art in all its forms

art in all its forms


Naipaul's St James

Photo courtesy John Hill. Hosay in St James, 1950s.

THE JOURNEY of A House for Mr Biswas from the oppressive setting of Chaguanas to St James, Port-of-Spain, is not only about one man's discovery of freedom. The house on Sikkim Street which Mohun Biswas comes to purchase after a lifetime of drifting is a symbol of nationhood. His life story dramatises a movement from an alien, all-powerful hegemony to independence.

And just as the complexities of freedom would be underestimated by the newly free state, so too is Mr Biswas' real estate purchase romanticised:
He had seen the house like a guest under heavy obligation to his host. If it had not been raining he might have walked around the small yard and seen the absurd shape of the house. He would have seen where the celotex panels on the eaves had fallen away, providing unrestricted entry to the bats of the neighbourhood. He would have seen the staircase that hung at the back, open, with only a banister, and sheltered by unpainted corrugated iron. He would not have been deceived into cosiness by the thick curtain over the back doorway on the lower floor. He would have seen that the house had no back door at all. If he had not had to rush out of the rain he might have noticed the street lamp just outside the house; he would have known that a street lamp, so near the main road, attracted flies like moths. But he saw none of these things. He had only a picture of a house cosy in the rain. (565-566)
A House for Mr Biswas was published on the eve of Independence. The wife of the solicitor's clerk who sells Biswas the house is even referred to as "the old queen". This is a book that venerates the dream of Independence, then stares the complexity of post-colonial countries in the face. It remains relevant to a society where even mas bands today evoke strong debate over the role of the past within our present.

Locations within Naipaul's work, while specific, come to have complex symbolic meanings, even if rooted within the writer's personal life. St James is St James, yes, but it is also the whole of Trinidad.

A House for Mr Biswas

However, two recent events have shown the fruitfulness of a psychogeographic reading of the work of the entire Naipaul family. One was the talk given tonight by writer, journalist and filmmaker Robert Clarke, hosted by the Friends of Mr Biswas, which traced St James within the fictional world of VS and, particularly, Shiva Naipaul. The other was September's award of the Forward Prize to Trinidadian British writer, a relative of the Naipauls, Vahni Capildeo for Measures of Expatriation, a stunning book about how national boundaries do not matter.


Clarke's engaging talk at City Hall, Port-of-Spain, marked the City's adoption of 26 Nepaul Street, St James, as a national heritage site. He traced fictional representations of St James' streets and townsfolk through books ranging from Shiva's Beyond the Dragon's Mouth, to Vidia's short story 'My Aunt Gold Teeth' (later collected in The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book).

"Aunt Gold Teeth was a family friend who actually existed," Clarke said. "In other words, characters have been altered for dramatic effect."

"But it is in Shiva’s stories that you are invited into his St James, just as you were introduced to the characters of Woodbrook through Vidia’s Miguel Street, written from observations made from the safety of his grandmother’s yard while living at the Capildeo house at Luis Street, Woodbrook."

For Clarke, St James was a perfect setting for Shiva's examination of complex themes relating to racial and religious diversity.
It is Shiva, the third writer in the family, who has left us the best portraits of a fictionalized St James. He spent his formative years there, from the age of one well into his teens and beyond. So perhaps it is fitting that we should begin with him. Or rather, my imagined version of his 5-year-old self: 
From the second story of 26 Nepaul Street, Shiva heard the first rap-pap-pap of the Hosay tassa. He tumbled down the staircase, past the oil portrait of his father, journalist Seepersad Naipaul, snatched a piece of roti from the tabletop bowl, gave Gyp the family dog a friendly kick and bounded into the yard. 

Robert Clarke
St James' status as a microcosm of Trinidad and Tobago society led writer Anu Lakhan, in an introduction to Clarke's presentation, to describe the suburb as, "the most cosmopolitan space in Trinidad." Prof Kenneth Ramchand, chairman of the Friends of Mr Biswas, put it simply, "St James is Trinidad."


In opening remarks to tonight's event, Ramchand also pointed out that the Capildeos were a presence at the house at St James, where Vidia spent his last four years before leaving for university. The house had been bought by Naipaul's father Seepersad (who provided the model for Biswas) 70 years ago in 1946. Shiva grew up there, and Drupati Capildeo was once resident.

Life has a way of making neat patterns, though Vahni Capideo's poetry defies such limitations. Her formal recognition last month for a book that brazenly stares at the complexities of migration and belonging forces us to re-evaluate the idea of fixed geography, whether in the world of fiction writers or otherwise.

The poet's books, from her first, No Traveller Returns, right up to her most recent, Expatriation, examine the idea that a person is never where they really are: is everywhere and nowhere at once; resides within a higher integrity - call it soul, call it persona, call it figure. In book after stunning book, Capildeo has shown how as global citizens we deploy far more creative and complex ideas of place. We travel with entire worlds in our heads, in the process dissolving the distinctions between different countries, peoples, norms.
        Dawn's cloth, cut out to try on,
slides light along the Northern Range,
pins pricking scams of sunrise that graze
the iron-pink mountains
that start showing their temper.
Like Indian cotton,
so fragile in its brilliance...  
                                  (Undraining Sea, 55)
Capildeo's poetry processes what, perhaps, her distant relatives fictionalised. A complex transnational life familiar not only to the Naipauls, but all the residents of Sikkim Street.


The next event by the Friends of Mr Biswas takes place on November 23, 2016, at 6pm. It is on FEM Hosein, a mayor of Arima, MP, writer and playwright. Venue: Arima Town Hall.

Tonight's lecture was part of an ongoing exercise in which persons with information about cultural ties to St James (whether literary or otherwise) are invited to contact the Friends of Mr Biswas to continue a process of mapping. "Tell us," says Prof Ramchand.


FILM REVIEW: Play the Devil

Gareth Jenkins and Petrice Jones

WHAT IS most taboo about Play the Devil is not its examination of gay life in Trinidad and Tobago. Rather, the work unsettles by throwing up questions about the power dynamics that exist when two persons of vastly different ages are in a relationship.

Of course in repressed, spiritual Trinidad and Tobago we talk about neither. We also ignore the grim implications of the vast inequalities of wealth nurtured and perpetuated by our rigidly-structured society.

The film follows Gregory (Petrice Jones), a disciplined, subdued and struggling 18-year old student who meets James (Gareth Jenkins), an older, wealthy businessman. James makes a move on Gregory who, in turn, encourages and accepts the older man’s advances. In one important scene, the younger man actively explores his sexuality with James.

The trope of doomed love between two persons of widely differing ages is a classic one in art. Consider Nabokov’s Lolita, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Eliot’s Middlemarch. In all of these male cougar stories, the love under examination is heterosexual. Here, the filmmakers flip the switch.

Other sources abound. Comparison with the 2014 musical theatre production Jab Molassie – which also starred Nickolai Salcedo (who appears in this film and is even more incredible on screen than he is on stage)—is inevitable. Like that tale, the story is set high above the capital in the hills, and a central character is seduced by a devil. But whereas the temptation in Jab Molassie was highly symbolic, in Maria Govan’s film the power of the erotic is not sublimated within the story. It is the movie’s central conflict.

Gregory’s inability to come to terms with his sexuality and James dogged campaign to take up residence in Gregory’s life breed disaster. While we must be weary of the trope of violence being used against gay characters in art, the resolution of the plot is, in this instance, not contrived and is in line with the demands of tragedy. The resolution is not gratuitous and also channels the grim reality of our violent society.

In the opening scenes, actor Gareth Jenkins leaves enough room for us to have different interpretations of James’s motives. Does he want just a hot date? Or is he looking for something more? From the perspective of Gregory – and also evidently some audience members at MovieTowne tonight – James might come across as predatory.

But the projection of negative motives on others is a hallmark of a life of isolation and in the closet. What Gregory actually fears is himself.

To some extent, James, for all his audacious provocations, is the true victim because his actions may well be motivated by a genuine yearning for love. Though clothed with greater wealth and power, James is as trapped as Gregory in a world where every aspect of his life has been brought under manners: his career, his family life, his attempt to act out his core being.

Therefore the roles of victim and villain are as interchangeable as the movie’s Carnival costumes. Gregory’s anguish at the film’s haunting climax is not just a reflection of the fact that all doors have closed on him, it is also the Edvard Munch Scream of all minorities relegated to life at the margins.

The subtle way the film handles questions of class, education and social power is among its strengths. Visually, this Abigail Hadeed-produced film is also sophisticated but not ostentatious. There is a memorable shot from cinematographer James Wall of Gregory literally shutting a closet, as well as one where he is split in the face of a mirror.

Govan’s script does a very good job of turning the screw, pitting Gregory against the forces of family, of religion, of gender norms for males in a macho society, of criminal violence, of peer pressure, of a scholarship-obsessed education system and of wealth disparities caused by a society concerned with money above all else.

Here, at last, is a film of great integrity for the age in which we Trinibagonians live.

The Strange Years of My Life

THE TITLE asks us to think of change. To look back, to reflect. To put into context past moments, past times.

This exercise of self-reflection is also one of estrangement. It places one outside of the parameters of what is being examined. It subjects a life to objective scrutiny, to reportage, a reporter's objective gaze.

But the reporter’s selection of facts is an inherently subjective exercise. And what is really strange? To whom? To which version of the self?

Is strange necessarily pejorative? The unusual, surprising, alien can be pleasurable. What has happened to change things, to render these years different or differently perceived?

And whose life? The poet's? Or a persona of the poet? Is there is difference?

Thus, the title of Nicholas Laughlin's book, The Strange Years of My Life, like the best titles, is already a poem. It suggests autobiography, but flags the conflict between truth and perception. This is an epistemological conundrum. When does the mirage end?

When we encounter books of poetry we seldom have the author at our disposal. The poet's processes are often not documented and are largely unknowable to the reader. When a poet speaks about the work, it is easy to dismiss this as the poet's own reading of what she has done; as just another reading among many possibilities. But it is still a worthy exercise to look at what Laughlin himself has said of his own work, decades in the making.

"The poems belong to a hemisphere of the imagination that encompasses the narratives of nineteenth-century travelers and twentieth-century anthropologists, spy movies, astronomical lore, the writings of Saint-John Perse and Henri Michaux, and the music of Erik Satie," the poet says. "They balance on the edge between concealment and revelation, between bemused fascination and tentative comprehension. Every sentence is a kind of translation, and language is a series of riddles with no solutions, subtly humorous at one turn, sinister at another, heartbroken at the next."

The Strange Years of My Life: manuscript notebook, successive typescript versions, proofs, book (Photo from .

The troupe of “friends” and “strangers” whom the reader encounters in these pages, he says, are sometimes alter egos, sometimes aliases, sometimes adversaries. They inhabit a milieu of mistaken identity and deliberate disguise, where “there are too many wrong countries” and “already no one remembers you at home.”

These statements are apt. However, because poetry moves us by holding up mirrors, I also find reflections of Trinidad and Tobago life in this work. The brief poem 'Ars Poetica' is billed as a treatise on art, but its reference to guns inevitably invokes ideas of crime and punishment in this bloody society. It further makes us question the place of art in this at times fetid state. Yet, though some have dismissed art as a thing of ornamentation, they forget its power, how many people exist today simply because of that one poem, that one movie, that one song that got them through a difficult time. If Laughlin's poem says anything, its conjunction between poetry and violence reflects how words can do things in today's world.

Last week, Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo was awarded the Forward Prize for her awesome book Measures of Expatriation. Her work has astonished and her seven published works comprise an achievement in their own right. It's a good time to reflect on the place of the poet in the Caribbean region as a whole. Both Capildeo and Laughlin’s poems are implicitly political. They liberate us from tendencies that would seek to box Caribbean writing into a narrow corner.

On another note, this shall be my final column. I'd like to thank readers for, well, reading. Maybe you agreed. Maybe you disagreed. Maybe you were moved. As I move on after ten brief years of journalism, I can’t help but look back and embrace the title of Laughlin’s book. Often we have dreams and don’t pursue them. But what if we give ourselves permission to do so? I’ve one word for all the years of doubts. Enough.

From Sunday Newsday, Sept 24, 2016
* * *



From the archive

Anu Lakhan on The Strange Years of My Life 
at Annie Paul's Active Voice blog here


Alice Yard: X

Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard

A LOT can happen in ten years. Ask Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard. Ask the artists, the dancers, the mas men, the musicians, the poets, the writers, the academics, the curators, the publishers, the bloggers, the film-makers, the graphic designers, the projectionists, the lecturers, the audio technicians, the carpenters, the workmen, the civil society activists, the craftsmen, the curious strangers. 

This September, Alice Yard marks ten years and this evening it opened a year-long series of events by hosting a new installation by Blue Curry.

Blue Curry's Untitled (Alice Yard, assorted combs) 

"I am always a bit cautious when I encounter the work of Curry," says Cozier. "His work confounds and confronts, but with precise and strategic composure....I would not trust these objects - just so - no matter how visually appealing."

Indeed, what objects can we trust? Curry's work transforms banal things, isolates them from their functions, opens the mind to appreciation of their aesthetic qualities, and then puts them back together again into a new sculpture - a kind of dance without movement. In the process, he repurposes the viewer. One man's trash is another man's treasure. And one man is also another. These are found poems. 

Cozier tonight traced the origins of Alice Yard to a conversation during Galvanise.

"We thought it would be interesting to start that conversation again," he said. In coming weeks, several events are planned, including a collaboration between Cozier and Blue Curry that seeks to shift encounters with art into public spaces, dissolve the boundary between makers and viewers and reject the notion of art as commodity.

Kriston Chen's toofprints
On a personal note, I've been around Alice Yard for years and participated in two iterations of Douen Islands there. The space has never stopped being exciting. It's never stopped. The only thing that might have changed is the fact that these days, some have more greys.

'We began ten years ago with questions and possibilities. Our evolution has been organic and open-ended. As we consider our actions and ideas of the past decade, our instinct is less to celebrate and more to affirm our spirit of investigation and exchange, our ethos of generosity and independence.' 

Conceptual sketch of Alice Yard by Sean Leonard


From prison to poetry

US poets Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Dwayne Betts. Photo: Marlon James/Bocas Lit Fest

DWAYNE Betts has told the story before.

When he was just 16-years old, Betts was jailed for a gun crime. Inside, he found freedom from an unexpected source.

“I was in solitary confinement,” Betts recalls, speaking at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest on April 30. “You could call out for a book and someone would slide one to you. Frequently, you would not know who gave it to you. Somebody slid The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall. In that book I read Robert Hayden for the first time, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton. I saw the poet as not just utilitarian but as serving art. In a poem you can give somebody a whole world. Before that, I had thought of being a writer, writing mostly essays and maybe, one day, a novel. But at that moment I decided to become a poet.”

The poet – who read at the festival alongside fellow American poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips – also conducted a poetry workshop at the Port-of-Spain Prison on April 29. The experience changed everything.

“The first thing that hit me was that there was just a bunch of people in jail on remand who had not had an opportunity to see a judge; to have a trial,” Betts tells the literary audience gathered at the Old Fire Station on Abercromby Street, a few blocks away from the penal facility at the heart of the capital. “I went into the jail and I was struggling to reconcile the profound injustice and the profound pain that happens, that permeates an entire community that does not get acknowledged at all.” In his workshop, prisoners were asked to write.

“The poems these guys wrote had this same pain and frustration,” Betts says. “In the US, most of the prisons are built way out where you can’t see. One of the things that also struck me is they are right here and still seemingly invisible.”

Betts, whose poetry chronicles some of his own experiences with the US justice system, says the workshop changed him.

“What does it mean for me to be in that space and talk to them? I hope that something I said made some sense,” Betts says. “You kind of forget what it means to have certain kinds of privilege, some kind of access to justice. If you come from the States and you are interested in criminal justice reform issues you get this very narrow view of what justice should look like and you take for granted that the system works extremely well– both to lock you up and to give you some semblance of opportunity for justice formally.” He adds,  “What I walk away with in terms of what they gave me is a challenge, both in terms of my writing and in my living.”

Betts is the author of the poetry books Bastards of the Reagan Era (described by the New York Times as “fierce, lyrical and unsparing”) and Shahid Reads His Own Palm, winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. He is also the author of an excellent memoir, A Question of Freedom, which chronicles his experience of the US justice system. In prison, he was re-Christened Shahid.

“It means witness,” Betts says.

At the event – which was supported by the US Embassy – Betts read poetry alongside Phillips, author of acclaimed collections The Ground and Heaven, which was in April shortlisted for one of the world’s biggest poetry awards, Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. Heaven was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post.

“The role of the poet is to write good poetry, period,” Phillips says. “But if you do other things, you do other things. If the poet is a politician, be a good politician. If the poet is a parent, be a good parent. The poets of the future will decide what good poetry is.” For him, craft is key, particularly form and sound.

“You live by the syllable,” Phillips says. He warns against labelling. “We are always related to some kind of event that has already happened. I don’t want to be related to anything. I don’t have to think that I’m related to Dante or Langston Hughes. I’m not responding to Wallace Stevens. The role of the poet is to write good poetry and to find good poetry.” For him, understanding the world is a constant process of re-evaluation.

“I grew up in New York,” Phillips says. “Completely by accident I grew up in an Antiguan household. When they hear or read my name, people don’t know if I am male or female. People don’t know where I’m from. So in a way you are always translated. We are always constantly translating. The classical stuff has always been important, including myth. To me it’s how you understand the world through storytelling.”

- From Newsday, May 31st, 2016


Poet Anthony Joseph traces his ‘Caribbean Roots’

The album's cover is by painter Che Lovelace, son of novelist Earl Lovelace.

By Andre Bagoo

THE TITLE track of Anthony Joseph’s latest album ends with a statement from Earl Lovelace.

“Our history is not colonialism and slavery,” Lovelace says. “Our history is our struggle against enslavement and colonialism.” This is central to the album and Joseph’s work generally.

Joseph is a Trinidadian/British poet, novelist, musician and lecturer resident in London. Not quite calypso, not quite soca, not quite rapso, not quite extempo, not quite blues, his latest album is, simply, poetry.

In Caribbean Roots, Joseph is evangelical. His spoken word sings. At times he is direct. Occasionally, the music seems unnecessary. But more often than not, it wraps itself around the words, reflecting the complex history which Joseph addresses. This work is a paean to the Caribbean.

“You realise that you rooted in the muck of history,” Joseph says in the title track. “And you begin to look around the majesty of old Europe and the citadels of its power, and its grand architecture set in old stone. And you begin to ask yourself where are my monuments? How come all these monuments – even the ones in the islands – were built by those who colonise and enslaved me?” He continues, “You need to set yourself in the soil / of these Caribbean roots”. The poet roams Europe, bringing news of the Antilles. From first to last, this work is an assertion of his identity, as complex as that may be.

The opening piece references Derek Walcott’s famous Nobel Lecture, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’, with a kora becoming part of “a complex science of sound”. The personal and political mix, the poet voyages alongside the, “memory ghost of my father, memory ghost of my mother.”

The saxophones of Shabaka Hutchings (The Heliocentrics) and Jason Yarde, the trumpet of Yvon Guillard (Magma), the bass of Mike Clinton (Salif Keita), the trombone of Pierre Chabrèle (Creole Jazz Orchestra), meld seamlessly with the steel pans of Andy Narrell. Each track proceeds like the section of a Carnival band. David Rudder makes a guest appearance, tribute is paid to the Mighty Sparrow, there is homage to Lord Kitchener.

In 1993, Lovelace also said, “This world doesn’t belong to somebody else and it doesn’t belong to just me either. It belongs to me too. I say that sets the terms of my writing: I deal not particularly with a little group of people somewhere on the periphery of existence, but at the very center of existence.” So too, Anthony Joseph.


May 21, 2016,