Today marks my bicentennial as an opinion columnist: the 200th published column since my journey began in other pages in 2013 as (how my neighbour introduces me) one of TT’s public intellectuals. It’s my 80th with Newsday.
I’m no Martin Daly or Keith Smith, who each seem to have written for 200 years, with published column entry collections. But given how life’s going at the moment, it’s important to mark the milestone with a bit of celebration — and reflection.
Being able to write — and to publish in these pages — are privileges I take quite seriously.
Unlike many writing teachers, I firmly believe we’re all writers. A writing workshop with that belief made me into one. I celebrate what spoken-word has done for young people’s literacy, countering the forces of digitalisation pushing against penmanship. No talent is equally gifted, but making each of us our best writer should be the mission for more who gatekeep things literary.
In 2017, before coming to Newsday, I asked readers, in a digital democracy that enables Rhoda Bharaths and Kia Hoseins, “What should a good column do?” The Prime Minster reminded this week what news media would look like left to politicians. But I questioned then: were the newspaper marketplace ruled by the consumer’s invisible hand, who would readers choose to read?
I’m not here because I’m the best, or most popular. I think I’ve been afforded the privilege to remain because I have something particular — perhaps unique — to say. Six years ago, I started out to write a column reflecting on “one nation…many bodies: boundless faith.” I pitched it as writing about citizenship, sexuality, masculinity, gender, politics, often, but not always, in intersection; a perspective on policy and culture from someone for whom the state and others make gender and sex the key frame through which I engage the world. I’d also weigh in on consumer issues. “That means writing about men’s issues from a critical and often feminist perspective, weighing in in man/woman debates, talking about sex and society and making it into something beautiful and precious and natural.” I was determined to not talk about LGBTI issues in my NGO voice, but rather “in the weft of the discourse” — early column critiqued officials’ pathologisation of fatherlessness, countering that boys turn out just fine growing up without fathers. “Or with two,” it ended.
When I chose a couplet from Sparrow’s LuLu as epigraph for my 2016 poetry collection, I began thinking about columns like poems — the small acts of the treachery I think all writing is, calypsoes I was singing on not just the powerful but those in my intimate life, telling stories on them (by first name only).
Soon I’d settled that simply “telling small stories” was “what I do best here. Small stories that I think in the telling become enlarged.”
In 2017 I’d asked: “would it be enough to tell a good story every week? Some illuminating experience or epiphany from the week gone by, embroidered into a lesson. Inflected by the particularity of the writer’s experience. Essentially, what any good novelist or sermon does. Is our role simply to use our powers of observation for good? What about disclosure? Is the writer’s life-experience the gold? Apart from the advice column’s clumsy dialogue with our love lives, should some opinion writers at least be required to engage with the nation’s emotional life, our longing, our hurts, our fear? Is the column’s duty to put lives on the page, the writer’s or others’?”
This column tries to use narcissism only strategically. Instead of celebrating myself, let me use this personal anniversary to celebrate others. Besides young people and colleagues who’ve co-written columns — Ash Allman, Amir Denzel Hall, Westmin James, Keron King, Kareem Marcelle, Élysse Marcellin, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh, Angelique Nixon, Brendon O’Brien, HR Ian Roach, Gerald and Geraldine Skeete, Jabari Taitt — I want to pay tribute to four writers.
Jensen La Vende’s brilliant account of Christopher Selby’s taxi ride after his 2015 jailbreak first brought him to my attention, before he joined Newsday’s crime beat.
I am most in awe of Alake Pilgrim’s generosity as a critic and reader, but the immense talent and daring vision she wielded when we first met I pray will yet make her one of the most important fiction writers of her generation.
I adore Andil Gosine, because he writes with scholarly incisiveness about my own work and other sexual politics, but also for his radical playfulness as an installation artist with ohrnis, cutlasses and epistles. I can’t wait for him to publish a book.
Among spoken-word poets, Kyle Hernandez amazes me most — his impressive capacity for emotional nuance, his breathtaking risk taking. Sometimes it misses badly — like this year’s slam final — but seeing an artist so unafraid to stretch is magical. His wonderful comic timing in voicing the Consent Doubles video is another treat.
I wish my mother had been a writer. Her generation witnessed more sweeping social and technological change than any other. I regret she could not put aside shame to record that.