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Writing – Schuyler K Esprit, PhD https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit Thu, 31 Jan 2019 13:22:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.13 https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/cropped-Dr.-Esprit-Website-header_revised-2-02-32x32.png Writing – Schuyler K Esprit, PhD https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit 32 32 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/ 89949677 Imagining the future at/with/for Create Caribbean https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/imagining-the-future-at-with-for-create-caribbean/ https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/imagining-the-future-at-with-for-create-caribbean/#respond Thu, 31 Jan 2019 13:22:48 +0000 http://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/?post_type=jetpack-portfolio&p=522 A recent look at my CV for its regularly scheduled update turned out to be the culmination of my building existential crisis. Something so simple yet shocking did it for me: there is only one line referencing Create Caribbean. “Founder and Director” with a link to the website. It is listed under “Relevant Positions” and no mention is made anywhere else, not under scholarship or publications. I had been on a slow burn recently, facing a minor mid-career crisis. And I suddenly panicked; what if people reviewing my CV never actually follow the link? What will they think this is? A side hustle? I was confused but mostly annoyed with myself.

I had to face the reality that, even in my most active discussions about Create Caribbean, I had underplayed my own role in building up this institutions and had pitched much of my lectures, presentations and papers on the pedagogy and the impact on the students. I also spent a lot of time in these public spaces discussing the benefits of partnering with Dominica State College as the pilot location for the institute. But I had done very little work in documenting my own scholarly contributions.

I was now faced with a big question:  how do I capture the work I had poured into Create Caribbean over the past five years. How do I capture that contribution in a way that will make me feel accomplished? And why did it even matter to me at all? For each of the digital research projects curated by the research institute (many of them still living works-in-progress) I have served as project designer, project manager, principal investigator, programmer, writer, editor, photographer, reviewer. I’ve provided guidance to the student interns that have come through the program on digital humanities theories, methods and tools. I have designed and taught a course relevant to the projects’ research goals.

This really isn’t (just) about the CV. A few months ago, I had to launch another crowdfunding campaign for Create Caribbean. I was embarrassed to have to do that and took it quite personally. I wanted the community of scholars and other supporters who showed up for us after the hurricane to be proud that we had made a comeback and were producing more important projects. But the speed with which we got back on our feet was costly – I was emotionally drained and financially drained by the end of it. But the students kept coming to the office looking for any way to get hands-on, and even after I decided to take a break from admitting new interns into the program, they kept showing up and asking to be part of the experience. So I kept going and just needed to ensure that I could afford to pay the young people who worked for me to keep the place running and still afford to set sufficient resources aside for my future and for my self-care. 

I have also been the principal financier for the organization, committing a note-worthy percentage of my income to its operations, including recovery costs following the Category 5 Hurricane Maria of 2017.  We have received support from so many organizations and individuals over the years, including from some of the readers of this blog. A number of you have reached out to me and some of us have already collaborated on arrangements that have made a big difference in our outcomes. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. For general project funding, we are not eligible for many US-based grants without a US institution as partner or principal collaborator. I have had to be innovative in the way I acquire resources, partnering with Caribbean institutions who share our mission, in order to pool funding for projects. I have been a one-woman show with some logistic and administrative help from a colleague with little digital humanities experience working in a field outside the humanities. We have both had a steep learning curve in this; I have had to adopt a business mindset and she has had to catch up very quickly to what we do and how. But the cost of day-to-day operations have been mine since inception. Surely, this warrants more than one line on a CV, right? But I’ll leave room here for my colleagues and friends to chime in on the practical aspects of this particular point about funding.

I established Create Caribbean for myself and it has certainly benefited so many people. But it is a truth better said out loud. Create Caribbean was the result of me creating the kind of academic and professional environment that I wanted to see for myself – as a student, a scholar and a professor. It still remains for me my greatest achievement, PhD be damned (that was so easy compared to this). It confirmed for me that it was possible for small change to ripple into big change.  I was cutting down big trees in the higher education, in the Caribbean educational landscape, in the attitudes toward Caribbean culture and history. My small axe was hitting exactly the right spots and toppling a lot of the biases, expectations, obstacles and lies that said scholarship had to look and sound like a fixed set of things to be valued, reviewed, accepted.

So far, thirty-five students have successfully completed the research and service learning internship program and have gone on to continue their education or enter the workforce. They tell me all the time that Create Caribbean changed their lives for the better. When I was not being the academic director of all the research and outreach programs that they took on, I was serving in the role of mentor, guidance counsellor, pseudo therapist, academic advisor, event cheerleader and promoter. In the last five years, I’ve comforted interns over some of the most personal and life changing circumstances of their young lives, situations so grave I worried they would not be able to make it out. And after Hurricane Maria, when they all reached out and said they’d rather be together making change than home staring at their trauma and loss, I had to step up and make room for that community, because at Create Caribbean we create access, opportunity and community.

That was my promise to them. So I did. But I was affected. I had been affected by all of it, not least of which was the fact that my career seemed to be doing well in exactly the opposite way than I had ever intended. In academia in the US and the North, my work was seen as successful, brave, experimental: all good things, all true. But these were things that were costing me everyday. I was building something I couldn’t possibly sustain. When I first conceptualized Create Caribbean, I had made these fancy three-year projected budgets, learning so much from the institutions where my colleagues worked about how much it actually costs to run something like what I was trying to do. Those projections are a joke now: first, because I grossly misunderstood the Caribbean socioeconomic context I was entering at the time. I had no idea that if this money didn’t come from extreme grant writing or a Miss Havisham somewhere, it wasn’t coming. Second, I grossly underestimated what I could accomplish without all the items in my fancy budget and surprised myself beyond my wildest dreams. The projects at Create Caribbean are evidence that it is diligence and commitment to the study that produces solid scholarship, not just money.

But this isn’t an endorsement of the way I’ve done things. In fact, it is the strongest cautionary tale. The emotional cost to me has been high. I have chosen care and mentorship of these students, sometimes even before and over my own care. I did that because I felt that I was working mostly alone. Taking time off, taking a break from them, would mean that the operation would come to a screeching halt. But the truth is, I can only do so much and for so long. I am tired. Trying to keep up with my scholarship and teaching outside of the DH-focused work of Create Caribbean, major administration jobs at higher education institutions in the Caribbean that place high demand on my schedule, and my commitment to causes in my local community in Dominica have taken their toll. That is a lot for one person and I am finally admitting it.

I’ve recently made a transition into a new position at The University of the West Indies. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to contribute to Caribbean higher education in a way that is meaningful, and most importantly in a place close to home that feels like home.The transition into this new phase of my career has created some restlessness and self-doubt. When I left the United States and my position at Trinity Washington University, I was most worried about what it would mean to be an independent scholar. I worried a lot about the impact on my career as many non-affiliated scholars and contingent faculty experience. Once I had established Create Caribbean and fell deeply into the work, we had so much success that it dawned on me I had created my own institutional affiliation (I have given talks on this recently and will write more about it). I made a comfortable and mutually beneficial move to Dominica State College and proximity made it possible to toe the line between administration and my own scholarship. But now that I’m part of a large institution and away from the organic community I’ve built in Dominica, it’s dawning on me that I am searching again, for affiliation, community, kinship. It’s like starting all over again. 

Even after all this time, I still feel deeply the distance from the networks and kinships I’ve built in US academia. There are little to no talks to attend, or grad school friends to have coffee with or hugs to receive from mentors and advisors in your field, especially I do not live on an island with one of the residential campuses. Creating intellectual community is hard. Travel is expensive. I also don’t have the flexibility of travel that came with being a faculty member. Administration is a 12-month, nine to whatever time you’re tired kind of experience. I try to use all the leave time I have on Create Caribbean and catching up on the work that I love deeply – Caribbean literary studies.

This seeming isolation is one of the biggest costs to me for living here in the region. In order to make a space for myself and to make valuable impact to communities, not just the feel-good type of impact for myself, I had to give up my desire to remain solely in this research, teaching and service bubble. In the context of a small country with limited human resource and a region with a higher education industry only now on the rise, I had to go where I was needed, where I had skills and talent, where I would be useful. So I have worked as an administrator – as Registrar, in academic affairs, institutional research and now program development and support, and student engagement. On most of these days since 2015, at least once a day, I have asked myself if this is really what I am doing with my PhD, that all I ever signed up to do when I started this thing was read my books and write about them in order to help black people around the world be free. But as the elders say, when I was a child, I did (and said) childish things. This is part of the work, the administration. Even at Create Caribbean, in my most ideal setting, sometimes the work feels like work.

The gap between the type of research I was trained to do in graduate school and the type of research or professionalism expected of me now feels wide. Here, as in most other contexts of academia, we are still making a case for the value of the humanities. In small island developing states, making this case is even harder, almost futile. We now call it the “creative industries” as if to mask our embarrassment for arts and humanities exploration in the cloak of enterprise and development, making sure it’s something we can monetize as a region to the Madam of Caribbean economic survival, tourism. Even when it’s clear that in this new urgent condition of climate change, that the idea of tourism itself is as ephemeral as the dot com days.

This was part of my motivation to conceive Carisealand in 2015 when I first found kinship with Oonya Kempadoo and she introduced me to the name and the digital platform with no idea of how exactly she wanted to develop this particular concept. The Carisealand project is the biggest project I have designed and undertaken. As a project centered on the intersection of digital studies, Caribbean cultural studies and environmental humanities, it’s the most important, most timely of all the work I’ve done at Create Caribbean thus far.  Now that the project itself is expanding in ways that I could not possibly see years ago, I’m collaborating with specialists and institutions to help share the load. I had done a lot of work teaching my students and interns the benefits (and responsibilities) of collaboration through my Digital Humanities course and the digital research projects we’ve done prior to this one. But I did not do a very good job of collaborating myself. I was always in fear that my mission would be diluted, that I would ‘sell out’, that I would somehow lose creative control if I brought in too many people into the operations of the organizations. Sometimes I didn’t want to appear like I didn’t know what I was doing, so I hesitated to ask for help. I’ve now to let all that go. When you build something from scratch that is your labor of love, this is a lesson you have to learn on your own, no matter how many colleagues offer help or how many times your rational side tries to convince you.

One example of how I’ve tried to overcome that fear is by engaging Dominica State College faculty from a range of disciplines to contribute to a blog on topics relevant to the Carisealand project. Especially since I’m physically distant from the Create Caribbean lab at Dominica State College, it’s a great way to maintain that institutional relationship and have subject experts that the student interns can consult throughout the course of their work on the project.

Working at Dominica State College allowed me to return to some of the comforts of teaching, research and collegiality that were key to my creative and professional survival. Now that I’m at The University of the West Indies, I find myself wondering how exactly to position myself and Create Caribbean in relation to this new institutional landscape. After all, Create Caribbean has its own institutional structure and has room to be perceived as a pet project or service work. Except what I do there is hard scholarship that has significantly contributed to shaping the landscape of Caribbean studies and digital humanities simultaneously. That’s just fact. My dream was to see a presence of Create Caribbean is as many Caribbean territories as possible, with Dominica as our ‘flagship’ location. Moving to a new country and a new institution feels like part of that plan. But it is more complicated than that and as time goes on, I hope I will find some clarity about how to make that happen. The reality is that I may end up finding creative ways for Create Caribbean to extend its reach across the region from exactly where it is right now. And I’m more than okay with that. I just want it to grow and to last. And I’m aware now, more than ever, that despite the help and support of my colleagues and friends who have their own professional and personal commitments, that I need more support and I need the time and clarity to aggressively seek it out.

One thing I’m sure of: I’m definitely making some changes to my CV, starting with looking at how my colleagues and counterparts in DH have represented their work to offer the best clarity and visibility to their labor and outcomes. In a world where the work of women of color is so undervalued, in a profession where it is frequently dismissed, overlooked or forgotten, I think it is important for me to commit to record the contributions I’ve made and be confident and proud of those interventions.

This makeover is not just for my CV, though. It’s I’m currently writing a book now that’s under contract with a publisher. It’s the book I wanted to write but wrote my dissertation instead. It’s the book I started to write but shelved, and established Create Caribbean instead. It’s seen the backseat for far too long and I want it to be a reality now more than ever. But I also want to excel in this new position. And I also want Create Caribbean to survive and thrive. Meanwhile, I want to have fun and take vacations and release the anxiety long enough to smile and laugh with my family and friends. But there’s only one of me. Like Michelle Obama says, you can have it all, just not at once. But maybe with your help I can. Here’s the question: what do you imagine is the future of Create Caribbean and if you think it matters, how can you help with that?

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Resistant Narratives in the Age of Disaster: The Example of Dominica https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/resistant-narratives-in-the-age-of-disaster-the-example-of-dominica/ https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/resistant-narratives-in-the-age-of-disaster-the-example-of-dominica/#respond Mon, 20 Aug 2018 18:17:23 +0000 http://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/?post_type=jetpack-portfolio&p=419 This paper was presented on my behalf at the Caribbean Studies Association annual conference held in Havana, Cuba in June 2018. 

On September 23, 2017, a mere five days after Hurricane Maria pummeled through Dominica and left the world wondering if hundreds or thousands were dead, the Prime Minister, Hon. Roosevelt Skerrit went to the United Nations General Assembly to address heads of state and to make a declaration: climate change dealt the world a major blow in 2017 through the merciless assault of hurricanes on Dominica and other countries including Puerto Rico, Barbuda, St. Martin and the US Virgin Islands.

At the time of his address, Dominicans in urban and suburban areas were just beginning to regain cellular connections to make and receive calls to their loved ones all over the world, because making on-island calls were still difficult or impossible. So tuning in to the radio for the speech was reminiscent of the days my grandparents tuned in at 6pm for the BBC World News. At once striking the chord of vulnerability and perseverance, Mr. Skerrit made an emotional appeal to the developed nations of the UN to be accountable for their contributions to climate change. That was made even more powerful when he declared, in a second UN gathering Dominica’s plan to be the first climate resilient nation in the world.

He stated at the Assembly, “The time has come for the international community to make a stand and to decide; whether it will be shoulder to shoulder with those suffering the ravages of climate change worldwide… whether to help us rebuild sustainable livelihoods; or whether the international community will merely show some pity now, and then flee….; relieved to know that this time it was not you.” He goes further with the call to action, “Let these extraordinary events unleash the innovation and creativity of global citizens to spark a new paradigm of green economic development that stabilizes and reverses the consequences of human-induced global warming.”

In the days and weeks following the passage of Hurricane Maria, journalists and media workers from all over the world descended on Dominica to profile the devastation and to bring some awareness to what would have otherwise been a more US centered hurricane season in international mainstream media. Through this medium, however, the Prime Minister gave new meaning to the idea of damage control. Dominica symbolically took control of the catastrophic damage exacerbated by more developed nations and declared itself the David against any future natural and man-made Goliaths in this battle against climate change.

The Prime Minister’s insistence on making the difficult trek to New York City to deliver this speech, when all communication and transportation was cut off from Dominica, indicated his awareness the international mainstream media was already doing its work to frame the story as one of loss and lack – with destruction amounting to 226% of the country’s GDP. But it was of political and economic importance to establish the sovereignty of the tiny island nation through the declaration of its commitment to innovation. It was important for the Government to own the image of recovery and development very early on in the process, given lessons learned from other disasters around the world, and almost foreshadowing the media coverage with their attempts at political exploitation and cultural misrepresentation that may come in the weeks and months following the storm.

I listened to the UN address on my transistor radio, while sitting on my patio looking at the large chunks of my neighbor’s roof strewn over the downed trees. I began writing in my journal some questions about what, when and how we wanted the world to know about our suffering and trauma and why it seemed less important to speak of the trauma than to speak of the recovery. I wondered at which point the narratives about the small island state’s development would include the human impact and not just the ceremonial and performative humanity of the Prime Minister’s tears on the UN stage.

As a literary scholar, I spend my career focused on the power of narratives and storytelling and wondered whether, the UN address would actually do the country any substantive good, however noble and well-intentioned. Moreover, I wondered whether the international stage would reinforce narratives of lack rather than create empathy for the nation’s desire for self-empowerment. I thought more broadly of the neighboring islands just experiencing Hurricane Irma and of our now sister island by Maria, Puerto Rico and had a shocking realization that we were now those sad, distraught far away people that we always watched on foreign news.

In this presentation, I outline a few other instances of such post-Maria narratives to prompt us to think through the following questions: What are the dominant international narratives about tragedy, aid, recovery and resilience that persist following the storm? What, then, is Dominica or the Caribbean in the age of climate change disaster, if not a spectacle of foreign media consumption? In response, how do local knowledges and local communities resist and redefine the stories that are told in these international spaces? Through a number of examples, including my own experience as a survivor of the hurricane, I hope to show how local narratives about the Hurricane Maria experience allow us to work through Dominica’s rebuilding and redefining of its future despite the interjection of external storytellers at the center of this traumatic experience.

Prime Minister Skerrit’s UN address was an early example of numerous attempts to resist narratives about dependency and need by the trauma affected nation. I wonder, in the words of Sara Ahmed, whether the presentation and representation of a “soft nation,” that is vulnerable and penetrable by external forces, is actually being used as a mark of sovereign power in the instance of Dominica, or whether exploiting the affect of our trauma would further lend itself to various types of neoliberal and neocolonial impositions. While Dominicans were suffering, it was important for the world to see that they were not counted out or, even worse, “like Haitians.” Even during the most tragic circumstances, the storytelling about loss, suffering and violence wrought by Maria used the stereotype of Haiti’s suffering as its measuring stick. Once communication networks were re-established, the proliferation of conspiracy theories regarding the passage of Maria and the days of rampant looting immediately following centered on superstitious ideas that we had now become “cursed like the Haitians.” Walking the streets, listening to the radio, or scrolling through social media, we encountered this undying fable of our new life in the shadow of Haiti’s trauma. I understood this moment as a direct consequence of the country’s response to Haitian migrants coming to Dominica following the 2010 earthquake and the Government’s decision a few years after to treat Haitians with suspicion and limit the number of visas and work permits issued to control what one Minister had referred to as “these people.” However subconsciously, the positioning of Dominica’s devastation in relation to Haiti’s history of trauma – even trauma caused from resistance to oppression – was a way for Dominicans to declare their sovereignty and empowerment. To publicly own vulnerability without any point of comparison or cautionary tale would be violating the colonial inheritance of respectability that, even at rock bottom, we seem to hold dear.

In the times of trauma, the resistance to dominant destructive narratives manifested through social media revealed the real fractures in our sovereignty and sense of Caribbean unity, but also revealed the quotidian points of empowerment for Dominican people. One telling example is the story of Emerline Anselm, founder of a Facebook based news site called EmoNews. In the weeks following the hurricane, she walked and drove from community to community documenting the stories of Dominicans as they pulled themselves from the rubble and posted them to her social media account. A school teacher with a penchant for journalism, Anselm used her mobile phone to create an international community where average Dominicans could be frank about their experience without the filters of mainstream media. She often dressed in her most casual wear or whatever was accessible in those days of scarcity. There was no makeup. There was no pretense. Her coverage of daily human interest garnered attention eventually from the BBC and other international media houses.

But ultimately, her audience was her own people. It was a simple way to let people in the diaspora know that their family members were alive and to give them an accurate sense of the post-hurricane landscape at that time. EmoNews now has its own organization Facebook page and periodically provides follow-up stories on many of the interviewees from the first few months. While the world’s top media platforms like the New York Times, Guardian and The New Yorker steered their coverage of Dominica’s trauma into six degrees of separation from “how does this impact us,” citizen journalists like Anselm, forced the world to look at Dominica, deal with the (accurate) reality our trauma and hear our own voices saying things that had nothing to do with them, but things they had the power to help change.

This notion struck me most profoundly when my landlord arrived from Guadeloupe, where he lives, five days after Maria, with a backpack of much needed supplies and a group of journalists, who had traveled all the way from France to come cover the story. They would stay upstairs in the short term rental apartment and I was so happy for the pleasure of some company that I engaged their questions and gave them some details of living through the storm. Talking about my experience and the current state of affairs within a week of the storm, I felt like I was finally given a chance to vent. It didn’t occur to me that I was a subject until one of the other journalists starting taking photographs of me while I spoke. The disorientation that I felt in that moment, especially when my landlord boastfully declared that I was an “important person,” a professor at the national college, surprised me. As soon as they heard this, they all asked questions about the economy, the handling of relief supplies, the Government’ position – complicated questions when I had left my house just once to venture into the street and was still too scared to do anything else. I gave a barely coherent interview and stated my name for the record when asked. Then I went to my journal and wrote about my excitement over their offer of power banks being interrupted by their erection a satellite news transmitter right in my driveway. That night, I read an essay by Teju Cole on the photography of black skin that forced me to reflect on that interaction with the journalists. I finally saw myself as a subject, a body cloaked in the condition of disaster, exposed to the elements of foreign intervention.

Similarly, I was contacted frequently on Twitter by platforms wanted to use my live tweeting of the storm experience as click bait or more substantive parts of news items. I did then and continue to now worry about this hypervisibility – how every time I choose to speak, through my activism about climate change, or my Caribbean Studies or Digital Humanities work, that I am now expected to think and speak about Maria. I feel internal pressure – and sometimes external – to be the intellectualizing voice of the experience as a way to advocate for change, much like we are doing here on the panel. And yet, I also stayed up the entire night from September 18 into the 19th, hearing the possessed howls of the madwoman let loose over my home and that of my family and it forces me to consider whether the only advocacy I should prioritize is my own personal healing, maybe at home in Dominica, maybe a bit away from it all. In the end, much like I’ve highlighted in the other examples of Prime Minister Skerrit and EmoNews, the “soft touch” approach to a harsh traumatic present and future, as theorized by Ahmed, is a comfortable, if not satisfying middle ground.

To conclude, I return to the UN address by the Prime Minister: the most quoted line from that speech is one that speaks volumes about how Dominica sees itself and how Dominica perceives its future in the age of climate change disaster, “Eden is broken.” Perhaps the most resistant narrative of them all, for better or worse, remains the image of Dominica as the Nature Island of the Caribbean, an image that is now in the aftermath of Maria still being used to sell the country as a tourist destination of choice. There is no place greener in the Caribbean than Dominica. None. I revise that. There was no place greener in the Caribbean than Dominica…. before September 18, 2017.

Before Maria, Dominica was beginning to see its long-awaited tourist traffic in the form of luxury and boutique travelers looking for high-end villas with nature and wellness to their heart’s desire, for them to retreat and rejuvenate. New boutique hotels were emerging and through its Citizenship by Investment programme, Dominica’s Government was able to secure investors for more than two five-star hotels, with the earliest opening in early 2019. The research exists, even right here at this conference about how the allure and exploitation of the unspoiled natural landscape that has brought cultural and ecological annihilation of the region, and leading up to the 2017 Hurricane Season. The tourism industry on which the region survives is helping to destroy it, not so slowly anymore. Dominica’s rugged and defiant terrain in the face of a desire for development has made the island a late bloomer in this regard. Dominica has uniquely tapped into the exploitation of eco-tourism as a catch phrase that, with all best intentions and long term goals, markets natural resources and sustainability as consumer goods rather than real community accountable and socially conscious tools of development.

Now, after the storm, it is concerning that this narrative of the Garden of Eden may be even more pervasive than before. A full page image and Sunday report in The New York Times, coverage in numerous international papers and magazines, especially articles written by white European residents or visitors, and a full campaign from the Ministry of Tourism to “Rediscover Dominica,” in the dreadful Columbian sense, through “voluntourism” campaigns with hotels and international mission organizations, all confirm that the Garden of Eden will grow again, if only for you to pick its fruit, and pick and pick again.

It worries me that the trauma has already been repressed in exchange for the narrative of development. It should worry those of us committed to a more humanistic understanding of the impacts of climate change that the Garden for our sustenance and sustainability is the object of excavation and consumption for luxury, when we need its preservation the most. Perhaps it is my naiveté, my intellectualism, my post-traumatic stress that makes me reject and resist the narrative of Eden in exchange for the narrative of home – a more livable place committed to environmental sustainability, community accountability, and planetary responsibility. But about half the country is still without power, running water supply is still inconsistent, I still don’t have broadband Internet at home, and the mobile data doesn’t work after 9pm. Maybe I’m thinking too far ahead. Maybe the Prime Minister is, too.

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Digital Maroonage in the Caribbean https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/digital-maroonage-in-the-caribbean/ https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/digital-maroonage-in-the-caribbean/#respond Thu, 02 Aug 2018 20:28:05 +0000 http://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/?post_type=jetpack-portfolio&p=422 Below is the text of a presentation I gave in December 2016 at the Caribbean Digital III Conference held in New York City.

Dominica is a maroon country. Its topography and social geography reveal a complex network of resistance to slavery and imperial oppression and authority. People are resistant to everything that remotely resembles newness or change, or anything simply because someone a. I say this with great generalization only to emphasize the level of skepticism with which I enter a small island society. Like many of the other small islands of the archipelago, Dominica’s economic landscape further textures the maroon ethos of the nation. It is against the backdrop of this national history of Maroon Chiefs Jacko and Bala and the overwhelming and contradictory Roman Catholic Church that I grew up.

After my first year in a tenure track position, I travelled to Dominica for research on Caribbean reading publics for my manuscript, a long-range project that keeps morphing as I learn more about this place and my own personal history. As an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college with no research funds, this project had to be low budget. So I did what I’ve seen few scholars admit to doing: the lowest possible budget DH experiment. That summer, I hired one high school student, one recently graduated high school student and a recent graduate from Dominica State College where I now work. I used my own money and spent a lot of time teaching these young women what to look for and how to properly scan, annotate and catalog all the content I needed for my West Indian Readers project.

The bureaucratic starts and stops that I experienced in attempting to bring together a digitization project highlighted a few of the common struggles that face small island contexts:

  • There is limited technology and little-to-no money for technology
  • Who are your people? If you want to build a team down here, you must bring everything you need – the vocabulary, equipment
  • What exactly do you want to do? You have to be specific about your research and action goals as there will be many distractions – politically, intellectually, socially, historically.

My research experience that summer highlighted the wealth of resources available in Dominica and I encouraged and then officially proposed a project for digitization to the National Archives, a division of the Ministry of Education. This was my first attempt to structure a digitization project, include collaborators like DLOC and to seek grant or alternate funding so I invested the time and resources to research and lobby the Ministry. This was a failed project.  As far as I know, this has not happened yet. Attitudes about how to preserve and who should control this process were primary roadblocks to making this project happen.

The infrastructure of the archive in Dominica tells its own story of colonial occupation and the unrest required to move past this narrative of trauma. The island suffered two major losses to its public records as a result of fires during the tumultuous 1970s. The National Registry was burned to the point that hundreds of people would lose access to their birth records. People who were illiterate and not baptized in the Catholic Church would now have no documentation of their age, parentage or other significant genealogical data. Families would end up in battles over property ownership as land titles and deeds, particularly for inherited property had now vanished.

Now the rich collection of manuscripts, slave registers, and newspapers dating back to the 1700s is now housed at the Documentation Centre and National Archives of Dominica. With a fund from the Organization of American States, the Dominica Library and Information Service was able to preserve much of this data after moving to a new location in the Government Complex, where it continues. Even with the threats that it has faced in the past, the archive is quite sturdy. However, the librarians continue to be most concerned with keeping them safe rather than making them accessible. The option of digitization is well received, however the process for making that happen is filled

In order to escape the overwhelming bureaucracy and gatekeeping that came with the structure of the repeating colonial archive, I had to get creative. What did I have that required “no help, no permission, no understanding” (to quote filmmaker Ava Duvernay) in order to do the work I wanted to do in that space. I had to start with what I had and become an intellectual maroon and resist a system that was preemptively resistant to the very idea of transforming the medium and therefore the messages of our national history. I became that maroon girl (literally, on social media as well)

What I did have was a bunch of boxes that my uncle brought to my house when he announce that summer of 2012 that he had some work for me. The first Caribbean DH project I would try, The SPAT Memory Project, was conceived of conversations with my uncle about documenting our family history, the history of maroons in Dominica  (one of the most iconic historical sites of the maroons can be found our family estate)   . I knew of my uncle’s work as a progressive intellectual, engaged with the likes of Maurice Bishop, Fidel Castro, George Lamming, Hilary Beckles and others who would deeply shape Caribbean intellectual history. This conversation in 2012 would be the foundation of a methodology of the small island archive that I would come to engage for the next four years under the brand Create Caribbean Inc.

SPAT or the Small Projects Assistance Team was a non-profit development organization that evolved from the work of leftist political activists in Dominica in the 1960s and 1970s. According to its own publication, “SPAT worked steadily to promote a vision and practice of people-centered development.” And for thirty years, they worked according to this mission through – community animation projects, women and gender development programs, public theatre for social change,

Most of the members of SPAT began their work in politics as very young people, straight out of high school or university, forming the Dominica Liberation Movement. Two prime ministers of Dominica emerged from that group, both unfortunately facing untimely deaths while in office.

  • The Alliance collection: collective authorship; critical arm putting pressure on the Government
  • The Youth Activist Collection – the tumultuous 1970s
  • The photo collections – Some of them not added to the site yet but have all been digitized.

How did I fund this first part? My uncle and I pooled our money to pay the “interns” who worked with me, hourly, to scan and upload data to Omeka. After making a presentation of my work already done to the founding members of SPAT, each of them donated $100 EC dollars to help me pay for web hosting, and to pay the staff. This limited budget led to a semi-organized digital library of tens of thousands of documents for which my uncle and I have the only existing copies. One immediate result was that the SPAT executive has recently submitted Alliance collection for consideration for the UNESCO Memory of the World Project.

The history of the development of a library and archive system in Dominica is one I find interestingly impacted by this very intellectual decolonization that is taking place in the realm of our development of higher education. (anecdote: we have a “national historian” who doesn’t actually officially get paid to do that work for a living) I see the parallels very clearly between our use and understanding of the role of a library in serving the community and the role of academics and intellectuals in shaping the national conversation, from politics to policy. The same conflicts or challenges exist in our local

The success of the archival work done for SPAT Memory Project led to The Government’s Division of Culture commissioning Create Caribbean to help change the way students learn and think about history, particularly the complex history of Dominica. The Dominica History project, first launched in 2015 with the theme “The Road to Independence” was launched as the signature event of History Week 2015. History Week is a cluster of activities, held annually in the weeks leading up to Dominica’s Independence celebrations, to highlight a particular aspect of Dominica’s rich history to primary and secondary school students around the country.

The site has interactive timelines of the various decades from 1950-1978, the formal timeline of the project, that illustrates major social and political events taking place in Dominica in the postcolonial times leading up to our national independence. Further, the archive is a repository of many primary source news clippings, newspaper and periodical issues, oral histories, private correspondences, photographs and videos with content applicable to this theme.

The most impressive work of the students appears in the Exhibits, short photo and text essays on various topics, broad and specific, that help outline important themes of that time period. Most of the essays were written and researched by the Create Caribbean interns and made available based on topics that would be relevant to primary and secondary school learning. The site also features some creative displays for primary school audiences, and a contribution page where adults who remember their lives in that time can share their own stories. Allowing the interns to have narrative control over their synthesis of their history in the exhibits and their experiences at the archive in the interns’ blog has certainly changed their sense of ownership of their history and their entitlement to national identity. At least in the Create Caribbean classroom, it has de-romanticized the obsession and consumption with African American popular culture, for example, by making clear the proximity of experiences in the Black Atlantic as a whole.

At Create Caribbean Research Institute, I have worked hard to cultivate in the students of our internship program, through their required digital humanities course, and through their active practice of skills on live digital research projects, that it is in the searching for the knowledge we find our gems. The fancy digital tools that help us make our research available to a wider public at little to no cost is merely the service we do for our privilege to participate in the search for various truths about our history and culture. But it isn’t that romantic all the time. The exercises of research that happen at Create Caribbean begin with trips to the Roseau Public Library and the National Archives and Documentation Centre, with the Digital Library of the Caribbean and Internet Archive. They do not begin with Google or Wikipedia. These young college students immediately have a forever-transformed relationship to the depth of their information access, rather than the vast expanse of surface knowledge that they have so far been trained to access. Moreover, acknowledging local knowledge is integral to the mission and values of the research institute.

For me, the potential and power of digital humanities lies in storytelling. The range of tools available to visualize storytelling and to make room for additional forms of analysis was a major appeal for me, especially because digital humanities provided me with ways to merge the theories and methodologies with the imaginative and psychic release of a well-structured story.  I want to discover all the alleys and crevices, the depths of people’s minds and the layers of their rage and solace in the face of life’s harshness and remedies as this nation continues to evolve, implode and regenerate as its nine active volcanoes.

So what does the archive look like? It is me going in search of the authors of the most popular satire column in the country by digitizing that collection in the 1990s, only to end up as the key witness in the only defamation case to date. It is me creating storytime where I introduce my students to the subjects of history before immersing them into the Archives. It is us making do with what we have – finding the best cell phone scanning apps, using all types of hand held devices, Googling “Open Source” everyday to see what’s new that we can actually afford. It is creating a connection to the primary and secondary school communities so that the content we’re creating actually makes it into their classrooms and their supplemental learning. It is me teaching the first Digital Humanities course that I know of, the Eastern Caribbean, having to change its name and format so students and faculty can even understand or find it valuable.

Where do Create Caribbean and I go from here? Well my personal mission is to restore Caribbean – Dominican – intellectual property and local knowledge to the local. This is in ownership of primary sources, labour, strategy and direction of our unearthing our histories and documenting our lived realities.

If you walk along Victoria Street that leads you out of the capital Roseau to the south of the island, you would begin at the traffic circle where a newly restored statue of Neg Mawon has been erected.

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Topography, Topology, Typography: The Library as Place, Text and Tool in Caribbean Digital Research Classrooms https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/topography-topology-typography-the-library-as-place-text-and-tool-in-caribbean-digital-research-classrooms/ https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/topography-topology-typography-the-library-as-place-text-and-tool-in-caribbean-digital-research-classrooms/#respond Sun, 14 Jan 2018 21:38:07 +0000 http://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/?post_type=jetpack-portfolio&p=363 Below is the text of a talk I delivered at the ACURIL Conference in June, 2017. Although I was not able to attend the event in Puerto Rico, I was able to create a screencast and participate live. I’ve included the here as well. 

When I left the United States and an Assistant Professor position to move to Dominica and re-start my life as an independent scholar, I couldn’t yet imagine what form my scholarly work would take but I knew from the summer research experience the year before that the library and archive space would be central to whatever projects or employment opportunities that I would pursue. My research interests focused on reading practices, reception, and the communities created by and through various forms of literary encounters in the Caribbean. I sought out the archives in Dominica as a way to explore how literary and debating societies played a critical role in middle-class social development and their upward mobility. It was through that experience that I began to understand the benefits and the needs of the libraries in the smaller islands of the Eastern Caribbean. I had spent all of my adult life up to that point within college campus environments and always had access to academic libraries. I didn’t understand the idea of access until such time as I completely moved out of the United States and permanently out of a position of “affiliation.”

I have spoken elsewhere, including on dLOC’s webinar series “Caribbean Scholarship in the Digital Age,” about the pleasures and pressures of my journey to founding Create Caribbean Research Institute as an active place of digital humanities work with a focus on preservation of heritage. Central to that journey was the sense that I had the opportunity and right timing to create my own affiliation. Create Caribbean was established on the Dominica State College campus to elevate the place of research in the college’s agenda, to engage students in service learning and innovative experiences with technology, and to pave the way for different research possibilities at the institution.

At Dominica State College, primarily a two-year college with a growing number of four-year programs, disciplinary research methods are treated as advanced skills meant to supplement students’ introduction to research skills acquired in basic composition courses. Such research courses are not offered for all majors but do exist for most humanities and social science programs. As a result, terms like digital humanities would not make their way to academic or popular discourse in Dominica at all. In that context, designing and delivering a digital humanities course (the first course of its kind to be offered in the Eastern Caribbean) revealed a complex web of challenges that I had to navigate to successfully have students re-think their relationship to Dominican and Caribbean history.

The context of the college within the national education context is also significant. Beyond the Associate degree, most students choose to migrate to complete higher education at the Bachelors level and for advanced and professional degrees. This is a practice carried over from the colonial era when even high school education was competitive and extremely selective. As a result, the country has faced significant brain drain over the past forty years and experts suggest that there are Dominicans living in the wider diaspora – especially North America and Europe – of more than twice the current population of the island.

Dominica State College has itself transformed from the colonial and postcolonial models and is now 14 years old in its current structure modeled on North American colleges. Before the community college offered the University of Cambridge Advanced Level examinations, another incredibly selective enterprise. It is against this backdrop and with knowledge of its challenges that I established Create Caribbean Research Institute. Originally the intent was for me have a center where I could create relationships between libraries and archives, local communities and cultural and literary archivists. But with a clearer understanding of the needs of the nation in regard to cultural development and the potential of DSC to play an active role in that development, the College then felt like the right place to engage an accessible audience and to create longevity for the work of Caribbean studies in Dominica.

But the success of Create Caribbean and its partnership with Dominica State College relied on one important task: demystifying the concept of digital humanities. Trying to convince policy makers, educators and artists that digital humanities was indeed a significant field of study that could shape the direction of Caribbean education and cultural practice was difficult because the term itself was too academic and the methodologies were not yet part of academic or popular discourse. I found myself selling the technology and research elements of the work separately, as if their connections were somehow too esoteric for my audience. Well, the use of technology for education gained traction with policy makers interested in improving student engagement with information and communications technologies and the research element won me points with the College and government agencies looking for a think tank. These were motivations for me to continue the groundwork but certainly were distractions from the mission of Create Caribbean, which was to focus on culture, history and heritage. I would eventually have to accommodate a healthy combination of all these elements to move the institute forward and engagement with libraries and librarians certainly made that possible.

I ask my students to think critically about why and how they use or have used any library in the past few years of their academic lives. Although the average age of freshman students is a year or two younger in Dominica than in North American colleges, the students have some academic experience prior to entering college with reports and research papers of some kind. Their use of the library, however, is hardly any less sophisticated than their American counterparts. They know where the library is and that they can use that space to study.

But their interactions with librarians, or with circulation material is almost negligible outside of textbook checkout for specific course work. Even when assignments are tailored within a very limited scope of Dominican or Caribbean topics, the ultimate relationship to research for most students remains the Google web interface. Therefore, it was important to me to design a course that placed history and heritage at the center of their learning while creating connections with the national libraries and archives.

The history of libraries in the Caribbean is important context to understand the unique relationship of the Dominican public to their libraries, and what sets the Dominican students apart from their North American counterparts. Many of the region’s libraries were gifts of the colonial era. For instance, Andrew Carnegie donated the library to Dominica in 1907. The building has changed very little from its original construction as in the picture you just saw. Even Jamaica Kincaid describes the artifact and artifice that characterize libraries of the region, as they engender nostalgia and reverence for the material objects of knowledge rather than the production and dissemination of knowledge itself. Further, the scarcity of academic libraries in the region and the inadequacy of research resources in college libraries in the contemporary Caribbean reveal the relegation of knowledge production (as opposed to acquisition) in nation building of small island states.

With this history in mind, I proposed and designed the Digital humanities course for the college general education curriculum after working for about a year with a small student research team at Create Caribbean on digital research projects that would make visible for the college and wider community the expected outcomes of such a course.

With a small group of student interns at Create Caribbean, I initiated a number of digital research projects that would be made public and would put the research institute on the national map. We did encounter some challenges including the bureaucracy of the library and information service, especially at the time of a change in management and the resistance among Archive and Special Collections staff to have students interact with archival material.

I worked hard to build relationships with the library staff and management and with the projects we designed squarely focused on Dominica, we were able to capitalize on primary source material at the National Archives. The result was a number of successful projects including a partnership with the Division of Culture for a Dominica History Web Resource series for the country’s annual History Week taking place during Independence.

I capitalized on that success and designed and proposed the digital humanities course for the College’s General Education curriculum. It was the first of its kind to be offered in the English-speaking Caribbean and although, we met with some resistance it has been largely successful. This past semester was my 5th time teaching the course, which I began in September 2014. The capstone digital research project has taken many forms including individual projects, small group projects and a single collaborative project for the entire group. This last model worked well with the first full cohort of Create Caribbean interns to take the course as a requirement for the Institute internship program.

So what happens in the digital humanities classroom in Dominica that brings together the formal conventions of academic research, the use of libraries and the formation of knowledge about the region by late adolescents? It begins really with the personal engagement with place. One of the methods that has been really effective in teaching the course is the reminder to students that they indeed are Dominican and that local knowledge about their homeland is vital to their academic and professional success.

It also begins with an acknowledgement as a classroom of learners that it is indeed easier, if not just less laborious, to find information about foreign lands than it is to find about their home. Much of this realization in grounded in conversations in the first unit of the course when we discuss the advancements made in technology and the digital age, while acknowledging the ways in which parts of the world are excluded or disproportionately impacted by these technological advances. For instance, they must face the reality that there is still a significant digital divide in the country with about 40% of the population remaining without internet broadband access, even when mobile penetration surpasses 100%. Moreover, the students take special issue with the difficulty they face in accessing academic material – in print, at low cost and with little restrictions. The debate over the nobility of piracy, including what they view as “Robin Hood” access to information becomes critical to the theoretical discussions about open source and open access that form the earlier units of the digital humanities course.

In this digital humanities course and in other practice-based research exercises with Dominica State College students, positioning libraries, archives and special collections as a symbiotic triad of place, resource and primary text presents an opportunity to remind students of their Dominican-ness and their Caribbean-ness amidst technological persuasions that make them feel more connected to neoliberal capitalist material of popular culture via social media. Creating an analogy between the geography of Dominica and the experience of navigating archival research allowed students to physically and psychically occupy physical and historical spaces from which they had felt disconnected.

The students’ explorations of libraries, in person and online, or their visits to archives, museums and special collections bring to life the intersection of academic and archival research, Caribbean social and cultural practices and the influence of slavery and colonialism on literacy, teaching and learning, and knowledge production in the Caribbean. Even when their encounter with their local knowledges happen through digital platforms like DLOC, they are uniquely aware of the significance of that historical preservation, and even more importantly, the significance of the visibility of Dominica and Dominicans in the vast Internet space. Through Create Caribbean’s collaboration with other literary and cultural units of national importance, there is a growing relationship between the Research Institute and the Library Service.

Students then share their experiences with navigating the archives and building relationships with the historical record within and outside of that space through their weekly blog entries. For this exercise, we use the Tumblr platform, whose revolving door format allows the students to comment and share in a way that extends the reach of their writing beyond the classroom group and creates additional visibility for Dominica and its rich history and heritage.

The work of building a digital research project in this course indeed mirrors the concepts and terminologies of the library system and further works to connect the students to the process of making history, not just encountering historical artifacts. Their own attempts to curate, digitize and create exhibits of their primary sources on the Omeka software platform requires the discipline, care and attention to audience they see in the work ethic of the librarians they encounter as they conduct their research. Students have to be metacognitive about organizational choices, audience and possible setbacks in the process of preserving their nation’s history.

Through the analysis of pedagogy applied in the Dominica State College Digital Humanities Research course and the project management practices of Create Caribbean Research Institute, I have offered in this presentation a model and methodology for the use of digital spaces and tools to perform critical inquiries of Caribbean history and society. The outcomes of this model include the increased value of local and indigenous knowledge to scholars and students in the region, an increase among students in civic engagement of local and regional politics and policies, and the intellectual and sociological transformation of the Caribbean humanities classroom. Moreover, I hope that my experiences in building a platform for the digital humanities will resonate with other scholar-teachers and result in both popularity and diversity of digital humanities pedagogy and praxis in the region, with the focus in building up rather than setting aside the fortresses of knowledge that are the region’s libraries and archives.

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Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s The Orchid House: returning home to a new generation https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/phyllis-shand-allfreys-the-orchid-house-returning-home-to-a-new-generation/ https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/phyllis-shand-allfreys-the-orchid-house-returning-home-to-a-new-generation/#respond Fri, 22 Apr 2016 18:41:05 +0000 http://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/?post_type=jetpack-portfolio&p=213 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 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.

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Literary Festivals https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/literary-festivals/ https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/literary-festivals/#respond Tue, 29 Mar 2016 00:52:56 +0000 http://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/?post_type=jetpack-portfolio&p=198 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.

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This Thing Called Culture https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/this-thing-called-culture/ https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/this-thing-called-culture/#respond Tue, 29 Mar 2016 00:51:38 +0000 http://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/?post_type=jetpack-portfolio&p=197 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

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The Future(s) of Caribbean Reading https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/the-futures-of-caribbean-reading/ https://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/portfolio/the-futures-of-caribbean-reading/#respond Tue, 29 Mar 2016 00:50:22 +0000 http://schuyleresprit.com/esprit/?post_type=jetpack-portfolio&p=196 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.

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