September 15, 2010

“Put Your Vision to Reality”:Citizen Journalism at Geoffrey Philp’s Blog Spot

About four years ago while listening to Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry,": "In this great future, you can't forget your past," I wrote my first post: "Why Do I Continue to Write?" Little did I know, 1176 posts later that my blog would become the "premier [blog] on Caribbean book and literary events."

The relative success of the blog has been surprising. In those early days, I thought the Internet’s promise was to be lauded, especially within the Caribbean where cultural gatekeepers decided who would be published, but there were also some dangers with the of the democratization of data. I realized that the media revolution would alter every relationship in publishing and blur definitions that had been taken for granted: publisher, journalist. And as with all revolutions, there were going to be winners and losers. But how would the "winners"--the voices to be preserved/privileged--be decided?

These were just some of the concerns that I had when I began my journey as a citizen journalist. For as a former book reviewer of The Miami Herald and Miami Times, I had seen the work of Caribbean writers disappear, column inch by column inch, from the pages of newspapers in Miami and the Caribbean. And coming from a region plagued by poverty, earthquakes and the yearly round of hurricanes that threaten to erase memory, and which had already lost so many writers either because of their inability to support themselves financially or who had given up because of critical neglect, I didn't want the voices of the elders or my generation to be silenced, for them to become the "losers" in the media revolution.

So before I wrote my first post, I began reading other book blogs, especially those written by author/bloggers, and I made critical choices that would distinguish my blog within my niche. And after attending the We Media Conference in Miami under the auspices of Global Voices, I initiated several innovations that would affect the direction of the blog. 

Unlike other sites which charge a fee for a subscription and thereby prohibit the free flow of ideas, I decided that the blog would be a transparent data repository which would connect readers and writers in the community. Given the literacy rates in the Caribbean, it would also have to convince the occasional reader that writing was an important endeavor. Another strategy would be to use book reviews to introduce these readers to lesser known writers who did not have the support of multinational publishers. However, I didn't want the blog, although it bore my name, to be merely a list of by biases. I wanted to initiate a dialogue with readers that would broaden the scope of Caribbean writing and bring in as many voices as possible--even if I disagreed with the opinions or aesthetics. "Make it new," said Ezra Pound and I have always followed his sage advice in every aspect of my work. But where would I begin?

The first step was to make the design of the site as welcoming as possible and to transform the negative stereotype about bloggers: a lonely male geek dressed in a sweaty undershirt typing away in the basement of his mother’s home. For this, I had to learn basic JavaScript so that I could create a sidebars for sites such as The Caribbean Review of Books  and to publish a wide range of articles about Caribbean life in the hope of attracting newer readers to the rich vibrancy of our literature. The second step, as I described in “Blogger and Me: A Three Year Journey” and “Caribbean Publishing in the Internet Age,” was to overcome the “digital divide” that still exists in the region and the resistance that many older Caribbean writers have toward technology.

Luckily, with a little help from my friends, I began a series based on John Baker's blog, Five Questions I interviewed Kwame Dawes, Marlon James, Adrian Castro, Sandra Castillo, and Barbra Nightingale. Then, I expanded the idea to include individuals such as Erika Waters, the founding editor of The Caribbean Writer, who had played an important role in developing Caribbean writing in the late twentieth century. I also interviewed bloggers who were expanding the boundaries of Caribbean blogging: Patrice Elizabeth Grell Yursik, Fragano Ledgister, Tobias Buckell, and Karel McIntosh. Another improvement was to offer the writers from nearly every Caribbean island an opportunity to speak about their work without the filters of editors or critics. Several writers such as Cyril Dabydeen, Diana McCaulay, Sasenarine Persaud, Opal Palmer Adisa, and Kamau Brathwaite responded to the invitation for In My Own Words.

Kamau Brathwaite's support from the inception was very important, for it gave the blog instant stature. From the first time I met him at the University of Miami, his example of reaching back to help unpublished writers demonstrated his engagement with the Caribbean and his efforts in his generation's mission: the "decolonization of the mind." And as an educator who had worked in Miami, the heart of the Caribbean diaspora, I had seen the effects of those soul/self destroying memes of racism/colonialism on my generation and "The Children of the Matrix."

"If it doesn’t exist on the Internet, it doesn’t exist," argued Kenneth Goldsmith in his post at Harriet. This is especially true for the Millennials. Their cultural amnesia became clear to me after a discussion with a group of high school students about the poetry of Félix Morisseau-Leroy. Even though a street in the middle of Little Haiti was named after the old griot, the students did not know who he was. This prompted me to write another birthday post for Morisseau-Leroy and I published "Boat People," one of his better known poems from Haitiad & Oddities. But the more I talked with children at other schools, the more I realized that they knew very little about their cultural heritage. Some had never heard about Anancy. Caribbean children who did not know about Anancy? Something had to be done.

Based on the interplay, I wrote a children's book, Grandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories, and read at various book fairs and elementary schools. For everything in my writing life would have been in vain if it did not benefit the children, who face daunting challenges even as they try to cope with being caught between cultures. Frequently they adopt novelty over the wisdom of the "older" culture. During the readings, I talked about Anancy, the Middle Passage, and writing. One of the biggest surprises for the children was when they discovered that I was the author of the book. They never imagined that an author who looked like them was writing about kids who looked like them. This was even more pronounced when I had the opportunity to speak to high school and college students about essay writing, the work of Caribbean women writers, and the use allusions. For another aim of the blog is to convince readers that the new "flatness" of the world affords opportunities which had previously never existed—that to the call, of ancestors such as Marcus Garvey, they are the answer.

As had become the pattern, live discussions led to posts that engaged the virtual community. One post led to another and soon the blog had become a learning resource for students as far away as India, Australia, United Arab Emirates, and South Korea who wanted to know more about writers such as Mervyn Morris, Olive Senior and Derek Walcott.

Pam Mordecai helped me to respond to the requests with "Letter to A Young Writer." And based on private e-mails from teachers, I posted critical readings of Walcott, Olive Senior, and Dennis Scott. I also hosted original podcasts by Kamau Brathwaite, Ramabai Espinet, Lawrence Scott, Deborah Jack, and Joanne Hyppolite, author of author of two popular middle-grade novels for children Seth and Samona.

This is another aspect of the blog about which I am extremely proud: the Caribbean children author series which has featured posts by Summer Edward and Joanne C. Hillhouse. I am also proud that this blog was the first to publish digital photographs of Dennis Scott and Anthony McNeill. Tony's sister, who had been searching the web, found my post about her brother and donated the photographs to the blog when she found out that her brother's image did not exist on the web. I could tell about similar stories, especially the ones having to do with Don Drummond, and other musicians from the Caribbean.

And this, perhaps, is one of the noteworthy contributions of the blog--the exploration of the connection between literature and music of the Caribbean with a special emphasis on reggae and Bob Marley. 

However, my interest in Marley is not merely as a celebrity pop icon. Marley, as an adherent of Garveyite principles, owned his own recording company, Tuff Gong, and used legal and extralegal methods to safeguard his publishing rights, and any discussion of Bob Marley and reggae would be incomplete without the mention of Marcus Garvey and Rastafari. Again, writers such as Colin Grant, author of Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, have been more that gracious with their time and have written excellent guest posts, free of charge to the community.

And at its heart this is what the blog has become: a meeting place for the community to be informed about book events, read reviews and interviews with authors, and sometimes to sound the alarm whenever one of our institutions is threatened. But it's also more than that. It has expanded the role of the book blog to include conversations about homophobia, climate change, censorship, and future of publishing in a digital age. Part advocate, cheerleader, and critic, it has provided information to writers about venues for publication, published original poetry and fiction, initiated discussions about topics such as What Does It Mean to be a Caribbean-American and What is a Caribbean classic?

In this respect the blog is not only innovative, it is also useful as the comments of readers attest. And to quote Derek Walcott in "A Letter from Brooklyn": "For such plain praise what fame is recompense?"


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