Adventures of a Bocas Blogger 2018 (2): Barbara Lalla

The 2nd floor seminar room of the National Library was filled on the fourth day of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest as everyone anticipated the discussion between Barbara Lalla and Shivanee Ramlochan. It began with a reading from Lalla’s latest book Grounds for Tenure  which was short yet captivating. The university setting within the book led to the question of balancing working in academia and to what extent it influenced the characters in the book. Interestingly, Lalla found it amusing that people often mistook fictional characters for her colleagues. However, Lalla did confess that naturally her experience has greatly influenced and enriched her writing. She also stated that the novel was not exclusively for academics but could be enjoyed by anyone.

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Shivannee Ramlochan (left) and Barbara Lalla (right)

On the heels of this observation, Shivanee mentioned that indeed it was a reader’s novel and commented, “Reading is not just a hobby but an escape.” It seemed that this was no secret even for a then young Lalla who recalled crying because everyone else in her family borrowed a book from the library but she couldn’t as she was too young and couldn’t read. It is evident that Lalla’s literary environment growing up has helped to shape her into the beloved lecture and successful writer she has become. It’s certainly not an easy feat but one which she appears to bear with joy and great humility. I wondered for a moment what it would have been like to do one of her courses while studying at the UWI, St. Augustine campus.

Speaking of her experience in teaching at the UWI, St Augustine, Lalla mentioned that she was always interested in straddling language and literature and couldn’t see herself choosing just one. She added that coupled with the necessary research, writing is a way to better understand oneself as well as the world.  This is especially true for someone who has benefited from a mixed literary landscape having grown up in Jamaica and later settled in Trinidad.

A question and answer segment followed and initially highlighted the thought on everyone’s mind of the need to address evident problems within the university. Lalla responded with the tenderness and truthfulness of one who had been asked many times when she said, “You can love something and out of that love still find flaws.” This was not the answer I expected but being a past student myself, it surely was one that made me rethink my sometimes critical attitude towards the university. Lalla stated two main points, that the university ought to finesse the treatment of the graduate staff and that more help should be given to the powerless group of part time staff.

Mention was also made of Lalla’s wittingly satirical manner of writing which she attributed partly to her interaction with her fellow academics who, “use words wisely to be comforting, humourous and even brutal.” She added that her interactions with students are also useful saying, “There are those who are bright, those who are bright and don’t know it and those who are just crazy bright.” She joked that the latter provided the most stimulating exchanges. Having a few spare minutes, the discussion ended with another excerpt from Grounds for Tenure, much to the delight of the audience.

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Adventures of a Bocas Blogger 2018 (1): Romesh Guneskera

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Susheila Nasta leading the discussion with Romesh Gunesekera.

The One on One with Romesh Gunesekera, renowned Sri Lankan writer, took place at 10 am at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest while the minds of the audience were fresh and ready for another day in the festival of ideas. This writer, the first Sri Lankan in the history of Bocas, tied together the highlights of his writings and created unique links to the Caribbean.  He spoke of his acclaimed novel, The Reef and the idea that just as an island has many places contained in one so too is a book one collection of many ideas. Through the power relationship between the bachelor and his servant in the novel, themes such as balance and dependency were used to mirror the political situation in Sri Lanka in the late 1900s.

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Romesh Gunesekera reads an excerpt from The Reef

Gunesekera joked that he always liked writing about topics which did not require much research and admitted that at the time of writing the novel he had never seen a reef but did ample research. For me, this solidified the idea that oftentimes writers step outside themselves to be the voice that society needs to hear and the medium to articulate what may otherwise be left unspoken. It is not hypocrisy but a literary skill to be praised.

He also spoke briefly of his novel, The Prisoner of Paradise. He chuckled while saying that he intended for it to have a happy ending but instead it turned out to be a mixture of tragedy, love and comedy. As he moved on to talk about The Match , the session began to resemble the quintessential plot with this novel being the climax. Gunesekera described how the spectacle and performance of a game of cricket was metaphorically important in demonstrating the violent nature of humans during the Sri Lankan civil war. He stated that in understanding that, we will recognise why the world is the way that it is. It is a book which many can appreciate both for its denotative and connotative meaning given our love for cricket in the Caribbean.

The denouement involved a discussion of his most recent work in the post war context. Writing had become extremely difficult for various reasons which Gunesekera summed up by stating, “There was a sense of required silence.” He mentioned that people didn’t want to or didn’t know how to speak of the war. The room was still as everyone seemed to recall an instance during which that phrase was undeniably true. Nonetheless, we do anticipate that this silence may be the calm before the storm of even greater works from this talented writer.

 

When Disaster Strikes

The disaster preparedness panel was hugely anticipated in light of recent hurricanes that ravaged parts of the Caribbean. The panel of specialised professionals, was able to offer a wide range of perspectives on the central focus of the panel, disaster readiness. The panellists were Akil Nancoo, experienced meteorologist working with the Trinidad and Tobago Meteorological Service; Jerry David, Disaster Management Coordinator of the Diego Martin Regional Corporation; Professor Richard Robertson, geologist and volcanologist at the Seismic Unit; Shelly Bradshaw, Mitigation Manager at the Office of Disaster Preparedness Management (ODPM); and Crystal Fortwangler, visiting filmmaker and director of It Ain’t Easy Being Green (also screened at this year’s Green Screen festival).

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The discussion began after a series of jaw-dropping pictures showing the effects of heavy rainfall and flooding in Trinidad and Tobago. Mr David gave the historical context and insight into how development, particularly in the Diego Martin region, has led to improper land use, the negative impact of which we see and feel today.  He highlighted that while the Diego Martin Regional Corporation insists on training residents to respond in times of disaster, many in the community do not take advantage of such opportunities.

Ms Fortwangler’s background in environmental anthropology and environmental justice led her to support Mr David’s initiatives to ensure that residents are well prepared and able to assist in times of need.  She spoke briefly of the issue of social justice following a natural disaster by stating, “Who is giving the money and the resources and what are the consequences of this deal? There is a social impact due to this vulnerability.” This drove home the point that, as small islands, we must carefully consider our allies, and the terms of our alliances, since the help required after a major disaster tends to leave us bound to our financiers.

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Given the population’s negative view of the ODPM in recent times, Ms Bradshaw started by explaining that the ODPM is a coordinating entity and is not the organisation to offer all the assistance in the event of a natural disaster. She identified the organisation’s lack of resources and, like most of the other panellists, citizens’ complacent attitude as major challenges. In my opinion, the role of the ODPM was well explained but remained unclear and conflicting when compared to what actually happens. I was hoping for a much deeper discussion in this regard.

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Robertson provided a different perspective when he stated that the phrase ‘natural disaster’ should be interchanged with ‘natural phenomenon’. He specified that they occur regardless of what we do and believes we should do all we can to sensitise the public on their human and environmental impact in order to reduce the damage when they do happen. It was worrying to be reminded that preparation for a natural disaster must take place many months in advance, for while newer buildings are made to withstand earthquakes and proper drainage is constructed in newer communities, it is clear that much of our current infrastructure requires upgrading.

The comments on inadequate infrastructure, lack of resources and a complacent population were enough to prove that we are not ready for natural disasters. Using a brochure on disaster preparedness distributed by the ODPM, Mr David asked the audience if we had enough drinking water stored and had placed important documents in secure packaging. The tone of the murmurs coming from the audience suggested that many of us were not prepared. He then summed up the discussion of the panel when he stated, “Don’t ask if Trinidad is ready. Ask if you are ready.”

Spelling duz nut matter… part for (4)

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Well, who could dare laugh at a pun more than me? I am all for creativity and playing on words so you had me at ‘ Trini flava’, you know….. flavour —> flava (flav).

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However, allow your eyes to drift a bit further and you stumble upon the confusing ‘Savory Tambran Glaze’. Let’s take it word by word. I know that ‘savory’ is the American spelling of the word ‘savoury’ and I am aware that we all still get confused with the American vs. British spelling at times but how you gone be talking about Trini flava and hit me with American spelling? Or perhaps you are referring to the other meaning of the word savory stated here in the Oxford dictionary. I doubt it.

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Maybe tambran is the variation of Raisin Bran made with tam that never caught on or maybe it’s one of those weird made up words that some celebrity will joyfully bestow on their newborn under the guise of ‘ first name’. So what’s tambran? Well that will really have to be ‘tamarind’ which to be honest is yet another example of the fact that the English language has many words which are not pronounced as they are spelled or maybe we as Trinidadians are pronouncing it incorrectly which is also very likely. Feel free to torture yourself with a few courses in Linguistics to delve into the intricacies of this phenomenon or just have a great time researching it on Google.

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But let’s be honest, while that piping hot barra makes it way to your expectant lips, as you bite into a soft aloo pie, when you stare in delight at the seasoned pholourie you get at the Farmer’s Market, Santa Cruz and WHEN you wait for an eternity and a half in a line on Maracas beach and finally sink your teeth into a hefty bake and shark (*catfish) trust me when I say that the last thing on your mind is the spelling of that brown fruit used to make that ‘bess sauce’. If versatile is a word that can be used to describe fruit then it definitely hits the nail on the head when it comes to tamarind.

I know I said word by word but we’ll let the word ‘glaze’ slide for now although we’d much prefer the all encompassing term ‘sauce’ as we know that a true true Trini loves all types of sauces…garlic sauce,pepper sauce, bbq sauce (or should I say babecue: see related post) and the classic ‘fling-in-a-bit-of-everything-in-the-fridge-and-some-herbs’ sauce. All things considered, we allow intentional spelling ‘errors’ which are really a play on words to achieve some greater goal whether it’s to make a joke or encourage creative advertising and branding. In these cases the correct dictionary approved spelling of the word does not matter but please, some are really just errors that ought to be corrected.

Anyway, gotta go! There’s a doubles with slight, laced with a savory tambran glaze that has my name on it.

Adventures of a Youth Blogger (2): Dr. Keith Rowley

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On the 27th April, 2017 I attended a One on One discussion with the Honourable Dr. Keith Rowley on his memoir From Mason Hall to Whitehall. He was interviewed by the Bocas Deputy Festival director Mr. Funso Aiyejina who clearly stated that it was an opportunity to see Mr. Rowley in a personal rather than a political light. Surprisingly, it was not the usual story of a beam of inspiration and burning desire to put pen to paper which led Mr. Rowley to write his book. It came about as a positive response to an unfortunate circumstance.

The publicity that came along with his involvement in the General Elections of 2015 meant that he was interviewed regularly. On one occasion, he was subsequently described as having a middle class upbringing which he stated was not true. It dawned on him that many people, including his family, did not know enough about him outside of the political arena. It was then that he decided to write From Mason Hall to Whitehall to fill those gaps

He read from the chapter entitled ‘My Common Entrance Near Miss’ where we were able to gain insight into his difficulty in reaching to a point of eventually being able to do the Common Entrance examination.  He described this great stroke of luck as ‘a matter of fate’.

One particularly comical incident which he shared was typical for young, adventurous children with some extra time on their hands. After getting into trouble, Mr. Rowley and his friends slipped cardboard into their shirts to brace the impending share of licks. Much to their misfortune, an onlooker revealed the secret which led to them having to remove the cardboard and receive their punishment in full. The audience exploded with the laughter of those who would have undoubtedly had similar experiences.

The second reading came from the chapter entitled ‘My First Visit to Trinidad’. He was 8 years old the first time he visited and although Tobago was just next door, he described the great culture shock that he experienced. He lived in Laventille with his mother and fought through difficulties such as the lack of pipe borne water. Shortly after, he responded to a question from the audience about inspiring others through his writing and he responded by saying, “You shouldn’t put a lid on how high you want to climb”. It was evident then that this could have been his mantra moving through life and partly the reason why he was able to rise above the many obstacles he encountered.

Lastly, someone asked Dr. Rowley about finding time to write given his busy schedule. He stated that his best time for writing was between midnight and daybreak and he encouraged us all to find a quiet time during which to write. ‘There’s something inspirational about the quiet of the night.” he stated.

The time proved too short to delve into as much detail as we would have liked, nonetheless, everyone in the audience was able to witness and share in the fondness with which Mr. Rowley recalled his childhood and his journey through life. We were also able to appreciate his decision to expose himself to the vulnerability that naturally accompanies one’s decision to write about the most intimate details of their life.

Go grab a copy and get to reading!

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