Sunday, May 24, 2009

'Bad Words' at Calabash 09

Calabash Vibes: The Underage drinker Drew, The fossil Blinger, Marlon, the proprietor of the world's coolest name, Johnny Temple, the never far from a camera Annabelle, and some writer named Junot Diaz. Photo: courtesy The Fossil Blinger.

WRITER & WIFE: Anthony Winkler and spouse, Cathy, at Calabash (i enjoyed a brief career as Winkler's wife courtesy Tallawah Review. The error has now been corrected).


The Torment of Saint Anthony, reportedly by Michelangelo

Writers are not the most spectacular looking creatures (except for Terese Svoboda who apparently dazzled the Calabash crowd with her silver-sequined mini dress if not her poetry) so i thought i'd lead into my first brief on the literary festival with some unrelated but compelling images from the artworld.

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami poses on top of one of his art works. EFE/Ym Yik.

I'll tell you up front. The main draws for me at Calabash 09 were Patrick French, Junot Diaz and Pico Iyer. Many of the other literary stars i'd already heard read or know personally. I've heard Stacey Ann Chin at least four or five times but was still eager to hear what she might say or read from her memoir. I heard her being interviewed on radio recently and she struck me as more mature and thoughtful than on previous occasions where her rage outran her rapport with the audience.

Stacey Ann Chin flanked by Mr. Seaga and Anthony Winkler.
captions courtesy Peter Dean Rickards

Chin didn't disappoint. Her account of her first encounter with a sanitary pad under the gimlet
(if grim) gaze of her aunt played havoc with the Jamaican sensibilities present some of whom shook their heads in disbelief. Stacey Ann proceeded with the frank chronicling of her abused pumpum, followed by Mr. Seaga whose autobiographical account was severe and puritanical in contrast. One of my companions sardonically remarked that he seemed to be reading his resume. Anthony Winkler, who followed, restored the climate of lewdness and profanity that had been set in motion the first night by an ebullient Junot Diaz. Winkler regaled the audience with the story of 'Greasy Legs' a prostitute who initiated generations of Cornwall College students into the slippery secrets of her anatomy.

The session between Paul Holdenberger and Pico Iyer took the festival out of the gutter to spiritual heights as travel writer Pico (whose work i used to read in Time magazine) described the peripatetic trajectory of his existence. A citizen of the Global Commons if ever there was one, Iyer (pronounced the way many locals pronounce 'Higher' but with a Barbadian 'I') personifies the figure of the Nomad, combining contemporary radical chic (he once spent two weeks at LA International Airport as part of the research for his book Global Soul) with a yearning for the timeless, ageless monasticism of ancient Eastern cultures.

The next session of invited readers included Laura Fish from the University of Newcastle whose second novel Strange Music is about Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Fish's father resides at the Greenwood Great House near Falmouth where the Barrett Brownings lived. Fish struck a clean, light note followed by Marlon James, whose compelling, dark novel The Book of the Night Women has just been published to much critical acclaim. His profanity-laden reading found disfavour with audience members who had brought their children with them. They attempted to intervene without success and were reminded by the organizers that Calabash is, after all, an adult event.

From the album:
"Wall Photos" by Marlon James
Because the kiddies deserve a good story too. I know, please keep your awwws to yourselves

Does shielding young ears from words like pussy, bombaclaat, pumpum and other such words ensure a more sensitive, ethical adult? Especially when they can see for themselves the hypocritical, unjust society we live in? And if we assume that all the outraged adults yesterday had been similarly shielded in their childhood why aren't we living in a better organized, more just society?

Patrick French was the boomshot for me. He didn't just read from his superb biography of Naipaul. His comments and reactions to place names in Jamaica, his thoughts on Caribbean and Trinidadian society, his observations on Derek Walcott's dubbing Naipaul the Mongoose at Calabash O8 engagingly prefaced the reading. His performance was deft and sure-footed. It never fails to impress me that the best writers are careful to leave you wanting more (as did Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz on the first night) while the lesser ones have no qualms about abusing your patience. It's like blogging--you do have the freedom to go and on but is that really the wisest strategy in engaging your readers?

Postscript: Incidentally it is NOT true that Stacy Ann Chin has instructed her publishers not to distribute her memoir in Jamaica. I asked her myself and she said that the UK rights have not yet been negotiated although the US rights have and since Jamaica falls under the former where book distribution rights are concerned we will have to wait for bookshops here to stock it. The book is also being vetted to ensure that Ja's strict libel laws have not been violated. When are we going to revise these? I mean antiques have their place but not in law surely? In the meantime anyone wanting a copy of Stacy Ann's book can easily order it from Amazon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Who the Bill Fit, Let Him Wear It...

The brilliant imagician Richard Whyte strikes again. This time with a seven grand bill for the Seven Star General LA Lewis (For my friends in St Vincent and elsewhere LA is a Kingston urban legend who has willed himself to stardom despite negligible musical talent. He's a self-taught marketing genius of no mean order).

Context: Release of J$5000 bill with Hugh Shearer's admittedly handsome mug decorating it in the face of public demands for a note with Bob Marley's face pon it. i myself had a status update (on Facebook) saying 'why didn't they put Bob on the 5000 bill?' "Or Bolt, to remind us of how fast we will be spending each note ..." quipped V in response while the Afflicted One retorted, 'Because there's no Elvis on the American money?" And the Observer of May 21 even editorialised on the subject asking Is Mr Hugh Shearer worth $5,000?

Wednesday, May 20 2009, The Daily Observer

But then Ziggy responded in an Observer article--Bob doesn't 'fit the bill', says Ziggy, insisting that he wouldn't want his Dad's face on the ultimate symbol of Babylon--its currency--anyway. And that does make sense though one feels deprived by this...i mean imagine what it would be like to have five thousand dollar bills that people all over the world would kill for. it could be the new bauxite for Kali, Muhammad, Selassie and Christ's sake. we could literally print our way out of the financial crisis with dollar bills that Marley fans would snap up at $5000 a pop! Man a Yaad, move with haste--Who the Bill Fit, Let Him Wear It...

And i have nuff brawta for you and you--the inimitable Prince Zimboo and the Stalker, Vlad--listen!

and Vlad--

meanwhile i'm off to Treasure Beach tomorrow for a star-spangled Calabash. more anon!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

'Guns, Ganja and Games' anyone?

Dear Annie Paul,

Anne Walmsley, Nick Gillard and Bill Schwarz all recommended that I contact you.

Faber & Faber have commissioned me to write a book (non-fiction) on Jamaica, which will be a hybrid of history and travel. I am interested in Small Axe, and wonder if we could meet? Do you perhaps have a contact telephone number?

I shall be arriving in Kingston this Monday 4 July for an initial period of two months to research my book.

My last book was a biography of the Italian writer Primo Levi (Picador USA, Vintage UK), but I have written extensively on Haiti, so I'm not entirely new to the West Indies. Indeed I visited Jamaica last October for the first time.

When you have a moment, please do get in touch.

With all good wishes,

Ian Thomson

I received this email from Ian Thomson in 2005. The hybrid book of history and travel he was arriving to research has just been published with the provocative title The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica. Four years is a good turnaround for a book like this. Anyone who thinks that they can write a book today, publish it tomorrow and retire on the profits the day after that doesn’t understand the world of publishing. The journey from manuscript to print alone can last almost two years.

If that doesn’t deter the starry-eyed would be writers who publish their effusions in the Sunday papers then perhaps this will. One of the things that struck me about Thomson when I finally met him was his obsession with thrift and economy. He never took a taxi if he could get a bus or walk, and he rarely paid for meals or drinks with his informants. If he had made much money from his earlier books there was no sign of it. And if Faber had allocated him an expense account it was an extremely parsimonious one.

In a country such as Jamaica where walk-foot whites are a rarity Thomson stood out like a sore thumb. I saw quite a bit of him on that first visit he made to Kingston. He had a quirky sense of humour and an analytical eye and of course like all writers he came formatted with his own subjective prejudices and preconceptions. Apparently back in England he had close friends who were first-generation immigrants from Jamaica to the UK and his view of things Jamaican was necessarily coloured by what he had been told by them.

Photo: Peter Dean Rickards

So I’ve been waiting a long time for Ian’s book and my appetite has been further whetted by his punchy, devastating article in the UK Independent last week: “Sun, sand and savagery: Whatever happened to Jamaica, paradise island?” Illustrated with a provocative photograph by Peter Dean Rickards titled 'Guns, Ganja and Games' the article has predictably roused the ire of Jamaicans here and abroad (stirring up controversy to promote book sales is a well-known publishing gimmick) although some of what he says is indubitably true and warrants comment:

“Jamaica is now a quasi-American outpost in the Caribbean, yet its legal system is clogged with British Empire-era red tape. The island's anti-sodomy laws, which carry a jail sentence of up to 10 years, derive from the English Act of 1861, and show to what a dismal extent Jamaica has absorbed values from its imperial masters. Similarly, the death penalty is still on the Jamaican statute books, though most capital punishments are overturned in London by the Privy Council, Jamaica's Court of Final Appeal. Thus an ancient British institution comprised of mostly white Law Lords has become the unlikely defender of human rights in Jamaica. A majority of Jamaicans – not just conservative, pro-monarchy ones – see hanging as the only effective deterrent against criminality: murderers must face death. Yet the British Law Lords, through the grace of Queen Elizabeth II, use their power to prevent executions. Such paradoxes are part of the Jamaican confusion: Victorian standards that have long disappeared in Britain linger on in Jamaica – to Jamaica's detriment.”

More on The Dead Yard after I’ve read it. I’ve asked someone arriving from the UK next week to procure me a copy as it may not be available locally for some time to come. Rumours have been swirling about the book being banned locally, censorship and other worse outcomes. As a friend from Trinidad wrote: BTW have you heard that Faber can't get any bookseller in JA to stock The Dead Yard?

So being the upstanding member of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica that i am i went straight to the source for more information on these rumours. Suzzanne Lee of Novelty Trading Co. the primary importers and distributors of books and magazines in the island was quick to dispel the speculation:

Dear Annie,

To my knowledge, there is NO local ban on Ian Thompson’s “Dead Yard” or any other book in Jamaica for that matter. The Novelty Trading Company does not believe in censorship and has always stood for freedom of the press.

Novelty Trading was asked to invest in a few thousand copies of this book. Due to the significant financial exposure that would be required and given the vast number of persons mentioned and quoted, we requested permission from the publishers to check sources. The first two sources checked said the book had factual inaccuracies. We then forwarded the book to our Company Lawyer who read it and advised that “portions may be legally actionable”. Due to the above, Novelty declined the publisher’s offer to distribute this title. We made the decision that there are no profits worth more than the reputation of our company. This was purely a business decision.

I am not aware of how exactly Jamaica’s libel laws differ from those in the US and UK, but we have recently encountered another case of a memoir which we attempted to purchase and which the publisher refused to sell to Jamaica due to our libel laws.

I hope this email clarifies any rumours you have heard about “Dead Yard” and Novelty Trading.

All best,


More as i said when i’ve read the book. Meanwhile all roads lead to Treasure Beach next week where the next instalment of Calabash Literary Festival will unfold with the usual stellar cast of writers including Robert Pinsky, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Xu Xi, Pico Iyer, Melvin Van Peebles, Terese Svoboda and Patrick French. Calabash ho everyone!