This Week's Conversations: Derek Walcott, Hyphens and Commas, Ireland, Where Music is Heading, Marriage Advice, Chuck Berry, Crossing Gates, & More


Derek Walcott: An Ode to Caribbean Literature

Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

Derek Walcott, 1930-2017

Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott passed away this week, and it’s been difficult for us to find an obituary that adequately captures who he was and the impact of his writing. That’s true of any literary giant, but especially of Walcott, whose work chronicled Caribbean life while simultaneously confronting our understanding of the region and post-colonial societies.

In 1992, Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in his acceptance speech, The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory, delivered a powerful ode to Caribbean literature, and the beauty and possibilities of interracial, post-colonial societies like his own. 

An audio recording of the speech in Waltcott’s own voice can be heard here, but it can also be read below:

The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory

Felicity is a village in Trinidad on the edge of the Caroni plain, the wide central plain that still grows sugar and to which indentured cane cutters were brought after emancipation, so the small population of Felicity is East Indian, and on the afternoon that I visited it with friends from America, all the faces along its road were Indian, which, as I hope to show, was a moving, beautiful thing, because this Saturday afternoon Ramleela, the epic dramatization of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, was going to be performed, and the costumed actors from the village were assembling on a field strung with different-coloured flags, like a new gas station, and beautiful Indian boys in red and black were aiming arrows haphazardly into the afternoon light. Low blue mountains on the horizon, bright grass, clouds that would gather colour before the light went. Felicity! What a gentle Anglo-Saxon name for an epical memory.

Under an open shed on the edge of the field, there were two huge armatures of bamboo that looked like immense cages. They were parts of the body of a god, his calves or thighs, which, fitted and reared, would make a gigantic effigy. This effigy would be burnt as a conclusion to the epic. The cane structures flashed a predictable parallel: Shelley's sonnet on the fallen statue of Ozymandias and his empire, that "colossal wreck" in its empty desert.

Drummers had lit a fire in the shed and they eased the skins of their tables nearer the flames to tighten them. The saffron flames, the bright grass, and the hand-woven armatures of the fragmented god who would be burnt were not in any desert where imperial power had finally toppled but were part of a ritual, evergreen season that, like the cane-burning harvest, is annually repeated, the point of such sacrifice being its repetition, the point of the destruction being renewal through fire.

Deities were entering the field. What we generally call "Indian music" was blaring from the open platformed shed from which the epic would be narrated. Costumed actors were arriving. Princes and gods, I supposed. What an unfortunate confession! "Gods, I suppose" is the shrug that embodies our African and Asian diasporas. I had often thought of but never seen Ramleela,and had never seen this theatre, an open field, with village children as warriors, princes, and gods. I had no idea what the epic story was, who its hero was, what enemies he fought, yet I had recently adapted the Odyssey for a theatre in England, presuming that the audience knew the trials of Odysseus, hero of another Asia Minor epic, while nobody in Trinidad knew any more than I did about Rama, Kali, Shiva, Vishnu, apart from the Indians, a phrase I use pervertedly because that is the kind of remark you can still hear in Trinidad: "apart from the Indians".

It was as if, on the edge of the Central Plain, there was another plateau, a raft on which the Ramayana would be poorly performed in this ocean of cane, but that was my writer's view of things, and it is wrong. I was seeing the Ramleela at Felicity as theatre when it was faith.

Consider the scale of Asia reduced to these fragments: the small white exclamations of minarets or the stone balls of temples in the cane fields, and one can understand the self-mockery and embarrassment of those who see these rites as parodic, even degenerate. These purists look on such ceremonies as grammarians look at a dialect, as cities look on provinces and empires on their colonies. Memory that yearns to join the centre, a limb remembering the body from which it has been severed, like those bamboo thighs of the god. In other words, the way that the Caribbean is still looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. "No people there", to quote Froude, "in the true sense of the word". No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.

The performance was like a dialect, a branch of its original language, an abridgement of it, but not a distortion or even a reduction of its epic scale. Here in Trinidad I had discovered that one of the greatest epics of the world was seasonally performed, not with that desperate resignation of preserving a culture, but with an openness of belief that was as steady as the wind bending the cane lances of the Caroni plain. We had to leave before the play began to go through the creeks of the Caroni Swamp, to catch the scarlet ibises coming home at dusk. In a performance as natural as those of the actors of the Ramleela, we watched the flocks come in as bright as the scarlet of the boy archers, as the red flags, and cover an islet until it turned into a flowering tree, an anchored immortelle. The sigh of History meant nothing here. These two visions, the Ramleela and the arrowing flocks of scarlet ibises, blent into a single gasp of gratitude. Visual surprise is natural in the Caribbean; it comes with the landscape, and faced with its beauty, the sigh of History dissolves.

(continue reading The Antilles: Fragments of an Epic Memory)



A Great Victory and a Great Loss: Updates from the World of Good Grammar

Despite what some of my fellow theread editors think, grammar matters. It provides clarity, and imparts an air of authority to a writer’s words. Grammar is also an art form — just watch this video of The New Yorker’s Andrew Boynton going through two pencils copy-editing Trump’s Black History Month’s remarks for evidence .

Grammar also has practical impacts. Last week, a group of dairy drivers in Maine won a major court appeal against their employer due to a missing Oxford comma, and other punctuation mistakes within a contract regarding overtime pay. As Mary Norris points out, the Judge’s opinion in the case “is a feast of subtle delights for anyone with a taste for grammar and usage.” Here’s the short version:

“According to Maine state law, workers are not entitled to overtime pay for the following activities: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The issue is that, without a comma after “shipment,” the “packing for shipment or distribution” is a single activity. Truck drivers do not pack food, either for shipment or for distribution; they drive trucks and deliver it. Therefore, these exemptions do not apply to drivers, and Oakhurst Dairy owes them some ten million dollars.”

This is a major victory, not only for workers’ rights, but for all hard-working proponents of the Oxford comma, who have battled tirelessly for the integrity of the English language.

In other news, Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh has passed away at the age of 55. Walsh was major authority on language, who wrote several books on grammar. Let us remember his words:

“I’m a big advocate of the hyphen. If you write ‘the orange juice salesman,’ you have a salesman who’s orange. The orange-juice salesman is more precise.”


Crossing Gates

Initially, I was confused as to why this man had set his briefcase on top of my carry-on suitcase. We were all lined up at Gate D in Pearson Airport in Toronto. I did a fake laugh and tried to wheel my bag out from under his. My first thought was what the guy at the security would think if he saw this. I made brief eye-contact and then looked through my phone for new emails again.

Again, I felt a weight on my suitcase. This middle-aged man had set his bag on mine yet again. He took it off quickly this time and smiled. I looked back and saw he was travelling with his family. I figured they must be visiting from somewhere, and I wanted to know more.

I said hi and asked where they were headed. The man responded with some words I didn’t understand. He looked back at his family, signalling his disappointment. He had thought I’d speak his language. Then he turned back and responded with the universal “No English,” along with a few other words. Expecting some understanding, I asked where they were from.

He said Syria, perhaps somewhat used to a familiar line of questioning. The elder son chimed in from behind the line, saying that they’d been in the country for 36 hours.

Three kids and a wife. Two boys, one a toddler, one at the edge of puberty. A young girl who seemed too shy to maintain eye-contact with me. Collectively, they carried more than ten pieces of luggage: suitcases, handbags, and large plastic bags filled with their belongings. They looked tired but they were also excited to finish the last leg of their long journey. They had been in Lebanon and were now going to Charlottetown, P.E.I. to reunite with an Aunt who lived there.

Three of their bags got stopped in the airport security screening. The security guard started unravelling the bags and pulled out some containers that looked like carefully packaged food. The elder son and the Dad gently negotiated with security and then began re-packing their overfilled bags.

I wondered about the somewhat unpredictable year they probably would have ahead of them. Would the younger son fit in more naturally than his older sister and brother? I figured the elder son who’d spoken for his Dad would help carry the family forward the next few years, providing translation and support when needed.

We wished each other quick good-byes and then parted ways


The 25 Songs that Tell Us Where Music is Going

Last week, The New York Times Magazine published its annual music issue dedicated to the 25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going. Each track on the interactive list is accompanied by an article exploring the broader significance of the song and its artist. It also has a neat built-in feature that automatically plays the song you are reading about.

The list is a decent overview of the artists, albums, genres, and themes at the fore of North America’s current cultural epoch. They are also consistent with some of music reviews that have appeared on theread, and the broad overview of music in 2016 we provided earlier this year.

Here’s a complete rundown of the list:

1.     Send My Love (To Your New Lover) — Adele

2.     You Want it Darker — Leonard Cohen

3.     I’m Better — Missy Elliot

4.     Mask Off — Future

5.     Jolene — Pentatonix

6.     We the People… — A Tribe Called Quest

7.     One Night — Lil Yachty

8.     Rewind — Kelela

9.     This Girl — Kungs vs. Cookin’ on 3 Burners

10. Make them Die Slowly (John George Haigh) — Church of Misery

11. Barok Main — Mica Levi & Oliver Coates

12. Mourn at Night — KA

13. Hold My Mule — Shirley Caeser

14. A Woman’s Face – Reprise (Sonnet 20) — Rufus Wainright

15. Copper Canteen — James McMurtry

16. F.U.B.U. — Solange

17. Side to Side — Ariana Grande

18. Fade — Kanye West

19. The Trolley Song — Cecile McLorin Salvant

20. Grigio Girls — Lady Gaga

21. Ooouuu — Young M.A.

22. Changes — Charles Bradley

23. Seigfried — Frank Ocean

24. Your Best American Girl — Mitski

25. Bad and Boujee — Migos

The piece accompanying the track “Mask Off” is a highlight from the list. It offers insight into Future, the complicated rap artist that has attained significant mainstream success in recent years (he’s actually the first artist in history to have two different number one albums two weeks in a row). There are some fascinating anecdotes and smart reviews of Future’s music, but what’s most interesting is the exploration of the motivations behind his work:

Future had just sat down for an interview with BBC’s Charlie Sloth, who asked him about his relationship with Blac Chyna, the Kardashian-affiliated reality-TV personality with whom he’d possibly been romantically involved. “Are you two still cool?” Sloth asked, in a punch London rumble. “We great,” Future responded, in his trademark flat-affect reserve.

Privately, though, the entreaty into his personal life enraged him. He declared an immediate media blackout...

At that point,  Future was roughly two years into a radical public and artistic reimagining. It started in the fall of 2014, not long after his breakup with the R&B singer Ciara and the soft landing of his pop-friendly sophomore album, “Honest.” The failure became an important inflection point. Over the next few years, he created a swelling mass of music with a cloaking grandness to it: Take a step inside, and you were entombed. The songs were lean and incessant and almost completed devoid of any other voice but Future’s. And what the voice was intimating to us, from behind the thickets of blackout curtains, was that our man had given up on his conscience and that he was guzzling the prescription cough syrup Promethazine and downing Xanax and that he was having sex with women he did not really care about and that this was neither making him feel good nor bad but rather it was making him feel nothing.


On the hook to “Mask Off,” Future rattles off drugs, unsentimentally: “Percocets/Molly, Percocets.” For him, sometimes the drugs are great; sometimes, not so much. On “Mask Off,” amid rhymes about how totally fun and good his life is, he calls Promethazine his “guillotine.”

It feels reductive to try to pin an artist down on the sins of his persona. Hip-hop’s greatest running trick has been blurring the lines of “real life” and art. But with the rate at which Future was rapping about drugs, one question was inevitably posed: Is this an addiction? If so, it was a new spin on a classic trope. The arc of pretty much every drug movie mimics the whiz-bang of the initial high and the eye-blackening horror of the inevitable comedown. Future’s music acknowledged that drug addiction isn’t that cinematically neat: It’s the high and the comedown over and over again.


The Best of St. Paddy's Content

Everyone is probably sick of St. Patrick’s day “stuff” by now, but hey, the weekly newsletter format has its limits. Anyways, there was some good Ireland-themed content that came out this week, and it’s worth sharing.

First, Fintan O’Toole explores the hypocrisy and historical amnesia that allows the Trump administration (and others) to “salute the legacy of one wave of immigrants even as he deploys against other immigrants the same calumnies once heaped upon the Irish.”

“In the Trump era, there are only two ways to toast the achievements of the Irish in America. One of them is tacitly racist. It relies on a silent distinction, an assumption that the Irish are somehow different from, say, today’s migrants from Latin America. But what is that distinction? It is not that the Irish were wealthier or better educated by contemporary standards, or more highly skilled or harder working. It is simply that they were white and their whiteness gave them a right to be in the United States.”

Second, Georgina Lawton offers a powerful reflection on the nature of race and identity in Ireland:“‘My mum always told me I was white, like her. Now I know the truth.

Third, as the Post points out, the Republicans had a really rough time trying to commemorate St Paddy’s day: “The day began with a cringe-worthy, mildly offensive Irish cliche in front of a roomful of Irish people, and it all went downhill from there.”

Finally, click here to watch Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s pro-immigration speech, boldly delivered standing just feet from Donald Trump:

“And four decades before Lady Liberty lifted her lamp, we were the wretched refuse on the teeming shore. We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America. We came and we became Americans.”

Until next year.


RIP Chuck Berry



Listen to these stories by Americans about how their race affects their identities. Some identify as “hyphenated Americans”. Others are given hyphenated identities without much choice. All the narratives offer something different about life through the lens of a hyphenated American.

One that struck for me was Ayman’s story. He talks about being labelled ‘white-washed’ when he visits back home to Sudan. He is called a “Khawaja” – meaning foreigner. Similar terms exist elsewhere: gora (in India) or mzungu (in Tanzania). Meanwhile, back in America, he was labelled Black and Muslim. This feeling of outsider in both cultures is a common piece of navigating hyphenated identity.

Another familiar experience of hyphenation exists for people born into culturally mixed families. For some reading into the issue, check out the NY Times op-ed about the hopefulness of biracial identities in carrying the U.S. forward. NPR’s response to the op-ed paints a bleaker reality for the biracial experience — specifically, facing discrimination for “belonging to a non-white group.”


"The person we marry is a stranger about whom we have a magnificent hunch."

For 25 years, Lois Smith Brady has written for the wedding pages of the New York Times, which includes engagement and wedding announcements, but also explores relationships and marital intimacy.

In a recent column, Brady provides 10 quotes of love and relationships that have stuck with her from the interviews she has conducted through the years (links to the pieces that contain the quotes can be accessed here):

  1. “In a sense, the person we marry is a stranger about whom we have a magnificent hunch.
  2. "I’ve always felt like a fish out of water, and when I met LaMott (her partner) it was like he was the same fish.”
  3. On when love is real: “When you know you know, and don’t believe it any other way. When someone asks you to marry them, you shouldn’t have to make a list of pros and cons. You just know. You jump into their arms and say, ‘Yeah!’”
  4. “One night, a moth was flying around a light bulb and he caught it and let it out of the window, I said: ‘That’s it. He’s the guy.’”
  5. “I feel like Sean and I have known each other since the beginning of time. I always tell him, ‘After we die, we have to find each other in our next life.’ I also tell him if I die before him, I really want him to fall in love again. But in our next lifetime, he has to find me, not her. That’s the deal.”
  6. “I now know what love is. It’s when someone becomes part of every breath, in what way I do not know. But I couldn’t breath without her.”
  7.  “When he gave me the ring, he said: ‘It’s not a big stone you can’t carry around. This ring won’t put you in danger on the subways’ He said, ‘This is a solid ring, like my promises.’”
  8. "It was like a dream. It was surreal. In life, you don’t have to search for bad things — they find you without a problem. Disasters always seem to know your address, even if you move. But the good times, they’re hard to find, and this one was one those truly spectacular times.”
  9. "A wedding vow: “Of my own accord, I present myself, my days, my nights and my life. I present them freely and willingly because they cannot be better spent than in your company.”
  10. On the end: “I always tell the couples I marry, ‘Take time before time takes you.”

This Week's Links

The last episode in Missing Richard Simmons airs today. The podcast series explores Richard Simmons and the reasons for why he hasn’t been seen in public for over 3 years, and is easily one of the smartest, most intriguing podcasts around (though, ethically questionable).

Drake's new 'playlist' is terrific. In the words of sometimes theread contributor Aaron Samuel More Life "does feel more like a playlist that an album. There are no cohesive aside from being great tunes. It's like we fast forwarded 20 years from now and were listening to a drake's greatest hits side 2."

Do Not Disturb is the last track on Drake’s playlist, which samples this beautiful track by SNOH AALEGRA.

At least 70 soldiers and vets who served on the Afghanistan mission have taken their own lives after returning to Canada. A veterans advisory group is set to hold a meeting on suicide prevention — “a long overdue step, say some vet advocates who sit on the committee.”

Sesame Street’s newest Muppet has autism: “Julia’s puppeteer, Stacey Gordon, is the mother of an autistic child, and explained to 60 Minutes the value of creating a character like Julia: ‘Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviors through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened. They might not have been worried when he cried. They would have known that he plays in a different way, and that that’s okay.’”

It’s a long read, but this article on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is essential for those seeking to understand the current chaos in the White House.

Tim Heidecker, the king of absurdist anti-comedy and an increasingly prolific songwriter, has released his best yet anti-Trump song, “mar-o-lago.

A 2014 RCMP report said that the force had identified nearly 1,200 Indigenous women and girls who had disappeared or were slain in recent decades, yet the MMIWG inquiry currently has just 90 names in its database.

Richie Assaly