Word Up! Those Blooming Caribbean Lit Fests

Earl Lovelace accepts the Bocas Caribbean Writing Prize

Earl Lovelace (left) accepts the Bocas Caribbean Writing Prize from Marina Salandy (centre) Brown and Dawn Thomas

With two Nobel Laureate’s and several other internationally recognized and award winning writers hailing from the region, the Caribbean’s impact on the international literary sphere is significant. Additionally, literature is one of the bridges linking our archipelago of tiny islands. Yet publishing in the Caribbean only takes place on a limited scale, and often the focus is on text books. So its intriguing that there are now two major lit fests in the region, the Calabash International Literary Festival (May 25 – 27, 2012, Jamaica) and the Bocas Literary Festival (April 26 – 29, 2012, Trinidad).

The thing about being on an island, especially a tiny island is… well, you’re on an island and that means you are pretty much isolated. So, although we can point to a Caribbean identity, especially for those of us all the way over here in Jamaica, we often know very little about what is happening on our sister isles, except what we hear on the news (and that’s usually only the negative) or what we read in books.

On my recent visit to Trinidad to attend Bocas I realized something… I’ve thought of Trinidad as a place in story. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a real country, but my concept of Trinidad has largely been shaped by books. Until recently when I started reading more contemporary Caribbean literature, most of the Caribbean texts I read, most as part of the prescribed school texts were based in Trinidad. The list comprises classics such as Wine of Astonishment, A Brighter Sun, Miguel Street, Minty Alley, Green Days by the River, Ways of Sunlight and A House for Mr. Biswas. Technically, The Dragon Can’t Dance can be included, but I read the play not the novel. As a result I imagine a Trinidad, where everyone plays all-fours and eats doubles and bake and shark. They also appear to be obsessed with Tunapuna, as I’m sure that in every Trinidadian book I’ve read, at least one person had been to, was going to, or left from Tunapuna at some point in the book. That said, I would also like to file a complaint against all Trinidadian writers for failing to explain that a) ‘bake’, is not baked, it’s fried and b) the Savannah is a really big-ass place. That would have been good to know.

Caribbean lit has also been responsible for fooling me into buying this concept of Caribbean unity because with these books I felt that we had much in common. Indeed, could honestly swear that a few of the people from Miguel Street lived on my street. Additionally, most of the writers who evolved from that classic period, were firmly committed to the concept of Caribbean unity. Maybe its because many of them were in that cold crucible of London for so long, and its so much easier to see our commonalities when stuck on that other foggy, rainy island, rather than basking in the Caribbean sun.

So having seen the impact of Calabash on the widened variety of books now available in Jamaica, I welcomed the arrival of Bocas as additional stimulation for regional literary pursuits. Bocas had a very different vibe from Calabash, which I had been attending for 9 years. A part of the difference is that Calabash is set against the backdrop of the Caribbean sea while Bocas is in a library in the heart of the city. Yet both are great experiences and the organizers of each festival show great dedication to showcasing great literature, film and music from the Caribbean and the rest of the world. Of course, Bocas’ creation of the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for a whopping US$10,000.00, has allowed it to be taken seriously, quickly. Their introduction of a new prize for emerging writers worth it £25,000 will only go even further in cementing their reputation.

Shara McCallum and Kei Miller

Poet Shara McCallum and poet and author Kei Miller on the Anxieties of Influence panel at Bocas 2012

My point here isn’t to pitch Calabash and Bocas against each other, but rather to indicate their value to developing the literary landscape. Bocas’ ability to create the two writing prizes suggests that they have managed to tap into significant financial support. More importantly, it suggests that it has found financial resources that can be tapped. After its 10th year Calabash, despite the revolutionary impact it had on the Jamaican literary landscape, stalled due to insufficient financing. The festival is back this year, but as yet, there is no clear word whether it is back to stay. Its disappearance would be a great tragedy, one more example of how Jamaica constantly manages to sabotage itself. For me Calabash has been a true example of the ways in which Jamaicans often strive for excellence and achieve it, even when it seems that they shouldn’t have. In a country that is supposed to be devoid of readers, it makes very little sense that they have an annual literary festival that attracts a few thousand people. Yet, it happens.

There is a third festival, Bim in Barbados on the horizon, but as it has not happened yet (it takes place May 16 – 20), it’s a little too soon to decide whether or not its a major festival. It’s line-up however, including Derek Walcott, Lorna Goodison and Kei Miller is certainly impressive.

Of course replication of festivals means that the names are beginning to recur from one festival to the next. So Bocas and Bim share Kei Miller and to some degree George Lamming (though not as a reader) while Bocas and Calabash share Loretta Collins, Fred D’Aguiar, and Shara McCallum.

Bocas and Bim both follow the Calabash model of being free and open to the public, and so for both festivals it probably remains true that the writers are not paid performance fees. However, what they gain, and more importantly what we gain, is a lot more exposure to writers from the region as well as from elsewhere. Through these blooming festivals, each with their own initiatives for supporting and developing writing, the Caribbean can be even more fertile ground for literature to flourish.