Reviving Caribbean literature

The NGC Bocas Lit Fest held last week in Port of Spain is a timely reminder that however bleak political and cultural life in the West Indies may seem from time to time, at least Caribbean literature is alive and well. In four days, at nearly 100 events, the Lit Fest held readings, workshops and panel discussions with more than 50 authors — most from the Caribbean but some from much further afield. In fact the schedule was so crammed that the audience often faced hard choices between a known writer and a promising newcomer, or a documentary (there were film screenings too) and a discussion of Caribbean historiography, or art.

As the events unfolded, it was hard not to notice how interwoven West Indian culture remains even 50 years after the failure of Federation. Nearly every discussion – whether concerned with West Indian history, literary influences, or our relationship to the colonial imagination – invoked writers from all parts of the region, and not just the usual suspects – CLR James, Kamau Brathwaite, Naipaul, Walcott – either. Guyanese writers and artists were repeatedly mentioned,  notably Wilson Harris, Aubrey Williams and Denis Williams. There were readings by Fred D’Aguiar and Stephen Narain (a Bahamian writer of Guyanese extraction) and the screening of a documentary on Walter Rodney.

As the Lit Fest got underway, the Caribbean Literature Action Group (CALAG) – a partnership between the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the British Council and Commonwealth Writers – convened in Port of Spain, to address the root causes of what might be called our literary diaspora. A CALAG press release noted that although “literature is one of the region’s most celebrated cultural products … Caribbean writers continue to migrate to North America and Europe in order to obtain financial support for their work and to achieve the highest level of international recognition.”  In time, the group hopes to create conditions in which sustainable literary publishing can take root throughout the Caribbean, repatriating some of our exported talent and helping local writers to compete on a world stage.

In part the emigration of literary talent from the Caribbean is due to the “embryonic state” of literary publishing, most notably the absence of the literary agents, marketing and public relations professionals integral to the success of most well-established publishing houses. But it is also due to a wider cultural malaise. Fifty years after independence, the Caribbean still takes too many of its cultural cues from abroad. We tend to accord the full measure of our respect to singers, authors or intellectuals only when they have been properly certified elsewhere. Predictably, this neglect encourages a widespread exodus of creative talent and leaves little behind to inspire or nurture the next generation of artists and writers. Events like the Bocas Lit Fest, or more ambitious undertakings like Carifesta, remind us of how much talent we have dismissed or overlooked.

What makes the Bocas Lit Fest (now in just its second year) remarkable is not just the wide and generous sponsorship it received, nor its excellent administration, but its intellectual breadth and seriousness. This is mostly due to the indefatigable energy of Marina Salandy-Brown and Nicholas Laughlin, its two leading lights, and their success in getting the wider society to take books, writers and ideas seriously again. Their efforts were amply rewarded. The festival drew large audiences and  produced lively discussions throughout its four-day run. It was an inspiring example of how quickly a few dedicated people can regain cultural momentum that has been lost for decades.

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