Footnotes Know Me

For The Los Angeles Review of Books, I wrote about a collaborative effort to rescue a rare literary text: “… footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean.”

Tales of the Sea

In this lyric essay for The Griffith Review, the Australian literary magazine, I connect tourist seas to refugee seas, Brexit to the post-World War II migration of West Indians to Great Britain, and indenture to slavery. The piece is about friendship and family, and it’s about race in the Caribbean.

“FOR LAUREN AND I, the ways we are joined are feats against the geopolitical. Ours is a league of letters, without member states, defying mapping. Our bonds are aesthetic – and aquatic. We both draw from a fluid imaginary based in bodies of water, in death and birth on water.”

Instruments of Memory

The New York Times Book Review

By Vaddey Ratner
324 pp. Touchstone. $26.

Vaddey Ratner calls each of the three parts of her tenaciously melodic second novel a movement. And indeed this story of an orphaned Cambodian refugee’s return to her homeland does have a symphony’s elevating effect on emotion. Ratner stirs feeling — sorrow, sympathy, pleasure — through language so ethereal in the face of dislocation and loss that its beauty can only be described as stubborn.

Continue reading in the NYTBR.

Of Islands and Other Mothers

“From one woman acting on behalf of a daughter to the next, had maternal fierceness somehow forged a chain to connect us across the divisive waters of race and religion and history? Was this then, at last, our Caribbean archipelago?”

My reported essay about Caribbean New York, “Of Islands and Other Mothers,” appears in the literary atlas Nonstop Metropolis (University of California Press, 2016), edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. My piece tells the stories of Caribbean immigrant women across Queens and Brooklyn. It takes readers to temples and churches, introducing them to seers and the heterodox, and reframes Derek Walcott to ask how gender allows us to bridge islands of difference created by race, religion and histories of bondage in the West Indies and its diaspora in New York. Other contributors include Marshall Berman, Garnette Cadogan, Teju Cole, Francisco Goldman, Valeria Luiselli, Margo Jefferson, Suketu Mehta, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

“A Good Story, If I Can Remember It”

Tracking down the memories of anti-apartheid writer and editor Sylvester Stein for Lapham’s Quarterly.

“Even before dementia’s onset, Stein felt mocked by the fallibility of memory, which exacerbated the creative toll that exile already takes. Decades earlier, he brooded over the fate of his friend Gerard Sekoto, a painter who continued to churn out portraits of his beloved South Africa while exiled in France but, as Stein lamented in Who Killed Mr Drum?, was ‘painting memories only, fading year by year, being copies of copies.’ Stein, visiting him in Paris in the early 1960s, ‘saw the danger: his emotions were becoming memories of memories.’

Yet discrepancies between 2012’s I Danced with Mrs. Gandhi and 1999’s Who Killed Mr. Drum? suggest peril of another kind. Memory might become derivative with the distance of decades and oceans—or it might grow more vividly motley as the ties to its source loosened.”