Friends, I’ve found love – with the Caribbean literary world. We’ve been long-distance lovers for a while now, and now that we’ve had our first real, in-person dates, I can tell you our love is true.
Today I’m sad to return home and part with my love, but I’ve got plenty of words and memories to keep with me until we meet again. Yesterday, the final day of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest
, was all about speaking from the heart. In a discussion with Loretta Collins Klobah, Karen Lord, and Shara McCallum about post-colonial writing and literary tradition, writer Kei Miller said, “Love is a big part of what I’m doing.” In his writing and in his words about his work, the love shows, as he invites readers into his world without any of the arrogance he said he hopes to avoid.
Love also came through in the other final day events I attended. Prize ceremonies celebrated some of the year’s most accomplished writers. Authors of the books short-listed for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize read from their winning works – The Twelve Foot Neon Woman
by poetry winner Loretta Collins Klobah, George Price: A Life Revealed
by non-fiction winner Godfrey P. Smith, and Is Just a Movie
by fiction winner and overall OCM prize winner Earl Lovelace. And the Allen Prize ceremony celebrated the work of some of Trinidad’s most promising young writers, ages 12-19. These youth, unaffected by the pressures “professional” writers face, write the only way they know how, straight from the heart, and it shows in the best way.
shares her sweet songs
Later in the day, more self-expression came from the hearts of those involved in the Bocas Lit Fest. The festival ended with uplifting music by Gillian Moor
, the Freetown Collective
, Ruth Osman
and more. But the fun wasn’t over yet – last night, writers were limin’ and dinin' at the home of Earl Lovelace, and I tell you, if a bunch of Caribbean writers dancing the night away isn’t an expression of love, I don’t know what is. It was all pretty surreal, and I’m still not entirely sure if that last part was real or a wild, jet lag-induced dream of mine, but I’m pretty certain it really happened.
I’m so grateful for the past few days of immersion in the literary spaces of Trinidad and the other Caribbean islands. I’ll be carrying all of it with me, in my work and in my life, and I hope to return to this unforgettable world sometime soon. It’s all the love this writer needs.
It's Day 3 of the Bocas Lit Fest
in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and yep, I'm still having an amazing time. Tonight, it's all catching up to me - the intensity of travel is wearing me down, yes, but I also mean all of the wisdom these writers have been sharing is coursing through me, and I can feel the tremendously powerful weight of carrying it all. I've learned more over the past few days than I ever expected, and there's still one more full day of events to absorb all of the overflowing insight the writers are offering. Can this be life always, please? I'm trying to figure out how to keep this feeling going,
thinking about the possibilities for next year's Bocas and wishfully eyeing next month's return of Jamaica's Calabash Literary Festival
. Say, if anyone has any ideas about how to make a career out of attending Caribbean literary festivals, please send them my way. Of course, such a career might not be possible,
and maybe it's not totally necessary for maintaining this feeling, either. One of today's events showed me a glimpse of what happens between these festivals, as Nicholas Laughlin hosted a reading and discussion with Trinidadian poets Andre Bagoo and Vahni Capildeo. Nicholas expressed his excitement over this event, because of the talent of the writers, and also, he admitted, because they are both good friends of his. The two poets are also friends with one another, and the respect and admiration they all have for one another was clear.
The many witnesses
to today's conversation
Creative works with common ideas are often said to be "in conversation." Today's writers were in conversation. In addition to their own work, each of the poets read a poem by the other, and as they introduced the borrowed poems, you would think they were referring to some absent, revered writer, rather than a friend sitting at their side. While these talented poets have plenty of strength on their own, today I saw the positive effect of writers' mutual support. Nicholas, Andre and Vahni spoke naturally and intimately, and it was a treat to witness this compelling conversation between them.
These days, with ways to connect through social media as well as through literature, writers can be both literally and figuratively "in conversation" with one another. I know networking with other writers has its perks, providing opportunities to get your work known. Today's featured writers also showed that being in conversation can uplift and inspire us to do our best work, striving to exhibit the ways we earn the respect of our closest friends and allies.
reads from new work
As you may have noticed from yesterday's lack of a blog post, I was left speechless after Friday's Boca Lit Fest
events. This morning, I'm still feeling like I don't have the adequate words to describe it, but I'll try, at least, to give a taste of what happened. Daytime readings and discussions included Fawzia Kane, Fred D'Aguiar, Nicolette Bethel and one of my favorite novelists, Achy Obejas.
There was also a breath-takingly good emerging poet, Valdimir Lucien, who bravely stepped in for a writer who was delayed, saying that he's "three-quarters of a way through" his first collection of poems. I'll be eagerly awaiting the completion and release of that collection.
The legendary Earl Lovelace
After all that and more, plus a trip to visit my grandmother, I was almost too exhausted to make it out to the evening festivities. But wow, I'm sure glad that I decided to give it a try. It was a night of legends - steel pan music by Ray Holman, readings by Caribbean literary heroes including Merle Hodge, Mervyn Morris, and the awe-inspiring Earl Lovelace. I got to meet Mr. Lovelace, who promised to remember my name, to which I say, ha! It's amazing that such a promise was made, even though I doubt it'll happen. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to even stand in that room, among such icons. It was a truly unforgettable experience.
And I have to mention another highlight of the day, getting the chance to read at one of the open mics. I got to connect with some local poets, real poets, who may not be published or recognized, but who know how to take to the page and speak from the heart. It was an honor to read for a Trinidadian audience one of my "Trinidad poems." I consider it an old poem of mine, which shows me how young my writing career feels, as I wrote it about a year and a half ago. And it's a poem I wrote in tribute to my grandmother. The audience gave me a very warm reception, and after I read, an older Trinidadian woman gave me the best compliment I could ask for - silence, holding her hands out in thanks to me, with tears in her eyes.
Sometimes, speechlessness is the most powerful way to show your thanks. So I'll stop blabbing on now, and leave the events of yesterday where they'll remain, in my heart. For my Granny A, here's the poem I read yesterday, from a 2010 reading at Quiet Lighting during Litquake.
Albert Laveau, Kenneth Ramchand,
Penelope Beckles, and Bhoe Tewarie
get ready to kick off the Bocas Lit Fest
Hello! I’m blogging to you live from Port of Spain, Trinidad, home of the second annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest
, a celebration of writers and writing from the Caribbean. Today was the first of four jam-packed days of readings, workshops, music and film, and the festival’s off to a great start. I’m already having a blast.
This year makes fifty years since Trinidad & Tobago gained its independence, and a celebration of local literature is a great way to honor fifty years of freedom from colonial rule. Today’s events kicked off with local luminaries reading from classic works by Samuel Selvon, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Eric Williams, and satirical columnist “Macaw.” These readings set the tone for the rest of the day, paying homage to writers whose work came out of the Independence era, and lifting up the writing that has followed.
Pride is a universal language. Surrounded by people whose voices and bodies are swelling with pride, I can’t help but feel some of what they’re feeling – love for themselves and for others who have lived lives like theirs. This festival isn’t about trying to appeal to what’s popular in literary communities in other parts of the world, not even those countries that tend to dominate conversations about the most significant literature in the world. No, here at Bocas Lit Fest we’re recognizing that the literature of the Caribbean is powerful and important, telling the stories of Caribbean people.
Today was memorable in many ways, but two writers in particular stood out to me. The first was Jamaican poet and fiction writer Kei Miller
. Now, I face my own challenges writing work with queer themes, but Kei Miller directly confronts Jamaica’s violent homophobia
with courage I could only dream of. He also manages to use humor, and unapologetic honesty, creating compelling, captivating stories and poems. I’ll get a chance to hear more from him later in the festival, so I’m very much looking forward to that.
The other person whose reading is still echoing in my mind is New Talent Showcase writer Stephen Narain
. He’s the kind of writer who inspires me to explore all of the possibilities of my complex voice as a writer. This might be partly due to the fact that he’s only a year older than I am, but as I listened to him read, and participated in the Q & A discussion that followed, I felt like I was hearing the words of somebody with decades more wisdom than I’ve acquired. I had to recognize, at a point, that he’s not much different than I am, speaking from his unique perspective and creating space for voices that aren’t often heard. And he’s diving straight into the stories that call him, risks and all, and doing a brilliant job of it.
If this festival continues to inspire me as it’s done today, I’ll have the makings of a lifetime of work by the time it’s over. My hope – scratch that, my plan
is to run with that inspiration before it fades, risks and all, shaking off self-doubt and taking pride in the voice that’s uniquely mine.
I took this photo on my last visit
to Trinidad, in 2008
I'm spending this week in Trinidad & Tobago!
I'll be visiting family, and I've also coordinated this trip to attend the NGC Bocas Lit Fest
, a literary festival celebrating books, writers and writing from the Caribbean and the rest of the world. I can't wait to immerse myself in the world of Caribbean literature. The festival schedule
has me giddy with excitement, ready to connect with and hear from writers I'm familiar with, like Achy Obejas
, as well as those I'll be getting to know, such as the authors reading in the emerging writers series, the New Talent showcase
. There will also be films, musical events, and chances to read at open mics, so if I can find the courage, I may step up to the mic at some point.
2008, Standing in front of the house
where my father grew up
For my dad, who's traveling with me, this trip will be one of going home. He'll walk the streets of the neighborhood where he grew up, and folks will shout out to him, by name and by nickname, in spite of the fact that he's been living in the United States for decades. When we visited in 2008, we spent time in the house where he was born, and around the corner, the house where he grew up. I heard his accent become stronger than ever, as he spoke with folks who spoke like he does.
I suppose it's not right for me to claim Trinidad as home, as I wasn't born or raised there, but there's something about it that feels like home to me, and it's hard to explain. For most of my life, I've felt like an "other," like an outsider in many ways. There's something that feels familiar about going to Trinidad, where my dark skin doesn't make me different. Sure, I'm still an outsider, not quite blending in a as a local. But in my search for a feeling of home, there is a piece of the puzzle that shifts into place when I'm in Trinidad.
I will do my best to blog about the festival and other happenings while I'm there. Stay tuned for my Caribbean adventures!
Do you keep a journal?
I’m curious about where the phrase “Dear Diary” comes from. I think it’s funny to address a diary by name, even though when we write in journals, we’re writing only to ourselves. Or are we? Do we think of a journal’s pages as living? As listening?
What’s your reason for journaling? I have a journal, but I haven’t kept up with it much over the past year or so. Last night, I decided to pick it up and write something, and as I wrote, I really wanted to get back into a regular practice of it. I wrote wanting to learn something, and learn I did.
What I learned last night: my journaling style hasn’t changed much since I was thirteen years old. I still have lots of feelings, just a few more words to describe them. Also, heartbreak sucks. Also, when I write just to myself, it still feels a little like I’m writing to someone else.
Of course, I already knew all of this. It’s funny to write seeking to learn, when all I can really write in a journal is what I already know. I think that offers some insight on who this “Diary” character is.
Dear Diary, I think you’re a gray-haired, steady-voiced therapist. When I ask you to tell me something, all you can say is, “What do you think?” and sometimes it pisses me off.
Dear Diary, or maybe you’re a dreadlocked stoner who believes in my energy. “Trust your path, man. You got this,” you say to me. And sometimes I think you might be right.
Dear Diary, you might be a child. Wide-eyed and ready to accept the world as I present it to you. You ask me questions about why things are as they are, and as I search for the answers, I see wonder and magic where I never noticed it before.
Dear Diary, you could just be an older version of me. From my perspective, you have all the answers I seek, but you’re looking back, surprised to see that the answers were there all along.
Dear Diary, or maybe you’re just a book with blank pages. You have breath, but I won’t feel it until I sigh into you. You have voice, but that voice is my own. You’re listening to me, and reminding me of all I can learn by listening to myself, too.
Who is your Diary? What do learn from its voice? From your voice?
This is part of a longer nonfiction piece I've been working on, about discovering the truth of my beauty through art, not the media.
There was a time when I thought beauty had nothing to do with me. I didn’t see any part of myself in the fashion magazines, in the movies, or on TV, not even in commercials advertising artificial ways to turn an ordinary face into a pretty one. In a way, this was a good thing. It helped me find my authentic self. When other girls my age tried to cover their true selves with the right clothes and makeup, I didn’t bother. There was no chance of beauty for me.
As a teenager, of course, it wasn’t as simple or positive as abandoning the quest for artificial beauty to embrace my authentic self. I was pretty miserable about the idea that I’d never be beautiful. I was mad, not at the beauty standards that excluded me, but at myself for failing to meet them. If I couldn’t be beautiful, it seemed, then I couldn’t be loved. At fourteen, I was missing that vital first step toward romantic love – I’d never been kissed, and for that I blamed my acne-marked skin, my widening hips, and most of all, my too dark, too big, unkissable lips.
Untitled by Myra Greene
from the series
Character Recognition, 2006
Though I avoided taking beauty products seriously, there was some fun in trying them out. I remember a day when a few of my closest friends, fair-skinned and beautiful in my eyes, were playing around with makeup. I saw no harm in joining in the fun, giggling and battling for the mirror, holding up photos of models and trying to match their poses.
One of my friends, a girl who often heard compliments on her beauty, handed me her lip gloss, telling me to try it on. Now, I didn’t know much about makeup, but I could tell just by looking at the pale pink bottle that it was meant for girls with lips of a similar color, not for me. I tried to say so, but the other girls encouraged me to give it a chance. I wouldn’t know how it would look until I tried, they said. Then they all waited. The giggling had stopped. I was ruining the fun.
So I sighed, said “fine,” agreed to try the lip gloss on so I could prove them wrong and we could move on. I touched the pink brush to my lips, sure this was a bad idea, but somewhere in the back of my mind was a quiet hope that perhaps they were right, after all. This was makeup I’d avoided, but maybe spreading it on my lips would be the key to unlocking my beauty.
But when I turned to show my face to my friends, I knew I’d been right after all. They shrieked with laughter, and when I turned to the mirror, I could see why. I looked ridiculous. The glittery pink goo looked hopelessly out of place, as if there was nothing it could do for someone like me, with the dark of my lips persisting through, rather than fading to the shimmer meant to make them beautiful.
The laughter burned, and I wiped the gloss away, as urgently as if it was burning me, too. They tried to insist that I join in the laughter, that I stop being so serious and accept the hilarity of the situation.
My friends didn’t know that, while they were surprised and amused by the absurdity on my face, this situation wasn’t new to me. I’d been there before, looking into the mirror with disappointment, sure that nothing I put on my face could possibly make me beautiful. All I wanted now was to leave, and let them continue without me. I was ruining the fun. My lips were destroying the dream of beauty.
She does not know
she thinks her brown body
has no glory.
If she could dance
under palm trees
and see her image in the river,
she would know.
But there are no palm trees
on the street,
and dish water gives back
-William Waring Cuney
After spending some time putting the pen to the page, many writers learn about the power of subtlety. You learn that the most horrific truths are sometimes best approached delicately. It may feel, at first, like the gentle hand isn’t doing the subject justice, but at some point you realize the subtlety puts a spotlight on the horror in the way a direct address never could. You begin to see those moments when a small hint can offer more information than a grand gesture. When silence may speak louder than words.
And of course, it’s not just writers who learn about the power of subtlety. We can learn the same lessons from life off the page. Anyone who’s been put down by oppression knows that. There are plenty of examples of racism at its most extreme, with the most dire of consequences, but sometimes, it’s just the little things that let you know how others may perceive and misjudge you.
Have we come so far?
by Lauren Quock
When it’s the “little things” at play, sometimes the impact of racism is to leave a question in the air. When you’re aware of how subtle and pervasive racism can be, it can be more difficult to just dismiss the moments that are a little unsettling and point to the tragedies as the only remaining evidence that racism still exists. After all, encounters similar to the one between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin happen every day
. If their encounter had been like so many others, ending with an unwelcoming glare, a rude word, a muttering under the breath, we wouldn’t have heard about it on the national news, but still, it would be part of a certain type of culture. It’s a culture sustained by the subtleties on a daily basis, and punctuated by the tragic cases we then point to as horrific, disastrous, and isolated. But as Keli Goff points out
, Trayvon Martin’s death can remind us that profiling, and other such subtle forms of racism, are hardly harmless.
After my reading the other night, I had one of those experiences that leaves a question in the air. To be honest, I wanted to catch my breath and move on, know that I survived and save my energy for the big fights like justice for Trayvon, leaving the question as just a question without facing the possibilities of the truth. Then Oakland writer Roger Porter, who was also part the experience, wrote about it on his blog
, capturing the feeling of having that question on your mind. And there it was, facing me, in all of the complexity of the truth.
Of course, a writer knows that subtlety can be used for more than oppression. It can be used for quite the opposite. And that’s where I find the hope here. If racism can quietly make its way into our lives, then justice can, too. Sure, there are times when we have to make a thunderous noise to face the truth and call for change. But we don’t have to wait for the chance to do that to make a difference. We can imagine a world of true liberation, and consider what that would mean. Think of what freedom could mean, for everyone and everything, from the big changes, right down to the little things.
Last week we lost Adrienne Rich
, the lesbian poet, essayist, feminist who was unashamed of the inseparable ties between her personal life and her political perspective
. Adrienne Rich once refused to accept a National Book Award unless two of my other heroes, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, joined her onstage to accept on behalf of all women (read their acceptance speech here
). She once declined the White House's offer of the National Medal of the Arts, writing in a letter
, "[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage."Since I found out she died, I've been trying to write a poem in homage to her. But looking back with those words in mind, it feels as if all of my work is in homage to her. I really believe I wouldn't be doing what I do without the influence of women like Rich, Walker and Lorde. When I write, I always feel like I'm taking a risk. And without the courage of these women leading the way, I probably wouldn't take the chance. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the honesty of anger, the kind of anger I felt when I wrote a poem for Trayvon Martin, the teenage boy who was killed because someone deemed his dark skin "suspicious."
I shared that poem at New Poetry Mission, and I'd like to share it with you now. Here's a video of my reading, brought to you by Litseen
. I'd like to thank Adrienne Rich for opening the doors wide enough for my anger to pass through. I'll be reading this and other poems tonight at MAPP, Mission Arts and Performance Project.
There will also be live music, theater, film screenings and more, with art and healing and transformation taking place all over San Francisco's Mission District. Check out the whole program here
, and the program for the event I'm a part of, Reflexiones, here
. This is for Trayvon.