Sunday, August 5, 2012

Revolution through Reading - A Literary Journey


Address by The Author, Dr KRIS RAMPERSAD at the launch of the book LiTTScapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago by Dr Kris Rampersad, August 4, 2012, at White Hall, 29 Maraval Road, Port of Spain

You have seen what some very amateur children from age three can do for our creative enterprises – the children of the Leaves of Life of LiTTscapes – the Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago. 
Given a chance, we can make every child explore and recognise and build a life around his or her creative potential – outside the classroom which we know is educating it out of them.
What you have heard about the children stories of cultures and festivals and ecology and prehistory are to come – and yes, we hope that proceeds from this one will go towards those and more reading matter for preschool to adult to complement the range of interactive events we have planned.
They form part of this vision and are being prepared in our Leaves of Life Catalogue to go public shortly with its range of children’s home grown creative reading and activities, young adult poetry and fiction, research like this one packaged for specific user communities in accessible forms, animations/yes cartoon and films that you and only a few others have been privy to so far – but first this one.
I’m not sure there’s much left for me to say except please read the book, and visit the places and show your children this island, this world that belongs to them.
The journey to here may sound, at times, like a tragedy – the computer crashes, the software seizures, the false starts, the press stalls; or maybe a comedy – well finding the humour in the moment has sometimes been the only way to keep sane; and sometimes a drama.
But in truth and in fact, it has been a romance … a life long love affair to rival all love affairs, with reading, with writing, with our writers and writers in general, and with Trinidad and Tobago.
One memory emerges from the past. It is the twilight zone - between writing the common entrance examination and awaiting the results – and not much older than the children of LiTTscapes here. I am in front of a wooden bookshelf hanging above the bed. I have gone through the bookshelf that housed the textbooks of my nine elder siblings – geography, history, chemistry, agriculture literature – textbooks all because other reading material would be a luxury my farming parents could ill afford. I have read them all and am jumping up and down on the bed under the bookshelf in frustration. What does one do with all this time – and two months of vacation at age eleven can seem like a lot of time – not many books, little else to do.
The prospect of picking worms off the ground, adding them to hooks strung on thread and throwing them into the nearby pond – which my younger brother and nephew were doing - was not very attractive – though in literature is appears to be so exotic an activity.
“Storybooks” was taboo in the house, but literature books were not. Along with the history of the people who came which were in my sister’s book bag, and agriscience texts that many years later, I found out were written by my uncle – I was in awe – really, someone in my family had written and printed a book and it was in schools? It could be done.
I had read from my sisters’ schoolbags – Michael Anthony’s Cricket in the Road and heard the cross talk of us village children playing cricket in someone’s yard; Samuel Selvon’s Ways of Sunlight lent a different texture to light in the cane fields and vegetable garden my parents insisted we help out in.
The first thing to do when I had a chance to walk the short distant from the post common entrance school was to detour from catching the taxi home and join the Princes Town library.
It opened up a whole new world and a new world of the historical novel, the romance history, peoples and places I could not even imagine in my village upbringing. It was only a matter of time before I had covered most of the material on its shelves.
Compare that – to the world of a virtual unlimited access to knowledge in which we now function - what a long way we have come in a short decade - or two…
The books were only a forerunner to participate more fully in that world and - like the first writers, feeling the pull and call of what’s beyond the frontiers of our imagination - going there too and then writing about that to – and so to be an active participant in the evolving global village.
If I may recall, my first journey outside of Trinidad and Tobago – to take up a one month fellowship through the government of Japan and striking up a conversation with the stranger sitting in the plane seat next to me who when he heard I was a journalist, leaned over, opened a magazine he was reading and by some tremendous coincidence it happened to be a quote that read:
Writing is like Prostitution
First you do it for the love of it
Then you do it for a few friends
And then you do it for the money.

I confess that while I have been trying to do it for the latter and trying to cull an environment where other writers and creators, like myself, can also confidently do it for the money, it has often turned out to be more for peanuts, because for writers, and many of the creators, the first two – the love of it, and for a few friends and demanding and voracious readers like these young ones here, always take precedence and it is indeed they who have been pressuring me to put the stories I write in a book, because they keep them in a folder that seems like a book but not as attractive as the packed seven shelves of his own fully illustrated, hard cover bound reading matter has already accumulated.
There is a common thread that comes through starkly and poignantly through all the writings represented in this book – and which this book does not really capture (there I go, the eternal critic, critiquing my own work even, so I do not reserve that critical mind and tongue only for politicians, believe me).
That thread is a sense of sterility of the literary environment in which our writers believe they function and from which many of them flee - to write from more literate friendly and more receptive societies and that in itself makes almost everything written by our expatriate writers an indictment on Trinidad Tobago. Two exceptions to those who have left to write are before us Michael Anthony and Earl Lovelace who have stayed here and in itself takes a lot of courage and for that I have asked that they be my special guest here today.
Yes, the environment has evolved and it is changing, indeed, since the only outlet for our earliest men and women of letters were through personal letters to family and friends, and later through letters to the editors of newspapers or at best as a writer for a newspaper which was a springboard for several of our early writers – the subject of my first book, Finding a Place.
Even the newspapers only grudgingly allowing space for creative writing – well-documented in fact and in fiction – the most famous of which is of course, Mr Biswas  - the journalist Seepersad Naipaul of VS’ Magnum Opus, A House for Mr Biswas; but also in the writings of Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace, CLR James all of whom were a part of that environment.
I do not use the example of the newspapers because of a pet peeve, but as an example – as an industry that relies on and whose base raw materials are writings to highlight the degree of disconnection the sectors of society have with the processes of its own development. Writings are the basic raw materials by which all sectors must function – and it now has been endowed with that glamorous title of The Knowledge Economy.
But we continue to be consumers of the processes rather than producers – think of our television stations – how many of them now, at last count about nine - dishing out cheaply bought sitcoms and imported programmes, or drifting into really cheap, cheap, cheap talk at the expense of culling an environment and promoting activities that can impact the level of discourse in the society, of creative expression, and by extension our development.
There are countless examples of a similar kind of disconnect in all other sectors – agriculture and processing for instance – what CLR James and Lloyd Best and Eric Williams and Naipaul and Walcott and Lovelace couch within the colonial system that have made us consumers rather than producers.
Except, when it come to writings, we seem to be more producers rather than consumers.
This effort, LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago which started out to be just an attempt at a creative capture of the fictional imagination that came out of Trinidad and Tobago. Now, even before birth, it is assuming larger-than-life dimensions that is awesome and awe-inspiring, and I am humbled by that.
When I pitched this – the book - to Sonja Wong who initially came on board as the graphic designer, but has evolved into so much more – as a mother of three very creatively talented children – two of whom you have heard today – the third, one of our most promising poets, will be among an open house to showcase the work of young writers we hope to hold here, at the White Hall, as one of the activities planned for this period of celebrations. Sonja and her family have supported and shared and added to that vision of where this can go, and shared all the numerous sleepless nights too - as so many of you have since and the parents who leant their children to today’s event, at such short notice and going beyond the call of parental duty – Denise and Mr Ali; Mr and Mrs Newton, the Rajcoomars; my sister in law, Radha; niece Sunita – because they recognise that rather than just lament about an ineffective education system that is actually stifling and stamping out the creativity and talent among us – as we have been doing for decades – take Sparrow’s Dan is the Man, for instance that tells of how a formal education system borrowed from elsewhere can never speak to our needs or who we are as a people. So rather than just lament and throw picong, we are trying to actually do something about it – to effect the kind of change and create the kind of society we want this to be.
The members of my team have taken this up as a personal responsibility, in the awareness that change can only start with oneself – not in waiting for someone else to set the ball rolling – and then hope that fate shines on us – so while the book has been in the making for the greater part of a decade – and we refused to compromise its vision by printing a condensed version or a black and white version – yes, the chief factor was costs – when Dr Tewarie and his interministerial committee on the 50th anniversary celebrations were looking for something that celebrates the essence of us as part of its outputs, we could have said, ‘here, we have something, and now it was not just a book; we had a whole vision, a master plan, a business plan, a prototype of a network that will incorporate all of us working together, all sectors – government, private sector, creators, NGOS and communities – parents and childen – in a way that all feel included, not excluded and so we start addressing the social ennui, the boredom, the disconnect, the discontent.    
To redress this sense that did not start with independence; it has been cultivated from the time the first Europeans landed here and began massacring the native peoples – and even with those who landed feeling like rejects from Europe that has made this into a kind of hostile environment where we view each other with suspicion and everyone seems to be wlking around with a sense of exclusion, alienation and disempowerment that is gripping not just writers but so many of our people, even the ones whom we think have power.
And hence we present LiTTscapes, to celebrate writers and ourselves and too,  and LiTTours – the journeys through the landscapes of Trinidad and Tobago where we meet and greet and explore for ourselves too – and participate, become a part of, claim, belong!
Thus continues this journey to self hood which our writers have been trying to carve for us, by picking at sometimes our ugliest features and holding them up to scrutiny so intense that we wince.
We all seem to be throwing up our hands at what we call the crime situation – but what are we really doing about. The politicians feel disempowered; the policemen feel disempowered, the local authorities feel disempowered which give criminals the ammunition to disempower our people.
Reclaiming ourselves can also reclaim our land from the criminals. I have seen how this has energised young people who would otherwise be thought of as lazy, listless, witless and yes, wotless – kept them focused and driven and that is a solution to crime. Here’s a resolution. Let’s start the revolution!
From here begins a journey  - over this jubilee month and beyond.
We will show how education does not only happen in a classroom nor does it stop at the university. We will engage children and adults, readers and writers, creators and consumers and through Leaves of Life (LOL) – a kind of supportive administrative umbrella because we envision that such a stimulus needs form and structure and finance along with passion and ideas and energy.

Look at what we have done on an almost zero budget! Think of what we can do with the education budget, the security and crime prevention budget, the infrastructure and public utilities budget, the environment, the agriculture and food security budgets, the transport and communications and information and culture and youth and women and community and local government budgets.
We need each other to do it.
We as citizens who pass by the Magnificent Seven everyday; we have even have stopped noticing them, or their magnificence, because they conjure up only a lament – not just the painful past of colonialism, but the sad testimony of the state – or lack thereof, of our development; to disguise our pain that we have allowed them to deteriorate into oblivion. But are we not all responsible in some way for this – it’s not just someone elses’ fault. It has to start with what am I not doing?  
So Minister Emmanuel George’s enthusiastic support when I presented him with the notion of using this building; of giving me a chance; giving us a chance to show what can be done if we open up these buildings to the public to capture the creative synergies they can exude, so our people can appreciate them as part of the public patrimony; as part of the inheritance of the blood, sweat and tears of history, and of our spirit of survivalism that neither slavery nor indentureship nor alien rule could defeat. What little tweaks we need towards cultivating a sense of social inclusion  and to combat the anomie – with animae; to animate ourselves and what we do.
And there is no dollar value to that … or there could be, if you weigh it against the costs of war and strife and instability.
The Minister of Transport agreed to allow us use of a PTSC bus today for the inaugural tour but we are to show dollars and cents of continuation; and a request for use of the ferry which sits idle on weekends is on the brink of being shelved because, I am told, just running it as it is, it is already heavily subsidised.
Then, May I suggest, let us make that subsidisation have some other value – social value – the value of knowledge, of creative stimulus, of leisure and entertainment activity that can – and I say that with much confidence because I have seen it in the young people around me – that can provide an alternative to lives of crime. Weigh the dollars and sense of that!.
We need to inject some creative vision into the national balance sheet; weigh in the social factors – I am sure you will find it worth your while. So I retable to this the 2012 -2013 budget a request to providethe facilitationthat can only come from Government and we will do our part as creators and in engaging the public sectors and NGOs and communities. To in the first instance allow us the use of the Port of Spain to San Fernando Ferry to present Trinidad and Tobago from a different perspective. We promise that the results will be a generation of youngsters with a different outlook on their past, their present and their future.
We appeal to you to look at the larger picture, to factor in the social balance sheet and I can pull together a team of experts who can show you how the social picture can add up to the numbers you are looking for. Rethink our approach to heritage – a heritage-driven economy is one where all find a place and has a sense of a share of the national pie because it speaks to selfhood.
Thanks to Dr Tewarie and his interministerial committee for immediately recognising the vision and the potential of this; and we hope he will share with his team the interconnectedness that is required if it is to succeed – the public sector, yes, but the private and NGO and community sectors too.  
Some you must have seen, read, heard, my sometimes-rejoiner to the cliché that came out of the poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Donne that No Man Is An Island - but Woman Is.New Bok LiTTscapes now in stores
In truth and in fact, we cannot be an island when we contain the cultures and the creative capacity of all the continents of the world. 
 We are not an island – we need each other. We will be reaching our arms out to all departments of government – law, education, utilities, tourism, culture, education to do what needs be done to build the national infrastructure if we are to accommodate the international audience – the tourists and returning citizens and others.
We have also asked that our Government and Minister of Finance, Foreign Affairs, and Trade and Investments address the prohibitive tax regime that immediately makes us uncompetitive in the much touted e-books market – a 30 percent tax imposed by the US government on ebooks sales after the 50 percent demanded of Amazon.
 That, among other tweaks and creation of an enabling environment by Goernment that continue to make us unable to compete in the global market place; and investment by the corporate sector that can help springboard the range of activities and actions we have planned, and we have a business plan developed in conjunction with some of the best in the business in T&T.
And there is something else we need to do. Get with the times…. It does not take 3 years to get a plan moving, the wheels of the world are now revolving around microseconds – if we cannot quicken our pace to match that, and I say to match that, to be in the moment as is demanded of us, then we are already in a losing game. It cannot take months and months of pounding and pounding on one door to get action. That is a thing of the past.
All of us, all of us in this room, and all of us outside, are what it will take for this revolution to succeed. We need to not just look for other ways to do it – to do education, to do leisure, to do finance and planning, and policy making, and crime fighting and road laying – in new ways.
It is no longer my book, or this project by Sonja and I; or Sonja and these few parents and children, and writers and creators and conservationists and I - this is a revolution for all of us.
Let us begin it, by reading, and by writing the world as we want it to be. And that is the sum total of LiTTscapes – the Landscapes of our Fiction from our imagination, the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
I thank you.