February 28, 2010

Book Review: Jesus Boy by Preston Allen

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to church, Preston Allen writes Jesus Boy, a story about a young Christian, Elwyn Parker, who falls in love with an older woman, Elaine Morrisohn, a matriarch in the Church of Our Blessed Redeemer Who Walked Upon the Waters.

In many ways this was a difficult book to review, not only because Preston Allen is my friend and colleague at Miami Dade College, but also because of my own history with fundamentalist Christianity and Preston’s ability to depict the tortured consciousness of a teenage true believer at war with his faith and his flesh:

At sixteen, I met my first great temptation, and I yielded with surprisingly little resistance, I who had proclaimed myself strong in the Lord. There had been, it seems, a chink in my armor, through which Satan had thrust his wicked sword (34).

And as if dealing with his hyperactive conscience wasn’t enough, Elwyn’s plight is exacerbated by Elaine Morrisohn’s deliberate pursuit of him, even during church services:

As she sat down with a satisfied smile on her face, she knew she was being naughty. She shouldn’t have shouted like that, but she was trying to send him a message by shouting like she did during orgasm…She just wanted to rip off her clothes and fly to him. He was so tight and so fresh and so full of juice…he was a lean, strong fresh-tasting black boy—he looked good enough to eat (77).

But Elwyn wants to be saved. Desperately. Yet the God that Elwyn serves is a God of wrath who is eager to punish sinners, especially women who wear pants or jewelry and who listen to “worldly” music. Growing up in this kind of environment Elwyn becomes a holier-than-thou preacher—an attitude that he exhibits long after he has left the fold:

God’s people have to be apart. They have to be different. Christians these days—I don’t understand them at all. They go to parties, they drink, they have premarital sex, they wear the fashions of the world. Even the music. These days you can’t tell the difference between a church song and hip hop (361).

What is remarkable about Jesus Boy is Allen’s use of point of view. He writes as an insider, someone who knows the secrets within the black community and reports the intimacies of people who want to live, love, and praise God. And he does this without resorting to stereotypes or clichés. Allen explores the black family and black religion without the filters of white validation, effectively banishing the "double consciousness" theory of W. E. B. Du Bois. The characters in Jesus Boy exist in a milieu in which whites exist peripherally. Jesus Boy asserts without rancor: This is our story.

And this perhaps is one of the major accomplishments of the novel. Allen uncovers the hypocrisies within the black church in the way that James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain exposed the vision of its adherents—a world divided not along racial lines, but between the “saved” and the unsaved. And because being “saved” requires denial of the most basic human impulses, the “saved” are always in state of guilt over the state of their soul:

Demons, I was certain, frolicked in my room after the lights were turned off. At night, I watched stricken with fear, as the headlights of passing automobiles cast animated shadows on the walls of my room. Only God, who I believed loved my singing voice, could protect me from the wickedness lurking in the dark. Thus, I sang all of God’s favorite tunes—hummed when I didn’t know the words—in order to earn his protection (13).
There is much to admire about Jesus Boy. From the cover designed like an old family Bible to the genealogy list of the begetting that took place in Elwyn’s family, the novel has hints of Faulkner with an oversexed patriarch and a family history of incest, abuse, and illicit romance. Preston Allen has truly written what Dennis Lehane has deemed a “tender masterpiece.”


Preston L. Allen, a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, is the author of the critically acclaimed novel All or Nothing (Akashic) and the award-winning collection Churchboys and Other Sinners (Carolina Wren Press). His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals and have been anthologized in Brown Sugar (Penguin), Miami Noir (Akashic), and Las Vegas Noir (Akashic). He lives in South Florida.
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February 26, 2010

3Quarks Contest

Robert Pinsky will be the judge of the 3 Quarks Daily’s Arts & Literature Prize.

The winners of the Arts &Literature Prize will be announced on March 20, 2010.

For more, please follow this link: 3Quarks

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February 24, 2010

New Book: Legba's Crossing by Heather Russell

In Haiti, Papa Legba is the spirit whose permission must be sought to communicate with the spirit world. He stands at and for the crossroads of language, interpretation, and form and is considered to be like the voice of a god. In Legba’s Crossing, Heather Russell examines how writers from the United States and the anglophone Caribbean challenge conventional Western narratives through innovative use, disruption, and reconfiguration of form.

Russell’s in-depth analysis of the work of James Weldon Johnson, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, Earl Lovelace, and John Edgar Wideman is framed in light of the West African aesthetic principle of àshe, a quality ascribed to art that transcends the prescribed boundaries of form. Àshe is linked to the characteristics of improvisation and flexibility that are central to jazz and other art forms. Russell argues that African Atlantic writers self-consciously and self-reflexively manipulate dominant forms that prescribe a certain trajectory of, for example, enlightenment, civilization, or progress. She connects this seemingly postmodern meta-analysis to much older West African philosophy and its African Atlantic iterations, which she calls the “Legba Principle.”

Advance Praise for Legba's Crossing

"This text contributes to intellectually and academically pertinent concerns on nation and nationhood, freedom and slavery, and race, gender, and sexuality as contentious ontological sites in the conquest and reformulation of the Americas."
—Glyne Griffith, coeditor of Color, Hair, and Bone: Race in the Twenty-first Century

  "Legba's Crossing is a fascinating, well-written book of considerable significance to African diaspora literary studies. Professor Russell's readings of the simultaneous 'materialist immersion and formal innovation' of these writers is an original and highly generative theoretical perspective."
—Arlene R. Keizer, author of Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery

"The words Legba and crossing signal far more than another predictable book tracing the here and there of a so-called Black Atlantic. Legba’s Crossing heralds, instead, a virtuoso scholarly cross over. Russell arrives resolutely at comprehensively nuanced and analytical ports of call. Her critical voyage is scintillatingly original, manifestly interdisciplinary, and instructive. Readers will find themselves renewed by her activist scholarship as well as her formalist analyses. Legba’s Crossing indisputably pilots Diaspora Studies to the forefront of contemporary expressive cultural analysis and debate."
—Houston A. Baker, Distinguished University Professor, Vanderbilt University

"Legba’s Crossing puts Heather Russell among the best of her generation of scholars, adept in reading both formal literature and its theory and popular culture. Her work demonstrates a fluidity in its critical movements between Caribbean and U.S. African American textualities. Her book dislodges the earlier Black Atlantic discourse from its North Atlantic framing and makes it applicable to a larger African diaspora understanding. Legba, who has been coming through in a variety of other texts, is a prominent articulator of a middle-passage epistemology, which finally gets full presentation here. Above all, Heather Russell demonstrates an ease, confidence, and critical astuteness, particularly in her attention to what she calls the "formal eruptions of the African Atlantic."
—Carole Boyce Davies, author of Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones

Source:  University of Georgia Press


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February 22, 2010

Book Review: Florida Gothic Stories by Vicki Hendricks

Vicki Hendricks is the most romantic fiction writer in South Florida. I’d always suspected this from her first novel, Miami Purity, and her subsequent works of fiction, Iguana Love, Voluntary Madness, Sky Blues, and Cruel Poetry. But it wasn’t until I read Florida Gothic Stories that I confirmed this suspicion. Many of the stories in Florida Gothic Stories, as the title implies, contain elements of horror and romance with the usual cast of characters that we’ve come to expect in Gothic fiction and the “Penny Dreadfuls” of the Victorian era:  bandits, femme fatales, the beauty and the beast. But Florida Gothic Stories is far from your grandmother’s Gothic fiction.

Instead of Gothic architecture, try the Florida landscape in “M-F Dog”: “The broiling Key West sun was setting as Bob and I strolled the dog down Duval Street, the heat slapping our faces between buildings when there were high walls or borders of bougainvilleas for shade. It was a climate ripe for jock itch” (131). Or instead of ruins: “My ass was tired of driving, and I welcomed the sight of the dented, mildewed trailers on the east side of Lake Okeechobee. Miles of trailer parks with single and doublewides stretched down the road on the  side by the lake, a few of them tidy, landscaped Florida retirement villages, but discarded refrigerators, and broken down cars were the landmarks of my interest” (146).

And you won’t find any persecuted females in Florida Gothic Stories. In fact, Hendricks has collected an impressive assemblage of femme fatales. These women use sex like a weapon to manipulate men into committing murder and armed robbery or to lure them into position in which they become prey. But the women also want love or to be loved. It’s just that their need for money or comfort often thwarts their desire, and the men are often willing accomplices in their own undoing.

In fact, my only criticism of Florida Gothic Stories is that the men are frequently one dimensional—they want only one thing. (Okay, maybe we do only want one thing, but it stings when it is so superbly demonstrated in a work of fiction.)

Finally, Florida Gothic Stories is not for the prudish. In Hendrick’s version of “the beauty and the beast” like the one depicted in “Stormy, Mon Amour” there are scenes of interspecies intercourse that some may find disturbing. Yet, ironically, when juxtaposed with similar scenes of sex between humans, they are some of the most tender passages in the book.

These eleven stories are well crafted narratives by a gifted storyteller. Each delivers what the kind of “sexual stealing” we expect in Gothic fiction, which according to Wendy Walker, has its roots in Jamaica and was once known as “terrorist literature”:

Structurally, gothic narratives are organized around “sexual stealing.” “Sexual stealing” can take many forms, but it always involves the illegal appropriation of a highly libidinized object: a person’s liberty, sexual consent, virginity, life, a sacred object, or a work of art. The stealing is performed by the powerful and is unacknowledged as stealing, indeed proclaimed as legal or honorable: the victim rises up as daemon to avenge the outrage. This is the only narrative solution in a world where justice does not function to protect people.

In Florida Gothic Stories, Vicki Hendricks has added another remarkable collection to her growing body of fiction.


Vicki Hendricks is the author of noir novels Miami Purity, Iguana Love, Voluntary Madness, Sky Blues, and Cruel Poetry, the last nominated for an Edgar Award in 2008. Her short stories appear in collections including Mississippi Review, Best American Erotica 2000, and Miami Noir. Florida Gothic Stories, a collection of her short works, is due out in May, 2010, by Kitsune Books of Tallahassee. In progress is the novel Fur People, a love story about animal hoarding and insanity that takes place in the woods of central Florida. Hendricks lives in Hollywood, Florida, and teaches writing at Broward College. Her plots and settings reflect interests in adventure sports, such as skydiving and scuba, and knowledge of the Florida environment.


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February 21, 2010

City of Refuge & Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College Welcome Writer-in-residence from Zimbabwe


Miami, February 19, 2010 - A little more than a year ago, at the 2008 25th anniversary edition of Miami Book Fair International at Miami Dade College (MDC), organizers paid tribute to a very special program, Cities of Refuge, an international project that aids imperiled writers across the globe by finding them homes in partner cities where they may write openly and free of censorship and repression.

At the event, a group of exiled authors living in the US – Irakli Kakabadze from Georgia and Sarah Mkhonza from Swaziland, International Cities of Refuge Director Helge Lund and Refuge executive Board Members Russell Banks and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott spoke about the project which was attended by then Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and MDC President Dr. Eduardo J. Padrón. The wheels began turning and soon the city of Miami, Miami Dade College, and the International City of Refuge Network (ICORN) partnered together to make Miami the first ICORN member city in the United States.

The original cities of refuge organization, IPW (International Parliament of Writers) was founded by prominent writers Salman Rushdie, Russell Banks, Wole Soyinka and a dozen others in response to increased persecution in their native countries. The charter was later split into two entities: Cities of Refuge North America and The European Charter of Cities of Asylum. Today, the two charters have once again merged into a singular international organization called, the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). Operating under the same principals of the original IPW charter, ICORN is an association of cities around the world dedicated to the value of Freedom of Expression. Each ICORN city focuses on one writer that represents the countless others in hiding, in prison or silenced forever.

Today, the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at MDC, which has dynamic year-round programming - including the Book Fair, is proud to welcome Mr. Chenjerai Hove, of Zimbabwe, as Miami: City of Refuge writer-in-residence to the community. The community is invited to meet him on Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 6:30 p.m., as he will read some of his work and discuss his experiences at Books & Books in Coral Gables, 265 Aragon Avenue.

In exile, after his passport was forcibly taken away by the government in his homeland, Hove has catapulted into one of Africa’s leading socially conscious literary minds. He is best known for his international award winning novel, BONES (1989) about a poor farm mother who loses her son in the Zimbabwean war of liberation. Born in 1956, he has been a fearless champion of resistance to the kinds of injustices and abuses that precipitate wars and conflicts. He has written to provide a voice to the voiceless in his beloved homeland.

The government of Zimbabwe first noticed Hove for his political novel Masimba Avanhu? (Is This the People’s Power?) and for his play Sister Sing Again Someday, which both address the situation of women in Zimbabwe. Hove’s home was subsequently burglarized and his unpublished writings were stolen by the national police. After constant surveillance and threats to his family, he left Zimbabwe in 2001 leaving his wife and youngest child behind. Most recently, he has lived in exile in Stavanger, Norway.

As the Miami: City of Refuge writer-in-residence at the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at MDC, Hove will bring his politically and culturally rich stories of exile, injustice and ultimate hope to MDC students and the Miami community for two years beginning January 2010. It is also his hope to write and submit opinion columns to major publications.
Mr. Hove’s visit is made possible by the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

His work is political and heart breaking, but, as the Amazon Book Editorial Review writes, Hove’s work “is angry and sad, but it is not bitter. In Hove's world there is still hope, there is still love, there is still emotion. There is potential for a better world where the human soul can be released to fly like a bird."

The statistics show how dangerous conditions can be for writers worldwide and why this project is so important. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has called for more action from governments and the United Nations to protect the media as it recently announced a grim total of 137 journalists and media personnel killed during 2009. The number of targeted killings the same year at 113 is one of the highest ever recorded says the IFJ, despite calls by the United Nations for governments to put an end to attacks and persecution. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 136 journalists were also jailed in 2009. Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East and Africa remain the most dangerous places for writers and other journalists to work.  

For more information regarding the program and Mr. Hove, please contact Pablo Cartaya, project coordinator for Miami: City of Refuge, at (305) 237-7418 or via email at pablo.hernandezcarta@mdc.edu.

The Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College promotes reading and writing throughout the year by consistently presenting high-quality literary activities open to all in South Florida. Programs and activities include hosting visiting writers; classroom collaborations; public reading series; creative writing courses; the Center’s literacy-focused initiatives – Storytime, One Picture Book, One Community, Spanish Authors in America, and the Big Read in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts; and Miami Book Fair International – the nation’s largest and finest literary gathering every November at MDC. The Center also manages the college’s acclaimed Spanish-language theatre program, Prometeo, which is its dramatic arts component. For more information, please visit www.flcenterlitarts.com.

Media-only contacts:
Juan Mendieta, 305-237-7611, jmendiet@mdc.edu, MDC communications director
Sue Arrowsmith, 305-237-3710, sue.arrowsmith@mdc.edu, media specialist
Tarnell Carroll, 305-237-3359, tcarroll@mdc.edu, Media Specialist
Alejandro Rios, 305-237-7482, arios1@mdc.edu

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February 19, 2010

New Book: Bougainvillea Ringplay by Marion Bethel

Bougainvillea Ringplay is the long awaited second collection by Marion Bethel, a poet who has long established herself as one of the most necessary voices in Caribbean poetry. These poems are finely crafted works that reveal a maturity of voice and a distinctive use of language that delves into the fruitful place of intersection between her Bahamian dialect and the English that she plies as a lawyer. Marion Bethel’s poems reveal a mastery of syntax that one finds in only the most sophisticated poets. Her poems eschew all but the most utilitarian of punctuation marks, (question marks, apostrophes, and inverted commas), but commas, periods, colons, dashes are all ignored, thus demanding everything of rhythm and syntax.

The achievement of these poems is that they read with such control of sound and breath that such markers seem completely superfluous in her hands. Her poems are rooted in the landscape of the Bahamas, and so we will find the flora, we will find the sea, we will find the food, we will find the dialect, and yet we are never for a moment allowed to imagine this place as a cliché, as a tourist location. Instead, Bethel’s sharp sense of detail, her unsettling truth-telling, and the risks she takes with narratives about love and hurt in all kinds of relationships open for us an emotional intelligence that is arresting. History is constantly present for her, and it is hard to walk away from her poems without feeling as if you have finally met her homeland.

These poems are sensual in the most literal sense - the poems are about the senses, the smell of vanilla and sex, the sound of waves - radio, voices, sea; the taste of crab soup; the texture of hurricane wind, and the chaos of colors bombarding the eye. Bahamian poetry is being defined in the work of Marion Bethel and in Bougainvillea Ringplay she is doing so with grace.


a sparrow sits
on the window sill watching
a woman on fire

she longed for
a furnace red dress
to break an addiction

to her rainbow of sparrow bands
arcs of beigetan blouses
blackbrownnavy slacks

she wanted a red red dress
to bellow for all
those straightjacket years

a red dress like Dinah’s
a goodtime woman who breathed
fiery red right up to her wet veined eyes

right right down to her liquid red
toenails & golden Guiana anklet
on her left foot

she spreads her legs wide
paints one lip at a time with

her shadow wrestles her
to the ground & paints iodine
on wounded knees & sight refracted

...and the judge grants her prayer
to wear a red dress
anytime anywhere anyhow

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February 18, 2010

Eric Williams Centenary Stamp Design Competition

Port of Spain, TRINIDAD and TOBAGO (January 24, 2010) The Eric Williams Memorial Collection (EWMC) at The University of the West Indies and the Trinidad & Tobago Postal Corporation (TT Post) announce the Eric Williams Centenary Stamp Design Competition, co-sponsored by UNESCO (Trinidad and Tobago) and Kelly Services Customs Brokerage, Ltd. The contest runs from January 30 to April 30, 2010.

Since September 25, 2011 marks the 100th birthday of this “Father of the Nation,” Trinidad and Tobago’s Fifth and Sixth Form students are being asked to design a series of commemorative stamps in his honour, an added 50 cents of which will be donated to a Trinidad and Tobago charity. The Centenary stamp, with winner’s and school’s names included, will be sold, subject to availability, from January 1 to December 31, 2011.

Eric Williams was the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and head of government for 25 years until his death in 1981. He was also an internationally-renowned historian whose groundbreaking work, the 65-year-old Capitalism and Slavery, not only re-framed the historiography of the British trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also established the contribution of Caribbean slavery to the development of both Britain and America.  Popularly referred to as The Williams Thesis, the book continues to inform today's ongoing debate and remains “years ahead of its time…this profound critique is still the foundation for studies of imperialism and economic development,” according to the New York Times.

Competition judges are:  Adrian Camps Campins, historical artist; Kenwyn Crichlow, artist; Kari Elliot, TT Post; Albert Sydney, philatelist. Each school is expected to host its own in-house competition and enter only two students in the national contest. Rules and regulations are being distributed via colour poster to all eligible schools.   

The Eric Williams Memorial Collection constitutes the Research Library, Archives & Museum of Eric Williams. It was inaugurated by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell in 1998, and named to UNESCO’s prestigious Memory of the World Register in 1999.

For more information, please contact Erica Williams Connell, The Eric Williams Memorial Collection P.O. Box 561631, Miami, FL  33256-1631, USA. Fax: (305) 271-4160.
Websites:   www.ericwilliamsmemorialcollection.orghttp://palmm.fcla.edu/eew/.


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February 17, 2010

Rex Speaks

On the weekend of Sept.4-7, 2003, Prof. Rex Nettleford, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies was a guest speaker at First Annual Arts Festival at Broward Community College.

Known for his deeply insightful ruminations on just about every aspect of Caribbean life, Prof. Nettleford this time around spoke on cultural diversity and its impact on the political and economic development in the Caribbean basin. – Recorded and edited by Olivier Stephenson.

New Statue

I wasn’t quite sure what I as getting into when I was asked to be [a] part of this exercise, the Consul General has just informed me.

I was very pleased to hear [the Consul General, Ricardo Allicock’s] reference to the bit of sculpture, The Ancestors, it happens to be one of my favorite pieces and a part of recent work that was done by a sculptor … You’re quite right, I like your interpretation of it. I’d love to hear [your interpretation] of the two new statues [Redemption Song] which are now causing so much trouble in Jamaica.

Well, that, of course, is itself a signal of many things. For one thing people cared enough to bother about it. I myself, who was part of the selection committee, gave the edge to that particular work. Naturally, I have to be responsible for the furor. But, like you, my own interpretation of the monument I think it will hold up to muster. And, in fact, in due course, history will absolve us all.

It’s interesting, though, that there was such a furor. You can interpret it in many ways – certainly in one way: I think we need to be emancipated from the mental slavery Victorian hypocrisy, particularly among our men, and feminine prudery among some of our women.
And, the other thing, interestingly enough, which has come out very strongly is the criticism or comments on that monument, is that it is very strongly feminist in a particular kind of way. You have two people emerging from the healing stream, two people in their own right, not somebody who has been made out of the rib of somebody else. You see, I’m my mother’s son. My grandmother and my mother never made me forget that. And the thing of looking up, of course, is very important.

The university has been very, very central to this whole thing of the development of culture and the whole project of self-discovery and cultural definition, which I think is so important to the making of a people.

We remember the great artists – musicians, sculptors, painters or whatever – but we don’t often remember the politicians who are in power at the time, because it is what they produce, what comes out of the creative intellect and the creative imagination, which, finally, defines a people. And, while the people like us – not only in the African Diaspora – but wherever Africa met what other culture on whatever soil this has been going on for a very long time.


Because from ancient times, the antiquity which Europe has hijacked on to itself as its own – I refer to ancient Greece, ancient Rome – the presence of Africa was very important to the development of that particular culture.

And this is something that we have learnt: the Caribbean is a cradle of [our] own culture, not because we are so special, but because we have been the beneficiaries of certain things with special things that have happened to humankind time out of mind. We have time within mind, because I’ve referred to ancient Greece and Rome where old civilizations met – a great many civilizations met – and all great civilizations are the result of cross-fertilization. That’s the secret of the greatness of the Caribbean, it’s a cross-fertilized culture, one which is at the crossroads. It’s a crossroads culture.

The problem, of course, with Africa and its presence in it is because of the developments over the past 400 years, every African has been made to deny the existence of Africa in all of this, in the shaping of human culture. And, therefore, one has to spend time on bringing it back to the center where it belongs because it’s an iconic participant in the shaping of human civilization anywhere in the Western World over the past 500 years.

And, even so, that credit is being denied it. Hence the importance of efforts by people like us to insure the centrality of that particular catalytic impact of that particular presence is never forgotten. So I make the exaggerated claim for us in the Caribbean, I don’t even make exaggerated claims for Africa – qua Africa – but I do make claims and valid claims for the tremendously important role that the presence of African civilization or civilizations has played in the shaping of humankind over the past 500 years.

The next place where you have that kind of cross-cultural fertilization was in the Iberian peninsula from the Middle Ages up to 1492, with the fall of Granada, when the Spaniards and the Portuguese expelled the Jews and the Moors. And as someone put it rather quaintly, once they did that the Spaniards and the Portuguese lost their imagination and their intellect. And they tried to reshape that and restructure that in the Americas and that’s why the Americas – at least the Caribbean, is one part; and this culture, the United States, is only one part of the Americas. In fact, in a very scientific … and historical sense, we’re all Americans – we who live on this side of the Atlantic and have been the result of that cross-fertilization.

I’ve often said to my American friends of Caucasian stock, that when they can come to terms with the notion that they are as negrisized as I am Europeanized then everything will be … [laughter]. I know to think oneself to be negrisized for some people is a fate worse than death. It isn’t, rather, it is a marvelous strengthening. Again, trust the West Indians to think this way. Why, you know, in Trinidad, they cross the hybrid, biological result of an East Indian – as we refer to Indians – and a black African, is a “Dougla.” In Jamaica it is “Coolie royal” or Chinie royal.”

But the important thing is that people like us live in a crossroads culture, a crossroads civilization where movement, motion, dynamism are the order of the day. And that there is a kind of creative chaos which other people are discovering now which defines and determines how we live, how we have our being, how we move, and what have you. As a result of that, we are constantly negotiating our position in society, in life and, therefore, we are constantly like this … we’re switching all the time and we’re in constant motion.

Those parts are made while we are walking them and therefore we are resistant to anything which seems to be an imposition because we want to do the walking. We don’t want necessarily for somebody else to come and give us their aluminum and we trot along while they run [and] leave us behind. And this is very strong.


I could give you the problem of metaphors, the other one which certainly will be the theme of my next work is the theme of silence. People like us have been relegated to a position of silence. … [like] children [to be] seen and not heard. And it’s interesting, we in turn have used the silence in very interesting ways as people. It’s not peculiarly black, it’s not peculiar to the Caribbean, and anybody who is forced into a position of silence will find ways of using that silence. You can call it contemplation, you can call it revolution plotting, and, of course, you know we know in the Caribbean how to make things not work.

We have had three or 400 years of apprenticeship in sabotage. And we can burn down bridges without setting fire. We know how to use that silence. A good deal of that can be self-defeating and at this time of our history we have to be sorting these things out: What is good for us and what is bad; what occasion warrants this kind of solution and what doesn’t. A better solution for this occasion might not be right for the next occasion. We have to keep on thinking our way through renegotiating our space, constantly it’s a battle for space. Happily, the entire world now is becoming a crossroads and Creole.

Cultural Assertion

I’m just coming from London, and it’s fascinating to see how London has changed demographically. It’s a multiracial, multicultural, multi-whatever-it-is, city. It’s no longer a lily white, pure whatever – if ever it was – and they are very conscious of this, and the whole world is conscious of this. With the thing of globalization, the greatest threat to the negative aspects of globalization is cultural assertion.

And what is happening now, what is happening to the powerful North Atlantic is it’s pushing everybody into a homogenized whole and people are resisting. And how do you resist? You fall back, you retreat into areas over which you have total control. Religion is one of them, the Iraq situation, and what have you. Let’s not underestimate them; the terrorism which is supposed to be coming from elsewhere is part of a response. It didn’t start with [Osama] bin Laden, it’s something that has been going for a long time.

Ever since then Arabs were thrown out of the Iberian peninsula they have been fighting back. And at times they will come up – even Saddam himself. I heard him give an interview many, many years ago, before the first Gulf War, which I have never seen referred to, but I think it was on the BBC television, where he was reminding the West that the West is not the only civilization – valid civilization. After all, his civilization was – for whatever, even – had given to the West learning and branches of knowledge which are to their advantage.

And, you know, there is a kind of mutual Jihad from the time of the first Gulf War, I felt Mr. Bush, the elder, was a Christian fundamentalist touting the Islamic fundamentalist, because the notion that God is on my side and on nobody else’s – which is a very, very dangerous position to be at. And I find it on both sides, I find it in this country on the Right Wing of this country and I find it among the so-called terrorists. Those two polar divisions will never be reconciled. Somebody has to give and one to remember even quoting from Christian-based civilization: “In God’s House there are many mansions.” And God is on everybody’s side.

Now if you are able to come to terms with that then you will be able to realize that you are less than the angels and do not believe that everything that you do is right and everything that everybody else does is wrong. It’s the same kind of attitude that informed the old globalization which is imperialism and racism which came out of that. The notion that somebody is born looking a particular way, he or she is imperial to somebody else born looking a particular way. It just doesn’t make sense. And time and time again, it is proven that this doesn’t make sense, we never seem to learn from our history.

This is the kind of world in which we now live and I feel there ones of us within the United States of America and certainly in the Caribbean who are to understand and position ourselves that we don’t get caught up in other people’s battles. Because they are other people’s battles.

Many of these considerations are cultural, and by cultural, I’m referring to the only thing which really gives the human being power and that is the capacity to make decisions, definitions about oneself on one’s own term and be able to follow through with action on the basis of those definitions. This is what the artist understands. The creative person can be a creative intellect and a creative plumber, can be a creative carpenter. As long as he or she is creative, prepared to explore spaces beyond what one is able to see, one finds that one is in control of self which is the beginning of that emancipation or liberation for everybody.

That’s why, of course, culture, in terms of the artistic manifestations has been so important to the Caribbean. Of course, when I speak of culture it’s not a crying sin to a little bit of dance and little bit of music though these of course are clear manifestations of something which is much more complex and much deeper.

What you will see here tonight is largely music from The Mighty Sparrow – who, incidentally, is Dr. Sparrow, the University of the West Indies was wise enough – in fact many of our honorary graduates are people of the creative mind, because they are the ones who have said the most important things about our society and about humanity, generally.

The University Singers have been encouraged by the university because we feel very strongly that that side of our graduates have got to be encouraged. We have got to turn out people for the kind of world in which we live, people with the capacity to in fact cope with all the chaos, all the diversity, and what have we, out there, as they do in their ordinary lives.
For many people, a lot of them go to school and they turn fool. Some of our wisest people have been those who have not been formally schooled. A lot of formally schooled people have been made into fools. It’s very important for the educational system and certainly the university be part and parcel of escaping that particular trap.

Creole languages and religion

It’s not by mistake that the Caribbean is a living laboratory of Creole languages, native-born, native-bred languages. Jamaica Talk, the language in which I’m speaking to you now is not the language that most Jamaicans speak most of the time. There is Serantonga in Suriname, which is part of the Papiamento in Curacao; Creole in all the French-speaking territories from Haiti right through to St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe, all of these places. And there are variations of course, of standard English of many kinds.

The religion, old people want to know where they come from, they invent their Gods, their Creators, and what have you, and we in the Caribbean have opened more churches than – there are variations on the received orthodoxies, largely Christianity, but in fact, it’s very strongly African influenced. Santeria in Cuba, and I’m sure in Little Havana there’s a lot of Santeria right in this town. Voodoo in Haiti, Cumina, Pocomania in Jamaica, Zion Revivalism, Shango in Trinidad, Candomble in Brazil – which is Caribbean in terms of Africa meeting Europe on foreign soil.

Of course, we have ladies of quality, now, in their silk-pleated skirts rolling on the carpet at the Pegasus [Hotel in New Kingston], because they are into some New Age spirituality. People searching for things because the orthodox expression has not provided them with the answers to cope with the kind of world in which we live. We have a tremendous facility for finding our own God or worshipping two or three at the same time.

I had absolutely no difficulty going from Baptist Christian with my grandmother to Pocomania where she could grunt and jump like anybody else, although she was a pillar of the Baptist church.

Family, legitimacy and illegitimacy

The kinship patterns which is another important cultural index – very important. We have created interesting families who – politicians talk about family life – but it depends on which life or of the family your talking about. Jamaica, for example, certainly in 1976 – an idea that the percentage has gone up now – when we passed the Status of Children’s Act which has been replicated in all the English-speaking countries now. We could say there are no more bastards in Jamaica. Because up to that time, 70 percent of the people were considered illegitimate.

You know, it’s interesting, we have been very self-righteous about racial discrimination, say, in South Africa, but certainly people of my generation who are illegitimate, had to walk around [this] country with what was called a Declaration of Identity. Now, a lot of the younger people don’t know about this, but all official transactions became official only if you were able to show the Declaration of Identity where some JP or notary public had to sign it that you were born, because your father’s name was not on the birth certificate. Now this is nonsense, your father was not the one who carried the child for nine months, your mother’s name is on it but she doesn’t matter.

You see, all these things which we inherited which were definitely anti-feminine and the women, of course, suffered greatly because of this. All of these are cultural factors which had a tremendous effect, because our young men have grown up very confused. Very confused. A strongly patriarchal society where the woman really in fact rules.

So we love our mothers and our grandmothers, but we beat our sweethearts and our wives. The contradictions are fantastic. You get all this kind of cultural confusion because we were a numerical majority forced to function as a cultural minority and this has a terrible effect on us in Jamaica and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean.

Less so in the Catholic countries, of course, they’re much stricter on the altar blessed minions. It didn’t by any means mean that if you were not born into a duly married family that you would necessarily come out any worse. Because that didn’t guarantee and still doesn’t guarantee the child the caring, compassion and the affection which is needed. This of course has led to lots of things … particularly in Jamaica and with the coming of drugs in all of the islands to some really serious problems that we are now having, particularly among the young male population.

We have no gunmen in Jamaica, it’s gunboys. If they pass age 24 they are lucky. They’ve either given it up by that time or they are dead. This is a very serious matter. Again, we don’t have nay gungirls or gunwomen, though we hear that some of the women – what we have them doing now is being mules to carry the drugs. Because they will tell you they have to work some quick money for their children.

In England, now, somebody has suggested that the British should build a prison in Jamaica for the Jamaican prisoners in England. It is that bad.

The creative imagination and the arts

One thing which has been a saving grace for us has been the retreat into an area where we can be free to create. We have produced more artists on the square inch in the Caribbean than is probably good for us. But it’s better that we have done this because the alternative is something else.

So the exercise of the creative imagination and the apparent thing of the creative imagination have been very strong. We have produced world class people undoubtedly. We need not be ashamed on that score. In my own view, it’s time that we get into the mainstream of it.
Do you know that up till recently, in the annual national economic report the arts and education were listed as non-productive? But [Bob] Marley has probably brought in more foreign exchange into Jamaica in the ‘70s than many entrepreneurs. And he did help a number of people and many of these artists are working the kind of money that nobody in here can ever dream of working because of the exercise of their imagination.

In the ‘80s they forbade – it was Government policy not to play reggae in the advertisement for the tourist industry. In the ‘70s there was a Rasta fellow who held a nice little white baby and one hotelier said, “What will the people in the mid-West think, this orangutan holding the child?” That’s the kind of problem we had in Jamaica, to a certain extent we still have some of that … That self-contempt and that self-doubt which has plagued us as a result of our history has been greatly countered by the exercise of the imagination and we have done a great deal with that.

I’m trying to give you the context of that, why this is so important to us. Because that’s all we really had. And we are now entering the knowledge economy which is how they describe the 21st century, and that is what you have in your head that’s going to matter.
Of course, a lot of people think being able to manipulate the computer and the Internet is the answer. I don’t think that that is it, what you put in to the Internet and the computer is really what matters.

In a knowledge economy the intellectual power of the arts has to be recognized, among other things, and the artistic power of the Internet has to be recognized. And people like us have to bring these things together, it is critical.

The artist – whether you see a bit of sculpture or a painting that is the result of serious research in terms of observation, distillation, selection and, finally, representation. That is exactly what the intellectual has to do when he or she produces a thesis or a book, or what have you. Their activities are a different kind, but going toward the same end. And we have to be very much part and parcel of this.

Lastly, we mustn’t get ourselves in the position where we feel because we are good dancers, good singers, that we are minstrels, that we are mainly there to entertain our betters. And there is, of course, the feeling which is still too strong among us and that real serious thinking cannot be done by people like ourselves. We have to put the lie to die. But, in fact, it is still very strong.

Norman Manley said “all human acts are acts of intelligence.” That’s where the future lies with the intelligent and the arts in the sense are no different. Some of us artists are partly responsible for that myth. We talk about enjoying privileged despair and not getting down to the business. I myself do not feel that arts academies and arts schools should be run by our own artists, but the artist must learn how to run these things.

Similarly, the intellectuals, too. They too have to do it.

Appropriate institutional frameworks

One of the things we are now urgently are trying to do is to insure that we deepen, heighten, strengthen the appropriate institutional frameworks which would in fact allow us full membership in the human family. This is critical and we have to think this way. We cannot allow ourselves to be eaten by inner rage. And that’s why the Mandela spirit is so important at this time, that the Gandhi spirit was at a particular time; and Martin Luther King fighting for the American. But that spirit that Mandela has brought into the spirit of the consciousness of the world about forgiveness: Fill them with kindness.

He did a thing recently, which, of course, has been quite controversial: He allowed his name to be attached to [Cecil] Rhodes. Now, Rhodes was a 19th century imperialist – robber baron. And this spirit of the 20th century and 21st century, Mandela said “let us close the circle.” Yet, Rhodes, a highly flawed character, did something which anticipated what the 20th century discovered, that the future really lies in the investment in the human resource, in the human intellect and imagination, and he left behind some money for that.

Now, interestingly enough, why Jamaica’s name was put on the list – he probably thought that Jamaica was an independent country – from way back, Jamaica was a brand name, and I think that’s probably why we got on that list.

With the recent development of the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation, I have to share this with you: The American Rhodes scholars have written a petition against the Rhodes Trust warden, who is a moving spirit behind that initiative, blaming him for taking too much of their money to South Africa. Can you imagine, where the money was made and they are putting back some money into that and the Americans Rhodes scholars – which is a real danger for a spirit in this country that many of us are worried about – want to rule the world and determine all the rules of representation and the rules of engagement. If you try to get a monopoly in that you’re in trouble, because people are going to fight against it.

When we had to fight colonialism we regarded ourselves as Freedom Fighters, when you have people fighting that kind of thing they are regarded as terrorists. Well, whatever is the thing, I think we have to understand – and I have discovered – that the cultural dimension is critical. Everybody is going that route now, the Inter-American Bank, I had discussions with them only recently. All the other initiatives that they have tried have not quite worked, they are now going to establish a cultural foundation because they feel that it would invest in the human being’s ability to imagine, to create [that] they are likely to build a better society.
So when you go and see Sparrow or you hear the University Singers and you enjoy a little titillation for an hour, regard it as a serious matter.

Quarrel over statues you don’t like. If their penises are too big, quarrel. If the breasts are too big, quarrel. The artist will love this because at least somebody is thinking.

But in this sense, despite the problems we have in the Caribbean with all the violence, and what have you, and the quote-end-quote, “poverty,” and the coarsening of sensibility, there is that thing which we can fall back on, the creative spirit is not dead. In fact, if we only get our act together, continue to create, and what have you, there is tremendous hope.

Our history has been one of struggle and to tremendous success, that’s why we’re here and hope is something we must never give up, and in the arts and in culture that is a tremendous source of meditation for us.

Photo: Douglas DaCosta
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February 16, 2010

Small Axe Literary Competition 2010

The Small Axe Project has initiated an annual literary competition to encourage the production and publication of Caribbean fiction and poetry. The Small Axe Literary Competition will focus on poetry and short stories from emerging writers whose work centers on regional and diasporic Caribbean themes and concerns. This competition is part of the Small Axe Project’s ongoing commitment to Caribbean cultural production and our mission to provide a forum for innovative critical and creative explorations of Caribbean reality. With this competition, we hope to encourage and support the region’s rich literary heritage, in the tradition of precursors such as Bim, Kyk-over-al, Focus and Savacou.

The competition will consist of two categories: poetry and short fiction. Two winners will be chosen from each category. Winners will be chosen by a distinguished panel of judges. For the 2009 competition the judges for poetry were Edward Baugh, Lorna Goodison, and Mark McWatt; and for short fiction, Garfield Ellis, Geoffrey Philp, and Merle Collins.

First Prize: $750     Second Prize: $500

Winners of the 2010 competition will be published in Small Axe 35 (July 2011).

Submission deadline: April 30, 2010

Writers wishing to compete for a Small Axe Literary Prize must submit the following to litcomp@smallaxe.net:

    * A double-spaced Word document containing: an original, unpublished short story (maximum 7,000 words), or an original selection of poetry (maximum ten poems, not exceeding ten manuscript pages). Submissions must be blind.

    * A separate document with a one-page biography, including previously published works and full contact information (name, email address, mailing address and phone)

More information available at: http://www.smallaxe.net/literary_competition.php

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February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day Poem: "I Burn for What my Heart Desires"

After reading Kristen McHenry’s post, “obscure poets: ‘the only way out is through’: the life and poems of akka mahadevi,” I was intrigued by the poem, “Show Me Your Way Out,” and the line: “I burn/desiring what the heart desires,” so I decided to write my variation on “Show Me Your Way Out":

I burn for what my heart desires

The warmth of her flesh lays claim,

Renews what's left of my broken frame.

How do I put out a world on fire,

Hate my joys out of fear and shame?

I burn for what my heart desires

Her laughter has proved me a liar.

I surrender to her lips that call my name

To a bed that sets our bodies aflame.

I burn for what my heart desires.


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February 12, 2010

Sir Ronald Sanders: An Appreciation of the life of Rex Nettleford.

“The texture of character and the sophistication of sense and sensibility engaging the Planet’s systemic contradictions were ironically colonialism’s benefits for a couple of generations in the West Indies.

In dealing with the dilemma of difference manifested in the ability to assert without rancor, to draw on a sense of rightness without hubris, to remain human (e) in the face of persistent obscenities that plague the human condition, all such attributes in turn served to endow the Caribbean man with the conviction that Planet Earth is, in the end, one world to share”.

[More...  Sir Ronald Sanders: An Appreciation of the life of Rex Nettleford.]

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New Book: Lifelines: Black Book of Proverbs

Lifelines: Black Book of Proverbs

My sister-author Askhari Johnson and I were raised by elders who had a proverb for every occasion. We therefore consider ourselves blessed to have links with an oral tradition  that kept spirits free even when bodies were in chains.  In our book,  Lifelines: Black Book of Proverbs, we are happy to remind readers of a legacy of wisdom that can still guide us today.

The idea of writing this book arose  about three years ago when  Askhari and I were both approaching landmark birthdays. We had reached crossroads in our careers and personal lives; the time felt right to fulfill our common desire to commit our energies to writing. Proverbs strengthened us through our challenges, just as they sustained our elders before us.  We therefore decided to use modern means to keep our oral tradition alive and accessible to coming generations.

Askhari and I built sisterhood in cyberspace. Her home is in the United States and mine is in Jamaica. We met as members of a human rights mail list, and then for more than a decade we were fellow writers in an online workshop for Black writers. Over the years, proverbs flowed naturally through our email exchanges, since “a proverb is to speech what salt is to food.” So when we began to share our work and our writing goals, we used as subject title, “brick on brick [build house].”  In addition, when we came across mountains in our path, we reminded each other that “time longer than rope” – this too shall pass.

In writing Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, we have pooled our skills as partners who share dreams and support each other’s desire to excel as writers. The proverb that best describes our approach is “when your sister does your hair, you do not need a mirror.” To this project, we brought habits of hard work, a feel for language and editing,  and a passion for the culture of our ancestors.  We had complementary abilities, such as Askhari’s  sharp eye for detail, and my focus on  the big picture. Conflicts were inevitable, and when they occurred, we remembered the proverb, “Black ants bite, but they do not bite each other.”

At first, we had in mind a text of about 6,000 African proverbs.  The proposed title was then “Daughters of Experience”, taken from the Sierra Leone saying, “proverbs are the daughters of experience.” Our Random House editor, Christian Nwachukwu, had other ideas. He suggested a greatly trimmed book – about 2,000 proverbs – arranged according to life passages from birth to death. Askhari and I did not need much convincing to see the value of  a book that offered gems under themes related to life passages. . . 

We chose the title because we intended readers to find ‘lifelines’ – words of support, guidance, and encouragement – in these proverbs. For example:
  1. Health and healthcare: “Medicine left in the bottle cannot help.” (Yoruba)
  2. Economy: “The poor person does not experience poverty all the time.” (Ghana)
  3. Peace and War: “It is better to build bridges than walls.” (East Africa)
  4. Education: “Nobody is without knowledge, except they who ask no questions.” (Fulani)
  5. Spirituality: “The darkness of night cannot stop the light of morning.” (Burundi)
  6. Collaboration: “People sailing in the same boat, share the same goal.” (Wolof)

Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, is packaged as a 256-page gift book. We chose proverbs with clear messages and strong images, representing a variety of ethnic groups and countries. In addition, we arranged the proverbs so they would flow together to create story poems. Themes include Marriage, Sex, Closeness and Familiarity, and Home in the section titled “Love, Marriage, and Intimacy.”

The short essays at the start of each section are intended to show how each one of us can apply these proverbs to daily living. These vignettes are based on incidents I experienced or learned about in Jamaica and in Ghana where I spent four years. I felt honored to be able to share stories showing  the values passed on to me by my own elders...

Archbishop Desmond Tutu – whose life symbolizes to us the values enshrined in African proverbs – wrote the foreword to our book. We are honored by his association with our work.
We donate a portion of our royalties to Save Africa’s Children. This organization “provides direct support and care to orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS, poverty and war throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.”

To an extent, LIFELINES is spiritual, cultural, and sociological. But mostly it is a way of passing to our children the wisdom of our ancestors.

Yvonne McCalla Sobers, a former educator who studied at the University of the West Indies, is currently a human and community development consultant, and also a human rights activist and researcher. Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs (Random House, 2009) is her second non-fiction work. Her first was Delicious Jamaica! Vegetarian Cuisine (Book Publishing Company 1996). She has published short stories in British, Jamaican, and Caribbean anthologies. Apart from a four years spent in Ghana, followed by almost five years spent in England, Yvonne has lived all her life in Kingston, Jamaica.


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