The Democracy of Ideas

February 2011

A Conversation with Nicholas Laughlin

Nicholas Laughlin is a Trinidadian writer and the editor of the Caribbean Review of Books. He is a co-director of Alice Yard, an experimental creative space and network in Port of Spain, as well as a member of the organizing committee for the Bocas Lit Fest, a new literary festival based in Trinidad and Tobago, and the accompanying annual OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Many of his reviews and essays on Caribbean literature and art, published in various journals and books, are available online at his website, and he writes semi-regularly at his personal blog. He edited a volume of C.L.R. James’s early essays, Letters from London (2003, Prospect Press), and a revised and expanded edition of V.S. Naipaul’s family correspondence, Letters between a Father and Son (2009, Picador). He is also co-editor of the broadside poetry and art magazine Town, and his own poems have appeared in several journals in the Caribbean and elsewhere. He is at work—slowly—on a book about Guyana, part travel narrative, part cultural history. (And he tweets: @nplaughlin.)

Apropos of this sx salon discussion on Caribbean arts and culture online, Nicholas answered a few questions for me via e-mail about his own contributions to the field.

Kelly Baker Josephs: You are involved in what I consider to be a dizzying array of projects (your e-mail signature alone runs over fifteen lines). Can you speak a little about the major ones here, particularly the online components of said projects?

Nicholas Laughlin: It sounds like I should edit my e-mail signature. My three major projects, I suppose, based on the amounts of time, energy, thought, and anxiety they seem to demand, are the Caribbean Review of Books, Alice Yard, and my own writing.

The CRB is a bimonthly online magazine offering serious, sustained, but not solemn coverage of Caribbean books and writing, as the name suggests; but we also cover Caribbean culture more widely, with a focus on contemporary art, film, and music. We publish reviews, essays, interviews, some original poems and fiction, and artists’ portfolios. We have a broad working definition of “Caribbean,” and our imagined audience is made up of curious, intelligent, well-informed readers who are not necessarily specialists or scholars. Our founding idea is simple: literature, art, and other creative forms are crucial channels for understanding the Caribbean present and past, and for imagining its future; so it’s important to pay attention to them, discuss and debate them, engage with the work of our writers and artists and thinkers. It’s necessary work, hard work, but can also be pleasurable work.

The CRB was a quarterly print magazine from 2004 to 2009. In 2010, we relaunched as an online magazine, on a sort of hybrid schedule: with new content published nearly weekly but organized into bimonthly issues. The CRB was online from the beginning—our original website launched in May 2004 alongside the first print edition—and Antilles, the CRB blog, started in 2007. I suspect we’ve always had more online than print readers. The decision to shift our primary focus to the web was mostly financial. We completely redesigned our website in the process, integrated Antilles into the main site, and introduced some new tools for readers to browse our archives—a subject index, pages for major authors. The website is a work in progress—we’re still transferring our archive from the old site to the new one.

Alice Yard is several things at once. It’s a physical space, first of all, in the backyard of an old house in the Woodbrook neighborhood of Port of Spain. Since 2006 this has been a modest center for creative experiment and collaboration. We’ve hosted artists’ exhibitions and other projects, performances, discussions, film screenings, and readings, and some events that are hard to categorize. We have small multipurpose studio and exhibition spaces, a semi-soundproof rehearsal room, and a matchbox-size living space for visiting artists, all arrayed around an open courtyard. The architecture continues to evolve.

But Alice Yard is also a network of creative collaborators—I prefer network to collective, since we have such distinct practices and can be very own-way. The key person and founder of Alice Yard is Sean Leonard, an architect with a long history of supporting artists and others, and a keen interest in the ways that social interactions shape physical spaces, and vice versa. The other co-directors are the artist and critic Christopher Cozier—a member of the Small Axe collective—and me, and we work closely with a number of artists, designers, musicians, and writers. We’re trying to understand and help shape the context for contemporary art and other creative forms in Trinidad, and open areas of possibility for younger practitioners. And we’re also trying to devise a model for all of the above that draws on Port of Spain’s long tradition of informal, communal spaces for conversation and creativity, and adapts that tradition to engage with wider regional and international dialogues.

The whole enterprise runs on a half-a-shoestring budget. We set up the Alice Yard website as an inexpensive way to document and publicize our projects and programs, and of course it’s helped us engage with an international audience. More interestingly, in the past three or four years there’s been a decided shift towards online media in contemporary Caribbean art. The reason is simple: it’s easy to share images via websites and e-mail, an artist can set up a professional website using free online tools, and the medium makes it possible to see, hear, and discuss in a common space the work of artists otherwise separated by geography. Within the Caribbean there’s a dire shortage of formal exhibition spaces, serious art criticism, and art publishing. It used to be that in order to experience the work of contemporaries in other Caribbean or diaspora locations, an artist had to travel or seek out printed catalogues. The web has shortened those circuits, and younger artists in particular have been quick to take advantage of the free virtual exhibition space offered by Wordpress, Blogger, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, and other tools and sites. The phenomenon raises interesting questions about curatorship, audience, influences, mediums, and forms. And it makes the old local-versus-foreign dichotomy seem inadequate as a means of understanding artists’ negotiations with global economies of images and ideas. Alice Yard, via our website, is somewhere in the middle of that, trying to figure it out, like everyone else.

KBJ: I have a bit of difficulty understanding the separation between the CRB blog Antilles and your personal blog. I believe you have a rationale for what you post where, but I haven’t quite figured it out. That leads me to wonder: How do you keep your individual online persona separate from your projects’ online presence? Or, to take that a step further, is there a Nicholas Laughlin online anymore or has your name come to signify the node of your various projects?

NL: That final part of your question is a little alarming! I could try to write an essay here about the question of the online self—its ontological implications, the way online media radically expand the field of “others” to whom one is potentially “known,” but also how they change the meaning of “knowing,” and so on. But I’ll answer more directly. Almost all my major projects have a website of some kind, and in almost all cases I’m the primary or sole “editor” of what appears on those sites. So there’s much they have in common—they no doubt share an idiom or a sensibility. But I’m clear-ish in my mind that when I write a blog post for Antilles, I’m writing as a representative of the CRB, and that affects my voice and tone and trajectory, and the kinds of information and ideas I choose to share. Similarly, when I post an item at the Alice Yard website, I know I’m writing as a representative of Alice Yard. I’ve worked in magazine publishing for some years now, and have always been conscious of what I call the “editor’s note” voice, or “editor’s note” prose. It’s my voice, my prose, but also needs to be representative of the abstract entity on whose behalf one is writing. Perhaps that sounds like splitting hairs, but I’m definitely conscious of this when I sit down to type.

My personal blog—which I started in 2002, simply because I was curious about this blogging phenomenon I kept hearing about—has been different things at different times. I used to write fairly regular pieces of political and social commentary, post items of literary news, and so on. At some point I got slightly tired of the whole thing and nearly stopped writing there. Then I reinvented the blog as an entirely self-indulgent space for recording interesting things I come across in my reading, random elliptic thoughts, weird images, bits of music I happen to be temporarily obsessed with, and the like. A sort of notebook. A half-hearted attempt to explore the blog as a creative-biographical form, perhaps. A few years ago I deliberately deleted the traffic counter, so I have no idea how many people read it, and I generally assume no one does. It’s a playful space. I do still post bits of occasional commentary, if something annoys or provokes me enough.

So, to get back to the terms of your question, Antilles is a space where I share information and write informal commentary on Caribbean literature and art, wearing my CRB editor’s hat; my personal blog is a public online equivalent of the physical notebooks that, like many writers, I keep always within reach.

KBJ: In an interview for Antilles, you asked me a question that I’d like to hear you answer as well (I’ve had to revise it a bit given your many projects): Where and how do you think your projects fit into the broad and growing network of online resources (journals, blogs, archives) for Caribbean arts and culture? And which of these other resources do you pay closest attention to?

NL: That’s the kind of question that’s more fun to ask than to answer. Serves me right. I’ll answer the last bit first. I try to pay attention to all of them. Like many people I know, I spend far too much time online. I click far too many links. I justify this to myself by thinking that it’s important for me to keep up with the multiple conversations about writing, art, culture, and ideas going on in the Caribbean online sphere. But of course there are some websites I visit more frequently than others. Repeating Islands is an excellent clearing-house for Caribbean cultural news across all the language groups. I check it nearly daily. I spot lots of interesting news and other resources via links in my Twitter stream. I use Google’s news search to find far-flung coverage of particular events or people or new books, and so on. I could do worse than point you to the CRB’s links page  for some of the sites worth keeping tabs on.

My various projects fit into different segments of this infosphere. The CRB, though in theory it can publish new pieces almost instantly, still has a longish lead time. I like to give our writers time to properly digest the books they review, and as a slow writer myself, I try not to set breakneck deadlines. I don’t really mind if a CRB review of a particular book appears six or nine months after its publication date. (In odd cases, longer!) These days, there’s often a flurry of online activity when a new book appears, or exhibition opens, and so on. The CRB’s role is—from the beginning has been—to stand back from the bustle of publicity, find a position of appropriate critical distance, think about the books, art, films, and so on that we review, what makes them interesting or not, where they fit into the broader cultural context, what new information or sensations they convey, what they teach us, how and why they please or move us. We draw on the critical knowledge and sensibilities of a wide range of writers. We have an explicitly regionalist agenda and a commitment to what Lloyd Best called epistemic sovereignty, the imperative for Caribbean people to understand and define their reality in and on their own terms. And above all we’re convinced that criticism is an important intellectual activity, and one that should be shared as widely as possible. That is why, even in the days of the print magazine, we made all our content freely available online, and that is why we require that our writers eschew the argot of the academy and write with a diverse audience in mind. None of this is unique, but in the Caribbean—offline or online—it is frankly rare.

That wish to engage with a wide audience is almost an ideology, and it is certainly one of the motive forces of all my online activity. I simply don’t understand why anyone engaged in intellectual work should choose to restrict access to their ideas to a privileged audience. Perhaps I feel so strongly about this because I am myself situated outside the academy. I’m not naive—of course I understand that intellectual and indeed creative economies depend in part on people paying for books, journal subscriptions, and so on. But I believe that any scholar whose work is directly or indirectly supported by public funding should feel an ethical obligation to make the products of that work broadly accessible. The obligation is particularly acute in the Caribbean, where excellent libraries and bookshops are few. In the year 2011, anyone who can use a basic word processor can set up a simple website. There’s no excuse for not using the medium to advance the democracy of ideas.

KBJ: At the end of 2010, the CRB published its readers’ favorite CRB pieces in 2010. That indicates that online publishing gives you access to readers in a way that print publishing did not.  Is that a clear advantage to the online forum or is it a mixed blessing? For instance, you actually published two separate lists—the readers’ favorites and the editor’s favorites. Was that, in some part, an attempt to “correct” a drawback in the ways online feedback can be utilized?

NL: Online publication does give us access to kinds of information about our readers’ preferences that we didn’t have before. Via our traffic-tracking software I can see, pretty much in real time, which pages of the CRB site readers are loading up and presumably reading. Naturally, I keep an eye on this information stream, though it doesn’t really influence editorial decisions. It’s fascinating to contemplate what these statistics suggest about our readers’ interests and more general trends. So at the end of last year I decided to compile a “best of” list of the ten most-popular pieces we published in 2010.

But, looking over that list, I realized it was biased toward the earlier part of the year. It’s obvious why: a piece published in June or July had lots more time to rack up hits than a piece published in December. That’s why I appended another list of 2010 highlights, an “editor’s choice,” which allowed me to aim the spotlight at a few other pieces that showcase the CRB’s range of subjects and which some readers may have overlooked.

As I mentioned, I don’t use online feedback to decide what the CRB should publish (though it’s gratifying when a piece I’m really keen on also turns out to be popular with our readers—a good example is the poet Vahni Capildeo’s three-part essay on visiting India, which was by far the most widely read piece the CRB published last year). What’s tremendously useful is knowing how readers come to the CRB site—the relative numbers who check the home page, those who are prompted by our mailing list, those (many) who follow links from Facebook, and so on. That helps me figure out how best to draw our readership’s attention to new content.

KBJ: Are there other pros and cons of online projects that you can share? Having worked in both the print and the online worlds—especially having moved from the former to the latter with the CRB—you would seem to be in an ideal position to discuss the differences.

NL: The thing is, the web is just one of several possible media for publishing. Online media are only a segment of a continuum of channels for intellectual activity. Increasingly, I don’t find the print/online dichotomy specially helpful or interesting. Publishing is one mode of doing intellectual work in public, for an assumed audience. Historically, this has taken multiple forms: books, pamphlets, journals, newspapers, and so on. Now we also have websites, blogs (and a blog is merely a kind of website with a chronological organizing principle), mailing lists, Twitter, Facebook, and so on and so on. Each of these forms has strengths and weaknesses, is better suited to one kind of intellectual activity or another, but there are no either/ors.

A website is, after all, a printable medium for anyone with a desktop printer. What matter most are accessibility and durability—which medium or media are most accessible to the desired audience and which will preserve information the longest. (As far as the latter is concerned, books printed on good-quality paper are still superior to just about anything short of stone tablets. There’s a reason the codex as a technological form—sheets of paper bound along one side—has barely evolved in the past thousand years. It’s close to perfect for its purpose.) It seems common sense that any kind of intellectual enterprise should use as many of these media as possible, and make full use of the characteristic strengths of each.

The great advantages of online media are cost, and what for want of a better word we call searchability—the fact that if something is published online in a form that’s “crawlable” by search engines, it’s remarkably easy to find it and to identify the bits relevant to the individual reader. The great disadvantage is that online media are more fragile than we like to think. And there’s an immense quantity of important, interesting, and often irreplaceable information online the existence of which depends not on the individuals who have created this information, but on the decisions of for-profit corporations. The Library of Congress now archives tweets, so if Twitter went out of business tomorrow, all the information published there would presumably be preserved. But if Flickr got shut down suddenly, hundreds of thousands of images could be lost. If Google decided to shut down the Blogger platform, billions of words could disappear. Anyone publishing primarily online ought to spend a lot of time worrying about backing up and worst-case scenarios. (I have first-hand experience of this—a few weeks ago the CRB’s online archive was temporarily inaccessible due to an inexplicably damaged database. Luckily it was a fixable problem.)

What’s really interesting, I think, are potential forms of hybridization between online and offline media, and of course ways to use online and digital tools to support print publication media. For instance, book publishers can now keep titles in print indefinitely by storing each as a digital file and making single hard copies as needed. To the average reader, the production quality of the best digital print-on-demand systems is now almost indistinguishable from traditional offset printing. And the digital file for a book can be transmitted electronically from wherever it’s stored to multiple production locations. We’re within sight of being able to walk into a good bookshop, request almost any book, watch while the staff download it from the publishers’ archive and print and bind it (an entirely automated process), and leave ten minutes later. Eventually this will cost less than a “normal” book, which has to be printed in mass in a fixed location, transported, and warehoused.

Which leads me to say that I don’t rule out the CRB reappearing in a printed format at some point in the future, when the right piece of technology makes this feasible, by which I mean inexpensive.

KBJ: Clearly, then, one of the advantages of online projects is the lower overhead. It isn’t, however, no-cost publishing. Even if we don’t put a price on the endless man-hours, there are often space and technology costs. How do you maintain your various projects?

NL: Blood, sweat, toil, and tears.

The CRB is an incorporated nonprofit. A trickle of income comes from advertising on the website, but our operating budget largely depends on funding from various donors, including donations from our readers. (If anyone reading this feels moved to chip in, here’s the link.) In recent years we’ve been supported by the Prince Claus Fund, a Dutch government agency that funds cultural initiatives in the developing world. But our budget has always been tight and it’s always been a struggle to keep the engine running. No news there—it’s the same for many small magazines and journals.

Actually keeping the website online is relatively inexpensive, if, as you say, you don’t count the man-hours. The CRB’s biggest expense is paying our writers. We pay a pittance, and I wish we could offer more. But on principle, from the beginning, we’ve paid our contributors. Writing is hard work, and work that deserves the basic respect of compensation—even if, as in our case, it is token compensation.

But suffice it to say that the CRB is a philanthropic initiative for its editor, who is in no immediate danger of earning a living from the magazine.

KBJ: But this matter of earning a living is something to consider. I sometimes think that the reason for the growth of online spaces for Caribbean arts and culture is the low overhead. But several of the sites, particularly those based on free servers, seem to become defunct quickly as those behind the project run out of steam or move on to more profitable projects. How do you think access to funding, or lack thereof, will influence the shape of Caribbean culture online in the near (or not-so-near) future?

NL: People do creative things because they want to create. Sometimes they can make a livelihood out of it, very often not. They keep doing them anyway. Almost none of the really interesting online spaces for Caribbean creative or intellectual activity is commercial. I don’t expect that to change. Many of them depend on the efforts of single dedicated people, or very small groups. That won’t change either. If there’s a medium in which one can do interesting things, some people will. When they get bored or tired, they’ll stop. This is all true of the offline world as well. What’s worrying is the problem of durability, which I mentioned earlier. Can funding solve that problem? Not really, not in any down-to-earth way.

What’s interesting and exciting and worth trying to understand is how these online media, untethered to physical geography, unbounded by coastlines, can change and are changing what we mean by Caribbean. The Caribbean has always been a space of imagination as much as a geographical definition. Part of what we imagine is that people in hundreds of islands and dozens of continental footholds proximate to a certain area of sea, plus their relatives scattered all over the globe, collectively form something called the Caribbean, with a distinct and common history and culture. The Caribbean is formed by geography but also despite geography. What happens when basic notions of here versus there, near versus far, and our very concept of space are radically subverted in half a generation by a rapid technological shift? Everyone in the world is trying to figure this out. We have to figure it out too.


Kelly Baker Josephs is an Assistant Professor of English at York College, CUNY. She is Managing Editor of the journal Small Axe and sx salon: a small axe literary platform.


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