What Auntie Roachie Would Have Said

Louise Bennett creator of the character Auntie Roachie after whom the festival is named

Louise Bennett creator of the character Auntie Roachie after whom the festival is named

Auntie Roachie Seh, man who don’t dead, don’t bury…

It was a Tuesday afternoon in what was arguably one of the hottest summers that Jamaica has faced, when spurred by an idea created by (as far as I’m aware) the current Principal Director of Culture, Dahlia Harris, a book fair was being staged as a part of Jamaica’s 52nd Independence Celebrations. Any idiot could realize the folly of this plan, because one fact everyone knows, from suckling babes to wizened and toothless crones, that Jamaicans don’t read. Yet there we were trying to stage a book fair, in the brilin sun hot, as the fair was slated to begin at noon. Worse yet, the fair was being staged at the Ranny Williams and Louise Bennet Entertainment complex on Hope Road, a space where audiences do not aimlessly wander by, but would have to deliberately make their way.  It began to really appear improbable that even Louise Bennett duppy was a sufficiently potent spirit to bring people out.

I had taken off two of the hats I wore for this occasion, (that as representative of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica and member of the Imagine Dat planning team). and was setting up my tent. At minutes to 12pm as I looked around at the fellow exhibitors and the empty chairs left over from the last event in the same space, I began to wonder how I had been convinced to imbibe the urine of a crazy feline and participate in this event. I quickly realize that I needed to work on my apology for the panelists I had invited to participate i the lunch hour  session where we were slated to have readings by Kerine Miller (Coop Clan) Roland Watson Grant (Skid and Sketcher), A-dZiko Simba Gegele (All Over Again) and Jean Lowrie Chin (Soul Dance) followed by a panel discussion where publisher and author Kellie Magnus and academic Dr. Michael Bucknor would join us. What on earth was I going to tell them when there was only two people in the audience. I wasn’t worried about Magnus who was not only my co-conspirator but had gotten me into this madness in the first place, but what would I tell the others. The only person I was sure was attending was Emma Lewis, my sister had half committed, and Tanya Shirley had said maybe. So if I were lucky, there would be 1 and 1/2 persons in the audience.

And then, a man walked into the venue. A few minutes later a woman and a young boy ventured in. By the time we got going the tent was almost filled with people and we managed to have a great reading and discussion. And though most of this audience left the venue at the end of the ‘Book Stew’ by 4pm when we resumed activities not only was the tent once again filled, but the audience had spilled over to the sides. My ghast was officially flabbered as I wondered if these people were not aware that it was a book event and so as card carrying Jamaicans they should not be there.

That being said, there are a few lessons from the day, that I would like to share. The majority of them actually came from the panelists as they spoke about what they believe is going right with Caribbean literature today.

  1. Despite the days that it seems to argue the contrary, being a Caribbean publisher is not a case of tilting at windmills. First, the giants we seek to overcome are by no means imaginary, and secondly and more importantly, the giants are neither as big nor as scary as we imagine. Because if people can come out to a book event on a Tuesday afternoon, there is hope and yes, a few of them even bought books.
  2. The new prizes being created in the Caribbean has created a more fertile soil for Caribbean writers. There are also more spaces that provide more succour for Caribbean writers and the effort is beginning to bear fruit, as with each day the names Kei Miller and Marlon James get more company as contemporary Jamaican writers.
  3. Caribbean readers are buying more Caribbean books. It’s critical that we put our money where our mind  is and Caribbean publishing can only thrive if people buy the books, and yes, people are likely to buy more books when there are good books for them to buy. So, if you want to see more Caribbean books, buy more Caribbean books. Let your wallet do the talking. If you go into a local bookstore and you cannot find the local books you want, ask for it, greater demand will allow local books to command better shelf space.
  4. Calabash. Let’s say that again … Calabash. This literary festival has significantly changed the Caribbean literary landscape.
  5. It wasn’t mentioned on Tuesday, but I would also have to give great credit to Bocas, who has been churning out some great prizes that has had significant impact.
  6. Authors now have increased connectedness with potential readers and smart writers are using this. Social media has given everyone super stalking skills which can be used to our advantage as we can build communities that support our work.
  7. Caribbean culture. One of the region’s greatest resource is its culture and we have barely begun to tap into it.
  8. There is a space for bad poetry. I remain firmly committed to needing poetry in the poetry I consume, but as I listened to the audience get excited about some terrible verse, I realized that bad poetry is poetry too and it may have its use.
  9. You. You can fill in the reason why, and if it is not yet the case, make it so.
  10. And the most important lesson of all: Jamaican and Caribbean literature are not dead, so despite our love of fish and hard dough bread we need to stop having a ni night for it. We need to create great books that people want to read and invite audiences to come out and engage with them. The Auntie Roachie Festival was a declarative statement, now let’s hope we were listening.
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