Talking to Indian-Jamaican writer and blogger Annie Paul

Annie Paul

Jamaica-based Indian writer and editor Annie Paul

Writer and editor Annie Paul was born in Kerala, in south India, and lived in the United States and Brazil before settling in Jamaica nearly two decades ago. Based at the University of the West Indies Mona campus, she is the head of the publications section at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies. She is also a founding editor of the journal Small Axe, and a former columnist for Jamaica's Sunday Herald newspaper. She writes regularly about Caribbean art and popular culture, and has contributed to numerous international journals, books, catalogues, conferences, and other events.

Since January 2008, Paul has also been a blogger. At Active Voice, she writes about Jamaican society and politics, international affairs, the art and music world, books, and cultural events, with a penchant for controversial topics. I recently interviewed her via email about her experiences with her blog and other online media. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Nicholas Laughlin: Why did you decide to end your Herald column and start blogging in January 2008? Had you ever contributed to a blog before that?

Annie Paul: In the last few years I've fallen into the habit of making so-called new year resolutions and towards the end of 2007 I told myself it was high time I started a blog. I had written an opinion column for the Sunday Herald for ten years, and while I valued my relationship with them and the wonderful space they gave me on their editorial page, they had been unable to provide me with the one thing that was very important to me — the right to be consulted before they changed anything in the column — even a word.

I'm an editor by profession so this particular step in the process was dear to my heart; I don't think most people understand the anguish at reading something you've carefully crafted and written marred by errors others have inserted into your piece on the pretext of sub-editing. So as I say on my blog, when a column in which I was talking about Bollywood was published with the word “Hollywood” carefully and consistently replacing “Bollywood” throughout, I decided it was time to abandon the local print media and strike out on my own.

I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it or planning it. I'm very design-oriented and comfortable enough with the technology that I was able to create a blogspace that I felt communicated my personal aesthetic as well as provided a vehicle for my writing. I wasn't an active member of the blogosphere before I started Active Voice. My only exposure to blogs was through a group blog called Sepia Mutiny — wonderful name and a great blog authored by Indians in the diaspora. They came to international attention when something one of them blogged about was deemed “racist” by the mainstream media in the US, which is how I found them. I was filled with admiration and hoped to emulate their excellent example one day.

Then there was the panel you and Georgia Popplewell organised at the 2006 Caribbean Studies Association conference in Port of Spain. I think knowing you both so well gave me the impetus to start, and I felt confident that my writing would support the leap I was making. I have a talent for short, catchy titles and the name Active Voice came readily when I thought about what I hoped to do with this blog.

NL: Do you think you had a wider audience when you were writing for the print media? Or do you feel your blog has widened your audience? Do you miss writing for the newspaper?

AP: In the beginning I missed writing for the Herald and used my blog as a column-substitute. Although you have no real sense of who your audience is when you write a column, you do form a bond with what you fondly think of as your readership. Especially when occasional members of the public let you know that they read and appreciate your writing. The Jamaican public that engaged with my columns over the years had been crucial to my growth and development as a writer. I hold them in the highest regard for tolerating, indeed humouring me, even when the blunt and harsh criticism I often lobbed at them must have given offence.

So in terms of numbers I have no idea what the size of my readership was with the Herald, but I did and do miss that sense of being in conversation with people here. The blog offers a completely different kind of engagement that I have grown to enjoy very much. One is now talking to and with people from all over the planet. It gives me no end of a kick to visit the site meter each day and check out where visitors to my blog are located. Lithuania, India, China, Brazil, Ghana, Capetown, Portugal, Dubai, and of course Canada, the UK and USA, not to mention the Caribbean. My geography has improved by leaps and bounds since I started blogging.

I now think that blogging was made for me and I was made for blogging. You learn as you go along and it's an exciting journey. Technically speaking even though the internet lays the world at your feet I found that I still spent most of my time getting to know Jamaican bloggers first, many of whom manifested themselves to me through their generous comments on my early posts. I was bowled over by bloggers such as Afflicted Yard, Long Bench, Marlon James, Mad Bull and, when he came along, the Diatribalist. Ruthibelle, who is only 20 or 21, is another favourite. Then I started sticking my toe out and, especially through the Global Voices link, started discovering other Caribbean blogs such as Coffeewallah, Chutney Garden, Generation Y, Slacker's Chronicles and others.

Getting reader responses in the form of comments is the single most delicious thing about blogs. Personally I consider blogposts which only receive three or four comments to have failed at some level. I tend to write about the vexatious and vexed issues that occupy public attention at any given time. How social systems operate fascinates me; the negotiations and accommodations human beings make in order to live sociably, and the cultural phenomena these give rise to, never fail to arouse my interest. The role played by hypocrisy, morality, taste, aggression, noise and so on in masking social inequity and perpetuating its asymmetries are essentially what I tend to blog about.

NL: Your blog posts often discuss controversial issues relating to current affairs in Jamaica, and sometimes trigger highly vigorous debates in the comment threads. Has there ever been an occasion when you thought the comments discussion was getting out of control? How do you deal with possible inflammatory situations?

AP: Yes, as you say there are certain posts which have roused lengthy contentious debate/argument in my comment threads — the recent report on verbal excesses at the Calabash Literary Festival being one and the post on Daggering and the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission another. My post on the term “coolie” and the perception of Indians in Jamaica also attracted heated comments. I don't restrict the flow of comments until I see it threatening to get nasty and out of control. Or, as in the case of the post about [Jamaican dub poet] Mutabaruka, I wielded censorial license and locked off one respondent who was extremely aggressive and disagreeable. It vaguely alarmed me how much pleasure I derived in the process, having often argued vigorously against censorship. In general I try and accommodate widely varying views as long as they remain reasonably civil.

NL: Career-wise, you are in an interesting position, with one foot in the academy and another in the creative world of Jamaican art and music. How do you think those two worlds could be using online tools like blogs more effectively?

AP: I work at the University of the West Indies as a journal editor and publisher and do my writing on the side. The University administration is very conscious of the need to use the new social media of blogging, micro-blogging and tweeting to enhance the scholarly research and teaching at the university. The battle is to get individual faculty members to start using new media in their teaching and research. Academics can be surprisingly suspicious of and hostile to new technologies and, in general, to learning new modes of teaching and learning. Surprising, because it's their profession to teach students things that are new to them, yet they themselves are resistant to new knowledge. Those who refuse to adopt new forms of communicating are bound to be left behind eventually; maybe this is a good way to rid the system of dead wood and create space for savvier younger scholars who are engaging in the kind of research we need today. Who knows?

In the arts, musicians have moved into new media with alacrity and are reaping the benefits already. At the recently concluded Caribbean Studies Association conference in Kingston, “Skatta” Burrell, one of the top dancehall beatmakers and producers, informed the audience at a panel discussion on dancehall music that most of his earnings come from selling performance rights and other rights to his music online. Visual artists, on the other hand, have been surprisingly slow to venture out of their shells and use the exciting new tools and media available. There seems to be a heavy investment in traditional media — of course there are exceptions — which bears out my longstanding critique of visual art in Jamaica; it has not kept pace with artists in places like Cuba, the Dominican Republic or even Trinidad and Tobago. This inability to re-imagine art-making and create radical new visual documents and artworks is distressing. It seems to point, I think, to an innate lack of creativity and desire to experiment. Let me emphasise the word “seems”.

NL: You are also a fairly recent but very enthusiastic tweeter. How has Twitter expanded your online networks and horizons?

AP: Twitter is the best present I've received this year and for that matter the last few years. It's the twenty-first century equivalent of “Open Sesame” — the magic words that opened the door to the cave where Ali Baba hid his loot. There's something magical about its ability to morph into the dream tool that alters to fit your needs. Its possibilities seem endless and I particularly like its inbuilt immunity to commercialisation. I think all these social media we're seeing the proliferation of are the backlash to decades of having become captive audiences to the inane subliminal messages of big business. In recent years, advertising on mainstream cable TV has become quite creative but remains an unsustainable and undesirable model for the transmission of information.

Again, Twitter is a tool that you learn to use while using it. It's about being a smart follower and a transmitter of valuable information to networks who would not normally have access to each other. I tell people that it's like having your own broadcasting service. So I've used mine to follow people who link me to areas that once were inaccessible to someone living in a place such as Jamaica.

For instance, through becoming a very early follower of the Indian politician and erstwhile United Nations technocrat Shashi Tharoor (I was actually the first to sign on as a follower when he opened his Twitter account), I attracted a number of his political followers who are Malayalis (natives of Kerala like myself) in different parts of India. Through them I have really enhanced my day-to-day knowledge of current events and just the quotidian in the lives of the Indians I feel and am most connected to — Malayalis. In the recently held elections, I was reading tweets from people waiting in line to cast their vote describing the scene at their locations. I only wish I had been on Twitter when the Bombay siege was underway last November.

I also follow people who tweet about visual art, one of my abiding interests. As a result, for the first time this year I was keeping abreast of events in Venice during the opening week of the Biennale, and when I eventually make my way to this globally renowned art event I'll have a working knowledge of the various locations, the people to watch, the must-see events and so on. Similarly I follow and tweet about popular culture in the Caribbean, the politics of culture broadly speaking, literary goings-on, university-related research and publishing industry news. I regularly tweet links to good articles, videos, interviews and blogs related to all these fields. Anyone who follows me can expect to be fed a daily diet of two to five such links.

NL: You mentioned some favourite Caribbean blogs earlier. Which others do you follow regularly?

AP: There's the Repeating Islands blog, which is a valuable repository of art and literature-related information on the Francophone Caribbean but also the wider Caribbean. Blogging is knocking down the linguistic barriers which have always impeded our knowledge of ourselves as a region. There's Signifyin’ Guyana, the Caribbean Review of Books blog, your and Georgia's blogs, Stunner's Afflictions, Owensoft, Jamlink and Abeng News Magazine. I used to check Living Guyana too but that site was shut down. The ability to get information from bloggers on the ground in Cuba is also breathtaking.

NL: You also keep up with the South Asian (and South Asian diaspora) blogosphere. Who are your favourite bloggers from that part of the world? And have you been able to make connections — through your own blog or otherwise — between Caribbean and South Asian bloggers?

AP: During the four days in late 2008 when Bombay was practically held hostage by a handful of masked gunmen, I discovered Indian bloggers. I may have known a couple before that, but that crisis, when I was desperate for information on what was happening on the ground, opened up the world of Indian blogging to me. They've been at it much longer than we have. Most of the Indian bloggers I follow have been at it since the early 2000s. My favourite Indian blogger is Sidin Vadukut, whose blog Domain Maximus provides a quirky, insightful, insanely humorous take on events there. India Uncut, Sonia Faleiro, Jabberwock, Farting Pen and the Compulsive Confessor are some others I check regularly.

I know that through me [Trinidadian blogger] Coffeewallah has started following Domain Maximus, but I'm not aware of any further cross-pollination due to my efforts. I feel that the top Indian bloggers such as the ones I've mentioned have a bit of an attitude — they feel superior because they've been doing it so long, and are not as open to what they perceive to be small fry from the Caribbean. This is a pity. My own policy is never to take anyone or anything for granted.

NL: What's been the biggest surprise about blogging?

AP: The biggest surprise is that with all the freedom to read anything from anywhere you still tend to stick to what is either geographically or culturally close to you. I'm not reading blogs from Mongolia or Togo or Argentina on a daily basis, I'm reading Jamaican, Caribbean and Indian blogs, in that order.

The other surprise is just how much raw talent there is out there that has been unleashed by new media. Although I do worry occasionally about the hidden costs involved, I love the new circuits and networks new media have opened up to me and the endless possibilities of blogging and tweeting.


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