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IMG_1850I’m here—in a pretty little bungalow that’s a virtual replica of the one I stayed in last year! I set my alarm for 5am but woke at 3 this morning; felt a headache coming on so got up and got ready to head to the airport. My driver was a lovely man from Guinea and we made it ALMOST the whole way to the airport before he asked—as all taxi drivers in NYC do–“Are you married or single?” We discussed the political crisis in Egypt, the violence in Syria, the instability in neighboring Mali (which he fears will spread to Guinea). We talked about the importance of education and the high cost of travel between countries in West Africa and the Caribbean. But just as the airport came into view, he asked about my marital status.

HIM: Are you married or single?

ME: Single.

HIM: It’s better to be married.

ME: Maybe for men it’s better. I’m not so sure it’s better for women. Not for me, anyway.

HIM: You just have to choose the right person. Women today want to be independent but they choose the wrong person. God will choose the right person for you.

I didn’t bother to respond to that. Still, we parted on good terms and I gave him a nice tip because I thought of my students when he revealed that he could barely write his own name when he arrived in the US fifteen years ago. “Education is everything.” It certainly is. I hauled my book-filled bag into the terminal and onto the scale—I had my wallet open because I knew there would be a surcharge for the extra weight. But the attendant just put the sticker on my suitcase and told me to drop it on the conveyor belt. Security was a breeze…it was amazing. We landed on time and since I was seated at the back of the plane, I was one of the first people to exit via the rear stairway. I was the FIRST person to clear customs, I got my bags, and had plenty of time to spare before the 1pm ferry left St. Kitts for Nevis. The sea was choppy, perhaps as residual effect of Hurricane Chantal, but I just closed my eyes and focused on my breathing. Somehow lurching back and forth doesn’t affect me if I can’t actually see the boat bobbing up and down. When i got off the ferry, Marva Roberts from the Nevis Library Service was there to meet me and she and her daughter drove me to my hotel—all the while filling me in on the many exciting literacy events they’ve held in the past year. I don’t know what it is about librarians, but they’re just awesome. I think it’s that they love books and want others to love books, too. Later this week I’ll meet with the librarians at Charlestown Secondary School to give them the forty books I brought from New York. I actually broke my suitcase hauling those books off the ferry but now that they’re here in my room, they seem rather inadequate. I wish I had 100 books to give…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMy 3am headache has hung around all day but I’m hoping a good meal and a good night’s rest will clear it up. I flopped on the lovely four-poster bed this afternoon and got annoyed when a bird started chirping RIGHT outside my window. This little bungalow has 5 windows, including one right behind the bed and I swear that bird was deliberately sitting on the window ledge so she couldn’t be ignored. I finally dragged myself up and put my glasses back on only to find…a hummingbird! It wasn’t doing all the chirping, it was too busy feeding from the flowering tree outside my window. I watched it for almost a minute before it flew away. So thank you, little squeaky bird, for annoying me enough to draw my attention to the very bird that has led me on this journey.(It was a Green-Throated Carib, I think)

On the plane I sat next to a young woman who looked very familiar. She offered me a piece of gum as the plane took off, and then draped a blanket over her head and slept the rest of the way. We chatted a little at the airport and it turns out she’s a student at Hunter College! I gave her my card when we got off the ferry (she gave me a hug!) and asked her to email me so I could possibly interview her for the book. I’m going to interview my cousin tonight after dinner (if we can stay awake). And my aunt is making me soup for lunch tomorrow, which I desperately need since neither my inhaler nor the cough syrup I’m taking seems to have much effect…

I’m here–can’t say “I’m home,” but I did feel something like pride when the ferry pulled up and I could see Nevis Peak stretching up into the clouds. Plus the man who sat next to me on the ferry had a chuckle just like my Dad’s! I’ve never heard *anyone* laugh that way. It must be a Nevis thing…

 

 

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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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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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512894

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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imagesSomebody keeps moving the goal line post. And that somebody, of course, is me. I’ve written 3,000 words this weekend and figure if I continue to write a thousand words a day, I will finish The Deep before this month ends (exceeding my self-imposed 40K-word limit). I’ve worked the ending out in my mind but getting there isn’t as easy as it seems—or as quick. I’ve got Nevis on the brain, possibly because I met with my faculty writing mentor last week and I know I am *supposed* to be working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue this semester. Then my mother sent me an email and asked when the sequel to A Wish After Midnight will be ready—her friends are eager to read more about Genna and Judah. Then yesterday, while waiting for the train, I started sarahforbesbonettathinking about my niece and how she hasn’t yet read The Secret Garden. I have an illustrated copy and wondered if I should send it to her, but then I wished I could send her a book that could serve as a mirror for her pretty brown self. Could I adapt the story and set it in the Caribbean? Or what if I combined my interest in Sarah Bonetta Forbes with my love of magic and gardens? A little girl is brought from Africa to England and is placed at an estate where she discovers a secret and makes new friends…This is what happens when I’m nearing the end of a project—my anxiety kicks up and I start looking ahead instead of rooting myself in the moment. Yesterday I came home from grocery shopping and found a sequel to The Secret Garden was on TV. I started to watch it and then switched to the 1949 black and white version of the original, which is on YouTube. Then I watched a three-hour special on gun violence in schools, imageswhich included an interview with a teary Arne Duncan. Then the news. Then Death in Paradise, this problematic British crime show set in the Caribbean. Then my favorite Irish film Once. The amazing thing is that all this television consumption doesn’t stop me from writing. In a way, the background noise helps me to focus on the novel. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. My students turn in their papers on Monday so then I’ll have to switch gears again and get my grading done. And, of course, our diversity panel at the NYPL is this coming Saturday. “There’s enough time.” That’s my new mantra. I’m having lunch with a group of friends today and part of me wants to bail. I need time to write! But I also need to get out of my head for a while—and I need to get these cupcakes out of my apartment. This is day twelve without cake…only 28 days to go!

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Collage is harder than it looks! I’m trying out an art project with my nieces in Nova Scotia—the Mickalene Project. They couldn’t see the exhibit at the BK Museum so I thought this would be a fun way for them to learn about her work and make some art of their own. I’m a writer and I haven’t been writing lately, which sucks. Apparently I wrung the sponge dry in September; I wrote about 10K words but fell short of my 20K-word goal. This month I’ve barely cracked 1K, yet here I am cutting and pasting and playing with glitter. On the train I’m reading Hanging Captain Gordon, which is about the only slave trader hanged for his crimes against humanity in NYC in 1862. I *loathe* naval history but have to become familiar with the blockades and revenue cutters and smugglers operating along the Atlantic coast. Putting Judah on a ship is hard but having him on a slave coffle is harder. How far did they walk? Were battles being fought all around them? Sometimes I wonder why I write historical fiction—all the fact-checking is time-consuming and tedious. And I only wind up using 10% of all this research. I started reading Sugar in the Blood last week and immediately began dreaming of Nevis again. But I need to focus on Judah’s Tale right now so those dreams will have to wait…

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