Repeating Islands: Caribbean Cultures in Cyberspace

• February 2011

Repeating Islands stemmed from a simple idea—finding a space “out there” through which we could make a small contribution to a pan-Caribbeanist project that, despite its worthiness, has proven resistant to most efforts to bridge linguistic, geographic, and political barriers to increased communication across the archipelago. The immediate inspirations for our blog were news aggregator websites such as the Blaze, the Drudge Report, and the Huffington Post, which created unique information spaces that functioned as personal newspapers and had led to the formation of active and influential cyber-communities of like-minded readers. Lacking the resources of those websites, which can tap on investors’ funds and advertisement revenue to create highly complex internet presences, we rely on the far simpler blog technology, using social media (Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds, for example) to reach out to readers interested in news and information about the Caribbean and its diaspora. Blogs—which allow for the incorporation of a multiplicity of texts, photos, paintings, prints, video, and audio—had already become important para-literary spaces for Caribbean writers, who used them to explore their culture, politics, literature, and national identities. Our aim was to find a place within that growing community of bloggers as a unique newspaper-like site that could appeal to a broad segment of readers from the Caribbean or to those interested in learning more about the region. Celebrating our second anniversary—we launched the blog on 27 February 2009—we have the opportunity to assess how we fit into that ever-shifting community of bloggers and to consider to what extent the site has begun to fulfill the objectives we had envisioned when we first conceived it.

The Caribbean blogosphere is a complex space, encompassing a broad network of creative (and all-too-often ephemeral) spaces that simultaneously join the forces of globalization and resist their creative homogeneity. These also provide avenues of continuity for members of the Caribbean diaspora, who use blogs, photoblogs, vlogs, and podcasting to maintain links with their islands of origin that seek to bridge the décalage in daily experiences and (often) in language that is the result of migration. The creative world of the Caribbean blog opens immediate, dynamic, and interactive possibilities for the creation of hybrid “texts” whose ultimate aim is that of fostering and nurturing the cyber-community that is the blog’s very reason for being. Successful examples include the lively Yard Edge, which is, like Repeating Islands, a new aggregator blog aimed at Jamaican readers; the quirky Sondeos del Alma, from the Dominican Republic, with its environmentalist perspective and its random application of the principles of Mahatma Gandhi; the excellent francophone Caribbean blog-cum-website Gens de la Caraïbe; the hilarious (and now apparently abandoned) Puerto Rican blog El País de Alicia, a proto-literary blog that chronicled the daily vicissitudes of a single thirty-something from the San Juan suburb of Guaynabo; blogs like that of Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos Febres that fall along the lines of the personal diary or autobiography-in-progress and gather commentary on readings and experiences; and, of course, Yoani Sánchez’s award-winning and censorship-busting Generación Y, which, with over a million monthly pageviews, is the most widely read of all Caribbean blogs. Geographically anchored in specific Caribbean spaces, yet functioning in a cyber-realm in which their readership is located in all corners of the world, these exemplify the community of bloggers we joined two years ago with Repeating Islands.

Before embarking on our own blog adventure, there were a number of things we had observed as readers of blogs—the most important perhaps was the shifting balance between what bloggers envision as their “ideal” readership and the less easily identifiable transient reader who, pulled in by a specific post, enters the blog through a search engine and who may or may not return to the blog. We had focused primarily on how to create a blog for a narrowly defined audience of “scholars and readers whose interests focus on pan-Caribbean literatures and cultures”—as the “About” page of our blog describes them. Our most surprising experience has been the discovery that, as dynamic medium, the blog more often than not escapes the confines of our “implied readers,” since every post becomes a mini-tentacle bringing to the site a broad variety of readers: subscribers (those who have signed up to receive an e-mail every time we publish a post); those who follow us on Twitter or come to us through links on our Facebook page; those who read us through pingbacks translated automatically into a variety of languages (regular pingbacks make our posts available to readers in Italian, Chinese, French, Spanish, Polish, and Haitian Creole, for example); high school students desperate for information for their homework; and people whose use of popular search engines bring them to a particular post. Although we compile our news and orient our posts with subscribers and Facebook/Twitter followers in mind (those being our target audience), remarkably it is the transient readers that represent about 80 percent of our daily readership. That is, while 20 percent of our daily readers come to Repeating Islands specifically looking for its signature content, 80 percent of our daily traffic—meticulously measured for us by Wordpress’ statistics—are entering directly through posts that may have been published up to 23 months ago. We are clearly serving a number of cyber-functions, with our target community guiding our editorial selections while our transient community bolsters our growing statistics.

Although we would like to focus here particularly on the 20 percent of our readers who represent our implied audience, we should mention an important impact of the blog as a repository of otherwise ephemeral materials (news, exhibits, art collections, new book launches, readings, or interviews with artists, for example) that disappear from the web periodically and which scholars can retrieve through access to specialized databases but otherwise become inaccessible to the general reader. This archival function has been a surprising—and, we think—important by-product of our daily blogging, as we have begun to discover that some materials (text and photos, primarily) remain accessible only through our site. We have seen this most concretely through our coverage of the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince in January 2010. One important focus of our posts on the event has been the response of artists and writers to the destruction of the city and the death of nearly three hundred thousand people. Many of those articles have now been archived by newspapers and magazines (most often without their original visual material) or have disappeared completely from the web. The continued access through Repeating Islands represents a service to our virtual communities (if we are to speak in plural about our two main groups of readers) that we had not foreseen. This realization has begun to impact our selection of materials for posting, with the preservation of potentially ephemeral materials now being one of the criteria we use for deciding what to post from among the many daily possibilities. In this, we are primarily thinking of the blog’s possible contributions to scholarly endeavors and to teaching. In this respect we should mention that a second, and quite unexpected, impact of the blog has been its adoption as a teaching tool for numerous courses throughout the Caribbean region, the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and India. As required daily reading for these courses, the blog is recognized as a helpful tool for enhancing the students’ knowledge and understanding of the region.

We would like to return, however, to our intended audience—those “scholars and readers whose interests focus on pan-Caribbean literatures and cultures”—in order to explore in more detail the ways in which we intended the blog to represent a virtual “contact zone” for our readers, a space of exploration that would enhance our readers’ connections to the myriad cultural manifestations of the region and of salient events with archipelago-wide repercussions, such as the Port-au-Prince earthquake or the growing environmental crisis. We envisioned the site as one that would offer information that would allow readers to establish links between geographical spaces in which they live or about which they write with similar spaces and phenomena in areas that are less familiar to them. The contact zone that is the blog would allow the reader—through texts, visual materials, music, and links to other sites—to virtually enter other spaces (museum sites, gallery offerings, photoblogs, videos of interviews or performances) and experience the multiple possible resonances of these materials across the archipelago. The translation of such diverse and wide-ranging materials from Creole, Dutch, French, Papiamento, and Spanish into English would also facilitate access to information; while English is the lingua franca of the blog, the medium itself allows for the co-existence of these various languages, as readers may access the original texts through the links provided. As we state in the “Our Blog” section, Repeating Islands is “a project intended to bring the broader Caribbean community closer through the sharing of news and information that transcends the linguistic divide in the region.”

It is in this respect that our aims come closest to those articulated in Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s influential text, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (La isla que se repite: El Caribe y la perspectiva posmoderna; 1996), from which we drew our title. Arguing that despite the apparent fragmentation and disorder, multiple differences, and discontinuities in the Caribbean—including, but not limited to, dissimilar languages, colonial histories, ethnicities, traditions, politics, and discontinuous landmasses—Benítez-Rojo contended that an order exists and is manifested in the continuity of a repeating island that gives shapes to a complex but coherent sociocultural archipelago. The blog offers us and our readers the possibility of finding multiple points of coincidence, convergence, and intersection (albeit without erasing differences); it allows us to see the overlapping and echoing of diverse artistic projects (in architecture, cinema, dance, literature, music, visual arts, and theater, among others) throughout the wider Caribbean. Most of the comments we have received from our readers, while often expressing pleasure at discovering new, unusual, or unfamiliar aspects of Caribbean culture betray the (perhaps subconscious) desire to find an underlying order or continuum within the fragmentation.

Blogging, as we have discovered, can be an ephemeral activity; for example, of the twelve blogs featured in a paper on blogging two years ago, only two remain active. The archiving of some blogs is clearly understandable. The blog of Dominican singer, writer, and performance artist Rita Indiana has been inactive since 2007. During the intervening period, however, her continued development as an artist has brought international attention to her music, a number of honors and award nominations, and the publication of two literary works. In her case, it is clear to see how the blog functioned as an outlet for creativity that became less necessary once her reputation was established and she had ready access to other forms of expression. Her case is special, but not unique, as other artists (especially visual artists) have moved on from the blog to the more static professional webpage once their work has achieved a measure of recognition and sales. The reason for the archiving of other blogs remains unclear, but we suspect that the difficulties in acquiring and retaining a readership may have been behind the abandonment of most of these blogs.

The development of a readership for blogs on Caribbean arts and cultures remains a challenge, as we surmise from speaking to other bloggers, who argue that blogging without a secure, constant (and hopefully growing) readership is a lonely and unrewarding occupation. Establishing a blog in the Caribbean cyberspace requires building and maintaining a readership through a delicate balancing between what in our case is the 20 percent of our established readership and that 80 percent of daily readers reeled in by an old post. Because the interests of our established readership cover the entire Caribbean region, it requires a commitment to ample daily coverage (we publish between eight and ten posts a day), which in turn requires perseverance in researching and identifying stories that can prove interesting to our readers. Although we are not driven by our “stats,” we do monitor them closely and must confess to having marked in celebration every milestone—from the first day our daily pageviews reached five thousand to the moment we hit our first one million pageviews. It has been possible for us to establish this level of readership because our news-aggregator function essentially provides a daily mini-newspaper service for our readers and we were able to launch the site through access to academic group mailings. Thus Repeating Islands can, because of its relative success, help other blogs in their efforts to establish themselves—one of the creative endeavors we feature in our posts are links to blogs and websites of interest to our readers. In this respect we in turn acknowledge the generous help of bloggers like Nicholas Laughlin and Geoffrey Philp and popular websites like Common Dreams and Michael Moore in bringing Repeating Islands to the attention of their broad readership.

Blogging remains the easiest and most accessible technology for Caribbean proto-writers and artists to access a broad reading public. Immediate, dynamic, and free, it can serve, as it did for Rita Indiana, as an open medium for reaching beyond the confines of the insular space to a cyber-Caribbean that, we hope, can recognize itself in the experiences of other regional artists and writers across linguistic, cultural, and geographic divides.

 

Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert is a professor of Caribbean culture and literature in the Department of Hispanic Studies and director of the Environmental Studies Program at Vassar College, where she holds the Randolph Distinguished Professor chair. She is the author of a number of books, among them Phyllis Shand Allfrey: A Caribbean Life (1996), Jamaica Kincaid: A Critical Companion (1999), Creole Religions of the Caribbean (with Margarite Fernández Olmos, 2003; 2nd ed., 2011), Literatures of the Caribbean (2008), and the forthcoming José Martí: A Life

Ivette Romero-Cesareo is a professor of Spanish and director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program at Marist College. Her publications include articles on Caribbean literature and visual arts. She has produced two co-edited volumes with Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Women at Sea: Travel Writing and the Margins of Caribbean Discourse (2001) and Displacements and Transformations in Caribbean Cultures (2008). She is currently writing a book on aesthetic responses to AIDS in the Caribbean.

 

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