Ark Ramsay is a 25-year-old Barbadian writer who recently completed an MPhil in Chinese Philosophy at Fudan University in Shanghai. Their short fiction has been published in Small Axe (50) in 2016, after winning that journal’s emerging writer’s contest. Ark’s writing is centered around queer, Caribbean identities and coping with the reality of a warming earth–the fragility of an island ecosystem that cannot fight back.
Ark will begin an M.F.A in creative writing at Ohio State University in the Fall.
Honestly, I was worried about coming to Fresh Milk.
In the weeks before arriving, I burdened the space with a whole pantheon of anxieties. There were the familiar deities: Will-The-Work-I-Produce-There-Be-Any-Good (horned, feral, a biter); Is-This-Work-Even-Worth-Producing-At-All (tentacled, perpetually bored), and Will-I-Make-My-Page-Count (incarnated as everyone’s least favorite Primary School teacher).
I set about packing up my life in Shanghai, trying not to take notice of the fourth entity–larger than the others, skewed by perspective until all I could make sense of were the cracks in a cloven hoof–How-Do-I-Really-Return.
When I left Barbados, I abandoned writing altogether. I thought: “I’ll make a fantastic something-else”. I ditched narrative, dumped characters, and abandoned plots. I dislocated from the part of my brain that thought of itself as a ‘Barbadian writer’.
Or at least I tried to.
I still bought journals. Still scribbled notes in them. Still planned and orchestrated worlds. I could not seem to discard the machinery I had oiled so diligently for a decade.
So I returned to the island in the dark of memory. I smuggled back entire ships, boardwalks, car crashes, love stories, robots (who walked the length of Bathsheba), and dysfunctional families. I did all of this like a cat burglar until there were clear partitions between myself and the island. There was Ark the writer. Ark the islander. I began to feel like a tourist in my own dialect.
Arriving at Fresh Milk, under old-growth mahogany trees, I ruminated on what I hoped to achieve (and not achieve as in the ‘I’ of productivity, but achieve as in the summit that you reach in tandem with someone else)–I came to a realization. I wanted to be inundated with influences. To be upended. To walk the long path home.
On the first morning, Annalee handed me a red box.
It was Sonia Farmer’s strip-mining of Ligon’s “True & Exact History of Barbados”. She took his ‘accounts’ and reworked them, using his own words to uncover the silent-underneath. She questions the audacity of a “true” and “exact” anything. It was a simple gift: a reminder that the way back is via new trails in the oldest paths.
It liberated me into the rest of the week. I realized that this could become an artist’s retreat. The sense of retreat as wound-licking/marshalling the remaining forces/recalibrating. I looked around to find that the space was peopled not by anxiety-gods, but cows, and Mica–who must be some kind of Obeah Dog–because her presence brings with it an overwhelming calm.
I began to devour the library. It seemed to contain the exact mixture of books that I needed. I was handed a captivating review of Paulo Nazareth’s work–particularly News from the Americas (2011-2012)–where he left the state of Minas Gerais and travelled by bus and foot, traversing 15 countries before arriving in New York. He did this, without washing his feet, until he reached the Hudson. He carried the Americas on his body. Art as dirt that can be washed away.
This flowed into “Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis”, meditative essays that try to retool traditional Socratic virtues so that they’re useful at the end of times–when the dirt of man catches up to the rest of us. Dirt. Dust. Carried on our skins or washed away forever. I read, surrounded by impossible beauty (and the lowing of cows), trying to bank all of these impressions.
No longer thinking, will this be useful, but trying to trust in the process.
On Wednesday, we were visited by Ewan Atkinson (visual artist/most engaging person in a room), who showed off one of the pieces from his mind-bogglingly intertextual work, “The Neighbourhood Project”. He built a board game that is a kind of ‘found object’ within the narrative of this fictional neighbourhood. While setting it up he reiterated what had become gospel by this point, that the filtration process–the coming together of ideas–is a slow, slow burn. Something found today can be used in twenty-five years.
The lesson of week one seemed to be: time.
So I tried to give myself time, and space, to hack away at what I am working on. Hack being the right word, but a cruel word. To move from short story writing, to novel writing, feels like stripping naked in Broad Street–but forgetting (halfway through) how buttons on clothes work. It’s a fumbling, stumbling, soul-baring process.
But this seems a good place to begin.
My work is always far bolder than I am.
I think of it as this separate, wilding mare (possibly why I distrust horses?), who occasionally bolts. And I, person-separate-from-writing, has to make my way after it.
I ‘came out’ (beyond a handful of friends), in 2014 at BIM LitFest, during a fiction writing workshop led by Erna Brodber.
She asked us to write a paragraph that encapsulated our Caribbean; I wrote two. I wrote something I desperately wanted to read, and something safe, sedentary. Something not mine at all.
When she called on me, I read–and it was halfway into the paragraph that I realized that my mouth was stumbling over a description of two men intimately entwined. The words themselves didn’t matter–I remember them being full of teenage angst and ennui–but the moments after–when I said, “Yeh, sure I’m gay,”–to a group of strangers, who then picked that up as fact (because I had said it as fact, and not in a small tremulous, backpedalling voice).
At that workshop I felt this impossible, unsayable, shameful wall–not exactly tumble down–but suddenly I was on the other side of it–not sure how, and not really prepared for my arrival there. It took me years to learn to navigate what the work had known all along.
This week, at Fresh Milk, that strange convergence of work leading life happened again.
I am writing a novel here.
It is in its newborn baby period–colicky, demanding–and like every newborn baby, it sheds its skin each night and is a different color come morning.
On Monday, I was trying to work through a puzzle within the text: how do I talk about the main character stumbling into the realization that their gender is somehow not what they had always thought it was? The earliest pulling apart of intertwined threads that re-entwine when you look away (or look too close)? It has to be grounded in the Caribbean imagination; filled with the richness of being part of this place; and void of the platitudes marketed for mass consumption. In short, I want it to feel honest, mine.
I puzzled, and puzzled, and by Tuesday–I wrote something. And set it aside–feeling nothing but flux and uncertainty. Wednesday came, and I followed through with a promise, to model for a photoshoot celebrating Pride month, by being painted in high femme, high glam makeup. It was border-crossing makeup. It was a thick beard against smokey eyes and a full lip.
Wearing a new face transforms you, but it can also reconcile you to yourself.
The work at Fresh Milk this week eased the psychological tension of that transformation–and then when I returned to writing–it felt like I had found a new way into the work.
I don’t think this will change, and I’m not sure I want it to. Sometimes I think that I would be trapped if it weren’t for my writing–an ouroboros where I am both head and tail–stepping back at the moment of crisis–and therefore never stepping out at all.
This week was about stepping out–saying yes in an emphatic voice that shelters a baby-bird-voice underneath. On Thursday, the ‘trio of residents’ (à la Katherine Kennedy’s nickname for us), were invited to a small gathering at the house of Fresh Milk patron, Dr. Clyde Cave. In a home where every surface is anointed with Caribbean art, and surrounded by community, I read my work for the first time in years.
Whenever I performed before, I was never present. It was a fugue state. I disappeared into a recurring anxiety: when will this be over.
This time was different. I was present–I was alive in the reading.
Week 2 at Fresh Milk was about transformations, but from this point, the way forward requires that I think about structure. Most of my writing, up to this point, has been short stories. A story under 7000 words has to have one defining arc, and all of the smaller, extraneous pieces are slotted together within this word-budget. A novel is expansive, with interconnected pieces that have to function independently–its many threads woven together—it’s a tapestry.
And I have little experience weaving.
I was putting my mouth on the future in my last blog post. When I wrote: the way forward requires that I think about structure–I might as well have said, the way forward requires that I live in a week other than this week.
Sunday was Barbados’ second Pride Parade.
And I don’t want to siphon the joy/abandon/celebration out of that–or sit here and tell you that I did not get on wild and dutty–or claim that the light in me did not flare up at the touch of the light in my Bajan queer family.
And I don’t want to deny ‘bravery’, or ‘resilience’, or ‘beauty’, or ‘at-homedness’.
And I think it ironic that I have to preface the somber and vulnerable with a defense of pageantry. But I do.
Come Monday, sore and filled to the brim with love for this place, I was sitting on the deck at Fresh Milk–video-chatting a queerabian artist-friend who could not be at the parade in person. We started out the same way this blog post started out. In defense of love and glitter. Halfway in, this became untenable.
“Me and belonging just don’t pitch marbles,” they said, as we lamented the long (pothole-filled) road we had taken to arrive at this shifting place. And the cows, chickens, and small dogs all around this farm made effortless song–lampooning our attempts to ground ourselves, or think through the vast human-centeredness of ‘belonging’.
The price paid to dance to “I’m Coming Out” by Dianna Ross in front of Cave Shepherd on Broad Street was (and still is) steep. I pay it every day. All queer Barbadians do. And for some the charge is pulling from a sum they don’t have (and may never have), and whittling away–a slow, drain–until ‘bravery’ is rendered skeletal and impotent.
I volunteer to pay the price, knowing it has to be paid, knowing what’s asked of me is a fraction of a fraction of what is asked of others.
The truth is, all I have to offer is open heart writing surgery, performed on myself. And, the question is not whether it is ‘enough’ (no, possibly not), or whether it can effect change (how egocentric)–what remains is the stubbornness to root through these questions despite their nature–despite the manifold unknowns.
I am reminded this week, after getting back “Cereus Blooms at Night” from Ethan Knowles–and leafing through it–that it appeared for me right when I needed it. I read it when I was nineteen and leaving the island for the first time. I felt then (as I feel now), how unpayable the price of this book must have been, its very existence, the toll it must have taxed out of Shani Mootoo. Her expense is my enrichment, and so the circle of the word continues. I guess all I want to do is pay forward what I was given.
This rambling, guilt-ridden, wishing-I-could-do-more, lamenting-things-as-they-are, swarmed my week. I moved in careful silence, rebuilding what was knocked down, knowing that what was really happening (within me) was the fermentation of things that I could (gratefully) rage back into art–motivated by a Rainer Maria Rilke quote given to me by someone long ago: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves.”
So I repeated that quote like a mantra, knowing it is a rickety bridge from unsurety to unsurety.
On Tuesday, the whole Fresh Milk family visited “Union Collaborative”, this newly developing hub that seeks to create a space for dialogue and side-by-side creative flow–all within the remnants of a gutted commercial mall.
As Israel Mapp walked us through his vision (fashion designers working across the courtyard from metalworkers and chefs), it seemed like he, and his team, were inexhaustible. That the abundance of love they have for this place, and the whole idea of a revitalized, artistically-thriving Bridgetown, was enough to power the lights. His whole energy seemed to suggest: this is happening with or without anyone else’s input. I was bowled over by the whole enterprise because it was the complete antithesis to the questions that I had been carrying around. It was so rooted, so part-of-things, so not-in-your-own-mindcell.
Afterwards, we went to Norman Centre, where artist Kraig Yearwood had installed his work “Retro-future Landscapes”. It was right next to a leatherworking stand, and beside the gutted space where a shoe store used to be. Here was this room (fitted for a boutique store), filled with Kraig’s huge pieces rendered from concrete and found items. He cast these objects with the innards of cellphones and plastic detritus–creating these sediment layers that reflect what we may leave behind in the bones of this island. It seems like everyone this week was pondering island, in some form. Who we are, what we build, what we leave behind.
On Thursday, jackhammering at my work (revealing nothing of substance), the rains came. The roof at Fresh Milk is itself a drum–inconsistently played by mahogany pods–but here was this persistent percussion. Annalee (convinced that she practices some sort of Obeah) appeared with “Calling a Wolf a Wolf” by Kaveh Akbar, a book of poems that I’ve been trying to hunt down (or wait to arrive), for years now.
Kaveh is an Iranian-American poet, whose work is staggeringly beautiful. In fact, the latter half of this week was about reconnecting with old collections that I treasure and champion (“Everyone Knows I am a Haunting” by Trinidad’s Shivanee Ramlochan), and finally getting to read this work. I was able to put them side-by-side. Their work, so different, yet both so brutal and honest. They both stare it down. They both inhabit ‘bravery’, ‘resilience’, ‘beauty’, and ‘at-homedness’.
I channelled them when I was called upon to perform.
On Friday the trio of residents decided to host an open house, where we would pull from work-in-progress and untested writing. We would essentially give what we had never given before.
I read a short story that I have been carrying with me for years. Every time I changed as a writer, a transformation would be stimulated in my personal life, and I would see a new way into the story. But I had never read it. I had kept it safe, kept it mine.
Sharing it, and then inviting the audience to engage with me afterwards (when I was rawest and shaking), was one of the most rewarding experiences of this entire residency. My Q&A moved from ‘process’ questions into the realm of climate-sorrowing–and because of this–I felt less like I was going through the motions, and more like I was trying to share something I feel deeply kinned to. Less like I was manufacturing something artificial, and more like my soul was on the line.
This is Ethan and Kia’s last week at the residency, and the space will be worse off for their absence. I will miss what was created here (even if it lasted a few weeks), with the strange interplay of personalities (including Katherine and Annalee)–who all helped me return to this island. Physically. Mentally. Creatively.
I have one more week. Flying solo.
I am terrible at goodbyes.
I preempt the pain of separation by inducing small shocks–inoculating myself against the final disruption–so that what arrives is already marrow-sucked.
I grow nostalgic for things that have not yet ended. It’s a feeling similar to déjà vu, in that I become a passenger in my body–aware of the artifice–trying to hold onto things–knowing them to be transient. I think, I will miss this; outcome being, I do miss this.
I have never walked on stilts, but my mind is well-trained at balancing conflicting mechanisms. It tight-ropes between trying to soften the now, and trying to seal it off in amber.
This was my last week here at Fresh Milk. I did not want it to be subsumed by my familiar patterns.
I slowed down at this farm.
I spent hours sitting amongst the quiet caucus of trees that I had no formal names for.
I contemplated, watched myself in my contemplation, and eventually (growing tired of the intruding me) learned to trust in silence again. There is a deep and penetrating silence (even with the lowing of cows, and the sometimes-intrusion of mahogany pods on a corrugated iron roof) which I had missed entirely while living in Shanghai. It is the kind of silence that May Sarton claims (writing in “Journal of a Solitude”), will force one to confront the starved face at the window–starved cat, starved person–simply put: in the silence are the questions you are running from.
I wanted so badly to push forward this week. To write ceaselessly. To unearth new. To shore up old. But there was a raggedness–the bucket of myself was overflowing with Bathsheba swampies–toppling each other in their quest to be rid of me. Uninspired, tired, I wrote. I wrote what was functional and necessary. I wrote because the ‘job’ of writing must persist even if the muses are late–or never arrive at all. Because you have to go through many roughnesses to reach the roughness that matters–the thousand words that delivers up one usable paragraph. Writing too carefully, I have learnt (am learning), feeds only the overbearing perfectionist–not the nascent manuscript.
And when that was done I retreated fully to silence. I stayed at the farm until the sun set, and the unresolved work of cows was put to bed. I stayed until the St. George noise had backgrounded to a hum, and even the mahogany pods were reticent to fall. I stayed until I could not even remember what it was like to sit in my apartment in Shanghai and hear the forever-din of city life. This resolved the raggedness.
Another form of quiet came to us this week in little Roo. A three-legged rescue puppy with a penchant for nuzzling into the softest parts of someone, and sleeping.
He took up the entire day–not in his need for me–but in my curative need for him. I was reminded of a Joy Williams quote, from one of her strange short stories, “Shepherd”: many things that human words have harmed are restored again by the silence of animals.
That ‘harm’ is always soiled up in our attempts to collate worth, value, the immediate return on investment of all things. For a writer this equates to: page count, characters built, scenarios polished, contacts made, submissions finalized.
What is the payout on a month in the bush?
Why should an organization be structured to support (what sometimes looks), like an artist’s retreat (read: vacation)?
What. Is. The. Value.
I can only recount my own process. What I, in my ruminations, consider to be returns.
What a residency does (I have found out), is provide this buffer against the anxiety of production. It cuts into the noise of ‘value’, and demands that one return to the font of all things–tend the garden–not force (an unforcible) germination process. I have a friend who talks about her work by saying: it’s still cooking. And I imagine a fragrant Caribbean one-pot, full of plantains, beans and everything else in the fridge–but it’s not ready. It needs time. The insights into my work, discovered here, may take two years to prove themselves useful. A story I began writing when I was nineteen needed the addition of the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) to reach full coherency–something I only came to see when I was listening to an audio version of that text at four a.m. in Shanghai. What is given now cannot always be used now. But all things are banked, and returned to.
Without time, nothing is given.
Without a buffer against the anxiety of production. The treadmill of value. Nothing valuable is made.
At the risk of overpowering this blog post with quotations, indulge me one last time:
Yet, how do you relax without the safety net of organizations and people who understand that the process of art runs contra to the process of production (as in product; as in consumer)?
What I want to do in these final days is be an active participant in the unfolding. I do not want to sorrow an ending that has not yet ended (though this is inevitable for me). I do not want to contest the value of a thing that I know to have imbued my work with indelible value. I want simply to be here. In the silence. In the nurturing.
The thing about this writing life that I am coming to understand, is that what it takes from you–it also rewards you with.