Twenty years ago, quixotically pursuing a doomed romance, I moved to Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. Part of what decided me to go was the time I’d spent among the malcontents of the city’s Woodford Square. On any given day there was a Dickensian cast of cranks, madmen and impassioned citizens, fulminating against the “parasitic oligarchy” of Trinidad and Tobago. Nestled downtown between the Hall of Justice, a cathedral, the National Library and the Red House parliament building, Woodford square is tailor-made for civic wrangling, almost like the Field of Dreams thought experiment (“If you build it, t(he)y will come”). Guidebooks call it “The People’s Parliament” and, predictably, compare it to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, but for me it has always been more of a Zuccotti Park avant la lettre.
In my day, a staple Woodford theme was the government’s contempt for working people, its indifference to price increases for cooking gas, flour and the like. The decline of West Indies cricket was another crowd-pleaser, especially the theological question of whom to blame: white men on the Cricket Board? Interloping small islanders like the swaggering Antiguan captain Viv Richards? Bystanders constantly intervened—this was before we’d come to terms with being a third-rate Test team—and heckled speakers into silent departure if they didn’t pass muster.
Trinidadian culture is unusually well-supplied with the rhetoric of badinage and repartee. (If, for example, you ask a question to which there is a self-evident reply, they dismiss you with the phrase “You asking answers!”). Its wonderfully eclectic creole was recently honoured with a monumental dictionary that a Canadian lexicographer compiled after more than twenty years of painstaking research.
A culture like this should be a-tumble with books, but it wasn’t—at least when I lived there. Although Dr. Eric Williams, an academic historian, had served as prime minister for 25 years the island’s main cultural interests lay elsewhere. Williams produced tomes with titles like Capitalism and Slavery, and From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969, but the culture he left behind showed few signs of the intellectual self-sufficiency that was meant to accompany independence. In the last twenty years “Trini” culture has become practically synonymous with “pan” (steelbands), soca, and the most enjoyable carnival outside of Rio.
The NGC Bocas Lit Fest, now in its second year, is a remarkable attempt to supply some of this missing literature. In four days at the end of April, 2012, the festival crammed nearly 100 high- and mid-brow events into a nonstop schedule. Expertly coordinated by a small, dedicated team, the organizers forced audiences to pick and choose throughout: Jamaican poets, or a talk on Caribbean historiography? A workshop with Barbadian fantasy novelist Karen Lord and Canadian-based Trinidadian novelist Rabindranath Maharaj, or a short talk on “the evolution of carnival” by local novelist Michael Anthony? Gaps in the formal programme were filled with open-mic sessions outside the library, and evenings given over to photography exhibitions, music and dance recitals, and readings celebrating 50 years of Caribbean independence.
In a memorable essay on the work of the artist Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin, one of the main Lit Fest organizers describes:
the special predicament of “here”: twenty-first-century Trinidad, a small, confusing post-colonial, post-everything space, “a world with two coups, murders, kidnappings, wrought iron, queen shows”. Those of us who inhabit this “here” navigating blindly, by instinct, on ground still incompletely charted. (We were the land’s before the land was ours.) And those looking from outside distracted by five hundred years of expectations about what the Caribbean is or ought to be.
The confusion has produced a lively culture but one that often shied away from highbrow stuff, especially when it smells of books—one of V.S. Naipaul’s characters is famously flummoxed by “litritcher and poultry.” So, paradoxically, although Trinidad has produced or nurtured both of the Caribbean’s literary Nobels (Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul), it never managed to develop a serious reading public, nor a publishing industry worth the name. Nearly all of its artists and writers had to make their names abroad before they could get any serious local attention.
West Indian literature has always cast a longer shadow than expected, but it hasn’t yet fulfilled Louise Bennett’s charming vision of “colonisation in reverse.” What it has produced is a fascinating hybrid of the old and new worlds, what might be called a “diaspora culture.” The 50 writers who converged on Port of Spain came from North America, England, Europe, and all parts of the Caribbean. The guest list even included, intriguingly, the Indian writer Rahul Bhattacharya and the Irish-Turkish novelist Joseph O’Neill, author of widely-acclaimed Netherland.
Bhattacharya and O’Neill both have an intuitive grasp of the spontaneity of West Indian speech, especially our fondness for a grandiloquence that first world writers could not use unselfconsciously. O’Neill recalled coming to Trinidad to work on a death penalty case under appeal to British Privy Council. His curiosity was piqued by a local activist brandishing a placard with an Arthur Koestler quote. He befriended the man, who quickly became his guide to the island. Reading from a piece published by Granta in Winter 2000, O’Neill recounted their drive to a village where one of his now-executed clients had allegedly committed a murder:
“Trinidad was named after the divine Trinity,” said Ishmael Samaad. “What else does Trinidad mean? It means the meeting place of three continents, of three great faiths. This is where they converge.” He leaned to one side and shot a glance over his right shoulder. He was driving a battered Mazda with broken lights, shaking parts and—hence the craning of the neck—no wing mirrors.
I was conscious of the car’s intense rattling because we were passing the shanty town that had sprung up by the Beetham Highway on the edge of Port of Spain. Motorists were terrified of breaking down here, I’d heard, and would abandon their vehicles rather than stick around for the repair truck.
“But this land of the Trinity,” Samaad continued, “is where they hang men in threes. Three a day on three consecutive days, except Sunday. They hang on a Friday, the Muslim day, and Saturday, the Jewish day, and they hang against the wishes of the Catholic church. The government run roughshod over three religions. With these hangings the Trinity has taken on a very macabre meaning.”
Bhattacharya’s grasp of Guyanese speech-making is even more impressive, as are his insights into the postcolonial confusion of societies in which the descendants of slaves and indentured labourers jostle for political control.
With the outsiders setting the bar so high, I was intrigued to see how well the West Indians would fare, how their take on the same topics would differ. Generally, they held their own on both counts, possibly conveying the complexity of the Caribbean even more forcefully, and its tendency to produce widely divergent variations on a theme. Consider three of the Jamaican poets who attended the festival—Shara McCallum
Kei Miller and one of the elder statesmen of West Indian letters, Mervyn Morris—who were a useful study in the sort of contrasts that kept occurring within what look like narrow categories. All three teach creative writing: McCallum in the US, Miller in Glasgow, and Morris in Jamaica (where he taught Miller at the University of the West Indies). McCallum—whose transcontinental ancestry is remarkable, even by Canadian standards—comfortably draws on a striking range of literary influences. Asked by an interviewer, a few years back, what she was reading, her answer included Michael Ondaatje, Adrienne Rich, Yehuda Amichai, and Wislawa Szymborska. Her poetry works much of the same vowel magic Walcott used so well over the years, but it also, to my ears, has an attractive, almost indiscernible, American lilt. “At the Hanover Museum,” published in 2000, begins:
Once many believed in a common dream
of this island, variegated skins of fruit
arrayed at market. Every mickel mek a muckle.
But the land keeps opening to loss—
flame tree seeds shaken loose from limbs,
sifted flour that will not rise into bread.
Stalks of cane grow, unaware of their irony,
scattered across this museum’s grounds.
Inside, shackles affixed to cement blocks
have rusted to vermillion, almost beautiful.
Here, the sea breaking against cliffs
is a voice I might mistake for the past.
Miller and Morris are more attuned to British culture but otherwise have little in common. When they read together towards the end of the festival, they were a study in contrasts: tall, elegant, and tidily-dreadlocked Miller practically sang his Paterian verse; Morris, compact, white-bearded, and professorial, surprised the audience with expert switching between different registers of Jamaican speech and formal English.
Miller spoke movingly about the death of his mother and asked “How do you sing your way out of grief?” He finds one answer in the “singer man” who, in the 1930s, beguiled the labourers building Jamaica’s roads by singing songs to them. Miller’s verse is effortlessly musical, tumbling out like his own, enchanting ideas of “song” in the poem “Some Definitions for Song,” which begins
– the speech of birds, as in birdsong, but with exceptions. Pigeons do not
sing. Vultures do not sing.……A bargain, or a very small sum, as in “he
bought it for a song.” Think what we could purchase with songs, thrown
across the counter and landing more softly than coins. Perhaps then, the
origin of the expression, to sing for your supper.……The troubled sound
that escapes from a woman’s mouth while she dreams of fire, also any
sound that escapes, also anything that escapes; a passage out, the fling
up of hands.
Morris barely comments on his work, which sounds much more tightly measured than Miller’s. Apart from switching between middle-class Jamaican English, and more demotic creole,1Morris can also deftly record the shifting hopes of independence, five decades earlier, in his poem, “To an Expatriate Friend”:
And then the revolution.
Black and loud the horns of anger blew
against the long oppression; sufferers
cast off the precious values of the few.
New powers re-enslaved us all:
each person manacled in skin, in race.
You could not wear your paid up dues;
the keen discrimination typed your face.
The future darkening, you thought it time
to say goodbye. It may be that you were right.
It hurt to see you go; but, more,
It hurt to see you slowly going white.
It is clear, reading, talking with and listening to these poets that Jamaica alone is diverse enough to sustain a literary festival for a week—as the newly revived Calabash festival will do at the end of May. Placed alongside other Anglophone West Indian writers, and with the added company of Cuban and Haitian authors, it is both inspiring and slightly saddening how wide a cultural range this small region contains, and how differently even near-neighbours articulate their lives.
Of the many other readings I attended, two stand out as exemplars of the emotional stakes at the Lit Fest. Trinidadian writer Sharon Millar, recently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, read a spellbinding account of a kidnapping. For years the local newspapers have been filled with tabloid accounts of kidnap-for-ransom scams, but it felt like the first time most of the audience had suffered imaginatively through an actual abduction: the particulars of being manhandled, blindfolded, and penned in a small, dark room with a bucket for a toilet. Millar didn’t get to finish the story but the extract did its work. The audience left chastened by the unexpected plunge into an experience most had learned to ignore in the island’s sensationalized media.
At the other event, the Haitian-Canadian novelist, poet and academic Myriam Chancy broke down halfway through a mellifluous passage about children playing in Port-Au-Prince. In the middle of a sentence she simply stopped, blinking back tears for perhaps a quarter of a minute. The silence was so sudden, so at odds with her cantering lyricism, that it felt like forever. Everyone in the room sat up a little with the suspense. Then, having mustered the courage to speak again, Chancy gamely continued to the end. It was the most eloquent expression of what the earthquake had taken away, a moment few in the room will ever forget.
After three days of relentless culture—much of which draws full houses—I ask the main Bocas Lit Fest organizer, Marina Salandy Brown, how she pulled it off. We are outside the Library, sampling first-timers at the open mic. Salandy-Brown, a recent re-migrant to Trinidad after a successful career at the BBC, smiles like I’m asking answers. She tells me the Lit Fest grew out of an earlier success with a film festival and answered a felt need. “Talent will out in all kinds of ways. All you have to do is [… ] recognise it and provide a kind of conduit for it […] Carnival and calypso and all that—which we need—they’re so big and powerful and successful, they’ve been such a large part of the making of our national artistic form that they’ve assumed proportions far greater than the other things we can do, which is write, perform, this kind of thing.” Later on, she adds, “What we’re trying to do is get people out of here [gesturing towards the mic] and into there [pointing at the library].”
Earlier this month, PEN’s World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York held an event called “A People’s Assembly in the Spirit of The Path to Hope” (the political tract, written by French nonagenarians Stephane Hessel and Edgar Morin, that is said to best articulate the worldview of the Occupy movement). Chaired by two Occupy Wall Street organizers, the event began with the audience reading statements about what had motivated the protests. It wasn’t long before this unusual act of inclusivity made a telling point. The confusion of accents, pitches, timbres—the globe-spanning polyphony you’d expect in New York—quickly brought home the movement’s global intellectual ambitions. It insisted that the words being read belonged to the world’s voices, rather than a few ultra-smart people in the developed world. It suggested that the movement wasn’t trying to win power in itself but rather to lever existing power into launching a new conversation.
In one of their opening paragraphs, Hessel and Morin note:
We must understand that globalization constitutes both the best and the worst thing that could ever happen to mankind. The best because all the scattered fragments of humanity have become interdependent for the first time, creating a shared fate that makes one single Homeland Earth possible. Such an outcome, far from eliminating individual home-lands, would simply incorporate them. The worst because it has triggered a frantic race toward a succession of catastrophes.
The passage perfectly captures both the sadness and the hope of the West Indian diaspora, and the triumphs of a place like Woodford Square and an event like the NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Modern history has acted like a cultural centrifuge on the Caribbean—Walcott’s 1992 Nobel lecture was, fittingly, called “Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory”—scattering our identities to a hundred thousand elsewheres. But occasionally enough of the fragments gather in one place long enough for us to piece together, to see or, at least, intimate, what our whole selves might have been like if the dreams of West Indian federation had come to pass. For me it was a moment of cultural transcendence, equal parts lament, catharsis and inspiration. I left Port of Spain with the strong hope that the festival would fulfil its early promise and that it might even, in time, help the scattered fragments of West Indian humanity to recognize our own cultural and political interdependence.
1 The decision to alternate registers has a fascinating political context which Miller discusses in a post at his blog Contradictory Instructions: “You must understand, Jamaica is not like Trinidad. In Trinidad, both rich and poor people can meet on equal footing in the space of the Trini language. As well, they can meet physically (and again, equally) in the space of the Savannah. Jamaica is much more segregated. Our very language is policed and is not a space in which everyone is equally welcome. If you come from uptown and you try to speak ‘patwa’ you are accused of being condescending; if you are from downtown and you try to speak ‘proper’ they make patronizing music videos of you and laugh you to scorn on television (Just see the case of Clifton ‘Canna Cross It’ Brown!). And neither has there been an actual spot where all classes can feel welcome and safe. Well, not until the dance days were created.”