Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Trinidad Noir, Cheech & Chon

Review: Trinidad Noir
Trinidad Noir
edited by Lisa Allen-Agostini & Jeanne Mason
NY: Akashic Books, 2008.
ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-55-2

Michael Sedano

Trinidad is an island entire of itself, and, together with Tobago and 21 other Caribbean islands, makes up the nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Googling the country uncovers a wealth of detail about its mineral and natural wealth, its lively music and colorful festivals, its potential as a tourist destination. Then, at the bottom of a page billing itself as the “definitive guide”, comes a sober reminder to the would-be traveler:

Trinidad has a crime problem: armed robberies, car thefts, kidnappings and murders are depressingly common. To minimise the risk of trouble, common-sense precautions need to be taken.

Such a prominent warning might be enough to persuade a traveler to put off a visit to T&T until some future date, but the would-be traveler need not avoid the island entirely. There is no frigate like a book, no? The armchair traveler/reader can get a gritty taste of Trinidad in Akashic Books’ 340 page noir anthology dedicated to Trinidadian writers, Trinidad Noir.

Eighteen stories, most of them completely enjoyable, make up the collection. For a United States reader, the cultural milieu will be the most striking character of the work, followed by the patois of its characters. Crime, murder, mayhem, and irony, will be in abundance, since these form the heart and soul of noir fiction. The challenge for the anthologist is to provide fresh work and clever twists, and, failing that, unique settings.

Editors Lisa Allen-Agostini & Jeanne Mason give the anthology a light-hearted sensibility in its opening two stories, Lisa Allen-Agostini’s “Pot Luck”, and Kevin Baldeosingh’s, “The Rape.” Both stories feature working-class folks who get caught up in events.

In the first story, an unemployed rasta fellow stumbles across a marijuana plantation, which he steals, smokes, shares, and sells. The plot grows complicated when he sells a goodly supply to a local dealer’s worthless brother. That the brother has stolen the pot thief’s girlfriend makes for an amusing dissonance, but one that turns deadly.

In the second story, two women feel the pressure of a crime wave of kidnaps and rapes that seems headed toward their end of the island. As their stress grows, a jogger makes a daily appearance that captures the women’s attention. The author allows readers to suspect the runner could be a rapist casing his victims, or he could simply be an attractive male. The women, “for health reasons”, take up jogging themselves.

The writer gives a deft touch to the women’s light-hearted pursuit of the unknown jogger. When a hit-run driver leaves the jogger unconscious, crumpled in an out of the way cane field, the bolder of the two women sees her opportunity and mounts the priapic victim. Convincing her lonely friend to avail herself of the man’s availability, the story’s title comes alive in a masterstroke of irony when the unconscious stranger comes out of it with the reluctantly persuaded woman astride the mysterious “dougla” (halfbreed) stranger.

The two leading stories are well chosen for their imaginativeness and colorful events. The sixteen remaining stories provide similar or smaller pleasures. Writing dialect poses a challenge to chicana chicano writers that appears as puro Spanish, the occasional code-switch, and only rarely a phonetic representation that may or may not require a splanation. Trinidad Noir’s narratives—with one glaring exception—present fluid standard grammar. Characters speak similarly, with a liberal though not overdone dose of dialect, such as this conversation in Darby Maloney’s “The Best Laid Plans”:

“I hope yuh not lying to me.”
“Of course not,” Honesto said quickly.
Maybe too quickly, Andre thought. “Because I really counting on that money,” he continued slowly. “Where Mary working they closing down by the end of the month, and I have to keep up the installment on this car.” He paused. “And yuh know long time we putting off Brandon operation.”

Readers with a descriptive linguistics bent will enjoy seeing the grammar and phonetics of island speech, and will find nothing unintelligible. Except one unreadable story. Writers make a horrible mess of a text when they attempt to capture the actual sound of dialect. Fortunately, only Robert Antoni has been foolish enough to attempt it. He fails miserably, producing a story so unreadable I suspect most readers will give the epistolary “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives” a page--maybe a paragraph--or two before abandoning the effort:

“now as i have lil chance 2 catch me breath & cool down some after all dem boisterous carryings-ons of las night, of which i can only admit shameful 2 have play my own part in dem, my womanly desires catchin de best a me unawares much as i fight dem down, cause lord only know dis pussy aint get a good airing-out like dat in many a long day, & now it finish at last wid all dat amount a pulsatin & twitchin-up so sweet & i could collec meself little bit & sit down cool & calm & quiet enough dis morning 2 write u out dis email”

Racial and ethnic tensions and identity issues provide ongoing stress for many characters. These come from skin color and interactions among East Asian/Indian, black, and anglo peoples. There’s a clear sense of inclusion-exclusion in the various personae, but spoken without strident political protest. The jogging women, for example, are interested that their target is “dougla” or mixed. That’s the way things are, seems to be the prevailing attitude of the writers and their characters. Rarely do the writers convey a movimiento-type sensibility and characters express only a minor outraged sense of injustice. Rare is the writer with a moral axe to grind, as in Tiphanie Yanique’s coming of age and getting your just desserts story, “Gita Pinky Manachandi.” Mostly what we get in Trinidad Noir is plain old fun, mostly familiar situations in an unusual setting.

That this Trinidad anthology is a bit run-of-the-mill with the occasional gem is completely acceptable, given the larger picture of what the publisher is bringing to market. Akashic Books is gathering a wonderful collection in its noir series. Already in the series have been twenty-three cities including Baltimore, Bronx, Brooklyn, Havana, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto. Upcoming are at least thirteen more including Barcelona, Delhi, Istanbul, Lagos, Mexico City, as well as Phoenix and Portland. This speaks well for the genre, as well as the publisher. Who gets it in the end is the real winner, and this is readers who enjoy the irony, chagrin, schadenfruende, and juicy crimes that hallmark the noir body of work.

Cheech Marin and Chon Noriega: A Conversation at LACMA
Actor, comedian, art collector Cheech Marin joined the chair of UCLA's Chicano Studies program, Chon Noriega, in an hour-long colloquy at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Marin's collection fills several gallery rooms with breathtaking work, principally paintings. The collection is reproduced in book form, Chicano Visions: Painters on the Verge.

It was a highly entertaining and illuminating hour. Marin speaks of his collection as representing a Chicano School of art, distinguished by subject matter, professional execution, and characteristic use of color. Linked above are several pages about the collection, including Marin's essay on the Chicano School.

Noriega kept the hour focused on Marin's collector persona, thus did not address the second "chicano" show running at LACMA, the Noriega et al-curated Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement. La Bloga alluded to the collection in an earlier post.

What an interesting contrast. In Marin's collection, nearly every wall holds masterpiece after masterpiece. Obviously some are more powerful than others, but almost every single canvas kicks you in the gut with its expressive power and sheer beauty.

Phantom Sightings is exactly the opposite. Wall after wall of dreary stuff. A few imaginative pieces like a deconstructed sarape here, there an artifact of a performance piece satirizing street people's beggarly signs that makes everyone stop and laugh. Many well-executed but uninteresting photos.

The show celebrates a couple of absochingaolutely breathtaking artists--Julio Cesar Morales' immigrants; one disguised as piñata another upholstered into an auto seat. There are too few of Shizu Saldamando's striking portraits. But the high quality work scattered here and there is overpowered by work of such creative poverty that a great benefit emerges from the Phantom Sightings show. So often writers and painters decry their categorization as a "chicana chicano" artist, lamenting they cannot be considered merely "artists." Phantom Sightings proves the old adage, "be careful what you ask for, you might just get it." The majority of work in the Phantom Sightings show is "just art."

There's June's final Tuesday. Good health to all, and, as it's a vain hope to wish you eternal youth, here's to growth and maturation.


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norma landa flores said...

Thanks for the good health wishes, Michael. I hope your dad's health has improved.

The descriptive linguistic samples in your review of "Trinidad Noir" were very vivid. And it's true,Chicanas using dialogue in their writings, code-switch para que salga more authentic. The problem is that non-spanish speaking readers don't have a clue as to the meaning of the message. A few Chicana writers use footnotes. I find that disrupts the flow of thoughts and the character's intention for speaking.

I've tried using (these symbols) but it doesn't look cool to me. So I've settled on a communication clarification style of writing. My Spanish speaking character says the culturally important word as a form of emphas, so that the monolingual listener will understand the purpose of the message. In that manner, we perpetuate nuestra cultura, our culture India/Mejicana.

I suspect that you did too, Michael, when you presumed that La Bloga readers would understand that "absochingalutely" is the Chicano critic's translation of "supercalifristikexprialidocious!"

Okay, now. Will someone tell me how to handle the problema, problem, of mixing Spanish, Caló and Pochismos in my writings? Let's have an email symposium. Hórale!


norma landa flores said...

Oops! I did a typo! I meant to type "emphasis" and my pathetic arthritic fingers typed "emphas". Hey, maybe I coined a new Chicana term! Ha! Ha! Ha!


msedano said...

sabes que, norma, i like "emphas". now you have to use "emphas" in a variety of places to give it currency.

the issue of code-switching came up in the Latinos in Lotusland reading in Pasadena. One of the writers echoed my long-held belief that using untranslated, un'splained spanish is a strategy of inclusion/exclusion. he suggested there might be some hostility wrapped up in it, too.

there's a ton of rhetorical force in that both sides of that dialectic of inclusion/exclusion. (now the foregoing will be minimally explanatory to many readers despite the language being puro inglés. to draw out the content of "rhetorical force" and "dialectic" requires too much explanation, hence, leave the expression on its own. qed, untranslated spanish.)

glad you enjoy the code switched timesis.

We've discussed this strategy of multilingualism in the early days of La Bloga. There may not be a community of thinking on the subject.

Me, I'm casi totally against appositional translation, sabes, you know--like that--as well as opposed to the [i]italicization[/i] rule applied to foreignisms.

gente who get excluded by the use of a second language might be anglos or monolingual-in-english chicanas chicanos. the identification takes different dimensions for each. certain tipos might resent the absence of translations, a la "how dare the writer exclude me!". another, esp. the chicas patas reader, might feel pangs of loss in her his exclusion.

probably there's a lot of usefulness in footnotes, a glossary, or facing page translation. my preference, however, is to let the character talk or think in one's native fashion; no italics, not translation nor periphrasis.

sabes que mas, norma? why not put your mind and fingers to the subject and do a guest column on when, how, why you code switch con o sin translation? a ver que te parece.


p.s. my mom is o.k., my dad is shutting down now. pa'lla va la sombra, as my father likes to say.

norma landa flores said...

Michael, I like the way you phrased your father's health condition, "He's shutting down now." That's the same sentiment my aunt Maximina Landa Sanchez said to me, in Spanish when she was preparing to pass away at the grand old age of 102! She said, "Ya estóy toda quebrada. Sique adelante por mi!" Your dad's way of saying it seems more poetic, though.

Thanks for the advice on code switching. I usually use it for the purposes of inclusion. That's what my mother taught me to do. But when I got into the Chicano movement, my fellow Chicano poets and agitators taught me to use code switching to empower La Raza.

Thanks for the offer to write a column about why and how I code switch. But I'm trying to spend as much time as possible rewriting my novel,"Cuca's Conundrums." Maybe I'll learn as I write.