Transcript - Episode 68: Richard Georges
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 68. Today’s guest is Richard Georges.
Hey there, folks, before we get started with today’s episode, I wanted to take a minute to mention the Medium Festival of Photography. Now if you’ve been listening to the show for a while you’ve definitely heard me talk about Medium before because more than a third of the people I’ve talked to on this show have been people I either met for the first time at Medium or I heard about their work at Medium, or they reviewed my portfolio at Medium. And it’s that last bit that I wanted to mention.
Now, back in episode 60, you heard Brenda Biondo and I talk about portfolio reviews and how valuable they are for photographers. And in episode 44 you heard me talk with scott b davis about the Medium Festival, he’s the executive director of the festival. We talked about what it is and why it started. Well, as I’m recording this, there are still several slots available for the portfolio reviews at this year’s festival and I wanted to make sure you all knew about it. If you’re a photographer and you want to get your work in front of some great curators, gallerists, and publishers, this is your chance. And, to be clear, nobody is paying me to say this, I just really love the festival, and I can honestly say that it has been a huge part of my development as a photographer. In fact, I’m not just recommending it to you, I’m actually already signed up to have my portfolio reviewed this year, myself. So, if you come to San Diego, not only will you get to show your work to some amazing reviewers, not only will you get to see some fabulous artist lectures and generally have a great time, you’ll also get the chance to come say hi to me. You know, I say this so often and I’ll keep saying it, Medium is my favorite event of the year, every year, and I just can’t say enough good things about it. So, this year’s festival is from Thursday, October 18th to Sunday, October 21st, I’ve put a link in the show notes where you can register for the portfolio reviews, so if you can, come on out to San Diego and get in on this!
OK, so, on to today’s show. Today’s guest is Richard Georges. Richard is a writer, editor, and lecturer in the British Virgin Islands. His poems have been included in numerous journals, he’s the author of two collections, his debut Make Us All Islands, which was published by Shearsman Books in 2017, and then most recently his new collection Giant, which was published by Playtpus Press in February of this year. Richard is the recipient of the 2016 Marvin E. Williams Literary Prize from The Caribbean Writer, and has been shortlisted for The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Small Axe Literary Prize, The Hollick Arvon Prize for Caribbean Literature, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. And he is a founding editor of Moko, a journal of Caribbean arts and letters.
Now, I read Richard’s book Giant recently and I was immediately drawn to the language and the use of nature imagery, but what made me come back to these poems and really think about them and turn them over in my mind is how, you know, these are poems about a place that I don’t know a lot about, the British Virgin Islands, but in talking about things like the aftermath of empire, about myths and legends, about poetry itself, I was really drawn in and able to feel connected. And curious, too, you know, to the point where I wanted to learn more about some of the context, to deepen my understanding of these poems. And, you know, I’m always talking about how art is about communication, how it’s a thing that gives you a window into other people’s experiences, and I think that this is a really great example of work that does exactly that, so I was happy that Richard was willing to talk with me about his work.
Now, I’ve put links in the show notes to where you can purchase your own copy of Giant, as well as to Moko magazine, which as I mentioned Richard is a founding editor of. I do encourage you to check both of those out.
As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag ChannelOpenPod to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Richard Georges.
Mike Sakasegawa: So I was, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind, if we could start with a poem?
Richard Georges: Sure. Do you have any preferences?
MS: No, just whatever, whatever your choice might be.
RG: OK. Well let me pick one that’s not too long. I think I will go with “Matthew.”
So we run from house to house holding hands
and build wooden houses
we cannot enter. Light the oil lamps,
shut the creaking windows—the howling storm
knows our names, exhumes our navel strings.
Lord, I can see the inevitable
coming: the plodding clouds, the sleeping sea,
the earth unmade, the town unmapped.
The storm shreds the trees to bones, drags children
from their homes by their heels, their voices
swallowed whole in the wet night. They divide
our lives into bags of rice and dried
herring. We are sleeping under the trees,
she says. But there are no trees, and you have not
eaten in two nights.
MS: Thank you. So, you know, one of the things that, sort of—well, first of all let me just, let me just say that I really enjoyed reading this book—
RG: Thank you.
MS: —and I’ve been thinking about it a fair amount since, you know I think I finished reading it the first time a week or so ago, and the thing that really strikes me is how relevant these poems feel to a lot of things about the world right now.
MS: And how the conversations that we are having, I think, in a lot of countries like the US and, I’m sure, in many European countries about the legacy of colonialism.
MS: And how these poems really speak to that. So I guess, so one of the things that I thought was really interesting was that as I was reading through this collection, through the first part of it, I kept thinking about the Shelley poem “Ozymandias” and then, I turned the page into the second section and there’s the epigraph—
MS: —to that section is from that poem. So, this whole idea of, of sort of aftermath, and sort of what comes after seems to really strongly inform a lot of these poems, and I was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.
RG: Sure. I mean, “Ozymandias” has been one of my favorite poems for, I don’t know, probably as long as I’ve been reading poetry, both because of the immense level of craft on display and, you know, the first two—let me see—I mean, the first two sections in particular are kind of circling that same issue and speaking more symbolically and metaphorically until it gets a bit more direct in the third section.
But the—you know, I’m not quite sure that the Ozymandias metaphor works perfectly. I mean, it works visually for me because, OK, in the Caribbean you have all of these remains, of the plantocracy and the slave and indentureship. And I’m sure in most places that have been colonized, or gone through a period of occupation or the like, will have similar relics or similar remains of that sort of possession. And I would say—so you have the ruins of great houses and plantations,you have old colonial structures, administration buildings, etc, graves, the ruins of sugar mills, etc, that all speak to this really fraught and troublesome—I guess, to put it mildly—past that the whole archipelago and the continent really were part of. But I guess the reason why I would say that the metaphor doesn’t sit perfectly is that there are these forgotten spaces like the BVI, like Bermuda, Cayman, Turks and Caicos, Montserrat, with respect to the British Empire, and you have Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, etc, in terms of the United States, where they’re kind of these forgotten outposts of empire, of colony, that we don’t quite think of in contemporary times as being colonies.
RG: But, yet and still they are. And both United States and United Kingdom often speak of “shared histories” or “longstanding relationships,” you know, euphemisms for possession and subjugation, really. So for that reason I don’t think the Ozymandian metaphor sits perfectly, but it speaks physically to the remains of the remaining symbols of empire and landscapes, if not the current political and social relationships between these islands and the metropole, if you will.
MS: Hmm. Yeah. The question of landscape—I mean, landscape figures in many of these poems very strongly. One of the things that I notice, especially in the first section, that many of the sort of more nature poems have a really markedly different tone from the poems that are sort of more—seem to be more explicitly political.
MS: That although obviously, I mean, one can’t really talk about land and landscape without talking about politics in some sense, I suppose. But I guess what I mean is that, looking back at “Ozymandias,” that that poem is so much about decay and about things falling apart.
MS: And many of your poems in this book also have that sense to them, I feel like. Whereas the nature-focused poems seem almost ecstatic. They have a much more verdant, vibrant feel to them, and I found that really interesting.
RG: And I think that’s definitely one of the main themes, or the main interests of the work was to look around me for these giant—pardon the use of the word—things, these ubiquitous entities that surrounded me in this small space. In this tiny space, there are these quantities that loom large over you and one of those things has to be the environment, the nature, the landscape in which we live. I mean, so the main island of the British Virgin Islands is Tortola, which is where I live, and where I’ve lived most of my life. And it’s mainly a rocky mountain range, skirted by beaches and little, small areas of flat land. So you’re always in view of the sea, but you’re also always in view of the mountainside. The mountainside is always above you and the sea is always beside you. So you sort of can’t escape—not that you want to—but you can’t really miss the landscape. It’s sort of imposed itself, it kind of demands to be seen and reckoned with. The nature of that reckoning can be destructive on your part, or, like I tried to be here, it can be—I guess the word you used is “ecstatic.” Just to have a sense of wonderment about these things that are, not overwhelming but ubiquitous, and that have… I wanted to explore a relationship with that landscape that wasn’t rooted in the historical. There’s a lot of meditation on the fauna and the flora, and the topography itself. As opposed to trying to relate all the time to some sort of man-made or some sort of anthropomorphic relationship with it. Sometimes it’s just in awe of it, or just to honor it. So that was definitely an impetus. While history was also there. One of those giants in the book is history. One of the giants of the book is, like you’re saying, the legacy of empire. Another giant there is religion and myth, and storytelling. In the same way, the landscape was one of those giants I had to contend with, and that I had to pay homage to.
MS: Yeah. I mean it is one of those things that, the spaces that we inhabit and that we grow in, they’re things that have a really profound impact on who we are as individuals and as communities. One of the things that strikes me about the nature poems is, as you say, they aren’t presented really with an eye towards the politics, towards the history, the anthropomorphic history that has happened in those landscapes, but also, by having these poems in the same collection next to these other poems, it really invites a juxtaposition and contrast, and that was one of the things I found very interesting. And then also, relating that to this idea of religion and myth, how religion and myth speak very much to beginnings and endings and to eternity. There’s a sense, I feel, in many of these nature poems about this eternal present, I suppose, that’s not necessarily as concerned… Something bigger—
MS: —than what we might be concerned with on a day-to-day basis. And I thought that was a very interesting juxtaposition.
RG: Exactly. Yeah, that’s sort of what I was reaching for, that despite the political concerns of the work, and my immediate political concerns as a British Virgin Islander, and what it means to be that in this place, at this time, there is that dimension, there is that eternal dimension that really doesn’t care. [laughs]
RG: This island inhabits several worlds at once, and that some of those worlds just keep going on. This book doesn’t speak about Hurricane Irma, it was written before. But the poem “Matthew” is about Hurricane Matthew striking Haiti, and having to live a similar narrative a year later was a bit odd. But the landscape is the first thing to recover after a disaster of that scale. So while the humanity that inhabits the place is still reeling physically and psychologically and emotionally and spiritually, you see the hillside that had been stripped bare, that was gray, in two weeks begin blooming again, begin flowering, begin greening again. And you see the birds, you see the fish, you see the beaches remaking themselves. And you kind of realize that the world that we inhabit here is moving on. You know?
RG: That the trauma that we still feel, that the landscape is much more lithe, much more nimble than we are, and is able to recover much more dramatically than we can. That there’s really these, like I said, these different worlds that are just carrying on. And I think I was trying to capture that with the… I mean the fleeting lives that I try to look at, whether it’s goats on the hillside, whether it is animals that have been run over on the roadside, or whatever that is, that there’s always this infinite cycle that seems to be going on despite whatever our hang-ups are. And I guess that kind of is what speaks back to “Ozymandias.” That whatever we can accomplish, whatever greatness we think that we can achieve, whatever improvements we think that we can make on the world, that time and nature really could care less. It really—it will balance itself with or without us.
MS: Yeah. So, you mentioned that mythology and religion are one of the giants in this book. And certainly there are a number of points at which you’re making reference to, for example, the Ramayana, or at several points you reference Saint Ursula, and that legend. One of the things that I was sort of thinking about, because also many of these poems are about poetry. Or at least they—some of the poems it seems like the whole poem is about poetry, and in other places you maybe just have a line or two where you’re talking about what poetry is, what it does, that kind of thing. And taking those sort of things together, the idea of religion and myth and the idea of poetry, there was something about that comparison that felt kind of profound to me. Like as if maybe poetry is doing some of the same things that—
RG: Yes, it is. [laughs] Exactly.
MS: [laughs] Yeah.
RG: You know, poetry is its own religion. I mean, one of the poems makes that comparison very directly: “Divination.” Where it says “its own religion, its own, its own / imprisoned page.” The poetry is the poet’s way of reckoning, of trying to understand, to feel their way through the world, to understand it and understand their place in it. I think mythology and religion are doing the same thing. It’s just that poetry tends to be a much more profoundly journey, or much more of a solitary journey at first, at least for the poet. It can be communal for the reader, but just the act of writing poetry—for me, at least—is a profoundly spiritual experience. It’s an act of discovery, and not just of the self, but it really is an exploration of where you fit into, or where you engage with, or how you interact with or understand life and the world.
RG: I mean, that’s all it is for me, at least. I’ve never really been a subscriber to—I don’t want to say “poetry for poetry’s sake,” that’s not true. It’s just some sort of exercise to demonstrate a linguistic cleverness or something.
RG: The poetry that is profound, the poetry that compels you to read it, I think is the poetry that is struggling with something that you are also struggling with, which is why you are pulled towards it. That is, for me personally. I’ve never been someone who thinks, “OK, well, this is a clever poem.” For me, if it’s a clever poem then I make a mental note that “this is a clever poem” but I don’t ever feel like I need to go back to re-read it.
RG: I mean, once I figure it out, once I figure out the puzzle, if you will, the magic has been lost. But if it is a poem that is really exploring and grappling with the self, I’m much more compelled to read and re-read and to wonder about that work.
MS: Yeah. I feel the same way. [laughs] You know, it strikes me that one of the things about—you mentioned that it functions as a spiritual experience insofar as for the poet—and for the reader—it can be a way of exploring and understanding the world that you’re moving in. Which is something that I very strongly—I agree with that and I relate to that as a reader and as a writer. One of the things that I was thinking a little bit about is how myth and religion also sort of function as a way of connecting the individual to something bigger, and especially to a tradition.
MS: And that’s something I feel like is really done pretty explicitly with the references to religion and myth in these poems, connecting the contemporary moment to an existing legend. But then I was also thinking about how, through both the epigraphs and also at a few points throughout the book you also are making reference to a literary tradition. Whether it might be Shakespeare or Shelley or Rimbaud, or there are other ones as well. And even just the formal elements of some of the poems. Like you’re working in, at some points, sonnets, in villanelles, which are also—these forms are a tradition that’s passed down to us from a long time. And that form of connection and community seemed like there was a resonance there. You know?
RG: Mm. Yeah, and I also tried to speak to some of my contemporaries. The number of poems that are dedicated to other poets.
MS: Mm-hmm, yeah.
RG: There’s tradition as well, there’s also a very intentional gesture towards community, and the poetic community in the region. Yeah, I think all those things sort of help to root—I mean, myself, at least, but I think help to root the individual. I will admit that the mythologies and traditions that I reference are ones that I have personal connections to or that are part of my own upbringing between Trinidad and the Virgin Islands. But, yeah, I think poetry… There is a history as well, there’s a pretty clear chronology, if you will. Not that there’s a finite or definite beginning point to any of these things, but there is this sense of a lineage that I think, for the intents of this book, that Caribbean people will feel a part of, or a consequence of, if you will That there are these several strands that are weaving their way through history to get us to the point that we are at today. Whether they are from West African traditions or Indian traditions and stories. Or, even I have in here a lot of—not a lot, but there’s some Trinidadian folk mythologies as well. Soucouyants and douens and those kinds of creolized spirits, if you will. I think they’ve all been woven together in my formation or in my personhood, if you will. I guess I’m rambling a bit. [laughs] But I really do see these several distinct things as weaving together the person or the individual in this space and in this region. I think we in the Caribbean especially tend to have these multitudes within us. You know, it’s sort of difficult to distill them into distinct and homogenous modes of identity. So you are at once harkening back to West African tradition—in my personal family background—a West African tradition, an East Indian tradition, a European one, and it’s not like they are in competition. It’s that they’re all formative. If that makes sense. I see these several strands of history, the mythology, the religion, as all weaving together this kind of very textured and layered tapestry.
RG: That sort of helps me, at least, make sense of who I am in this place. And I think me, my poetic influences sort of mirror that. So I have the formalism that comes with the colonial English education that many Caribbean people have received. But then coupled with my explorations into Modernism, Imagism, and, of course, the tradition of Caribbean poetry, as well. So, as Walcott would talk about, or Kamau Brathwaite talked about, it kind of helps to create something while at once new, is also familiar in these several different ways. I think that speaks not to just Caribbean poetry or my poetry, but I think it speaks to Caribbean culture as a whole. That there are all of these resonances within it, from all of these various different parts of the world. But it’s created something distinct and new of itself.
MS: It’s an interesting thing, hearing you talk about that, one of the things that I often think about for myself is, you know, so I’m Japanese American—
RG: Mm hmm.
MS: —and my family’s been in the United States for well over a hundred years, for many generations now. And then one part of my family is also European; my mother’s father was a white man. So that’s something that I think about a lot. It’s not the same, I don’t mean to suggest that the American context is the same as the Caribbean context. But there’s something about what you’re saying about many influences coming together, and being able to draw from many disparate heritages to form something new in terms of identity.
MS: And being able to identify with all of those different pieces is something that I think about a lot, just in my own context, you know? I have family that goes back to Japan, I have family that goes back to England. So, because of the way that I look, people might be inclined to treat me as though the Japanese tradition would be something that would make sense for me to identify with. But why—
RG: But there’s stuff that resonates with you as well from—you can’t just divorce yourself from the rest of yourself, right?
MS: Right, right. And not just genetically, but also in the way that I grew up. So much of what I am and how I think about the world and my place in it is very much informed by the fact that I’ve spent almost all of my life in California.
RG: There you go.
MS: Yeah. It’s an interesting thing, how that all comes together. Yeah.
RG: I think more and more, I mean, while I would argue that a place like the Caribbean—I mean, to call the Caribbean “a place” is a bit misleading, because there is no one Caribbean landscape, right?
RG: But just in terms of—for the purposes of our conversation—look at the Caribbean as the sort of great experiment of creolization, of the blending of cultures. Because we could talk about many cities as being cosmopolitan and having multiple groups of people inhabiting it. But when we look at those histories we tend to see, if we take like a New York or a Miami, for example, you still see a large degree, even today, a large degree of segregation between those communities. But in many Caribbean spaces, like you look at St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, you look at Trinidad, you look at St. Vincent, and these island spaces were just too small to be divvied up into “this is the Irish neighborhood, this is the East Indian neighborhood.” You really could not segregate like that. So almost as a by-product of their smallness, you had degrees of mixing, both in terms of genetically but culturally as well, that were just, I think, unprecedented. So it wasn’t so much a question of assimilation into a culture as, like I was saying before, almost the creation of a new one. So, in other words, East Indian cultures that are based in the Caribbean resonate a lot with Indian cultures, right? But they are different. They’ve become something different because they’re rubbing against the Afro-Caribbean or the Chinese Caribbean or the Spanish, the French, the English. You can just go on, the litany is there. And you can just see how these cultures, while maintaining and keeping a lot of their initial culture intact, have turned into slightly different things. I think food is an easy example. I mean, the Trinidadian Indian cuisine is not Indian cuisine. The music out of the Caribbean comes from a blending of West African rhythms with a number of different European forms, and you see these new things emerging. That’s the interesting thing about it. And I think more and more this is becoming, if not the norm, it’s becoming much more common across the globe to see these kinds of blends. Maybe not on the same scale as it happened during the plantocracy in the Caribbean, but you’re still seeing these cultural combinations in families and in communities that I don’t think you saw fifty years ago. You know?
MS: Yeah. I mean it’s sort of a, it’s an interesting thing where… I have to admit, I’m not that familiar with more than just the broad strokes of Caribbean history.
MS: One of the things that I’m reminded of in hearing you talk about this is a sort of similar phenomenon in Hawaii, the blending of different Asian—
MS: —and Native Hawaiian and American cultures there, and how that sort of blended together to form a Hawaiian culture that’s sort of its own thing now.
RG: It’s like hybridity, yeah?
MS: Yeah. But also, the thing that you mentioned about the plantocracy, that is… I know that in Hawaii, for example, a lot of those things that are part of the culture now are also a legacy of a very oppressive system that was in place before, and that people are still dealing with the ramifications of that now.
MS: And I have to imagine that it works in a similar sort of way in the Caribbean. To be able to find something that is like, we have this wonderful, unique culture that is all its own thing. And that we can take joy in that. But also that it always carries with it this sort of echo of… It wouldn’t have happened if not for some really awful things that were done.
RG: Right, yeah. It’s definitely a fraught and problematic and violent history. I don’t think that you could argue that hybrid cultures or creolized cultures come about through any sort of happy meeting between them. There usually is something violent and terrible and exploitative. I think whenever we look at large numbers of people moving into new spaces, that tends to be the tenor of the narrative. I think we have to, on one hand, reckon with the history and all its ugly bits. But at the same time I think appreciating and honoring what is there now that is edifying does not necessarily absolve or ignore the atrocities that were involved in its creation.
RG: If that makes sense. I think it has to be a very nuanced and a very objective and critical study when you’re looking at spaces like the Caribbean. That’s one of the few places I can talk about with any measure of authority. And it is a bloody history from European occupation up until present day basically, in different spheres. But at the same time I think there is space to observe, record, appreciate how various peoples interacted, how they constructed a way of life for themselves, and many times in spite of the conditions. And to see how those ways of life have either held fast or maybe not held so fast as times have moved on.
MS: Mm. Well, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that I have that I could talk about but I think, why don’t we take a little break and come back and do the second segment?
RG: Sounds good.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you’d like to talk about, whatever’s on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Richard Georges: Yeah, so I probably want to talk about this sort of distinct and very unique moment in the history of the British Virgin Islands, just because it ties in to some of the themes that I was exploring in the book. But now post-Irma—Hurricane Irma—it sort of brought some of those themes that I was circling in the book to the fore.
RG: It’s at the point where I think every citizen of the territory has these things at the forefront of their mind. It’s a very uncertain period for us, for a number of reasons.
I guess I’ll just give you some prologue. So, last year, last August, our annual Emancipation Festival had to get canceled because we had some historic take place over the period of the first week in August. Right? So it was the worst flooding we’d experienced in I think it was fourteen years. Shortly afterwards, the estimates came out that it was about four million dollars worth of damage to businesses and properties in the capital, Road Town. And so, people were really trying to recover from that, and that was, like I said, the first week in August. And then on September 6th, Hurricane Irma struck the BVI. Hurricane Irma was the most powerful storm in recorded history in the Atlantic, basically. And the devastation was unprecedented. It took out all of our communications, it made many roads impassable, destroyed numerous homes and businesses, many of which are yet to fully recover or be rebuilt. And the damage has been estimated close to four billion pounds, which is… I’m not sure of my exchange rate right now—
RG: It’s an astronomical figure. And to put that into perspective, the BVI, our population prior to Irma was about 35,000 people. And of that 35,000, about 40% are actually BV Islanders. So we have two main industries, which are tourism and financial services, and they’re both dominated by basically skilled and unskilled immigrant labor. Or expat labor, depending on how you feel about the use of the word “immigrant.”
MS: Right, right.
RG: But even the word “expat” has its own political connotations, you know?
RG: Historically, Europeans, Americans, and Canadians get to be expatriates, everybody else gets to be an immigrant. [laughs] But the territory has been trying to get back on its feet, regain normalcy. And financial services, depending on your perception and the way you get your news, you might have have varying perspectives on the financial services industry in the overseas territories. You know, we tend to be vilified as tax havens. But the same scrutiny somehow never falls on the European and North American jurisdictions that offer the same services.
RG: [laughs] You know, so for example, the same services are offered in, I think, Delaware, in Las Vegas, in London, in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, but whenever we’re talking about quote-unquote “tax havens,” we’re talking about the Caribbean overseas territories that have these industries, never the European or North American jurisdictions, for some reason.
MS: Yeah. For some reason. [laughs]
RG: [laughs] Yeah, especially when you’re talking about the scale of these industries. Which is what I want to talk about now. So, the BVI’s annual revenue in its budget has hovered between 290 and 320 million, so call it 300 million dollars US a year. And of that revenue, financial services has provided about two-thirds of it, historically. So it’s our main industry in terms of revenue. There are probably more people who work in the tourism industry, but more money comes into financial services.
RG: So those are numbers I’d like people to take into consideration: 35,000 population, and 300 million dollars of revenue that we have in our budget.
RG: Of which, financial services is about 200. So, you know, in the global scheme of things, these numbers, that’s a tiny population in almost any country. You know, smaller than a city, smaller than some neighborhoods. And 300 million dollars in the global scheme of things is not much money—
RG: —to have a territory or a jurisdiction—
RG: —running on. Right, so then, the UK, in the aftermath of Irma, the British Navy showed up to help with rebuilding efforts and to clear roads and they brought engineers and really desperate things that were needed, they came in and they showed up. We have a British governor, and I think he acquitted himself admirably in terms of the response and the management of the disaster. But there really wasn’t much visible concern from the British government directly. I mean, Emmanuel Macron went to St. Martin shortly after the storm. Donald Trump went to Puerto Rico. [laughs]
MS: Ah… [laughs]
RG: And did Trumpian things. But I guess what I’m saying is, he showed up.
RG: Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, also had a presence. So for all the territories that were affected by Hurricane Irma, the British Overseas Territories of Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, and the BVI are the ones that were affected. And the British Prime Minister didn’t come. She sent her Secretary of State at the time, Priti Patel, and Priti Patel was on our island, on our main island, for less than twelve hours. Prior to that she sent Boris Johnson—I’m not sure if you know who Boris Johnson is, he’s a bit of a… a pretty big character in the UK. Not quite Trumpian, but on his way.
MS: Well, we see a lot of comparisons just because of the hair.
RG: [laughs] Well, there you go. Yeah, and he was here for less than twelve hours as well. And that was the extent of the British cabinet’s presence, the government’s cabinet, their presence on the ground after the storm. So there really has been a feeling of British apathy towards our situation.
MS: Yeah. It’s a strange thing, too, where it’s… My understanding of the government and political of the British Virgin Islands is a little… I just know what I have been able to gather in the last week or two, but my understanding is that it’s sort of not a terribly dissimilar situation relative to the UK as Puerto Rico and Guam are to the US, where—
RG: Similar, yeah.
MS: —they’re not exactly independent, but they’re also not exactly what would be considered a regular part of, a full part of the country.
RG: The poet Craig Santos Perez, he has this collection of poems—or collection of collections I guess you could say, this trilogy called Unincorporated Territory. He kind of explores that from the perspective of an islander of Guam. Of not ever being part of the whole, part of the main. Yeah, it’s definitely the same sort of foundational relationship that you will never be “part of.” There’s sort of this limbo political status where you are in control of your own affairs to a particular extent, but decisions can be made that affect you directly and you will just not have any say. You won’t even have, not just a vote, you won’t even have a voice—
RG: —when those decisions are being made. I mean, that happened to us with—we’re sort of always forgotten. So you had Brexit, and the citizens of the British Overseas Territories are British citizens, but we didn’t get to vote [laughs] in Brexit, for example. So we are British citizens who don’t get to make decisions about our citizenship. If that makes sense.
MS: It’s something that, you know, since so much of your book has to do with empire and its aftermath, it was something that I was thinking about as I was reading, because in comparison to other British imperial colonies that eventually became completely independent, like India or, I guess, even the United States in some ways, these countries are not… Some places like Canada or India and, I guess, Jamaica, they’re still connected to the UK but they are their own separate countries. The BVI is in a different political situation and so that question of empire and aftermath… You know, there are definitely writers in India, there’s a long tradition of Indian literature that deals with that exact question, but the context seems very different to me, insofar as India is an independent country now, you know?
RG: Yep. And even though those three countries remain part of the Commonwealth, they have a very much closed chapter, if you will, on British leadership. Or British subjugation, stewardship, however you want to frame it. We have not. And, to be frank, there hasn’t been historically any large swelling of support for independence in the BVI. Even now, I don’t think there is… I don’t think there’s a very large desire for it immediately. But I think what there is a desire for is a maturation or a changing of the relationship. So, for example, the Overseas Territories have their own constitutions, that have sort of been written with the assistance of the UK. And those constitutions delegate power to an elected government. But the power is delegated, the power really sits with the governor, the British-appointed governor. And the power is the delegated from his office to these elected bodies.
RG: So, ultimately—and it has happened in the past—the British government, through the governor, can suspend the constitution of one of these territories and implement or—I don’t want to say “inflict”—but implement direct rule. You can suspend the constitution, dissolve an elected government, and you can take over the territory. And that has happened in the past. It happened in Turks and Caicos a few years ago. And the Dutch actually did it very recently in Eustatia. So it’s something that there prior precedent has been set.
MS: And then that really speaks to the whole question of, you know, if these governments are going to reserve that kind of power, what is their responsibility in situations like—
MS: —a huge natural disaster?
RG: Exactly. And that’s the question that we’re asking now, because we were essentially told, following Irma, that we were too wealthy a territory to receive aid. The UK government has spent about 13 million US dollars. But, like I told you, the damage has been close to 4 billion pounds. So we’ve gotten about 13 million dollars US in aid, there was a lot of material aid, about a hundred tons of aid, like canned goods, tarps to cover roofs, lumber, that kind of thing, for the immediate recovery. But all the UK government has committed to since then a loan guarantee of up to 300 million pounds.
RG: So the BVI can find—if the BVI can borrow, the UK will guarantee honoring that loan up to 300 million pounds. Which, as I said, if you have damage which is 4 billion, 300 million doesn’t really go that far. And then, to compound things, in May, at the beginning of May, the UK parliament passed a law that essentially targets our financial services industry, which, as I said earlier, is potentially two-thirds of our revenue. So the decision that they took could really jeopardize the long-term viability of that industry. Here, especially. I don’t want to go too in-depth in that, because I’m not really an economist or a commercial lawyer, but essentially if that law stands, one, it’s overriding our constitution, and then, two, it could really be to the detriment of our main revenue.
RG: It makes our future, coming out of the storm, that much more uncertain. There was even a protest march about the UK’s decision, about two weeks ago, where thousands of people came out to protest the UK parliament’s decision. I think what would have to happen, the next step for the Overseas Territories has to be some sort of lobbying for a new deal. You know, like a new constitutional arrangement where the UK will not be able to impose legislation so easily, or not be able to suspend duly elected governments so easily, or with impunity.
RG: That’s what I envision being the conversation, moving forward.
MS: It’s such a strange thing, too, when governments are talking about aid for natural disasters. That is the kind of language that governments usually use when they’re talking about foreign aid.
MS: But, certainly we’ve been talking about this a lot in the US, about aid to Puerto Rico and helping them recover from Irma. And, again, a lot of people—laypeople and government people—talk about it and it makes it sound like we’re sending foreign aid to some foreign country, but these are American citizens.
MS: If it were in—like if there were a hurricane in Virginia or something and Washington, DC got devastated, you wouldn’t talk about it that way.
RG: It sort of makes you think, if you’re Puerto Rican, if you’re a US Virgin Islander, same way if you’re a British Virgin Islander, you kind of wonder about your citizenship. You are not quite afforded… I mean, it’s one thing to say that I’m an American citizen, I’m a British citizen if I’m not afforded the same rights and benefits of that citizenship, you know—
RG: —as others. So it makes you really question, as a BV Islander, what being British really means for me. Or what benefit is it for us to remain a British territory?
MS: Yeah. It’s something that I was thinking about when I was reading your book, insofar as… So this book, the collection is published by an English press, a UK press, and as far as I’m aware—I’m American so I’m going to be more aware of what’s happening here—but as far as I’m aware, the English-language poetry world is sort of heavily focused on New York and I guess maybe London. And so it seems like, given the publishing and who the audience is, especially for a small-press poetry book, a lot of the people reading it are likely to be people who are not very aware of either the history or the present-day politics or current events of the Virgin Islands.
MS: And that seems very relevant also to how, just like we’re saying, that the British government does not seem to be paying very much attention to the situation in the Virgin Islands, and the average British citizen probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it either. Which, it just must be such a strange thing, and I wondered how, with the book, that that lack of awareness seems to on the one hand motivate the book, but also must affect how it’s being received, as well.
RG: Yeah, I guess you could say it’s a motivation of mine. I mean, it’s just easier, having British citizenship to work with a British market, and also I have some history there since I did both my master’s and my PhD I did in the UK. So I have certain connections and relationships there already. And it also makes developing a relationship with other poets and with the publishing industry, you know, I have an easier, or a much more direct, more logical entry point in the British publishing world than I do the American. And also since I write so… I mean, at least right now, my first two projects—I have a couple of other projects I’m working on—and they’re all concerned in varying dimensions and varying degrees with the BVI and its various histories and its various relationships with other places, including the UK. It just seems that the UK would be one of the more appropriate audiences for this work. And, to be frank, I haven’t encountered a lot of negative reception but I have gotten a lot of—when you read reviews, especially of my first book, there is a lot of acknowledgement that these histories, these narratives, these relationships, these perspectives are new to a lot of my readers. I think that was definitely an impetus for the writing. You know, because most people are aware of the transatlantic slave trade, aware of slavery and the plantocracy, and, to a certain extent, indentureship and all that stuff, and most people are aware, especially in the UK, of the histories and the literary traditions especially of the larger English-speaking islands. Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, not an island, but Guyana. But the smaller islands, places with the smaller histories, the smaller populations, smaller stories tend to get lost. You know, like there’s some metonymy Jamaican history or Jamaican culture tends to assume for the entire region. In other words, a lot of people subconsciously feel that if they’ve read a Jamaican novel or they’ve read a Jamaican poet—not to pick on Jamaica, the same thing is true to a lesser extent about Trinidad and Barbados, in terms of they’ve kind of dominated the literary landscape and so therefore a lot of the stories, a lot of the narratives, a lot of the perspectives of the Caribbean that are resonating outside of it tend to be from those islands, with the one major exception probably being Walcott and St. Lucia. So most people haven’t heard these narratives, haven’t heard of these stories, these histories, these perspectives. Or haven’t seen this landscape in print. And so therefore there’s a certain dimension of my reception which has been that people have been learning about the BVI outside of the two ways in which it is usually framed which is either, a., this tax haven or, b., sort of like this paradisal playground for the wealthy to vacation in.
RG: There’s sort of no in-between. These are the two ways in which a place like the Virgin Islands is informed in the mind in the West. So, hopefully, my book and other work that comes out of this region begins to create a more fully developed, more three-dimensional portrait of this place and its history.
MS: Yeah. Yeah, well there is one last question that I ask everyone, and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you’ve experienced recently that meant something to you.
RG: “Recently that meant something to me.” Just one?
RG: Oof. [laughs] That’s a tough question, Mike. Just one. Well, OK, how about this, can I cheat?
MS: Sure, sure.
RG: Can I give you some visual art—
MS: Yeah, yeah.
RG: —some poetry, and some fiction? Is that?
RG: OK, good. And it’s all going to be Caribbean-based. So, for about five years now, a friend of mine, David Knight, Jr.—who is from St. John in the US Virgin Islands—he and I have been running a literary journal by the name of Moko magazine. That’s M-O-K-O magazine. So we publish Caribbean literature and Caribbean art. One of the painters that we featured, I don’t know, maybe about three years ago? And this work just always comes back to me. Her name is Shansi Miller, and she’s from St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. And she has these photo-realistic, surrealistic portraits. She has this one I keep returning to, which is actually featured on the website, and it’s called “The Gardener.” And it’s this bare-backed Rasta, and he appears almost as sort of a Christ figure. You think about those messianic portraits of Christ from the Renaissance, you know, with the halo and the gestural configurations of his hands and what not. And just imagine a Rasta man in the garden with those same sort of gestural homages to the Renaissance. It’s an astounding work, and I’ve been trying to think, OK, maybe in a future collection of poems I can convince her to license me the art for the cover. [laughs]
RG: But it’s one of my favorite Caribbean paintings in recent memory. So that’s visual art. With fiction I highly recommend—I mean, I’m also working on a couple projects right now. I just finished what feels like the first draft for a manuscript for my third collection of poems, and I’m doing some nonfiction work, and I’m just playing around with the beginnings of a novel. So, in that respect, I’m really a huge fan of Kei Miller’s Augustown. Kei is a Jamaican poet, essayist, and writer, and Augustown is his latest work, it’s a novel set in Jamaica in about two or three different eras. And it’s in the same place, clearly. Augustown is sort of a suburb of Kingston. It’s really an incredible accomplishment, I think, in terms of these three portraits kind of creating a picture of the place. It’s inspirational to me as I try to dive headfirst into some fiction, which is sort of intimidating in a weird way.
RG: And then poetry. I would say there are lots of really special, really powerful Caribbean poets out now with first and second books, many of whom I count my friends. And then there’s a huge class of writers who haven’t yet put out their first book that I’m really looking forward to. But I guess right now I would highly recommend Shivanee Ramlochan, she’s a friend of mine from Trinidad. Her first collection’s called Everyone Knows That I Am a Haunting. And that’s actually been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, which is one of the major poetry prizes in the UK.
RG: I was was lucky enough to have my first book on the list for last year. And so it was something else to see one of your friends get on the same list the next year. I’m just glad that I didn’t put my first book out the same year she put out her first book—
RG: [laughs] —cause maybe I wouldn’t have been on the list last year. But, yeah, Shivanee’s book is an accomplishment and I think she’s one of those voices that’s going to be here to stay. She has this unflinching way of just peeling back the layers and dimensions of her soul that is just arresting. I would highly recommend that book
MS: Great! Well thank you so much for talking with me, I really appreciate it.
RG: Thank you, Mike, I really enjoyed talking to you today.
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so, if you enjoyed our conversation do check out Richard’s book Giant, and there’s a link in the show notes to where you can purchase a copy for yourself. There’s also a link to the magazine you heard us talk about, Moko, so do check that out as well.
And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, you can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back in two weeks with a new conversation, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.