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Archive for the ‘Caribbean literature’ Category

c08_000peterI haven’t blogged much lately. Partly because I was trying to finish Judah’s Tale (I didn’t) and partly because I can’t stand to spend too much time thinking about all the bad news in the world lately (I’m looking at you, SCOTUS). Right now Gasland II is on in the background but I’m not really watching because I’m thinking about islands—England and Nevis. I spent an hour earlier this evening perusing the correspondence of esteemed British gentlemen on either side of a gruesome 1810 case in Nevis in which a planter was accused of cruelly punishing 32 of his enslaved men and women. Their crime? Not doing their work and threatening to leave the plantation. I leave for my fourth trip to Nevis soon and I’m not sure what to expect. A year has passed since I was there last and I haven’t done much writing on The Hummingbird’s Tongue. I’ve given it a lot of thought, however, and will be presenting on experimental writing at a Commonwealth literature conference in early August. It’s time to give these ideas some kind of form, but what do you do with this?

Witness went and sat down in Dr. Crosse’s gallery–Says, that two drivers continued flogging said negro man for about fifteen minutes.–Says, that as this man appeared to be severely whipped, he was induced to count the lashes given the others, conceiving the country would take up the business.–Says, that defendant gave one man 115 lashes; to another 65; to another 47; to another 165; to another 242; to another 212; to another 181; to another 59; to another 187; to a negro woman 110; to another woman 58; to another woman 97; to another woman 212; another woman 291; another woman 83; another woman 49; another woman 68; another woman 89; and another woman 56.

Witness says, that the woman who received 291 lashes, appeared to be young, but most cruelly flogged.

I’m hoping to find the original court documents. I have a few names: Quashy, Ned, William Coker, Nellys Juba, Madges Juba, Catherine, Castile, and Range. Then a slew of witnesses—all white men, of course—testified that they had seen punishments just as severe elsewhere. In other words, this kind of torture was not unusual or extraordinary in the Caribbean at that time. The planter, Edward Huggins, was found not guilty by a jury of his peers but abolitionists back in England used reports of this case to further their cause. I don’t know if I’ve got all my facts straight, but I believe these brutalized men and women worked on the Montravers Estate, and I will be touring the ruins sometime this week. I used some of my grant money to buy a video camera but I’m not sure if there’s any point filming the ruins of a plantation. It reminds me of Claude Lanzmann’s footage of demolished concentration camps. Why document an absence, show what’s no longer there? Because there’s a residue that persists. I need to write…

P7015625Last night I was angry, wishing I hadn’t scheduled the trip for this month. I haven’t finished Judah’s Tale and I can’t gain momentum when I’m constantly shifting my attention to other projects. I have yet another article to revise and swear I will NEVER submit my work to another academic journal. My bad mood took a turn for the worse when I realized that given the choice, I’d rather go to Oxford. I’ve been watching Inspector Lewis lately, which is filmed in Oxford, and there was one shot where two characters were walking by the river and the path went past a golden, walled building that had a gorgeous border of shrubs and flowers. It was a gloomy day, the actors were wearing autumn clothes…one of the suspects worked in a tea shoppe. And the truth is, that is my dream. I don’t like hot weather; I’m not a tropical kind of girl. We’re in a heat wave right now, which might account for my miserable mood. And I realize that when I think about Nevis, I don’t think about serenity. And perhaps that’s why it has taken me so long to start writing this book. My own discomfort around this history, my own family history, the climate, the landscape–it’s hard to look at sometimes (my discomfort, that is). And that’s how I know this book will be SHORT. It’s too hard to balance my shameless fixation with British culture against my righteous indignation at the lasting damage of slavery and colonialism–part of which IS my fixation with British culture…

So bear with me. It could be a bumpy ride.

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The only good thing about having a summer cold during a heat wave is that it keeps me at home, which is where I get most of my writing done. Last week I was out and about every single day, but since waking with a sore throat on Monday, I’ve pretty much been out of commission. I had one day of fun on Thursday, but I’ve been housebound otherwise and that’s led to increased productivity: last week I wrote 4500 words and so far this week I’ve written 6000 words. I’m hopeful that between naps and coughing fits, I’ll be able to write at least 1500 words today and tomorrow. That would put this first draft of Judah’s Tale at 85K words. I am determined to NOT go over 90K. On Friday I got an offer for The Deep. I’m not sure how/if that’s going to work out, but I’ll keep you posted. Right now I want to get my voice back so I can read at tomorrow’s festival and plead my case for greater diversity when I meet with my publisher on Tuesday…

If you’re in Brooklyn, stop by St. Francis College tomorrow afternoon for the WORD Caribbean Book Festival. My reading & panel starts at 5:30. I’ve been listed as a Nevisian author so the first thing I’ll have to do is break that down…

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imagesI watched this Nature documentary for the third time on Wednesday. I plan to use the hummingbird as a metaphor for myself and my search for the truth about my grandmother, so this time I took notes. I also did a three-day training last week in order to make my courses writing intensive; we were encouraged to develop a theme for each class and I’ve decided that my course on black masculinity will now focus on the evolution of black male identity. Sometimes I think I may have missed my calling as a scientist. I used to make “potions” when I was a kid, recklessly blending whatever products I could find under the bathroom sink. I think science stopped being fun in high school—suddenly we were dissecting baby pigs and having to memorize the periodic table. I stuck with environmental science but everything else fell by the wayside. The Hummingbird’s Tongue is an experimental memoir and I plan to include some scientific data about these fascinating birds. Here are some facts about hummingbirds that will amaze you:

  • they are the smallest of all warm-blooded creatures
  • they can hover like insects, which enables them to fly backwards
  • 8000 plant species rely upon hummingbirds for pollination
  • they can live at high altitudes (12000ft) where no other birds can survive
  • the species we see in the northeast migrate from Panama and Costa Rica, a round trip journey of 6000 miles
  • hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico—500 miles of water—in 18 hours
  • insects comprise one quarter of a hummingbird’s diet
  • they eat half their body weight in nectar every day, which means they feed at 1000 flowers between dawn and dusk
  • they have a heart rate of 600bpm when they’re at rest; it’s double that when they’re flying
  • their wings beats 200x/second
  • at night they go into a state of torpor, lowering their heart rate to 36bpm which cuts their body temperature in half
  • there are 350 species of hummingbird and most are endangered

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BOOK BUSINESS
2:00PM
Balancing Creativity and Commerce in Caribbean Literary Expression

 

Marva Allen - CEO of Hue-man Bookstore, and co-publisher of Open Lens an imprint of Akashic Books

Crystal Bobb-Semple – owner of Brownstone Bookstore

Ron Kavanaugh – founder and managing editor of Mosaic Literary Magazine, exploring the literary arts created by writers of African descent

Summer Edward – founder and managing editor of Anansesem, Caribbean children’s literature ezine

Victoria Brown, author, Grace in the City – Moderator  

YOUNG READERS
3:15PM
Culture Making – Literature that Defines Us  (Under 8 yrs)
Shabana Sharif (US/Guyana), “Ins and Out of Queens”
Tiphanie Yanique (Virgin Is), “I am the Virgin Islands”
Ibi Zoboi (Haiti), “A is for Ayiti”
4:30PM
Memory and Myth – Rooted in history and the fantastical
(8 – 15 yrs)
Tracey & Harmony Pierre (US/Haiti)
Clyde Viechweg (Grenada), “CaribbeanTwilight; Tales of the Supernatural”
 5:40PM
Off Island – Journeys in time and place 
(Teens – Young Adults)
Zetta Elliott (St. Kitts-Nevis), “Ship of Souls”
Devon Harris (Jamaica), “Yes I Can”
Workshops & Special Presentations
Illustration, Graphic & Costume Design, Steel Pan Demonstration; Storytelling
ADULT BOOK WRITERS
3:15PM
Where We’re From – Identity and Influence
Carmen Bardeguez-Brown (Puerto Rico), “Straight from the Drum”
Etaniel Ben Yehuda (US/Trinidad & Tobago), “The Chronicles of Air, Water, and the Source”
Anna Ruth Henriques (Jamaica), “The Book of Mechtilde”
Monica Matthew (Antigua & Barbuda), “Journeycakes:  Memories with my Antiguan Mama”
4:30PM
Memory and Myth – Our History Clings to Us

 

Keisha Gay Anderson (Jamaica)

Lynn Grange (Trinidad & Tobago),

“Freedom and the Cashew Seed”

Petra Lewis (Trinidad & Tobago), “Sons and Daughters of Ham”

Bernice McFadden (US/Barbados),

“Nowhere is a Place”

5:40PM
Off Island – Migration and Displacement

 

Elsie Agustave (Haiti), “The Roving Tree”

Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad & Tobago), “Boundaries”

Sandra Ottey (Jamaica), “Runaway Comeback”

7:00PM
Get Up Stand Up – Texts of Empowerment

 

Deborah Jack (St Martin/St Maarten)

Rosamond King (US/Gambia/Trinidad), “At My Belly and My Back”

Hermina Marcellin (St. Lucia)

David Mills (US/Jamaica), “The Sudden Country”

Ras Osagyefo (Jamaica), “Psalms of Osagyefo”

Jive Poetic (US/Jamaica)

Maria Rodriguez (US/Puerto Rico)

 

Program, schedule and writers subject to change without notice.
  
Brooklyn Caribbean Youth Fest
Caribbean American Sports & Cultural Youth Movement (CASYM)
Friends of the Antigua Public Library
Mosaic Literary Magazine
NAACP/ACT-SO
St. Martin/St. Maarten Friendship Association
Tropical Fete Mas Camp

Union of Jamaica Alumni Associations (UJAA)

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anthillI never had a chance to capture the amazing anthills we saw in Ghana, but this internet image comes close. From inside the tour bus I marveled at their height—some certainly exceeded six feet—and the intricate design made from millions of grains of Ghana’s distinctive red soil. I also wondered about the unseen world within and beneath those striking mountains that dotted the countryside. Today I’m trying to write and so I’m looking inward, reflecting on the forces that built the identity I currently inhabit. It’s complex! And always “in process,” though at 40 I can say that some aspects of my identity seem fixed. I booked my flight to Nevis last night and so pulled up The Hummingbird’s Tongue today. I don’t have much so far, just fragments of memories and the opening lines of what I hope will become paragraphs or even chapters. Here’s one example: “I have never trusted the sea.” And just now I made two lists: “How I know I’m not truly Caribbean” and “How I know I may indeed be Caribbean.” I’m being facetious, of course, but issues of authenticity are ridiculous and real. As we continue to think about the future of OWWA, one thing I feel strongly about is the addition of a “D” to represent either “diaspora” or “descent,” because I don’t identity as a woman writer of Africa. I appreciate the symbolic significance of choosing “Africa” instead of “black” a few decades ago, but in this historical moment I think we need to acknowledge the difference between African women and women of African descent. When I was in Nevis last July, my host always introduced me as a writer of Nevisian descent, and that was perfectly fine with me. I am a citizen now, but that doesn’t make me Nevisian. And when I was asked to read in a Caribbean literary festival, I hesitated—mostly because I know others will question my right to participate. A colleague recently sent me a contest for Caribbean writers, urging me to submit but the rules were very clear: they want writers based in the region and published by a Caribbean press. Which means that a white woman from the UK who has lived in Barbados for fifteen years could become the recipient of that prize, and black writers born in the Caribbean but publishing in the US could be deemed ineligible. And I think I’m ok with that. What troubles me is when the focus shifts to the content of the books, as in “A Caribbean writer must write about the Caribbean.” For this one-day festival I’m on a panel called “Off Island,” which is appropriate since I haven’t yet written a story set in the Caribbean. It’s slippery, though, and it does feel as though content is ranked, with stories set in the Caribbean at the top, followed by stories about Caribbean people living elsewhere, followed by stories that don’t deal with the Caribbean at all. If a black girl wants to write poems about a unicorn, she has that right—and she’s still a black poet. That’s something I talk about with my students when we cover the Black Arts Movement. Do black artists have to make protest art? Or is anything made by a black-identified artist “black art?”  I didn’t expect to grapple with my identity as a Caribbean writer until I published The Hummingbird’s Tongue, but the book is partly about my identity so let the grappling begin…

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IMG_1767There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”

IMG_1753I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re IMG_1754leaving a record behind.

IMG_1759During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…

IMG_1745The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…

The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.

Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…

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Last week I interviewed Kelbian Noel, a YA spec fic author that I met while I was up in Toronto. Yesterday Kelbian returned the favor by featuring me on her blog, Diverse Pages. Here’s one of the questions I was asked to consider:

DP: Have you always written about characters of color? What challenges (if any) have you faced in doing so?

ZETTA: When I took a creative writing class in high school, I wrote a picture book that featured white characters. Fortunately, I was failing that class and so wound up dropping it. In college I had my first black professor and he introduced me to the work of Jamaica Kincaid; that changed my academic focus and as I discovered more black authors, I began to write about people of color. I went through a process of “decolonizing my imagination” and it did take some time for me to develop authentic characters that came from the community where I lived. For a while I worried that readers would feel my characters weren’t “black enough,” but the more I traveled and the more widely I read, the easier it became to create credible, diverse black characters.

On Monday I met with a group of amazing young poets at the Brooklyn Public Library and one young writer showed me a picture book she had self-published–all her illustrations showed white children. I hope she finds a “mirror” for her black female self in my books. You can read the entire interview here.

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