past twenty years. Sometimes when I stroll over to the English department, my former colleagues remind me of the afternoons when they’d eavesdrop on the conversations that Preston and I would have about O’Connor, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Pushkin, and the Miami Dolphins.

We’d open the doors to our offices that faced each other, our brains still on fire from writing all morning, and grade papers, trade manuscripts, and crack jokes. In fact, that’s what I remember most about those conversations. Our laughter. Preston has a great sense of humor. He once told me about his starving student days (he still has to write about them) and how he “volunteered” to become a patient for some dentist interns on the condition that he would release the university from all indemnity. He signed the forms, got eighty dollars, and he’s been in pain ever since. Although he was describing a horrible experience, the way he told the story (I’m laughing even as I write this) was so funny, I had tears in my eyes from the laughter. We spent many evenings like this: telling jokes, trading stories, and laughing.

Late in the evening after the din and clamor, we’d settle into a pattern of quietly talking about our deepest fears and desires. Would we make it as writers? After so many rejections, should we try self publishing? Would we get a review in the Herald? Would we get promoted this year? Would we turn out like our fathers? For we wanted to be better than our fathers. We wanted to be generative, supportive, protective men for everyone in our lives.

Yet when I got the e-mail about the funeral at a Seventh-Day Adventist church, I was a bit hesitant. It had been a long time since I’d been to an Adventist meeting, and my wife, good Catholic that she is, had never ventured inside those Protestant doors. We sat in the pews and waited as the family and extended family filed in, and once the invocation was given, it seemed as if we were in a regular American church with readings from the Old and New Testaments. However, once the reflections began, it was clear that we were at a Caribbean/Honduran funeral with the requisite singing of every single verse of hymns such as “as “In Times Like These (You Need a Savior)” and sermon by fiery preacher--Jonathan Edwards with a West Indian accent.

As we sweated through the sermon that ended the service, what struck me more than the preacher’s exhortations was the deep sincerity and appreciation that the speakers and the audience had for Aunty Iris. Many had come from all parts of the world to honor a woman who had given assistance in any way that she could—sometimes opening her door to strangers who stayed days, weeks, months, or years in her home (another thing Preston and I have in common). Speaker after speaker commented on her kindness, and I couldn’t help but think, how many of us, as sophisticated as we are and locked away in the hermetic cells of academia, have touched lives in such as profound was as this simple woman from Roatan? How many people are going to show up at our funerals, not to talk about how our books, or ideas influenced their lives, but how we provided, food clothing, or shelter without thinking about the IRS deduction? And Aunty Iris went beyond that. The “fatherless boys" testified about how she drove around in her station wagon and took them to church on Sabbath. Many were thankful that Aunty Iris, despite the fact that they had sometimes fallen by the wayside, always loved them and stood by them in times of need: “Whenever she was in the room, we knew everything would be all right”.

And when the time came for Preston and his brothers to speak, in the midst of the congregation and although he was the shortest (“We got the height and he got the brains,” Cameron explained), Preston was slowly, before my eyes, assuming a gravitas that I had never seen before, and his wife, brothers, son, mother-in law, the entire congregation watched the transformation in awe. Preston spoke about his mother's legacy and her sense of humor. He reaffirmed the bond that a mother and son share, especially when a father is not present. He knew he could call her up at any time and talk to her about anything and she would listen. Even though she was a Christian woman, Aunty Iris would listen to everything because she, too, had lived. She knew about this world that breaks the heart of its lovers, and still she laughed. Whether she was in pain or nearly comatose, she taught him always “to be of good cheer.” It felt good to be in the midst of the congregation and to listen to Preston speak about the value of a life lived in the service of others and delivered with a gentle wit and compassion. Preston's homily had more of an impact on me than the preacher’s rant.

And when we came outside into the midday sun where the hearse waited to take his mother’s body to its final resting place, we could hear the laughter of Aunty Iris in the voices of her sons, grandsons and all the fatherless boys of Miami. Aunty Iris was probably smiling and laughing as we cried and laughed during the service. I know she was. I heard your laughter, Aunty Iris. I also saw your son transform into the man he always wanted to be--the man you knew he always was—that I and the host of witnesses now saw. And I knew you (and all the saints who were smiling and laughing) were proud.



March 21, 2007

I Google, therefore I am

I GoogleI don’t know if the Latin is correct, probably, Googlo, ergo sum, but Kenneth Goldsmith’s post “If It Doesn't Exist on the Internet, It Doesn't Exist” highlights the central issues of the digital revolution and its implications for writers, scholars, and public intellectuals.

Here are a few highlights from Goldsmith’s post:

“If it's not networked, it doesn't exist; if it's not able to be shared, it doesn't exist. Older media needs to be digitized in order to exist.”

“What do publishing houses and magazines do for their authors? In our field, they generally don't make them rich; instead, they create a context, a framework for the work to exist. The benefits of academic publication are almost always oblique: credibility, speaking engagements, job credentials, etc. With the web, we can extend the benefits of book publishing to enhance both our careers and the institution with which we are affiliated.”

“Like publishing or academic affiliation, blogging creates another type of community: peer-based consensus garners credibility. Blogging opens up instantaneous discourse with a group of like-minded thinkers.”

And my favorite:

“It is our obligation as educators and intellectuals to make sure that the bulk of our production ends up there, preferably with free and unfettered access to all. This means not making materials available only for those affiliated with our institution, our students, or our colleagues, but giving free and unfettered access for all. Doing so means posting our works on the world wide web so that anyone, anywhere, at any time can have access to them. In this way, we will ensure that our work exists.”

This is true particularly in the case of minority writers whose subjects and work are frequently ignored by the mainstream media and the general public. Since I started blogging, the opportunities and threats of the new digital media have been clarified even as I engage in this highly recursive activity.

  • The media revolution is driven by stories of sex, power, and money. Sometimes the digital trinity transubstantiates into one. In the midst of the We Media Conference in Miami when we were talking about global warming, women’s rights, and Libyan jails, we watched the news about Anna Nicole Smith climb the Technorati charts like a newly discovered Elvis song. Some of the panelists were rightly disheartened. But as a teacher/ writer, I have chosen the vocation of educating the next generation and while some may lament the attention given to these subjects that will come and go, my attention remains fixed on those things that within the culture that are “grave and constant” and excellent. Instead of locking away and putting up more barriers to access, how can we preserve the legacy of our writers? How many books have we lost? How many books will we lose when the digital revolution is finally realized? I have a battered copy of Reel from “The Life Movie.” How many more exist?

  • I love the vision of Wikipedia and the language used to describe the subjects should remain that way. But the kind of dispassionate writing that we expect from an encyclopedia and academic writing (I hear you, Professor Zero) makes it seem as if the phenomenon was inevitable. For example, my post on dub poetry talks about the resistance that these poets met. The post came about via a question from a young writer/student. Our young writers and students need to know that there was a struggle and these facts cannot be glossed over. Sometimes our losses are amplified because we think NO ONE has ever struggled like we did. Then, we read about the previous struggles of our artists, and we realize that we need to press on with the efforts to preserve the digital memory of our writers. If we don’t do it, no one else will.

The digital revolution will change how we read and what we will read in the near future. We should also be asking, what will be preserved?


In case you missed it, here's Derek Walcott on NPR:

Derek Walcott: A Life in Poetry


March 18, 2007

Vote for Your Top Ten Caribbean Novels

Vote for Caribbean NovelsFirst, give thanks to all those who submitted your choices to the “Top Ten Caribbean Novels” which closed on Friday, March 16, 2007 @ 4:30 pm. The voting begins today and will end on March 30, 2007 @ 4:30 pm.

I’ve posted the list of submissions here and they are listed alphabetically here. I could have organized the voting based on the actual choices in each category, but I decided that the most equitable method was to list any book that received two or more submissions.

Now I realize that some caveats need to be listed:

1. The submissions were limited (as far as I can tell) to readers of Allyuh, Caribbean Beat, BlogWorld, and my blog.

2. Although I have problems with book polls and surveys (I agree with Eliot’s thesis in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), there were two reasons why I decided to run this series:

a. Intellectual curiosity

b. Create expanded readership for the blog

3. In the post, which was a response to a meme, I should have said that my choices were based on the direct influence that these books had on my own work. Those aside, I submitted the names of twelve books that were not included in that post.

4. I did not submit any of my work nor the work of my friends. We’re big people. We can take care of ourselves.

These are the final choices from the submissions. I am very interested in any comments about this process and especially about the books that made the final cut.

Coda (3/19/2007): You can now make up to 10 choices.

Please do not be intimidated by the list or if you haven't read all 12. Vote for what YOU got!

Vote for Your Top Ten Caribbean Novels

A House for Mister Biswas by V.S. Naipaul.
Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Brother Man by Roger Mais.
In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Miguel Street by VS Naipaul
Minty Alley by CLR James
The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart.
The Children of Sisyphus by Orlando Patterson
The Dragon Can't Dance By Earl Lovelace
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Free polls from


March 16, 2007

Dub Poetry: A Primer

Malachi SmithThe origins of dub poetry begin somewhere between the dancehalls of Kingston and London and the work of poets such as Kamau Brathwaite. Unlike traditional poetry, dub poetry emphasizes sound (repetition, rhyme, and word play) rather than sense (imagery, metaphor, simile) to convey themes of social (in)justice. Besides the subtle racism and class warfare that greeted their work, the earliest pioneers of dub poetry, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Oku Onoura, Benjamin Zephaniah, Malachi Smith, Mutabaruka, and Mikey Smith, confronted resistance, especially in Jamaica, because it was thought that sense (imagery, metaphor, simile) was sacrificed to sound. However, in the best dub poetry there is a fusion of sound and sense that is emotionally stirring, and many who have been trained to mistrust their emotions often find these sensations uncomfortable. At its worst, there’s a monotonous obedience to sound that produces the same effect as poems that rely only on sense—boredom in the audience. In many ways, dub poetry resembles the chanting style of dancehall deejays, but whereas the deejay is bound to the riddim track, the dub poet experiments with words/sounds (almost like a jazz musician) and transcription to the page aims at reproducing the effect of the beat.

As Malachi Smith explained in the dub-u-mentary, Dub Poetry: The Life and Work of Malachi Smith, his dub poems usually come from a beat suggested by the cadence of the refrain which is repeated throughout the poem and acts as a mnemonic device in long compositions. From the first composition to the performance, the poem is revised primarily to the demands of the rhythm. This process can take anywhere from a few hours to several months before the poem is ready for performance on the stage, in a recording studio or publication in a book or magazine.

Several dub poets such as Oku Onoura have been successful with CD sales, stage performances, and book publication. In this excerpt from “Reflection in Red” Onoura demonstrates some of the devices he has frequently used: repetition, rhyme, and word play with the word, “red” which assumes multiple meanings associated with blood, allusions to the music of Peter Tosh, and Babylon the Great of the Apocalypse. These poetic devices are controlled by the theme of a lack of social justice and the rhythm and rhyme reinforce the theme.

Reflection in Red

an de beat

well red

an de scene

well dred

an de man

dem a loot

an shoot

an de fia

a bun

an de blud a run

an some people

doa’ know

weh fi tun

By the use of “nation language,” enjambment, rhyme, repetition, and inventive use of the word, “red,” Onoura creates with sound and imagery, the experience of dread during the seventies in Jamaica. The staccato lines build throughout the poem and sometimes with the use of repetition, similar to the echo of an old tube amplifier, he emphasizes one of the main ideas of the poem;

no peace

no peace



dere’s equal rites

equal rites

an/ justice





Dub poetry has evolved from the early years of being dominated by male poets and in recent years, dub poets such as Dibi Young and Lillian Allen have risen to prominence and are widely praised within the genre for expanding the concerns of dub poetry to broader and more inclusive themes that deal with injustice against women and the empowerment of women.


Today is the last day for submission: “The Top Ten Caribbean Novels”



March 14, 2007

I am Pi

I am Pi

I am Pi truncated by forty-nine decimal points


For the past three days, I’ve been on vacation (I hadn’t taken one in three years), and I’ve fallen back into the old rhythm of writing that I’d practiced when I taught five, six, sometimes seven classes at Miami Dade College. I’d get up in the morning, shower, help my wife to fix breakfast for the kids, drive our eldest child to elementary school, and then come home at around nine and write until about noon.

I’d then take a walk around the neighborhood, come back home, pick up the kids from school, fix dinner, wait with the kids until my wife came home, and then go to the college where I’d grade papers, meet with my students, and teach until about nine o’clock. On the drive home, I’d think about what my characters would be doing, what the next poem would be about, would I be able to pay the light bill, afford braces for the kids, or did my wife still love me? I’d come home, shower, watch Johnny Carson with my wife, fall asleep, and begin the day all over again.

I did this for many years and experienced this rhythm most acutely during the year when I was writing hurricane center, which was a response to Derek Walcott’s Midsummer. In order to write hurricane center, I set myself the task of writing at least one poem per week for I was trying to mimic the yearly cycle of those who have chosen to live in the direct path of hurricanes. You see, hurricanes have always fascinated me, and what better place to live than in South Florida where the responses to hurricanes range from fear to morbid curiosity? The hurricane was not only a physical threat, but also became a symbol of the existential crisis that Camus (my favorite philosopher) described in The Myth of Sisyphus.

Those were the good old days. And all things grow and change.

As the family and I grew older and more responsibilities came, the old rhythms were disrupted. I adapted to them, including the most recent—being a chairperson of a department. I’ve had to use a whole new range of skills and discover ways of dealing with colleagues in a unionized environment where roles are delineated by a contract, but the day-to-day tasks rely on human trust and motivations which are not mentioned in the contract.

I had to create a new rhythm that would take into account my family, my creative life, and my role as a supervisor in a department of over 2,500 students and seventy employees.

In many ways, blogging has helped me to find this new rhythm. But sometimes I wonder, how long will this last? Will I be able to adapt to Web 3.0 and all the other changes that are bound to come? Who knows? The task at hand is to find meaning in pushing these words across the page. Some days it’s difficult and some days it’s exhilarating. But writing can't be done while waiting for applause. I’ve learned that the hard way.

And what’s left at the end of the day? Perhaps a good meal with my wife and family, sipping a glass of wine, watching Jeopardy with my wife while the kids watch anime, listen to God Smack, or rail about Dick Cheney, and finally falling asleep on the sofa.

Ah, glorious day!


March 13, 2007

New Book Social News Site: Wordsy

WordsyWordsy, a new social news site, is still in beta, but looks great for book lovers. For those of us who couldn't get "a comma in edgewise" over at Digg, this is a great alternative.

Give thanks to John Baker's Blog for the news about this.

New Book: Unburnable by Marie-Elena John

Marie-Elena JohnHaunted by scandal and secrets, Lillian Baptiste fled Dominica when she was fourteen after discovering she was the daughter of Iris, the half-crazy woman whose life was told of in chanté mas songs sung during Carnival: songs about a village on a mountaintop littered with secrets, masquerades that supposedly fly and wreak havoc, and a man who suddenly and mysteriously dropped dead.

After twenty years away, Lillian returns to her island of birth to face the demons of her past, and with the help of Teddy, a man who has loved her for many years, she may yet find a way to heal.

Set in both contemporary Washington, D.C. and Dominica, and switching back and forth between contemporary and historical stories, Unburnable traverses literary genres and defies an easy label: page-turner, love story, historical fiction, and murder mystery. The story -- richly textured and lushly rendered--weaves together Caribbean history, African culture, and American sensibilities, and the revelations of its final pages bring to light an important, but little-known aspect of Caribbean history.

Unburnable by Marie-Elena John


Hardcover: 304 pages

Publisher: Amistad

ISBN-10: 0060837578

ISBN-13: 978-0060837570



March 12, 2007

Literary Immortality

Books from Geoffrey Philps LibraryIn two recent posts at the Poetry Foundation’s blog, “Inspired to Last” and “Poems that Last Take Two,” Kwame Dawes tackled the very difficult subject of literature and longevity, or to put it in the form of the interrogative, what makes a poem, play or novel memorable? What makes literature great? Besides the quality of the work itself (which is the only thing over which the writer has any control) memorability resides within the community.

Of course, the a priori assumptions of memorability are that the community has the interest and confidence to believe that it can produce something memorable and that there is a strong sense of continuity. In other words, are there citizens who are committed to the preservation of cultural artifacts? Are they asking questions such as, should this work be preserved? Who is currently producing memorable work? What makes this work worthy of preservation? What are the qualities in the work that warrant preservation? The criteria for preservation should grow organically out of the community’s sense of identity and its desire to extend that identity into the future. If these conditions are not present, then the questions are moot.

But without extending the dialogue into the future, what makes a work of literature memorable right now? If the writer has done her work (interesting characters, startling imagery, excellent word choice—a combination of sound and sense that engages the emotional and intellectual centers), then the quality that must be present within the community is empathy—the ability of the readers to be able to say, this is me or this could be me. The ability to empathize or to put oneself in someone else’s place arises from the imagination and compassion.

It may be argued that these are innate human characteristics, but within a work of literature, the application of these qualities is shaped by the act of reading. First, the reader has to be willing to enter the work compassionately and imaginatively, and then read or discern patterns within the work. If the writer has done her job, the clues are buried in the text. They are always buried in the text. So when Mabrak in Dream on Monkey Mountain, surrounded by Baron Samedi and the sounds of African drums, begs for a bottle of rum and is rebuffed, and he says, “You call yourself a Catholic?” we realize that Walcott is invoking a search for identity within the communion of the Caribbean. This kind of reading produces a kind of excitement that prickles the senses.

But reading is not only an elaborate detective game. It’s also about the pleasure of words. That indescribable feeling that is produced from the right placement of words that not only describes the subject, but allows entry into a wider range of feelings and emotions. Sometimes the first sentence of a novel begins the evocation. Nicholas Laughlin has written an excellent post about the most memorable opening lines in Caribbean literature: Great First Lines. Finally, reading a memorable text allows us to experience those things around us that we don’t see or sometimes take for granted. We can laugh or cry, but we have experienced our world. Reading also gives us a sense of who we are and an experience of meaning.

This is perhaps why the poetry, plays, short stories, and novels of writers such as Walcott, Brathwaite, Scott, McNeill, Goodison, Senior, Mordecai, Kincaid, Lovelace, Morris, Naipaul, Lamming, Hopkinson, and Danticat, to name a few, have stuck with me. Because every time I pick up their work, I can say, this could be me. This is me!


Related post: Desire, the Secret, and Literary Fictions

This is the final week for submissions: Name Your Top Ten Caribbean Novels.


Via Francis Wade @ Moving Back to Jamaica: “Miss Jamaica” @ “Miss Universe”