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Caribbean: Talking to Giselle Rampaul of ‘The Spaces Between Words’

Giselle Rampaul is a literary scholar in the Literatures in English (LIE) section at the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. Her research interests include the intersections between British and Caribbean literature, representations of childhood in Caribbean literature, and the work of the Trinidadian writer Samuel Selvon. She is currently working on a project on Shakespeare in the Caribbean.

She is also the editor and producer of ‘The Spaces Between Words: Conversations with Writers‘, a podcast series launched in November 2011. Currently hosted by UWI-St. Augustine’s Liberal Arts department website (but with plans to move to its own dedicated site), and drawing on the help of Rampaul’s LIE colleagues, The Spaces Between Words features interviews with writers and readings from their work, released at approximately weekly intervals.

Giselle Rampaul

Giselle Rampaul

The series opened with the Jamaican novelist Marlon James, and has included other Caribbean writers like Lorna Goodison, Edward Baugh, Jane King, and Mark McWatt, as well as V.S. Naipaul’s British biographer, Patrick French. All the podcasts thus far were recorded at the inaugural Bocas Lit Fest, a literary festival in Port of Spain.

With the festival’s second edition a few weeks away, and Rampaul’s team gearing up to record a new round of interviews, I asked her some questions via email about her experience editing The Spaces Between Words and how it could be used as a tool for teaching at UWI and elsewhere.

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Nicholas Laughlin (NL): Why did you decide to start the Spaces podcast series?

Giselle Rampaul (GR): Last year in March, UWI’s STAN magazine invited me to do an interview with [Canada-based Trinidadian writer] Shani Mootoo when she was writer-in-residence at UWI. While transcribing the audio-recording of the interview, I really enjoyed being able to actually hear Mootoo’s voice as she discussed her writing and her experiences, and thought that other people might find this appealing as well. It was because of this that one of my friends, Ben Braithwaite (who also later designed the logo for the podcast), suggested I begin a podcast series of interviews with writers.

Because I was also then the co-ordinator of Campus Literature Week, which aims to showcase the work of both new and established local writers, I thought that such a series could easily intersect with and develop this thrust in the Literatures in English (LIE) section. It would allow listeners to hear the writers not only read from their work but also discuss issues related to their creative processes and their writing. The interviews would be useful to students of literature and creative writing, giving them a range of perspectives on different issues. The podcasts could also be used as teaching tools or support material for university courses, not just here at UWI, but in other places that teach Caribbean literature.

One of the advantages of producing a podcast series is that it provides free access to knowledge. This, I think, is especially important in the current technological age, when the future of academic publishing is constantly being discussed. At the same time, the podcasts were not meant to be purely of academic interest, but would appeal to anyone with a love for books, or anyone with a general interest in creative writing or issues related to Caribbean identities.

Luckily, the idea for the podcast came just a month or two before the 2011 Bocas Lit Fest, when many writers were going to be in the country. [GV managing director] Georgia Popplewell, who has experience with podcasting for Caribbean Free Radio, gave me some advice. At this time, there was no technological infrastructure at UWI to support podcasts, but our webmaster, Daren Dhoray, very quickly got on the job.

Once I began editing the interviews with my assistant editor, Ryan Durgasingh (who is also now diligently working on our new website at www.spaceswords.com), I approached Satanand Sharma at the Department of Creative and Festival Arts for help with the theme music. He very kindly allowed us to use his composition “Papa Bois’s Song”, which begins and ends every interview.

So it was with the help of many different people that the podcast came into being. The interview that did, in fact, inspire the idea for the podcast is not actually in the series. But perhaps we’ll catch Shani Mootoo another time!

(You can read the interview with Shani Mootoo here.)

NL: How do you choose your interviewers, who seem impressively knowledgeable about the writers they talk to?

GR: Some of the interviewers last year came from staff of the LIE section at UWI —Geraldine Skeete, Jean Antoine-Dunne, and me. I also wanted to get students involved in the project: Rhonda Harrison, a PhD student in literature; Barbara Jenkins, a creative writing MFA student and also a prize-winning writer; Vladimir Lucien, an undergraduate student at the time, whose poetry appears in international journals; Nicha Selvon-Ramkissoon, another PhD student who was keenly interested in the Naipaul biography.

This year, a few more people have been added to our team: Paula Morgan, another member of the LIE staff; Nicole Roberts, lecturer in Spanish literature at UWI; and Ryan Durgasingh, an MPhil student in literature and the assistant editor of the podcasts, who will be adding interviewing to his many podcast-related activities. The interviewers are chosen based on different kinds of expertise, but also because of their keen interest in the writers, their work, and literature in general. They’ve tended to be UWI-based so far, as well.

NL: Of all the writers you’ve included so far, which one (or ones) gave the most surprising interviews?

GR: I am not sure if I’d describe any of the interviews as surprising, but they certainly have all been very enjoyable. The readings at the beginnings of the interviews have all been fascinating introductions to the writers’ work. You can’t help wanting to read The Book of Night Women after hearing Marlon James reading from the first paragraph of his book. The range of Caribbean (and sometimes also non-Caribbean) accents also brings the books to life in a very appealing way and makes every interview unique. In fact, Charlotte Williams points out the performative aspect of readings by Caribbean authors especially in her interview. And Edward Baugh talks about his inspiration for his own oration from church sermons.

Hearing about Patrick French’s experience of Trinidad as he did his research for The World is What It Is is fascinating — not least because he is writing about someone as controversial as V.S. Naipaul. Lorna Goodison’s interview has also been very popular, and shows her range as a creative writer — she reads a poem at the beginning of the interview, but talks about her teaching of short story writing and about her memoir, From Harvey River. And her name keeps coming up as a major source of inspiration for other writers, like Tanya Shirley and Jane Bryce. So there are interesting intersections among the interviews as well. Perhaps one of the most quirky and funny things I’ve heard in the interviews is Charlotte Williams talking about her current project, “The Toilet Papers.”

NL: So do UWI faculty actually use the podcasts as teaching tools?

GR: There have recently been training sessions on how to produce podcasts by the Instructional Development Unit, but I am not sure whether any other department has yet produced their own podcasts. However, UWI faculty do link to podcasts and videos on their course profiles. UWI staff also provide links to podcasts through social media groups. The UWI Linguistics Society Facebook group is very active, for example, and faculty members often post language-related podcasts there for students. Some lecturers in the LIE section, who have been teaching some of our featured writers, have also been posting our podcast interviews on their course profiles.

NL: Are there similar projects based at UWI, combining an archival function with public outreach?

GR: There are a few similar projects in the Department of Liberal Arts. The Modern Languages section takes part in an annual Inter-Campus Foreign Language Theatre Festival that is open to the public, for example. Campus Literature Week is an annual event open to the public and features readings by local creative writers, followed by a gala reading by a distinguished featured writer. All these events are audio- and video-recorded and archived. There are also efforts to make snippets of these readings available online.

International conferences held by the department are usually recorded and archived as well. The first issue of the online journal Tout Moun: Caribbean Journal of Cultural Studies is the result of a past conference. The Linguistics section is also involved in the documentation of endangered heritage languages (such as Patois and Bhojpuri) through interviews with the elderly, and other language custodians. There is also a collaborative project, involving members of the Deaf community, to create a large digital archive of Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language, from which descriptive (grammars and dictionaries) and practical (e.g. smartphone apps and text books) materials will be developed.

Follow The Spaces Between Words on Twitter @SpacesWords

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