Started writing this in my room at the Marlton Hotel as I waited for my wake-up call ahead of leaving New York…finished writing it back in back-t0-reality Antigua…
My journey to (and from) New York has been bumpy but I have to say overall it balances out for the good. Part of the good, was I bonded well, I think, with the other Caribbean writers flown in for the PEN World Voices Festival – Trinidad and Tobago’s Barbara Jenkins and Jamaica’s Sharon Leach – and having each other to chat and laugh, and share our adventures (and misadventures) with was fun. It doesn’t always work out that way.
An obvious highlight of our time in New York would have been our readings as part of the Literary Safari. It wasn’t your typical reading venue and we weren’t sure what to expect but all emerged from our host apartments decidedly pleased.
You read that right, our host apartments. See, the readings were held at Westbeth, a residential building in the West Village of New York, populated by artists, several opening their apartments to host individual writers from around the world – the idea being that the audience attending the reading/s would move from apartment to apartment, catching maybe two or three of the staggered readings by the likes of Vanessa Manko and Justin Go, both of whom I had the opportunity to chat with briefly while we milled about the writer’s room, and others. My host was Elisa Decker (www.elisadecker.com), an artist who has shown not only in America but internationally, an art teacher at City University of New York, and, as I discovered from our conversation, dancer in the Haitian and more recently Afro-Cuban tradition. She was so gracious in opening her space, a space stacked with art, so you know I was happy to explore – plus, she bought copies of my book Oh Gad! and the collection of which I am a part, Pepperpot, at the post-event book sale. The beauty about the set-up was that it was quite informal and intimate, folks cotching on any and all available flat surface as I read, as writers were doing in other apartments in the building. I had two readings. Both times, I read a little from Oh Gad! and then mixed it up a bit with readings from my first book The Boy from Willow Bend and of course the recent Pepperpot release. With a book like Oh Gad! it’s hard to know where to jump into the story but I took it that what I read at least stirred interest when I was asked afterwards for information on the full arc of the story; Nikki’s journey to the island of her birth, the family she barely knows, and the self she needs to discover. With The Boy from Willow Bend, I read a section I don’t think I’ve ever read before and which proved emotional for me as it stirred memories, the memories that had inspired the specific scene, involving a young girl (young boy, in the case of Vere, the character in the book) and a dying tanty. That bit of insight aside, no I’m not Vere but the grandmother was very much modeled on my tanty (or my tanty as I remember her with a child’s eyes and love).
Sidebar: incidentally, this is the Tanty I write about in Nina Foxx’s A Letter for My Mother.
I opened the first of my readings with Amelia at Devil’s Bridge, my story in Pepperpot. I hadn’t planned to read the whole thing but it worked out that way; it felt right, complete, and the audience seemed open to it, listened with quiet attention, and appropriate responsiveness. It was a good reading, and keeping in mind that the venues favour small audiences, a reasonably good turnout. Barbara and Sharon seem to have had similarly positive experiences. And in fact in conversation with Sharon, and my country mate, writer and New York resident Monica Matthew (and how great was it to see not just a friendly Antiguan face but Monica’s friendly Antiguan face and ever stylishisness), found ourselves musing on the probability of duplicating such an experience in our own countries – art events in the homes or backyards of people who volunteer to host would certainly provide a different sort of artistic experience with appeal for locals and visitors alike. Do I personally have the time and resources to pull it off especially considering that I am still considering the future of Wadadli Pen (a project I love love love but which drains me drains me drains me without fail)? Doubtful but I have to admit it’s an appealingly novel idea. Anyway, but for the reception that followed, that was the sum total of the Literary Safari, my only regret really being that I wish I could have got around to some of the other readings – and would have cut being out in the chilling rain trying to hail a cab back to the hotel from the experience. For all three of us, a sit by the fireside back at the hotel, and in my case something warm to drink, was most welcome before retiring to our rooms.
The other event I was happy to witness was the opening night readings. What a powerful series of readings, what a star-studded line-up of literary luminaries – writers so revered it was a distinct privilege to be in the room much less part of an event (meaning the larger event, the PEN World Voices Festival) in which they were also participating. The venue was the packed great hall at Cooper Union just up the road from the Village Voice (yes, that Village Voice). This is the 10th year of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature – “an event,” per its programme, “which would bring audiences together with writers from around the world, offering first hand cultural and political experience from different countries and offering a vantage point from which to develop a deeper understanding of the intellectual landscape around the world.” This year’s theme was On the Edge, and the readings on this opening night though taking different tacks, decidedly reflected that, as did the Nina Simone rendition of Sinnerman which bookended them. Salman Rushdie opened the batting (to use vernacular familiar to both the Caribbean and India, the author’s country of origin and the subject of his presentation). There was political satirist and cartoonist Gado, of Tanzania, whose visuals and videos enlivened the proceedings; and riveting presentations by American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen, and others including my favorite presentation of the night and a perfect cap to the evening, Colm Toibin. Lines like “It’s just what happens when the public realm becomes intolerable, indoor space becomes rich; the outdoors unmentionable. In the absence of freedom of speech, there is muffled laughter and there are languorous orgasms” were beautiful and powerful …and true.
I’m glad I was there.
This is the last of my April trips, and I have to say it’s been a very rich period for me (as far experiences go and opportunities to share my writing with different audiences); I am grateful for it and I want to pause to take it in. Sometimes as things are shifting around in your world, and much as you may want others, especially those closest to you, to take notice, and some do in some measure, they too have their own lives going on, their own things shifting around; the onus then becomes yours to pay attention to the feel of the ground beneath your feet, the way it moves, the way you weave, trying to steady yourself, and look around and take it in. So I write this down to take it in, to process it if you will. NOT to big up myself – I have way too much journeying yet to do as a writer to be doing that (and I hope that at least stays that way); but to take it all in for me…the opportunity to share a bit of it with anyone who is interested is gravy. Thank you for reading. Here are some other PEN links…
…and if you want to read about other literary trips, here are some links for those as well…
The Antigua and Barbuda International Literary Festival (sidebar: it bums me that we were one of the first to have one of these and now look…)