Saturday, 23 May 2020

A WRITER AND SCHOLAR 'INTERVIEWS' THE CARIBBEAN

Opal Palmer Adisa is a Jamaican writer, poet, academic and the director of The Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. In 2015, she launched Interviewing the Caribbean, a project to spotlight Caribbean “artists at home and in the Diaspora”, getting them to discuss their work and the arts of the region in general. 

Writer and scholar Opal Palmer Adisa.
After receiving wide acclaim from the beginning, the project now has a home at UWI, becoming an official journal of the university's press. 

SWAN met up with Palmer Adisa in Paris, France, last December, following her attendance at a conference on gender. 

We discussed her work - she has written some 20 books including novels and collections of stories and poetry, almost all of which are set in Jamaica or are about some aspect of island life - and in our conversation, we explored the importance of Interviewing the Caribbean as a long-term project and publication.

Describing herself as being “Jamaican to the bone”, Palmer Adisa also endorses and advocates for Caribbean federation. The following interview was completed via email.

SWAN: How did Interviewing the Caribbean begin?

Opal Palmer Adisa: I had been nursing the idea for 10 years, hoping to get a windfall to publish a yearly, fully coloured journal. I kept putting it off, then when Steve Jones agreed to partner with me and do design layout, we met and I concluded that online was the most feasible route, and that it would still be beautiful. So, in 2014 I decided to see who would respond to my call. Also, I believe the first issue had to have an important Caribbean name to set a precedence, and when Junot Diaz agreed to my interview, then I was on. Interviewing the Caribbean was launched and premiered in 2015.

SWAN: What were your main aims with the project and subsequent publication?

The first issue of Interviewing the Caribbean.
OPA: My primary goal was to give Caribbean writers and artists a place to talk about their own work.  There still isn’t a lot of critique on and about Caribbean writers and artists.  But also, as a writer whose works have been reviewed and critiqued, I often feel: I wish the person writing about my work had interviewed me to get some things right. I wanted to provide the platform for writers and artists to talk about their own work, to explore their process and intention in writing a piece, or creating a piece of art, and in general to have them share ideas about their work. This objective has not changed, but I am more deeply committed to the inherent value of this self-critiquing process.

SWAN: The Caribbean has produced numerous writers and artists. How has the project been able to highlight their contributions to a more global audience?

OPA: I remain firm in my belief of wanting to provide space for new or emerging writers and artists as well as established ones, and each issue of the journal has fulfilled that commitment. This is an exciting time for Caribbean literature at home and throughout the Diaspora. Although most of us are still unable to make a living from our work, more of us are winning awards, being recognized on the international market, and the work of more diverse writers are being heard and shared. I would like to think that we are a part of that trend. We have received submissions from Caribbean writers in Asia and New Zealand, so I believe the word is getting out there. We are striving to access the global market more.

SWAN: Interviewing the Caribbean now has an institutional home at the University of the West Indies (Mona campus). What does this mean for its longevity and impact?

A novel by Opal Palmer Adisa.
OPA: I am truly grateful that the UWI Press agreed to partner with us and commit to the journal. This is huge because of the solid reputation of the UWI Press, and also its reach. As we continue to expand our readership and membership, the position of the journal will be solidified and its continuity, after I no longer edit it, will be guaranteed. There is no other journal of its kind in the Caribbean, and it fills an important need. The UWI Press recognized this; being one of its journals will, I believe, enhance the stature and provide entrée into more academic spaces for IC to be used as a text in literature and art courses.

SWAN: The project also supports Caribbean publishing, a sector that comprises many dynamic professionals - who nevertheless face both new and longstanding challenges. What can be done to provide greater support for Caribbean-based publishing, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic?

OPA: There are two factors here: readership and the cost of printing that makes the purchase of books prohibitive in the Caribbean. With more attention to e-books this might support such efforts. We have to get people in the Caribbean to read and buy books for their children outside of school texts. We have to get the general population reading more. Some people do, but not enough, and cost is a factor, but also, in general, we are not a reading society. Ministries of education throughout the region have to invest in Caribbean books for children, and fund the library system so more books can be purchased. It will take a multitier approach - advertisement promoting reading among adults.

SWAN: Countries in the Caribbean region have a shared history and common concerns, and the literary reality can be a range of projects with similar themes. Ideas are like the wind - free to everyone. How do you retain originality, while maintaining your creative generosity?

The cover of the latest issue of
Interviewing the Caribbean.
OPA: What is original is how we tell the same story, about the same place and the same people. Simple, I focus on the story I am telling and try not to eavesdrop or tell someone else’s story. All writers borrow bits and pieces we hear and then we stitch our own composite. It’s your voice, however you define that and keeping true to that, that makes you original. You and I will hear the same story, but given our personal history, we will tell it differently that at times it is not even recognizable. I remember once writing a story about a woman from details she provided me with. However, when she read the story, she didn’t recognize herself or her story. I don’t think I disguised or distorted what she said, but I told it through my own lens and it transformed into a story not about her, even though it was based on details she told me, but rather a story about a woman conjured up from my imagination.

SWAN: How has the project affected your own work as a writer, poet and teacher?

OPA: A great deal. I am not writing as much, but I discovered that I love editing, and interviewing, and I feel as if I am making such an important contribution. I am really okay where I currently am in life. I am not teaching anymore, at least not full time so that is not impacted. I am still writing poetry, because I must, because I am driven, because without it I might not remain with my two feet on the ground. However, doing a journal is a full-time preoccupation. Before you are done with one issue, you are thinking about the next - who to interview? Is the theme relevant? Will you get enough good submissions to produce an issue, ad nauseam? And then there is the constant challenge after numerous emails to get writers and artists to submit their bios and photos… the nitty gritty work; it requires so much effort, back and forth, to receive all that is required to get the issue done. 

SWAN: What is the focus of the current issue, and who are the personalities featured?

The journal invites submissions for a special
issue devoted to late poet Kamau Brathwaite.
OPA: For the first time I had a co-editor, Juleus Ghunta, and that was such an amazing help and collaboration. I had decided on the theme in advance and because Juleus is an emerging writer, with a children’s book, and I liked his insight, I invited him to co-edit with me; he brought a lot to the project and was more in tune with those publishing in this arena. The issue we just completed is the 2nd of a two-volume feature on children’s literature and features some amazing writers, publishers and illustrators of children literature for the Caribbean.

SWAN: How do you visualize Interviewing the Caribbean in 2030?

OPA: That it is a coffee table book in every household that reads. That it is translated in all the major languages spoken throughout the Caribbean, and funded to offer more prizes to contributors.

SWAN: What is next for you, as a writer, poet and academic?

OPA: I want to make films of my work and other works. I want to write about 10 more novels and children’s books. I want to launch a literary journal for children of the same caliber as IC; it is a goal I have been working on since 2012 when I was living in St Croix.  I want and plan to continue to be open to life and live fully. - SWAN

(SWAN's founder Alecia McKenzie was among the writers featured in the first issue of Interviewing the Caribbean, which focused on literature, art and intellectual property.)

Sunday, 10 May 2020

FRANCE’S BIGGEST REGGAE FESTIVAL SAYS ‘SOON COME’

One of Europe’s most popular reggae festivals has become another casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic, joining the list of arts events that have had to cancel their 2020 presentations or move to a virtual format because of the global health crisis.

Ziggy Marley performing at Reggae Sun Ska in 2019.
(Photo courtesy of the festival.)
The festival, Reggae Sun Ska, held annually for 22 years in France’s Médoc wine region, announced that it would not take place this year but would be back in August 2021. It also launched the hashtag #SunSkaSoonCome.

“This is usually the time when we count the days before the doors open… when the excitement of organizing this festival so dear to us becomes palpable, and when we look forward to hearing the bass reverberating on stage and festival-goers rushing to the entrance with their smiles,” stated the organizers.

“But after growing uncertainty… we must resign ourselves to cancelling the festival this year.”

The three-day event is known for bringing together music fans to enjoy reggae, calypso, zouk, dancehall and other forms of Caribbean music now performed globally.

Singer Tiken Jah Fakoly at Reggae Sun Ska 2019.
(Photo courtesy of the festival.)
In 2019, some 27,500 spectators traveled from far and wide to see internationally renowned artists such as Jamaica’s Buju Banton and Ziggy Marley; Trinidad’s Calypso Rose; France’s Dub Inc; Brazil’s Flavia Coelho; and Ivory Coast’s Alpha Blondy and Tiken Jah Fakoly. According to participants, the shows were some of the best put on by the festival, the largest event of its kind in France.

The 2020 line-up was to have included young Grammy winner Koffee, Zouk pioneers Kassav and legendary UK band Steel Pulse. But despite remaining “mobilized to move forward”, organizers said the decision to cancel was “inevitable” when the French government announced that public gatherings would be restricted after the end of lockdown on May 11.

Still, the festival has got used to dealing with setbacks over the years, surviving criticism and debates about what Reggae Sun Ska means for the Médoc region and having to relocate from one venue to another. The organizers say they are determined to guarantee the event’s “longevity”, and, alongside the music, they now offer a range of well-being activities, including outdoor yoga and dance.

A poster announces the 2021 Reggae Sun Ska dates.
“Sun Ska is a spirit, it's a family, it's a way of life, a way to think, a philosophy, and this state of mind is nothing Utopian,” said the event’s director Fred Lachaize, following the success of last year.

“Living together, learning together, co-building, recalling the essential values that make up our education and our daily life. This is the basis of our … collective gathering,” he stressed.

Lachaize and his team said the festival would “overcome this new obstacle to offer an unparalleled edition in 2021”.

Acknowledging that the arts sector is among the hardest hit by the pandemic, the festival organizers also called for support in ensuring that cultural events continue to exist, and they expressed concern for the vast numbers of people who’ve contracted Covid-19 as well as for workers on the frontlines.

“We often talk about ‘well-being’ and ‘living well together’ at Sun Ska, so let's take care of ourselves and others,” they urged. – SWAN

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

JAZZ DAY ARTISTS KEEP THE MUSIC GOING, VIRTUALLY

Some of the biggest jazz stars will be participating in International Jazz Day, held annually on April 30, but this year their performances will be virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A composite of the top performers on International Jazz Day.
(Courtesy of the organizers.)
As the disease spread, with nations implementing lockdowns, organizers had to scramble to reschedule the musical event and especially the flagship Global Concert, which was initially slated to take place in Cape Town, South Africa.

Instead of cancelling the show, the main organizers - the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz and the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO - decided to put it online.

Renowned pianist Hancock will host the Global Concert, which will feature artists from across the globe, including A Bu, Dee Dee Bridgewater, John McLaughlin, Ben Williams, Youn Sun Nah, and Dianne Reeves. The presentations will be streamed live on jazzday.com.

“These are unprecedented times for world citizens, and we are most grateful for the support, understanding and partnership of our Jazz Day community,” stated Hancock, who is a UNESCO goodwill ambassador for intercultural dialogue and co-chair of International Jazz Day.

Herbie Hancock (centre) at a previous Jazz Day concert.
“Armed with optimism, patience and grace, we’ll work through these challenges as families, communities, countries and as a stronger united world,” he added.

Hancock called on the public to use the “ethics of Jazz Day’s global movement” to reconnect, “especially in the midst of all this isolation and uncertainty”.

International Jazz Day was established in 2011 on Hancock’s initiative and recognized by the UN General Assembly, with the aim of celebrating jazz and highlighting the music's “important role in encouraging dialogue, combating discrimination and promoting human dignity”.

Since then, the Global Concert has been held at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, at the White House (hosted by then U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama), and in New Orleans and other cities.

As in earlier years - prior to the main event - this ninth edition offers educational masterclasses, children’s activities and discussions via web conference featuring prominent educators and jazz artists. All this will be streamed live via a special UNESCO link: https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/jazzday.

John Beasley (photo: McKenzie)
New York-based jazz radio station WBGO will also host a panel focusing on how International Jazz Day, and art in general, “can respond to the social isolation precipitated by the current public health crisis”, according to organizers. The panel will comprise artists such as award-winning bassist and composer Marcus Miller and South African vocalist Sibongile Khumalo. A live virtual audience will be able to submit questions throughout the session.

In addition, the day’s programming always includes local events around the world, and organizers and musicians from 190 countries “are curating their own digital events with music, videos and other original content showing how jazz brings us all together - unites us - even in challenging times”, said John Beasley, arranger, composer and long-time musical director of the Global Concert.

“Let's keep the intercultural conversations, cooperation, collaboration, and creation going because in the end we help raise mutual understanding, human dignity and peace,” Beasley said. - SWAN

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

LATIN AMERICA & CARIBBEAN WEEK CANCELLED, FRANCE

France’s seventh Semaine de l’Amérique latine et des Caraïbes (Latin America and Caribbean Week / SALC) has been cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Numerous cultural and educational activities had been scheduled for the period May 19 to June 6 throughout the country, but although France’s eight-week lockdown is set to end May 11, most public events will still be restricted.

“Unfortunately, the health crisis we currently face and the timetable set for the gradual resumption of activity force us to cancel,” said Philippe Bastelica, secretary general of the SALC at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I know how disappointed all those who have invested in this project will feel.” 

In previous years, the government and a range of associations spotlighted the cultures of the Americas with exhibitions, colloquia, book launches, concerts and other events - to celebrate links between France and the two regions. 

In 2017, the focus was on the Caribbean, with shows such as the “Jamaica Jamaica!” exhibition about the history of the island’s music (see the SWAN article) and a retrospective of the work of Cuban artist Joaquin Ferrer. In 2019, the events included a discussion of the rights of indigenous peoples and films on the Cuban revolution, at the Institute of Latin American Studies (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3).

Bastelica said the SALC will be “reborn” in 2021, a year that will be “richer and brighter than ever”. - SWAN

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Friday, 10 April 2020

UNESCO TO SUPPORT CULTURAL SECTOR HIT BY COVID-19

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has announced it is “launching initiatives” to support cultural industries and cultural heritage, sectors hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNESCO's Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
(Photo: UNESCO/Calix)
“COVID-19 has put many intangible cultural heritage practices, including rituals and ceremonies, on hold, impacting communities everywhere,” the organization stated April 9. “It has also cost many jobs, and across the globe, artists … are now unable to make ends meet.”

Governments ordered the lockdown of museums, theatres, cinemas and other cultural institutions (along with schools) as infections from the new coronavirus spread around the world in March and April - resulting in 95,000 deaths as of April 9. (The victims have included cultural icons such as playwright Terrence McNally and musicians Manu Dibango, Ellis Marsalis Jr, and John Prine.)

Many arts businesses will find it economically difficult to recover, officials have acknowledged. Bookshops too have had to close their doors, while publishers have largely postponed the publication of books. Numerous international visual-art, literary and music events have been cancelled as well, including the UNESCO-sponsored International Jazz Day main concerts, which were scheduled to take place in South Africa April 30.

The UN had already launched measures to assist the estimated 1.5 billion students affected by school closures, but this is the first time its cultural agency has directly addressed the impact on the arts.

“UNESCO is committed to leading a global discussion on how best to support artists and cultural institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, and ensuring everyone can stay in touch with the heritage and culture that connects them to their humanity,” stated UNESO’s Director General Audrey Azoulay on Thursday.

UNESCO's Paris headquarters are closed
during France's lockdown. (Photo: SWAN)
The agency (whose headquarters in Paris remain closed, in line with French lockdown rules) will convene a virtual meeting of the world’s culture ministers on April 22, to discuss the impact of COVID-19 in their countries and to “identify remedial policy measures appropriate to their various national contexts”.

This follows an emergency online meeting of education ministers hosted on March 10, and a meeting of science ministries’ representatives on March 30. Earlier this month, the organization introduced a “CodeTheCurve” Hackathon to “support young innovators, data scientists and designers across the world to develop digital solutions to counter the COVID-19 pandemic”. The Hackathon will run until April 30, in partnership with IBM and SAP, UNESCO said.

For culture, the organization said it was launching an international social media campaign, #ShareOurHeritage and initiating an online exhibition of “dozens of heritage properties across the globe”, with technical support from Google Arts & Culture.

It will give information via its website and social media on the impact of COVID-19 on World Heritage sites, which are partly or fully closed to visitors in most countries because of the pandemic.

The Eiffel Tower is one of many World Heritage sites
closed to the public during the pandemic. (Photo: SWAN)
Children around the world will be invited to share drawings of World Heritage properties, giving them the chance to “express their creativity and their connection to heritage”, UNESCO added.

On World Art Day, 15 April 2020, the organization will partner with musician and Goodwill Ambassador Jean Michel Jarre to host an online debate and social media campaign, the “ResiliArt Debate”. This will bring together “artists and key industry actors to sound the alarm on the impact of COVID-19 on the livelihoods of artists and cultural professionals”, UNESCO said.

It remains to be seen how these initiatives will help the cultural and creative sectors, which provide some 30 million jobs worldwide. Many artists have reported dire circumstances, but many are also using their creativity to deal with the situation.

Since the health crisis started, artists have been providing online concerts, sharing artwork digitally and taking other steps to reach out to audiences, as “billions of people around the world turn to culture for comfort and to overcome social isolation”, to use UNESCO’s words.

“Now, more than ever, people need culture,” said Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, assistant UNESCO director-general for the sector.

“Culture makes us resilient. It gives us hope. It reminds us that we are not alone,” he added.

For an earlier article on the impact of COVID-19 on cultural and creative industries, please see: http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/03/arts-culture-trying-keep-lights-amid-covid-19/

Follow SWAN’s founder on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday, 26 March 2020

FAREWELL TO MANU DIBANGO, AFRICAN MUSIC PIONEER

Young music fans singing along to “mama se, mama sa, ma ma coo sa” might not have known this refrain was sampled from Manu Dibango’s global hit “Soul Makossa”. Some might even have attributed the song to Michael Jackson or Rihanna, but now with the outpouring of tributes to Dibango, they’re likely better informed.

Dibango, who died March 24 in France at age 86 after contracting Covid-19, was a pioneer of funk and a “giant” in African music. Born in Cameroon, he influenced musicians both on his home continent and internationally, as he performed a wide range of genres, fusing jazz, Afrobeat and traditional sounds.

When he released “Soul Makossa” in 1972, it became a huge hit, and its chorus was later “borrowed” by both Jackson (who paid an out-of-court settlement for its unauthorized use) and Rihanna.

Performing primarily as a saxophonist, Dibango was also proficient on the vibraphone and piano. He wrote lyrics and composed and arranged music as well. As an artist and activist, he used his stature to promote African solidarity and raise the profile of African music in countries such as France and Belgium, where he lived, according to historians.

“For me, he was a massive artist globally, a giant in African soul and funk,” said Martin Evans, a professor of history at the University of Sussex and one of three international curators of an exhibition that profiled Dibango a few months ago.

Manu Dibango in the studio in the early days of his career.
(Photo courtesy of "Paris-Londres")
That show highlighted how Dibango and other African musicians such as Salif Keïta changed the sound of French music. Held at Paris’ Musée de l’histoire d’immigration (National Museum of the History of Immigration), the exhibition - titled Paris-Londres: Music Migrations (1962-1989) - explored “the close and complex relationship between migration, music, anti-racism and political activism”.

“Dibango’s influence on the French and francophone music world was enormous,” said Evans, adding that the musician had generously loaned personal objects and other items to the exhibition because he thought it provided an important narrative.

“He was very political, and very conscious of African solidarity,” Evans told SWAN.

In 1984 for instance, Dibango teamed up with several African artists in Paris to produce “Tam Tam Pour l’Ethiopie”, a single to raise funds for the famine-stricken country. It was recorded in response to Band Aid’s “Do They Know Its Christmas” - which had offended many Africans with its  “patronizing” lyrics, including: “And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time / The greatest gift they'll get this year is life (Oooh)”. 

Besides his activism, Dibango was always interested in the avant-garde and in what up-and-coming musicians were doing as well, say music experts.

Singer Angélique Kidjo collaborated with Dibango.
(Photo: McKenzie / SWAN)
“I saw him play at the Fête de l’Humanité in 1991,” Evans recalled, “and he joined young rappers on stage and just riffed with them. He was amazing.” (The Fête is an annual arts event to raise funds for French Communist Party newspaper l’Humanité.)

Earlier this year, Dibango rehearsed with Beninese singer Angélique Kidjo, who called him the “original giant of African music” on her Twitter account. Others, including deejay Louie Vega termed him “a true pioneer of many sounds”.

For historian Evans, Dibango was a pioneer in every sense, even if his importance “might not have registered” universally.

“What was most striking, too, was his modesty and humility, given all he accomplished,” Evans said.

In addition to Soul Makossa, Dibango released more than 60 albums over the course of his career and worked with a range of artists including American jazz legend Herbie Hancock, South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Jamaican reggae producers Sly and Robbie and Cuban singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa.

Dibango’s death from Covid-19 in a Paris-area hospital occurred as the pandemic worsened in France, with more than 20,000 confirmed cases and over 1,000 fatalities as of March 24. A statement on his official Facebook page said that his funeral would be a private event and that a tribute would be organized when possible. - SWAN

Monday, 23 March 2020

INTERROGATING CONCEPTS OF CARIBBEAN DIASPORA

By Dr. Suzanne Scafe

The journal African and Black Diaspora has just published a Special Issue titled “African-Caribbean Women Interrogating Diaspora/Post-diaspora” (2020).


The articles in this issue originated as papers presented at a conference held at London South Bank University in July 2018, representing the work of a network of scholars from the UK, Canada and the Caribbean, who had been focusing on Caribbean women’s mobility, and, in particular, issues of diaspora, globalization and transnationalism.

Guyanese-British artist Desrie Thomson-George.
The conference was attended by more than 70 scholars, students, activists and artists, and was accompanied by a show of life-size sculptures and paintings by Guyanese-British artist Desrie Thomson-George.

This artwork tells the story of Thomson-George’s alter ego Jilo, and her struggles and journey to survival. The work was used to illustrate the Research Network’s first publication, a collection of essays in the open access journal, The Caribbean Review of Gender Studies (https://sta.uwi.edu/crgs/june2019/index.asp)

As conference co-organizers, Dr. Leith Dunn and I were also pleased to welcome British novelist Diana Evans, whose third novel Ordinary People (2018), shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Literature, was launched at the conference, and prize-winning short-story writer, novelist and journalist Alecia McKenzie, who read a story from her ground-breaking collection Satellite City (1992) as well as a recently written poem.

The second edition of the award-winning Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (2018), by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, was also launched at the conference

The articles in Africa and Black Diaspora, an international journal, address the complexity of the diasporic experience for Caribbean women, the fluidity of the migration process and the importance of the material and affective links forged by individuals on either side of the migration divide.

The cover of Heart of the Race.
Pat Noxolo’s article, for instance, uses the iconic poem by Jamaican writer Lorna Goodison, “I am becoming my mother”, as well as a series of family photographs, to frame the author’s own reflections on the relationship with her mother and her mother’s own process of migration and settlement in Birmingham during the 1960s. In the process of this analysis, Noxolo examines what concepts of diaspora or post-diaspora mean to communities and to the experiences of individuals and their families.

Focusing on her experiences as a teacher and black feminist activist in the UK from the 1960s to the 1990s, Beverly Bryan also uses a series of personal photographs to trace the physical, political and psychological effects of the journey from migrant to a settler.

Other articles explore the meaning of home: Gabriella Beckles-Raymond argues that concepts of home are central to African-Caribbean women’s understanding of diaspora. Home is used by the author as a theoretical and ethical framework, and she traces the changes in the meaning of home, from a concept that implies a state of dependency to an interdependent state, characterized by the loving and “liberatory”.

Several contributions focus on literature and visual arts, and include analyses of the work of Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Chimamanda Ngozi Ndiche, and Caribbean-diasporic visual artists Nicole Awai, Aisha Tandiwe Bell, Andrea Chung, Elizabeth Colomba and Jeannette Ehlers.    

In a reflection of the conference’s diverse participants and presentations, this Special Issue includes the work of two poets, Jenny Mitchell, and Paris-based McKenzie, whose novel Sweetheart was the 2012 Caribbean Regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize. The poetry of these writers reflects the issue’s themes of migration, diaspora, home, history and belonging.

Friday, 20 March 2020

ARTS – TRYING TO KEEP THE LIGHTS ON AMID COVID-19

With the spread of the Covid-19 disease, the arts and culture sectors have seen a flood of cancellations and postponements, affecting artists around the world and putting the global 2,000-billion-dollar creative industry at risk.

Concerts, book fairs, film and literary festivals - including the famed Cannes Film Festival - and a range of other events have had to move their dates or cancel outright, while bookshops, museums and cinemas have been forced to close their doors.

American jazz singer Denise King.
The sectors, which employ some 30 million people worldwide, will be among those hit hardest by the pandemic, according to analysts, and individual artists are already fighting to maintain their livelihood.

“Everyone is greatly impacted and suffering,” says American jazz singer Denise King. “As a member of the artist/musician community, I’ve gone from a fairly heavy touring and gig schedule … to nothing. To face this sudden loss of income is devastating. Many artists like myself are scrambling to come up with creative ways to generate income.”

With some 210,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, and 8,778 deaths by March 19 (about three months after the outbreak in Wuhan, China), both wealthy and low-income countries are affected, but vulnerable states are particularly at risk, according to the UN. Along with the health sector, culture and other areas will struggle to recover.

In the Caribbean, several festivals have announced postponements. The popular Calabash literary festival in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, will now take place in September 2020 instead of May, while the national Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago is similarly postponed.

“We watched and waited to make this decision,” stated Calabash co-organizers Justine Henzell and Kwame Dawes, who stressed that there was no other option given the travel restrictions.

Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
Jamaica was among the first in the region to order lockdowns and to restrict travel from several affected countries. The minister of culture, gender, entertainment and sport, Olivia “Babsy” Grange, announced the closure of cultural and sport facilities, including museums, galleries, and stadia run by the government, on March 13, with effect from the following day.

She said the closures were “in keeping with the government’s strategy to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Jamaica and to minimise the potential health impact on the country”, and she urged those in the cultural, sport and entertainment sectors to “take all necessary precautions and follow the guidance of the health authorities”.

The island had 13 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of March 19, and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has commended the government of Andrew Holness for its response to the pandemic. But officials are aware of the fiscal effects of the crisis.

The Caribbean economy is strongly tied to tourism, including cultural tourism, with the sector representing around 14% of the region’s total GDP, while the arts and culture fields employ thousands of workers.

According to the United Nations agency UNESCO (which has had to close its doors in Paris), the cultural and creative industry sectors generate annual revenues of US$2,250 billion and global exports of more than US$250 billion.  

These industries currently provide nearly 30 million jobs worldwide and employ more people aged 15 - 29 than any other sector, the agency said in a 2018 report, “Reshaping Cultural Policies”. Nearly half of the people working in the cultural and creative industries are women, the report showed.

The poster for Paris Livre - now cancelled.
For states such as France, which is the most visited country in the world with 90 million tourists annually, the shuttering of the cultural sector is unprecedented in peacetime.

The Paris Book Fair, or Livre Paris, was the first major event to announce its cancellation. Normally attracting about 160,000 visitors each year, the Fair was scheduled for March 20-23 and was set to put Indian literature in the spotlight. But when France banned events with gatherings of 5,000 or more people in early March, there was no choice but to cancel.

“Everyone is going to lose a lot of money. Some of us won’t survive,” an independent Paris-based publisher, who asked not to be named, told SWAN. “Those who do manage to keep going will have to push back their planned publications.”

The owners of some bookshops had hoped to stay open, arguing that people need material to read when in confinement, but they too have had to pull down the shutters, although newsagents can remain in operation.

The Louvre, the world’s most visited museum, first closed its doors for a few days at the beginning of March because staffers invoked their right to walk off the job if they felt at risk. It reopened, but soon it and all museums, galleries and cinemas had to close because of the government’s decree on March 16, putting the population in lockdown.

“We’re at war” against the virus, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address, ordering the confinement. Since March 17, only places offering essential services are allowed to be open, and residents may leave their home for brief periods only after filling in a form, on their honour, called the “attestation de déplacement dérogatoire”.

Happier times at the Cannes Film Festival.
With confirmed Covid-19 cases above 10,000 in France, the organizers of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival said on March 19 they had decided to postpone the event. The festival had earlier announced that American director Spike Lee would head the competition jury - the first person of African descent to have this role - and he is expected to be present for the new dates.

“The Festival de Cannes cannot be held on the scheduled dates, from May 12 to 23. Several options are considered in order to preserve its running, the main one being a simple postponement, in Cannes, until the end of June-beginning of July 2020,” the festival team stated.

The organizers said they would make their final decision known following ongoing consultation with the French government and Cannes City Hall, and they called on residents to respect the rules of the lockdown and to "show solidarity in these difficult times".

In the United States, where the government has been widely criticised for being slow to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, cultural events are being cancelled one after the other as well.

PEN, the international association of writers, said it was with “heavy hearts” that it had decided to cancel the 2020 PEN America World Voices Festival scheduled for May 6 - 12.

Some of the writers who were invited to the PEN festival. 
“We were hoping that this awful public health crisis might ebb by May, and that we could emerge with the exciting events we had curated for audiences in New York and Los Angeles. It’s now plain such plans are neither realistic nor safe for our participants and our audiences,” stated Suzanne Nossel, CEO, PEN America, and Chip Rolley, director of the festival.

“We join the ranks of cultural institutions in New York, Los Angeles, and across the country that will temporarily go dark this spring,” they added. “The World Voices Festival was founded in the wake of 9/11 to provide a beacon for writers and audiences from around the world and to build bridges across borders as an antidote to cultural isolationism. As a new and unexpected isolation is thrust upon us, we regret deeply that we won’t be able to shine that light or foster those vital in-person connections.”

The organisation said it was “seeking new means” to bring directly to audiences the “words, ideas, and artistry” of the writers who’d been invited, including Arundhati Roy and Colm Tóibín. This might be done “through a variety of digital means”, including a new podcast set to launch soon.

Closed: UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
The branch of PEN in England, English PEN, meanwhile said it was “with great sadness” that the organization had decided to postpone or cancel all its events “at least until 30 April 2020 following the latest public health advice from the government”. The group announced the creation of an Authors Emergency Fund on March 20, to “help support authors impacted financially by the growing health crisis”.

In the face of the pandemic, not all is doom and gloom in the cultural sector, however. Singers such as John Legend and Chris Martin have been streaming concerts via their social media accounts, as part of the “Sessions: Together, At Home” series - an initiative launched by the Global Citizen Festival and the World Health Organization.  

In addition, some publishers are offering significant discounts on their books, while others have made stories, poetry and textbooks available online. From confinement, one can also view many of the world’s art masterpieces via museum web platforms and see films that festivals have decided to stream for free.

King, the jazz vocalist, said she will present a performance on Facebook live, and she called on the public to assist at-risk artists in whatever way they can.

“We have to hold each other up,” she told SWAN. “Perhaps this virus serves as way to help us focus on what really matters and to reconnect.” - A.M. / SWAN

You can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday, 8 March 2020

FILM: LIFE AS ENDURANCE FOR 4 NORTH AFRICAN WOMEN

By Dimitri Keramitas

It can be hard sometimes to appreciate a documentary that consists essentially of talking heads, but Visages de la Victoires (The Faces of Victory) presents not so much heads as faces. 

Director Lyèce Boukhitine has selected four North African women (one is his own mother) to tell stories of immigrant life in France over the decades. The women arrived in the 1950s and 1960s and have been in the country ever since. Their faces are lined but fiercely alive, marked by ordeal, pain, and suffering but also resilience.

The poster for the film.
Among other things, Boukhitine aims to pop certain preconceptions we have of the immigrant experience of that time (and perhaps, by inference, nowadays as well). One is that immigrants were all desperate to come to European destinations in the first place. The director’s mother, Cherifa, for instance, never intended to settle in France. Her husband told her they were only going for a short visit – which ended up lasting several decades.

Another assumption is that the conditions they found were paradisiacal compared to the homes they left. Cherifa was used to the well-developed urban environment of Algiers. In France, she found herself in the remote countryside, a no-man’s-land. Her husband didn’t permit her to work, educate herself, or even to go outdoors. She was allowed one activity: having children, more and more children, 14 in all. 

Cherifa is surprisingly forgiving of her late husband, who had been a hard man. She maintains that he’d become so hardened because he’d been removed from his culture and society, his family, and put into a dog-eat-dog environment.

Nevertheless his passing was a liberation for her. Cherifa not only recounts the past but lives her present before our eyes: she’s learns to read and to drive, acquires citizenship, and votes for the first time. She is unemotional about the last milestone, just says it’s a matter of doing her duty. 

A scene from the film. (Photo courtesy of Dean Médias.)
Boukhitine focuses, naturally, on his mother, gingerly and affectionately probing. But he also steps back to show the town where she lives, and the others who accompany her along the new steps in her life. 

In these sequences we’re treated to a positive and human view of a small French town, rather than the usual grim depiction of banlieues. In addition, Cherifa describes how existence in the countrified ghetto wasn’t limited to North Africans but was culturally diverse, with immigrants from other countries as well. 

The director decides to turn to other North African women, not just to fill out his portrait but to ask blunter questions that he couldn’t with his mother. Jimiia, the second woman to be featured, is more idiosyncratic than Cherifa. She’s an observant Muslim who’s covered even when she’s interviewed in her home. At the same time, her head scarf is eye-catching, studded with glittering silver.

Compared with the stolid Earth Mother Cherifa, we imagine that Jimiia turned heads in her day. She’s gone on the haj to Mecca, but that only came after taking another pilgrimage, to Lourdes. It's not clear if she did this out of curiosity or to prepare herself for the other arduous trip. We also see her as she watches videos of Muslim preachers. But when we get to her story she makes no bones about the abuse she suffered at the hands of a male-dominated tradition.

Endurance as "victory". (Photo courtesy of Dean Médias.) 
Like Cherifa, Jimiia was forced into marriage with an older man, in her case one who was already married. Her husband, whom she found repugnant from the beginning, raped and beat her. She took the radical step of divorce and, unlike Cherifa, who was coerced into immigrating, Jimiia remained in France as a domestic-abuse refugee, before that situation knew a name.  

The third woman, Mimouna, presents a meek, gentle face and appears initially to have a more “traditional” outlook. She speaks with an occasional high-pitched emphasis and wears a headscarf in an unassuming way. She hasn’t suffered the male depredations of the previous women, one reason being that she anticipated them from an early age. 

She agreed to her teenage arranged marriage - but told her future husband that if he ever laid a hand on her she’d kill him. He never did. Her husband seems to have been a decent man, though we can never know if he was that way from the start or appreciated a strong woman. She was Algerian, he was Moroccan. She agreed to a rugged road-trip so that their children could discover the land of their forebears.

A victory: voting. (Photo courtesy of Dean Médias.) 
But when her husband had the chance to construct a home in his country, she gave him an ultimatum: me or Morocco. There were two countries of origin, which had been at odds over territory in the Western Sahara. The couple needed a land of compromise, and France was that county. The husband chose his wife, and France. The irony here is that the eventual death of the husband, instead of being a liberating relief, was genuinely tragic.

The last of the quartet of women is Aziza, the most Westernized. Her hair is well-coiffed, she dresses smartly, and she speaks French impeccably. She comes across as learned and intellectually sophisticated. The thought many viewers may find themselves having is that it’s particularly sad for such a woman to suffer the ignominies of patriarchal structures. But while Aziza’s suffering is the most articulately delineated, it is not necessarily more felt than the other three, or by any number of poor, less educated immigrant women. The director confronts us with the realization that everyone has the right to human dignity. 

Recounting survival. (Photo courtesy of Dean Médias.)
Aziza started working late in life, in social services - only after being widowed. Her being employed was unthinkable during her husband’s lifetime. We follow on a guided tour of her past impoverishment. She describes how her husband obtained what amounted to a shack, which was unheated and without sanitary facilities. Although the public housing called HLM is now seen as drab and oppressive, at that time it was a godsend. We see period photos of what look like shantytowns or favelas and understand why. Aziza’s self-control describing her long Calvary can be maddening, but we recognize this tone for what it is: a distancing survival mechanism for a victim and a way to maintain moral authenticity as a witness.

Although the director’s reason for interviewing women other than his mother was to permit himself more liberty in his questioning, he actually becomes more self-effacing. There’s less emotional investment, which is only natural. We don’t really want his story to displace that of the women, and his decency and discretion are palpable.

It’s discomfiting for a male viewer to realize that the “victory” of the title comes to a great extent from the women’s longevity in relation to their husbands - that they outlived them. One might reason that the men did it to themselves, being the hard-working, hard-living sort. But ultimately it was the system that used them as economic cannon fodder, treated their women (and children) as collateral damage, and then spit them into an early grave.

The women also see victory in the younger generations of their families. We see the grand-daughters, modern young women for whom the conditions depicted in the film are as alien as the Jurassic Age. It’s heart-warming, yet we know there are other young women whose lives are not as rosy.

Obscurantist tradition still exists, and brutal economics and dehumanizing technology and culture seem ready to pick up the slack. The real message of the film seems to be one of endurance rather than victory. Either way, the harrowing journeys are always absorbing, and the faces that recount them have a special beauty. We can characterize Les Visages de la Victoire as Mother Courage x 4, except that there are many, many more than just these four women. 

Distribution: Dean Médias

Les Visages de la Victoire opens in French cinemas this week.