A Call for Submissions

November 23, 2009

Call for poetry submissions:

What for: An online portal for the reading and discovery of the work of West Indian/West Indian heritage writers of poems at:

 http://pentuhpaper.wordpress.com/

What we are looking for: Unpublished works that explore images of so-called Caribbean-ness and do something with them — invert them, twist them, crack them open. Baptise them or make them anew. Works that tread unfamiliar territory — or familiar ones. Works that spill out from that dark place in your mind and relieve the pressure of compression inside of your heart.

Avant-garde, experimental and radical verse are all welcome. Dabblers of journal verse are welcome. Bring yourself — with words.

Of particular interest are poems pertaining to themes of identity, gender, gender roles and sexuality.

Please indicate upon submission, if you would prefer to use a nom de plume. Please include a brief biographical sketch or simply, nationality information. Authors retain all original rights to their work.

For further inquiry, to hear more about this venture or to submit work, please e-mail creativecommess[at] gmail [dot] com

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A Short Drop

March 30, 2009

It seems like wherever enclaves of people from different cultures are found, vestiges of our home and the culture from whence we came soon follow. Like roti shops and mini-buses. When I was an undergrad, you could take a ride from my campus in North Miami, all the way to downtown Miami (and back) for one dollar each way on the local jitney. The benefits meant that you weren’t limited to the schedule of the Miami-Dade city transport system, nor limited to their routes which didn’t necessarily go everywhere that people might want to go. The jitney ride in North Miami functioned as a main source of transportation (as well as supplemental to other public transport ) for large numbers of people including college students within the area. Here was where you were summoned onto an already full mini-bus by a nodding driver assuring you that there is room, while you scanned the darkly tinted windows with slight skepticism.

The thing is, you never really knew until you actually got on. Then you did, only to survey the hodge-podge of arms and knees, tightly folded legs, rapid fire kreyol over the sounds of kompa–with increasing doubt; while from his perch behind the steering wheel, you were solidly assured by the driver, that there was indeed a place for you, deep in the belly of the mini-bus. You just had to keep going. Eventually you’d find the space, sandwiched between two strangers, tightly squeezed on either side. When I was riding the jitney, there were still mini-buses with no buzzer, so you had to holler from the back over the din and once in a while, between the animated conversations and the music, the driver did miss your stop. But these people beside you, these people you only knew from this ride, would always help, passing on the call for “stop!” from person to person and mouth-to-mouth, like a verbal smoke signal until we came to rest. Even people that did not know English well, knew how to yell stop on the jitney.

Throughout the developing world, you can find versions of the mini-bus as a cultural variation of the government created transportation system. There is always something subversive about the way in which they function as a means of getting people around. These small mini-buses cramming as many people inside as they can, undercutting the cost of other transport in some places and/or providing flexibility of routes in others. They are privately owned and in many cases, this mysterious individual (s) is sometimes not even the person who is doing all the driving. In many parts of the developing world, mini-buses are part of a larger cultural representation of everyday life, in a way that other modes of transport supposedly are not. Or at least they are, in a different way.

In a large Western metropolis like New York city for example, city buses and other kinds of public state transport don’t function in the exact same way as the mini-bus, since you would find a successful mortgage broker riding next to a blue-collar worker, on the same train on any given day. In the developing world, mini-bus culture (and there usually is one), especially in the Caribbean (and Africa) is indicative of the other social and socio-economic forces at play as well. So much so that you can find people in Trinidad, who proudly declare that “they never take public transport” before (specifically maxis, and least of all a PTSC bus) because this fact is representative of being in a certain socio-economic class that is not dependent (or never has been) on public transport. Which means you are one of those people who has your own car and when you didn’t, you’re used to get dropped around all the time.

I want to feel like in 2009, you would still be hard-pressed to find someone who has never taken a maxi before but from what I’ve heard, that’s not true. Never taken a maxi? And okay with that? Never experienced the hustle of an ambitious tout in City Gate saying he had a special seat, just for you. Never been privy to the random conversational encounters on a maxi. Never been in the front seat of a maxi, music blaring loudly while barreling down the priority bus route at break-neck speed, with the breeze whipping at your face. Never had to dodge a bottom in yuh face after shuffling yuh own bottom around for seats on a maxi. In Trinidad, there are more and more cars on the road and we’re building more and more walls, around ourselves (literal and otherwise) to shut undesirables out, so there’s a whole section of people for whom, maxi taking just will not do. As to safety concerns, I would reckon that hopping a maxi from somewhere to town and back in the day, would still be somewhat safer than doing so in a flashy car. Plus in actuality if you ask certain kinds of people who don’t take maxis, why they don’t, it has less to do with being safe, than the notion of being cheek-on-jowl with the masses. The problem is being in close quarters, like, say a “bread van” maxi, with de marrish and de parrish.

In Trini we have our maxi taxis and in Guyana you can find the “mini bus” as well. In fact, throughout the Caribbean they exist, all over Africa, as well as regions in South and Central America. In South Africa they’re called “combis.” A friend informed me that in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto-Rico, they’re called “guaguas.” In the Vanity Fair 2007 Africa issue, I read Binyavanya Wainaina’s description of the Kenyan “matatus” as “anarchic public transport vehicles,” embodying the “edgy and beautiful” enterprising spirit of a transforming African country economy. These “Isuzu mini-buses,” these “loud, aggressive vehicles” reminded me of the red, yellow, green and maroon-band maxi taxis on the streets of Trinidad in their heyday. Nowadays, maxi drivers and owners in Trinidad have their own association or representative body, which is very active in attempting to regulate the ply of drivers and conductors. The rides themselves are relatively tamed down, compared to the excess of the earlier years where you might find a fuzzy, faux fur interior detailing inside on the roof, black lights in a maxi and more than enough bass to feel it reverberating deep inside your chest.

But during the late eighties and exploding in the early to mid-nineties, maxi culture flourished in a way that made them the scourge of everyone from school principals to middle-class parents. They represented a vehicular hustle, propelled by young brash men of color, driving and touting and jostling for passengers (and sex). From the school children liming late in town for subsequent runs of their favorite maxi, the branding of certain maxis as popular rides, to the epic pong of the bass line pulsating through the whole maxi and disturbing the peace, the dub, the dub lyrics, the school girls breaking biche to get whisked away by maxi men, the ambitious tout wetting some school girl’s ears with his own (or borrowed) lyrics, the tout shuffling through wads of cash to lure some teenager/s astray, the allegations of these big hard-back men being on the prowl, the tout who allegedly had HIV and was spreading it wantonly to school girls all over the place.

These stories and others like them are part of the maxi culture in our society, particularly ones exposing the seedy sexual underside of maxi culture. It’s Trini street culture. Trini urban culture. And just Trini culture–all stemming from a ride down the road in a red-band maxi. You can find similar sentiments and stories permeating all throughout our region of the supposed ills of mini-bus culture and the complaints about the drivers. What is it about these buses? That they are clearly indispensable is a fact. But also because of the way in which public transport, by its very design, forces the converging of different layers of people (even within the same socio-economic bracket) into a confined space. Everyone cannot have a car after all. So they do create an actual socio-cultural space while providing a real necessity and a service to the population.

red-band maxi

red-band maxi in Trinidad

Classic footage below of calypsonian Bally’s equally classic “Maxi Dub,” describing his dislike  of the youths’ maxi-culture and especially the loud dub music they play that he cannot decipher!

 I’m not quite sure why I felt it necessary to hang one of those rear view mirror flags in my car broadcasting that I was from Trinidad and Tobago. But I did, as soon as I could get my hands on one. Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to be mistaken for someone else. No one wants to admit this out loud but as open-minded and well read as I like to think I am, subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I stopped short though, of hanging those painted TnT cd’s (you know the glare from the sun is killer), or getting the steering wheel covers or the car seat covers in the red, white and black. As tempting as they might all appear.

Now all this island representation is a far cry from those tales you heard of people’s experiences with painful 80s and early 90s migration stories where anyone with an accent was automatically a Jamaican (which was fine if you were actually one but you know island people, ever defensive about being cast as the wrong islander). Or people who tried in vain to hide being Haitian or Barbadian or whomever they were. It was not uncommon to hear tales of Haitian kids being singled out and beat up in New York public schools back then. Or like a good friend of mine who migrated with her family to Miami in the early nineties often tells me that you couldn’t find a person who knew where Trinidad was then in her high school. Or cared to know.

Assimilation for some people, seemed to be a forced necessity, especially if you ended up in a place with no community to connect to, as another friend of mine did leaving Trinidad for the mid-west of America with her family. Her little sister (who is a born Trini) consequently hates all things Trinidadian and blossomed into a proper American cheer-leader type who dates preppy boys with popped collars. Things were different then. There was rampant ethnic and cultural discord everywhere and just sounding different made you a target and you stuck out like a sore thumb. Even for my friend in South Miami; yes, it might have been Miami in the 90s but it’s not like they were Cuban.

Culture can be all relative though, because one of the best friends I met in college is a half-Trini, half-Mexican girl, fluent in Spanish, Trini dialect and wining, raised in America all her life. Our undergrad days found us trading old Lord Kitchener records (hers not even mine) and huddled over discussions about the legacy of colonialism, C.L.R James, Michael Anthony and the rampant West Indian connections in Black American history. (For the record, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan among others, all have West Indian connections). She is one of the most Trini people I know of and it goes way past book smarts or the taste of a chubby (which might just be our most world famous culinary export according to some public opinion). She understands our culture, really understands it and embodies it in the way that any “true” Trini (if you will) does.

I have come to the conclusion though that now is a pretty good time to be from another culture in the United States. I have decided that there is a link between this and the emergence of all this flag waving West Indian national pride that you see everywhere in recent times. Even from people who have not even set foot on any island. Maybe though, their mom or their grandma is from somewhere and they really like to eat roti. But it’s not just West Indians. I live in Florida and you don’t have to listen for the hard pong of a reggaeton base rhythm to know that a boricua is passing by. Why? Cause there’s the decal of the Puerto-Rican boy pissing at the back of the tinted glass.

Furthermore, those people I run into who enthusiastically tell me that they have been to Trinidad for Carnival every year but have never gone at any other time of year. Doesn’t impress me much and yes, there’s more to TnT than Carnival. No shit. I realize that I am at the risk of sounding like one of those culture nazis and I might end up accosting random people at North American Caribbean carnivals in a surly voice going, “excuse me, but I need to check if you are properly qualified to rep the red, white and black. What kind of passport do you hold? Can you recite the National Pledge?” How exactly does one qualify Trinbagonian-ness, you think? Does any of this matter?

So my Dad was visiting me and noticed a girl who has a Trinidad and Tobago flag draped on her banister in my building and proceeded to ask me if I didn’t lime with her. I had to let him know that she wasn’t really from Trinidad and we had this exchange one day in the parking lot along the lines of, “oh so you’re from Trinidad?” (Me, excitedly) “No, but my mother is, I really want to go there one day though,” (her, somewhat subdued). Insert awkward pause here. The thing is I was so excited initially when I saw her in her car with her flag next to mine on her rear view mirror and I felt bothered because I was passing judgements of authenticity on people silently in my head and I try not to ever do that but–it happens.

Plus with the emergence of a slew of articles, polls and studies done on the rising concern of “intra-cultural” conflict within the changing face of American society (do some looking around and I am sure you will easily find stuff), I’ve been thinking about it a lot more. The fact that there is underlying tension slowly building in intensity between the different groups of the people of the African Diaspora in the US and less unity. I’ve said it already to some friends of mine and I predict that it will be the next big “race issue.” It’s funny too because this visible West Indian national pride comes hot on the heels of accusations that West Indians are soaking up opportunities meant for African-Americans while subconsciously (or quite obviously) being condescending toward them. And since you can’t tell by looking at us what kind of non-white person we might be, isn’t all the flag waving and culture propagation just another way of setting ourselves apart from them?

And I’m here to admit, that people do think like that and it sucks. But lots of things suck in life sometimes. Like when I run into Trinis of a certain ilk shall we say, happily attending HBCUs here in the States, I think it’s funny and sad cause these are people who do not even consider themselves “black” in Trinidad but what the hell, it’s a full ride scholarship right? You know, the kinds of Trinis who groan and fret about how all the Black Americans in their school are so preoccupied with race. Well I would be too if I was them (hell, I am most days). Institutionalized racism is very much alive and kicking in America. I have a problem with that. Ultimately though, we’re all a lot more alike than different. It would be nice to bridge the growing gulf between the many kinds of black people and we should all be concerned with the plight of others within this global village in which we live.

But back to my flag, yeah I liked the idea of showing off my cultural otherness. People on the road know that I’m not just another American negro, I’m a Trini one so they better recognize. Yes I realize that negro is no longer pc. But really, I realize that on some level, that is what happens with us, because me hanging a flag in my car has about as much to do with Trinidad and Tobago as eating spaghetti does with being Italian. It’s so much more complicated and multi-faceted than that. I also hear a lot of the things that West Indians of color say about African-Americans and vice verse and there are a lot of issues and rifts that need to be addressed on both sides. Sometimes I cringe at the way my people think (on both sides) and as for myself, I am constantly trying to shift my thinking and rearrange my thoughts on the issues of culture and identity within the United States and what this all means. In the meantime, I think I will hold off on the “I love Trinidad and Tobago” bumper sticker that I actually pondered about putting at the back of my car. I don’t really need it cause trust me, my car is Trinified enough as it is already.