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Friday 21 September 2018
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Journalism as Art: Keith Smith

The Best of Keith Smith: Making an Art of Newspaper Journalism

Sharda Patasar

During the Carnival season I happened to meet a young girl plying her trade of leather sandals. She seemed to be in her early twenties. I was at the time writing a column on soca and posed a question to her as a young person. After answering she asked, "What do you do?"

“I write a column for the Newsday. I’m asking because I am writing one on soca. Maybe I should have told you that before,” I replied.

'Oh! (It was more like a prolonged ooooh). I never meet one of you. You probably (pause) yes actually, you the first one I ever meet!" she exclaimed.

She continued, "My mother always buying the newspapers and I just look at all these people names and I always wondering, who is these people? You know you never have faces to them, is just a set of names. Well look at that, now I have one face.’

She was genuinely excited and I can’t say that I wasn’t a bit interested in this phenomenon of the young non-reader wanting to know the people behind the names that appear on newspapers articles.

A few years ago, I picked up a book at Nigel R Khan’s in Trincity Mall. I experienced a feeling of something along the lines of euphoria. Understand the reason for this. I had been reading at the time, a decent number of non-fiction works in the genres of what are termed creative non-fiction and travel writing. Given that my diet of non-fiction came mainly from the US and the UK, finding a collection of newspaper journalism by a local writer was like finding diamonds in my backyard. I bought that copy of The Best of Keith Smith: Making an Art of Newspaper Journalism without a minute’s hesitation. I was perfectly happy to encounter red lights on the way home.

This week marks three weeks into my media detox programme. Given one week of a slight fall from the wagon, I nevertheless still found myself with time to revisit some books which I had read years back. Keep in mind that this detox includes only works of fiction and applies to books as well as television. Within this context, therefore, I am quite aware that the Keith Smith pick is not fiction, but do listen on.

Keith Smith was one of the few columnists that I read. He was a presence throughout my teens and into university but it is only now that I come to his work with a different eye, a different ear. This compilation of selected columns is easily one of the most enjoyable collections I have read in local literature. In Enough is Enough for instance he writes from the perspective of an overweight man:

"I must admit to being pained by this callous calumny that continues to be spread around my name: 'One day you’re going to just explode.' Or: 'Hee-hee-hee! They should make you pay for two seats.'"

Or in Beholden to Our Beauties he begins, "The first thing I ever told a beauty queen was that she was ruining her image by eating like a dockworker...To her credit, Janelle ‘Penny’ Commissiong (as she was then) simply ignored me."

The book is a journey through Trinidad’s transitions, Keith Smith the scribe at the gate taking note. There isn’t a sense of judgement here, just the voice of an obsessive observer, someone who lives within and understands the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of our people, language and cultures. He peels back the layers of his own skin so that when he does the same for the nation it is a voice that we feel that we can trust. Whatever the issue, he confronts each with equal candour and humour. The work reads like a work of fiction, entertaining as it is informative. His is the epitome of the personal becoming the collective for we see ourselves in many of these experiences.

So here we are, for those who did not have the privilege of living in the time of Keith Smith and for those wanting to simply re-read and reminisce for the sake of ol’ talk, this is a valuable collection. And to that young lady, this is an important face to your understanding of your past.

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