Monday, November 21, 2016

2016 Nobel Prize for Literature

The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature

Dylwho! I exclaimed, when I heard of the selection a few days after the announcement. I realized to my astonishment that this might well have sounded like an Anglicized Indian name. I Might well have said Dilhu, or Dylwho, Suru, Lalloo, Lallu, I am of Indian ancestry, after all. The 2016 Nobel Prize for literature emphasizes, yet again, how crazy and biased judges of literary prizes are. Awarding the Nobel Prize to a singer-songwriter for “poetry” – someone who would probably not even qualify to get into the starting blocks for poetry - shows that the 2016 Nobel Committee has gone off the deep end—to reverse IKEA’s slogan, definitely not Swedish for common sense. Soyinka notes:“Since I’ve written quite a number of songs for my plays, I would like to be nominated for a Grammy.” One can understand the desire to push the boundaries of what is acceptable as “Great Literature,” or even “literature.” But to use the prize, any prize, as a medium for literary and social activism is....not new, or unusual. We circle back to that old, old-boys-old-girls network of friends supporting friends, and that often discussed ideal that for literary prizes to have any meaning judging should be based on work judges read without knowing who the writers are. Any judging where the judges know the work and the writer is already deeply flawed and biased. This includes all the major literary awards: the Neustadt, the Pulitzer, the Scotiabank Giller, the Governor General, the Man Booker, the Commonwealth etc. We didn’t even look at the diabolical cycle of judges who become winners who become judges selecting winners who were judges who selected them as winners, or who they hope will select them in turn when they become judges. Confusing, senseless? Yes: Dylwho, Dilhu, Suru, Duru, Lalloo, Lallu, the 2016 Nobel and prizes and why we vie for them. Ha ha ha!               

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Shivnarine Chanderpaul - WI Great

Shivnarine Chanderpaul, one of the greatest contemporary cricketers and batsman the game has seen, recently announced his retirement from the game. His accomplishments are many, his genius singular. Perhaps, if not for a bit of politics, Shiv, still at the peak of his game would have become the Caribbean batsman with the most Test runs. The West Indies selectors, ignominiously, looked the other way in the last year - maybe, more than politics at play. Yet being just short of that achievable landmark is in itself a testimony to his greatness and genius. We are told, by those whose knowledge of the game of cricket surpasses mine, that his two-eyed, front-on stance "has been the greatest technical advancement in cricket so far in the 21st century" (Kartikeya Date on ESPN), that greatness is not only in the numbers. This is for you Sir Geoffrey, and the rest of the English commentators. And yet, Tiger, as he is also known, has the numbers and West Indies and World batting records that many would envy. Here are a few in Test cricket:

  • The most unbeaten 50s twice in a match - in the world
  • The most consecutive 50s (tied with 7 others) - in the world 
  • The most Test 100s by any batsman in the world, scored in the Caribbean
  • The most Test matches played for the West Indies
  • The most 50s (and over) for the West Indies

There are others, I am sure. Keep on Keeping on Tiger! 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Give the Ball to the Poet - Racism in Caribbean Literature?

Give the Ball to the Poet; A New Anthology of Caribbean Poetry

If anyone has any doubt that the literature of the English speaking Caribbean still reflects the, almost, endemic partiality – if not the racism - of the Caribbean and the continued projection of the Caribbean as a place of Afro culture, this latest anthology of Caribbean Poetry should dispel this. Perhaps, the critics and the professors of West Indian Literature, attempting to conceal these biases and would cry, “hypersensitivity to perceived slights.” This anthology demonstrates, yet again, how real this bias is.

Almost three decades ago, this bias was highlighted in the Caribbean poetry anthologies of the time. Voiceprint comes readily to mind. Poetry Review in London was gracious enough to publish my piece pointing out this bias in the anthologies of that time as it related to the English speaking Caribbean. There seemed to be an abeyance and correction of sorts. The operative word here is seemed. Many still remember Viv Richards’ 1990 statement – a racist one many contend - when he was captain of the West Indies cricket team, that the West Indies was the only “sporting team of African descent” able to win against all international teams. Such a statement by the white captain of any US sporting team would likely see riots in the US, and certainly the resignation, or removal of such a person from the captaincy of such a team – witness the recent resignation of both President and Chancellor of the University of Missouri. And there is the current controversy in regard to the lack of Afro-American diversity in the Academy Awards – forget Asians, or Asian-Americans, who don’t take to the streets, or rock the boat. In total disregard for the Indians and all other ethnic groups of the West Indies, Richards was allowed to continue as captain. He was even subsequently knighted by the British. A knighthood that never should have happened; perhaps, a knighthood that should be revoked pending an unambiguous apology from Richards. None was ever offered, as far as I am aware. But who has ever heard of a knighthood being revoked, even of rogues and slave traders such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake. 
Why is this relevant? A number of British and Anglo-American critics, academics, editors and publishers, who have, by and large, influenced and published most of the major literary anthologies of the English-speaking Caribbean, have been, and continue to be, collaborators in dissing the Indians, and persons of other ethnic backgrounds, of the region. There have been exceptions such as Crossing Water (1992), edited by Anthony Kellman. Perhaps, it is pertinent to note that for the purposes of this piece, the English-speaking Caribbean is used interchangeably with English-speaking West Indies, or simply West Indies, or Caribbean, and includes Guyana. This former British colony, which is in South America, is not quite an “island” in that section of the Atlantic Ocean between North and South America sometimes called the West Indian – or is that Caribbean? – Sea. And, of course, the very title of this anthology echoes one of the things which binds the West Indies: cricket. A cricket analogy is, also, relevant.

Let us look at the facts of this anthology. Give the Ball to the Poet, which is published by Commonwealth Education Trust Books, is a collaboration of the University of Cambridge and the University of the West Indies. The anthology has three editors: two from the University of Cambridge and one from the University of the West Indies and includes fine illustrations by Jane Ray. Every poem is accompanied by a colour illustration/painting. Perhaps, some these illustrations could have been done by several of the fine painters from the region; Stanley Graves, Bernadette Persaud, Suresh Hanoman to name a few. There are ninety (90) poems in this anthology. Only three (3) are by Indian poets – four if we count one poet, who is of mixed parentage. If we exclude my poem (included almost at the last moment – a note on this later) and giving the editors the benefit of the doubt (and assuming that the other two poets were not, also, included at the last moment as a result of my response on the composition of the project) – then this might well have been two (2) poems out of ninety (90). Perhaps, it is mere coincidence that of these 2 poets, one is also known for his prose works on Blacks in the UK and the slave trade; the other (deceased) known for her collaboration with the repressive, illegal, and (to be mild) Afro-centric regime that ruled Guyana with an iron fist for the first 26 years in the post-independence period, with the tacit approval of the rest of the Caribbean, until the first free and fair elections in 1992.
Three poems by Indians out of ninety! Let me add a clarification that I would not want to be included in any anthology solely because of my Indian ancestry. Nor am I advocating that anthologies have ethnic, gender, religious, or geographic considerations as criteria unless the anthology is ethnic, gender, or, as in this instance, geographic specific; even so, if there is any one overriding qualification for selection, it should be for those subjective things we call craft and artistry and passion and appeal. Within such parameters, anthologists have an obligation to make selections that reflect the diversity of fine voices – especially in the West Indies, where Indians have historically been marginalized and disenfranchised, and especially when such an anthology is being used in schools to represent the poetry of the region.

The facts of this anthology again: Three (3) poems by three (3) Indian poets out of 90. Not a single one (do we ever need redundancy!) of these three Indian poets have more than a single selection. By contrast, a staggering sixteen (16) of the other poets have more than one selection; of these sixteen, there are four (4), who are represented with five (5) selections each (super poets, these are not – and, as if to underscore this, neither Derek Walcott, nor Martin Carter – our greatest poets - are in this group); one (1) poet has four (4) poems; eight (8) poets have three (3) poems and two (2) poets have two (2) poems each.

Fifty-four (54) poems, more than half in the volume, by sixteen (16) poets, with only three (3) Indian poets included, and several other fine non-Indian poets excluded, is inexcusable. The exclusion of Cyril Dabydeen, who - like myself - has published more than eight (8) poetry collections primarily with the two most important and established publishers of West Indian poetry in the World (TSAR/Mawenzi in Toronto and Peepal Tree in Leeds – “Home of the best in Caribbean and Black British Writing”!) is incomprehensible. Cyril Dabydeen has received awards – like myself – for his poetry. He has also received the Guyana Prize for Literature; granted that this prize - like most literary prizes - is a corrupt, self-serving and incestuous one, with judges who become entrants/winners, then judges again, then entrants/winners again, then judges again should be abolished and reorganized, as should its Caribbean Award – why should Guyana alone bear the entire Caribbean on its destitute shoulders – and the Committee dissolved and reconstituted in a diversity that reflects Guyana (a la the current Academy Awards diversity). After almost 30 years, in a country where people of Indian ancestry form the largest ethnic group, the Guyana Prize Committee has yet to have an Indian secretary, or Chair. But more on this subsequently.

Of West Indian poets writing today, there can be no question that Cyril and myself are among the major and preeminent poets from the region - and I didn’t say among Indian poets. Invoking Richards again, who has noted that there wasn’t a bowler that he could not face – a batsman with supreme confidence in himself! This does not mean that Richards did not play his share of injudicious strokes and did not have his share of bad scores and, yes, ducks in international cricket and Test matches. I have noted elsewhere; there is no poet writing in the English language who is better than I am. I didn’t say I am better than anyone else. This does not mean that there has not been injudicious and even, like Richards, ducks along the way - the same as with any great and prolific artist. I suspect, it is the same with Cyril’s work.

Let us look at the facts of this anthology from another angle. There are forty-two (42) poems in this anthology by Jamaican poets – almost half the anthology – perpetuating yet another fallacy of the region and its culture. Many outside the Caribbean tend to equate Jamaica, and more specifically Afro-Jamaica and Afro-Jamaican culture as the Caribbean. That Afro-Jamaicans have been among the most aggressive of West Indians and in promoting themselves have, no doubt, contributed; this is also apparent in this anthology. The West Indian editor of this anthology is based at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.

Perhaps, I should consider myself lucky to be included in Give the Ball to the Poet and just be quiet! To be fair, the Chair of the project, the Caribbean Poetry Project (CPP) sought a last minute accommodation. It is easy to forget that only by chance in January 2013, an acquaintance who heard of the Caribbean Poetry Project (CPP) sent me a note asking why I was not a part of this project and why no Indian poet from the Caribbean was involved in this project. One of the odd things regarding the advisors of the CPP was that three of the seven advisors (all West Indian writers) know of me, have met me, and are aware of my work. I am sure they also know Cyril and/or his work. Was it a coincidence that these three writers/advisors are Jamaican? Another advisor was a poet of African ancestry born in Guyana. There could be, can be, no excuse for the almost total absence of Indo-Caribbean participation in this project.

In May of 2013, a note, with a link to a Stabroek News article that the project was in Guyana and Guyana was to benefit from this project found its way into my inbox. The 10 facilitators of the project in Guyana included the following: “Dr Jennifer Obidah, Director School of Education, UWI Cave Hill; Professor Morag Styles, Chair of Caribbean Poetry Project, Cambridge University; Dr Georgina Howell, Cambridge University; Professor Mark McWatt, Poet/Facilitator; John Agard, Poet; Grace Nichols, Poet; Esther Phillips, Poet/Facilitator; Sam Soyer, Facilitator; Dr Sandra Robinson, Coordinator, Caribbean Poetry project, UWI Cave Hill and Gina Burnham, Project Research Assistant.”

There is no Indian name among these ten persons. But then, Indians have been known to anglicize their names, or have had their names anglicized during colonialism. The three Guyanese poets/facilitators on the team being Agard, Nichols, and McWatt. Perhaps, a coincidence that this last was the chief judge in the Guyana Prize concluded two months ago in which my poetry collection, and Cyril’s, were shortlisted. These three poets (none Indian) read from their work during this trip to Guyana. What is wrong with this picture? People of Indian ancestry still constitute the largest ethnic group in Guyana (and Trinidad). We don’t forget and yet we do forget to “let trifles got to trifleland”* All of this is almost as three decades ago.
We retreat to our quiet corners. Who amplifies thoughts of the unvoiced? It is said that no one should take anything for granted. No one should feel entitled – except, perhaps, the entitled who say: no one should feel entitled! You give the ball to the poet; he opts for the bat. That this anthology originated out of the Caribbean Poetry Project at the University of Cambridge in conjunction with the University of the West Indies with the aim of fostering the teaching of Caribbean poetry in the UK and the West Indies is laudable. But teaching and perpetuating the same old biases of what is the West Indies, and who is the West Indies, most certainly, isn’t.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

South Asian Ensemble - Vol 7

Cover painting by Jarnail Singh

With the proliferation of web-based and Internet publishing, the publication of any print journal is cause for celebration. When such a print journal is a Canadian literary journal with a focus on writing from India and South Asia and their related, recent and not so recent, Diasporas, this is doubly cause for celebration. The Winter/Spring double issue of South Asian Ensemble (SAE) is into its seventh volume. The appearance of the seventh volume of this journal is something of a miracle and no praise can be enough for its editors, Gurdev Chauhan (based in Canada) and Rajesh Sharma (based in India). With the demise of the Toronto South Asian Review (in its last years, The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad – quite a mouthful) more than a decade ago, the importance of SAE cannot be overstated. South Asian Ensemble is the only literary print journal in Canada, the USA and the UK with a focus on the work of Indians and South Asians.
Cover painting by Jarnail Singh

The latest issue arrived in the mail on the cusp of summer and it has graced every table in my home: my nightstands, side tables, kitchen table, computer desks, patio table, and even my sofa, and several chairs. And there is no more apt word that graced. This is an elegant volume front and back: two gorgeous, brilliant paintings of two women by Jarnail Singh from his series on women of Punjab. Jarnail’s genius is evident. Who is this artist, who are these women? It was as if the editors anticipated these questions. This volume includes an interview by Ajmer Rode with the artist. Jarnail Singh, who has exhibited his art in several cities in India and Canada and has received multiple awards, is based in British Columbia. He says that his art is “realism with a touch of idealism” and the women he painted were not models, but women and girls who posed for him out of respect for his art, “some of the most beautiful women” he has met. Almost, if not, all we do is a matter of choice. Jarnail answers the criticisms that his paintings do not deal with the squalor and dirt and ugliness in Indian villages with: “I want to paint the beauty of life, not its ugly side.” Jarnail makes no apologies for his obsession with Punjabi life in his art.

By contrast, Jaspreet Singh’s essay on his 1984 experiences in India deals with the bitter and the ugly: the radicalism and terrorism of Sikh separatists in the early 1980s resulting in the Indian army storming Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, to flush out armed militants; the murder/assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards and the ensuing anti-Sikh violence in Delhi following the killing of the Indian Prime Minister. In hindsight, it seems that a better way might have been for the army to surround, cut off, isolate and starve the militants into surrender etc. But this would have been no easy decision for any government in any part of the world, given a similar situation and faced with, as Naipaul might have put this, “A Million Mutinies.” What is striking about this piece is the raw emotion and bitterness, “when one walks in the Indian capital one actually walks on the ashes of Sikh citizens who perished some thirty years ago.” One is tempted to ask, what about the ashes of millions all over India who perished in 1500 years of brutal Muslim “pogroms” in India, which gave rise to Sikhism itself, or the continuing theft and appropriation of several Indian/Hindu historical buildings including the Tejo Mahalya (Taj Mahal). History is one-eyed. One of the striking things to an “outsider” reading this piece was this: How could Indira Gandhi be so stupid, or guilt-ridden-death-seeking, or naive, or some combination of these, to keep her Sikh bodyguards after invading Sikhism holiest shrine? Regardless of what one thinks of her, if there is one redeeming action in all of her reign, it must be this act of retaining her Sikh bodyguards - ultimately being murdered by them.

There are other questions: can any examination of the events of 1984 by a Canadian of Sikh/Indian origin exclude the resultant bombing of Air India Flight 182, originating in Canada, in 1985 in which all passengers and crew, 329 people, were killed by Sikhs, some still free, even celebrated in sections of the Indo-Canadian community? If Jaspreet’s intention in the piece in this issue is to break the silence on this period, perhaps, he has succeeded. And, so has SAE in fostering, like any good journal, discussion on hidden subjects. 

As has become usual for SAE, this volume abounds in translations: ghazals of Nazir Kazmi – a reminder that that which may make for good song does not necessarily make for good poetry, that axiom that poetry bound by form, meter and rhyme will produce inflated, bombastic, and fatuous lines; prose poetry by John Bandi – which begs the eternal question, what determines this art form, substance or style, or both, and what exactly is prose poetry; the poems of Harkirat Heer translated by Gurdev Chauhan are terse, pithy as in ‘Language of the Eyes’ and in ‘Suicide’ a wonderful, double edged poem and ‘Woman’ – all of her poems make us pause, and reflect in the way that fine poems make readers do; one poem from Usha Kishore, ‘Immigrant’ is especially poignant  - “I fly with monsoon skin that thunders in an alien sky”; short conversational poems by Ruth Vanita – ‘April Surprise’ beginning, “April will surprise you yet, she said”, taunting the reader; Fauzia Rafique’s pieces are polemic and stop just short of being rants – a difficult balance; Sukhpal’s poems translated by Chauhan add to the richness of this volume; Deepti Zutshi’s two pieces again returns the question of what makes a poem and are not without light touches on what could be a deadly subject  – the Indian state of Kashmir “that place to which I owe my notoriously long nose, / My complexion, my light eyes...”; from Kavita Jindal poems on women’s rights, again not quite rants; Zohra Zoberi’s last line haunts – “A mother delivers a child twice”; Gurdev Chauhan has a sequence of Village Poems with memorable lines, “The village now monkeys the city / and forgets its own walk” – the poem titled ‘6’ in particular a very evocative piece on the village; in Harminder Dhillon’s poem one can almost hear an Indian train, see the garbage, graffiti, junk along the tracks; with Diditi Mitra there is a pivot, a change in the tempo, the wonderful repetitions of taal, music/kathak in ‘Come Looking for Me’ overdone and losing its energy by the time we get to ‘Miniature Dreams’ – but a taut, fine piece called ‘Mourning’ making me stop and finding a poem also titled ‘Mourning’ and also consisting of five lines in my 2008 collection, In a Boston Night;  Swaran J. Owcawr’s fine translations of Bhupinder Preet’s poems each containing a little twist in the last lines – enough cannot be said about how translations sets this journal apart from literary journals; Papiya Lahiri’s “Changing times—dropping fast and steady / Like sand from a tight fist of a powerful man” reminds of the pleasures of simile – and you read it again; Rati Saxena, a translator herself, is translated by Seth Michelson  - her piece than stands out is ‘Before Leaving’, a haunting poem on farewell and, perhaps, that final farewell; Manmohan’s pieces seem uninspiring at first, but invites readings and re-readings; Pooja Miglani Arora’s poems – “There is a space of no sounds..” - end almost 100 pages of poetry in this journal. We have read every piece. 

It is not enough. The prose section that follows is as varied as the poetry. Enough said about the first piece, Jaspreet Singh’s 1984 already. M.L. Raina’s essay, ‘Literature and the Sacred’ based on observations at Kashmir University in 2014 is wide ranging and a piece that is intriguing in its lamentation, with possible causes, of the loss of the sacred in the arts. Poets and fiction writers alike may be well served by these observations: self-reflective, self-absorbed, deconstructionist postulations – can one call such art? – is the bane of visionary work. By contrast, Saitya Brata Das’ essay in celebration of Professor Harjeet Singh Gill’s 80th birthday – one of the highlights of this volume – is a piece that sings, and at the same time, is a profound tribute to language and art; the trembling and palpation of the heart, of life, of existence being found in the finest poetry. 

Rajesh Sharma writes on John Siddique’s Sohni Mahiwal and his meeting with Siddique, and Anoop K Babra’s ‘Parallel Journey’ on British Columbia’s majestic landscape and mountains are listed as essays – both are relatively short and defy neat categorization.      

Zubair Ahmed’s ‘Dead Man’s Float’ translated with Anne Murphy is a haunting piece - if the reader suspends a sense of reality - of fiction in every sense of the word, as are Angelee Deodhar’s ‘Coriander’ and Subhash Chandra’s ‘Naga Baba.’ 

To complete this volume, there are reviews by Cyril Dabydeen and Gurdev Chauhan. Dabydeen’s review of a book with the word “coolie” in the title has been the cause of strong views in the oldest Indian diaspora – that resulting from the period known as Indentureship to Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, the West Indies and Guyana in South America. That there was a conference at the University of London last month on the usage of the word is a clear indication that, like the N-word, the time has come to relegate the C-word to the dustbins of history – where it belongs. During the colonial and early postcolonial period, the term “coolie” was an epithet of the deepest derogation – something I remember, know, and felt as a boy and teenager. That the term has gained some currency in the offspring of that earliest diaspora (migrating yet again), who were born, educated and/or raised in North America and the UK/Europe is due to ignorance, sloppy research, and an obscene disregard for - as the late Trinidadian novelist, Ismith Khan, would have put this - “the hell our people went through.”

Chauhan’s review, the last piece in this volume, is of my latest collection, Love in a Time of Technology – which was just shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature.

We have come to the end of this volume. But we are not finished. One of the great things, the great advantage of a print volume, is that once you shut down the computer, or e-reader, the volume is still there; the light doesn’t go out; the page doesn’t go opaque and blank. We end then, with that with which we started, the paintings of Jarnail Singh on front and back covers and the two women – or is she one differently – two slivers of genius, and the woman with ‘The New Necklace’, more beautiful than the Mona Lisa, and as intriguing; Who was she, who is she remaining, unmoved on my desk.