By Jeremy Poynting
Jeremy Poynting is Managing
Editor of Peepal Tree Press
We came to Guyana after four days at the Bocas Litfest in Trinidad and Tobago. There, Rupert Roopnaraine and Ian McDonald were Guyana’s direct representatives, and it was a delight to meet up again with Cyril Dabydeen, Guyana via Canada, after many years. Cyril was one of the competition judges and also gave a dynamic poetry reading. Ian McDonald was interviewed by Nicholas Laughlin and read from his new collection of poems, The Comfort of All Things. His was a very warmly received presence, not just for the beautiful new poems, but for sharing the accumulation of a lifetime’s wisdom that has an immense generosity of spirit at its heart. Many people told us that they thought that Rupert Roopnaraine’s The Sky’s Wild Noise, winner of the non-fiction prize, would win the overall OCM Bocas prize. It didn’t, but Rupert got one of the biggest cheers of the festival when he spoke about coming from the Guyana budget debates where words were used to wound and divide, to the nourishment of the festival where words were used to enrich and unite. Kendel Hippolyte’s Fault Lines, the other finalist as winner of the prize for poetry, was also published by Peepal Tree. The overall prize was won by Monique Roffey’s novel Archipelago.
For me, the outstanding feature of the festival, beyond the quality of the writers brought to it and the huge efficiency of the organisation, is that it is a genuinely pan-Caribbean festival with writers from all parts of the region. The enthusiastic reception of this spread of writers by a mainly Trinidadian audience is ample evidence that the ideal of Caribbean unity can exist in literature, if nowhere else. The other winning combination at Bocas Litfest is the way it brings together developing writers in its Showcase sessions, as well as long-established, internationally known writers. One of the festival highlights was the launch of Trinidadian Barbara Jenkins’ first book, her collection of stories, Sic Transit Wagon. Barbara was one of the showcase new talents two years ago, heard by Peepal Tree and published to huge acclaim by an audience who gave her a standing ovation and bought a record total of nearly two hundred books following the event. Barbara Jenkins was also the winner of the new Hollick-Arvon prize, an award for developing writers that includes money to enable time to write. This is an award that Guyanese writers need to have on their radar – and I didn’t say young writers; Barbara Jenkins is 71. It is never too late.
In so many ways for Peepal Tree it was a very gratifying festival. For a start, plenty of our books were bought – no fewer than four Trinidadian booksellers have bookstalls at the festival. On the prize-giving night, it was noted by the chief judge, the Jamaican writer Olive Senior, that Peepal Tree had a very high proportion of the longlisted books and two out of three of the shortlisted winners. That kind of pat on the back always does a great deal to re-energise us for the future. But the festival, as well as being about the opportunity to listen to writers read from and talk about their work, and participate in lively debate, is about the people who come together to share. This is a festival full of warmth and good feeling. We had the opportunity to meet again some of the writers we have published such as James Aboud, Ifeona Fulani and Kendel Hippolyte, and some we have never met such as Marion Bethel from the Bahamas; we took pleasure from the positive response to writers with new Peepal Tree books such as Diana McCaulay from Jamaica with her novel, Huracan, and Roger Robinson from Trinidad and the UK. I know that for Roger the festival was made when Ian McDonald bought his new book of poems, Butterfly Hotel, and asked him to sign it. The festival was also the opportunity to discover good new writers we don’t publish such as Kerry Young, with her novels of Chinese Jamaican life, Pao and Gloria, and Hannah Lowe with her poetry collection, Chick. It’s a chance, too, to sit down with younger writers whose work Peepal Tree will almost certainly publish, such as Danielle Bodoo-Fortune, a fine young poet whose favourite poet is, incidentally, Guyana’s late, great Mahadai Das.
One of the important and very well attended sessions was the CaribLit launch. This important initiative, funded by the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the British Council, recognises that writers based in the Caribbean region are at a significant disadvantage compared to their compeers in the North American and British diasporas with regard to access to publishing and infrastructures of support such as writer-development programmes. CaribLit is the outcome of meetings at last year’s Bocas that brought together writers, publishers, festival organisers and literary activists in the Caribbean Literature Action Group (CALAG). The outcomes so far include the appointment of a co-ordinator, the very energetic and highly organised Kellie Magnus from Jamaica, whose first task, the construction of a CaribLit website (cariblit.org) as a portal for writers to access information about publishing, courses, workshops, prizes etc, was launched at the festival. In addition, there is the Hollick-Arvon prize for new writers whose first award was made this year and CODE, the Canadian funders, announced the launch of the Burt award for writing for children and young people (http://www.codecan.org/burt-award-caribbean). More informally, two of the CALAG invitees, Peepal Tree Press and Akashic Books from New York, who also have a significant Caribbean list, came together to agree to the launch of a new joint imprint (name as yet unknown, watch out for a competition on cariblit.org) dedicated to publishing first books by writers based in the Caribbean. The first fruit of this will be the publication of the best of the short stories from the Commonwealth Writers Prize competition in time for next year’s festivals. The intention is that, where appropriate, selected writers will be offered a mentoring relationship with an experienced Caribbean writer (several made such a commitment at last year’s CALAG meeting) so that publication goes hand in hand with opportunities for writer development.
One of my concerns arising out of the CaribbeanLit
initiative is that Guyana seems somewhat off the regional map, and I’m committed to seeing what can be done to remedy this situation. My feeling is that support for writers, publication and literature in general works best when it operates at arm’s length from government, whatever its political persuasion. This is how the Jamaican Calabash festival has worked and how the Bocas Litfest works, with no-strings-attached funding from business and state corporations such as the National Gas Corporation in Trinidad. It is how the Arts Council in the UK works. Praise is due to the Guyana government for allocating funding to literature and the arts, but I think that it ought to be possible to set up an independent funding body of respected individuals who represent all sectors of Guyanese society, to develop and model institutional practices that ensure transparency in the allocation of public funds, with stringent requirements for bidding for, reporting and accounting of the use made of those funds. Such a body could, I’m sure, win support across the society and take the whole issue of support for the arts and literature out of a narrowly political context. The recent controversy around the operation of the Caribbean Press makes a strong case for such a development.
We came to Guyana to do two things, as well as to reacquaint with a country I’ve been visiting since 1976. We came to launch Rupert Roopnaraine’s The Sky’s Wild Noise at the Moray House Trust in association with Lloyd Austin’s bookshop, and to run a workshop for writers at Moray House. One of my introductory remarks was to praise the heroic efforts of Lloyd Austin to run such an excellent bookshop in the face of widespread piracy, sadly, it seems, at one point condoned by the government. Lloyd’s shop is like the best kinds of bookshops of thirty years ago – that is an unequivocal compliment, since most bookshops in the UK have declined in quality over the past thirty years with pile-them-high, narrowed ranges of stock. What’s impressive about Austin’s holdings of Caribbean literature is that it ranges across the region, whilst too many Trinidadian or Jamaican booksellers tend to be more narrowly island-centric.
The launch itself in the beautiful surroundings of Moray House, organised by the indefatigable Vanda Radzik and Joan McDonald (who it was a delight to meet again after nearly twenty years) was a model of good organisation. There were well-delivered readings from across the range of the book, dealing with Martin Carter, Walter Rodney, Phillip Moore amongst others, brief statements from publisher and author, tasty food and the chance to talk with old and new friends. It was good to see some representatives of the main political parties present, including Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, Dr Frank Anthony.
The following day we met up with some of Guyana’s writers at a workshop at Moray House, attended by well over twenty or so people, including people known to us such as Kojo McPherson and Ruel Johnson, and an enthusiastic group of writers of a range of ages, but mostly young. We attempted to outline how publishing works in its economic, social and geographic contexts, including the power of the market, and the decisions that writers had to think through in choosing where to direct their work. There were some excellent questions and keen discussion about how Guyanese you could be in your language and reference if you also wanted to reach a wider Caribbean and beyond that an international readership. Our Peepal Tree advice was to write for a Guyanese readership in the first place – sometimes a very local term might be the only one that would do – but think about the contextual placing of such words. Above all, we advised, don’t clog up the work with explanation. We argued that really good writing can be intensely local in its reference, but have the legs to travel to an international readership. We gave the example of one of the international guests at the Bocas Litfest, the Scottish writer Irving Welsh (of Trainspotting fame) who was reading from his prequel, The Scagboys. Welsh writes in Scots, with a vocabulary as distinct from English English as any Caribbean Creole. Skilful use of context, the raw poetry of the language and the willingness to trust the reader to engage with the new had carried Welsh’s outstanding and darkly comedic gifts to a huge international readership.
Above all, we encouraged the writers at Moray House to engage with the cariblit.org website, to pursue the new opportunities for publication and prizes that the site will promote, and engage with the CaribLit group – Guyanese writers need to make themselves known in a wider setting. I’m convinced that writers need to be challenged by the friendly competition of their peers (and read the best of those who went before) if they are to develop their literary ambitions and writing skills and realise whatever raw talent they might have. From the 1950s to the 1990s, Guyana made a huge contribution to Caribbean Literature; it can do so again. One possibility we have agreed to go away and explore is whether there might not be an extension of future Bocas Litfests in partnership with some Guyanese organising group to make use of the fact that so many good Caribbean writers will be already next door in Trinidad and Tobago.