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Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s The Orchid House: returning home to a new generation

I was asked by Polly Pattullo of Papillote Press to contribute the introduction to Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s 1953 novel The Orchid House. For me, this was a special request because it came from someone who I admired personally and professionally, and who had also done so much work in recovering the image of Allfrey here in Dominica. I discovered Allfrey’s writing during my college and graduate school work, although her name had been mentioned while I was growing up. Including The Orchid House in my doctoral dissertation on reading practices introduced me to new ways of reading Caribbean literature and, more importantly, new lens through which I could view the complex history of my island home.

Phyllis-Shand-Allfrey

Phyllis Shand Allfrey

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was a Dominican-born white West Indian literary writer, journalist and politician. Despite living for most of her life in Dominica, writing poetry and fiction featuring the island and its people, and actively transforming the political environment on the island, Allfrey had been made invisible in the creative community of the West Indian literary boom, primarily because of her race rather than her writing. This was largely a result of the time in which she is writing, when Afro-caribbean aesthetics, black nationalism and decolonization movements are beginning to take shape in the region. However, returning to her work with a broader and more contemporary world view is critical. Papillote Press, through its publication of this new edition of her only published novel, has given us this opportunity and I am thrilled to have such a special role in making that happen. I wrote a few words on that experience for a Dominican audience, which was published in The Chronicle (April 22) that I share below…

Most people of my generation must have come to know the name Phyllis Shand Allfrey when, during our school years, we were fascinated by the buzz of film crews and British accents during the shooting of The Orchid House mini-series for BBC television in 1990. The name Phyllis Shand Allfrey was not a popular name during my time in school, despite the contributions of this politician, journalist and literary writer to Dominica’s advancement in both politics and the arts.

Despite her integral role in forming the Dominica Labour Party and the West Indies Federation and her prolific bibliography, Mrs. Allfrey remained a mere speck of dust in our history lessons. As much as the sparkle of the film gave a glimpse into her life and showcased our beautiful scenery, the story of The Orchid House and the work of Mrs. Allfrey did not make an impact in Dominica.

However, in the last several years, a committed few have reintroduced Allfrey to Dominica. In 2012, for example, the Nature Island Literary Festival (NILF) screened a couple of the episodes during its annual weekend activities and the audience was indeed excited by the recognition of scenes, extras and featured actors from right here in Dominica. One of the actors was Dr. Lennox Honychurch, Allfrey’s friend and the curator of her political and literary works, who was also a member of a discussion panel on her work during that year’s festival’s proceeding.

Another member of the panel was Polly Pattullo, publisher of Papillote Press, who had worked to package Allfrey’s writing for a local and international audience – the collection of short stories, It Falls into Place and the collection of poetry Love for an Island. The work of Papillote Press and Ms. Pattullo in increasing Allfrey’s visibility is immeasurable and the impact has been invaluable. Allfrey’s biographer Lisa Paravisini-Gebert worked closely with both Honychurch and Pattullo and wrote the introduction to an American edition of the novel as well (printed 20 years ago).

allfrey panel

Photo Credit: Gwen Whitford

My first reading of The Orchid House was that American edition, which would eventually led me to be one of the panelists on Allfrey at that 2012 NILF. It was only during my doctoral study, several years after leaving Dominica that I got to explore this classic novel and get to know this woman who had so much influence on my country in ways no one had ever taught me.

The novel, The Orchid House, is an autobiographical account of Allfrey’s experience of growing up, leaving and returning to Dominica. The novel captures the lives of a family with three sisters, and much of the actions of the novel are presumed to take place between the two “great wars.”

First published in 1953, the work is a real portrait of a shrinking class of white and wealthy Dominicans who faced the changing social conditions of the Caribbean post-slavery with both anxiety and excitement. And yet, in 1953, Allfrey would not yet have had the kind of career that would leave its mark on Dominican politics for decades to come, but charted out her trajectory in politics and journalism in the almost prophetic plot of the sisters’ adult lives in Dominica.

The nuances of those experiences at such an important period of social and political change for Dominica cannot be captured in textbooks or Powerpoint slides. Strong storytelling, like in this novel, give depth to the thoughts and feelings of those experiencing these changes. With this novel, Allfrey captures life for whites, creoles and black people as their worlds collide and they must change their thinking from being separate classes to being one nation.

The timing couldn’t be better to bring this novel to a local audience, especially a school-age readership. With so much technology at our fingertips, the world closer seems to us and it is easy to forget to keep our own histories and perspectives as alive as the foreign stories that the Internet offers.toh cover

Moreover, it is important for our students to understand the complexity of Dominican life – the various personalities and backgrounds of our people – in order to cultivate their tolerance and humanity. It is important for them to see the impact of our struggles for independence and modernization through narratives rather than just memorized dates, so that they can value the freedoms we now enjoy. It is important for them to learn Allfrey’s name and appreciate the paths she paved for women, for workers and for writers to exercise freedom of expression.

I’m elated to be part of this new edition and hope that parents, teachers and students will join in revisiting our rich history through this wonderful adventure story set right here in our homeland.

Literary Festivals

Literary Festivals: Culture Mining or Culture Making?

(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, June 2012)

The summer months are a hot season for those in the business of culture. The literary festival, now a signature event in many islands, has become an attractive way for book connoisseurs, culture enthusiasts and local businesses to capitalize on their imdividual and collective interests. For the past several years, Trinidad’s NGC Bocas Literary Festival, the Bim Lit Fest in Barbados amd Dominica’s Nature Island Literary Festival have lured the most influential names in the region’s literary, academic and performance fields from all around the world and juxtaposed their gravitas with the promising and rejuvenating work of local and mostly underrecognized writers, thinkers and artists.

They owe their presence, surely, to Jamaica’s Calabash Festival, begun in 2001 by Colin Channer and a few other notable Jamaican writers, who after ten years, were forced to indefinitely suspend the event because of financial troubles. And while Calabash managed to resurface for Jamaica’s 50th Independence anniversary celebrations with no clear plans to stay on, still more islands push the literary culture campaign, with the example of “Anguilla’s Literary Jollification,” held in May. The contradiction between the ever-emerging interest in the business of creative arts and the struggle to keep these events afloat with money and public interest leads many informed and lay critics to ask the question: What’s the point? Some people are attempting to answer that very question.

Following the NGC Bocas Festival, a scathing op-ed in Trinidad’s Guardian newspaper definitely made some of us “culture makers” squirm in our seats just a little bit. Raymond Ramcharitar’s indictment from the May 2 piece entitled “Caribbean Literature: Publishable or Rubbish?”[1] is that no substantive body of literary work can currently be produced in the region, by people living in the West Indies, and that the display of culture embodied in literary festivals is simply a guise for a select few to sustain their social elitism. All in all, Ramcharitar thinks of festivals as another self-congratulatory enterprise with no viable business model and no long-term future: an all-around waste of time.

Alas, this skeptic must have missed the point that people who choose to live and work in arts and culture very rarely approach the field with an eye or gaining massive wealth from their work. Those who gain fame and financial success often do so after years of dedication and labor, reaping their long-deserved rewards for commitment to their craft. The production and consumption of “culture” in the Caribbean has historically been tied more closely to constructions of national identity and pride, reminding West Indians of their complicated and sometimes unfortunate past, while praising the resilience of the human spirit – expressed uniquely in music, literature, dance, and art. Moreover, the majority populattion of African-descended people in the Eastern Caribbean implicitly understand the idea of West Indian culture, particularly literary culture, as an issue of property, ownership and inheritance, reclaiming the discourses of ownership and mastery once long ago endured by their ancestors under slavery.

I return to Ramcharitar’s assertions, then, to pose an important response about the business, financing and publishing dynamics of the culture that is captured and produced in such literary festivals. Access to publishing houses, to in-house editors that are competitive on a global market and to a widespread leisure reading audience across and within the islands must exist for the featured aspiring writers to gain the kind of traction that Caribbean writers in the diaspora have achieved via their massive publishing houses like FSG, Vintage, and others. So Ramcharitar is not entirely wrong. In fact, in this regard he may be quite right.

The question of literacy and literary enthusiasm remains the key to address a question about where and how to find investors to revitalize a West Indian literary publishing domain. Regional academic publishing houses survive on the necessity of the curriculum and, in this way, they become a public service that justify investments. However, most creative works are published under very small presses, and now self-publishing becomes a more popular route with the ease and low cost of digital technology. Ramcharitar cites two presses in his article, Peepal Tree Press based in England and Lexicon Press out of Trinidad that have great potential to man the publishing ship and consolidate the stellar writing being produced in the region to counter what he sees as messy and problematic images of the West Indies perpetuated in the Diaspora writings on metropolitan presses. However, the issue is much larger and complex than the publishing and writing end of the business. What about the reading part? Who are these writers producing work for? Who are these publishers marketing to? Where will the books go? Who is the reader of the “literary culture”? Who should be attending the “literary festival”?

The concept of the literary festival, much like the music festivals already held in several islands, can become an important site for building a tourism market. In many islands like Dominica, it has gained much credit in the area of social and civic engagement by building programs and competitions that reach out into the community and make every level of the social landscape understand that a literary culture exists. But in my experience with research and observation of such festivals elsewhere, too much emphasis is based on having the thing exist and not on what to do with it. So many workshops on how to be a writer of various genres and so many guest writers talking about writing their work cast a suspicious shadow over what this work actually means and how it can positively impact our community. The experience of reading literature is the point to tap into if literary festivals want to become a long-standing institution. People should actually understand why and how the literary festival isn’t a show of pomp and circumstance, and can indeed become a way to help shift the culture economy in significant ways. In Britain, a national reading campaign has been successful in reviving attitudes towards literacy and literature across socio-economic classes, while successfully marketing many of their authors in the global marketplace.

Many such festivals in the United States use the language of the “book” festival rather than the “literary” festival. As I reflect on the function of this entity in local and regional communities, I think this distinction is a significant one. The “book” invites curiosity. The “literary” still, particularly considering the historical and socio-political space we occupy, invites skepticism and distance. This is a perfect moment for social entrepreneurs to lock minds with the best thinkers in the “world” of culture, and work towards a solution that draws dividends and not disdain. It’s worth exploring how more attention to reading and finding meaning in texts might be a saving grace for the economic and social future of culture in the Caribbean.

[1] Ramcharitar, Raymond. “Caribbean Literature: Publishable or Rubbish?” The Guardian. Trinidad. May 2, 2012. www.guardian.co.tt.

This Thing Called Culture

This thing called Culture, and why we need to preserve it

(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, December 2012)

Ask anyone in the Caribbean region if they are proud of their culture and the likelihood that the answer is yes is very high and not at all surprising. Ask many of those people what they think culture means – whether West Indian culture, Caribbean culture, Trini culture, Lucian culture, Bim culture, DA culture – and the populist response, while nuanced, will also prove unsurprisingly similar. Most people will talk of the food and conversation, the tropical location and warm air (a major token of nostalgia for the emigrants in Northern metropolitan cities). They’ll talk of Carnival, the costumes, dance, and the overwhelmingly vibrant, colorful and musical melting pot. Most of all, across age, class, gender and personal interests, from Caribbean person to Caribbean person, within and outside of the region, a sense of national and regional pride in a history of individual and collective resilience and resistance takes primacy in the contemporary definition of Caribbean or West Indian culture.

That national and regional pride stands firmly in a persistent, almost naturalized, awareness of the conditions of slavery and colonialism and the effects of those histories of systemic violence on the performance of everyday life in each nation. That’s why celebrations of independence and carnival take prominent positions in the vernacular or commonplace definition of culture. Even according to major government initiatives and policies, a clear definition of that term is elusive,[1] leaving it always already understood according to the sum of its various elements, those elements that get included that is. For example, countries like Dominica and St. Vincent devote many of their cultural resources to awareness, preservation and promotion of the still-remaining indigenous people – Karifuna/Garifuna and Kalinago – who were the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the land. Other projects linked to the physical preservation of forts and other monumental edifices comprise some of the historical reflection on slavery, mercantilism and colonial settler culture as well. Then we have the things that sell: music, beaches and food. All these aspects of culture present a vision of the region that is at once rich in history and variety, but also marketable in a global tourist economy. Such a dynamic leaves Caribbean culture scholars, like myself, to ask some sobering questions about the definition and value of this thing called culture. What pieces of life matter in the cataloging of our history? And what tools and people make a reflection on collective consciousness possible?

For the past six months, I’ve spent a lot of times wandering through university and national libraries and archives in the Caribbean trying to uncover symptoms of a culture of reading being alive in the early 20th century Caribbean. As I worked so diligently to compile archival material from before World War 2 that would elucidate communities’ attention to reading, I was reminded more and more about why I was drawn to advanced study and professional life in a humanities discipline and in Caribbean literary and cultural studies. I wanted to know more about the place and the people that had so strongly shaped my own personal and intellectual perspectives. As I moved through different islands, including Barbados and Dominica, through university collections or national archives, I noticed that while the officials responsible for the preservation of Caribbean culture were ardent and genuinely invested in the contextual value of the work they preserved, that attention to ways to both collect and continue to preserve those collections into the future, especially in the digital age, were grasping for a more clearly defined vision, and increased resources, knowledge and excitement. I saw the source of this struggle in two dominant areas. First, institutions charged with the preserving and disseminating national and regional history must become more technologically in tune with long-term access and preservation methods.

Second, nationally-supported institutions, like libraries and museums, have yet to fully embrace and enact a view of history that is truly public and accessible to all types of communities[2]. I’ve written before about the ways that the classed access to literacy in West Indian colonial life has impacted the ways people engaged with literature and leisurely reading. The community’s experience with valuing elements of our political and cultural history is no different. Those working to draw attention to the influence of trade unions or the West Indies Federation on contemporary public service system (or events like uprisings in Dominica (1979) and revolutions in Grenada (1983), or the impact of the migration of West Indians to Latin America, or the impact of Marcus Garvey on islands that are not Jamaica) are among a minority of scholars, intellectuals, and enthusiasts who promote a broader definition of culture that wrestles with the populist version I’ve described earlier.

What can be done about this? Two words: technology and money. Both scholarly and corporate environments have models for digital preservation that create not just long-term preservation options for documents, but also generate opportunities for the public to become engaged with the process and products of historical preservation. UNESCO is a leading global organization spearheading site preservation, and supporting individual nations in their archival venture through initiatives like World Heritage Sites and Memory of the World in the Digital Age.[3] Very recently, the papers of renowned Caribbean author Sam Selvon, housed in Trinidad’s National Archives, were accepted into the Memory of the World Register, providing much-needed awareness to the author’s contribution to Caribbean and postcolonial literary and political development.[4] Given that some of Selvon’s titles may be in danger of out-of-print status, this is both a financial and marketing move that highlights the singular power of a small-island writer to modern British and Caribbean culture, but ignites renewed investment in teaching and learning about the author in CXC classrooms and US graduate school seminars alike. Yet works of lesser-known visionaries like Dominica’s J. Ralph Casimir, a pan-Africanist and poet who was closely aligned with the Garvey movement, are housed thousands of miles away from where locals can access records of his contributions. The prestige and rigor of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Studies in New York City is surely a privileged position for the Casimir collection that validates his contribution to black culture.[5] However, the fact that his name remains largely unfamiliar among the Dominican public, outside of the cultural elite, means there are questions about access and dissemination of history that require attention and commitment from those with the intellectual and material resources.

But attention to the archives – whether in government documents, slave registries, newspaper collections or small family or personal photos and letters – need not begin with a massive initiative like UNESCO. There is a role for the private sector to play in helping the relevant government and local units to build their collections from the ground up and to host events that ask for community contributions to various collections. Moreover, the investment in digital preservation technology, paired with programming and library science and archival training for existing and incoming staff, is the most important type of investment in which donors should look to support. It is critical to recruit a team of cultural scholars, IT specialists and community activists to collaborate on the vision and mission for saving cultural artifacts in national and regional contexts. It is imperative that this team has the structural and financial means to create a complex and nuanced narrative of our local histories – where do we come from, who are our unsung heroes, what stories have been forgotten, and how can we re-tell them. It is most important for the business community to help make it a truly public endeavor, helping each person in every household find some part of herself reflected in this history and use it as motivation to participate in future Caribbean development.

[1] See Bully, Anita et al. National culture policy of the Commonwealth of Dominica. Dominica: Ministry of Community Development, Gender Affairs and Information, 2007. Accessed at Digital Library of the Caribbean, http://www.dloc.com/CA00100648/00001. December 8, 2012.

[2] See “The Future of Caribbean Reading.” The Analyst. April 2012. http://www.analystmagazine.com/education/11-the-future-of-caribbean-reading

[3] For more information, see http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/register/

[4] “Sam Selvon Collection placed in Memory of the World register.” The Trinidad Express. December 7, 2012. http://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/Sam_Selvon_collection_placed_in__Memory_of_the_World_register-182620501.html. Accessed December 8, 2012.

[5] The catalog record for this collection is available at http://catalog.nypl.org/record=b11524019~S1

The Future(s) of Caribbean Reading

The Future(s) of Caribbean Reading

(Previously published in The Analyst, a business-focused magazine, March 2012)

The current debates circling the possible effacement of the book by digital media, especially e-books, reflect a significant transitional moment in the worlds of literary production, dissemination and reception. American writer Jonathan Franzen, author of bestselling novels including Freedom, recently referred to the onslaught of the e-book as surely a threat to civic discourse, the permanence of the book object and to our stable conceptions of pleasure and leisure.[1] However, Franzen’s concerns, while timely and relevant, should be taken with a grain of salt and a dose of history. Film and television did not replace radio or print culture either. What simply happened in the history of communication technology was that each medium transformed and adapted its practices to accommodate and respond to new and innovative ways to engage real and fictional worlds.

However, the evidence of disappearing bookstore chains and the increasing ubiquity of e-readers prove that the waning life and livelihood of print culture should be taken seriously. In the United States, chains like Borders have been hollowed out of the popular paperbacks and bustling cafés that once epitomized middlebrow culture. Now, the Barnes & Noble chain features their Nook brand e-reader at all stores with front entrance displays laden with every possible digital accessory. The device lures in customers, while reminding them everywhere else in the store that novels, magazines and the café reading scene are very much still alive and welcome. Barnes & Noble seems to be currently walking a tightrope, balancing the old and the new: the result could go either way.

Most of the conversations about the fate of the book have centered on the publishing industry and from the point of view of writers, who either see it as a benefit or impediment to their craft. Also, metropolitan spaces have monopolized this conversation for the obvious reason – the immense size of their market. However, those of us concerned about smaller, regional markets like the Caribbean should think strongly about what the new medium means now and can mean for the future of literature, writing, and most importantly reading. With their functionality, convenience, portability and low price, tablets and e-readers have become the electronic device of choice for consumers across the islands. Particularly, smartphones, especially the explosive Blackberry device, have made it possible to read, work and play with a simple telephone data plan. As a result, Caribbean consumers have more access to literature in any format and from anywhere around the world than ever before.

The colonial history of the Caribbean has made literacy and formal education means through which select groups acquire upward mobility, while others without access to those resources become marginalized from cultural citizenship, leisurely reading embodying the achievement of that aspiration. The high costs of printing and publishing texts have throughout the twentieth century made the Caribbean’s market predominantly academic in nature, leaving small publishing houses and self-publishing authors to remind residents of the islands that there are people who live here who still write. The last ten years have given rise to a pleasant and welcome shift in the paucity of leisurely reading by Caribbean people of Caribbean books written by Caribbean people.

Jamaica’s Calabash Literary Festival should be given credit as a pioneer in making visible strides to bring together an active creative and academic community of readers and writers in the North America and Europe with “home-grown” writers, artists and cultural critics. This year, more and more islands are embarking on their own festivals, Bim Literary Festival in Barbados, Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad & Tobago, and the Nature Island Literary Festival in Dominica are only a sample of the successfully planned and executed events that have re-energized the culture of reading for all people on the islands, and not just those who can afford to get buy books at the once-overpriced rates of island booksellers.

This delightful development in attitudes towards reading should be embraced. The renewed energies in literature through the ascension of digital reading formats present strengths and opportunities for an expanded market in the region that emphasizes its literary products at home and in the diaspora. How can Caribbean-based publishers, big and small, capitalize on the e-book to globalize Caribbean authors who are shut out of mainstream metropolitan publishing houses? How can local entrepreneurs meet the increasing instantaneous demands for reading through book sales and innovation of e-readers while creating a stronger market and network of support for their “home-grown” authors? How can this vibrant moment in the business of reading, writing and publishing be used to effect positive social change? Attention to bridging the gaps between those with access to literacy and literariness and those who remain denied of such cultural fluency should continue to be a priority for those interested in the culture and the business of reading.

[1] See Sheehy, Christine. “Are e-books a threat to society?” Fiction Addiction. www.nzherald.co.nz. Accessed Feb 13, 2012.