Wednesday 29 March 2017


It’s one of those movie-like spring days in Paris, where blue skies and brilliant sunshine lift spirits after a long, wet, grey winter. Many people are outdoors trying to catch the rays, but Jamaican artist Danny Coxson is not among them.  He’s inside a museum in a northeastern neighbourhood of the French capital, with a brush in his hand and tubs of vivid paint beside him, focusing on finishing a portrait of a deejay named Big Youth.

Artist Danny Coxson and Curator Sebastien Carayol.
Coxson’s artwork - colourful and precise renditions of Jamaica’s best known musicians - is the “common thread” that links the vast range of items on display in Jamaica Jamaica!, France’s first major exhibition on the history and impact of Jamaican music.

Raised in Trench Town, like Bob Marley, 55-year-old Coxson has been painting since he was a young man, but he says he didn’t take it seriously until he was in his early thirties, when he lost three fingers through a machete incident in 1991. Since then, he has devoted his career to painting murals of Jamaica’s singers, producers and sound engineers, holding his paintbrush in the remaining fingers of his right hand.

Through a grant from the Institut français cultural agency, Coxson has been artist-in-residence in Paris since February, painting murals and portraits for the massive exhibition. On this day, he’s an island of calm in the museum, as workers rush around, finalizing the display for the public opening on April 4.

“This exhibition is a good thing for us Jamaicans,” Coxson says in an interview. “But we have to wake up about our own culture because sometimes we don’t value it enough. And look at how people come from so far and take it up.”

Jamaican music and artistic production have contributed greatly to the island’s cultural and economic development, but this is sometimes overlooked, Coxson says. Artists like him don’t receive enough official support, but perhaps the international spotlight will lead to greater local recognition of the role the arts play in development.

The Jamaica Jamaica! show is being held at the Philharmonie de Paris, a cultural institution at Paris’ immense Cité de la Musique complex. The Philharmonie focuses on music in all its forms and comprises state-of-the-art auditoriums, exhibition spaces, and practise rooms. It had long wanted to host an exhibition about Jamaican music, says Marion Challier, exhibition project manager.

“But we wanted to show the culture as well as the music and to show that Jamaican music is an important part of the history of the Black Atlantic,” she adds. “There are so many stereotypes about the music and so many stigmas attached and we wanted to go beyond that.”

For the organizers, including curator Sébastien Carayol, it was important to show the African roots of the music and to shine a spotlight on its early forms, such as kumina and mento, as well as on ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall. “It was essential for us that the exhibition wasn’t just about Bob Marley,” Challier says.

Photos of Bob Marley are a key part of the display.
Items about Jamaica’s most famous musician, and his band-mates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, naturally form a significant part of the exhibition, but the show delves into the island’s “complex history” and the role that music has played throughout.

According to the organizers, “The branches of Jamaican music reach as widely as those of jazz or blues, and its roots dig deep into the days of slavery, tracing back to traditional forms of song and dance inherited from the colonisation of the 18th and 19th centuries.”

Still, “what many people don’t know is that since the 1950s, inventions in Jamaican music - born out of the ‘do-it-yourself’ ingenuity pulsing through the ghettos of Kingston - have laid the foundations for most modern-day urban musical genres, giving rise to such fixtures of todayʼs musical lingo as ‘DJ’, ‘sound system’, ‘remix’, ‘dub’, etc.”

The Philharmonie adds that: “Jamaican music is anything but one-dimensional. Often placed under the heading ‘World Music’, it is so popular around the globe that it could be called the ‘World’s Music’”.

Carayol, the curator, says that a particular interest for him was to show the “legendary sound systems” that have been an intrinsic part of 20th-century Jamaican culture. The exhibition has assembled original “sound-system” speakers, or "mobile discos", dating from the 1950s and 1960s, for instance. Many of these had been discarded, and it was thanks to collectors who “rescued” them that they can now be displayed.

Coxson and Exhibition Project Manager Marion Challier.
In fact, one huge speaker box was being used as a bench in somebody’s yard when a collector from the United Kingdom spotted it and managed to get it renovated, according to Carayol. It’s currently back in working order.

These sound systems lend themselves to the interactive nature of parts of the exhibition. Visitors are invited, for instance, to take a stint as the “selector”, to spin records, “turn up the volume and feel” their own sound “delivered by a world-class sound system custom built by sonic master Paul Axis”.

In other spaces, visitors get to learn about the famed Alpha Boys School, where orphans or other disadvantaged youth were groomed to become musicians at an institution run by Roman Catholic nuns in Kingston.

The School has had its own band since the 1890s, and its alumni have influenced the development of both ska and reggae, according to historians. The four founding members of the Skatalites group (Tommy McCook, Don Drummond, Johnny "Dizzy" Moore and Lester Sterling) were “Alpha boys”, and the exhibition includes a vibrant mural of the group - painted by Coxson.

Musical instruments from the Skatalites.
“These young men overcame their beginnings and became truly proficient musicians,” says Carayol. “That story is very important to me. It’s a universal story.”

The School will have tee-shirts on sale to raise funds for its continued operation, following fears that it would have to be closed in the future.

Jamaica Jamaica! also includes paintings of personalities often mentioned in reggae lyrics, such as Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and visitors can listen to records that mention these political figures.

“Through installation, artwork, recordings, film - we’re trying to explain who everyone is,” says Carayol.

Asked why he, a Frenchman, was the curator of the exhibition, Carayol said the “simple” reason was: “You spend three years writing a project and it has to be written in French.”

Beyond that he has the “interest and the expertise,” he said, having spent years researching and directing films about the music. “The last thing I want is to be an outsider looking in and telling Jamaican people about themselves. I’m here for them to teach us and not the other way around. That’s my main focus,” he emphasized.

For Jamaicans who lived through the turbulent 1970s, an aspect of the exhibition that will strike a particular chord is the connection between the music and politics, and this is presented in a number of ways. There are the songs that came out of that period, rare film footage, and iconic photographs of the famed One Love Peace Concert, when Marley tried to bring together warring factions aligned with politicians Michael Manley and Edward Seaga.

The so-called “rod of correction” used by then prime minister Manley is on display too. Manley gained support from the island’s Rastafarian community partly by claiming that Haile Selassie had given him this rod, or walking stick. And though that claim was later debunked, the “rod” remains the stuff of legend.

Both Manley and Marley are depicted in artwork throughout the exhibition, in paintings by some of Jamaica’s most celebrated artists, including the late Barrington Watson. Many pieces are on loan from the National Gallery of Jamaica and from private collectors on the island and in the United States and Britain.

Artwork by Danny Coxson at the exhibition.
“One of the big surprises was learning about the art,” Carayol says. “It’s an evocation of the music, and I want to show these artists to people who don’t know about them.”

The expected 150,000 visitors probably won’t forget Coxson, as his paintings of the island’s talented musicians and of renowned Jamaican poet Louise Bennett put these personalities resolutely centre stage.

(Photos and text - copyright AM / SWAN)

"Jamaica Jamaica!" runs from April 4 to August 13, 2017. It includes a "Jamaica Weekend" with concerts, workshops and lectures. For another version of this article, please visit the Inter Press news agency site:

Tuesday 28 March 2017


Long lines of people waiting to speak to an author. Children sitting on the floor immersed in their reading. An African Nobel Prize laureate giving his views on subjects ranging from literature to retirement. A presidential candidate surrounded by throngs of reporters and young people. Books and writers from all over the world.

Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka at Paris Livre.
(Photo: McKenzie)
The sense of excitement at the 2017 Paris Book Fair (Livre Paris) demonstrated once more that books are still important to a great number of people. During the four-day event, March 24-27, some sessions were so crowded that visitors found it difficult to move from stand to stand.

The interest shown by readers and high-profile visitors such as French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was good news for the event's organizers, as well as for the publishers from 50 countries and the nearly 3,000 authors attending the Fair.

“It’s a great opportunity to connect with readers,” said Rodney Saint-Éloi, a Canada-based Haitian poet, publisher and founder of the company Mémoire d’Encrier.

He said he had been coming to the Fair since 1989 and that it had grown in diversity, which was contributing to its “richness”.

An expanded African Literature pavilion, for instance, hosted a wide range of events, with participants who included Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Along with the interviews of authors, the discussions included topics about women’s intellectual work to achieve change, diaspora writing, and the issue of translation of African languages.

Canada-based Haitian publisher Rodney Saint-Eloi.
(Photo: McKenzie)
Translation, in fact, was a significant theme of the Fair, which is one of the world’s leading events for literature in French.

Saint-Éloi said that throughout the Caribbean, for example, much more needs to be done to make books accessible in the region’s languages: French, English, Spanish, Dutch and different Creoles.

“What’s really lacking is translation, and for this we have to change the previous routes,” he told SWAN. “The islands need to speak to one another directly without passing through former colonial administrations.”

Saint-Éloi said he hoped to see a multi-island space for Caribbean writing in future editions of international book fairs. Traditionally, France’s overseas departments and territories have had their own pavilion, which includes writers from Martinique and Guadeloupe, but several visitors were on the lookout for a “pan-Caribbean” stand this year.

Canadian author Tristan Malavoy.
(Photo: McKenzie)
Many of the books by Haitian as well as French-speaking African writers were on sale at Canada’s Québec pavilion, where Saint-Éloi displayed works from his publishing house.

Acclaimed Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière, who writes in French and was elected to the Académie française in 2013, was on hand to present his novels and range of children’s books, but the stand equally highlighted new voices in Canadian fiction. These included Vietnamese author Caro Vu and the multi-talented Tristan Malavoy, who signed copies of his award-winning book Le Nid de Pierres (The Nest of Stones).

“The fair is a very rich, if overwhelming, experience,” Malavoy said. “The range of literature and the number of visitors really create an impact that’s unforgettable.”

This year, Morocco was the Fair's guest of honour, and writers from the North African country had their books on display in a strikingly designed ivory-coloured pavilion, next to a restaurant set up under a traditional tent featuring Moroccan furniture and implements: round brass tables, wooden stools, silver teapots. Visitors could eat tajine or couscous and sip mint tea while they read the books they’d bought.

One of the literary stars was naturally Moroccan-French writer Leila Slimani, who won the prestigious Goncourt prize in 2016 for her novel Chanson douce. She livened up a discussion with her views on women's rights and other subjects. The perennial attraction of the Fair, however, is not only the chance to meet the famous, but also to discover new books and writers. Along with the Moroccan pavilion, this was particularly true of the large section devoted to independent publishers from the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris.

The pavilion housed about 100 small publishers this year, offering novels translated from Yiddish, beautifully bound poetry collections, Brazilian stories translated into French, and books about relevant subjects written in new ways.

Independent publisher Plein Jour, for instance, showcased a book titled Nous avons arpenté un chemin caillouteux (We've traversed rocky terrain), which recounts the true story of five members of the Black Liberation Army who hijacked a plane flying from Detroit to Miami in 1972 with 82 passengers on board.

The plane landed in Miami, where the hostages were released. But the hijackers, accompanied by their children, carried on to Algeria, after ransom money was “delivered” to the aircraft. The perpetrators (including Jean and Melvin McNair) were arrested and later released in Algeria, and some made it to France where they continued living, after various court cases that highlighted the dehumanizing aspects of racism in the United States and the factors that pushed them to act.

Author Sylvain Pattieu, a French historian, novelist and lecturer, tells this story in an original manner, with short passages mixing fact and imagination and showing the effects of the hijacking on the lives of those involved. The book was one of several unexpected discoveries at this year’s increasingly varied Livre Paris. (SWAN)

Saturday 18 March 2017


“So, tell me about the book,” he said. “Who published it?”

When I told him the name of the publisher, he joked: “And how much they paying for an advance these days? I hope you got a few pounds.”

Derek Walcott in 2012
 (Photo: Centro Culturale di Milano)
That made me laugh. The advance was not worth mentioning, but I was happy the book was out. Still, what was there to say about a first collection of stories to a Nobel Prize winner?

Later, another writer assured me that this particular laureate, Derek Walcott, was genuinely interested in the work of young authors. He had in fact lent his support to several up-and-coming writers in his homeland St. Lucia and other Caribbean countries.

His graciousness stood in contrast to the star treatment that he was receiving at this conference on Caribbean literature, organized by Italian scholar Luigi Sampietro. We were in Milan, in the mid-Nineties, and everyone hung onto Walcott’s words. Applause broke out at his every utterance. It was surreal to be sharing a table, not only with him, but also with Guyanese writers Wilson Harris and David Dabydeen and with Jamaican prize-winning author Olive Senior.

Walcott mixed erudition and humour, and he elicited laughter by constantly murmuring asides in patois. When I offered to translate the speech of a Spanish-speaking fellow writer, he said teasingly: “You sure you know enough Spanish for that?”

He was right, and I was happy when someone in the audience - who was truly fluent - volunteered to do the translation. Walcott had studied languages (Spanish, French and Latin) in Jamaica, at the University of the West Indies, so he probably could have done the interpreting himself.

At dinner that evening, he and his partner Sigrid Nama displayed unfailing good-humour and consideration towards our hosts and other guests, who got an insight into both his poetry and his personality. At the time, Walcott was working on a musical play with singer Paul Simon, and he was frank about the challenges of the project - which would reach the theatre several years later.

Asked about working with the music icon, Walcott didn’t use the opportunity to laud his own contribution, instead he was quick to praise Simon’s efforts, noting how difficult theatre work could be. In addition to being a poet and painter, he was a playwright, and he had full experience of the field.

Most people know of the magnificent legacy Walcott has left with his work, and many will also have heard of the allegations over the years, which should be openly addressed. But perhaps fewer realise the memories that will last of Walcott’s unexpected wit and his grace. – A.M.

On March 19 in Paris, France, writers will pay homage to Walcott’s work at the Poétiques de Résistance event organized by the Institut du Tout-Monde, an organization founded by another acclaimed Caribbean writer, the late Édouard Glissant:

For a complete profile of Walcott, and obituary, please see the New York Times article:

Monday 13 March 2017


Laura Alcoba is an Argentine-born writer and translator who lives in Paris, France. Her first book, Manèges (The Rabbit House), described Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the 1970s from a child’s perspective, when even the very young knew what could happen “if your political sympathies drew the attention of the dictatorial military regime”. Thousands were killed, tortured, and abducted, and many names remain among "los desaparecidos". 

In the powerful and widely acclaimed memoir, readers see events through the eyes of the young Alcoba, whose father is imprisoned, forcing her and her mother to live in hiding with other members of the resistance movement.

Laura Alcoba (Photo: F. Mantovani - Editions Gallimard)
Alcoba followed this affecting story with Le bleu des abeilles (The Blue of the Bees), which recounts her move to Europe to join her mother who had been granted refuge in France. At the age of ten, the author discovered a new country and language, and the book depicts a child’s experiences with living in exile, even as her father remained imprisoned “at home”.

This year Alcoba has published La Danse de l’Araignée (The Dance of the Spider / Gallimard Press), her fifth book and the latest in the highly recommended trilogy of memoirs. In the following interview, she speaks with Jamaican writer Alecia McKenzie (SWAN's editor) about her new work, her natal country, and her life in France as an author. (The interview is translated from French.)

A. McKenzie: How would you describe La Danse de l’Araignée? What can readers expect?
L. Alcoba: In La Danse de l’Araignée,  the 12-year-old narrator lives with her mother and a friend of her mother named Amalia, in France, on the outskirts of Paris. These two women and the young girl are Argentine refugees.  The story takes place at the beginning of the 1980s. The narrator in the book is on the threshold of adolescence and all the changes it brings – anxiety and dreams. Her head is also full of the correspondence that she has with her father, a political prisoner in Argentina. Despite the separation and the physical absence, the father is very much present thanks to the epistolary exchange. In one of his letters, he speaks to her of a spider that could serve as a pet, as a companion. A huge spider, a hairy tarantula, which makes her dream.

Alcoba's lastes book (Gallimard).
But how can a man play his role as a father even when he’s absent? In La Danse de l’Araignée, the challenges and obstacles are so many: distance, the prison where her father is, censorship (the letters are read by the prison administration and have to pass certain controls to enter or leave the prison). However, the narrator and her father manage to speak with each other, and the father/daughter relationship becomes a reality.

A.M.: Why have you told your story as a trilogy, rather than as a one-volume memoir?
L.A.: I didn’t set out to write a trilogy.  These three books came one after the other. A few years following the publication of Manèges (The Rabbit House), it seemed to me that the little girl who narrated the story in my first book – about her life under dictatorship in a house where there was a printing press behind a rabbit-breeding enterprise – should regain the words. To speak of exile, this time, and also the way in which an absent person could be at the centre of a child’s existence:  that’s what I did with Le Bleu des abeilles, where I evoked the correspondence that I maintained for a long time with my father. We wrote once a week to each other for two and a half years.

But after the publication of this book, I realized that the little girl hadn’t said everything there was to say. I felt that she needed to continue her story. Something important happens in La Danse de l’Araignée.  My latest book marks the end of the narrator’s exile: it’s after what is recounted here that she can fully put down roots in her new country. Furthermore, the age of the narrator in La Danse de l’Araignée particularly interests me. This age when one is between two worlds:  that of a child and that of burgeoning adulthood. 

A.M.:  In The Rabbit House, you began the prologue by noting that you thought you would write this story only when you were very old, but then one day you “couldn’t bear to wait any longer”. How did this day come about? What made you begin to “remember the past in much more detail”?
The first in the trilogy.
L.A.: In my first book, I recount a very painful period, under the Argentine dictatorship. A tragic story where several people lost their lives and in which a mother and her daughter are separated: Diana Teruggi and Clara Anahí Mariani. Diana Teruggi was assassinated in November 1976, and her daughter, who was then a baby of three months, was carried off by soldiers. As a child, I lived with my mother in the house of Diana Teruggi and her husband, before these events. Diana was then pregnant. The army was looking for my mother. We had to hide…

I remember very well what we lived through in this house, where several people lost their lives in a tragic way after our departure. For a long time, I had wanted to write about these events. I told myself that if I wanted to become a writer, I needed to find the courage to begin with this. That this story and no other had to be the first stone. But I couldn’t stop saying “later”. 

Still, I felt a sense of urgency at a certain moment. I had to write, immediately. I think the birth of my daughter can explain this feeling. I started writing my first book at the moment that my daughter reached exactly the same age that Clara Anahi was when her mother was assassinated. That, without doubt, contributed to a sort of closeness between Diana and myself, and the memory of Diana came alive. Suddenly I could see her again. Her beauty, her smile, her strength. It was necessary to save a trace of all that, which I could give to others in writing this book.

A.M.:  The events are all portrayed with gripping clarity and intensity in the books. How do you balance “truth” and “memory” as a writer?
L.A.: I tried to bring up all the images from memory (the visual dimension is very important in my writing – it’s always the starting point).  Using these images, I look for the child that I was, and especially her voice. But this voice is that of a character. It’s not me remembering myself from the present. It’s the child who speaks – a child that I no longer am, a child who has to be a creation since she speaks in the present for herself.  But this child, I look for her and I create her through the images of the past that I manage to bring to light. There can of course be some distortions. My books are not testimonies. I see them as the result of a sort of quest.

The intensity with which children and adolescents live in relationship to the world is very special. For them, everything is new, everything is discovery.  I think that the intensity comes from my making a child speak, that I try to give form to the past from this point of view, from this distance”.

A.M.: Yet, how much of your books is bearing witness, so that atrocities committed are not forgotten?
L.A.: The past resonates in us and around us. You cannot turn your back. When it is painful, when it brings wounds, to ignore the past could be toxic, even very dangerous sometimes. All my writing speaks of this, I think.  But if you have to give the hurtful past its place, if you have to listen to it and draw lessons from it, this is also to free yourself from it.

A.M.: You write in French, but you translate books from Spanish. How do you relate to the two languages?
I really need these two languages, which I love deeply. I pass from one to the other ceaselessly. I love translating. But for my literary work, it’s French that comes most naturally. Perhaps because Spanish is tied to fear, as I was growing up. When I was a child, during the Argentine dictatorship, it happened often that I didn’t know what I could say and what I had to keep hidden. So I preferred to keep quiet, it was wiser. It’s because of this that, although I dearly love my maternal language, I’m very grateful for French, very happy of the freedom that I’ve found using it.

A.M.: How have the books been received in Argentina, and in Latin America generally?
L.A.: In Argentina, my books have been received with a lot of warmth and sympathy. Each week, I receive messages from readers, often young people. The reception to the books in Spain, Latin America and particularly Argentina has really touched me.  

A.M.: What’s next for you as a writer?
L.A.: I’m currently writing a book that requires a lot of research and which I hope to finish in a year. But perhaps it will take two more years. It’s a story that occurs between Latin America and Europe. For this novel, I’m working on a true story that requires me to consult many books and to call on others for their memories.

Laura Alcoba and other writers from Latin America and the Caribbean will discuss their work at the Maison de l’Amerique Latine in Paris on March 15, 2017.

(Copyright: SWAN). For another version of this article, please see IPS News:

Wednesday 8 March 2017


In a time of nationalist populism, closed borders, and hostility to immigrants and refugees, a film festival in Paris, France, is countering these trends with a focus on global solidarity via the movie lens.

In fact, the theme of the Week of Foreign Cinema is Resist! and many of the 22 films being screened literally deal with resistance to oppression and violence.

Poster for the documentary Last Shelter.
Organized by FICEP (Forum des Instituts Culturels Etrangers à Paris) - which unites a number of national cultural centres in Paris - the festival goes beyond the usual international offering of films and includes a wide range of countries such as Spain (with a separate entry from Catalonia), Belgium, Austria, Estonia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Greece and Cyprus.

The films are being screened at several cultural centres and a number of Parisian cinemas, and run until March 14.

Some works are having their first public screenings at the festival. The Portuguese entry, Ivo Ferreira’s Letters From the War, about Portugal’s colonial war in Angola in the 1970s, has already attracted critical attention.

In addition, the sharp Austrian documentary Last Shelter, by Gerald Igor Hauzenberger, has provided a talking point since 2015 about European policies regarding refugees. It portrays a group of asylum seekers who went on hunger strike and inhabited a church to protest against the rejection of their asylum request.

"A documentary that takes a look at social topics must get involved in contradictory discourses rather than serving up exclusionary or ideological worldviews," Hauzenberger has said. "It should initiate comprehensive examination and discussion of a topic that last several years and goes beyond clichés and superficial aspects."

SWAN will have reviews of some of the films at a later date. More complete information on the Week of Foreign Cinema can be found at the FICEP web site:  (By Dimitri Keramitas)