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Blogging about the Caribbean's Repeating Islands

Lisa Paravisini-Gebert

Lisa Paravisini-Gebert

Ivette Romero-Cesareo

Ivette Romero-Cesareo

In his already classic 1992 book The Repeating Island, the Cuban writer Antonio Benítez-Rojo set out to chart the cultural and historical complexities of the Caribbean. He argued that within the Caribbean’s “sociocultural fluidity” and “ethnological and linguistic clamour” “one can sense the features of an island that ‘repeats’ itself, unfolding and bifurcating until it reaches all the seas and lands of the earth.”

When the literary scholars Lisa Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo decided, in early 2009, to start a new blog covering Caribbean literature, arts, and culture, they were inspired not only by the title of Benítez-Rojo’s book, but also by his sense of the Caribbean as an expansive and expanding cultural and mental space not limited by geography. Repeating Islands, launched in March 2009, quickly attracted an audience of Caribbeanist scholars, writers, and artists, and ordinary readers across the Caribbean and further afield.

Posting several links each day (with occasional commentary), and covering everything from new books and exhibitions to political intrigues and environmental concerns, Repeating Islands is an essential resource for keeping up with cultural developments in the Caribbean and its wide international diaspora. Thanks to the backgrounds, research interests, and multilingual fluency of its authors, the blog transcends the linguistic barriers that can make it difficult to engage with the whole region.

Romero-Cesareo was born in Manhattan and raised in Puerto Rico, and “has always considered herself to be an islander.” She is professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American Studies at Marist College. Paravisini-Gebert was born and grew up in Puerto Rico, and is now the Randolph Distinguished Professor in the Hispanic Studies department at Vassar College. The two scholars have collaborated in the past, co-editing two books on Caribbean literary and cultural studies.

Around the time of the blog’s first anniversary, I interviewed them via email, asking them about their motivations for starting Repeating Islands, how the blog intersects with their research interests, and future plans.

•••

Nicholas Laughlin: First things first: what promoted you to launch Repeating Islands early last year? Were you inspired by specific existing blogs, or some turn of events?

Ivette Romero-Cesareo: The mastermind and engine behind Repeating Islands was Lisa, who has had significant experience with blogs from the research standpoint (angle). She had researched and lectured extensively on blogs and their place in the academic sphere. I was unnecessarily suspicious and doubtful about blogs because, for the most part, I saw them as too narrowly focused on individual concerns and, apart from the Huffington Posts of the world, considered them a space for (sometimes) egocentric expression.

When Lisa proposed that we co-blog on Caribbean arts, literature, and cultural manifestations of various types, I very subtly and eloquently answered, “A blog?! Eeeeeww! Bluuugh!” I was walking home and she had called me on my cell phone; literally, two minutes later, I snapped out of my “Bah, humbug” mood, called her up, and said, “I’ve got a name for the blog!” But, alas, it was not Repeating Islands.

Lisa Paravisini-Gebert: I was working on a paper called “Blogueros: The Puerto Rican Nation in Cyberspace”, thinking about how blogs can construct communities of readers around shared interests and concerns, when I thought of the possibility of a blog for our community of people interested in pan-Caribbean literature, culture, and the arts. Ivette’s response when I proposed it was hilarious — she seemed horror-stricken, so I suggested she think about it. She called back right away. The inspiration was not so much other blogs — although I am an inveterate reader of blogs — but the absence of a blog that addressed our own specific interests and needs. I was thinking of a blog that someone could read every day like the morning paper and feel sort of up-to-date with what was happening culturally across the region.

NL: Where does the blog fit into your respective research and teaching careers? Do you have the sense that your students and colleagues are regular readers?

IRC: We began posting news in March 2009. I was working as a visiting professor at Vassar College and I jokingly said to one of my classes that I was bleary-eyed because I was up for many hours working on the new blog, which has become an obsession of sorts. I immediately noticed that students were very curious and interested in the blog, especially students who love literature and have a curiosity about global cultures. I dare say that, while some of my colleagues were enthusiastic, I was amazed at how resistant to the new blog other scholars were; perhaps they shared my initial distrust of blogs.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to see that we immediately began receiving high praise and enthusiastic feedback from top scholars and writers; people whose work I have always admired and respected had become regular readers. This praise was the best form of encouragement.

As for my research and teaching, I can wholeheartedly say that Repeating Islands has been energising in every way. I am a slow writer and a “meandering” researcher, easily getting distracted by tangential information. For one, with the blog, I can use my skills in detouring; in this case, those detours have been fruitful because I run across much more information than I set out to find. On the other hand, the blog ensures that I do some type of writing every day; it has also forced me to develop a faster and more efficient writing style. Of course, my perception of “speed” and “efficiency” is very different from my co-blogger’s view.

What I enjoy most about blogging for Repeating Islands is that now I am much more informed about the wider Caribbean. Since Lisa and I are both comparative Caribbeanists, this is a very organic to what we research and teach.

LPG: The blog responds to my academic interests and concerns — but also to a preoccupation about how these concerns connect with politics and ideology across the region. Ironically, this is not a “personal” blog — insofar as we are not emphasising our feelings or offering a lot of personal commentary — but it could not be more “personal” in the sense of how our choices about what to include reflect our specific interests and preoccupations. Who we are shapes the blog — from my own environmental concerns and obsession with Haiti to Ivette’s focus on new artists and the condition of women across the region.

One of the things that surprised me about the blog, however, is how little one can control who our readers are. I had an implied reader in mind — people interested in keeping abreast of what was happening in pan-Caribbean culture — and that ideal reader remains our target audience. It is surprising, however, that our “regulars” — those people who go directly to our home page — are only about ten per cent of our daily readers. The rest of our readers (a whopping ninety per cent) come to the blog through searches that bring them to new and old posts. Every post out there (and by now we have posted more than three thousand items) can potentially pull in readers at any time. It is wonderfully out of our control. Many of those readers remain with us, becoming part of the group of “home-page regulars” for whom we post daily.

NL: Repeating Islands has become a sort of clearing-house for news about Caribbean literature, art, music, culture generally, the environment — I personally hear about many events through your blog that I might not otherwise come across. How do you manage to keep up, and keep informed? How much time does it take you every day to keep the blog going?

IRC: In order to really keep up with as many events as possible and maintain the blog with enough variety, I need to work about four hours a day, something that is very difficult to do in view of our full-time teaching and other academic responsibilities, as well as our personal research and writing. At times, we choose to research information for the blog that is also related to our academic projects, but that is not always possible.

LPG: I have been fortunate to have a research assistant provided by my institution (Vassar College) to help with the research for the blog. She sends me a list of possible items for the blog every evening, with the links to stories. I choose among them for the daily posts and spend some time searching for appropriate images, which is, I confess, one of my favourite things about the blog. I tend to take less pains about the writing than Ivette does, so on most days I spend about an hour updating the blog posts. I think we balance each other out well in terms of our approach to the blog.

NL: Have you considered doing a version of the blog in, say, Spanish, since you both have roots in the Hispanophone Caribbean?

IRC: It would be great to do that if we had more time. However, I believe that our skills are best utilised in making available in English the wealth of information in French and Spanish that does not always get to circulate widely unless it is translated. In my observations, scholars in the Francophone and Hispanophone Caribbean are often bilingual or trilingual for various reasons. Perhaps because of an absence of need or a linguistic imperialism of sorts, this is not always the case with English-speaking scholars.

I have been at many conferences in Spanish, French, or Portuguese-speaking countries and have always heard English-speaking participants grumble when discussions take place in languages other than English. This has always surprised me. I have never observed the contrary; when Spanish, French, or Portuguese-speaking scholars attend conferences in Anglophone countries, they expect to listen to discussions in English. I can read Papiamento, and Lisa has a strong working knowledge of Creole, so we are able to bring a richer array of posts to our readers. The blogging process has also convinced me that I need to learn Dutch, and I am looking into taking an intensive course; this way, I can truly say that I am contributing to the blog from a pan-Caribbean perspective.

LPG: I agree with Ivette, in that I think that we can best serve our target audience in English, which has become a bit of a lingua franca throughout the Caribbean. And, to tell you the truth, I don’t know where we would ever find the time. The blog — or more to the point, our loyalty to the readers who come to the blog every day — imposes a daily obligation (for example, we have never missed a day of fresh posts in over a year now), but it is at times a hard commitment to maintain. It would be very difficult to add to those efforts another venture in Spanish.

NL: Most of your posts are based around a link to a specific article or event. Do you think in the future the blog could evolve into offering more commentary or personal reflections as well, or have you deliberately decided to downplay that kind of content?

IRC: Yes, the original concept was to gather and make available news that was already circulating. We have had the need more and more often to contribute our own commentary, especially when reviews are not available for new books, exhibitions, carnivals, etc. I think Lisa tends to offer her own observations more often. Recently, she had another wonderful idea that would entail more direct writing from us, but I will let her describe the project.

LPG: I think that from the beginning we wanted to use the blog to consolidate information and build a community of readers who could catch up on news and information about the region by coming to the blog. That is an easier task than to bring readers together to read your thoughts and commentary. Sometimes, when the news strikes me as absurd, I will provide commentary, a departure I enjoy. I think, however, that the blog will continue to be primarily that, since that seems to be what our readers come to us for.

Recently, however, we have begun to work on ideas for providing our own content — our own reviews of books, plays, and art, for example, and our own interviews with writers and artists. This is our new project, and we have begun to contact writers and artists to develop these interviews. Readers should begin to see them in a month or so.

NL: What’s been the most surprising thing about working on the blog?

IRC: As is always the case with research, I am constantly amazed at how much information is out there and how little time we have to report on all of that. It always feels to me that we are barely scratching the surface. The other surprise has been the exponential growth of our readership. The numbers have really shot up since March 2009, when we began our work on Repeating Islands.

LPG: I would have to agree with Ivette that it has been the rapid growth in the number of readers. The first time we hit one hundred readers in a day, I wanted to open the Champagne. A year later, that number has multiplied exponentially, and it brings a sense of connection with readers that is very humbling. At first I thought that, since the blog was aimed at readers with academic interests like us, there were maybe at most five hundred people out there who might be interested in the content we offered. I wasn’t quite prepared for thousands of daily readers, with the number continuing to grow from week to week. We are always very touched by the emails we receive from people who have just discovered the blog and write to tell us how much they enjoy it.

NL: Do you know of other Caribbean or Caribbeanist scholars who blog or otherwise share information and knowledge online? Why do you think more Caribbean academics are not doing this?

IRC: Yes, there are institutions or individual Caribbean artists, writers, and scholars who have very interesting sites or blogs; and for the most part, we have provided the links on our blog or in our posts. For example, we really miss the Caribbean Review of Books! Usually, the blogs with a Caribbean focus centre on specific genres, geographic or linguistic areas, subject matters, and fields. It is difficult to maintain a very broad perspective and not favor a geographic area — Puerto Rico, for instance!

LPG: Our blogroll lists the blogs we enjoy checking and reading, as Ivette has commented. There is, to me, an obvious reason why there aren’t more blogs of this kind — they take an enormous amount of time and need to be kept up daily. As an avid reader of blogs, I know how disappointing it is to check your favourite blogs day after day and find no new posts. From the beginning, this was my foremost concern, to make sure that, no matter what, any reader coming to the home page would find at least a couple of new posts every day. (We average seven to eight new posts every day.) This is very hard to do, as we have to anticipate what happens when we travel, when we have other deadlines, when life brings surprises, or when we have a cold.

It works because there are two of us and we check with each other in advance to make sure that the other can cover when life intervenes. We also may prepare posts in advance when we are travelling. We think of it as facing a daily deadline and knowing that hundreds of people will check the home page first thing in the morning, and there better be something new there. It is quite a challenge.

NL: What are your favourite blogs and other online resources for Caribbean culture and scholarship?

IRC: My particular favorites are the blogs, online journals, or sites on the visual arts, such as Art Nexus, Harte, msa Xperimental Art, El Status, and blogs that raise consciousness about specific causes such as the AIDS/HIV pandemic or poverty, such as the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting. I also enjoy reading sites and blogs of institutions for which I have a great deal of respect for their in-depth articles and dissemination of Caribbean culture, for example Casa de las Americas’ La Ventana.

LPG: I begin my day checking my favorite blogs, all lined up under “favourites” in my browser. I may start with something like This Is Indexed, Geoffrey Philps’s blog, or Karin Wilson Edmonds’s Yard Edge. I also like to look at the Small Axe blog to see what’s new.

NL: You mentioned plans to start posting your own reviews. Are there any other future plans for Repeating Islands that you'd like to share?

LPG: We are very shortly beginning a series of brief interviews with artists (“Five Questions with Repeating Islands”), in which we focus on one particular work by a Caribbean-based or Caribbean-born artist. We are very excited about this, as we think it will help us shed some light on the creative process and bring to readers’ attention the abundance of talent across the region.

We are also interested in showcasing new writers by posting short pieces or poems accompanied by introductory notes or interviews. We want to make sure, however, that readers coming to us to keep up with cultural and artistic news on the Caribbean continue to find that in the blog, so these new “series” would be scheduled for particular days of the week, so readers can know when these feature will appear and check on those days.

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