Category Archives: Petit Memoires

Islands in the Mainstream

One of the paradoxes of rhetorical inquiry is that it tends to disqualify the very activity on which it is founded. Beginning with Plato’s skepticism of its merit, inquiry into the practice of rhetoric has long been mediated by the constant need among rhetoricians to provide a solid, indisputable account of its worth. An unfortunate consequence of this is a contemporary tradition that has treated emergent rhetorics with similar skepticism and frustration—indigenous, feminist, queer, digital, and cultural rhetorics have all run afoul of the tradition at some point and have been subject to unwarranted dismissal or casual disregard.

The Caribbean is no exception.

The region has been viewed as an archetypal site of modern fragmentation, coalescence, and consumption that all occur as a great confluence of languages, cultures, and worldviews in the region. In response, emerging scholarship in rhetorical studies has begun to put pressure on this myth and has called for a more robust understanding of the region, its people, and especially their means of negotiating the myriad complexities of vernacular life. Among vernacular practitioners, it is argued, rhetoric is more than the use of language to make meaning of observable phenomena, more than the critique of symbolic or material representations, or of how they and the things they say and do and make are viewed or named by others. More crucially, these practitioners are able to activate vernacular sensibilities for particular outcomes through conscious performativity, creative alterity, and other forms of deliberative display.

However, aside from its practitioners, and the few who specialize in its study, this fact is not self-evident. A significant reason for this is that although our activities are often implicitly persuasive (or possess suasive characteristics that are easily discernible), we do not often consider what we do to be within the realm of rhetorical studies. And for those of us inclined to view the argumentative, rational, and persuasive aspects of our creative and scholarly work as rhetorical, there is an additional tendency to avoid explicit attachment to the discipline, preferring to employ more palatable euphemisms (like versatility, discourse, strategies, or tactics) that appear to be less fraught.

From the view of rhetorical studies, such distinctions are a mistake.

As a matter of fact, distinctions of this sort are counterintuitive to the understanding of productive discursive activity as rhetoric, leaving many seminal works virtually dispersed, or beyond the perceived boundaries of the field. The development of Caribbean scholarship in rhetoric may thus be thought of as being doubly undermined—both separate and unequal—and subject to de facto invisibility and silencing. Ironically, this threat of erasure presents us with an invaluable opportunity to accomplish important definitional work. It therefore serves as the impetus for sustained engagement.

Rooted in the need to be seen and heard, as well as the imperative of giving a suitable account of the rhetorical tradition(s) from which it emerges, we are inclined to ask:

How do Caribbean people define themselves as deliberate practitioners of rhetoric, and how do their practices contribute to the knowledge-making processes that can potentially surpass the far too simplistic designations of “identity” or “cultural production” in contemporary society? What is the province of Caribbean rhetoric, its scope? What are its inimitable characteristics and its more generalizable ones, which would encourage meaningful interaction? What are the greatest impediments to rhetorical exploration, particularly with regard to the intersections of rhetoric with related arts (aesthetics, poetics, philosophy, and politics)? Who gets to theorize what it is and is not?

If rhetoric is indeed grounded in human activity, does it not fall to those engaged in that activity to name themselves and their representative rhetoric(s), theorizing in terms they devise?

The study of Caribbean rhetoric is itself an affirmation of that logic, a response to the implicit urgency triggered by the glaring absence of such work from the field. As a necessary measure, it resists tendencies toward reflexive parochialism, viewing interdisciplinarity as its best approach, an approach that promises to be more generative and, ultimately, more useful to theorists and practitioners alike; the breadth of scholarship to which it can be applied is intended to reflect not only the inherent complexity of the region, but also suggestive of the ways contemporary understandings of Caribbean rhetoric is/ought to be conceived, articulated, practiced, taught, and preserved.


This is adapted from a Call for Papers I shared last year for a collection of the same name. As I make my way through the many fine essays that were submitted, I’d be happy to discuss the project and will remain open to possibilities for additional essays that can satisfy a reasonable deadline. I realize this gives me a bit more work to do, but I think it’ll be worth doing if the result is more people engaging in conversation and inquiry into Caribbean Rhetoric.

 

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Desiderium: Opening Notes

“Breathe, Browne. Breathe. Yuh home.”

 

I almost died the other night. I was in a car accident—lost control of the car, hit a lamppost, crossed to the other side of the highway, hit a guardrail, and came to a stop at the side of the road. The car was totaled, as was the paper I had planned to deliver. In spite of that, I made sure my passenger wasn’t hurt, saw the car towed away to be either repaired, salvaged, or scrapped, got a ride from NJ to NY, then from NY to Long Island, then from Long Island to JFK airport, where I got on a plane and came to Trinidad. My Trinidad.

And what is my Trinidad?

My Trinidad is rum and coconut water, eating dry biscuit and cheese and playing cards when somebody dead.

My Trinidad is pretending to study for Common Entrance Exam and crying because yuh didn’t get into yuh “first choice.”

My Trinidad is about four or five ah allyuh breaking biche and going down by the wharf behind the scout house to take a dip in the salt, and yuh frighten because Peter did drown dey.

My Trinidad is getting the sweetest cutass from yuh fadda—fuh nothing—jes in case yuh behave bad, and make him shame when he gone to work. Jes in case he have to hear from Mr. Phillip that yuh didn’t say good morning and good afternoon to every single person from home to school to home again, because yuh have to respect yuh elders.

My Trinidad is “Jouvay morning, blow yuh whistle blow yuh whistle! Jouvay morning, knock yuh bottle knock yuh bottle!” Wining back and bending down, catching the spirit and making mas in the place.

Yeah, my Trinidad is tiefing yuh cousin bike so yuh could do a wheelie for Angeline up de hill, and laughing loud in de road at dat madman who does run amok when he hear de steam horn down in the borough yard, where Choko and Blackie used to wuk.

When Abu Bakr stage de coup a few years back, police lock up de country tight tight tight, but in my Trinidad is curfew party from six in the evening to six in the morning and if yuh cyah reach home yuh stay until six the next morning. Is nothing. Drinks flowing like water. ‘Oman still wining when de sun come up.

My Trinidad is waiting for nationwide blackout to listen to yuh uncle talk bout lagahou and douen and la diablesse and the white horse and lighting candle quick to have talent show in de dark with the neighbor children.

My Trinidad, sweet. Sweeter now that I almost did not see you again.

I hope you do not think me selfish or needlessly self-indulgent when I say these things. It is an affliction of my particular profession that we are sometimes this way: navel-gazing to the point of crippling myopia. I say them not to elicit sympathy in you, my audience (though, if it occurs, I will be glad that I have your attention), nor entertain you merely for the sake of it, but rather to let you know what has become the impetus—the spark, literally—for my remarks this evening.

It is the case with this and other tragedies—or “almost tragedies”—that we are forced to reflect on the fragility of our lives and the things that matter most and least to us. We think of our children, whether we will see them grow up and how, of what kind of life they will have without us. We think of how things are and of how we wish them to be. I say “we” because I know I am not unique when I say this, and that lack of uniqueness, that generalizability of experiences that cause us to reflect on ourselves—and on those things that matter—is what makes us collectively special. This is neither irony nor paradox, but a simple fact to which so many of us cling: Identity.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that I almost died the other night, so I want to be very deliberate in what I say to you now. I trust that some (or a great deal) of it will not be new to you, so I will proceed with the confidence that you will feel neither ambushed nor unduly castigated by the idea(s) that follow. If I am preaching to the choir, I hope you sing along when the chorus comes. If not, then I hope you at least catch the beat.

The topic at hand is rhetoric. Specifically, Caribbean rhetoric on the vernacular level, about which I will speak very briefly.

As I understand it, rhetoric is social activity—a consideration of the range of expressions and expressive features that shape our existence, as well as the orientation of those expressions toward the realization of a more meaningful life. It is the practice of conscious citizenship. Truthfully, though, I am not so much interested in whether people understand the intricacies of rhetoric on an academic level, but rather that they understand it enough to tune the dynamics of their interactions toward change. We know well enough that there is a need for change. Stand anywhere, throw a stone in any direction, and you will most certainly hit a problem. The question, then, is how? How is as much a question of process as of acknowledging the legacy of hegemony that many of us have cultivated—or have had cultivated for us—like myth, so much that far too many of us have learned to disregard not only the complexity of the normal, but also the impulse to find the language for it.

[As I note in Tropic Tendencies,] “Vernacular rhetorical activity in the Classical Tradition was viewed as a basic responsibility, which was dutifully enacted in Athenian society as a right of civic belonging—one could not be a citizen in name only, it had to be practiced. But while this may be true of all rhetorical interactions in democratic societies (or societies that believe themselves to be democratic) that go from Antiquity onward into our times, Caribbean vernacular practitioners were faced with a serious rhetorical problem—one that is underscored by Gerard Hauser’s idea that ‘publics are emergences manifested through vernacular rhetoric.’[i] The presumption is contingent not only on the fundamental visibility of that public, but also on the willing reception of an audience. ‘If we were to listen,’ he writes, ‘these are the ways by which they make their opinions felt”[ii]—or, to assimilate John Shotter’s more poignant stipulation, ‘if we can let them instruct us in how to see them.’[iii] The dynamic he describes is, unfortunately, not generalizable and reflective more of privilege than the likelihood of vernacular equity. Historically, black bodies of the colonial underclass did not have the privilege of taking citizenship for granted—rather, the status of citizenship was a thing to be granted (by birth primarily and, secondarily, by decree), not (as we would like to believe) asserted primarily through loud, insurgent, or violent means. Belonging was limited to the virtual invisibility of second-class citizenship.”

This is simply not sufficient for me—and, if I may be presumptuous, not sufficient for many of the people on whose behalf I strive.

As you have seen, I am often inclined to view aspects of my culture with a degree of nostalgia. On social media, the most public of the forums, I often (very often) remark on my need for roti, or oxtail, or sorrel, among other things. The occasional kurma, perhaps. Fudge. When the music plays, I find little contradiction in moving my body to forget the troubles of my life. But none of that can last very long for me, for though I am beset by nostalgic impulses, I find that I must compartmentalize them for the urgencies that require my direct attention. Such urgencies include the illusions of upward mobility, of opportunity for some and not for others, the blind and deliberate luck of having when others do not have, of earning by the sweat of our brow and the sweat on the brows of others. The stalemate of false binaries—us and them, rich and poor, rum and roti, African and Indian, nigger and coolie. Those of us who see our needs marginalized and are forced to choose a side in cruel compromise.

Let me be clear: I am no prodigal. You will see that my return is not to bestow any particular gift on those who have missed it, but to continue the search for what I had left this place to go in search of. Now I return to the scene of the loss to ascertain the shape of that hurt. With me, I bring a theory that is linked—essentially, inextricably—to practice.

I come from a land where mothers and daughters resemble because they both look young, or old. I have seen these mothers walking barefoot with their naked children. I have bathed in the sea and watched the waves wash on rolling rocks with a rhythm I can set my heartbeat to. I have seen a gang of corbeaux pick relentlessly at the rotting carcass of a dog, as it lay half-covered in the shade. These things and more I have seen. Each of them, in a way, representative of what Trinidad is, of what it has become: an identity held together by a stubborn, indomitable pride; an untamed, untamable beauty entrenched in itself, despite the comings and goings of the day and its difficulties; a people in limbo, locked (it would seem) halfway between emancipation and independence, so tired of writhing that many of us drop from exhaustion and have our bones picked at by those who claim to love us. There are many other metaphors I can use that will either serve as compliment or insult. No man is an island, to be sure, but neither should he be driftwood. Only because driftwood is subject to the mercies and whims of the tides and the fascination of beachcombers who find the driftwood partially desiccated in the chastening sun.

We have come a long way, some would argue, but as we look around us, the conditions tell a different story. Indeed, they suggest that we have not come very far at all.

It now becomes necessary to reject the tendency to emphasize struggle as the illusory fulcrum of Caribbean expression and view it, instead, as a rhetorical situation to which subjects are obliged to respond, react, negotiate, and improvise. The basic point being: situations of struggle are shifting all the time; our ability to confront and navigate, negotiate and transcend, are dependent on adaptability, as well as the reconceptualization of historical responses. A key example of such reconceptualization involves the need to engage directly in our collective decolonization, rather than entrust that responsibility to a government or some other institution.

Of course, one of the challenges with decolonization is that it very closely resembles trauma. This is because there is no indication that the outcome would be much different—except for a clear conception of what must come after. The distinction, in short, is that it must include a vision, one that operates in contradistinction to the illusions we have come to prefer. On a smaller scale, it feels very much like heartbreak. For one or two people, healing is a matter of therapy—of finding the sympathetic ear of a friend, or maybe finding a new lover in whom to place one’s energy. At the very least, some comfort comes from talking about it. On a national scale, the dynamics are similar, except there’s no replacement lover. All you have is the reality of your experience, the identity that—no matter where you go—is there with you. There is no escape, no excuse that you can make for why it failed. And you must now contend with the fact that where you are demands that you know who you are. We must contend with the fact that the illusion of a time we have longed for is no longer sufficient. But, in rejecting the illusion, we find that we inevitably come to face the very crisis that our actions have attempted to deny. We are forced to ask (both ourselves and each other) who we are. Forced to ask what makes us and our ways uniquely what they are. And why.

If you notice that I compare the work we must do to that of one who recovers from heartbreak, it is because of how I imagine one’s love of country and the role of citizenship in the understanding, reception, and expression of that love. In citizenship’s infancy, when it is still quite young, the love one has must necessarily be what it is: unquestioning, unconditional, uncritical. It must be, in a sense, perfect and above reproach precisely because it is new. My remembrances of Trinidad. It moves me deeply, still. And I am obliged to move with it. There are dangers about. I know there are.

So let me close with this:

Nostalgia that turns only inward yields little for a project in rhetoric. [Indeed, we must] counteract the tendency to subscribe to a nostalgic view of a people and their practices…allow[ing them] to move past the inexplicable sense of loss and the cognitive dissonance between past and present that can too often forestall pragmatist approaches to consequence by coloring experience solely in romantic, exotic, or purist terms.

I must recognize my limitations. I am a rhetorician, not a politician. I am not able to speak for you, but I long to speak with you. If you let me, I can carve out additional spaces, in multiple modes, in which you can speak for yourselves. I can help you find the language, but only if you let me.

Only if you let me.

 

 


 

[i] Hauser, Vernacular Voices, 14.
[ii] Hauser, Vernacular Voices, 11.
[iii] Shotter, “Creating Real Presences,” 275.
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Mama’s Boy

Or, a Requiem for Unavoidable Cruelties

“Language is so wonderful, so deceitful.”
Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return
“Sometimes my life seems so surreal,
I feel like I’m living in a Haitian painting.”
David Rudder, “Crossroads”

I.

The other day, I had an opportunity to hear parts of a conversation two people were having about me. I won’t go into many details, except to say that the range of insults was truly, utterly, comprehensive. Parsing the “What kind of a person does this?” and “What kind of a person does that?”, the innumerable LOLs, LMAOs, SMHs, and their (somewhat rarer) superlative SMFHs, I would soon come to find that nothing would be spared in my dismantling. Even my teeth—as the yellowing telegraphs of my chain-smoking during grad school and at other times before and since then—passed seamlessly in the vituperative rush. I was, simultaneously, a piece of shit, the biggest, most pathetic joke, and the saddest, most disgusting waste of potential they’d ever had the misfortune to encounter. I was misfortune itself. An inevitable hashtag, disappointment incarnate.

In short, I was the Devil.

It hurt to hear these things, of course (though I admit there was more than a little masochism in it). Some cruelties are unavoidable—best just to face them. I thought of my mother and how I’d been taunted in the past with telling her too much. If she had heard what I heard, she would’ve denied the things her son had done, rejected outrageous things he was accused of doing, and wept at the casual nastiness of the things being said about him. Exaggeration or not (and a good deal of it was), I imagine she’d dismiss it all on the basis that it was, quite simply, impossible.

“Not my son! Not Kevin.”
“I mean, he has his ways,” she’d probably say, “but that, that’s just too much.”
And they’d respond, harmonizing like an alto and soprano warming their voices for a duet after talking for hours, “Lady, you don’t know the half of it. Your son…”

She’d want to come to my aid and offer comfort, as mothers do, to save me in spite of everything—in spite of myself. And I, the imperfect only son of this single mother, would both long for and prevent the comfort she would try to give. (We’d grown apart when she left Trinidad in 1985 for New York. I stayed with my aunt Marjorie until I got a visa in 1989.) It would be an act of kindness and of conscience, one of the few I’d be capable of, according to my dismantlers, but one that I’d consider necessary because I wouldn’t deserve it. Not in this case. My embarrassment was not enough to warrant hers. She’d been through enough, and I figured she’d be better off guessing what happened and having me deny it. If some cruelties are unavoidable, other cruelties (like this one) are decidedly the opposite of that.

You see, parents—mothers, especially—are endowed with a talent for denial that can only be described as sublime. This isn’t a verified fact, of course, but rather a feeling, something along the lines of instinct: your child is in pain, self-inflicted or otherwise, and, well, you go a little mad, ignoring everything else until the pain, its cause, and its perpetrator are all eliminated. My mother doesn’t need the grief, and I think I’m strong enough to take a little roughing up.

I’m not going to say it wasn’t painful hearing these things. I think anyone would be hurt by it. Vicious things are, by design, hurtful things. That was the point: to make it hurt, to say things that would cause damage that was proportional to the litany of offenses they exchanged; to say things that were, in some way, intended to cause me shame and, in so doing, restore a sense of balance to the situation—every compliment, the mystics will tell you, is followed by an insult. These are not the impulsive outbursts of a teenager or the local imbecile.

So yes. It hurt like hell, which, I suppose, is par for the course, especially if the devil’s playing the back nine.

I wanted to hate them for what they said about me. (But this was justice, wasn’t it? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a word for a word, a lie for a lie?) I couldn’t really keep the anger going, though, not when I fell into a hole I should’ve known better than to dig for myself with my words. Lies beget lies, missteps lead to pitfalls. I got the point.

It was mainly reflex, a response to the initial sting of a betrayal I had set in motion. Now, forced to be a little more honest with myself, I determined that this particular guilt trip was going to be a short one. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go, but then again, the same is true of a great many things. I’m not unique in this, am I?

Life, right? What’re you gonna do?

Bad decisions—and not-so-bad ones—can lead to bad outcomes. You don’t set out to get to this point; no, this is somewhere you end up. Best laid plans being left to gather dust, you come to accept that it is what it is, and you learn to make do with what you have—and, more importantly, not to dwell on what you’ve lost. It just wasn’t for you. Well, that’s what you say, anyway, to keep from breaking. But the rule still holds—for doctors and everyone else—that, first and above all things, you should do no harm. Not to others, if you can help it, but definitely not to yourself. Put another way, you have no business digging your own grave. It’s foolish—one of the more idiotic misappropriations of your god-given right to be self-centered and to seek your own best interests without hesitation or apology. To me, this is energy that would be better spent doing other things. Theorizing on rhetoric is a good one. I try to do that a lot. Thinking. Writing. This is me “making do.”

Another is owning the fact that you have, in no small way, f*cked up, that you will take the time to reflect on having f*cked up, and that you will make meaningful efforts to avoid f*cking up in the same way at some unspecified point in the future. That is, unless you want to come away from yet another catastrophe having learned nothing.

So this is what happened:
I f*cked up. My ego has conspired against me. I overshot.
I admit it.
And I was consequently dismantled.

Being human and having something of a conscience, there’s always going to be room for self-pity, but I’ve never been comfortable with the risk it entailed. You see, if you spend enough time licking your wounds, you end up with a taste for your own blood—a tendency toward self-loathing. And that’s a very, very dangerous thing. My heart is still breaking, and I’m sure if I sat still, I could hear it. So I prefer to get right to the reflection (if that’s okay). It starts, in this instance, with rain.

II.

Ever since I was a child, I had always “had a thing” for the rain. I say that as if I’m describing a crush and not a deep, abiding love.

“But, in a way,” you’re probably wondering, “how could it be love in the real sense?”
“I mean, come on! As a child, a child, what could he know about such things?” But you’d only be half-right.

I’ve long known that if it’s done well, love (like most things) is going to defy your understanding. It’s supposed to. If we’re lucky, we’re left dealing with its effects, its consequences. Its symptoms. It fills and empties us, our souls expanding and contracting like breath, or the bellows of a furnace. Gibran, I think, says it better. Neruda, too. It forces us—love, that is—to look for language, to bind ourselves to metaphors, to think ourselves poets, to lie and lie. As a child, I knew only the impermanence of it, how it came with a promise only to pass, like an infatuation, into the Gulf of Paria, then to press itself slowly, coolly, onto the horizon. But knew love I did. For what other than love could explain the way trees, with their rustling, mimicked rain’s crawl across the expanse of San Fernando? The sound of it dancing on the galvanized roofs, sometimes seeming to fall with such intention that it would be easy to think,

This. This is what it must sound like—and feel like—if God were tuning a tenor pan.

You could easily imagine rain as the gentler tool, an alternative to the thunder that broke open the silences around you, letting dogs loose with their barking, desperate and terrified.

I loved the rain so much that I found a way to work it into my first official essay. Standard One. Boys RC. 1981. My teacher, Mrs. Alexander, asked us to write an essay describing an activity during our summer vacation. Mine had been spent on the beach—Los Iros—with my aunt Lystra, Alvarez, her common-law husband, and her children, while my mother stayed behind in San Fernando and worked. I missed her, but I still had a pretty good time. I remember writing for Mrs. Alexander,

When I came out of the sea, the rain was chooking me.

She later “corrected” it.

Not “chooking.”
“Sticking.” The rain was sticking me.

I didn’t argue–couldn’t, really. It would’ve been pointless: to use the identical response as a comeback is a bad idea.

“Why couldn’t I use chooking instead of sticking?” I imagined the conversation going, hearing the argument delivered in my daughter’s voice, “The rain wasn’t ‘sticking’ me–‘sticking’ denoting an action, rather than the sensation that ‘chooking’ was intended to convey.”
And Mrs. Alexander? What would she say?
“…” most likely.

It wasn’t my place. I may have known intuitively about love at 7, but if you had asked me about—oh, I don’t know—the “validity of code-switching as a rhetorical strategy” or how to “navigate bidialectalism, eradicationism, and other forms of silencing in the postcolonial classroom, with its practitioners’ loyal subscription to current-traditional pedagogy,” I would’ve been sure to draw a blank, my eyes glazing over like the warm buns or coconut tarts from Steve’s Bakery.

Besides, Mrs. Alexander, who I idolized even more than my two previous teachers, Mrs. Darling and Ms. Wong-Wai, was right in all things. Even Ms. Wong-Wai, whose sister had a child with my murdered uncle Collins, couldn’t elicit the loyalty I had to Mrs. Alexander. And as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t learning how to write, but to give the readers whatever they needed. I was learning, in other words, to negotiate.

In class: sticking. Everywhere else: chooking.

“Yes, Mrs. Alexander. Thanks!” Or, rather, Tanks, Miss Alexanda! As long as I got to make my point about the rain, at home in her peculiar brand of pathos and admiration, what did I care what language I used? Small price to pay. What did it matter that “stick” doesn’t appear as a synonym for “chook” in the Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago? “Prick” appears, but it doesn’t take a genius to see why Mrs. Alexander would have chosen not to share it. She meant well. They all did. More than 30 years later, though somewhat entrenched in my current life, I can quell my pretensions long enough to invoke Harris’s defense of Alice in my own defense of Mrs. Alexander and teachers like her. Women like her. He wrote:

Some say she was a fraud that only a colonial, barren age could fabricate. I say she was the catalyst of fame at the heart of families of non-existence. She was the mystery of genius within the most unpropitious economic circumstances, a mystery that ran deeper than proof or parody of the evolution of limbo into heaven (37-8).

Harris wasn’t referring to teachers but to something far bigger. (Which, I don’t mind saying, is the point.) For Harris, Alice was the physical manifestation of a concept, both deeper and more expansive than the circumstances that bound her. In essence, she was like my mother—not perfect at all, but boundless. Back then, I might only have admitted that I loved her with the irrationality of a child who required neither explanation nor language for what he knew to be true. She was impressed with me. That made my mother proud. And, at 7, that was enough for me.

Inevitably, though, it is the case with this, as with everything else, that I would grow into a command of language that would come to ensnare me in the end, tying me up and dropping me head first in the hole I had dug with it.

“Wait! He said what?”

Funny how we learn to forfeit our own best interests, how we learn (sometimes above all other things) to betray and outsmart ourselves. Funny what brings us to our senses. Funny. The LOLs gather in my head like vernacular prophecies. I remember what it was that first brought me to this place. I know exactly where I am. I’ve been here before–at a crossroads, forcing myself to ask (again) what the hell am I doing—and what am I doing here—when all I want to do is run. To just get away when nostalgia for a better version of myself turns out to be nothing but an illusion.

III.

I remember running barefoot in the rain late one night with my mother.

Cats and dogs.
Bucket-a-drop.

Lystra and Alvarez were fighting again. Most of it was standard, if you know about that sort of thing. There was the leaking roof, the buckets kicked aside, the slippery varnished floor. And then, the private warfare turned public, pouring out into the yard, where Glory, Jennifer, Miss Baby, Miss Olive, Miss Phyllis, Uncle Babsie, and their children could see. It was a bad idea to get involved. Doh get in man and woman business, we’re often warned. Doh get in dat.

She man bussing she tail? Doh get in dat.
He wife horning him? Doh get in dat.
Yuh brother feelin up he son? Doh get in dat.
Yuh sister pregnant fun she father? Doh get in dat.
Dis one chop dat one, den shoot de other one? Doh get in dat.
Anybody could say any blasted thing dey want to whoever dey want and however dey damn well please. Doh. Get. In. Dat.

A simple lesson, really.

When you grow neck-deep in a culture of misogyny, patriarchy, self-hate, and abuse of every imaginable form, this is an effective shorthand for abusers and the abused, for the lookers-on and the potential jumpers-in: stay away, or something worse could happen to you.

Stay away.

I was about 7 years old. Still in Standard One and not yet cynical. She wore a cotton nightie, and I, little and black, wore a t-shirt and underwear—a jersey and jockey shorts. I don’t remember the color (I’ve tried), but my mother’s nightie was light blue. I was maybe about 70 pounds—soaking wet, as luck would have it.

Rain has a way of washing things away—illusions, for example—and making visible the things that happen in the dark. It leaves nostalgia waterlogged, turning skins, and other surfaces, reflective. In the rain that night, embattled bodies shone. Tears of anger and pain only seemed to fade but, in truth, could fall more freely then. Blood could wash off, and the lines drawn out in the yard could run more defiantly parallel and perpendicular to the imagined welts that rose in threats across the backs and faces of the fighters.

Then there was the emancipated tongue: the shouting, the accusations, the cursing, the inevitable dismantling. The epileptic contagion of fear.

So there she was, my mother, testing it, refusing to stay away as she’d been warned, refusing to shut her “so and so” mouth when everything went to hell, when (as we sometimes say) everything turn ole mas. And there I was, screaming as my mother screamed, the two of us in full voice like the warmed up alto and soprano, bawling barefoot in the yard, bawling in unison, conspiring in fear for my mother’s life.

And there we were: running the mile and a half to Aunty Marjorie’s house, hand in hand and shining, the rain chooking the exposed parts of our skins.

Out the yard.
Down the steps.
Left on Carib Street
Right on Upper Hillside Street
Left on Rushworth
Right on Blanche Fraser
Left on this, right on that, quick left, right.
Right.
Left.

Safe.

I never told Mrs. Alexander why I stayed home the next day—or the day after that.

IV.

I went home for Lystra’s funeral in 2011. Never blessed to sit beside a conversationalist, I took the trip in silence, thinking of my mother and how I learned to put one foot in front of the other. Cancer. I went first to Marjorie’s house—still a refuge. That house, duck egg green once but now a different color. I remember being so exhausted that I just collapsed, with Marjorie, Evelyn (my mom’s twin sister), and Jeanne (who everyone calls Dolly) scrambling to hold me up. I fell, loose like a puppet whose strings were suddenly cut.

I bawled until I passed out breathless on the verandah, my forehead sapped with bay rum.
“Yuh bawl like a cow, boy, Kevin!” my cousin’s almost common-law wife would say as I came to. “Like a cow!”
Strangers passed.

Last year, before going in, I sat for a few minutes in front of it, casting my gaze toward San Fernando Hill, squinting but grateful for the rain that obscured the shadow of this quarried hulk in whose shadow I had grown up, down whose slopes I ran, with my mother, for our lives. Running from the language that made me both coward and fighter, one who knows that the tongue can cast ripples that left us barefoot and shining in the rain, skipping puddles for fear of stones or glass, in fear for having gotten in where custom had corrupted itself. I thought, looking at this gray stain on a lighter gray sky, of nostalgia. I saw it, and the memories conjured with it, fade away like a kind of innocence. On my street, an evergreen points skyward. Ramjohn’s house is repainted, a new barbed wire fence separating it from the Hoseins. But I could never go back. Not really. That was the lesson I learned at 7, loving something and seeing that love destroyed.

In the end, I want to say that it’s basic: You don’t just get to say whatever the hell you want just because you can; understand that and you’ll see that there’s a lesson here that’s a bit more subtle than giving liberties to your tongue and fighting pointless battles at the risk of being heard. But it’s not that simple. You have to decide.

As for me, I’m listening to the rain again, thinking of justice, negotiation, and the battles worth fighting.

Of beginnings and endings. Of the things that happen in the in-between.
Of love and legacies. And the fact that I am, before anything else, my mother’s son.

See

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging. Canada: Doubleday Canada, 2001.
Harris, Wilson. The Carnival Trilogy. London: Faber & Faber, 1993.
Rudder, David. “Crossroads,” on Tales from a Strange Land. Lypsoland, 1996.
Winer, Lise. Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago. Canada: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2009.

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#SeeingBlue Remarks

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Selections from Seeing Blue

I’d like to think of it as friendly advice, but the truth is that I’ve been given a few very clear instructions by those close to me for my presentation this evening. As a way to begin, I thought I’d share them with you so you would understand a little bit of what I’m going through up here. With a little help from my friends, a list was compiled:
1. Speak from the heart.
2. Write drunk, edit sober.
3. Don’t try to be deep, abstract, or unnecessarily complex.
4. Keep it short and sweet. Or at least short.
5. Do not, under any circumstances, try to tell any jokes. This is a very important day for you, no one has ever done this, and trust me, you are not that funny.
6. Seriously, you’re not.
7. If you must tell a joke—like if it’s an emergency or something—tell someone else’s.
8. If confused, see instruction number 5, 6, and 7.
9. Don’t curse.
10. Don’t read.

After thinking about all that was said to me with my best intentions at heart, I decided to take whatever advice was embedded in these instructions and ignore about 98% of it, choosing (as I often do) to go my own way and do my own thing. Sure, it leads to a great deal of suffering, the danger of making yourself necessary, of thinking yourself relevant. But these are the risks you face when you choose to be yourself, to let your voice be heard, to share with others what you consider a vision of the world—and to do so in the communities that help make up the world.

So I’ll begin with a joke.

A guy walks into a bar, orders a stag, meets with a guy everybody calls Jesus and asks if he could have a show about devils. On a Sunday.
The guy named Jesus, without missing a beat, says “A show about devils? On a Sunday?”
“Yeah, devils” says the guy who walks into the bar.
“Well,” says Jesus, “there’s only one problem with that. It have All Fours on Sunday, so if yuh want people to come, make sure yuh have it around that time. But doh go over, eh!”
“No problem,” said the guy, “no problem at all.”

And so, here we are.
Because, in a way, this is who we are, taking serious things to make joke, making light of things that otherwise would bear serious consequences for those involved (and those who think they may not be). We claim this truth about ourselves and watch our identity form around it. I am unable to smoothly resolve the contradiction, and this is a victory.

The challenge for us, as speakers, dancers, writers, thinkers, lovers, fighters, friends, enemies is whether we actually get the joke. Or better yet, it is our ability to know when joke is joke—and when joke is damn joke.

Because everybody know damn joke eh no joke.

And at the heart of that knowing is an understanding of rhetoric that is more important than the punchline or the performance.

What remains is for us to find ways to demonstrate that we not only know but understand ourselves and the power that resides in that understanding. Rhetoric is a social activity. It emerges from the conscious understanding of shared languages, experiences, and values (to name a few) and their subsequent expression in different situations—in different times. Issues of identity, race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship do not simply occur in the abstract. They are connected to lived realities. Our realities.

Thus, our considerations of rhetoric, rather than a series of purely esoteric inquiries, should always find their practical and situational grounding in the social milieux from which their rationales, urgencies, and outcomes emerged and within which they were executed. Honestly though, I am not so much interested in whether my people know what rhetoric is or isn’t—there’s a need for that, but the term is far less meaningful than the dynamics and outcomes of conscious practice.

My work in Paramin and in life is not simply about providing a forum for complaint and the airing of grievances, but rather the attempt to enact critique through the conscious enactment of culture and tradition. It relies on the active involvement of people—regular people—and sees value in every contribution—this is because I see nation-builiding as collaborative both in its nature and in its practice.

As a rhetorician, I respond not only to urges but to very clear—even obvious—urgencies in society. Let me give you an example: The notion that Caribbean society has declined is not just a matter of opinion but one of fact. And herein lies one of the more troubling issues confronting the region and (in my view) hindering its fullest potential: that is, these facts are too often referred to with resignation and nonchalance—treated as a norm that will eventually change because, well, “it can’t stay this way forever.”

This is not the case when one finds oneself in Paramin. Like all places, Paramin is unique. And myths of Stay Home and Stay Here aside, it is because of the people who call it home that I am here. And I don’t mean to refer to some far away place, a mythical height among the clouds of Trinidad—though it certainly is that. Rather, I mean a place that is real and not the creation of some misplaced nostalgia. In fact, when nostalgia has proven as much a disappointment as any other fantasy in light of things as they are, we have little choice but to confront the inadequacy of our misgivings and—finaly—embrace the shock of unadorned misrecognition. This is what I see when I look at a Blue Devil. I am reminded, in the performance of the monstrous that the word “monster” comes from a word that means to warn. And in that warning is an element of instruction—of teaching. The monstrous thing we fear, or ridicule out of fear, or chastise out of scorn, or marvel at when bathed in pitch oil we emerge from the carnival having seen men breathe and eat fire.

They have something to teach us.

There is tradition, of course, as our remembrances of history will tell us that the Blue Devils are a variant of the Jab Molassie, that they recall a history of slavery and masked protest, that they took the Negue Jadin from the white plantocracy who had previously been using it as a way to make themselves anonymous. These symbols are familiar—indeed, impermanence, as a major consideration of the carnival and the carnivalesque, is passe once you become accustomed to loss.

So you show me a set ah dutty mas, man eating raw shark and pulling fig tree up from the root, woman spitting blood, and I will show you makers of magic, forgers of weapons held beneath the skin. I will show you yourselves and ask you to do the asking of a culture that is far too open for the taking and to which we are sometimes slow in giving.

And what of the contemporary Devil, you will ask? What of glitter and bottlecaps, brand names and crucifixes?

If we turned one eye from history and looked forward from present to future, what are we to make of what we see and of what this tradition, mixed, remixed, and renewed for our time can actually do? At what point, after realizing these men and women are who they say they are that we identify with them, seeing our reflection in their faces, in their bodies bending low to the ground for money they have danced for and earned, but which will never be enough to compensate for scorn and misunderstanding?

I don’t know, nah.

That is something we will have to work out in the coming days. What I do know is that I have no good reason for why we should think ourselves disqualified from the role of articulating our vision of ourselves.

On Dana and the Rest of Us

The assassination of Dana Seetahal says more about the society in which we live than the brutal manner in which she died–her life, like the scores of dead, has no value.

You may fill in the blank with your own remembered dead.

But short of natural causes (not pneumonia caught in an open-air hospital a mile from the Beetham as it burned), what value have we and our loved ones?

It is said that the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. In other words, the only thing worse than apathy is inaction by those sympathetic and silent when it matters. In this and other cases of depravity–crime, corruption, medical malpractice, abuses of every form and fashion, in our faces and presumably behind our backs–hand-wringing and chest-beating are tantamount to nothing.

Nothing.

This must be understood. These are actions of grief and shock, the equivalent of what we do at funerals–that is, after the dead are dead. And, while it may be argued that this nation has lost its soul–or sold it–grief is largely self-indulgent. National grief is simultaneously grander in proportion and inversely proportional in its effect.

It fails to bring back the dead.

While meaningful to us in the moment, they ultimately do nothing in the way of change. They are, in fact, useless. And *fake* grief? Worse yet. We’ve come to expect that the one bawling down the place at the gravesite (outbawling family and all) is probably a blasted fraud, a divertissement with more at stake in the wake and repast than the burial.

But how different from that is the perfunctorily deployed “RIP” when what we apparently need is for the restless spirits of victims to haunt all of us with their dissatisfaction until we do what must be done to set things right before we, too, turn to headline or headstone and go to an inglorious grave?

I get it: people are tired and scared.

But consider: if, as a means of handling that fear, you either lock yourself away so tight or run so far away and never come back, the only thing you preserve is your cowardice. The only thing you protect is a coward, a tired coward who waits for society to eat itself before emerging, triumphant as a hero amid the rubble of a battle he has neither won nor lost. We really don’t have the luxury to be cowardly, do we?

That includes me.

If no one is safe, if anyone can feel entitled to our life and take it and anything else away whenever they wish, then what have we to lose? Crises cannot, by their nature, solve themselves. No more than the dead can get up, poisoned, strangled, chopped, bullet-riddled, and perpetually unsolved to walk among us and congratulate us for doing nothing.

The Dry Season

In 1999, I started writing a book of poetry to mark transitions on and off the page. The Dry Season. Much of it remained untouched and unpublished. To my partial shame, I stopped working on it to attend school after a few years out doing other things. Ended up writing another book, but this has always been close to my surface, probably because I never really did anything with it and let it linger, instead, like another thing I had started and not finished. And because of what it means to convey.

And because I loved it so.

They’re not all good. I can accept that. They are what they are, a chronicle of things remembered and feared, of beauty I could only give inadequate care. It is, as they say, what it is.

The Dry Season

Ash Wednesday
At Twenty-Six
Besson Street, 1941
Cane Trash
Cards
Coming In
Emmanuel
High Street
Love Letters
Maureen, 1936-1997
Mayaro, 1986
Natalis
Rain
Sentry
Sisters Road
The Bocas
The Seabird Hymn

Here’s a storify link from the tweets I posted earlier.
http://storify.com/drbrowne/thedryseason

Caribbean Rhetoric and Its Composition: A Slide Presentation

A series of slides from a 10-minute presentation I gave on research in Caribbean Rhetoric. Slides only. No audio. It gives (or should give) a sense of how I conceive of projects, as well as a basic sense of their scope and depth. While necessarily brief, I’m hoping some of the ideas included here will spark even further discussion of this emerging area of study. You already know how to get in touch with me (@drbrowne), so feel free to do so if you want to chat some more about it.

Ideally, it will encourage you to embark on rhetoric projects of your own (without being too intimidated). Rhetorical inquiry–whether in terms of analysis, practice, theory, or whatever–needn’t be intimidating. And besides, we don’t have the luxury to be intimidated. There’s so much to do, and I need help.

The 25-slide presentation begins and ends with the same imperative that is central to my ideas of Caribbean Rhetoric–the “Mas Rhetorica”–that resist invisibility and silencing. I discuss the concept more extensively in Tropic Tendencies, which you can check out here: http://www.amazon.com/Tropic-Tendencies-Rhetoric-Anglophone-Caribbean-ebook/dp/B00GUDW6TE/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1386029876&sr=1-1&keywords=tropic+tendencies