Saint Lucia
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Sir Arthur Lewis Community College Marks National Library Week With STAR Publisher  

Recently, Rick Wayne was invited to address and take questions from students of Sir Arthur Lewis Community College as they marked National Library Week 2023. The venue was the Hunter J. Francois Library. Following, a condensed version of his speech:

Several years ago, the late Derek Walcott afforded Saint Lucia’s lovers of literature the opportunity to meet and hear the renowned Arthur Miller at a venue in the north of the island. A packed house showed up. On Gros Islet Night! Alas, many of the presumed fellow bookworms I spoke with afterward had never read Miller. Not Death of a Salesman, not The Crucible. Nada. I was rendered slack-jawed when a locally published poet told me his favorite Miller novel was Tropic of Cancer—which of course is by another Miller. Why then had so many purchased tickets to the symposium? What do I know? We’re all Saint Lucians here. We have our peculiarities. Perhaps we can agree to let this particular puppy sleep.

By the way, did you know Miller—Henry Miller, that is, not Arthur—revered American novelist that he was, never received an invitation to the White House? Why not? He wrote with words too many considered crude, salacious, explicit, taboo. Too graphic. Words that spoke without shame or embarrassment about S-E-X. (Nearly ten years before the United States Supreme Court overturned by a 5-4 vote the ban by the Florida Supreme Court and made Miller a household name, the Japanese courts had ruled his literature as art and not pornographic.)

I am reminded at this time of The Mongoose, seldom mentioned even by English-Lit professors, and which Walcott, tongue firmly planted in his cheek no doubt, introduced to a largely Jamaican audience as “a nasty poem.” Its target is V.S. Naipaul, who the poet informed us doesn’t like black men “but he loves black [email protected]#@!” Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to why so many distinguished litterateurs, including Shakespeare, D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce seem obsessed with the C-word. 

If you’re hoping to lay hands on The Mongoose, at any rate, an uncensored rendering, I can only say good luck with that.  As for the several journalists at the 2008 Calabash Literary Festival, few included in their dispatches what Walcott had revealed about Naipaul’s darker side. Then there was the U.S. secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz. When he was asked during a private conversation aboard a commercial flight to California why the party of Abraham Lincoln could not attract black voters, in the presence of entertainers Cher, Sonny Bono and goody-goody two shoes Pat Boone, Butz offered an opinion that was overheard by Nixon’s former House Counsel John Dean of Watergate fame, no safe keeper of secrets. Dean was covering the Republican National Convention for Rolling Stone.

The private conversation was soon in the public domain—sugared to taste. A sample serving by the New York Times, of all newspapers: “All the coloreds want are three things: Satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom.” Only Rolling Stone reported the exact words spoken by Butz: “All the coloreds want is a tight pussy, loose shoes and a warm place to shit.”

In the NAACP-led furor that followed, Butz was labeled a racist and fired. No mention of his potty mouth. Rolling Stone, on the other hand, was widely congratulated for telling it like it is. The story returns to memory Norman Mailer’s famous review of a book by James Baldwin. “Jimmy is an excellent writer, if only he would quit trying to perfume shit,” which Mailer insisted has “its own integrity and should therefore stink, on the page and elsewhere.”  

Language does not always have to wear a suit and tie and laced-up shoes. The object of a story is not grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome, and to tell a story to make him forget whenever possible that he is reading a story at all. Writing is refined thinking. Writing is seduction. And good talk is part of seduction. So sayeth the master spinner of horror stories, Stephen King.   

Let us return now to Arthur Miller’s memorable short stint on this Rock of Sages, courtesy Derek Walcott. Before inviting his guest onstage, the host delivered a hardly unexpected riveting introduction. At the end of the evening, when nearly everyone had vacated the venue, many further to discuss how frail was the 90-something Miller and how delectable his 30-something female assistant (I refer particularly to leading male members of Saint Lucia’s intelligentsia)—I approached the host.

“Can I please have your speech for publication?”

“Oh, sure,” he said, and returned to whatever he was doing that I had interrupted. Some 30 minutes later, when it seemed he’d forgotten about me, I approached him a second time. “You   want it now?” he asked. “Like this minute?” His tone suggested heart-stopping incredulity. I said I hoped to publish his speech in the next day’s STAR. He chuckled: “Are you crazy? You kidding me? You expect me to give you . . .” He waved at shoulder height several pages of handwritten notes. “This rubbish? Sure, you can have it, after I’ve polished it!” 

I never ran the speech. How could I when I never received it? And yes, I admit I was more than a little peeved. Until it occurred to me that Walcott’s public image, his reputation, demanded round the clock protection. It was one thing to sit with friends discussing over Heinekens what we’d taken away from the remembered evening with Miller; what we understood Walcott to have said. But reading the relatively raw words of a renowned god of literature was altogether something else. So much for those who may have taken to heart Reader’s Digest’s often repeated notion that writing isn’t all that difficult. All you need do is “write the way you speak!”   

Writing has always been for me similar to competitive bodybuilding. Both demand Spartan discipline. Both demand laser focus. Both demand you eschew junk. For the same reasons a Mr. Universe aspirant would avoid daily servings of pepperoni pizzas washed down with bottles of booze, so an ambitious student of writing must read only the best writers, regardless of genre, whether or not of his own time.

As with competitive bodybuilding, of which I know a thing or two, the writing process demands you stick to your set schedules till death do you part.  Also, that you be your own toughest critic. Never permit yourself to go easy on the fledgling writer in your soul. Writing requires dedication and tunnel-visioned commitment. Get used to writing, rewriting, rewriting and rewriting. A reliable source assured me my favorite author habitually produced between 100 and 150 drafts before passing on manuscripts to his editors.    

I started out hoping one day to be a journalist. Not to be confused with mundane who, what, where, when reporting. Both genres require that facts are faithfully reproduced. But it has always been as important for me that my readers feel what I felt while covering a story. My objective is to teleport them to the scene of the crime, so to speak. To step with me in the muck and grime; to experience what I had experienced. Whether the overwhelming pain I endured at the scene of a fire that took the lives of three innocent children while their devastated mother prayed for a miracle; or my exhilaration at a James Taylor concert. Or the palpable tension in a courtroom minutes before a jury delivered a life-or-death verdict. I want to take control of my reader’s senses, so that his eyes, his nose, his heart and blood belong to me.

There’s a passage from Tom Wolfe’s once highly controversial anthology of The New Journalism, wherein Gay Talese recalls how some hoity-toity Menckenesque reviewers had sought to ridicule his published recollection of a Mafia assassination. Talese had written about the moribund victim’s last thoughts, and this it was that had moved his trigger-happy detractors to reach for their vitriol spray guns. “How could Talese possibly know what’s on a dying man’s mind?” they guffawed. “Obvious hyperbole!”

The writer’s push-back: “Talese knows because Talese asked him.” Readers of Honor Thy Father are free to speculate: Did Talese write truth or did he invent details of an assassination he allegedly witnessed? For certain, dead men tell no tales. Neither expired mafiosi.   

For me, words of themselves are next to meaningless without context. Words are neither harsh nor flattering. Who decides whether or not a word is appropriate? Who do you think? I should mention at this point that the prospector for words must know what he is looking for and where to look, what are the best tools for the job. Keep in mind dictionaries are not all created equal. In all events, dictionaries work best in conjunction with thesauruses, synonym finders, grammar textbooks, reference sources and so on. Yes, I sometimes refer to Google. But never with the faith I place in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, known universally as the writer’s bible.  

I remember picking up my usual two copies of Walcott’s latest publication—in this case, What the Twilight Says—from a local bookstore. (For the especially young among you, a bookstore is like a supermarket, only one exists for purposes of the body, the other for the mind.) As I say, I habitually purchase two copies of every Walcott non-fiction; one to further decorate my library, the other to be used as a reference source, a research tool to be desecrated by my presumptuous notations, highlighted in rainbow colors. I had read only the first page of a particular essay from Twilight, when I put the book down to call my friend the author, labeled “aloof” by so many who were never fortunate enough to set eyes on him, save from a distance.    

I informed him that I always purchased two copies of his latest publication. I explained why. And then I said: “Shall I tell you why I read your books over and over and over, slowly?” He feigned consuming interest. I prattled away for several minutes, just to say I read him for inspiration. He said, “Oh, that’s so kind, thank you, Rick.” And I said: “But I’ve just started reading The Garden Path and already I feel so depressed.” I babbled some more about his universally acknowledged way with words, how reading them made me feel so damn inadequate, that I was wasting time trying to be what obviously I was never cut out to be. He roared. Then he said: “Do you have the smallest hint of what it takes out of me as I try to construct that ever-elusive perfect sentence? How many drafts?” He paused. “How I bleed?” There it was again, from God’s lips to my grateful ears: Writing is rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting again. Whether you are a Nobel winner for Literature. Whether you are, well, Non Q. Entity Esq.

I am never been queasy about asking what I consider the important questions, whether of a reputed abstemious church leader, a condoned big-shot pedophile, a rape victim. In my time as a working journalist, I’ve grilled celibate clergymen that somehow fathered babies. Also, prime ministers who held themselves accountable to no one; feared prime ministers; drug barons. And far too often I’ve had to return rape victims to the scene of their unspeakable violation. It might interest you to know the rape victims I interviewed had one other thing in common: a clear remembrance of their abuser’s body odor. They carry the stench of their rapist with them everywhere. To church, to their workplace, to school, to bed. In case you’re wondering how I uncovered such details, remember Gay Talese. I asked the victims. They had good reason to trust me. It’s never been a state secret, how I feel about rapists. 

I’ve never come away from an interview without having learned something new. Often, I’ve headed out to cover one story, only to later find myself writing another altogether different; disconnected, even. Something bigger. I once covered a political rally during which the day’s prime minister offered an excuse for failing to deliver on a promised road. What he said was enough to warrant further investigation that precipitated the controversial resignation of a Cabinet colleague. It’s a good idea to thoroughly research your subjects in advance of interviews.  Especially when the subject is a politician. It serves to have a good idea of what his answer is likely to be.    

Capote said the quality of his fiction rose several levels after he covered the 1959 murder of a wealthy family in Holcomb, Kansas. The horror is at the heart of Capote’s 1966 so-called non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. He said the opportunity afforded him a macro view of life as he had never known or imagined it. Consider the difference in movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, released in 1951, and others following the first moon landing. The Alien, for instance. After all these crazy years working as a journalist in Saint Lucia, I think I understand what Capote meant. The STAR archives remind me of where we started and how far we’ve come: past horrors and celebrations, promises by politicians, kept and unkept, the wickedness of man, poverty so commonplace as to be considered by its worst victims normal life. All of that I’ve witnessed and photographed in my 40-something years of practicing my brand of journalism in this alleged paradise; this mad, mad, mad Disneyworld where workers are encouraged to insist on their right to ride motionless rides while paying customers stare in wonderment at the unscheduled spectacle!     

In her collection of essays, entitled Reporting, Lillian Ross states: “Every reporter must write in his own way, speak with his own voice, find his individual style. So there is no reason for one writer to lecture another on how to do his work. There is no how that can be passed along, because the how of each writer’s work resides somewhere deep in the fabric of that writer’s being.”

I could not agree more. There were many who thought I deserved prison after I published a report of a rape trial in 1990. What concerned the president of the dysfunctional Crisis Center had little to do with the actual abuse of a mentally handicapped young victim while in the care of her aunt and her live-in lover—a police officer. The Crisis Center official wanted me put away for writing detailed accounts of the trial, as opposed to the usual five lines afforded sexual offences before my arrival in this bastion of Christianity.

On the remembered occasion I had presented the trial as my lead story. Making matters worse was my calculated throat-grabbing headline. Scores of letters published by the STAR’s competitors demanded the day’s DPP order my incarceration as a warning to young reporters likely to follow my example. But then the words complained of had dropped from the untainted lips of the DPP Suzie d’Auvergne while summing up her case: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what we have here is a case of gun in hand, penis in vagina.” So there!

And now you are probably measuring mentally what the late Ms d’Auvergne said at the remembered trial against the regular droppings from the mouths of our largely inarticulate parliamentarians during House debates and at every other opportunity. Not to speak of the regular exchanges on Facebook “lives.” We’ve come a long way all right. In reverse gear.  

I should warn aspirants that writing is not for the faint of heart, especially in this jungle where the only predators walk on two legs. You will need a hide thick as a hippo’s if you hope to survive local critics. In this simply beautiful country of ours, the quality of a writer’s work depends almost exclusively on what he reveals about his reader, or about his reader’s friends, relatives and enemies. Regardless of how obviously talentless the reporter, some people will consider him worthy of the Nobel if he should flatter them and their horrid herd. The worst    epithets are reserved for those who write honestly about talented individuals some of their readers just happen to despise. It will serve newcomers to writing to keep in mind that truth by itself can be meaningless, if not immediately verifiable. Which is why writers must read, read, read. Especially our libel laws. Why writers must love research as if their lives depended on it—because it does

Keep in mind: Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I share with my books, every room in my house. Including bathrooms. I carry via my phone some of my favorite words with their shades of meaning, as well as sayings by my favorite wise men and women. I especially like: “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in society, over time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code of conduct that glorifies it.”  

I end now with another reminder from my cellphone. It’s author, an Italian journalist who died a little over ten years ago. Oriana Fallaci: “A journalist lives history in the best of ways, that is, in the moment that history takes place. He lives history, he touches history with his hands, looks at history with his eyes, he listens to it with his ears.”

To cite once more Norman Mailer: “A nation that forms detailed opinions on the basis of detailed fact that is askew from the subtle reality becomes a nation of citizens whose psyches are skewed, item by detailed item, away from any reality!” Already, we are too close to being such a nation!