Killing the Swan With Talk, (Not) Allowing the Mystery

When the pictures and videos of Peter Minshall’s The Dying Swan: Ras Nijinsky in drag as Pavlova surfaced, I was speaking to a friend over the phone who expressed some doubt about the work, but more pronounced was her bristling at the response and the alacrity behind responses to Minshall’s first offering after a long hiatus. Scrolling through all the comments filled with high praise for it, I felt a strong degree of skepticism which I am only now realising was engendered more by all the commentary surrounding the piece than the piece itself. I was not moved by the piece when I saw it and as to how much my experience of it was vitiated by the mas’ of words and volubility being played around and maybe killing (for me at least) Mr. Minshall’s already Dying Swan, I cannot say.

(See here for video: Dying Swan by Peter Minshall )
(See Maria Nunes’ photographs of the Dying Swan here)

When I posted my -deliberately provocative, deliberately piquant/picong- comment(“idk what to make of da swan nuh, unless daz Minshall Ole Mas on d economy.”) which was picked up swiftly by another blogger to represent a sort of burgeoning camp, unimpressed by the ostensibly polarising work (See here:, poet & critic Christian Campbell admonished me, asking me to ‘allow it its mystery’. And though I argued with him on the thread (an argument that brought me further away from what was really occluding my experience of the piece), he was right. It dawns on me now that this is exactly the problem I had – apart from the morass of instinctual praise of the work of a master, especially one who has, by his withdrawal, afflicted his admirers with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome- that too many people, including myself, were incapable of allowing in mystery. For me this tendency has deep roots that have been further innervated by the framework within which such forms strictly exist: competition.

The tendency is one of the secular society, exemplified of course by certain strata, certain classes. It is the society of scientific explanation, obsessed with reflexivity even to the point of illusion and thoroughly convinced of the knowability of the world. It is the post-laïcité production, that has its roots in European Enlightenment Period. I am not sure when carnival became something judged, but I think it is common knowledge that this did not constitute its raison d’être, that it did not consider itself reducible to whatever the criteria is that exists and passes judgment on it now. The Masquerade tradition has been irretrievably bound up with the religious. Not merely the representation of Other-worldly power and the acknowledgement of its incomprehensibility, but also with its containment and direction by man (obeah/ santeria/ palo/ myaal/Vodou) as well as OF man, stuck in the mud of the world beyond all his constructed forms of judgment and containment: morality/immorality, judging criteria. scientific theories etc. The Nkimba secret society, from which the French Caribbean word (at least) for Obeah derives its name “Kembois”, was known for the performance of rituals that depict man resurrecting the vanquished or dead, lifting them into rebirth. This same ritual was enacted in the now vanished mas of Papa Diable/ Djab in St. Lucia, a mas’ restricted to the city of Castries. (there is something to be said about the effect of the ‘centralization’ of mas that may have been restricted to a particular part of the country, as a means of containing and creating an indiscriminate mas —again a political imperative— that the nation could call ‘culture’)

Pioneering “Africanist” European missionaries/anthropologists (or anthropologist-missionaries) from centuries ago (the tedium of the term should tell you something) up to the present have had trouble understanding a society whose modus did not believe as fervently in the reducibility of the world to ‘critical commentary’ or the ‘hyper-reflexivity’ of their so highly-prized society:

“Among my Umeda informants I found none willing to discuss the meaning of their symbolsto discuss their symbols as symbols ‘standing for’ some other thing or idea, rather than as concrete things-in-themselves. In fact I found it impossible to even pose the question of meaning in Umeda, since I could not discover any corresponding Umeda word for the English ‘mean’, or ‘stand for’. etc.”

Another dismissively fulminates not dissimilar from Upper-/middle class dismissals in the Caribbean of the working-class, even as working-class art is hijacked and integrated into this worldview: “ As regards the symbolic interpretation of ritual, this is usually held not to be primitive; and it is doubtless true that an unreflective age is hardly aware of the differences between “outward sign” and “inward meaning” and thinks as it were by means of its eyes.” (Asad, 59) Manifest here is the need for ‘Enlightened’ Europe to distance itself from its ‘primitive’ past, by juxtaposing it with the ‘primitive’ places— such as the Caribbean— it was now discovering.

What this anthropologist and commentator bemoan here exemplifies that particular way of seeing the world: that since everything ‘stands for’ something, then the world can be figured out. Maybe it is this tendency that so frustrates Susan Sontag, in her essay Against Interpretation when she calls for the abandonment of a hermeneutics in favour of an ‘erotics’ of poetry.

One contemporary anthropologist asks the very important question: “is it possible that the transformation of rites from discipline to symbol, from practicing distinctive virtues (passions) to represent by means of practices, has been one of the preconditions for the larger conceptual transformation of heterogenous life (acting and being acted upon) into readable text? (emphasis mine)
And this does not denote a lack in these societies as opposed to a recognition that the response to the aesthetic, or any phenomena for that matter is not restricted to the mouth, to the head. This probably accounts for the difference between European conceptions of ‘intelligence’ as something thoroughly contained in the head, and the semantic coalescence or rather indivisibility of the ‘intellectual intelligence’ and the ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. Behind this indivisibility is the idea of vital force which is how many, especially West Central Africans articulate this understanding. That the intelligence and the spirit in its other forms are not essentially antagonistic to each other, nor do they exist independently or separately. In the Kweyol language for instance, the word Lèspwi (L’esprit in French) refers to ‘smartness’, (even while the word èspwi refers to spirit) someone who is smart. Even if by this ‘smartness’ we mean ‘smart’ in the Trini-vernacular sense, or Samfie ( in the Jamaican). So this consideration (call it aesthetic or otherwise if you wish) is one that is entirely amoral, which explains why Obeahmen never speak of power as essentialized into good and evil, on the sole basis of its origin, but rather good and evil manifests in how Power is deployed. It is even more telling that the enactment and evasion of a spiritual attack is many times described as ‘jès’, consanguine with the English word “jest”, collapsing —as some in the theatre would have know— the division between ‘seriousness’ and ‘play’, man as ‘Homo ludens’, which carnival so exemplifies.

But the volubility continued. The fact that the work was also ‘Nijinsky in drag as Pavlova’, also stirred the eager cilia of the neoliberals, allowed them to deploy the copious vocabulary their paradigms have mass-produced over the last decade. The teleportation of European ballet into the mas’ titillated the creolists, whose idea of the creole is an adhoc assemblage of cultures, similar to the ‘melting pot’ rhetoric of politicians. Journalists eagerly drew it in as metaphor or symbol (as I ironically did in my dismissal of the piece, or the piece’s loud social-media ambiance) of decadence, decline and the moribund visage of a nation facing austerity after a life of intemperance and profligacy. As much as I am not doubting that through both articulate and inarticulate processes(!), the artist is affected by his society, I am saying that he does not only ‘represent’ this the state of society in his art, he also manifests it, in spite of himself— so that not even ‘he’ is entirely an expert on what he did. Yet all around were the experts, a characteristic that Trinidadians often bemoan about themselves. Curiously, some of those whom I know to have a more intimate relationship to the mas’,  remained quiet, even when I probed them for comment. One of them is reported to have laconically yet sagely stated, “It have to wine”, which (for the gainsayers) of course is not to be taken literally.

But the real answer, that dissipated all my cynicism and saturation with the loudness, came from the man himself, Peter Minshall. The answer almost seems to come from somewhere beyond him. It has the quality of epiphany. Even while he resurrects the vocabulary of ‘critical commentary’ from time to time, there are these epiphanic points of departure. His tone changes in both instances, and it is like he is harking back to the most ancient knowledge, the ossified UNDER-standing in old age of what it is he has been trying to do: “And there is something about carnival, which is contrary to what we consider the NORMal, LAWful, legal (VL:which includes to some extent the laws or dictums of theatrical practice which we are all versed in and can TALK about) course of life. Everything that happens for the rest of the course of the year is all well and fine and good but THE PURPOSE OF THE CARNIVAL IS TO ACKNOWLEDGE IN ALMOST A RELIGIOUS WAY(!) THE EMPOWERMENT OF CHAOS, THAT WE ARE NOT IN CHARGE”

See interview with Minshall on the Dying Swan here.

At the end of the interview, he draws our attention to the aesthetic and spiritual (even, in a native sense, scientific) indivisible consideration: “Whether it be a painting, whether it be an aria, whether it be a piano recital, there is only one measure for a work of art, IF IT WORKS IT WORKS”. What any practicing artist knows. And Minshall is fully aware, as is evident in a quote paraphrased by the interviewer, that the work is collaborative between Minshall and Jha Whan as much as it is between Minshall and the Powers. Not the swan itself but how it is portrayed by Jha wan, what Jha Wan DOES with it. Not what is ‘means’ or ‘represents’ but what it does.

With the very important caveat that I only saw the work on video, I remain unmoved by the work and that does not negate anyone else’s positive intellectual or emotional reception of it, for as I replied to the blog in which I was quoted and as I have learnt over the last few years not even OBEAH works on everyone.



On Being Asked What Walcott Means to Me

On a radio programme in Jamaica, I was recently asked what Derek Walcott means to me? I answered it with the prepared answers we carry that convince us, perhaps even more than others, that we have understood a thing, and we are in effect done with it, and in responding we are merely raising it from the dead in order to satisfy those who ask. But something about such a question, or the way it is phrased— something about the word ‘means’ strikes me now as exceedingly personal. Something about it already carries the assumption of tenderness, and that all that is left to do, is to quantify it. So one says “He means a lot to me” or one demonstrates that “meaning” by cataloguing the aspects of ‘him’ that make him mean something to one. It is really a strange question or at least a strange one to hear and to answer out loud. Unless of course we give the prepared answer, which is probably intellectually more honest than it is viscerally.


Yet even on an intellectual level, I did not feel that it was something I needed to answer, for I was Vladimir, and Derek Walcott was Derek. He need not mean anything to me. I have been asked on many occasions what his influence has been on me and one of the things about that question that I resented was its presumption— the fact that it assumed that I, being St. Lucian, could not circumambulate Walcott. I assumed within me a haughtiness, which I was careful not to display publicly — it was the type of unearned haughtiness of one who assumes authority on the sole basis of being from or born in a place. I felt that my questioners did not know St. Lucia and understand that Derek Walcott was not the Barre de L’isle of St. Lucian consciousness or aesthetics.

Barre de lisle

In my answers to them, there was a cultivated and too exact certitude both of what the influence was (of Derek on me) and the early period in which that influence waned. I felt that I had come to understand that Walcott’s fight was not my fight and that his politics— the types of questions he was concerned with, his preoccupations, his almost Sisyphean search for a resolution to the intransigent black/white dialectic that he has had to embody— was — as a friend of mine would say— “Not my monkey. Not my circus.” We wanted different things.

I had a well-rehearsed rejoinder to the inexorable question that loomed over me about Walcott’s influence. Yet it was not my answer. It was an answer I had smuggled from the mouths of other St. Lucian poets who would speak of their admiration for his craft while saying little about his vision of Caribbean. They were being honest, but still I think that is only part of the truth. And it is less that they were hiding a deeper truth, than that it was something they had settled with themselves long ago. So I was stealing answers they had earned. Long ago.

Lucian poets

But thinking of it again, this was not the only answer I had gotten. John Robert Lee, who has been a kind of literary godfather to me, has repeatedly said, “ he (Derek) has done his work.” And adds “and he continues to.” The idea of one who has “done his work” has always intrigued me. It has preoccupied me more than any eschatology. At my grandfather’s funeral in October last year, I looked back, trying to evade the sight of the coffin draped in symbolic white cloth, at the packed church.;I listened to a choir singing the songs he had sung to himself or to us; I watched all those people practicing his faith: receiving communion, praying, singing, quoting scripture. As quotidian a reality as this may be for all those embodying it, for me it was a sort of revelation. Somehow, by these proceedings, these mundane and repeatable things, a sense of completion was brought to bear upon the feeling of loss. Death as completion. I don’t think I’ve ever given a thought to the question of whether he has gone to heaven or whether he got what he deserved wherever he is now. Nothing. Between the ex-service men playing their bugles, the lodge brothers at the funeral home in their shimmering esoterica, his family, the whole of Gros Islet, the church congregation—He had done his work. A consensus evidenced more in physical presences than in verbal persuasion.

St. Joseph the Worker

Beyond the desire for a pure sense of loss, I could not care then nor now, how his politics and mine were at odds.  He was independent of me and the passion and lust for iconoclasm and our European-inherited straight-line teleological sense of progress that feeds us so much unearned self-regard and fuels our strong sense of succession and superiority without a thorough understanding of the true incommensurate latitudes of any inheritance. “We” as resolution to their dialectic, we think. His funeral, his completion had nothing to do with me and yet had everything to do with me.

When my father finished his eulogy, which became a kind of biography, it was less the splayed assemblage of affective and euphemistic facts of a person’s life than an almost clinical summary of his movement in the world, like the progress of a protagonist in a video game. And while yes it had to do with the nature of the man, it seemed to provide us with a truth about death or afterlife: we had to look at a man whom we had seen and felt close up all our life, on an almost cosmic level. We had to see his movement in the world, as a rigid fact as the movement of planets. And this recognition, this consciousness of the cosmic co-existing with the moral human world is an abiding and intense aspect of Caribbean people’s sensibility. It explains our respect for power. Not necessarily for those who embody it, but its enactment, its potential for danger, for change, for moving the cosmos— its irrefragability. So when Naipaul tells us in The Middle Passage that Trinidadians admire ‘brains’ in people. (What we call ‘lespwi’ which reclaims the connection between intelligence and spirit— a connection to the original energy/God/Jah/Nzambi Mpungu/Olodumare/Adomankoma etc.), that even a scamp, a thief who exercises his ‘brains’ and pulls off a truly ‘smart’ one on someone would be deplored for it (awareness of the moral) but simultaneously and perhaps in soto voce, the exercise of power (the cosmic), of élan vitale is respected as well. So that our consciousness or understanding or even appreciation of the world is not completely—and need not be completely— encapsulated by a morality. And this is a crucial part of our sensibility.

When I was editing my collection Sounding Ground, the editor had questioned and was a little perturbed by an epigraph I had chosen for a suite of poems on Obeah. It read “Force, whatever its morality has its function and merit and must be recalled (theatred) and placed at man’s disposal.” The quote is from the pre-eminent Caribbean drama theorist, Rawle Gibbons. Yet, in the same paper in which Rawle states this, was the evidence of a similar orientation in our own memory: songs not merely commemorating the enslaved, but also planters notorious for their lust for cruelty and torturing slaves. St. Hilaire Beggorat, Congo Bara. Suzanne Duplessis. Why would or should a people “commemorate” such figures? Or why rather do such villains figure so prominently in our expressions of what we remember? Well because we remember, we know. And we must understand constantly cosmology and that it expands like the galaxies we remain ignorant of, beyond the garden of our morality and orthodoxy. To preserve such a consciousness seems to come easier precisely because we have no empire to defend, no theories of our own superiority to uphold. Something that Post-Copernicus, Post-Enlightenment Europe, with its discovery of Reason, has been unwilling to accept. Workings of the world beyond and concurrent with the one we think we know. That tender awareness of our vulnerability and a simultaneous admiration of the power behind and within all creation.

The man had done his work. Something though about Walcott’s dialectic strikes one as unresolved. Or perhaps Tide-alectic, as Brathwaite would put it. And it was only at a lime with some friends, charged with vodka, that I came to understand Derek’s own resolution to this peculiarly and excruciating New World conundrum. The friends with whom I was liming, were recounting their own encounters with Derek, having both acted under his direction. One of them, recalling the moment in which he resolved his own misgivings about Walcott’s politics, said that it was when, at one rehearsal, Derek remarks “You know, you guys are no worse than any one in the world I could ever work with.” My friend emphasises Derek’s words: “no worse”. Not the polemical “better than” but “no worse”. That Walcott was able to respect their abilities with the full experience of the World out there. Yet Walcott was saying this, I suspect, as much to them as he was to himself. He has a poem of a similar tenor in his last collection White Egrets. This same friend also recalls being asked to read Walcott’s poetry alongside what he remembers as the London philharmonic visiting Trinidad at the time. I immediately thought of the international guests that converge upon St. Lucia for Derek’s birthday, and who are probably back home in St. Lucia right now, and how Derek fills their ears, at all events that he hosts, with St. Lucian music from a live folk band. Struggling with Walcott’s politics before this revelation, the same friend consulted with a mentor, trying to reconcile his misgivings with Derek’s position on issues of blackness and his strong attraction to Derek’s work and he was wisely advised that he was drawn to Walcott’s humanity— the humanity there in the work. The physical juxtaposition of these worlds that have preoccupied and probably even tormented him— whose austerity he has spared us by the beauty of his words— just may be the resolution or what is there in lieu of that clean dialectical synthesis. The ability to accept the ultimate insolubility of the world, of life, and an awareness of the moral imperative to rail against and the belief in our ability or our duty to change it for the better.

That my friend is “no worse” than anyone in any other privileged part of the world, that he can blithely read in his Caribbean accent before the London philharmonic, that those who converge on St. Lucia to celebrate this man so fêted in Europe and who has received Europe’s greatest honours (their skin made delicate by mosquito bites) habituated as I imagine them to the opera or to a soft-voiced society (at least within its own borders), must endure the loud, gravel-voiced chantwèl, blurting out at the volume we are accustomed to, tunes we know, and which our mothers knew better— is to surround himself in old age with humanity, (friends from far places and from near) and let it resolve itself. Not in words; the thing he has mastered. But a kind of negative capability that (stated differently) has always been a part of our experience of the world and it has been a world or condition of existence that Walcott broached and returned to us with profound honesty. A consciousness of the ineffable, inescapable and plain fact of cosmic co-existence. Of what he has had to do in spite of or because of inner conflict (and what I must learn to do). To be. To do his work. To see the fragments



The Black (W)hole: Rachel Dolezal, White irruption and Black shame

Responses to the Rachel Dolezal fracas, from newspaper articles to tweets to clever facebook statuses, were being produced at an unimaginable, yet recognisably competitive speed. Bombarded by article after article in my newsfeed, it was made increasingly clear to me why I had been gradually frequenting my facebook newsfeed less and less over the last year. I felt the old compulsion and pressure to read them all, but certainly I couldn’t; what with two children (one newborn), d(r)eadlines at work, and just genuine tiredness— I decided after all to share the articles to my wall, solely for the purpose of (and convincing myself that I would be) returning to them. Perhaps it is this velocity of retort and analysis, this speed of light enlightenment that made so many of these responses—-when I eventually sat to read them —- sit uneasily with me. The Rachel Dolezal issue is, of course, only the newest in a series of events that take place in America annually in which that nation’s injustice and disrespect for African-Americans shows its ugly face. This is something of course, Caribbean people are usually genuinely outraged about but also appeased by, smugly deluding themselves into thinking that this is not here…there is not here….sunshine…..margaritas…mangoes etc. etc. etc, no no no, not here.  But this particular issue was a little bit freakier than it usually gets, a little more bewildering. And as difficult as it seemed for charlatans, social-media bandwagonists and others to join the mob with a trite expression of outrage, many still joined in with their frowning hashtags and self-consciously cunning phrases. So here we have a lady of Caucasian parentage deciding that she wanted to confront the woes of this disenfranchised group of Americans. A woman who sympathized or somehow identified with the struggles of a marginalized group and wanted to move toward action. To complete or satisfy this sympathy or identification, or whatever inner need or desire urged her toward her decision, Rachel Dolezal decided that she needed to be black, phenotypically and, I guess, otherwise. (although the story could possibly be a lot less romantic that we are making it) My first thought was that this should be a field day for the liberals and intellectual relativists whose criteria for membership is just as simple as that which permits entry into the outrage bandwagon. And on both ends— the righteous indignation of the so-called essentialists and the languid, hippie-like daze of the liberals—- there seemed to be misplaced sentiment, platitudes, clichés, bromides, secondary rationalisations….you get the point.


I’ll leave you to guess which camp the following defenses or attacks emerged from:

1) Black people are obsessed with weave, straighten their hair, wear coloured contact lenses that simulate grey or blue eyes typical of white people. So why can’t this white woman be black.

2)  If Bruce Jenner can turn himself into a woman or be transgender, then why are people railing against poor Rachel. (Who at some point was designated as ‘transracial’)

3) The problem is not that she changed her race but that she lied! (Lying bad!; honesty is the best policy and other girl/boy scout lingo )

4) Not only did she lie, but she changed her race so that she could be employed with the NAACP. In effect, robbing black people from being at the helm of an organization which was started by, and headed through out its existence largely by Jews or whites.

5) Oh look see. That one drop rule has come to bite them niggas in the rear end!

6) This girl got issues. Point blank. Period.

7.) Oh the irony. Black people giving this white girl all this attention.

Some of these points are simply not worth arguing. At best, they deserve to be given a time out in a corner with very colourful charts reproving bad behavior in colours with names like ‘bubble yum pink or ‘piggy pink’ or a perhaps a mob of frowning emoticons. My personal favourite of them all is actually 6) and although it seemed perfect in its bluntness to the extent that it felt like sacrilege to add to it, it is, in all honesty, my own starting point. Partially paralysed as I usually am before a keyboard, anticipating the labyrinth of the intellectual relativists, I thought that I needed to dodge them by avoiding talking about race head on. It’s also possible that I was commiserating with poor Rachel, because it seemed that she was being bombarded within a matter of days with so much just as I was becoming aware of how much I am bombarded and made to feel guilty by the deluge of over- information that I am not able to consume. Right word: consume. So my stance, my public-social media stance (i.e. facebook) was ‘to me this seems to be a personal issue.’ And like all self-delusion, you say it often in the hope that you will eventually imbibe your own lies. And then to make things worse, Teju Cole comes along, posting a status that is in accord with my own lies to myself! Damn you Teju! He says: “I’m not interested in setting rules for anyone else. And there are undoubtedly people who merit sharp public rebuke. But I think our social networks facilitate mob-like behavior. I think they too easily absolve us of our own foolishness and oppressiveness, and they can cause a too extreme rebuke of the kind that is all out of proportion to the foolishness they are correcting. It’s easy to forget there’s a human being, even if it’s a very foolish one, at the receiving end of the ire of millions of people.”


It’s a sentiment I still bow my head reverently at and with closed eyes in agreement with, but there were other issues for me of course, just as there were for Rachel. Things are just never so simple within oneself as they may seem to be without. Before I could even deal with Dolezal, I was brought back to certain white commentators, sometimes friends or associates whom I found it difficult to place into any easy category in my head. This is my Caribbeanness talking, for there was no easy dismissal into categories such as Republicans, White Supremacists or any of that. Although more than one of the persons I am thinking of were from the United States, the Caribbean was not the milieu where such terms were supposed to have immediate meaning, there was little epistemological room for such terms. The person or ‘type’ I am thinking of is the white persona who champions black rights, champions it so aggressively, wielding a whip of accusation at their fellow white brothers, at the slightest peep. The type that casts himself as the black sheep in his white community, who dramatizes his scape-goat status, persecuted or ostracized by his own race because he has chosen the path of the just, dying, as it were, for the sins committed against us, black people. Not for the sinners but for those sinned against.

My encounter with this type was particularly troubling, because I found it so difficult not so much to place him, but to place my own discomfort with what he saw as his ‘identification’ and even erudition when it came to not just black struggle but all things black, from Alabama to Rihanna. The other type is not as impudent, but enacts a kind of reclined, arm-chair anthrolopologist kind of posture. The know-it-all who knows all-too-well how all systems work and how all systems could be fixed. A white blackness-specialist. I told myself that my confusion concerning my own resolute feelings of distrust toward these types was something I had to deal with to properly understand my own relationship to the catalogue of atrocities against black people that paint my newsfeed throughout the year with blood.

A friend from high school, after the Baltimore demonstrations or riots, decided that it was a perfect opportunity to saddle and superciliously condemn the rioting. It was an opportunity for sarcasm, for revealing irony, for satirizing. He ‘opines’: “Damn, Baltimore needs to import some of those Korean L.A. riot veterans to show how to handle these ;peaceful protesters’. Rioting and looting surely gets your point across in a positive way.”


A brief diversion:

I recently picked up V.S. Naipaul’s authorized biography The World is What It Is, by Patrick French, and am currently on a chapter concerning V.S. Naipaul’s burgeoning romance with Patricia Hale who would later become his (first) wife. Naipaul at the time is barely a writer. He is struggling financially, suffering psychologically and is dependent on Patricia who is miles away from him and prohibited from seeing him by an overbearing and racist father. But then a boon:

“I hear that the BBC man, in a review of the work he has broadcast speaks of ‘V.S. Naipaul’s corrosive satire.’ Don’t you want me to keep on being a corrosive satirist? It is my nature. If I write otherwise I shall keep on being a corrosive satirist? It is my nature. If I write otherwise I shall cry as I write, like Dickens. I can’t write about sadness sadly. It would kill me…. Oh darling, I love you from the bottom of my corrosively satirical heart. Your own Vidia.”

naipaul and pat

Pat’s astute opinion of Vidia’s stories however was that they “had humanity, but not in the full sense.


And there I found an explanation for my conflicted relationship with satire and irony, my suspicions of these devices as the basis for a style, especially coming from someone as dangerously talented as Naipaul. One has the same conflicted feelings toward its diametrical opposite: the maudlin lyric. Admittedly, we know better what to do with tragedy than we do with comedy which always seems on the verge of upsetting things and putting someone in trouble. Neither of them however give us a full sense of their subject’s humanity. There are of course situations where these pieces of our humanity are apposite and fair, but irony, parody, sarcasm and satire always struck me as fair game when they were leveled at powerful figures; weapons of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed. I see them as devices used to inflate the ego of the oppressed person or to embolden him, to grand-charge, to rebel, an attempt to undermine the seemingly incontestable authority of the powerful. Used by the powerful toward the oppressed, or even the oppressed toward the oppressed, it always had the effect of rankling me somehow, always seems obscene.  (I hear the relativists breathing down my neck here, demanding nuance in a series of disorienting questions — who exactly are the oppressed?; aren’t the powerful also somewhat oppressed?—- but I’m okay with breathing and necks and even nuance). For me, the deployment of either of these extremes to the complete exclusion of the other are less expressions of our humanity than they are strategies for achieving a milieu in which more honest confessions of our humanity may have truer meaning. Like literary affirmative action.


But what my encounter with my smug and sarcastic white friend revealed to me, (after I was unraveled and drawn out) was how easy it was for him to both enter and leave the discussion, the situation, the maelstrom. How he could stride in and out like a superhero into the fire saving no one. Not even himself.

Another thing that became apparent to me is also how unburdened he was by a clamour of voices from his own race pulling him back, feeling threatened by his sarcasm, that it may be bordering on some impropriety or on something incendiary, making them look bad. Not that this doesn’t exist, but not with the aggressiveness and desperation with which it exists in the black community. This fear however is at the heart of the black, public intellectual. It is a fear of being gobbled back up into a blackness that will not distinguish him on the basis of his merit, his accomplishment within the systems of achievement as they stand. This is, of course the same point of origin from which successful black persons argue that “if I could make it through “the system”, why can’t they?! I’ll tell you why, it’s because they are lazy, they are filled with self-contempt, and self-pity.” The fear of being pulled into that brimming black (w)hole is one of the deepest fears of the black intellectual and betrays the tenuousness of his own position of putative success and even, mastery. From this fear arises symbolic acts of disavowal in which the intellectual distances himself from talking about ‘race’, dismisses talking about race as a crudity, an attempt to ‘gate-keep’, to police. S/he recedes into a position that is teeming with questions whose very existence protect him/her from having to take a position, because the answer to all these questions is always that there is no true position to take. Everyone is, more or less, equally right or at least has a right to say whatever. S/he is the type who hardly “objects” but is usually “wary” or “uncomfortable” or “scandalized”, or is “distancing him/herself”.  If they are to say anything definite, they appropriate words and terms that those on the other side of the argument have used to defuse the situation. Interestingly enough, they are accusations whose terminology reflects the apparatus of the powerful ironically being leveled at the bare-handed black-footed disgruntled persons at the margin: “policed” “gatekeeping” “identity-patrol”. It would be remiss of me not to remark that there is such a position, when more sincere and less self-preserving, which results in black persons being critical and rigorously examining their own positions, by taking each other to task. Caribbean literature is rife with examples of these. And, it is common knowledge that the “essentialism” that the intellectual relativists are so scandalized by and ashamed/scared to be associated with,  is the first weapon wielded against a group that is to be persecuted, but also the source of strength for the marginalized to stake a claim for freedom, respect, humanity. It is therefore both myth and history, as Benitez-Rojo would have it. And if it is a myth, it is a myth upon which some of the greatest efforts in history by an oppressed people to ameliorate their situation of dehumanization was built.

This brings me back to the last part of my friend’s seemingly pragmatic, though sarcastic admonition: “Rioting and looting surely gets your point across in a positive way.” And it is this that ensnares the black public intellectual. He is free to express divergent views that seem to rail against the status quo, but his way of doing so are predetermined by that same status quo. It traps him in a series of absolutes that is so reflective of the static objectivity and ontology that governs being and knowledge in the West: Violence is always wrong. Violence is never an option. Lying is wrong. Always. There are always more peaceful ways. Etc etc.  So the intellectual comes off again feeling his superiority, for not only is he engaging in radical acts of disobedience and defiance in respect to the status quo, but he is doing so in a more practical and useful way than that mob advancing to claim him with sticky tentacles like the sargassum seaweed now blood-staining Caribbean seas. It is through experiencing and observing vigilantly the proliferation of this kind of intellectual, that I become more and more convinced of what persons like Earl Lovelace, Rawle Gibbons and several others of my own personal pantheon of luminaries have been saying. Or perhaps even the simple advice given by my mother that I willfully misinterpret here: “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” Rawle would say “Until the Caribbean resolves Haiti, it will not go anywhere”. Haiti that is known for Voudou which has been condemned less for who the Gods they worshiped were (which of course it is difficult to say) than—- as the several American films on Voudou have depicted—  how they chose to worship, summon or acknowledge those Gods. I am thinking as well of Earl Lovelace, as he observes in his essay ‘Reclaiming Rebellion’ that: “The drummers, calypsonians, pan men and flag women would not be seen as decent people. Decent folk was a term then in use, not so much to distinguish one class from the other but to separate people of the same economic class. It was not always about having money or property, but about aspiration not to be lumped in with those who had been deemed delinquent for engaging in religion and culture that had an African origin—- the religion and culture emanating from the poor class: the jamettes, the rebellious, the loud and unruly or, as the famous calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow calls them, ‘outcast’.” And Erna Brodber who observes in her foreword to the book Obeah and Other Powers: “They were living with burning candles….keeping their heads covered, leaving plates of food in their yards for the ancestors, but they still did not know if they were connected with the feared obeah man down the road, formerly the butt of jokes in their friendship networks.”  I suspect this may be why I bristled at a certain Caribbean writer’s recent blog adding its voice to the mob pillorying Sheree Mack, a poet who had appropriated the work, without acknowledgement, of several British writers, earning her a reputation as a serial plagiarist. It was not so much that I felt that Kei Miller was wrong about Mack, (though the issue of cultural appropriation was problematic for me) but that the blog seemed to remind me too much of those symbolic acts of distancing that I find troubling, paradoxically emerging from a similar place as those “decent” and “positive” ways of being subversive, so different from ‘the rabble.’

in turb 5Earl-Lovelace

Rawle Gibbons

But even while black intellectuals pledge allegiance first and foremost to ‘nuance’, ‘intellectualism’ and ‘objectivity’, their entry into the circles dominated by the white establishment is nowhere near the ease with which my flippant facebook friend conveniently enters discourse and condemns, no where near the privilege enjoyed by the most unintellectual and foolish white commentator. (If you don’t believe me, spend some time with a particular American news station named after an animal normally characterized as being ‘sly.’) And this is where I recognised how this truly personal issue (psychological, physical, emotional) also finds its way into the public domain, and worthy of public outrage. Rachel finds herself being lumped now, by indignant black people, with an impossibly long tradition of white irruption into black bodies; black-space (even though her entry was less an irruption than a “sneaking-in”). Largely this space has been immaterial, it has been the space of creativity, of imagination, or innovation. It is the space of obeah, of jazz, literature, capoeira, love, sex etc. This alien entry involves the brazen and flippant appropriation of cultural products, of intellectual property. Some of the pirates have stolen many precious truths and left a trail of lies in their wake. Perhaps it is that constant threat of white (or sometimes “Afro-saxon” to use Lloyd Best’s still apposite term) irruption that helped Erna Brodber conceptualise her Blackspace, an event? — no: a space, physical and discursive, that she creates every year for black persons worldwide to come to discuss, argue, interrogate their issues in soft and loud peace, without being circumscribed by that sense of entitlement that feels the need to intervene, to arbitrate, to correct, to reprove, to domesticate. Without the privileged satirists and ironists tossing pieces of our humanity at us. This is Rachel’s transgression perhaps. Both hers and not hers. Something like original sin, but one that has never ceased repeating itself and even evolving in order to ensure its survival and its place at the centre of things. And her situation is worsened by another more beautiful type of irony: a group of white protesters, proclaiming that #Blacklivesmatter in the wake of the Emmanuel AME Massacre in Charleston, in their own skin, not in blackface.

white black lives matter


Talking about race in the Caribbean is a much more difficult thing to do than doing so in the United States. It is no wonder then that American atrocities also operate as a kind of cathartic space for black-Caribbeans. The subtle censorship of anything verging on racetalk in the region by labeling it as crude, unintellectual or even impolite is perhaps one of the longest steps backward the region has taken, perpetrated many times by its artists themselves who have an anxiety, as old as the Caribbean, about being lumped with the mass of black persons. So as much as Caribbean intellectuals have come out to condemn or comment somehow on the racial Dolezal issue, a white Caribbean writer could write the following lines in her book, without so much as a peep from anyone within these circles: “Georgia stretches her arm out of the window. The goats carry on eating as if they are not there. They are white and scrawny. It is something he has noticed here: cattle and goats are often malnourished, their stomachs distended and bloated. Like Africa.” This from a book that received rave reviews in the region.

Recently at a book fair in St. Martin, myself and another writer based in the region, after a day of panels and discussions found a bit of time to lime at the hotel, and over a couple rum and cokes, we were reflecting on how important these informal spaces were, these spaces usually seen as outside the realm of deceny. I was telling her about a small observation I had made on facebook where a friend of mine bemoaned bitterly the destruction of Greyfriar’s Church in Post of Spain, but that same friend was apologetic in morning the burning down of Smoky and Bunty a legendary liming spot in Trinidad within which so many memories were made, to a certain degree, irretrievable by the fire. It struck me that it was in these in-formal places, in these places prone to mis-behaviour or acting outside of Power’s definitions that governed and regulated behaviour, where we are most ourselves, are able to talk freely. Of course there is risk involve, there may be falling out, vehement disagreement even fights. But it was not a place we have traditionally been afraid of, it has always been a risk we seemed willing to take because there was the greater reward of self-discovery.


Balenbouche (in light of Baltimore)

“Balen” in Kweyol (and perhaps French??) means Whale. and “Bouche” means mouth. 


There is a birdless, leafless quiet. Strange for early afternoon in the country. I get out of my car. A huge semi-spherical copper sits on the lawn, like a planet split in half, growing water-lilies on rain water. I have the well-dressed but rugged look, the stressed, coffee-blooded researcher, on the road conducting interviews in the field. In my own little country, there are ‘natives’ that one must go to, to ‘enlighten’ oneself, to learn their ways and customs with surprise and impatience and discomfort. Where they live is squalid; what they eat from is disturbing; where they sleep is thoroughly depressing. Having interviewed them, you leave distressed but achieved, satisfied. I am part of a tradition of researchers and poets and artists who fight for the legitimacy and acceptance of the lives and customs of the folk, my mother’s people. Like Harold Simmons in Roseau or Vieux Fort or Dennery with Alan Lomax and their recording apparatus. Like St. Omer and his murals. Like Walcott and Hippolyte and his vagrants and madmen and prostitutes. With names like these, or even such ambitious a task (so lofty a notion) of giving life and visibility and legitimacy to people, it is easy to feel smug and self-congratulating, to feel the caravanserai of one’s generosity filling up with their simplicity of donkeys and their simple trades and lives and stories.

I had taken the wrong road at first, that had led me to a cemetery, in an obscure, unexpected place. I wondered how the hearse managed along the unpaved, rutted road, how the dead would have rattled in their coffins; how the smooth, solemn walk would become belaboured with interruptions of gravity and stones. The air filled with small, suspicious flies. I reversed all the way out, for there was little room to turn. I found the road to Balembouche a short distance away. The roads to the guest house and to the cemetery, were identical. There is no discernible parking lot. The place is pristine—- I park on the grass, a little way from the dirt road. I pick up my tablet and walk. Weeks before I had brought up the idea to my wife— both of us complaining of not having time and space to work. An artist- retreat, like Walcott’s dream for Rat Island. Both of us, in the quiet and comfort of the country, an empty, safe cabin. A place with no internet, no distractions. It would be a sort of abstract space, the great house excavated from its origins and meanings into a guest house of peace and reception. The ambition itself, noble and hermetic. I the poet, she the painter/photogapher. This was di dream until it have dogs snapping at my ankles, and my ‘good afternoon’, all fur and ferocious, wit’ collar but looking like pothound and mongrel. I try to kick them off, scare them, making like I pickin’ up big stone to pelt them. But they eh stoppin’, and a family gathered, so sweetly, so nice, as if for a family photograph, on the gallery of their Great House, watching long and clear and slow like linseed porridge, what happenin’ to me. Me, the artist, me, the black** writer. And it seem a while after, long after the gruel and growl, long after the dodge, moving my foot swift like a footballer dribbling di ball, calling out words I doh even remember,one of the family, a long white girl step out of the photograph on di gallery start calling the dog and dem, all of dem by their human names, and slowly, gradually them walk away, as if nothing did happen. Is like the one in T.S. Eliot poem ‘that is not what I meant, that is not it at all’ or someting so…


And without apology, smiling and polite and civilized after all the raised dirt, and my unravelling, she comes polished and pleasant from the photograph and shakes my hand. I can’t remember her name now: Rachel or Judith or something.  Introduced herself. I tell her, squeezing in three words between each sharp breath, that I was merely looking for a place, a retreat to come and write. I am a writer. My wife a painter. You grow up in this island thinking that things like that matter to all white people, that all white people are connoiseurs, that all of them shall find this important and admirable and respectable, even in a black man. She tentatively walks me to the house. The photograph has dispersed, and as I get to the gallery, and she leads me round the corner, (still the gallery) I see that they have entered another photograph. The family, having lunch. She introduces me, with my nice Educated name. Tells them I am a writer. They do not look up from their food. Looking for a retreat to write, and for his wife to paint. They chew slowly, looking down at their plates. A woman is snarkily shaking her head. This is not the time, they are having lunch. Rachel again: he wanted to have a look at the accommodation. Rachel, all polite and forbearing and messianic. Something in me, near the stoic table, the family-having-lunch-photograph, clings to her. I want to whisper to her like I would whisper to my wife, walking from an awkward scene. Is this still a guest house? Rachel, through her politeness, her civility or perhaps her business-savvy, brings me back to the anguish of the stoic table, her svelty frame moving so lightly through all the heaviness, saying jauntily to the hard faces at the table that Vladimir is leaving now. As if I was a frequent visitor whom the dogs knew or licked or left alone. I wanted to cuss the whole blasted table. I watch. It had a likkle black child there too, with her face same way like the white people. She was there like she feel she is family. Same hard face and food on she mouth. I was shaking and feeling my blood hot and boilin like the cuss and dem was inside it.


But what then would I say to Rachel? How would I explain that behaviour, that party-pooping to her, after all her civility and gentleness. She leads me out of the gallery, and down the stairs that she walked so gracefully and slowly to come to my rescue earlier. Half way on the path she says something about one learning how to deal with animals, that throwing stones at them is not the way, that you must talk to them, that they can understand. Ever so gently, in her Rachel way, she lets me go the rest of the way alone. Like a child, who has just been taught an axiom of being and is sent out to see its irrefragable truth and reality, a child sent out in the world to see that his parent’s were right all along. I walk to the car shaking from the frazzle and frisson and now anger at the dogs, the photographs and even at Rachel. I get in the car, wind up the tinted windows, and curse to myself in darkness.


A Way of See(k)ing: Feature Address at the launch of Fr. J. Lambert St. Rose’s ‘In Turbulent Waters’

I was asked to give the feature address at the launch of Fr. J. Lambert St. Rose’s new book, ‘In Turbulent Waters’, not as many believe, on the merit of my superlative conduct as a Catholic, but on the merit of the work I had done exploring the spirit world that Fr. St. Rose is clearly well acquainted with. My research on Obeah for an Mphil dissertation has been ongoing for about three years and of course my confusion concerning what to do with the Catholic Christian tradition that I still have links to. Some friends asked for the feature address, and I did promise to post it on my blog so below is the feature address i delivered. I alert the reader to a few additions I have made:

Concerning the state of their knowledge about Obeah the Barbados Council in 1789 admitted: “Of their arts, we know nothing.”(Palmie, 316) Despite this early proclamation, Obeah continued to be virulently and violently policed in the Caribbean, in one form or another, for a century and a half more.  Or was this an early proclamation at all? The first obeah law was passed after Tacky’s rebellion in Jamaica in 1760, a law meant “to Remedy the Evils Arising from Irregular Assemblies of Slaves” (Paton, 5) Institutions of power for a long time have shown a reluctance to know what Obeah is, and have vacillated between spiritual and secular conceptions of it—- both aimed at justifying its obliteration. At one point they were inclined to believe that these Obeah men were in league with the Devil, (the Devil who would aid and abet somehow in the overthrow of the plantation system) and others who thought that these Obeah men and women were rationalists, who were merely swindling people of their money. Diana Paton’s paper Obeah acts charts this evolution of British-colonial belief or some may say, superstition, through the British-colonial law-making concerning this practice.

In other cases, persons who have suffered from that certain kind of cultural dislocation that Father St. Rose speaks about constantly in his book, and are seeking to respond to agents and mechanisms that foster this dislocation have sought to ingratiate or to conceive of Obeah differently. Most immediately in my mind, is Trinidadian Master Artist LeRoi Clarke’s assertion that in his art, he is wukkin Obeah, and Jamaican poet Kei Miller’s poem that speaks of Obeah as “mostly” an anti-colonial force, a point of view he shares ironically with the British law-makers back in the day, although he of course views this anti-colonial spiritual assault as positive, as liberating as perhaps the famous Bois Caiman ceremony that preceded and brought about the Haitian revolution. Yet even closer to home, we have the poet John Robert Lee, in his poem ‘Lusca’ who bemoans his lack of direct connection with the local lore, and/or perhaps distantly admires the connection Derek Walcott seemed to have with these. But even Walcott, in his poem ‘White Magic’ seems to be dealing with these spiritual beings in the same way in which he deals with Greek myth, as something that is useful and worthy, not something that is to be feared or truly encountered, nor is he a participant in a moral community that does not deny these spirits their complexity. These approaches through art therefore has ironically, in trying to assert the worth of these beliefs and survivals have denied them their true size and magnitude, and participation in the world to some degree or other. But like Emile Durkheim, I’ve always believed that “the most barbarous and most fantastic rites and the strangest myths translate some human need, some aspect of life either individual or social.” (2-3) (Addition: In the Anglophone Caribbean poetry I have come across engaging with that world, the best are Kwame Dawes’ ‘Eat’; Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Into Darkness’ and Christian Campbell’s ‘Legba’)

in turb 2in turb 3

I talk about all these black/ Afro/Indo-descended artists, primarily because of the delightful surprise of the starting point of Fr. St. Rose’s book. It started off repeatedly speaking of the ancestors, the ancestors, the ancestors. And I was indeed, at first confused. For Catholicism is a faith that does place a certain premium on tradition and ancestors. With its assertion of not being strictly ‘sola scriptura’ it does seem to have accepted other sources for its traditions and beliefs and doctrines other than the Bible(scribal). It may even carry latent within it, the deposits of an oral tradition dating far back and deep down into the spiritual history of the Middle East or as some scholars have asserted, Africa. It became clearer however, as I read about Listwa time (Story time) and as I read the vignettes or short stories that build Fr. St. Rose’s journey toward accepting and understanding the unique character of his Ministry, his calling. Now who, in my mind are Fr. Lambert’s ancestors in the faith, in this region. We can start perhaps with Barthelomew de Las Casas who made that earthshaking decision to enslave Africans; or Pere Labat over in Martinique who devised many techniques concerning sugar production but also techniques of punishing fugitive or insubordinate slave; or Father Charles Jesse who seemingly put an end to Kèlè, the religious tradition brought by indentured Africans who came after Emancipation, and worshipped African deities Shango and Ogoun in the hills of Babonneau. Or, perhaps Paba, Father Patrick Anthony, who decided that these ‘things’, these people (whose money had helped build many of these Catholic church buildings) poor as they were, these people who were so devoted to the faith, who made it a part of their La Rose or Maguerite Festivities, those people who purchased the front seats that the church auctioned off once upon a time, were worthy of proper study, were worthy of understanding, were worthy in fact of respect and admiration. This is the tradition or the shift in tradition that I see In Turbulent Waters following from. It takes Catholicism from being a marker of class, as it has been for many, as a safety valve from the world of the folk, and brings them into direct contact with their society. And perhaps similar efforts can set in motion the stilted process of creolisation, of inner spirituo-cultural integration, that poet Kamau Brathwaite insists remained unfinished, and has left us half-creole, half-colonial.

redemption-song-001_high-res_0 Bois Caiman

However, the nature of the interaction this time is even more important, even more pertinent. Fr. St. Rose, establishes us as a people, establishes Listwa time, and aligns evil with a disavowal of what our traditions taught us. He is able now to see good and evil in a more complex way. The history of good and evil is interesting in the Caribbean. Obeah laws reveal a racial bias, that they were race-making instruments that sought to draw a line between not a true cognition or belief in the sacred and profane, but between one race and another. Goodness, for the post-emancipation Christian black persons therefore did understandably have curious connections to class, to advantageous position, to cultural identification with those who were seemingly eternally ‘good’: Europeans. From the point of view of the enslaved, many of them saw the master’s various punishments and their power as coming from High Science, or a greater Obeah than any of them ever would have practiced. Not only that, but the post-emancipation Christian also had/has to deal with the fact that the instruments of some Obeah men (of a particular strain) were indeed imported from Europe and America: the Delaurence, the Albertus Magus, or the book that was found after that famous 1905 murder of a young Barbadian boy in St. Lucia for evil purposes, the Petit Albert, which is an heirloom from our French ancestors. I am even inclined to believe that persons may have believed that the Black Mass had something somehow to do with black skin or black people, when the first (and I am sure the second, third etc.) recorded Black Mas(s) was “celebrated”, if that is the correct term for it, in France. I am tempted to echo Fr. St. Rose’s claim that Evil has no ethnicity—- but I am not sure that I trust, civilized Caribbean man, hundreds of years after Las Casas, after the first Obeah law which was brought about by the enslaved Tacky and others seeking their freedom, (their FREEDOM)— I am not sure I trust many or any of us to recognize that evil has no ethnicity, and neither does good.

in turb 5

This is the challenge that Fr. St. Rose’s premise presents before today’s faithful. This is the greatest challenge that the book provides. That evil IS in fact a deviation from something GOOD that exists among these people, the folk. At times he vacillates, and his position is aligned to perhaps the more sympathetic of the colonial administrators or liberation theologians: “For effective priestly ministry and in an effort to win souls back to the Lord, it was imperative that a priest be familiar with those fragments of African culture that still linger within the people’s consciousness and influence their faith and patterns of judgment.” (14) Was it African culture that made these three men, with their Petit Albert book, with precise instructions for the removal of the boy’s heart and genitals, do what they did? Was it African culture that provided that opportunity? Let us look at some African culture, some healing Obeah in the Caribbean. Matyé from Chassin, a nèg Djinè (Negro from Guinea who came during Post-Emancipation era) started a hospital for those in the community who at the time, we are sure, could not afford the high prices and indifference of medical practitioners on the island. (We know that not much has changed there.) Matyé and company, gave free care to those in the community. And their reason for it, their— dare I say Yoruba—reasons for it, were that what was freely given to them should not be given to another for pay or compensation. That was the principle. Maybe this validates the high prices doctors charge now—- they paid a high price for this so they charge big money for it, till death do us part. Or what about the local pansè or the local Gadè who does in fact practice, for free, and chooses sometimes, based on their Catholic conception of sin, not to serve adulterers, people carrying guns, people living in sin? What about their claim that their powers have been given by God? Can God find among the African-descended, prophets and healers in this depraved time? What about the fact that they claim their abilities (or GIFTS as they insist it be called as opposed to power) recede when they are living in sin, or drink too much rum etc? These are complex questions that all Catholics have to answer when they throw around the term ‘evil’. How much have we all progressed from associating evil with the poor, the old and frail, the black or African (or the Indian bogeyman myths) when by now we should gotten it into our heads that evil (anachronous as this sounds) has never had a colour.

in turb 6

Here and there we see the forward thinking, where in one Catholic parish the church had given a plaque to one of those healers for his assistance to members of the parish. Now certainly not all of these ‘healers’ are indeed healers. But more and more in my own research I had to be able to discern evil through the man or woman, through their intentions and their level of restraint. I had to remove from my mind that a people or culture or faith was somehow embedded with evil.  More and more I had to look for external emanations of/from their hearts and not their skin, or the materials they used or the places where they lived.

We have a bit of a beginning in Fr. St. Rose’s book, an opportunity to start from a more complex place. He puts us in a place that reaffirms some of the things I felt the Catholic Church was losing. We start off from the folk culture as something valid, as something which evil perpetrated by man is not a part of, but a deviation from the tradition we have gotten from our ancestors, whoever or wherever these ancestors are or are from. He has authorized the world of the living (and as they say/said in Montserrat of Jombies, the loving dead), and the fact that the dead need to be peacefully put to rest sometimes, that not all such manifestations require vehemence or putting down, but require mercy, understanding, grace and sympathy. (cf. The Voudou ceremony of Retirer d’en bas d’leau) A perfect example within the book takes place in the semi-fictional Solfatara town, in a section called the Tip of the Ice Berg. Why I deem this authorizing of the spiritual world in this way, in such detail, to be important, is because of the domineering influence of the secular and the scientific empiricists who require material proof to validate everything. It has now become a marker of social class to say that you don’t believe in these things, that these things come from the stirrings of inferior minds, or as one friend said to me, these things do not appeal to the ‘old time Catholics’ when ironically I thought, these were those to whom it mattered and was most real. Fr. St. Rose breaks apart this myth that civilized behaviour requires a rejection of such a spirit world, that belief in the spirit world is a kind of shibboleth for the barbarous and backward. (It is important to note that this is the pervading influence among St. Lucia’s growing mis-educated population)

I have many quarrels with the book, but I am no less grateful for its advent. It for instance reconciles the worlds that I have seen a close relative battle with. He lives with the repeating and compelling vision of seeing his grandfather running through the rain after his death, into his hut, seeking shelter. This relative has had immense trouble reconciling this with his more secular and empiricist belief (yes, belief) that the dead are dead, and the spirit world is largely mythical.

Let this book in any way (and for the discerning reader it should not) steer you toward old generalizations based on race and class. Go to it honestly, faithfully, and mercifully. See with eyes for the hearts of men, not for their ‘quaint’ rituals, their ethnicity, their socio-economic background, their age. For St. Lucians, and our exploration of the spirit world and our own belief in the spirit world that Fr. St. Rose has resuscitated, the challenge is that we develop more complex and more honest eyes in looking for evil, and justly rejecting it. Can we reject therefore the many priests who used grimoires to find treasure, just as we reject the false prophets and the evil doers? Can we reject the actions of St. Luce Leon, Edgar St. Hill, Montoute Edmunds, who were convicted of slaying Rupert Mapp in 1905 without diagnosing evil dermatologically— in their skin or their class? Can we see the goodness of a man, as that one parish in this island has done, who heals his brother, poor as he is, without seeking profit or compensation, who freely freely gives, as he has received what God has freely given? For this time of the indefinite, the erasure of important boundaries, the every disfigured shape of our now oblong cosmos, the post-modern love of indefinition, the church must recalibrate, must reintegrate itself on its principles, must start from where it is, must grow roots, and with these roots, see with new, unbiased, undiscriminating eyes. For such a quest, this book is a wonderful beginning.

Thank you.


Black Protest Shuts Down London Human Zoo (from Jamaican Activist, Carolyn Cooper’s blog)

Jamaica Woman Tongue

Hottentot_Venus_PosterBelieve it or not, in this day and age, Europe’s largest multi-arts centre, The Barbican, planned to stage last week a human zoo, featuring black bodies caught in degrading poses! The installation is the perverse work of a white South African, Brett Bailey.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, black bodies were put in cages and exhibited in human zoos in Europe and America purely for the pleasure of beastly white people. One of the most famous of these exhibits was the South African, Sarah Bartman, known as the Hottentot Venus.

Hottentot, now a derogatory term for the Khoi people, was joined with Venus, the Roman goddess of love, to show just how ridiculous it was to think of this black woman’s body as beautiful. Funnily enough, her substantial buttocks and breasts were being mocked at a time when white women were pumping up their bumper with nuff padding…

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The Caribbean in Amsterdam: On the Read My World Festival 2014

One of the CDs I have playing over and over in my car, is a live recording of Linton Kwesi Johnson backed by the Dennis Bovell Band, in Paris. I am sure this recording was not Linton’s first or perhaps even tenth trip to France to perform. Prior to listening to this CD, I had read Caryl Phillips’ essay, in his collection New World Order, entitled “Linton Kwesi Johnson: Prophet in Another Land”. The essay was written in 1998. Perhaps with a certain degree of naivete, I kept wondering what the French audience found in Linton’s lyrics that spoke to them so clearly and sharply that they, as activist William Tanifeani says to Phillips (who wanted to know as well),” You see, Linton is, along with Bob Marley, the most important of the reggae artists that have come to France. People listen very carefully to his lyrics. When he sings “Inglan is a Bitch” or “Sonny’s Lettah” French people know all the words.” Still, to some degree this does not explain his importance, and the comparison to Bob Marley makes it worse. Not that Bob’s lyrics are not taken seriously, but to some degree in the tourist-infested Caribbean, we have come to understand how Bob’s music has been appropriated in an almost blasphemous fashion, to lure tourists to a paradisical Caribbean of people black, faceless, inexplicably happy and vacuous as the men on the No Problem Jamaica T-shirts. Tanifeani goes to explain that “Perhaps the time is right for us here,”he suggests. “Back in the Seventies when you were having a lot of trouble with the emergence of your second generation of black people, Linton was saying things that you needed to hear. But now? Well, maybe it is us who need to hear these things.” Phillips who is sitting with Tanifeani at a restaurant is soon joined by another activist who offers him photographs of Linton speaking to French boys and girls of North African origin in an area just outside Paris.
Tanifeani’s sentiments are important here. But what about the several business interests and persons who bring Linton in? Certainly part of it is because the great man has attained, to use an odd new phrase, “rock star status”. But music has that kind of power anyhow, even though there is not immediate connection to the lyrics, even though its full effect is staggered over a prolonged period of listening. Some may never connect. Some, perhaps those whose interests and privilege Linton’s words threaten, may find solace in believing that Linton is just that—- a rock star and nothing more.

Linton Kwesi Johnson Linton Kwesi Johnson rmw

I first met Linton in person at the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad. Bocas has become one of the premier lit fests in the Caribbean, alongside Calabash, and in terms of its organisation and offerings can compare, I am sure, with other international literary festivals. The second time I met him, was recently in early September, at a literary festival in Amsterdam, called the Read My World festival. Linton was brought in to do the keynote speech on the opening night of the festival. It was speech was a touching speech on his own life in England, the growth of his political consciousness, and how he came to see poetry and reggae music as a suitable vehicle for creating the kind of change and awareness he wanted to generate in the society in which he lived. Listening to him, there came to me the realization that always comes to me at some point with one of those luminaries of West Indian literature: that it was no longer those fiery years in the middle of which I encountered them in books or old articles. I mean the man’s poetry is in no way effete in his delivery, but there is the obvious realization that the place and time at which you fell in love with them, is a time past, a place that existed in the way it did, only in these poems and other recordings. And the men who sing or recite about those times may not produce that precious fiery as hot as it was before. Their convictions are still there but exist in a more elusive, more internal and reticent form.

But what was Linton doing there? Why was his life so important to this festival? They could have brought him in, hinge the festival on his “rock-star status”, have him do a few numbers, sell his CDs and send him home with a cheque fat enough both as remuneration and as an investment in future endeavours in which they would require if not him, then his status, his influence and appeal. The life of the man is in the songs, the poems, in more marketable form. What were the other writers who were there, doing there? The roster of Caribbean writers present were new and emerging writers, some barely known in the region, most hardly known internationally. And all of us, doubly-removed from the linguistic setting we were in: none of us spoke or for that matter, understood much Dutch, if any.

Davlin Thomas Sara Bharrat Ruel Johnson

True I have been to relatively few literary festivals. My own book has only been out for a few months—- my debut collection of poems. So certainly I was not invited on the basis of any supposed “rock-star status”. But it struck me that every literary festival I have been to, has always had a sort of quorum of rock-star writers. Part of this is what makes a lit fest, and understandably, what draws an audience. I remember the feeling of seeing writers I had read like George Lamming, Earl Lovelace, or even younger writers that excited me like Tanya Shirley or writers I hadn’t read much from like Marlon James walking into the Old Fire Station building in Port-of-Spain where many of the Bocas activities were held. Such an experience is always compelling and perhaps foists upon you your own negligence of not having read their works or not having read it properly. And maybe there were Dutch rockstars there as part of the festival, but the festival was focused on us, on the Caribbean. The previous year had been focused on the Middle East. It was, oddly enough, our festival, at the Tolhuistuin in North Amsterdam.

Amsterdam bikesTolhuistuin

It wasn’t until it was time to leave, until we were in a room choked with cigarette and marijuana smoke and books and laughter that it became absolutely clear to me why I was there, why we were there. Each day came with its own contribution to that clarity, like the charming East Indian woman with tousled hair who brought us breakfast each morning in a basket. And the night when Linton came in and delivered his keynote brought me several steps ahead in that realization. Linton, in a sense represented, the actualisation of what many of the artists there seemed to be incipiently engaged in. Ruel Johnson, and his activism in Guyana. The younger Sara Bharrat and her brave speech, “Break Your Silence” delivered at the award ceremony of the Inaugural Walter Rodney Foundation Creative Writing Competition. Sheldon Shepherd and his work outside or perhaps deep within the NoMaddz movement, the deeply serious Adrian Green from Barbados, and all the others. But why was I there? I had written a book about my family, revisting and trying to complicate stereotypes, reclaiming those I had rejected in my mind in earlier years with the popular epithets that always generously served self-contempt: sambo, country bookie and so on. I had written of people I hoped to one day be like, people whose works had changed my life: CLR James, Walter Rodney, my father, my mother. I had written about the submerged belief system in St. Lucia and most other Caribbean islands: Obeah, not in defense of it or championing it, but from my ethnographic work trying to render it for what it was— trying to deal with it less as a scholar or a Caribbean representative, and more as someone living in its midst. And there were, at the very end of the book, a few poems on living in a land dependent on tourism. More and more the question was, not why were we there, but why was I there?

Dicther's Marathon Podium Mozaiek

A few days after we arrived, co-director of the festival, Matthijs Ponte had organised a tour of Amsterdam for us. It was a tour. Soon we realised it was a black heritage tour, and one of the other participants expressed his mild disapproval. Why not a simple tour of Amsterdam? Towards the end of the tour it became clear that little of what we had heard or seen on a regular Amsterdam tour would have brought us here, to the dark underbelly of that land, those brackish waters of Dutch maritime history, which the polder had now been thrust upon. As unassuming and modest as Matthijs was. It made sense. There was a clear vision, at least in his mind, of what we were here for.

Amsterdam couple Dutch Frieze
The festivals I had been to compared to this one had a sort of hands-off approach. The expectation was that it would provide, like the Jazz festival at home, a fair share of big names, some other smaller names, some emerging names. The festival programmes would be decorated with popular topics for discussion, not necessarily drawn from a conscious sense of what needed to be discussed among Caribbean people, a rooted sense of what was most urgent—- especially what was most urgent to discuss about what is happening IN the Caribbean not what was merely de rigeur. A certain cynicism has set in around the talk of nation, in the Caribbean, around the importance of being or writing from the Caribbean, around saying things like what you see on Sara Bharrat’s blog: “I wil not be silent. I will not be silenced. I speak for my people, for my country until death, or without wax.” Or even the name of that blog: The Guyanese Experience. Ultimately in the festivals I have been to or read about there did not seem to be that sense of ‘movement’ that one suspected was very much part of the raison d’etre of the Read My World festival. And this need not be what all festivals are about.

The festival invited the Dutch public to hear Caribbean writers talk about what was happening in Caribbean nations, from writers or citizens who live in those nations. It invited its scholars to interact with the work of these writers, to listen, respond, to question. At risk of seeming corny: to read our world. And the intention it seemed was for this Dutch audience, not necessarily to take up some humanitarian cause or other in the Caribbean or to become Caribbean scholars or anthropologists, but to simultaneously become aware of what is happening in the world outside of Europe in very small corners of the World, as well as to become active in engaging their society with the same seriousness and rigour that  Matthijs, Willemijn, Sharda Ganga and Ruel felt that we apparently had been doing. We did not come all the way to Amsterdam to defend our world, to engage in a kind of relativist politics or ‘writing back’ that ingratiated our culture or societies, to show our difference in quaint vignettes, we did not come to impute or incriminate the Dutch. Ironically, we were in a similar position as Jennifer, our tour guide of Surinamese parentage, walking the streets of Amsterdam, engaging her world before the Dutch people riding by on bikes. Except that her world really was Amsterdam and Dutch history, but a part of the history that, by design, Amsterdam was and still is protected from. Matthijs et al., with their own nuanced and variegated awareness of activism,  were in many ways giving the Dutch public, through us, a dose of what they felt it needed. We were in a sense contributing to Dutch society, by speaking honestly from within our own countries.

It was only, on our last night in Amsterdam, gathered together in Matthijs’ apartment, cramped with books, the air live with cigarette smoke, wine skittering like lizards down our throats,the walls overtaken by shelves pleated with books—- it was only then that I became incipiently aware of what this festival was, what it was doing, what it had in fact done. Matthijs, who was more inconspicuous than others during the festival, could sometimes be seen sitting alone, staring pensively at whatever happened to be in front of him, his cigarette between his fingers. You could glimpse him sometimes sitting alone at the open-air restaurant at the Tolhuistuin, overlooking the river where the ferry brought people to and from central Amsterdam with the clutter and sizzle and silver of their bikes and scooters, smoke rising and curling from his cigarette like an undulating idea; a plan.

Amsterdam ferry